15 May 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, Lord Rochford, are tried for high treason

May15,2018 #Anne Boleyn's trial

On this day in history, Monday 15th May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were tried in the King’s Hall of the royal palace at the Tower of London.

The Boleyn siblings were tried separately by a jury of their peers; a jury presided over by their uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Lord High Steward. A great scaffold had been erected in the hall so that everybody could see what was going on.

Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton had already been found guilty of high treason for having sexual relations with the queen during her marriage to King Henry VIII and plotting to kill the king with her, so Anne Boleyn had no chance of being found innocent of the charges laid against her. She was tried first and as she was taken back to her lodgings, her brother was brought into the hall for his trial.

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Picture: Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn standing trial from the film “Anne of the Thousand Days”.

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14 thoughts on “15 May 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, Lord Rochford, are tried for high treason”
  1. Try the henchmen and then the ringleader and expect a fair trial? You should try the ringleader first and.then decide from that trial if the others should be tried. This was a farce from the beginning. George knew the outcome was certain. When he was told not to read the comments about the king’s sexual problems and he did anyway what could happen? ‘ As regarding Anne’s defense, even Eustice Chapuy who hated Anne was surprised she was found guilty. As I’ve said before I believe Norfolk was crying about himself and the possible danger he may face. From things I’ve read I don’t think anyone was more important to him than himself.

    Glad you used the photo of Genevieve Bujold as Anne. She is my favorite.

  2. Iv always thought that moment when the defendant was found guilty and they turned the axe towards them is the most horrendous part, I first read of it in Jane Greys trial, in later times the moment when the judge put the little black cloth on his head and said those dreadful words, ‘you will be taken from here to a place of execution and there you will be hanged till dead and may the Lord have mercy on your soul’, iv always thought most harrowing and when Anne was condemned there must have been gasps in court for surely no one expected a crowned queen to actually be put to death? Her old nurse who had been with her as a baby and who must have loved her as her own, overcome by the horror of it all shrieked out loud, and Norfolk who had to read out the execution was visibly shaken and all noted he had tears in his eyes, Norfolk was not stupid he knew the King wanted rid of Anne but he and the jurors were all mere puppets whose strings were pulled by the grand puppet master – the King, too late Anne realised it herself it was said that she was wearing a little hat with a feather in and when she appeared through the door there must have been excited rumblings, the hall must have been vast for to seat 2000, and all were curious to catch a glimpse of this legendary woman who was accused of the most vilest of crimes, to all defamatory charges she replied with her usual eloquence and deep in their hearts her judges must have known she was innocent, one of the charges the conspiracy to kill the King was laughable, for what good would it do for Anne if the King was dead, she needed his protection but her so called lovers had already been found guilty so what hope did she have, she knew this and the words she spoke to the crowded courtroom says it all, ‘I believe I have been condemned for other reasons than which have appeared in court’, it was a brave statement but true as she was proclaiming to everyone that she was condemned simply because her husband the King wanted to marry Jane Seymour, at George’s trial he too put up a good defence and he must have been as eloquent as his sister, for bets were on he would be acquitted, both siblings had the same characteristics brave and witty, George himself was a talented poet and he like Anne found the charges contemptuous, he was handed the note which he was told not to read out loud, but knowing he was doomed he read it out loud to the sheer embarrassment and delight of those watching, he could not be allowed to live after that for it spoke of the Kings impotency, but enraged at this sham of a trial he must have thought he had nothing to lose, why not shame the King? So he read it aloud and thus sealed his fate which he knew meant death anyway, he was charged not only with committing incest with his sister but also of joking that he thought Elizabeth was not the Kings, this also is rubbish as why should George slur his own sister and neice, George was very close to his sister why should he call her a wh*re by spreading lies about her? So George like his sister was found guilty and he was taken back to his cell in the Tower, there they both had to come to terms with the fact that they were going to die, it must be a dreadful thought and how can one adjust, most of us are blissfully unaware when the grim reaper makes his visit but how do those cope when they are given a date and a time, both Anne and George’s execution dates had not been decided and in fact Anne was only told the day before when she was to die, in fact they both were excited within two days of each other and George and the others would be dead in two days, Anne must have hoped in desperation that the King would grant her a reprieve no queen had ever been put on trial and executed before, surely he would not do that to her, little did she know that the swordsman from Calais was already making his dismal journey to London and that her once ardent lover and husband had already told Jane Seymour that soon his wife would be condemned, what Jane thought of this affair we will never know, but she must have had one thing in her mind, and one thing only, that this King was quite adept at disposing of his once beloved wives.

