Henry Norris was one of Henry VIII’s friends. And so far as I can tell in my various readings the poor man had done nothing wrong other than serve his royal master for some twenty years when his chum had his head lopped off on trumped up charges of naughtiness with Anne Boleyn.
Like many others in Henry’s court Norris’s was an interesting family history. His father Sir Edward Norris was knighted after the Battle of Stoke in 1487 which must have caused his wife, Frideswide, a little bit of distress as she was the daughter of Francis, Lord Lovell mentioned in other posts as the friend of Richard III who refused to accept Yorkist defeat and who was last seen on his horse fording the River Trent in full armour in the aftermath of the battle.
Family tensions aside, Henry’s older brother John was an esquire of the body to Henry VIII but he seems to have remained firmly Catholic and was part of Queen Mary’s household in later years. Henry Norris on the other hand was also at court but hanging on to the Tudor coat tails and twisting in the wind like the proverbial weather-vane (forgive the mixing of the metaphors). He managed to survive Wolsey’s purge on the young men of the court in 1519. He was one of the twelve grooms of the Stool (yes, that’s right he had the honor of wiping the royal bottom but during those moments had the opportunity to chat with the king in the way that even Wolsey and Cromwell didn’t.) He was given grants, titles and lands as well as the very lucrative post of weigher of the common beam at Southampton which meant Italian merchants using the port paid their taxes to him. He was the keeper of the king’s privy purse. He was with Henry at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 and he wasn’t overly keen on Cardinal Wolsey.
He appears to have sided with Anne Boleyn and benefited from this when the Cardinal fell in 1529. He went with Henry and Anne to Hampton Court to inspect the Cardinal’s haul of belongings and went to see Wolsey at Putney. It has been argued that he was of a reforming tendency because of his links with Anne’s faction. He was probably one of the witnesses to Anne’s marriage to Henry.
By 1535 he was in receipt of various of Sir Thomas More’s manors and was also constable of Beaumaris Castle and Wallingford Castle. Interestingly he seems to have also acted on behalf of the king in the matter of Jane Seymour suggesting that if his friend Henry wanted a new woman then Henry Norris was going to be helpful in the matter.
Unfortunately it was suggested in April 1536 that Norris loved Anne. Anne jokingly said that Norris was waiting to fill dead men’s shoes which was why he hadn’t yet married Margaret Shelton. Norris objected strenuously “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.” And hey presto Norris was on the receiving end of a visit to the Tower.
On May 1 Norris was at the jousting tournament that the king suddenly left with only a handful of retainers leaving Anne to close the celebrations. Henry told Norris that he believed there was a plot before he left. Norris must have been puzzled. Henry had leant Norris his own horse and now the king was saying that all Norris had to do was to confess and his life would be spared. Norris was arrested and taken to York Place where he was interrogated by the Privy Council.
May 2nd Norris was taken to the Tower having said something to the imaginatively named Sir William FitzWilliam that was taken as a confession of guilt but which was not used in evidence at the trial. Warnocke and Weir suggest that he may have admitted homosexuality. The only real thing that this information is proof of is that FitzWilliam was determined to get a confession – any confession. Norris remained adamant that he was innocent of the charges. Whilst Norris was being admitted to the Tower Anne was watching a game of tennis and possibly feeling somewhat nervous.
11 May 1536 the Abbot of Cirencester (a man whose own world was about to be turned upside down) wrote to Cromwell to say that he’d already promised Norris’s stewardship of the abbey elsewhere.
Norris was tried on May 12 1536. The offences were, as you might expect when Cromwell was involved, thorough and detailed. Henry was humiliated so that he could be rid of his unwanted spouse. Princess Elizabeth would ultimately be illegitimised and have to suffer speculation over which of the men tried with Anne was her father. From the dates provided by Cromwell many people thought that it might have been Sir Henry Norris.
The Lisle Letters record the events of the trial and at court before the executions. There was confusion, accusation and some sympathy for Norris who appears to have been well-liked
Norris got his wish to lose his head when he was executed on May 17. Lord Rochford, Anne’s brother, died first. Norris had to watch, then it was his turn. Unsurprisingly he said very little compared to Rochford.
Cromwell suggested, according to Weir, that rather than being a loyal servant Norris was overcome by ambition. Weir presents some interesting arguments as to why Norris had to go. The most logical of them being that he had the king’s ear and could, perhaps, have interceded on Anne’s behalf. Warnicke on the other hand argued that all the men caught up in Cromwell’s net were promiscuous possibly with men as well as women which would have made them vulnerable to the accusations that Cromwell flourished in front of the king. They all admitted on the block that they had led sinful lives but then Norris had children from his first marriage who he would have wished to save so far as possible from Henry’s wrath.
Just to confuse things even more Margaret Shelton was Anne Boleyn’s cousin and possibly Henry VIII’s mistress. It would also transpire that Sir Francis Weston, another of the accused, had tried to inveigle himself into Madge’s affections.
Warnicke, Retha. (1989) The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Weir, Alison. (2009) The Lady in the Tower. London: Jonathan Cape