Written by Rebecca Larson
The downfall of Anne Boleyn is one of the most talked about pieces of Tudor history. Her execution is the one event that all Tudor lovers are aware familiar with – people are fascinated by her because she was unjustly executed.
Most of us can agree that she did not deserve the end she met, but that is not what this article is about. This article touches base on the three women who may have been responsible for the events to take motion, but in particular, we want to look at the mysterious “Nan Cobham” and see if we discover her true identity.
For centuries, the identity of “Nan Cobham” has been a mystery. There are several possibilities as to whom she may be, but will we ever know who she truly was? In this article, I intend to lay out all the evidence (that I can find) and allow you, as the reader, to make your own assumptions. To do so, we must start from the beginning.
The Mystery Begins
John Husee was a London merchant, and the business agent in England for Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle. He wrote many letters to both Lord Lisle and his wife, Lady (Honor Grenville) Lisle.
In a letter dated 24 May 1536, John Husee wrote to Lady Lisle, and in it he briefly mentions the events that had just occurred in England. What he did mention was that ‘the fyrst accuser, the lady Worseter, and Nan Cobham with one maybe more – but the lady Worseter was the fyrst grounde.’
This letter indicates that there was the Lady Worcester, Nan Cobham and one maid more who gave testimony against Anne Boleyn.
This is the same letter which was translated by the Victorians and is available on BHO.
John Hussee’s letter is the only reference to the women listed. I also checked my copy of, ‘A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors’ by Charles Wriothesley and there is no reference in his chronicle.
Who was Lady Worcester?
Elizabeth Browne was the daughter of Sir Anthony Browne (d. 1506) and Lucy Neville. Her older brother was Sir Anthony Browne, the man we would later recognize from the reign of Edward VI as the man who rode with the Earl of Hertford to inform his nephew that his father was dead. Elizabeth’s half-brother (from her mother’s first marriage) was William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton. She also had a sister, Anne, who was married to Charles Brandon for a short time, and with whom she had two daughters: Anne and Mary Brandon.
Elizabeth married Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester, and she then became the Countess of Worcester on 15 April 1526.
The following information was found at: TudorWomen.com:
Elizabeth was at court in the household of Anne Boleyn and seems to have been a friend of Queen’s. It was noted that on the 8th of April 1536, she borrowed £100 from the Queen. At the time of Anne Boleyn’s arrest Elizabeth Browne had not yet repaid her.
An unsubstantiated story has Elizabeth taken to task for immorality by her brother, Sir Anthony Browne (1500-1548) and responding that she was ‘no worse than the queen’. One variation on this story identifies Elizabeth as King Henry VIII’s former mistress and has her specifying that her brother should talk to Mark Smeaton and one of the queen’s gentlewomen called Marguerite for details on the queen’s misconduct. Another version has Lady Worcester issuing the reprimand and an unidentified woman comparing herself to the queen. The source appears to be a poem dated 2 June 1536 and written by Lancelot de Carles,1https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k71312g/f2.image.r=Lancelot%20de%20Carles a member of the French embassy to England. Gossip prevalent at the time of Queen Anne’s arrest did mention Lady Worcester as a source of some of the accusations against her, but specifics are elusive. Similarly, comments Queen Anne made during her imprisonment are open to various interpretations.
A French Poem?
A loose translation of of the aforementioned poem:
A lord of the Privy Council seeing clear evidence that his sister loved certain persons with a dishonorable love, admonished her fraternally. She acknowledged her offence, but said it was little in her case in comparison with that of the Queen, as he might ascertain from Mark [Smeaton], declaring that she was guilty of incest with her own brother. The brother did not know what to do on this intelligence, and took counsel with two friends of the King, with whom he went to the King himself and one reported it in the name of all three. The King was astonished, and his color changed at the revelation, but he thanked the gentlemen.2‘Henry VIII: June 1536, 1-5’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1887), pp. 424-440. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol10/pp424-440 [accessed 26 February 2020].
If you can read French and would like to take a look at the letter yourself, you can do so through this link: French Poem
It is commonly believed that Lady Worcester is the sister referred to and that it was she who confessed to her brother the inappropriateness of the Queen, probably to make herself look better.
One thing that should not be questioned is the fact that Queen Anne believed Lady Worcester to be a friend. When she was imprisoned in the Tower of London she worried about Lady Worcester’s condition because she was pregnant. Queen Anne had ‘much lamented my lady of Worcester for because her child did not stir in her body’, and when asked why she said, ‘For sorrow she took for me.’ Did Anne even know that her friend was the first accuser?