  3. The remarks that Henry made about Anne being condemned by three in the afternoon is very telling as it proves he knew that his wife would be found guilty, as the other four men had been condemned and it was a set up anyway. His remarks are rather foolish if he wanted to be seen as the wronged innocent husband and King, because it is so cold and gives the truth away for generations to come.

    Anne made a good attempt to clear her name and defended herself with great skill. She challenged the Lords who didn’t stand up when she came in and denied the lies against her, declaring herself a faithful wife to the King and the men and herself to be innocent. She probably knew there was no point in dealing with the justice of the charges and merely answered everything put to her. She denied everything save that she had given money to one of the accused which was perfectly normal to reward people in this way. As to her alleged incest with her brother, Anne said the love between them was no more than the affection between a brother and sister and nothing unnatural. She was winning over much sympathy from the onlookers and there were murmurings and signs of discontent among those who watched the trial.

    Anne was found guilty of the terrible lies and then the dreadful sentence was delivered. Anne was to be taken back to the Tower and then within a couple of days be burned or beheaded at the King’s pleasure. The Duke of Norfolk delivered the death sentence with tears in his eyes because Anne was his niece, his sister’s child and maybe he didn’t believe the accusations against her. A tall tale has Norfolk around the time of her marriage or arrest call her a great wh*re, but I believe this to be apocryphal. Thomas Howard may not have approved of the fact that Anne married King Henry, he was also a pragmatic man and he did his duty with efficiency, but he also apparently had affection for his niece and was full of grief at her loss and the shame her death for treason would bring on his family. There was also a gasp at the actual sentence because the standard form of execution for female traitors was burning but Henry had been given a choice of burning or beheading, which of course was highly irregular. However, it was also irregular to try a Queen for adultery and treason. Fortunately for Anne Henry chose to behead the woman he had loved for seven years with a sword.

    One piece of trivia is that when he declared his former intended guilty, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland collapsed with grief. He, surely must have believed Anne to be innocent, but what else could he do? To his credit, however, he refused to play ball when pressed to say he and Anne had a pre contract in order to allow Henry to annul his marriage to Anne.

    Anne was no fool. She knew that there were other reasons behind her farce of a trial and her purgatory and declared the same. Henry, her husband for some inexplicable reason, simply wanted her out of the way.

    Now came George Boleyn to face the same charges of treason through incest with his own sister. That was not all he was accused of and being at times a reckless young man, here he did something which sealed his fate, even though he was already condemned by his sister’s guilt, he read aloud a piece of paper handed to him, he was forbidden to read. And why not read it as he had nothing left to lose? The paper was a statement which said that he had spread rumours that the King was impotent and that Henry was no good in bed. Imagine the laughter and the embarrassment for the King! Henry would be furious to hear of this and this embarrassment may have had something to do with his denial of a public trial to Katherine Howard years later. Oh, but there was more to come. The other accusations stated that apart from plotting the King’s death, the Queen and her brother had laughed about the King’s clothes, his poetry, his music and much more. A more serious crime though was that George Boleyn had spread rumours that the Princess Elizabeth was not the daughter of the King. George denied this vigorously stating he would never do or say anything to impugn the name of his niece by attacking the Royal heir in this way. This also touched on the honour of his sister, Queen Anne and inferred that she was unfaithful from the start and had endangered the succession. It is highly unlikely that George had gone this far and it was certainly treason if he had said such things.

