15 May 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn and Lord Rochford are tried for treason

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

Their fellow courtiers, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Sir Henry Norris, had been tried by a special commission of oyer and terminer at Westminster on 12th May, but as members of the aristocracy, the Boleyn siblings were given the privilege of being tried by a jury of their peers. They were tried in separate trials presided over by their uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, as Lord High Steward. The queen’s trial was first.

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13 thoughts on “15 May 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn and Lord Rochford are tried for treason”
  1. I really believe that this was Annes finest hour, she must have impressed her judges with her intelligent and eloquent remarks and did any of them feel shame that day when they condemned this young and spirited lady to death, she had been their queen and yet in a sense they were as much under the control of Henry as his second wife, they had been told I believe in no uncertain terms that she had to be found guilty, no other verdict would satisfy the King, that same day her husband had sent a note to Jane Seymour informing her that Anne would be condemned that day, the unfairness of it all reeks, even the executioner had been sent from Calais, how could the jury declare her innocent? Annes courage was obvious to all who beheld her, it was noted also that her complexion did not turn pale as often happens in moments of great distress, her stinging remark at the end was meant to tell them she knew why she was standing in the great hall that day, ‘I believe there are reasons other than which I am being condemned’ she knew her husband had grown out of love with her and she knew he was enjoying a love affair with her lady in waiting, she had known something was going to happen to her for some time, hence the meeting with her chaplain and the frantic pleading with Henry, Elizabeth in her arms after her conversation with Norris, however she could never have imagined she would one day be standing on trial for her life, all her peers were biased against her which would not happen in this day and age, a queen had never been tried before and the buzz of excitement that day must have been electrifying, 2000 people had come to see the trial of their queen, Weir says she was wearing a little hat and was escorted to her chair of state, her old nurse Mrs. Orchard screamed when the guilty verdict was read out and Anne was heard to mutter ‘ Lord thou knowest if I have deserved this death’ her uncle the Duke of Norfolk found it all very distressing also and there were tears in his eyes as he read out the sentance, to be burnt or beheaded at the Kings pleasure….. They had never got on possibly he had found his niece overbearing the way many people did yet she was his niece, closely related and he had to sit on her trial and now the worst was not yet over, he had to tell her parents she was condemned to die, the Lord Mayor of London who was present at the trial commented they could find nothing against her but simply made an occasion to get rid of her, Anne was led back to her quarters and her brother was led into the hall, both he and his sister were intelligent witty people, they could hold their own in many an argument and discussion, Georges behaviour bordered on the contempt which may it might as he knew it was all rigged, but his defence against the charges was so strong that it was wagered he may be found innocent, yet all the others including his sister were found guilty and there was no chance he would be acquitted, he read aloud the charge about the King being impotent and there must have been gasps in the court, he would not be allowed to live after that and he knew it, his courage was admirable like his sisters and he too was found guilty, thus this sham of a trial ended and Cromwell could report back to Henry there was nothing now to impede his marriage to Jane, his loathsome wife and brother were condemned and Henry as King would see that justice must be done! What was Janes reaction to the news that her former mistress and queen was going to die? The fact that Henry had told her of the verdict before the trial even begun is suspicious, she must have known deep down she was innocent as being one of her women she would know it was quite impossible for a queen to commit adultery particularly the way Anne had been accused, bed hopping all over the place with five men! I think Jane was of a harder character than has been supposed, because she was quiet and shy its easy to think she was of a sympathetic nature, yet her very behaviour shows otherwise, when Anne discovered her husbands fancy for this young lady she began slapping and pinching her, but Jane would do likewise proving that she was not such the pushover many believed, she I think disliked her heartily for the ruin of Queen Katherine who had also been her mistress, I think her loyalty and sympathy had all been with her and her daughter and like many, saw Anne as an evil woman, Anne had not bothered either to endear many to her, she had quarrelled with her uncle and Charles Brandon had never liked her, she had a sarcastic tongue and did not care what many thought of her, she was queen and if they did not like that so what, but she did have some faithful friends and those she was extremely loyal to, Jane and Anne were second cousins but they had nothing in common, Anne was loud and assertive, Jane was quiet and meek, yet as noted she was more tenacious than appeared, it’s a great pity we have no record of Janes reaction to the news that her former mistress was about to die, but I can imagine she said little, did she however think it was all rather too convenient for Henry, she was not stupid and knew Henry was eager to be free from Anne, did she think she deserved to die, did she think of little Elizabeth at all? But then that was down to Henry and not her, maybe Jane thought of More and Fisher who had both died as a result of Anne and maybe she rembered Katherine tears as she prayed for justice, the burning of the monasteries and the upheaval she had caused, maybe she thought her blood would atone for all that but what of the five men did she have sympathy for them? Jane is a closed book and for that quite an enigma in itself, however now the condemned queen would have little more then three days left to live through and her alleged lovers just two, however they felt we can only imagine, cornered like flies in a jam jar they had no escape.

