Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall

On 12th May 1536, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, escorted Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and Sir Francis Weston by barge from the Tower of London to Westminster.

The four men were brought before a special commission of oyer and terminer at Westminster Hall and arraigned for high treason. Smeaton pleaded “guilty”, while the other men pleaded “not guilty”. They were tried separately from Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, who, as members of the aristocracy, were entitled to be tried in the court of the Lord High Steward of England by a jury of their peers. Their trials were to take place on 15th May 1536.

Click here to find out more about the jury members, who can only be described as “hostile”, and the trial itself.

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33 thoughts on “12 May 1536 – Norris, Brereton, Smeaton and Weston tried at Westminster Hall”
    1. There were definitely men around who were not enemies of Anne, but I think that even then the jury would have known what the King and Cromwell required of them.

      1. I think that is true, Claire. But before we assume that all these men who voted against these people were immoral and only doing what was required other than what they believed, they all had seen the same evidence as Cranmer and he did not stand up for her either. So if the holy guy who was her dear friend wasn’t going to go against what he read, you really can’t expect the jurors to see anything other than how Anne’s character was seen in genera, which was not favorably. People believed it because it was easy to believe for them.

        As a note, I always assume people know that when I state a position I know it is my interpretation. People of course can have theirs. But one has to defend it, no? 🙂

        1. Btw, ever since yesterday I am getting a spam message requiring me to go through a whole spam process. What spurs it since I am using the same name and email address since day 1? Odd…

        2. Just a quick reply as I’m out and on my mobile, but we have to remember that their duty was to the King. I don’t have my notes with me but there was the case in the Tudor era of a jury being arrested or threatened with arrest because they acquitted a man. It may seem immoral to us, but they were doing what was required of them.

  1. Hi Claire, So when Giles Heron, Chief Justice Baldwin and Thomas Cranmer state there is sufficient evidence and guilt can be proven against the Queen, no-one would ever dream of looking too closely at that evidence and presume it to be accurate ….if Henry believed it, then it was ipso facto proof?

  2. Hi Claire,

    Yes, their duty was to the King, but you can’t just make the jump, I think, to assuming the men on the jury all simply ignored sketchy data. You can say that is possible, of course, but it isn’t necessarily the only way it could have gone down. After the heat of the moment people may well have calmed down and a few In England and overseas muttered to themselves that it looked bad – even Chapuys said it wasn’t really proven as much as accused, as you have often noted, but he was a canon lawyer and knew his business.

    You have a very old post re Greg Walker which I only saw recently, (it was way before I read him or commented here) but he makes the point that it really did look like she was a traitor even if it was just in words and people believed it because it was believable to them…they didn’t need somebody to tell them how to vote. Of course, what you say is another possible alternative but I just think it might be a bit unfair

    Trust me, I hate the smearing of women’s reputations. I don’t think being a selfie-centered flirt makes someone bad. But this was an era when a certain mode of behavior was expected and she flew in the face of it. She had a bad reputation and it did her in when her mouth, at the very least, went way out of control, in my opinion.

    1. To JudithRex

      You said that Anne had a bad reputation, but was it really all her fault or did people regard what they thought was wrong as her fault because they could not accuse the king?

      1. Hannele,

        I was referring to the fact that she let a married man give her money, jewelry and a house(s), was apparently the cause of the humiliation of a dearly loved Queen, and was pregnant when she married, all which was out of line with the moral customs of the day. She was also blamed for the executions of much respected men, of threatening the deaths of Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, for forcing Mary to work as a servant in Anne’s child’s household, and on and on. It is pretty well established stuff you have already read about, I am sure. People in court and connected to it knew about her reputation. It was very bad.

        I don’t think one can say Anne was a feminist icon and then say she didn’t earn her own reputation. The two conflict. I am not saying you have said that, I don’t recall. I just know it is part of some romantic notion regarding who she was in an attempt to modernize her for our times. It’s fine. But then she has to own her behavior and it can’t just be all dumped on Henry, I think. How she treat people and how she spoke are on her.

      2. Hannele,

        Second answer to you – while I stick to what I wrote above, I do understand your question. In France especially it was common to blame the King’s mistress for everything one couldn’t blame the King for. Some think Marie Antoinette took that hit because she had the special friends whom she lavished with attention and bank breaking gifts, not Louis. hence the rumor she was a lesbian. But that was not the case in England as far as my historical knowledge. You best not blame anybody, really, unless it was a woman on the throne alone like Mathilda, or a Catholic like Mary reacting to the very real threats on her life.

        But I wanted to make sure you knew I understood your comment.

    2. I wasn’t making a jump and I’m not assuming that they ignored sketchy data. They would have been informed of Mark Smeaton’s confession, which may well have implicated others.