    It is likely that the only evidence for Henry Viii being impotent prior to 1537 is the alleged conversation between Anne Boleyn and George’s wife, Jane, Lady Rochford in which Anne said he couldn’t satisfy a woman. Anne may have been unhappy at the time, finding it hard to conceive and confided in her sister by law who then made the foolish mistake of telling her husband who joked about it and was overheard. However, this is not proof that Henry was impotent during his first two marriages and the fact that both women had multiple pregnancies argues against the idea. Katherine had at least three live births, one a son called Henry in 1511 who lived for 52 days, another son who lived for a few days and Princess Mary and three other babies that we know of, all before 1518. There could also have been other unrecorded miscarriages. Anne had one live birth, Princess Elizabeth, one pregnancy that almost went to term and a fatal miscarriage of a son. There may also have been one other pregnancy. Now this was in less than three years so Henry was hardly unable to perform with her. Yes, there were gaps in between each pregnancy, explained by age, health, stress, recovering from birth, the King’s absence from her bed, confinement after pregnancy and so on. A woman finds it harder to conceive later in life. The miscarriages have been explained by a number of unproven theories, any number of which is reasonable, such as rare blood disorders, poor diet, fasting, lifestyle, rich unsuitable food, genetic disorder and just bad luck. Anne’s last miscarriage may have been due to her shock over Henry’s fall and alleged affair with Jane Seymour. None of this has to do with being infertile or unable to perform in bed and in fact show the opposite.

    It has been suggested that Anne may have slept with a lover because Henry was occasionally impotent but that would be extremely reckless as he would know he wasn’t the father of any child conceived and this trial would have been a lot sooner. What, she went to bed with Henry, found he couldn’t do it, so being unsatisfied or desperate for a son, floated out of the room and along the corridor to have sex with his groom or her brother instead? Oh yea, that is Philippa Gregory or Versailles, not the real Anne Boleyn. This was a private joke between family members and it has no real place in the real world. Henry did have periods of impotency in his last decade as his health declined and he grew larger, but we have both sound circumstantial and medical evidence as well as fears by Henry himself to back that up. This was based on nothing more than a flippant remark by a fed up wife.

    Despite all of his bravado and clever answers, now George too was found guilty and the dreadful sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering delivered in all of its gruesome detail and axe turned against him, George Boleyn too was led away to await his terrible fate. He was brave and reckless, but he also knew that, although innocent, he had already been condemned before setting foot in the well attended Courtroom.

  4. Philippa Gregory’s a joke it’s absolutely disgusting to think that a normal intelligent virtuous pious woman like Anne would even consider sleeping with her own brother, let alone actually doing the deed, and what about her partner in crime George, heavens sake they were not sexual deviants, even Bernard Shaw who thinks she may gave had an affair with Norris and Smeaton thinks it’s ludicrous that anyone could ever think she would have slept with her own brother, incest does happen that we know, but it’s also very rare and does not happen in normal well adjusted households, Anne was linked to Percy and Wyatt before she married the King,there was no lurid claims about her frolicking with her brother then, and it surely would have come out then and not years later, I too find Henrys remarks to Jane baffling and rather naive as he was more or less saying it was a stitch up, it is an odd thing to say when you consider he was trying to paint himself as the victim of an immorally corrupt wife, it seems only Kings could murder their wives and get away with it, it would be old mother Newgate for the man on the street.

    1. I’ve said this before, what bugs me about Philippa Gregory isn’t so much what see writes. She’s a novelist and when writing fiction you can say what you want. What bothers me is that she is referred to as an historian and she is interviewed often in that capacity. She does nothing to ameliorate that perception either. I’m sure she’s abfine person but she does damage to historical truth.

      1. Yes Iv found that too, Starkey dismissed her rather disparaging once as a novelist and she didn’t look too pleased, tv bosses may want to interview her but in the literary field of the great historian she doesn’t hold a candle to Neale, Ives Friedman Baldwin – Smith etc, not forgetting our ‘Claire’!

