Sir William Fitzwilliam, the man who "deceived" Norris into giving his confession.

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 Jury

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!

The Trial

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.

Another Event

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

  1. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p339
  2. Anne Boleynby Paul Friedmann, ed. Josephine Wilkinson, p240
  3. Ibid., p239
  4. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, AlisonWeir, p196
  5. Ives, p340
  6. Friedmann, p240
  7. L&P, x. 848, Trial of Weston, Norris and Others
  8. L&P, x.908, Letter from Chapuys to Charles V, 19th May 1536
  9. Quoted in Weir, p197
  10. Ibid.

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19 thoughts on “12th May 1536 – 4 Men and a Trial”
  1. It’s so terrible, in my opinion they didn’t really have a chance. Also, their trial made Anne’s trial at least completely pointless – if they were condemned for adultery with Anne then she could hardly be found not guilty, could she?! People back then were so cruel. I hope Mark, Henry, Francis and William are happy with George and Anne in heaven now xx

  2. I didn’t realize that Thomas Boleyn presided over the men’s trials. I would have thought he’d fallen out of favor by then and would not have even been around at that time. I knew about the Duke of Norfolk presiding over Anne and George’s trial–which was a slap in the face if I’ve ever heard of one..but definitely hadn’t heard the piece about Thomas. What did he do after the men’s trials? Surely he would have been discarded….

    1. Thomas Boleyn somehow was a survivor. Or very lucky. Or both. Although he was disgraced after Anne’s fall, losing his Lord Privy Seal, the one thing he managed to do was keep his head and die at Hever Castle. Quite an accomplishment at the time, in my opinion.

  3. Noticed that in this jury, there resided a Robert Dormer. Since I learned that Natalie Dormer’s was related to a Lady in Waiting for Queen Elizabeth 1, could Robert also be related? If so, how ironic that would be considering Natalie portrayed Anne Boleyn on the Tudors.

    1. Natalie Dormer is not a descendant of Robert Dormer, as far as she or anyone else knows, but Leanda de Lisle (née Dormer), who has contributed to this site, really is.

  4. Hi Frank,
    I think that Jane Dormer (Duchess of Feria and a close friend of Mary I) was the granddaughter of Robert Dormer and as Natalie is supposed to be a descendent of Jane then she is also related to this man, Robert. Very interesting!

  5. Jennifer,
    Some even reported that Thomas Boleyn was even present at his children’s trials – Alexander Aless, Chapuys, the Bishop of Faenza and Dr Ortiz, but the Baga de Secretis makes no mention of his name. After Anne’s fall, he lost his office of Lord Privy Seal but was able to stay on the King’s council. Weir writes of how he attended Prince Edward’s christening, was involved in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace and even lent Cromwell his garter insignia. On his death in 1539, Henry VIII ordered masses to be said for his soul so he definitely was not out of favour then, it’s strange isn’t it?

    1. Not so strange. He followed orders to the point of siding with the King against his own children. This is what Henry wanted and expected. He got it. Thomas proved his loyalty to the King came first.

      The Duke of Norfolk would not be so lucky, but he had pushed the little Howard forward without being smart enough to be sure she was suitable.

  6. I find it so sad re William Askew and his daughter, Anne. Seems organized religion hit another high note there. Whatever happened to moderation?

  7. I can’t understand how Thomas Boleyn could just sit calm and listen to people condemning his children.. Was he so selfish? Parents are supposed to sacrifice themselves for theis children… Maybe Thomas was a cold, cold man.

    1. Hi Eliza, no I don’t believe Thomas Boleyn was cold, I believe he was really shocked and upset, but that there was nothing else he could do. I agree with everything you say about parents, but Thomas wasn’t present for the trial of George or Anne. He was present at the trial of the men and heard all the terrible details of the lies against his son and daughter, which was devastating. Every piece of evidence we have is that he was a decent man and a decent father. He was also a courtier and had a duty to his King. I find it hard to understand as well, Eliza, it doesn’t put him or any parent in a good light, but I really don’t believe he had any choice, unless he wanted to go to the Tower instead. Thomas had served two Tudor Kings and knew well enough what they were capable off. I also believe the shock of all this impacted on the health of Thomas who wasn’t a young man and of his wife, Elizabeth, who was already ill.

  8. How sad. Lauren, I’ve never thought about that before, but you’re right! This made Anne’s trial pointless. And how interesting about Natalie Dormer’s ancestors and Anne Askew’s father! The apple doesn’t always fall that close to the tree after all… As for Thomas Boleyn, I’m not sure if he was a cold man or simply didn’t want any more life to be lost. It is very interesting how he was still in such favor at the time of his death. I never knew this!



  11. Is it known why the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering was commuted to simple decapitation?
    The story used to be told that Henry Norris/Norreys wouldn’t confess so was brought before the King. HN told Henry VIII that he would/could say nothing to impugn the Queen’s honour. Eventually the King lost his temper and ordered HN to be taken out and hanged without further ado. I don’t know where this tale originated but it was certainly believed and repeated for centuries.

    1. I’ve never heard that story, but George Constantine, a servant of Norris, described how the King left the May Day joust and took Norris with him:

      “Apon May daye Mr. Noryce justed. And after justinge the Kynge rode sodenly to Westminster, and all the waye as I heard saye, had Mr. Noryce in examinacyon and promised hym his pardon in case he wolde utter the trewth. But what so ever cowld be sayed or done, Mr. Norice would confess no thinge to the Kynge, where vpon he was committed to the towre in the mornynge.”

      Norris would not confess to anything.

      All of the men were condemned to die a full traitors’ death but it was the norm for the sentences of gentlemen to be commuted to the more merciful beheading. Smeaton could still have been hanged, drawn and quartered and there is the theory that he may have been offered a more merciful death in exchange for his confession.

      1. That’s very interesting. This is the story as it used to appear in Burke’s Peerage: “.. he was committed to the Tower as one of her paramours. It is said however, that the King felt some compunction in putting him to death, and offered him a pardon conditionally that he would confess his guilt; but Norreys resolutely replied, ‘That on his conscience, he thought the Queen guiltless of the objected crime but whether she were or not, he could not accuse her of anything; and that he had rather undergo a thousand deaths than betray the innocent.’ Upon the report of which declaration, the King cried out, ‘Hang him up, hang him up.’ He suffered death accordingly, 14 May 1536, and was attainted in Parliament the same year.” Stirring stuff but It seems pretty clear that it’s not accurate over the centuries the story got garbled and now, thanks to historians like you who actually refer to original sources, we have the truth again. Thank you very much for this, and all your work.

        1. Those words come from Burnet – see p. 205 at Burnet doesn’t say when this happened, just that Norris was offered his life in return for his confession, as Constantine said and dated it to the ride back on 1st May. Burnet is not a primary source, he lived 1643-1715 and so probably made use of Constantine, Cavendish etc.

          Thank you, I’m glad you enjoy my articles and work.

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