Born around 1582, Henry Norris was a courtier who rose in the ranks to become Groom of the Stool. He was a close friend of Henry VIII, until he was accused of adultery with the queen, Anne Boleyn.
We’re not certain who Norris’s parents were. He was the son of either Edward or Richard Norris. His family had a history of service to the court, as Edward Norris was knighted for his service in the Battle of Stoke, and Henry Norris’s brother, John, was an esquire of the body of Henry VII, afterward serving Edward IV and Queen Mary I.
Norris achieved a number of court positions, including keeper of the king’s privy purse. He went to the Field of the Cloth of Gold with Henry VIII, and became a close friend of the king.
Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to have always acted as a sycophant either to the king, or to the current queen. As an example, he allowed Cardinal Wolsey to stay in his rooms when Wolsey fell from favor and found no rooms had been appointed for the Cardinal at court. But this doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted his relationship with the king, or with the woman who Henry was seeking to marry, Anne Boleyn.
The trust Henry had in Norris is evident because the king sent him as an agent in sensitive matters. He was present when Wolsey surrendered the Privy Seal. He was one of the very few witnesses to Henry and Anne’s wedding, and he was sent by the king to witness the execution of recalcitrant monks.
The rewards of this trust and position were plentiful. Along with the pay from his various court positions, Norris was given a yearly annuity of £100, and granted part of Thomas More‘s property after that man’s execution. As a result, his income topped £1300 a year, making him richer than many nobles.
Norris was appointed Groom of the Stool in 1529. His duties included cleaning the person of the king after he used his “close stool” or toilet. This intimate position was one of the most highly sought court appointments, as strange as that seems today.
According to David Starkey:
The Groom of the Stool had (to our eyes) the most menial tasks; his standing, though, was the highest … Clearly then, the royal body service must have been seen as entirely honorable, without a trace of the demeaning or the humiliating.
Norris had three children with his first wife, Mary Fiennes, but she died in 1530. He began negotiations to wed Anne Boleyn’s cousin, Madge Shelton. Madge may have been a short-term mistress of Henry VIII when his attention began to wander from Anne Boleyn. Madge’s mother seems to have resented Anne for encouraging this affair to “keep it in the family,” so to speak, and prevent the king from being influenced by a woman of a rival faction.
Perhaps it was that relationship with the king – or the rumors of it besmirching Madge’s reputation – that made Norris hesitate to marry her. For whatever reason he delayed the match, Anne Boleyn was irritated by it. She chided Norris one day when he was in her chambers. Norris replied he prefered to “tarry a time,” which Anne took to mean he was saying he had feelings for her.
Anne reportedly retorted that he was looking for a dead man’s shoes and if “aught but good” happened to the king, Norris would seek to marry her himself.
Norris replied he would never dare lift his head so high for fear it would be cut off, and Anne said she could lower him if she wanted.
The “confession” of this argument supposedly came from Anne herself while she was in the Tower, as reported by one of the unfriendly women assigned to guard her, Mistress Coffin. We don’t know the exact wording of the confrontation because it’s being recorded third-hand, through the words of a hostile witness. The records themselves are damaged by fire. So, the context of the conversation with Norris can only be speculated.
Writing these words bluntly strips them of any context. Many writers interpret Anne’s last line as a threat, that she would destroy Norris, but to me, that makes little sense in light of the conversation. Why would she suddenly threaten him? Especially when she realized listeners might take the conversation too seriously and sent Norris to his confessor to swear that she was a “good woman” and that it meant nothing? Would she threaten a man, and then ask him for help?
Some have interpreted this as Anne going way “too far” in the courtly game – possibly because of the stress she was under from losing the king’s favor – and that both of them were immediately aghast at what she had said. But Anne was an expert courtier who actually managed to hold her composure better when she had an audience – as this conversation obviously did. It seems out of character for her suddenly to lose her skills at repartee, especially when she had no emotional involvement with the man in question.
