The Perils and Pitfalls of Handkerchiefs

Being the First of May, it seems almost obligatory to go back to a time when May Day was a big deal. There was virtually nothing Henry VIII liked better than going a-Maying. Although it really only seemed to consist of going for a walk with whichever queen was in vogue at the time (and half the court, of course), collecting some of the scented May flowers from the hedgerows and coming back, Henry used it as an excuse for yet another Royal kneesup.

He’d get himself all togged-up with new clothes (tradionally new linen shirts were the thing to have on May Day, though I suspect he’d have gone the whole hog, being king, and got hmself a new doublet, hose and codpiece ensemble while he was about it) gather his nobles together and set out for Shooters Hill or some other bit of countryside near Greenwich Palace. Often there would be little ‘surprises’ set up for him along the way – he’d be presented with flowers by maidens or met by a bunch of archers dressed in green, for example. Once he was even introduced to ‘Robyn Hood.’ Oh, how they laughed…

It was a jolly occasion – not being Christian in any way, it owed more to pagan traditions than most holidays – and it’s always been associated with fecundity (think Maypoles…) And what better than to combine a favourite holiday with a dose of his favourite sport, which also employed a giant phallic symbol? Henry jousted every day he possibly could, and May Day was a good excuse for a new suit of armour and a tournament in the Greenwich Tiltyards.

Katherine of Aragon was, of course, the king’s Queen of the May for many of those happy festivals, but things started to get darker when he ousted her for Anne Boleyn. The newly-installed queen had three heady years of excess before Henry realised he wasn’t going to get a male heir out of Anne either.

She and Henry might have pretty much literally danced on Katherine of Aragon’s grave at her death in January 1536 (they wore yellow and declared it a day of joy) but she knew she’d be up to her own neck in trouble if the child she was carrying wasn’t a boy. It was. Unfortunately for Anne it was also dead. In some horrible irony she miscarried the day of Katherine of Aragon’s funeral. Things were getting edgy.

Henry was in a right mood for weeks. He moved-in his latest mistress (Jane Seymour) and started looking for excuses to get rid of Anne. With Katherine dead, it would be most convenient if Anne died too – none of that nasty divorce business. So it was mighty handy when, as Tradition tells us, Anne dropped her hanky in front of Sir Henry Norris in Greenwich Park on May Day 1536. It wasn’t the first time she’d been a butter-fingers with that handkerchief – she’d already done it once, several years earlier, in front of Norris at his family gaff in Yattendon in Berskire.

This was clearly a come-on if ever the King had seen one. Anne was obviously having an affair with the Royal Steward. Henry rode off in a huff, leaving the Queen just standing there.

The next day she was arrested for adultery and carted off to the Tower. Just in case there was any doubt, the King’s special commission miraculously also discovered no fewer than five other men that the queen had been supposedly dropping her hankies for. One of them was Mark Smeaton, a local musician (about whom more on another day.) This poor sod was dragged up before the King’s ‘investigators’ and after some intense ‘interrogation’ (read ‘torture’) ‘confessed’ to the whole kaboodle, and named several other blokes the queen had been secretly hanky-pankying with, including her own brother. They weren’t allowed to be tortured, being gentlemen, so they went straight to the executioner’s axe. Smeaton, a mere commoner, was hanged.

On the 19th May, Anne herself was beheaded. Henry didn’t stick around to watch – he waited under an old oak in Greenwich Park for the gun-signal which would tell him the deed was done – though of course out of respect, he didn’t actually marry Jane Seymour until the following day.

History doesn’t tell us whether the embroidered hanky used to bind Anne’s eyes at her execution was the same one she dropped in Greenwich Park, but I feel I should warn the morris dancers who will no doubt be dancing this weekend for modern May Day celebrations to be careful. Handkerchiefs are clearly lethal in the wrong hands.

I will, of course be looking into the antics of our own Greenwich Morris Men,who seductively promised me a “dawn dance at the donkey rides” this morning on their website, but neglected to say what time it was so I could attend (yes, I know – dawn – but for any time before 8.00am I want specifics…) on another day.

Just as an aside, as I was researching this post, I came across something that made me realise there really is a website for everything out there. I don’t necessarily recommend the Sneeze Fetish Forum as a place to spend quality time with your family, but I guess it gives hope to all those hayfever sufferers who hate this time of year – yes, guys, there are people who acutally get turned on by your wheezing…


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