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Evil May Day: The Beginning Of The End

May 1, 2013

“May — my lucky month. Oh, the glad May day!” cries the Anne of Anne Boleyn (1932), as she awaits her coronation. Happily for her, she’s unaware of what the reader likely knows; that three years later, May would be the month in which she was deposed and murdered. Her arrest took place on May 2nd of 1536, and her death on May 19th, but the last day on which she ever saw Henry VIII was May 1st, when they attended a May Day joust together. It had been two days since her quarrel with Henry Norris about “dead men’s shoes”, and one since Mark Smeaton’s detainment at Cromwell’s house, but whether Anne had any idea of the groundwork being laid for her destruction is impossible to know.

The May Day jousts themselves went normally, however:

Suddenly, at the end of the joust, Henry left for Whitehall, travelling on horseback instead of by river and with only six attendants, one of them Norris whom, throughout the journey, he had “in examination and promised him pardon in case he would utter truth.” Norris insisted on his innocence, but was sent to the Tower at dawn on Tuesday, 2 May. Later that morning the queen was accused of adultery apparently with three men and told that she would be taken to the Tower. (Ives, 320)

May Day was (and is, with some permutations) a holiday celebrating the beginning of summer, and the joust which Anne and Henry watched together would have been only part of a general celebration which included a lot of dancing and drinking — sometimes too much, as with the Evil May Day Riots of 1517, in which London’s apprentices decided to take up arms against the city’s resident foreigners and ended up with unpleasant and, in a few cases, fatal hangovers. That May Day, the celebration marking the return of the fertile season, should have meant the beginning of the end for Anne is one of those coincidences that would seem ridiculously contrived if it had not in fact happened.

It’s a coincidence which is surprisingly under-noted, however. The joust is, of course, mentioned in virtually every work of fiction; how could it not be? But usually there are few indications that the joust was part of a much larger holiday. To be sure, it’s usually noted as having taken place on May Day, but to someone unaware of the significance of the holiday before the Interregnum, that wouldn’t necessarily mean much more than noting that something happened on St. Andrew’s Day or St. John’s Day — it could just as easily be a way of marking the exact date as making note of a major celebration. But there are two periods in which mention of the holiday itself becomes a bit more detailed: the nineteenth century, with its folklore societies and interest in reviving old holidays, and the late 1960s, with its interest in reviving pre-Christian paganism, or something like it.

Works in the former category make the holiday occasion for a bit of lighthearted action before the blow falls. Even Angelo Caraffa of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826), on watching the celebrations, has a happy moment of recalling his past self before returning to his evil Jesuit vocation.

… Heaven forgive me! When the trumpets blew
And the lists fell, and Knights as brave, and full
Of valour as their steeds of fire, wheel’d forth,
And moved in troops or single, orderly
As youths and maidens in a village dance,
Or shot, like swooping hawks, in straight career;
The old Caraffa rose within my breast —
Struggled my soul with haughty recollections
Of when I rode through the outpour’d streets of Rome,
Enamouring all the youth of Italy
With envy of my noble horsemanship.

More straightforward rejoicing is found in Anne Boleyn: An Original Historical Play In Five Acts (1875) in which we see Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour gathering baskets of may flowers while Madge mourns that “This Maying’s but dull sport without a gallant.” Her gallant appears a moment later in the form of Henry Norris, who has finally managed to screw his courage to the sticking place and ask “Will you have me?” “For partner in to-morrow’s cinq-a-pace?” asks Madge, but after Norris pleads with her to be serious they withdraw together and leave the stage to a much grimmer scene which culminates in Anne and Henry quarreling over Jane Seymour, and finally Anne’s arrest. Before this gets underway, we get a brief glimpse of Mark Smeaton, unhappy that Anne isn’t noticing him and mourning that he’s miserable on a happy holiday.

May flower on bush, May music in the brake!
And merry bells of May from tower and tower!
What have I to do with these glad sights and glad sounds?
I thought to tune my lute to Mayday mirth.

