12 May 1536 – The Trial of Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton

Posted By on May 12, 2013

William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton. He was a member of the jury and was also the man who had interrogated Smeaton and Norris and persuaded them to confess, if indeed Norris had ever confessed.

William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton. He was a member of the jury and was also the man who had interrogated Smeaton and Norris and persuaded them to confess, if indeed Norris had ever confessed.

Things had moved incredibly fast in the spring of 1536, the fall of Anne Boleyn. The first arrest had taken place on 30th April and now, one day after the Grand Jury of Kent met at Deptford, four men were being tried for high treason.

On 12th May 1536, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were escorted by barge along the Thames from the Tower of London to Westminster Hall. There, because they were commoners, they were brought to the bar of a special commission of oyer and terminer presided over by Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, and arraigned for high treason. The jury can only be described as ‘hostile’ because its panel of twelve men included men who owed Cromwell or the King a favour, or who had an interest in seeing these men and Anne Boleyn brought down.1 Interestingly, it also included Thomas Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s father.

In their article, Law as the Engine of State: The Trial of Anne Boleyn,2 Margery and Frederick Schauer point out “Whether the jury was selected specifically is of little moment, because it was virtually impossible to be acquitted of treason, especially where, as here, the King’s wishes, although publicly unvoiced, were no secret” and that “the burden of proof was on the accused to prove their innocence of the charges contained in the indictment, and this the men could not do.” There was no ‘innocent until proved guilty’ in Tudor times, more ‘guilty until proved innocent’. Could the men, who had no legal representation and who were unaware of what evidence was being brought against them, really be expected to prove their innocence? I think not.

The full record of the men’s trial no longer exists, but we do have this extract in Letters and Papers:

“Record of the sessions holden Friday after three weeks of Easter 28 Hen. VIII. before the above justices. Noreys, Bryerton, Weston, and Smeton were brought up in the custody of the constable of the Tower, when Smeton pleaded guilty of violation and carnal knowledge of the Queen, and put himself in the King’s mercy. Noreys, Bryerton, and Weston pleaded Not guilty. The jury return a verdict of Guilty, and that they have no lands, goods, or chattels.
Judgment against all four as in cases of treason; execution to be at Tyburn.”3

As you can see, following his confession, Smeaton pleaded ‘guilty’ but the others pleaded ‘not guilty’. All four were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. They then would have been escorted back to the Tower by Sir William Kingston with the axe turned towards them to show people that they had been found guilty of treason.

Also on 12th May 1536, the Duke of Norfolk, uncle of Anne and George Boleyn, was appointed Lord High Steward of England in readiness for ruling, as Lord President, over the trials of his niece and nephew.

Notes and Sources

  1. See 12th May 1536 – 4 Men and a Trial
  2. Schauer, Margery S. and Frederick. Law as the Engine of State: The Trial of Anne Boleyn, Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 49 (1980) – http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol22/iss1/3
  3. LP x. 848

10 thoughts on “12 May 1536 – The Trial of Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton”

  1. henry says:

    Its amazing that no records of the trial no longer exist.

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    It’s amazing to think of the law as being guilty until proven innocent. Plus, they couldn’t even prepare a case since they didn’t know what they had done wrong. I wonder why they even bothered with a trial! And poor Smeaton, the least likely of all. Thanks for another great article!

  3. Every trial was just a sham, put on to make Henry & everyone else with any kind of power LOOK like they were being fair. I cannot imagine the entire jury and judges going along with the executions of not only a Queen, but 5 other innocent people.
    There again, they were under the Kings’ thumb, completely. There WAS no help for any of these people. It is a sad state of affairs that people could be judged so quickly and with the highest judgement…death.

  4. Aynne says:

    When was the sentencing changed to beheading and why? How very vile for Anne that both her father and her uncle took sides against her. Were these records also lost in the Ashburham House fire? Do we know that all documents were lost in the fire? Was there an index somewhere of what was held in the library and burned vs. rescued in that fire?

    1. Claire says:

      Hanging, drawing and quartering was the usual sentence for commoners who had committed treason but the King did have licence to commute sentence to the more merciful beheading. I’m not sure when the King actually changed the sentence but, as you mention, the letters between Kingston and Cromwell in May 1536 regarding the arrangements for executions were badly damaged and some have only portions that are readable. I suspect that some are missing entirely but I don’t think there is a record of what was there originally.

    2. margaret says:

      agree with what you say and would love to have answers to the questions you put above.

  5. suzie says:

    it is possible that the records were distroyed or there were none kept. Henry did not care about justice, his goal was to get rid of Anne A S A P as she failed to produce a son. Henrys Claim to the throne was weak and through his mother. Henrys father was a bastard son and was responsible for the death of the two princes in the tower, ( ref: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey ) henry the vll troops occupied the tower at the time and richard wasn’t in London.. so henry the 7th married Elizabeth of York insuring his claim to the throne, when henry the 8th produced no living sons by two wives well they had to go and the seamores steaped in.

    1. margaret says:

      wow I did not know that but am not surprised at all.

    2. Claire says:

      Henry VII was not “a bastard son”, he was the legitimate son of Margaret Beaufort and her husband, Edmund Tudor. There is absolutely no evidence that he killed the princes in the Tower, just as we can’t say for definite that Richard III killed them either. Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth of York was brokered by their mothers, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort and was a way for Henry to strengthen his claim and for Edward IV’s descendents to be on the throne. Obviously the true heir, Edward V, had gone missing so the next best thing was for Elizabeth to be Queen Consort and for her children to carry on the line.

    3. Banditqueen says:

      The Daughter of Time is a novel and the late author doesn’t blame Henry Vii either. Although a good detective story, it is not a history reference and cannot be used as such. I am embarrassed that some Ricardians still treat it as such. We don’t actually know what happened to the sons of Edward Iv and Elizabeth Woodville and just as the sources at the time varied in their speculation and rumours, there are a number of theories to choose from. There are at least six or seven alternative candidates for their possible murder, including Henry Vii and Richard iii, Buckingham and Margaret Beaufort, they could have died of the plague, been moved abroad or survived. We just don’t know.

      I really don’t know what Henry Vii being legitimate or not has to do with the fate of Anne Boleyn, although of course he was legitimate and his claim came because he won at Bosworth and married Elizabeth of York and via his mother. Henry Viii had believed in justice but now he only wanted what was convenient and that was the destruction of his poor second wife, by any means possible, hence this set up and unjust trial and execution.

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