Henry Algernon Percy, the eldest son of Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland and his wife, Katherine Spencer Percy, was born in about 1502. He was sent to London to be educated in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Percy's biographer, Richard W. Hoyle, has argued that Wolsey " is known to have had a low opinion of his charge, not least for his lack of financial sense." (1)
In about 1516 there were proposals that Henry Percy should marry Mary Talbot, a daughter of George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury (2). The Percy and Talbot earldoms were among the oldest and richest in England. Mary came with the promise of a substantial dowry of 2,500 marks (£1,666). "In terms of dynastic policy, the marriage made a lot of sense." (3)
Henry VIII gave his approval, but while he was still in Wolsey's household Percy formed a romantic attachment to Anne Boleyn in about 1522. (4) George Cavendish also worked for Wolsey. According to Cavendish, Percy took advantage when Wolsey was away: "Lord Percy would then resort for his pastime into 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 insured together, intending to marry." (5)
The problem for Henry Percy was that Anne Boleyn was not a heiress (her brother, George Boleyn, was going to inherit her father's modest wealth). Antonia Fraser points out: "Lord Percy was not the first, nor the last young man to become entangled with a poor young woman in such a situation. The propinquity of the various noble households, the close living conditions of the young people, meant that the education in courtly manners their parents expected them to receive was often accompanied by other kinds of more exciting instruction." (6)
Cavendish claims that it was on the orders of the King who brought their relationship to an end. Percy was sent back home and Boleyn was expelled from court. She was so angry that "she smoked" red-hot with rage. (7) According to Cavendish she vowed her revenge. "If it lay ever in her power she would work the Cardinal as much displeasure" as he had her. (8)
However, Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002), thinks there is another explanation: "A less romantic but more plausible explanation is that the Cardinal had simply acted to prevent two thoughtless young people from upsetting the plans of their elders and betters. Wolsey and the Earl of Northumberland between them had no difficulty in reducing Lord Percy to an apologetic pulp, but Anne showed her furious disappointment so plainly that she was sent home in disgrace. (9)
George Cavendish has argued that Henry VIII was "casting amorous eyes" in Anne Boleyn's direction as early as 1523. The historian, Alison Weir, suggests that this is likely to have been true: "Cavendish's information was probably correct; he he was an eyewitness of the events of the period who was often taken into Wolsey's confidence, and Wolsey, of course, knew nearly all his master's secrets and made it his business to learn about the private intrigues of the court." (10)
Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has argued: "The Percy episode provides evidence that in her search for a husband Anne was willing to ignore... the accepted procedures for contracting an aristocratic marriage. The issue was not one of sexual improprieties but of improper actions that circumvented the normal channels for arranging a betrothal. By those standards, it was not Anne's choice that was at fault but the process by which he was chosen." (11)
Henry Percy married Mary Talbot in early 1524. He was a member of the council of the north of England and became the 6th Earl of Northumberland on the death of his father in 1527. One of his first tasks was to suppress the rebellion led by Sir William Lisle, a former constable of Alnwick Castle. Lisle and his supporters surrendered themselves to Percy on 25th January 1528. He was executed the following month.
Henry Percy continued to be in conflict with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Percy's biographer, Richard W. Hoyle, argues "Wolsey's assessment of the earl and his persistent meddling in his affairs arose from either a personal dislike or a determined attempt to belittle his former charge; it did not reflect the earl's natural ability." (12) According to George Cavendish Percy took pleasure in implementing the King's order to arrest Wolsey on 4th November 1530. (13)
Countess Mary gave birth to a still-born child. Her inability to produce an heir caused problems in the marriage and they began living apart. Mary told her father, George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, that her husband had claimed that their marriage was invalid because he had been contracted to Anne Boleyn, who was now the mistress of Henry VIII. In June, 1532, he informed Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, of the details of the matter. Mary now sought an annulment, on the grounds that her husband had a pre-contract with Anne Boleyn. The following month Henry Percy was examined by William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, the petition was thrown out by Parliament and the Percys remained married.