  2. Anne Boleyn had a fair trial if you follow the convention of the time, all the legal proceedings were followed, the grand juries had heard the evidence, decided there was sufficient for a trial and everything was done according to law. However, it was also a big farse because that evidence was a load of rubbish. John Sutcliffe can witter on about how fair Cromwell was until the cows come home citing 900 treason accusations between 1532_and 1540 and how 320 ended in convictions and execution, but nearly 200 were the northern rebels, with several others not coming to trial, being dismissed or that we have lost evidence about, but it doesn’t excuse what happened in this travesty of justice!!!!!

    Sorry, I wasn’t intending to rant, but if anyone can’t see this was a set up, then they need to remove the log from their eye in order to see clearly. Now John Sutcliffe doesn’t say Cromwell didn’t make a good case or excuse his involvement but he presents him as merely doing what the King wanted. He is much fairer to Cromwell in his brilliant biography than anyone else, but even if Henry merely authorized an ongoing rigerous investigation that doesn’t mean Cromwell didn’t cook the books. He believed he had a good case and the crown was confident, but how airtight was the case in reality.

    Some accounts of the trials suggest that witnesses and evidence was produced, others say no evidence was produced. It’s unclear if anyone was asked to give testimony or if depositions were merely read out from frightened or biased ladies of Anne’s household. If the threat of pain to get information or hanging for withholding information was enough to rattle men into confessing, it would be even more terrifying for a woman. Sorry ladies, but these are not super tough feminists, they are sixteenth century females, used to accepting male authority and themselves as the weaker sex, so were more easily manipulated. Cromwell and Audley had obviously gotten some gossip from them and turned that into so called evidence. He also had an actual confession, lawfully extracted from a terrified Mark Smeaton. Yes, I did say lawfully extracted. Cromwell was authorised to investigate and that like Hawaii 5-0 gave him means and protection to do what he needed. It fell short of torture which required a warrant from the King and none is mentioned here. There are unsubstantiated reports of torture, but that means nothing. It can also mean lesser, unofficial methods of interrogation being used and did anyone as effective as Cromwell in interrogation really need to use torture? Mark Smeaton was held and questioned for 24 hours and confessed to sleeping with the Queen three times. He also named at least two other men, then another came about accidentally, but he may also have named George Boleyn. His arrest is a mystery. Jane, his wife is traditionally accused of giving this information about incest with the Queen to Cromwell, but there is no evidence to support this. It may have come from over imagination from other ladies of Anne’s chambers, although a more likely explanation is that rumours led to Cromwell making a case based on that which he added invented details to. The prosecution also had the three conversations with Norris, Smeaton and Weston, but the Norris dead man’s shoes was not used in evidence at these trials. The dates and x rated indictments were invented as they are clearly of the wall and contradict whatever so called evidence Cromwell et al claimed or believed they had.

    Anne and George both defended themselves with dignity and brilliantly worded responses. Most of the circumstantial meetings they had been accused of having were not criminal and their behaviour not unusual. The wording of the roll of charges were shocking, but to each Anne and George made good denials. It was remarked by Alison Weir that the observation by the public was that the accused acquitted themselves so well that it was believed they would win their cause, which suggests that Cromwell didn’t have the evidence he had claimed. All he really had was gossip and extracted bits of information from frightened women and a terrified musician whose life he owned. The dates put to meet each name and the palaces named were random and don’t make any sense. Nobody even bothered to look at these indictments and ask questions, but then Cromwell could be persuasive and Henry fairly overbearing. The juries were also led by those who had alliance to Anne’s enemies and owed Cromwell. A good case could be made, but a jury cannot be forced to accept the evidence. The juries in this case were loaded to overcome any potential risk of an aquittal and acquittals did happen, occasionally and the trial loaded even more.

    In the juries at the court were anyone who owed alliance to Cromwell, friendship to the King or patronage and clientele relationship to the Duke of Suffolk. Suffolk would be relied upon to represent and ensure the King’s interests were upheld in the courtroom. By the time Anne was tried, four of her co accused had already been found guilty, which implied she was also guilty. Anne did indeed put up a spirited fight, but in the end the shadow of Henry Viii loomed large and dark over the trial and Anne didn’t stand a chance. She was found guilty, stripped of her honours and titles and sentenced to death. She made a wonderful speech and won much sympathy, but could only go back to her apartment and prepare for death.

