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
- See 12th May 1536 – 4 Men and a Trial
- 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
- LP x. 848