Henry Percy suffered from poor health. It was claimed that "his whole body (was) yellow as saffron". This suggested that he was suffering from liver failure. Despite this in May 1536, he was forced to be a member of the jury that tried Anne Boleyn. Like the other peers he gave his verdict against her, then collapsed after sentence of death had been pronounced.
During the Pilgrimage of Grace his mother and brothers were sympathetic to Robert Aske and the rebels. Henry Percy claimed that his health prevented him from taking military action against the rebellion. Aske and his men came to Wressle Castle to try to gain his support. When he refused he was warned that his life was in danger. He replied that "he did not care, he should die but once. Let them strike off his head whereby they should rid him of much pain, ever saying he would be dead". (14)
Geoffrey Moorhouse, the author of The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002), claims: "Aske made one more attempt to win Percy over and was at last successful in obtaining some sort of agreement that he would do nothing to injure the Pilgrimage... Percy consented to move out of Wressle and leave it in Aske's hands. Before November was halfway through he had, in fact, formally and legally made over the castle to Aske for as long as the captain needed it; and thus it became the convenient base for the subsequent direction of the Pilgrimage." (15)
Henry Percy died on 29th June 1537.
When it chanced the Lord Cardinal at any time to repair to the Court, the Lord Percy would then resort for his pastime into 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 insured together, intending to marry.
Henry Lord Percy was the heir to great estates and an ancient name: his father was that northern magnate known as "Henry the Magnificent", the 5th Earl of Northumberland. There had been talk of a betrothal when he was about fourteen to Lady Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, but those negotiations had apparently fallen through. As was often the custom with such young lordings, he was currently being educated in the south, in the household of Cardinal Wolsey. Lord Percy was now about twenty.
His dangerous love affair with Anne Boleyn took place against the background of the Queen's household where he found the "fresh young damsel" in waiting. The danger at this point of course lay in the fact that Lord Percy was one of the most eligible partis in England, who could be expected to make a most profitable match, whereas Anne Boleyn (with a brother to inherit her father's modest wealth) was no kind of heiress. Lord Percy was not the first, nor the last young man to become entangled with a poor young woman in such a situation. The propinquity of the various noble households, the close living conditions of the young people, meant that the education in courtly manners their parents expected them to receive was often accompanied by other kinds of more exciting instruction.
According to Cavendish, Percy began by going to the Queen's chamber "for his recreation" and ended by being deeply enamoured of Anne, an affection which she returned. "There grew such a secret love between them that at length they were ensured together" (that is to say, they were bound together by a promise of marriage or a precontract). Again according to Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey put an end to the romance - hence Anne Boleyn's subsequent hatred of him - at the request of the King (whose motive was said to be his own predatory intentions in that direction).
Lord Percy put up a spirited defence of his choice, mentioning Anne's "noble parentage" and royal descent, while contending in any case that he was free to make his vows "whereas my fancy served me best". Lastly, he mentioned that "in this matter I have gone so far before many worthy witnesses that I know not how to avoid myself nor to discharge my Conscience". Nevertheless Lord Northumberland was sent for. A secret conclave took place with the Cardinal, at the end of which the Cardinal called for "a cup of wine". Lord Percy received a furious parental lecture, the match with Lady Mary Talbot was resurrected in 1522, and in early 1524 he duly married her.
Anne Boleyn... inadvertently ensnared the unfortunate Henry Percy into a genuine infatuation. Percy, who was the son and heir to the Earl of Northumberland, was living in Wolsey's household at the time (between 1522 and 1524), and was rather a gauche young man. He was also contracted to marry Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The affair caused something of a scandal, and the removal of the unfortunate young man in disgrace.
(1) Richard W. Hoyle, Henry Percy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(2) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 41
(3) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 268
(4) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 38
(5) George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Thomas Wolsey (1959) page 30
(6) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 125
(7) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 35
(8) George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Thomas Wolsey (1959) pages 34-35
(9) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 45
(10) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 156
(11) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 47
(12) Richard W. Hoyle, Henry Percy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(13) George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Thomas Wolsey (1959) page 155
(14) Richard W. Hoyle, Henry Percy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(15) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 164