    George Boleyn was also bold and maybe a little foolish in reading out a paper which insulted the King’s manhood, but he denied the actual charge. He was also accused of saying Elizabeth was not the King’s daughter, but this is ridiculous. Why would he insult the inheritance of his own niece? He may laugh at the King’s clothes and jokes, but he wasn’t an idiot. In fact George Boleyn was highly thought of by his royal brother by law. George had been trusted with important diplomatic missions by Henry, some very secret and to speak for him at Convocation. He held important positions at court and he was respected as a poet and translator. He may laugh about Henry’s performance in bed, but he only did so in court as he was contemptuous of these proceedings which he probably saw as ridiculous. Very little actual evidence appears to have been brought against him and the onlookers gambled that he would be acquitted. However, the odds were against him and he was found guilty anyway and condemned to a terrible death.

    Another clue we have that this was a show trial is that Henry had written to Jane claiming Anne would be condemned by three that afternoon. If it wasn’t a foregone conclusion at the King’s command, just how would he know that? Everything fell into order according to the King’s wishes and Cromwell’s manipulation. From the start it was a fix and now Henry confirmed it. Six innocent people were about to die so as Henry Viii could clear the decks and start afresh, without any impediments, with his new wife.

    1. Also, most of what we now consider to be “essentials” of a fair trial (such as counsel; cross-examination; presumption of innocence) did not exist in the Tudor era. Henry didn’t even have to give Anne and the six men the opportunity to assert their innocence; he could have had them all beheaded after Parliament passes a bill of attainder (as Henry did to get rid of Margaret Pole and Thomas Cromwell, among others)

      1. Yes, of course, which is why by the standards of the time, it was fair as all of the right procedures were observed, but the judges were in this case the right judges for the King’s purpose. Cromwell liked to use the Act of Attainder to make cases of treason easier later on but now the correct process was used. Acts of Attainder had traditionally been used to confirm guilt of treason after a trial or to bring charges in Parliament against those not available for trial. In the cases of the Poles, Katherine Howard and ironically Thomas Cromwell it was used as a legal way to avoid these embarrassing trials. Anne’s trial embarrassed the King, especially when George read out the information on the paper. Henry evolved backwards when he used Attainder in Parliament regularly as it was used in the place of a trial. No law of arms had been involved in this trial so they were entitled to a trial of their peers before the Lord High Steward. Rebellion and treason involving the use of arms could be tried in the Court of Arms before the High Constable and summary execution was legal in this case. It was a bit different with the Queen. Justice needed to be seen to be done here, even if it was a miscarriage of justice.

    2. I too find the arrest of George Boleyn is strange I cannot see Smeaton implicating him as he was her brother, indeed why should he, under interrogation I can see him tearfully mentioning Weston and Wyatt but why should he mention her own brother? Brereton it’s generally believed was chosen by Cromwell as he had a grudge against him, but there is no evidence that Jane told Cromwell either about George, I think Cromwell was behind it I cannot see Jane even if at times they didn’t get on, ( and hear we have no evidence for this either), blabbing to him that her husband was carrying on with his own sister, there’s been a lot of myths woven around Jane that she alone told Cromwell Anne and George were lovers, that she on the block said she deserved to die for making a false confession about the queen, they had an unhappy marriage and George forced her to indulge in unnatural sexual practices, she has been portrayed as a bitter vengeful wife who sent her husband to the block, that she was jealous of Anne because of her closeness to her husband, where is the evidence, it all seems hearsay to me, according to one of the indictments he was allegedly seen French kissing Anne, I really do believe that Cromwell was behind his arrest and Jane has been the scapegoat for it ever since, when he was in the Tower she wrote a hearty letter to him, proof of her devotion, she did not rebuke him, there was no derision in her words, was that the sort of letter a wife would write towards a hated husband? In fact Jane was in the confidence of her sister in law as they had been behind the plot to get rid of one of Henrys mistresses, she was the one Jane had confided in about Henrys prowess as a lover, allegedly, they had grown up together and so I think we can see in all fairness that they were friendly towards each other, George had duties at court and so did Jane, it was not as if she was stuck in the country deserted by her husband and hardly saw him, there is no evidence in fact of Anne having an argument with Jane, them having a falling out etc, I think a lot has been made of her ‘troubled marriage’ as a means of explaining her alleged betrayal towards her husband and sister in law, we all believe the incest charge was brought in as a means of making the queen look vile and unnatural, totally wicked, so why cannot we give Jane the benefit of the doubt and instead of laying the blame at her door, blame it on the arch villian Thomas Cromwell?