The Smeaton of Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Six Acts (1884) is more optimistic. He begins his May Day by serenading the depressed, recently-miscarried Queen Anne with annoying cheerful lyrics of his own composition:

Oh, the hedgerows, white with May,
Oh, the young heart, blithe and gay,
Oh, the lark that soars so high,
Shouts his rapture through the sky,
Joyous day! Happy song!
Long live May! May live long!

Not surprisingly, this drives Anne to the limit and she ends up grabbing his harp and throwing it on the floor, telling him to stop “thrumming,” and prompting a hysterical outburst of love from Smeaton, begging for just one smile “and enslave me to my dying day!” Anne’s exasperated telling-off of Smeaton is amusing in its own way — until a jealous Smeaton goes off to confide in Jane Boleyn about his dashed hopes and the inevitable ensues. And in a final scene which is rich in May symbolism, Thomas Wyatt crowns the dead Anne with a wreath of flowers.

A more personal connection between Anne and the month of May peeps out from The Favor Of Kings (1912), when Anne anticipates the “brave tourney to-day to welcome the May”, and, fighting her own worries about Jane Seymour, declares “Oh, I love spring. It was ever the time of year for me. Wyatt wrote me a verse on’t, matching me with the season — my sweets with its sweets, my favor with the inconstant breeze. ‘Twas a pretty thing.” Twenty years later, Anne was declaring May to be her lucky month in Anne Boleyn (1932). But a serious connection between Anne and May Day would have to wait for Anne Boleyn (1967) in which May Day is Anne’s birthday. We see her celebrating as young woman at Hever with her siblings, gathering flowers: “They were bunching together the blossom sprays before carrying them back to the Castle to decorate the Hall, and Anne had found a few early violets and late primroses to weave into a chaplet with which the Queen of the Maying would be crowned.” The ominous flip side of the holiday is acknowledged when they hunt for “Robin-in-Hiding”, the Green Man, whom the narrator (Anne’s imaginary foster sister) eventually sees, green, antlered, and terrifying. Many years later, she’ll feel a similar terror on May Day of 1536, which begins with the young people of the court going out to gather flowers and dancing before the famous joust begins.

In Anne, The Rose Of Hever (1969), May Day is not Anne’s birthday, but she wishes that it were. “It was May Day, the festival Anne had always loved best. Sometimes she thought it strange that she should have been born in a gloomy November for all her affinities were with the spring.” While the holiday itself doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it does in Anne Boleyn (1967) this book’s subplot, in which half the members of Henry’s court are in fact secret worshippers of the pagan gods, makes it easy to see that May Day is not just another date on the calendar for these people.

May Day has receded more in recent years. A Lady Raised High (2006) makes note of the celebrations after the joust, and that “May Day festivities could become bawdy” but they fly by in two sentences, as the story is pushing on to May 2nd, the day of Anne’s arrest.

And there, I think, is the reason why the actual holiday of May Day hasn’t gotten more attention in the wealth of novels written about Anne Boleyn; because it breaks the tension that has been building up before hell really lets loose with her arrest. The way her life unfolded, and historians’ interpretations of it, has created a situation in which her miscarriage of January 1536 is seen as the true beginning of her fall. From thereon the tension steadily mounts through February, when Jane Seymour is first named by Chapuys as someone to be watched, through March and early April, when Cromwell dissociates himself from her, to the end of April when she makes her (in retrospect) fatally forward remark to Norris and Mark Smeaton is arrested. To have a May Day scene in which everything seems to have blown over and Anne enjoys herself at the joust and subsequent celebration, ignorant of the blindsiding which awaits the next day, would take a lot of skill to write without completely killing the story’s momentum. Even a scene with an Anne who has some idea of what might be happening but still has to sit through too much May Day clowning around could get pretty tedious; we all know what’s coming and it would be hard not to wish that the story would just pick up the momentum again and get on with it. It’s natural that an author wishing to work May Day or a May theme into the book would give it an ominous undercurrent; it’s a good use of foreshadowing in Anne’s early years, and of plot momentum her in her last one.

From → Essays

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