      There was a lot of muttering. It wasn’t just Chapuys. Wyatt’s poetry shows that he was convinced that they were all innocent. Etienne Dolet, the French scholar, printer, and Reformer, published an epigram, “Reginae Utopiae falso adulterii crimine damnatae, et capite mulctatae Epitaphium” (“Queen of Utopia condemned on a false charge of adultery, and deprived of an epitaph”); Mary of Hungary commented “As none but the organist confessed, nor herself either, people think he invented this device to get rid of her”; and George Constantine, Sir Henry Norris’s servant, commented that “few men would believe that she was so abominable” and that he had “never suspected”. He also said that “there was much muttering at the Queen’s death”.

      It really didn’t matter back then if the dates were ‘iffy’ because they had the confession and the indictments included the words “and on divers other days and places” and “on several days before and after” to cover any errors anyway.

      Greg Walker makes valid points and his theory is an interesting one, I just don’t agree but that doesn’t make what I say “unfair”. I think it was J Patrick Coby who, like various other historians, pointed out that there was nothing abnormal in the climate of courtly love in Anne’s household. These men were meant to flatter the queen, she was the lady/damsel, but it just all went rather wrong with her argument with Norris. Coby believes that Cromwell had spies in her chambers and that they reported back to him about Mark ‘mooning’ over Anne, having a major crush on her and being rather over the top, and that combined with her words to Norris was enough for Cromwell to use those men. All these things could be twisted to make the queen look bad.

      Anne didn’t fly in the face of it, she was meant to flirt with courtiers, it was all part of the courtly love tradition. It was the same tradition she had learned at Margaret of Austria’s court and which took place at the English court too. Everyone was supposed to be in love with the queen, just look at Elizabeth I whose male subjects threw themselves at her when she was well past her prime.

      Anne’s words to Norris were unwise, and she obviously regretted them as soon as she had said them, but their meaning was clear, she was reprimanding him, not encouraging him to plot against the king. It was a case of normal, and it was very normal for the time, courtly love being completely twisted to bring an entire faction down. Behaviour that was traditional was twisted to be evidence of the queen having lovers. I agree with J Patrick Coby that the case against Anne had to be “so heinous as to shock the conscience and cast a pall over all the queen’s supporters”. By painting the queen as someone who was capable of such sin, even including incest, it meant that Anne and her supporters could be completely undone while the King still came out smelling of roses. He and Cromwell had saved themselves, the court and England from a monster.

      1. Claire, I know all the things you wrote as I wrote them myself here so I am wondering at why you spelled that all out to me.. You had said the men knew they had to do their duty which implied they were going to convict her whether they believed the charges or not. I disagreed. You pointed out the faulty dates on the charges and I pointed out the accused could have are the trips and any of those looking at the dates, whether they knew the men to be said to be elsewhere, would known the doable distance, too. Regarding the fact that there were people around the King and Queen, we also know that an anointed Queen was thought to be untouchable, and she had laws to protect her form any accusation that touched on her offspring’s legal state.

        So not sure where we are in disagreement if you agree to the above?

        1. “Claire, I know all the things you wrote as I wrote them myself here so I am wondering at why you spelled that all out to me.” ???? I wasn’t spelling anything out to you and I don’t know what you mean. I was answering some of your earlier points now I’m back at my desk. I’m lost and confused now. I thought this was a discussion.

  3. All the jury were carefully chosen who were Anne’s enemies Henry meant to kill her, the French swordsman had already been ordered the trial was a mere formality for appearances sake, had Henry not been King he could well have smothered her with her pillow but things had to be seen to be ‘done properly’ because here was a crowned Queen on trial, it was a travesty of justice but this was 16th c England and at it’s head was an autocrat who had absolute power and everyone had to do his bidding.

    1. Christine, I was referring back to before all that you mention in your post. I meant he did not start out the investigation into ways to separate himself from her with an already formed decision to charge her with treason and thus suffer the penalty. There is zero evidence of that and plenty that he was looking to canon law because he already had a pretty good idea he could end the marriage on the bias of too close a blood tie through the Mary Bolelyn sexual relationship. Cromwell sat down with the expert to get backing for that position and he got it. The rest of the serious treason investigations before she was charged came after this and after Anne was overheard saying all sorts of indiscreet things which she herself admitted to saying. Bad timing or just Anne being Anne but this time being recorded by witnesses who no longer feared her.

      Have you read Greg Walker’s paper? if you google him you can see where you can read it for free as long as you are associated with some school or library.

        1. By the way Christine, I think if you search on this site Claire discusses Walker and you are of course free to have your perspective and opinion! I think you raise really good points and are completely within reality to come to your conclusions once Henry believe her to be guilty. Hope you enjoy Walker.

