Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy

Beginning of the affair

Before Anne Boleyn became Henry VIII’s ‘sweetheart’ she was romantically linked with Henry Percy, son of 5th Earl of Northumberland. Did Anne love Percy? Did they consummate their relationship?

Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland

Henry Percy was born around 1502. As the eldest son of 5th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy was his father’s heir – he was to become the next Earl of Northumberland. He started his career at court as a young boy – he served as a page to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Anne Boleyn returned from France in 1522 because she was about to marry her Irish cousin, James Butler. The marriage was to resolve a dispute her father Thomas Boleyn had with James’ father Piers over the Ormond inheritance and title. James was born around 1496, so he was few years older than Anne. Anne probably was not aware of the match when she was recalled to return from France, but James certainly knew about plans for his marriage, because he was present at English court at that time. [1]

Anne made her debut at English court in 1522 on ‘Chateau Vert’ where she played the role of her life – Perseverance. Anne was praised for her beauty and elegance, and she was soon admired by many men. One of them was Henry Percy.

When Anne Boleyn was Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting , Henry Percy took an interest in her ‘and there would fall in dalliance among the queen’s maidens, being at the last more conversant with Mistress Anne Boleyn than with any other, so that there grew such a secret love between them that at length they were ensured together intending to marry.’ [2]

Wolsey and his attack on young couple

Unfortunately the young couple was not to live happily ever after. When Cardinal Wolsey found out about their love, he decided to discipline young Percy. The best source for the affair is George Cavendish – he was usher at Wolsey’s household.  When Wolsey returned home to York Place, he called young Percy to him and in front all the other servants he rebuked his page :

I marvel not a little of thy peevish folly that thou wouldest tangle and ensure thyself with a foolish girl yonder in the court. I mean Anne Boleyn. Dost  thou not consider the state that God hath called thee unto in this world, for after the death of thy noble father thou art most like to inherit and possess one of the most worthiest earldoms of this realm? Therefore it had been most meet and convenient for thee to have sued for the consent of thy father in that behalf, and to have also made the king’s highness privy thereto,requiring then his princely favour. [3]

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Wolsey told Percy, that the King had better match for him in mind, and that he offended not only his monarch but also his father. How did Percy react? He burst into tears and he told the cardinal that he had not known for his father’s displeasure [4] but he pointed out that he was of an age to take a wife of his own choosing .

‘Percy then drew Wolsey’s attention to Anne’s descent from the Dukes of Norfolk on her mother’s side and from the Earls of Ormonde on her father’s. Her status was , he noted, equal to his own once he inherited the earldom of Northumberland’ [5]

Furthermore, Percy insisted that ‘in this matter I have gone so far before so many worthy witnesses that I know not how to avoid myself nor to discharge my conscience.’

When Percy’s father arrived, he threatened his son with disinheritance. This time young Henry did not fight back – he decided to obey his father, cardinal and the King. He was forbidden to see Anne again.

How did Anne react? Cavendish wrote that she was furious and she has promised that ‘if it lay ever in her power, she would work the cardinal as much [similar] displeasure.’ [6]

Henry Percy and Mary Talbot were married between March 1525 and September 1526,  ‘after long debating and consultation’ (presumably with the canon lawyers), a way was found to invalidate the young lord’s commitment to Anne, who had, in the meantime, been sent to her father’s country house.’[7]

Cavendish suggested also, that at the time of Percy-Boleyn affair, King Henry VIII himself was already interested in Anne, although she knew nothing about it. But today many historians agree that it was way too early for King’s interest in Anne – in 1522/1523 he was in love with Anne’s sister Mary, who was his mistress. During the affair with the King, Mary gave birth to two children (1524,1526) and it was speculated that they were Henry VIII’s bastards although he never recognized them as his offspring. Henry VIII became interested in Anne Boleyn not earlier than in 1526.

Also prof. Eric Ives suggested that ‘Cavendish’s interpretation of Anne’s reaction is also improbable. To go about making threats against the cardinal in 1522 or 1523 was both unwise and childish, and Anne was neither’ [8]

Pre-contract 1532

Anne Boleyn

The relationship between Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy was over. Upon the death of his father, Percy became 6th Earl of Northumberland.

His marriage to Mary Talbot proved to be a disaster. Josephine Wilkinson wrote that :

‘The truth of the matter was, quite simply, that Lord Percy and his wife hated each other and had done so from the moment they had set eyes on each other. Indeed, the marriage seemed doomed even before it had begun.’[9]

Joesphine Wilkinson also wrote that Mary Talbot often picked quarrels with Percy and ploted with her family against him. In one of their arguments, Percy told his unwanted wife, that ‘ he was not really her husband because, long ago, he and Anne had been pre-contracted to each other.[10] Countess of Northumberland decided to use this confession against Henry Percy – in 1532 she wrote what he said in a letter and send it to the Duke of Norfolk – Anne Boleyn’s uncle. Wheather Percy told Mary about ‘pre-contract’ or about his ‘love’ to Anne Boleyn is not sure – perhaps his wife was desperate to obtain a divorce, so she decided to twist his words and use them to her advantage.

