12 May 1536 – The trial of 4 courtiers

Posted By on May 12, 2021

On this day in Tudor history, 12th May 1536, courtiers Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were tried for high treason at Westminster Hall. They were, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.

Find out more about that awful day in 1536 in this video:

You can find out about the members of the jury, the commission that tried these men here, and you can find out more about the men who fell with Queen Anne Boleyn in this video from Clare Cherry:

Here’s the transcript of my video:

On this day in 1536, the 12th May, 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 were taken by barge on the River Thames from their prison at the Tower of London to Westminster Hall to stand trial for high treason.

This was just a day after the Kent Grandy Jury had met and only eight days after the arrests of Weston and Brereton. Things had moved incredibly quickly.

These four men were tried by a special commission of oyer and terminer, whereas Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, 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.

The men’s hearts must have sunk when they saw who the commissioners were. Although the jury included Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, someone who would certainly not benefit from these men being found guilty when it would prejudice the trial of his son and daughter, it also included men who owed Cromwell or King Henry VIII a favour, and those who would love to see the Boleyn faction spectacularly brought down. This was definitely a hostile jury.

Unsurprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and all four men were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the usual punishment for high treason, to be carried out at Tyburn.

Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, reported to his master Charles V, that the men “were condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession.”

Also, on this day in 1536, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, maternal uncle of Anne and George Boleyn, was appointed Lord High Steward of England in readiness for presiding, as Lord President, over their trials.

2 thoughts on “12 May 1536 – The trial of 4 courtiers”

  1. Christine says:

    How did these men feel as they were rowed down the Thames to the ancient hall of Westminster that long ago day in May, they were innocent merely caught up in the vicious plot to discard an unwanted queen, and were slaughtered on the alter of innocence, the trial was merely a preliminary to the dreadful butchery that happened five days later, we have no sources that tell us of their trials only that they all pleaded innocence and were found guilty, they must have felt like they were in a horrible surreal nightmare, once convicted the axe was turned towards them and the terrible sentences were read out, the one meted out to all traitors found guilty of high treason, hanging drawing and disembowelling, but they were not to suffer that most extreme of executions, the king commuted their sentances merely to decapitation being high born they would die by the axe, Mark Smeaton who was by the standards of the day low born also was to die by the axe, it is assumed that was his reward for implicating the queen by his infamous ‘confession’, they were then taken back to their cells and had to prepare themselves for death, Francis Weston’s family offered the king in sheer desperation all their worldly goods for a pardon but it was refused, he had only been married a short whilst and had a young son, Norris was engaged to the queens cousin and had been married before, he had two sons, Brereton was an unlikely candidate for adultery with the queen, he was about fifty and it is believed he was removed merely for political reasons, he had annoyed Cromwell over his activities in Wales where he had land, Norris also had annoyed Cromwell because he had opposed the dissolution of the monasteries, George Lord Rochford was to be tried in a few days time before his peers, but the outcome of that trial also was a foregone conclusion, Mark Smeaton who must have been the most wretched of all because he had guilt on his conscience, must have prayed for the queen and for the men in his prayers, he must also have prayed for forgiveness for he knew his name was to go down in history as the poor wretched soul who had betrayed his queen and mistress.

  2. Banditqueen says:

    Four of the five men accused with Anne Boleyn were taken down river to Westminster and publicly tried. Mark Smeaton had already confessed and he just pleaded guilty and that was it. Henry Norris was also accused in Court of confessing but he said William Fitzwilliam tricked him. He denounced his alleged confession and refused to be tricked again. The others, William Brereton and Francis Weston also pleaded not guilty. The accused in these cases had very little chance and didn’t know the case against them until the actual trial. With those on the Jury, the Commission of Oyer and Terminer chosen as most likely to do their duty for the King and Cromwell prosecuting, this trial was going nowhere but to the doom of all four accused. Even though Thomas Boleyn was on this Commission, he was expected to do his duty, no matter what his personal feelings and his obviously hidden and turbulent emotions. These innocent and brave men gave a fine account of themselves but were ultimately found guilty and condemned. They were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but were actually beheaded on the King’s mercy.

    George Boleyn was to be tried at the Court of the High Steward in the Great Hall at the Tower as was Queen Anne because of their status and the four men, now condemned had to wait until the outcome of these trials on 15th May. Brother and sister were tried separately, although they are often depicted as being tried together and they both gave a good account of themselves and the public expected them to be acquitted, but that wasn’t to be the case. The Queen and George were also beheaded, George on the 17th on Tower Hill and Anne by the sword on 19th May.

    One of those on the Jury was the man who had interrogated them and that made him instantly biased and with a conflict of interest. Seriously could you imagine such a thing today? Imagine the cop who arrested and interrogated you being on your jury in Court? It just wouldn’t happen but this was a dangerous time and such considerations were of little value when the King wanted his wife gone at all costs.

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