        1. I think Claire does more research than many college trained ‘historians’.

        2. The problem I have with her is that she claims to be an expert and speaks very well and with an air of authority. She puts her theories across very convincingly and has made herself a good reputation and sold numerous best sellers. I am pleased she has a successful career and I have no problem with her writing historical fiction. The problem I have is that she doesn’t say this is meant ad her interpretation and theory, but this is how it happened. I have read many of her books and as fictional stories most are not too bad, but then the twisted history hits you and you end up screaming into a pillow instead of relaxing with a good book. Gregory is not the only author to bend the truth to fit the plot but and let’s face it, Anne the husband stealing seductress and domineering bitch is more attractive to film production than Anne, the reluctant, chaste mistress and religious reformer who was pious and generous. However, Gregory goes too far, with the end result being that thousands of modern readers yet again believe accusations long disproved.

          Yes, Claire does indeed do more research than some college trained historians and writes better. For me Claire is a historian and so are many others who study history and have developed a certain knowledge of a particular period or person or both and continue to grow in knowledge. There are ordinary commentators on here who display ample knowledge to be considered historians. In fact most of them show more respect for historical truth and the search for such in their little fingers than Philippa Gregory often does. It is amazing how we can all share and learn and it is a great pity all that gets lost when someone popular expounds rubbish and claims to be an expert.

        3. Hi Christine, may I ask are you thinking of G W Bernard who wrote Anne Boleyn Fatal Attractions in 2010 claiming she slept with Norris and Smeaton rather than Bernard Shaw or did he write a paper on Anne’s trial?


      2. Absolutely so, Christine and Michael, Philippa Gregory is probably an intelligent woman, as she can certainly articulate her views and comes across with empathy and authority, but unfortunately she lets herself down in her writing. She presents her ideas as fact and insists on raising accusations long proved wrong as in her insistence that Anne slept with her brother as if they are facts. Very true she can invent what she wants but if she does so she must declare it as so, not speak and write as if it was true. She spoke of Anne having a miscarriage of a deformed child as if it was a documentary fact and then goes on to say this was the sign that she was a bad woman, a wh*re or a witch. This idea comes from a much later from the Catholic writer and propagandist, Father Nicholas Sanders, who had good reason to write and condemn the regime of Elizabeth I, but who made certain her mother was also defamed by claiming her baby was an unshaply mass of flesh. Anne was described as having a sixth finger and being covered in warts and so on, which again was utterly nonsense. This was written 52_years later and is not in any of the contemporary texts and the whole idea does not represent actual thinking. Two such tracts were published on this idea, but it wasn’t known Catholic teachings. Unfortunately, the idea has also been given new life in the work of Professor Retha Warnicke who prefers Sanders over Chapuys. The Professor believes that Anne was innocent but her miscarriage destroyed her and the men were targeted because they were sexual deviants. They could have been for all we know, but there is no evidence of any of this. The problem is Philippa Gregory makes out that Anne was so desperate for a son that she slept with her brother for privacy and to ensure his loyalty. As Christine says even Professor Bernard dismisses this crime, although he believes her guilty with Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton, as preposterous. Anne might have been desperate at times but I agree she was too pious and also a refined person to have done such an evil and debauched thing, as this would be seen at the time. Anne and George were close but there is no evidence of any such intimacy between them, not even in childhood or after their reunion in 1521/2. The Boleyn family appear to have been well adjusted and they were intelligent and accomplished, well rounded human beings, from a strict but loving environment. Gregory in her capacity as a “historian” expert on The Last Days of Anne Boleyn with David Starkey , Alison Weir, Gregory Walker, Prof Bernard and Susanna Lipscomb which is well worth another watch said that when Anne came back from France she met her brother as strangers and so that obviously means they became lovers. While Anne and George may not have had much contact while she was in France during her early teens and to the age of about twenty, they were not strangers. They would have played as children do in the gardens of Hever Castle. Through her father, who was an Ambassador in France Anne would have known how George was getting on. There was also Mary Boleyn who was with Anne, probably until her marriage in 1520. She also would have been a “stranger” to her brother George and not as close to him. Did she jump into bed with her brother as well? I think Philippa Gregory has consumed too much psycho babble. There is a form of incest that is rare but noted today that involves fathers who meet their daughters for the first time and the emotional outpouring can sometimes lead to a sexual relationship. It normally happens once, guilt consumes the man and contact ceases, but it is a highly rare situation. Anne and George knew each other as children and as it wasn’t unusual for members of the aristocracy to farm out different siblings to different households, even abroad in service, to get an education or with future marriage plans in mind, then why wasn’t incest on reunion more common? It did happen, as studies have shown, but most individuals involved were not well rounded human beings. Anne and George might have teased and even flirted with each other, been close confidants, but it is a big stretch to leap to them having illegal incestuous relations.