To me, it makes more sense if the entire conversation is flirtatious. He says he can’t stick his head up so high, and she says she can lower him down, so his head won’t be so far up. It’s silly, but so was much of the courtly flirtation of the day. Afterward, she realizes their words could be misinterpreted by someone who overheard the conversation, so she asks him to swear it meant nothing to his confessor.
This conversation was Anne’s guess about why Norris had been arrested. Anne was wrong. The conversation, and those dangerous words about a “dead man’s shoes” aren’t even mentioned on the indictment. It seems Cromwell might not even have known about it, or didn’t think it was notable enough to be included in the accusations. Maybe he felt he already had more than enough “evidence” to complete his task.
Rather, it seems that Norris was chosen because of the fact he had clashed with Cromwell regarding the funds from the dissolved monasteries. Norris supported Anne’s position on this matter – that the money should go to fund schools, rather than going into the royal treasury. Norris may have also been using his position as Henry’s confidant to give Anne information about Henry’s overtures toward rebuilding the alliance with the Emperor and discarding his alliance with the French. Norris, as a reformer, was no friend of the more conservative Seymour faction, either.
Some scholars have speculated that Cromwell may have been afraid that Norris’s position with the king was so strong that he could convince Henry to derail the plan, or possibly put Cromwell himself in danger. Norris was a strong supporter of Anne, wealthy, popular, and influential … Cromwell was already using the coup against Anne to rid himself of pesky political problems like William Brereton. Why not kill another bird with the same stone?
After leaving the Mayday joust, in which Norris had competed – riding a horse provided by the king himself – the king turned to Norris and began to interrogate him about Anne’s supposed adultery.
According to what Norris said in the Tower later, the king offered him a full pardon if he would confess to adultery with Anne, but Norris replied he would rather die a thousand deaths than falsely implicate an innocent person. De Carles claims Norris offered to defend Queen Anne’s honor through trial by combat, but was refused. He was arrested and after being questioned, was sent to the Tower.
It’s chilling, Henry’s indifference to the fate of Norris, once his closest friend. A cursory glance at the “evidence” would have shown Norris and the other men could not have been guilty of the charges against them. The indictment claims Anne had sex with Norris on October 6, 1533 at Westminster, but Anne was still secluded in her chambers at Greenwich during that time, after giving birth to Princess Elizabeth.
But Henry was determined to see Anne die, and perhaps the idea that her “lovers” were the king’s closest confidants gave the accusations more shocking power. The verdict was pre-ordained, and everyone knew it. Cromwell inventoried Norris’s property two days after his arrest, and began fielding inquiries about distributing it to favored courtiers even before the trial.
Henry seems to have wasted no time in mourning the fates of those in the Tower, as he took his barge of musicians and laughing courtiers down the Thames nightly to party with Jane Seymour. His best friend … The woman that he had once loved enough to shake apart his entire kingdom …
Something unusual happened during Norris’s interrogation. Chapuys reports at one point that two of Anne’s supposed lovers had confessed. Sir William FitzWilliam had interrogated Norris and presented something Norris said as being a confession, but the document does not survive, nor any mention of its contents. There is a badly damaged document which may relate to this confession, written by Sir William Kingston, in which Norris seems to deny that the confession is legitimate.
At Norris’s trial, the confession was read and Norris declared he had been tricked into giving it. Moreover, he stated that anyone who would present it as being a true confession was worthy of standing in Norris’s place (that is, as a condemned prisoner about to meet the axe.) Was FitzWilliam trying the same tactics as Richard Rich, who invented a false confession supposedly made by Thomas More at his trial?
One of the witnesses recorded that Norris “said almost nothing at all” before he laid his head on the block. Likely, he gave the usual speech about being a penitent sinner and exhorting the audience to live a pious life. Norris was the second to bow before the axe, and died after only one blow.
His body was brought back inside the walls of the Tower and buried in the churchyard behind the chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula. He was placed in the same grave as Francis Weston. When the Waterloo Block was constructed, the church yard was excavated and any bones discovered were interred in the crypt of the chapel. If Norris’s remains survived, they are buried there.