“One Maid Mo”
This woman is commonly believed to be Margery Horsman (in 1537 became Lady Lyster). Most often seen in letters or papers listed as “Mrs. Margery”. Her ‘place at court is not completely clear, but she was most likely of the queen’s wardrobe.’3A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen: Exemplary Lives … edited by Carole Levin, Anna Riehl Bertolet, Jo Eldridge Carney. p 478
In May 1536, Edward Baynton reported to Mr. Treasurer that:
I have mused much at [the conduct] of Mrs. Margery, who hath used her[self] strangely toward me of late, being her friend as I have been. There has been great friendship of late between the Queen and her. I hear further that the Queen standeth stiffly in her opinion, that she wi[ll not be convicted], which I think is in the trust that she [hath in the o]ther two.4‘Henry VIII: May 1536, 1-10’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1887), pp. 329-349. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol10/pp329-349 [accessed 1 March 2020]. 799
Margery Horsman is also mentioned in a letter from Thomas Broke to Lady Lisle where she mentions the Queen’s dog, Purkoy, whom Lady Lisle had gifted to the Queen:
… she saith that the Queen’s Grace setteth much store by a pretty dog, and her Grace delighted so much in little Purkoy that after he was dead of a fall there durst nobody tell her Grace of it , tillit please the King’s Highness to tell her Grace of it. But her Grace setteth more store by a dog than by a bitch, she saith…
She must have had quite the influence in her position within the queen’s household that when Jane Seymour was queen, Lady Lisle looked to Margery for assistance in obtaining a place for her daughters.
The leading candidate to be ‘Nan Cobham’ is Anne Brooke (nee Braye), Countess of Cobham. But who was she? While historian Retha Warnicke believed that Braye was Queen Anne’s midwife, I doubt that is the connection. Anne Braye, Countess of Cobham (or Lady Cobham) was a member of the Queen’s household, that I believe most agree with. It is Warnicke who labels her as “possibly the queen’s midwife”,5Warnicke, Retha, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. Cambridge University Press, 1991. p. 214 without including any evidence, other than claiming that since she was referred to without title she must not have been of aristocratic birth.
Where does she come into the picture?
In April 1533, Lady Cobham received a summons from King Henry VIII to attend his wife’s coronation: [MS. HARL. 283. fol. 96]
Right dere and welbeloved we grete you well. And forasmoche as we be determyned upon the fest of Pentecost next commyng to kepe and do to be celebrate at Westminster, with all due circumstances of honor, the Coronacion of our derest wif the lady Anne our Quene, as to her astate and dignite dothe appertain, and have appointed you amonges other, at the same tyme to give your attendance on horsebak, in such place as to your degree apperteneth, We therfore desire and pray you, to put yourself in such a redines, as ye may be personally at our maner of Grenewich the Fryday next before the said feest, then and ther to geve your attendance upon our said Quene, for thense to our Towre of London the same day to ryde from the same our Towre, through our cite of London unto our maner of Westmynster; and the next day, Witsonday, to go unto our Monastery ther to the said Coronacion; providing for yourself and your women, some faire white or white gray palferes or geldinges, suche as ye shall thinke most fyt to serve for that purpose. And as concernying the apparell of your ownn palfrey, ye shalbe furnished therof by the Master of the horsses with our said derest wif the Quene, at any your repaire or sending hider for the same in every behalf, saving for your bitt and your bosses; trusting that for the lyveraies and ordering of your said women, aswell in their apparell, as in their horsses, ye woll in suche wise provide for them as unto your honor and that solempnite apperteineth; and your ownn robes and lyveraies shalbe delivered at any tyme, when ye shal comme or send for the same, by the keper of our great warderobe; not failling hearof as ye entende to do us pleasure. Yeven, under signet, at our manor of Grenewich, the twenty-eight day of Aprill.6Ellis, Henry, Sir, 1777-1869. Original Letters Illustrative of English History: Including Numerous Royal Letters; From Autographs In the British Museum, the State Paper Office, And One Or Two Other Collections. London: R. Bentley, 1846. p 275[/mfn
Anne Braye’s husband, was a distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, through his mother, Dorothy Heydon and Anne’s father, but he also a baron. It was quite common for members of the peerage to partake in such events. For Lady Cobham to receive a summons was not unusual.