What happened next? Norfolk showed the letter to Anne, and she showed it to Henry VIII. Percy was investigated about his pre-contract to Anne Boleyn, and under the Oath he swore that he was never pre-contracted to Anne. She did the same – she swore there was never such an agreement between them. Was it really true what Anne and Percy confessed?

YES : They were both telling the truth , there was never a pre-contract between them. If they had such an agreement and consummated it – their union would have benn unbreakable. Even if they made promise to marry, and not consummate their realtionship, such a pre-contract would be invalid. Percy had nothing to hide so he confessed the truth, as did Anne. Percy surely wanted to be rid of his wife, but he knew that there was no grounds for divorce.

NO : In 1532 Anne Boleyn was only one step away from the crown and marriage to Henry VIII. The King had sacrificed his country only to get Anne. If she would now confess that she was pre-contracted to Percy, it would mean that she was lying to the King all the way. She could not confess to pre-contract, because the consequences would be terrible for her so she lied. Percy lied about pre-contract to save his former beloved from King’s wrath.

As we can see, there could be two answers wheather or not Anne and Percy were telling the truth about their pre-contract. I think that there was no pre-contract between them, and even if there were – they have never consummated it. I agree with Josephine Wilkinson ;

‘Perhaps the young lovers had pledged to marry, but, unless they had gone on to consummate their relationship, their promise was not binding and could be broken. In this case, there really was no pre-contract to speak of. Thus, Northumberland told the truth when he denied it’s existence, as did Anne’[11]

Anne Boleyn’s downfall

Oliver Coleman as Henry Percy in 'The Other Boleyn Girl'

The question of pre-contract was raised one more time in 1536. When Anne Boleyn was imrpisoned, Cromwell was searching grounds to anull Henry VIII’s and Anne’s marriage. He sent Sir Reynold Carnaby to Earl of Northumberland in order to encourage Percy to confess to pre-contract with the Queen. Percy dashed Cromwell’s hopes and on 13th May 1536  he wrote him a letter where he said that :

“I perceive by Raynold Carnaby that there is supposed a pre-contract between the Queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the archbishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the blessed sacrament upon the same before the duke of Norfolk and other the King’s highness’ council learned in the spiritual law, assuring you, Mr. Secretary, by the said oath and blessed body, which afore I received and hereafter intend to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.” [12]

It was not over of Percy’s involvement into Anne Boleyn’s fall – he was one of peers during Queen’s trial. This proved to be a dramatic event for him ;

“The earl of Northumberland, who had given his verdict along with the rest against the woman he had once courted, collapsed and had to be helped out.”[13]

Why did Percy collapse? Alison Weir wrote that;

“Traditionally it has been assumed that he was overcome by grief for the woman he had once loved, but – as has been shown – that is highly unlikely” [14]

It has been suggested by Chapuys that Henry Percy called Anne ‘a bad woman who had plotted to poison the Lady Mary’[15] Also as Chapuys reported, Earl of Northumberland ‘was particularly offended by Anne Boleyn, who was acting with arrogance and wickedness’ [16] - here the Imperial Ambassador was reffering to Anne’s treatment of Duke of Norfolk – once she had ‘heaped more injuries on him than on a dog’[17].  However, Anne had her reason to do so – Norfolk had offended his niece by calling her a ‘great prostitute’.

Anyway, I think that Percy collapsed not only because he was very ill and weak at the time, but also because he had some feelings towards Anne. Perhaps it wasn’t love, but a simple pity for the woman whom he once hoped to marry.

After Anne Boleyn

Henry Percy had no heir to suceed him as Earl of Northumberland. His marriage to Mary Talbot was childless, although Josephine Wilkinson suggests that  Countess of Northumberland was pregnant but  ‘in April 1529 she gave birth to a stillborn child‘.[18] Having no heir, Percy decided to made over his estates to the crown.

Percy was very ill and he died on 29 June 1537.  He was buried in Hackney Church.


[1] Early loves of Anne Boleyn, Josephine Wilkinson, p.  46

[2] The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p.63

[3] IBID, p.64

[4] Early loves of Anne Boleyn, Josephine Wilkinson, p.62

[5] IBID

[6] The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p.64

[7] IBID

[8] IBID, p.65

[9] Early loves of Anne Boleyn, Josephine Wilkinson , p.108

[10] IBID, p.110

[11] IBID, p. 113

[12] Letters and Papers, X, 764

[13] The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p.341

[14] The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir, p. 277

[15] IBID, p. 262

[16] Early loves of Anne Boleyn, Josephine Wilkinson, p. 143

[17] IBID

[18] Early loves of Anne Boleyn, Josephine Wilkinson, p.109

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