        Anne and George denied it and we know it wasn’t true, but invented as a way of painting Anne as out of control. If she could be shown to have slept with her own brother, then everyone would be totally shocked and you could then say, well she is capable of anything. The incest charge may also have been applied out of revenge. One source accused Anne back in 1532 of claiming that Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, had illicit relations with his daughter, Frances, although I have also heard the accusations refer to his ward and later wife, Katherine Willoughby. Incest was also at the heart of Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon as in being married to his sister by law. Even though a dispensation was granted on the grounds that Katherine was a virgin, so her marriage to Prince Arthur was not valid, eventually Henry decided they had committed incest and were living in sin. There has been the slightest suggestion that this was a dig at Anne because Henry had married her for the purpose of getting a son and like Katherine she had tragically failed in that duty. (Of course Anne wasn’t to blame, nobody was, I am just getting inside the sixteenth century male mind). The evidence for Brandon being involved is really none existent but well every historian has to interpret what is going on and this is a theory. I am now going mad as I can’t actually recall which book or paper I read it in, but it was fairly recently. Suffolk of course was a friend of both the King and Thomas Cromwell (no they weren’t enemies as in the Tudors, that is Norfolk) so it is feasible that he could have made this suggestion to get his own back. Again it is only a theory and unlike Gregory I am not presenting it as historical fact. I am very curious about this aspect of Anne’s Indictment as the arrest of George Boleyn was like a bolt from nowhere and there doesn’t seem to be any real sense to it. He doesn’t appear to have been specifically accused by anyone and it is a mystery. I can well imagine how his arrest came about, especially if he was heard joking about the King’s prowess in bed, did visit his sister often innocently and if he had a churlish reputation. He was, however, before all of this, like Norris, high in favour and actually much liked and thought of by the King for his many talents and his way with words. This is also how poor Jane, his much maligned wife came to be the scapegoat for giving information to Cromwell, but again there is no evidence of this and Cromwell could question a whole long list of ladies for information on the Queen. The gossip of Lady Elizabeth Browne, Countess of Worcester and whatever she said as a “witness” named in Judge Spellman’ s report on the trial is a more likely source of comings and goings at night in the Queens chamber. Oh well I can speculate until the cows come home but we have very little information on why George Boleyn was arrested in the first place. He was accused of spreading lies about the parenthood of Princess Elizabeth but this is unlikely as it would impugn the honour of his own niece by branding her as a bastard and would call his own sister an adulterer. It was all nonsense, they were innocent and the victims of vicious gossip, vicious purposes and a calculated and vicious miscarriage of justice.

        1. I also see Claire as an historian. I have read all the books she has written on the subject and love her writing style.

        2. Hi Bq I see iv put the wrong name down, wasn’t Bernard Shaw a playwright? Silly me yes I was talking about Prof G Bernard.

        3. Thanks for that, made me smile. Yes, Bernard Shaw was an excellent playwright and poet and philosophy as well. One of those brilliant people who come along every so often. I am always putting the wrong name recently. I know who I mean but my brain can’t remember. That’s life ha ha.

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