Princess Elizabeth’s Birth Announcement (7 September 1533)
An interesting piece of information was brought to my attention by The Newberry in Chicago. The Newberry is “A world-renowned independent research library in Chicago, the Newberry builds, preserves, and makes accessible an extensive collection of rare books, maps, music, manuscripts, and other material spanning more than six centuries.” There is currently an Elizabeth I exhibit at The Newberry, and on their website it states (with an image of the announcement) that, “Birth announcement for a “princes” to George Brooke, Lord Cobham“.
This is the first time that I have ever read that it was an announcement specifically for one person.
For New Years 1534, a Mrs. Cobham shows up as having received a gift from King Henry VIII7‘Henry VIII: January 1534, 1-5’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 7, 1534, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1883), pp. 4-12. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol7/pp4-12 – accessed 1 March 2020. This further proves that Lady Cobham was a member of the Queen’s household (in some respect):
We should not confuse this George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham with his son who was born in January 1533, who went by the name, George Cobham. This George Cobham, as well as two of his brother’s William and Thomas (as well as their father) were briefly implicated in Wyatt’s Rebellion against Queen Mary. From this we can assume that the Cobham family (including Anne Braye) were of the reformed religion and were not Catholics. This tells me that it was not religion that influenced “Nan Cobham” from turning against the queen.
Anne’s husband, George Brooke, Lord Cobham, was not unfamiliar with scandal either. His sister Elizabeth Brooke was married to Thomas Wyatt, but she also lived openly in adultery. While it never seemed a big deal for a man to do the same, Elizabeth was bringing shame on her family by doing so. Later on, in 1543, the daughter of Lord and Lady Cobham, named Elizabeth Brooke, also brought scandal to the family by living with William Parr prior to marriage, and when he was still married to Anne Bourchier.
Researcher and author, Kate Emerson on her wonderful website, TudorWomen.com states:
Barbara Harris, in her work on aristocratic women,7English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers By Barbara Jean Harris, Professor of History and Women’s Studies Barbara J Harris names Anne, Lady Cobham as one of Anne Boleyn’s first accusers but M. St. Clare Byrne argues that Lady Lisle’s man in London, John Husee, would not have referred to a noblewoman as “Nan Cobham” and therefore he must have meant some other person, probably someone lower on the social ladder. Lady Cobham was in Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession and was one of Queen Jane Seymour’s ladies. According to David McKeen’s, A Memory of Honour: the life of William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Lady Cobham was at Cobham Hall in July 1545 but shortly afterward joined her husband in Calais. They lived in the Lord Deputy’s residence there for the next five years.
Richard Wilson, author of Will Power: Essays on Shakespeare’s Authority, believes that the following “old lady” in Shakespeare’s play, Henry the Eighth, is a reference to Nan Cobham8Wilson, Richard, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority. Wayne State University Press, 1993. p. 171 – a midwife. This is from Act V, Scene I:
Gentleman: Come back: what mean you?
Old Lady: I’ll not come back; the tidings that I bring will make my boldness manner. — Now, good angels, fly o’er thy royal head, and shade they person under their blessed wings!
King Henry” Now, by thy looks I guess thy message. Is the queen deliver’d? Say ay; and of a boy.
Old Lady: Ay, ay, my liege; And of a lovely boy: the God of heaven both now and ever bless her! — ’tis a gir, — Promises boys hereafter. Sir, your queen desires your visitation, and to be acquainted with this stranger: ’tis as like you as cherry is to cherry.
King Henry: Lovell!
Sir Thomas Lovell: Sir?
King Henry: Give her a hundred marks. I’ll to the Queen. [Exit]
Old Lady: An hundred marks! By this light, I’ll ha’ more. An ordinary groom is for such payment. I will have more, or scold it out of him. Said I for this, the girl was like to him? I will have more, or else unsay’t; and now, while it is hot, I’ll put it to the issue.
What part of that hints that the “Old Lady” is Nan Cobham? The old lady, in this instance, appears to be the midwife. The question is: Who would have informed King Henry of the birth of his child?
Cromwell Report to English Ambassadors in France (1536)
In her book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Retha Warnicke stated:
Most of the evidence used against Anne and her accused lovers came from members of her privy chamber. In a report to English diplomats in France, Cromwell asserted that her crimes were so abominable that her own ladies could not conceal them. The three women witnesses, identified by rumor, had probably been with her during delivery.
