12 May 1536 – The Trial of Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton

Posted By on May 12, 2014

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall

On 12th May 1536, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were brought before a special commission of oyer and terminer at Westminster Hall and arraigned for high treason. Smeaton pleaded “guilty”, while the others pleaded “not guilty”.

Although the jury included Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, who would certainly not benefit from these men being found guilty when it would prejudice the trial of his son and daughter, many other members can be described as “hostile”. Even Sir William Fitzwilliam, the man who had interrogated Mark Smeaton and who claimed that he had persuaded Norris to confess, was on the jury.

The hostile jury was not the only problem. In Tudor times, defendants did not have counsel and were unaware of what evidence was being presented against them. It was impossible for them to prepare a defence and all they could do was react to what was said in court. The onus was also on them to prove their innocence, rather than the prosecution to prove their guilt. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, reported that “Only the groom confessed that he had been three times with the said putain and Concubine. The others were condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession”, so it does not sound like the prosecution had much of a case. However, Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton really had no chance and it is not surprising that all four were found guilty on all charges, declared traitors and sentenced to the usual traitor’s death, to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

You can read about the men who made up the jury in my article 12 May 1536 – 4 Men and a Trial.

Notes and Sources

  • Schauer, Margery S. and Frederick. Law as the Engine of State: The Trial of Anne Boleyn, Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 49 (1980)
  • L&P, x.908, Letter from Chapuys to Charles V, 19th May 1536

Photo of Westminster Hall from iStock.

4 thoughts on “12 May 1536 – The Trial of Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton”

  1. Pepper says:

    Were the men beheaded in the end or did they suffer the normal traitors death? I had always thought they were beheaded, was the sentence was changed? Thanks 🙂

    1. Claire says:

      Thankfully, the sentence was commuted to beheading for these four men and also George Boleyn.

  2. Globerose says:

    Oh dear – just re-read ‘Mourning wise Since Daily I Increase” by poor Sir Thos Wyatt, quoted in Claire’s book, ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn, a Countdown’, page 275, and stumbled somewhat over the words:
    ‘And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!
    The axe is home, your heads be in the street.”
    In the street?! Tell me their weren’t put on spikes around London! Don’t know why I find that so upsetting a thought, but I do.

  3. BanditQueen says:

    The three men who pleaded not guilty: Brereton, Weston and Norris must have had the tougher time; being tried and set up and perhaps tricks being used to get them even in the trial to confess when they refused. And what must they have thought of Smeaton; almost a pawn in the hands of the prosecution? Was the King hoping that even now Norris would crack and come clean faced with the Queen’s public disagreement with him and the talk of him having her if the King was dead? A hostile jury, made up evidence, a barrarge of dates and accusations, Cromwell putting pressure on for the right decision; no chance to defend themselves in the true sense; a loaded court against them; they never stood a chance.

    The only thing that happened in their favour was that Henry lowered the death sentence to beheading. But that was only the night before so they would have to wait for four more days with this horrible sentence hanging over them. Just how could any of this have been fair or just?

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