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January 11, 1535 – Catherine Northumberland Apologizes to Thomas Cromwell

Portrait of Catherine's husband, from the 1512 Procession of the Lords (there is no portrait of Catherine, so this is as close as we get...)
Catherine’s husband (Henry Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland), from the 1512 Procession of the House of Lords (unknown artist, Bodleian Library – public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

So, on its face this is not a big deal – but just bear with me and my conspiracy theories…

First some context. The year was 1535, and Henry VIII was still happy with his second wife, Anne Boleyn – though she had given him a daughter and then had a miscarriage. The country was less happy – they had never wanted Henry to leave his first wife (Catherine of Aragon), and their outspokenness led to pretty serious repressions. The letter would be one of hundreds that looked exactly alike, apologies by nobles who worried that someone in their household said something negative about the King and/or Anne Boleyn. But this one is especially noteworthy (to me, anyway…) because its writer is Catherine Northumberland, mother of Henry Percy, the man who wanted to marry Anne Boleyn before the King had declared his interest.

The reason that I chose to share this today is to illustrate how fearful the nation had become, how the slightest comment, made by a drunken servant, could be used against a person. We rarely really think what that must have been like – I tried to evoke the reality in Path to Somerset, but that book covered what I lovingly refer to as Henry’s “crazy years” while this incident showed that he was unhinged way before then…

Master secretary,

In my heartiest manner I commend me unto you. Please it you to be advertised, whereas it fortuned one of my servants at Lammas assize last past, at York, to be wrongfully accused for malice and ill-will of his great and old enemies, which hath long gone about him, compassing how at any time they might put his to displeasure; and so at that time they made complaint of him for certain words, as they confessed themselves, that he should speak in drunkenness against the king’s great highness: which words was examined and laid unto my said servant before the judges, and there openly he did deny them, saying that he never said them, and moreover acknowledging himself to be as true a subject to the king’s highness, to his power, as any is living. And notwithstanding all that, there did pass upon him an inquest of twelve gentlemen of the country, which did clearly acquit him of all things that was laid onto him.

Howbeit, ever since he hath remained in prison and doth still; not only to the great loss and destruction of his goods, but also to the destruction and making lame his limbs. Therefore I beseech you most heartily, at this my writing and insistence, to be so good as to send down to the sheriff your favorable letter by this bearer my servant, whereby he may be delivered, under surety, unto the next assize at York. And in yours doing I trust you shall do a great and charitable deed, and also to me a great pleasure; as knoweth God, who ever keep you.

At my manor of Semer, the 11th day of January.

By yours to my little power, Catherine Northumberland.

From Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain From the
Commencement of the Twelfth Century to the Close of the Reign of Queen Mary, Volume 2


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January 11, 1535 – Catherine Northumberland Apologizes to Thomas Cromwell
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