So, of course, I wanted to find the letter to see what it said exactly:
Cromwell to Gardiner and Wallop
14 May 1536
…the kinges highnes thought convenient that I shuld advertise you of a chaunce, as most detestably and abhomynably deuised contryved ymagined doon and contynued, soo most happely and graciously by thordenaunce of god reueled manifested and notoriously knowen to all men. Wherof though ye haue harde I doubt not the rumour, yet I shal expresse unto youe some parte of the cummyng out, and of the kinges prceding in the same. The quenes abhomynacion both in incontynent lyving, and other ofiences towards the kinges chambre, and her chamberers could not conteyne it within their brestes. But detesting the same had soo often communcations and conferences of it that at the last it cam soo plainly to the cares of some of his graces counsail that with their dieutye to his Majestie they could not concele it from him, but with greate feare, as the cace enforced declared what they harde unto his highnes whereupon in most secret sorte certain personnes of the privye chambre and others of her side were examyned, in whiche examynacions the matier appered soo evident, that besides that cryme, with the accidentes, there brake out a certain conspiracye fo the kinges death, whiche extended soo farre that all we that had thexamynacion of it quaked at the daunger his grace was in, and on our knees gave him laude and prayse that he had preserued him soo long from it, and nowe manifested the most wretched and detestable determynacion of the same…I write noo particularities, the thinges be soo abhomynable, that I thinke the like was neuer harde, and therfor I doubt not but this shalbe sufficient for your instruction to declare the truth if ye have occasion soo to doo.9Bigelow Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell: Letters from 1536, notes, index. Clarendon Press, 1902, p 11-12
Translated for those who may have a difficult time reading the above:
…the king’s highness thought convenient that I should advertise you of a chance, as most detestably and abominably devised, contrived, imagine done and continued, so most happily and graciously by the ordinance of God reveled manifested and notoriously known to all men. Whereof though ye have heard I doubt not the rumor, yet I shall express unto you some part of the coming out, and of the king’s preceding in the same. The queen’s abomination both incontinent living, and other offenses toward the king’s chamber, and her chamberers could not contain it within their breasts. But detesting the same had so often communications and conferences of it that at the last it came so plainly to the cares of some of his grace’s council that with their duty to his majesty they could not conceal it from him, but with great fear, as the case enforced declared what they heard unto his highness whereupon in most secret sort certain persons of the privy chamber and others of her side were examined, in which examination the matter appeared so evident, that beside that crime, with the accidents, there break out a certain conspiracy for the king’s death, which extended so far that all we that heard the examination of it quaked at the danger his grace was in, and on our knees gave him “laude” and praise that he had preserved him so long from it, and now manifested the most wretched and detestable determination of the same…I write no particulars, the things be so abominable, that I think the like was never heard, and therefore I doubt not but this shall be sufficient for your instruction to declare the truth if ye have occasion so to do.
In conclusion, I have discovered from my research that I was unable to find anything new, but it was fun to put it all together. I do, however, believe that Nan Cobham was Anne Brooke (nee Braye). I cannot explain why Hussee did not describe her as Lady Cobham, other than the fact that her husband did not go by George Cobham, but George Brooke. What do you think? Do you think evidence points to Nan Cobham being the wife of George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham?
Baldwin Smith, Lacey, Anne Boleyn: The Queen of Controversy. Amberley Publishing, 2013
Bernard, G.W., The Fall of Anne Boleyn. Ashgate Publishing, 2000. p 89Bigelow Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell: Letters from 1536, notes, index. Clarendon Press,1902
Clark, Nicola, Gender, Family, and Politics: The Howard Women, 1485-1558.
Ellis, Henry, Sir, 1777-1869. Original Letters Illustrative of English History: Including Numerous Royal Letters; From Autographs In the British Museum, the State Paper Office, And One Or Two Other Collections. London: R. Bentley, 1846
Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005 edition
Levin, Carole, Anne Riehl Bertolet, Jo Eldridge Carney, A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen:Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500-1650. Taylor & Francis, 2016
License, Amy, Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire. Amberley Publishing, 2017
Norton, Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession. Amberley Publishing, 2011
Warnicke, Retha, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. Cambridge University Press, 1991
Wilson, Richard, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority. Wayne State University Press, 1993
Henry VIII: June 1536, 1-5, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1887), pp. 424-440. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol10/pp424-440 [accessed 26 February 2020]
Lissa Bryan for suggesting this as my next topic and for allowing me to use the same title for my blog.
Kristin Bundesen for helping me get the research from a book I do not own (but she did) and could not access digitally.
Cassidy Cash (That Shakespeare Life Podcast) for discussing Shakespeare with me and helping to confirm my suspicions.
Sari Graham for always being willing to talk Anne Boleyn. I’ve never claimed to be an AB expert, so it’s nice to have a friend I can rely on for help.