  4. Regarding the comment Claire made about a jury being arrested or threatened with arrest I read that to but can’t remember the person or persons involved.

    1. Christine, not at all. I meant it. The Tudors as a topic has come alive for intelligent people who could not care less about history due to Hilary Mantel and I think some fresh thought is a good thing for everyone and anyone can contribute, though I will totally own my own impatience with some, um, ideas. :-). Take care.

  5. Is it known how much time the jury used? That would show fairly accurately whether they really investigated the matter or whether their judgment was already sure?

    1. No, I haven’t found anything about how long their meeting was but it was a day at the most. Both Eric Ives and Alison Weir note that the order to Sir William Kingston to bring the men to trial on 12th May was sent before the meeting of the Grand Jury in Kent and may even have been sent before the Middlesex meeting. Sir John Dudley wrote to Lady Lisle on the 10th May:
      “Is sure there is no need to write the news, for all the world knows them by this time. Today Mr. Norres, Mr. Weston, William a Brearton, Markes, and lord Rocheforde were indicted, and on Friday they will be arraigned at Westminster. The Queen herself will be condemned by Parliament. Wednesday, 10 May.”
      Obviously Dudley did not realise that Rochford, like the Queen, would be tried on the 15th May, but he correctly predicted that she would be condemned.

      I mentioned earlier about a case of a jury being threatened after they had acquitted a man and now I’m home I’ve checked my notes. It was the case of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton in Mary I’s reign in April 1554. He was able to convince the jury of his innocence (after being implicated in Wyatt’s Rebellion) and they acquitted him. However, the jurors were arrested straight after the trial and heavily fined, for not doing their job properly, and Throckmorton was imprisoned anyway. In “A History of the Criminal Law of England”, S. J. Fitzjames points out that it wasn’t until 1670 (he quotes a case called the Bushell case) that the jury began to have the right to “return a verdict according to their own consciences, and without being subjected in respect of it to any penal consequences” (p. 306), so in the Tudor era a jury was expected to do what they’d been instructed to do – draw up indictments, send cases to court, find people guilty etc. It was the same with Parliament. Roger Lockyer, in “Tudor and Stuart Britain: 1485-1714”, makes the point that Parliament at the time would not openly oppose the King’s will even if members had reservations regarding bills placed before them. It was just the way of the world at that time. The monarch was God’s anointed sovereign and he was obeyed.

      1. So, what I’m saying is that a jury was there really just to rubber stamp what had already been decided. Like Parliament, they were presented with evidence and the King’s will in the matter and they were expected to give that their legal stamp.

  6. Thanks Claire and everybody. So basically – here’s the thing! – even if Cromwell managed to pick a Jury favourable to Anne, it would have made no, or very little, difference to the outcome. That’s rather helpful. One thing I’m still struggling with is Suzannah’s Lipscombe’s comment on “The Last Days of Anne Boleyn”, she writes, “One extraordinary thing to me – given the paucity of evidence from which ideas about a Cromwellian plot have been spun – is that the claims of conspiracy theorists somehow seem to have become the orthodoxy.” I did think that Cromwell’s ‘Jury fixing” was a pretty conclusive indication of state corruption and plot. Now I’m not so sure. Is it rather, that’s how it went down then. Jury = rubber stamp?

    1. I’m of the opinion that Henry was behind it all, that he instructed Cromwell to get rid of Anne at any cost and so Cromwell was then reponsible for the resulting plot but with the King’s stamp of approval. I don’t believe that Cromwell had to convince the King of anything, the King wanted rid of Anne and so everyone who was part of knew what was expected of them. The King said “jump”, they answered “how high?”.

      1. Claire, I think you and I say “get rid of” differently. I think it means make someone go away but not kill, and you use it, I think, meaning include kill.

        I do not believe Henry instructed Cromwell to get rid of her including execution. She brought the treason charges on herself when she could not or would not control her mouth at a seminal moment.

        So we differ on that and it is a quite serious point to differ on, I grant you. I cannot wait until there is actual evidence to support your view. Perhaps someone is sitting on it until 2036? Nice scandal for the 500th anniversary? I will put it on my google calendar!

        1. When I say “get rid of…. at any cost” I mean anything, from being sent to a nunnery to death.

          There isn’t firm evidence to support either view completely, so you can argue both ways and historians are divided too. You can use Cromwell’s own words to argue either case – Cromwell took credit for the plot when he said “had planned and brought about the whole affair.”, but also said that he was “authorised and commissioned by the king to prosecute and bring to an end the mistress’s trial”. There’s no right or wrong, both can be argued from the evidence we have and I’m sure it will carry on being argued by historians for centuries.

