12 May 1536 – A trial and a hostile jury
Posted By Claire on May 12, 2017
On this day in history, 12th May 1536, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were taken by barge from the Tower of London to Westminster and tried in Westminster Hall for high treason.
The four men were tried by a special commission of oyer and terminer and any hopes of acquittal must have been dashed when they saw who sat on this commission. It was certainly a hostile jury.
Click here to read about the members of the jury and what happened at this trial.
On the same day, a patent was issued appointing Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, as Lord High Steward of England for the forthcoming trials of his niece and nephew, Queen Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Click here to read more.
Picture: Crop of Westminster Hall © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, Geograph.org.uk.
1 thought on “12 May 1536 – A trial and a hostile jury”
The case of treason always being tried by the Lord High Steward of England has a notorious history as if a traitor was taken in arms, the law of arms applied and the hearing could be before the High Steward alone with a selection to advise him and execution could even be summary or the next day. However, these men were not taken in arms so the evidence had to be fully considered. Not that this was any advantage. Treason trials were notoriously stacked as the article points out but in this case extra care had been taken to select juries who would do their duty and find these innocent men guilty regardless. Thomas Boleyn may have some sympathy but he also had two children in the Tower so he knew what was expected of him. He also had enemies on the jury and he probably knew he had no choice in his role now. Thomas Boleyn was excused his son and daughters trial as their father, but this whole thing must have killed him.
The men were found guilty and condemned to the normal traitors death for a male traitor, hanging, drawing and quartering. They were spared this horror because Henry chose to commute the death sentence to beheading. This was normal in cases of nobility, gentry and extreme acts of mercy. Mark Smeaton was probably spared this horror because he confessed at the start and plead guilty. He was not a gentleman or knight or noble so he would normally have suffered the full extent of the terrible punishment. It was mercifully over in one stroke. The axe was not always quick, but in this case it was.
The sentence for a female traitor was burning at the stake, the same as for heresy and in Scotland and Europe witchcraft. Anne was not charged with either of those things but Henry was given an unusual choice of beheading or burning. Mercifully Henry chose beheading by a French swordsman. In fact he ordered the swordsman before these trials. Another sign this was a setup?
It was suggested by Elton that the crown didn’t interfere in treason trials and that they were neutral juries. However, the case he points out that of Lord Darcre a year earlier cannot be compared to this one. The jury had every reason to find him not guilty. He had tried to encourage certain nobles to move against Henry, remove Anne and encourage the Emperor to invade. The nobility distanced themselves from him when his contact with them was discovered but could find no evidence against him as to do so would implicate themselves. The whole thing collapsed and he was cleared to the annoyance of the King. However, those on the jury had been supporting Catherine and didn’t support the King’s marriage to Anne but accepted it. The plot was against Anne so they were highly motivated to find their fellow noble innocent. A year later some of the same men were equally motivated to move against Anne and in this trial the hand of the King couldn’t be any clearer. The jury this time was handpicked and the crown had indirectly interfered and Cromwell being behind the evidence and Fitzwilliam the interrogation, it was highly motivated to find all the accused guilty.