On this day in history, the 12th May 1536, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton were tried at a special scommission of oyer and terminer, just a day after the Grand Jury of Kent had assembled and only eight days after Weston and Brereton had been arrested; the legal machinery had worked incredibly quickly.
The four men were to be tried separately to Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, who, 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. Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, escorted the four men by barge along the Thames and brought them to the bar of the special commission of oyer and terminer at Westminster Hall, where all four were arraigned for high treason.
The men’s heart must have sank into their shoes when they saw the jury. Any hopes they had of being acquitted and released must have been dashed as soon as they saw the men sitting in judgement on them. Although the jury included Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, and 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 the King a favour and those who would love to see the Boleyn faction spectacularly brought down. There are no two ways about it, the jury was a hostile one.
Those who could be described as hostile include:-
- Sir William Fitzwilliam – The man who had interrogated Smeaton and Norris and persuaded them to confess, if indeed Norris had ever confessed.
- Edward Willoughby, foreman – This man owed Sir William Brereton money so it was definitely in his interests to get rid of him.
- Sir Giles Alington – Husband of Sir Thomas More’s stepdaughter. More had been executed for treason for refusing to swear the oath of succession.
- William Askew – A religious conservative and supporter of the Lady Mary. Interestingly, he was also the father of the Protestant martyr Anne Askew.
- Walter Hungerford – Eric Ives describes this man as “a scape-grace dependant of Cromwell’s and a homosexual”1. Paul Friedmann describes him as “the son-in-law of Lord Hussey, Anne’s bitter enemy”2.
- Sir John Hampden – A man whose daughter was sister-in-law to the comptroller of the royal household, William Paulet.
- William Musgrave – A man keen to do the right thing and win favour with Cromwell and the King after failing to make treason charges against Lord Dacre stick. He had also signed a bond for 2,000 marks to Cromwell and others of the King’s officers and Friedmann makes the point that this could be demanded at any time.
- Robert Dormer – A religious conservative who had opposed the Break with Rome.
- Thomas Palmer – A client of William Fitzwilliam and also one of the King’s gambling buddies.
- Richard Tempest – A relation and ally of Lord Darcy (a conservative) and a man close to Cromwell. According to Friedmann, he was also related to “Anne’s aunt and enemy, Lady Boleyn”3.
- William Sidney – A friend of Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who was known to be hostile to the Boleyns.
- Anthony Hungerford – A relation of the King’s new love, Jane Seymour.
Did the men stand a chance with this jury? No! Alison Weir writes:-
“Given the affiliations of these men, and the unlikelihood that any of them would risk angering the King by returning the wrong verdict, the outcome of the trial was prejudiced from the very outset.”4
But the men were also at a serious disadvantage, as Eric Ives points out:-
“Even where a jury was not loaded in advance, defendants in a Tudor criminal trial – even more, a state trial – were at an enormous disadvantage. They had no advance warning of the evidence to be out, and since defence counsel was not allowed, they were reduced to attempting to rebut a public interrogation by hostile and well-prepared Crown prosecutors determined not so much to present the government vase as to secure a conviction by fair questions or foul.”5
Paul Friedmann concurrs with Ives and Weir:-
“Before such a jury the accused had but small chance. Even had the jurors felt no prejudice against Anne and her friends, they could not have approached the consideration of the case with perfect impartiality; for they knew that if they acquitted the three gentleman [Norris, Brereton and Weston] they would draw on themselves the anger of the king and his ministers, and that in any event of Henry trying to take vengeance for their verdict they would not find allies upon whom they could rely.”6
Friedmann also makes the point that in Tudor courts it was the accused person that had to prove their innocence, rather than the Crown proving their guilt, and how could they be expected to do this when they did not even know the specific offences that they were being accused of?
A hostile jury and no clue of the specific offences they were being accused of committing, does that sound like a fair trial? No, not on your nelly!
Unfortunately, records of this special commission of oyer and terminer no longer exist. They may have been destroyed in the same fire that damaged Sir William Kingston’s letters to Cromwell in 1731 or perhaps they were purposely destroyed. However, we do have some accounts of what happened at Westminster Hall on the 12th May 1536. From Letters and Papers, we know that:-
“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.”7
On the 19th May 1536, Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, wrote to Charles V to keep him up to date with events, saying:-
“On the 11th were condemned as traitors Master Noris, the King’s chief butler, (sommelier de corps) Master Ubaston (Weston), who used to lie with the King, Master Bruton (Brereton), gentleman of the Chamber, and the groom (varlet de chambre), of whom I wrote to your Majesty by my man. 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.”8
He gets the date wrong but both Chapuys and the records in Letters and Papers agree that Mark Smeaton confessed and pleaded “guilty” to sleeping with the Queen, whereas Norris, Brereton and Weston pleaded “not guilty” to all charges. We just do not know whether any witnesses were called to give evidence, but Alison Weir writes of how Chapuys made the point that no witnesses were called in the case of Brereton and that this suggests that some were called in the other men’s cases. According to George Constantine, Sir Henry Norris’s manservant, when Norris was presented with his confession he declared “that he was deceived” into making it by Sir William Fitzwilliam and thus retracted it, adding that if anyone used it against him “he is worthy to have my place here; and if he stand to it, I defy him.”9 Mark Smeaton did not retract his confession.
All four men were found guilty on all charges, declared traitors and sentenced to the usual traitor’s death, to be “hanged, drawn and quartered, their members cut off and burnt before them, their heads cut off and [their bodies] quartered”10 at Tyburn. A date was not set due to the forthcoming trial of Anne Boleyn and Lord Rochford, but the axe was turned towards them and their fates were sealed.
Also on the 12th May 1536, the Duke of Norfolk, uncle of Anne and George Boleyn, was appointed Lord High Steward of England in readiness for presiding, as Lord President, over the trials of his niece and nephew.
Notes and Sources
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p339
- Anne Boleynby Paul Friedmann, ed. Josephine Wilkinson, p240
- Ibid., p239
- The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, AlisonWeir, p196
- Ives, p340
- Friedmann, p240
- L&P, x. 848, Trial of Weston, Norris and Others
- L&P, x.908, Letter from Chapuys to Charles V, 19th May 1536
- Quoted in Weir, p197