          Another one of the other reasons why I believe Henry was responsible for Anne’s fall is the fact that the plot to bring down Catherine Parr and the Prebendaries’ Plot to bring down Cranmer failed because they did not have the King’s blessing. I just don’t see how Cromwell would have dared to plot against the queen without Henry’s say-so, it was such a dangerous thing to do. Cromwell may have had the support of the Seymours and Aragonese faction but the Boleyn supporters were powerful too, not to mention the whims of the King.

  7. Yes Cromwell was Henrys chief advisor he would not have moved against the Queen unless it was with his blessing, he would have been risking much and he was a cautious man, I think he took his time over this and he had to have a scapegoat, that’s where Mark Smeaton came in, he confessed and wether he was tortured or not, that didn’t matter to Cromwell he had the ammunition that was needed to destroy her, it wasn’t treason for a Queen to commit adultery so they had to bring in the charge of plotting the Kings death, and that was treason, if only Anne hadn’t made that foolish remark about dead men’s shoes to Norris the charge would have been harder to prove but so she did, and it was used against her, the incest charge was brought in to make her appear revolting and corrupt yet at her brothers trial he defended himself so well people were having bets on wether he’d be acquitted, the fact that he was able to defend himself well looked good for Anne but then she gave a good account of herself to but it was no use, the jury were told to condemn her, when you consider that the trial itself of Anne and the five men were a complete waste of time, so many people thought they were innocent, Chapyus The Lord Mayor, even the London populace were mumbling about her treatment and they had never liked her, but what looked so bad for Henry was he was seen carousing about with the court ladies at banquets and looking extremely cheerful one observer noted he wore his horns well, he didn’t fool anyone and then eleven days after they were all dead he married again, this behaviour alone made people doubt the justice of the trial and Anne’s treatment and that of the men.

  8. Yes, Claire this is a discussion of course . i got confused too because you were restating thing back to me what I already said and agreed to as though I didn’t agree when I was actually responding to your comment about the jurors feeling they had to do whatever Henry wanted (I paraphrase).

    To repeat and clarify:

    I do not think the evidence was sketchy.

    i do not think the jurors only necessarily did what Henry wanted them to, but actually believed she was guilty for al the reasons I have stated. Not to mention a man or possibly 2 confessed.

    I do not think Henry set out day 1 to kill her when he wanted to see if he could end the marriage.

    Henry already had dictated the Pope had no jurisdiction in England and the country had voted him the de facto pope of England, so he did not need any dispensation to either marry or divorce Anne, just as he ignored the dispensation he got to marry his first wife, which he then ignored. You did not say this, I am responding to someone else here. But Henry did like to see what backing he himself could have found in the Church law. Old habits die hard for him.

    Whether or not she was guilty, she looked guilty and once Henry had the words from her mouth repeated to him, THEN he took action to have her investigated, and THEN had at least 1, maybe 2, confessions plus several interviewed people on her staff who could very well have repeated a lot of indiscretions of verbal or worse type.

    She looked guilty as h&ll on paper at the time with all that emotion and fear running rampant and may have been so. She definitely broke the verbal treason law by imagining his death, or so it could be construed.

    Now we have doubts but 500 years later we can’t even decide if a letter in her name was actually from her, so how can we decide what evidence might actually existed form her servants?

    Re Percy, he is described by Richard Layton who visited him at the time to have symptoms on his deathbed that look like liver poison/toxicity , hence the comment re drinking problem. I am not the only person to draw that conclusion and I did not need anyone else to tell me that was what it was or could be. Quite a lot of the diseases we know/think/suppose Henry had can only be educated guesses 500 years later.

    Thank you for allowing me to clarify. I hope you know see in one place my response so I do not confuse you further in my answers.

    1. I’m on my phone so can only see your most recent comment just as I was last night. I don’t know which comment you mean when you say I was restating things back to you. This is a complicated discussion with various commenters and threads, and yesterday I was not at my computer so could well be repeating myself, I apologise if I have but I don’t think I deserve the attitude/sarcasm that’s coming across in your comments. I think I’ll bow out now. It’s bed time.

      By the way, liver disease does not just result from a drink problem, and I asked because I had never read it and wanted to know the source.

  9. Elizabeth Wheeler looks very closely at all of the affinities and makes the conclusion that these were important in an age of patronage. Some people were related, others owed someone a service or allegiance or money. Yes, this is important and the men must have indeed given up all hope on seeing the jury, but also Cromwell had cleverly constructed the so called evidence in such a way that the inditements must have been convincing, Even if we can strip away the dates, times and places; people did not look at the list too closely. Many would not have bothered in any case; but these men would also have been told it was their duty to find in favour of the king. They would have been told that the King wanted out of his marriage and that Smeaton had confessed. They may also have known the findings of the Grand Juries and been influenced by these. Cromwell may also have given the impression that he had all sorts of evidence that could not be denied and so they were persuaded guilt was true.

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