On this day in Tudor history, 15th May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, the courtier, poet and diplomat, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were tried in the King’s Hall at the Tower of London.
They were tried separately by a jury of their peers presided over by their uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.
Find out what happened at their trials in this video:
Here’s the transcript:
On this day in 1536, the 15th May, just 13 days after their arrests and imprisonment in the Tower of London, 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.
Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton had been tried by a commission of oyer and terminer on 12th May, but due to their status, the Boleyn siblings were tried 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 the 2000+ spectators could see what was going on.
The fact that Norris, Weston, Brereton and 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, meant that there was no way that the queen could be found innocent. However, Anne put her all into her defence, making “so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly, as though she had never been faulty to the same”. She denied the charges and defended herself admirably, but it was no good. The jury were unanimous in their verdict: “guilty”.
Anne was then stripped of her crown and her titles, all except that of queen. With tears running down his cheeks, Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, then pronounced the sentence:
“Because thou hast offended against our sovereign the King’s Grace in committing treason against his person, and here attainted of the same, the law of the realm is this, that thou hast deserved death, and thy judgment is tis: that thou shalt be burned here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.”
In response, Anne simply said that she “believed there was some other reason for which she was condemned than the cause alleged”. She was then escorted out of the court by Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, with the axe turned against her to show that she had been sentenced to death.
It was then the turn of her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.
Chronicler Charles Wriothesley recorded that George “made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, but never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended” and Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, commented on George’s good defence and his eloquence, which he likened to that of Sir Thomas More.
When the only evidence for George committing incest with Anne was that “he had been once found a long time with her”, George “replied so well that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her”. But then George recklessly read out a note handed to him which he was ordered to keep to himself. The imperial ambassador recorded this in a dispatch to Emperor Charles V:
“I must not omit, that among other things charged against him as a crime was, that his sister had told his wife that the King ‘nestoit habile en cas de soy copuler avec femme, et quil navoit ne vertu ne puissance.’ This he was not openly charged with, but it was shown him in writing, with a warning not to repeat it. But he immediately declared the matter, in great contempt of Cromwell and some others, saying he would not in this point arouse any suspicion which might prejudice the King’s issue. He was also charged with having spread reports which called in question whether his sister’s daughter was the King’s child.”
So, it was put to him that his sister the queen had confided in his wife, Jane, about the king’s sexual problems, his lack of sexual prowess, and George was also accused of spreading gossip that Elizabeth was not the king’s daughter. This disobedience and the embarrassment caused to the king would not have endeared George to the jury, but George must have known that he had no hope of real justice. George was found guilty. His uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, then sentenced George to a traitor’s death:
“that he should go again to prison in the Tower from whence he came, and to be drawn from the said Tower of London through the city of London to the place of execution called Tyburn, and there to be hanged, being alive cut down, and then his members cut off and his bowels taken out of his body and burnt before him, and then his head cut off and his body to be divided into quarter pieces, and his head and body to be set at such places as the King should assign.”
George was then taken back to his prison to prepare for his death.