12 May 1536 – Four men are tried at Westminster Hall
Posted By Claire on May 12, 2018
On this day in history, Friday 12th May 1536, four men were taken by barge from their prison at the Tower of London to Westminster Hall to stand trial for high treason. These men were Sir Henry Norris, Henry VIII’s groom of the stool; Sir Francis Weston, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber; William Brereton, a powerful and influential man in North Wales and Cheshire, and Mark Smeaton, a court musician.
A special commission of oyer and terminer was used to try the four men, and the men’s hearts must have sunk when they saw who the commissioners were; they could only be described as a hostile jury.
Click here to read about the members of the jury and what happened at this trial.
Picture: Westminster Hall © Copyright Peter McDermott and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, Geograph.org.uk.
3 thoughts on “12 May 1536 – Four men are tried at Westminster Hall”
By ‘trying: and I use that word loosely and finding these men guilty it guaranteed Anne’s demise. At this point it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention that this whole thing was a sham.
Westminster Hall, this most ancient of buildings has stood for over a thousand years and has seem many a spectacle in its walls, coronations and banquets and festivals and now a trial, as the five men were escorted into the barge by Kingston and it slowly rowed up the Thames people must have come out to watch with curiousity and maybe sympathy for them, the Londoners knew as word spreads quickly in the city what was happening concerning their queen and they would have wished to see their faces as they stepped out onto the banks and were taken into the lofty magnificence of Westminster, they would have had the same sinking feeling Anne was to have as they gazed on the faces of the men sent to try them as not one of them were friends of theirs, most were friends of the King and Cromwell and another was related to the Seymour’s, Smeaton who had brought them to this was among them, the poor lad was no doubt treated with contempt by them and most likely shunned and he alone confessed to committing adultery with the queen, it must have been a terrifying ordeal for this young man who was little more than a boy, the hall is vast and the sombreness would have terrified those who knew they were on trial for their very lives, no doubt Norris and Weston and Brereton put up a good defence but it did them no good these men were not stupid, they were first courtiers and knew the way of the world, they knew their King and how merciless he was, escorted back to their grim prison cells they could do nothing but make their piece with God, get their affairs in order and pray for the strength they would need to prepare them for their last days on earth, in desperation Weston’s family put up a huge ransom for his life, he had only been married a year and had a son who he was fated never to see grow up, but the King refused he could not let him go logically and not the others, because they were doomed so was Anne, and she knew it when she heard of the results of the trial, she was to mention them at her own not long after, many years ago I visited Westminster Hall with my parents, I had just come out of hospital and as a treat we went to the Tower and St. Paul’s and Westminster Hall, there we had to put on special sandals as the floor was so ancient and precious but it was so difficult to walk in them as they were so big and the floor was like velvet, we were all slipping around like penguins and everyone was laughing because we all looked hilarious, writing this article has brought back memories of the day and I’m laughing now, with a certain amount of sorrow too for these poor men but also for myself because thinking of my parents always bring tears to my eyes.
As Eustace Chapuys stated, only Mark Smeaton confessed and the others were found guilty without any real evidence.
This was nothing less than a show trial, a public sham. Not only was it in the most public place and high Court at Westminster Hall, probably before a couple 1000 people, it was observed by others, as we have their accounts to rely upon for the brief details we have from the trials as no full account exists anymore, destroyed in a fire in the eighteenth century. We don’t even know if any witnesses were called or what evidence was placed before the Court.
A Treason trial was a show piece, not meant for the accused to clear themselves, but even by the standards of the time, this was a fix because of the hostile jury and judges. The jury was made up of those whose affinities led back to the King, Cromwell or the Duke of Suffolk. Sir William Fitzwilliam is close to all three and he is the King’s man and others owed him money and were Cromwell’s clients, others are religious Conservatives and one man was another son in law of the late Sir Thomas More. Sir Giles Heron, one of the Grand Jury who raised the charges against Anne was also her was also a son in law of Thomas More. Remember, it was the legislation passed in Parliament as a result of Henry’s break from Rome and marriage to Anne Boleyn, which More had refused to sign. His family had accepted the Oath but had remained traditional Catholic supporters. They had not done well after their father’s execution. Henry and others reputedly blamed Anne for More’s death, claiming he had killed a good man because of Anne. Yet others were connected to one of the Judges, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Henry’s close friend and an open enemy of Anne and all were hand picked as reliable by the King or Cromwell, to ensure the correct. verdict.
Can you even imagine picking such a jury today? Every single one of them would be dismissed by the defence as prejudiced. However, the legal system itself was stacked as well. No defence lawyers, presumption of guilt, no access to prosecution evidence, just a Grand Jury who had seen the evidence and said it was sufficient for trial. The state didn’t officially interfere in treason trials, but woe to anyone who found them not guilty. There is one case where it happened and the jury were locked up until they changed their minds. It also happened in the case of Lord Dacre of the South when both Council and High Court in the Lords found him not guilty because most of them would condemn themselves if they didn’t. Henry was furious, but the nature of the case and the political powder keg at the time meant no further action was taken. Anyone sympathetic to the accused would call down the wrath of God, sorry I mean King Henry upon themselves and may suffer the same fate.
We are told that Mark Smeaton didn’t withdraw his confession and we don’t know why. We assume that he was promised a more merciful death by axe rather than the normal, hanging, drawing and quartering, if he kept to his confession. Perhaps he believed it himself. Whatever, Smeaton didn’t retract his confession.
The others pleaded not guilty. Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, are all accused on many terrible and pornographic sexual acts with the Queen. George Boleyn will be tried with his sister as a peer of the Realm but he is accused of adultery, incest and treason. The men now before the court are all accused of conspiracy to kill the King, adultery and plotting the same with the Queen. Anne wanted to marry one of them after the King is dead is the implication. We don’t have all of the transcripts from the trials but no doubt the spies in Anne’s chambers have given Cromwell enough pieces of treasonous conversation to provide evidence for the Court to hear.
Norris was confronted with a dramatic confession he allegedly made but he denied it as a trick and all three denied the allegations. They made what answers they could and were found guilty anyway. Not even the fact that Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, Anne’s father, wad one of the Judges could go in their favour. All four men were doomed.
All four men were condemned to the full terrible execution of the law but thankfully Henry agreed to commute the sentence to beheading. Anne would follow them within a few days and their execution was set aside until after her trial. Anne showed great dignity and bravery at that moment and won over many onlookers. All of these men were innocent but the games of love had been perverted by Cromwell to make people look guilty of treason and adultery. It was a huge miscarriage of justice.