      1. Yes, George Boleyn is one of the big mysteries and only makes sense if Cromwell received rumours and reports and then invented the rest. I don’t believe Jane accused her husband either. Francis Weston was accidentally named when Anne, wondering how and why she was in the Tower recalled a weird conversation two years earlier in which she teased him for not paying attention to his wife. He said something cryptic about loving one in the house and one out….he loved the Queen, but he was most likely saying he worshipped the Queen. You were meant to love your Queen, play court to her, games of courtly love and adore her. This was reported back to Kingston and Cromwell and Weston was arrested. Now it all gets even stranger because the gifts that Anne gives her servants and friends are taken as evidence that she encouraged their treason and allured them into her bed and at her trial she is asked about money she has given Weston. Anne’s simple acts of generosity are held against her and turned into something sordid and ugly. Anne admitted to giving him money, just as she has given other people money out of generosity or as a reward for royal service. Perhaps she paid a debt for him. It was an innocent action, but it was twisted by Cromwell and his prosecution because he needed a conviction. Anne had been generous and kept a tight and moral household, but she also liked to hold parties and to dance and sing and this was held against her. It was how all Queens behaved, yet it was somehow turned into terrible imaginary acts of depravity. I am not 100% certain I would call Cromwell the arch villian, because he couldn’t have done all of this without the King’s permission or authority, but he certainly put all of this together and he must have had a vile imagination.

        Henry and Cromwell are jointly responsible for this terrible destruction of the woman Henry had once loved beyond all reason. This act went too far and Henry could have continued down the original path towards an annulment but one careless word to a friend and courtier and off it all goes down the road carved out by Cromwell, towards conviction, condemnation and six executions. Who was the instigator? Both, I think, but Cromwell was the architect and it was his collection of false indictments and twisted conversations which for the first time in history, killed a Queen of England, an innocent Queen and five innocent men, whose lights have now gone out. However, they will never be forgotten.

        1. Yes they jumped on anything from an innocent gift to a jokey remark, to a languishing look, to a partnered dance, everything was all twisted round and round so the most innocent of events turned into something sordid sinister and ugly, I too believe Henry was in a plot with Cromwell to bring down his queen, I don’t think for a moment it was all Cromwell, he would not have dared to move against the queen unless he had authority first, and he had to make sure he had a convincing enough case to do so, else he was treading on very shaky ground.

  3. Thinking about it, seems to me that Cromwell’s real problem lies, not in proving that Anne took lovers, nor how many, but that they colluded together to kill the king. How could he do that without witnesses? Mark Smeaton’s testimony, that he slept with the queen on three occasions, convicts him only of adultery, which isn’t treason (I learn). He must have implicated others. But that doesn’t give us evidence of collusion. Is this what is missing from the records?

    1. I would imagine so, yes, I forgot for a moment a lot of the papers are missing, assumed destroyed or lost ( although the former is more likely)but there may not have been as much as he claimed. He had gotten witnesses (I would use the term very loosely here) from three ladies that we know about, plus Judge Spellman in his report mentions some deathbed declaration in 1534 which accused Anne of something which we don’t have the details off but it was obviously a stain on her reputation, from whom he had information and accusations, then used as ‘evidence ‘. But witnesses to what? Visits to Anne’s rooms? Innocent conversations? Her closeness to her brother? More careless talk taken as treason? I can only assume he had made a case that during her secret procurement Anne had made plans during pillow talk to kill the King. I agree, this was his main problem, providing evidence and testimony must have really been difficult. A lot of the transcripts are missing, but we have other reports and the indictments are the main basis of everything else. You can find a full description of the indictments on some of the earlier links but also in Claire’s book on the fall of Anne Boleyn. It’s easy to imagine saying something was said if two people are together and he must have had something convincing. Either that or there was no evidence and the papers are missing because of this. Cromwell was Master of the Rolls with access to everything, so if Henry gave him secret orders for them to vanish. Of course I am not saying this happened, but it’s too much of a coincidence that we things have disappeared which could answer so many questions. Adultery wasn’t treason, conspiracy or presumption of plotting the King’s death or imagination of the King’s death, which is a very vague idea, hard to define is treason. Did Cromwell have spies report something more like a promise or wish to marry one of these men in the King’s absence? The entire thing could be invented on the basis of a few innocent conversations and turned into treason. We know Smeaton confessed, but we don’t know everything he said, but he did implicate others, again under stressful interrogation and may have been promised a lesser death, beheading instead of disembowelment, or even lied and offered him his life and he stuck to his confession. We don’t know if Smeaton claimed to have heard treasonous talk, but George Boleyn was accused at his trial of spreading rumours that Elizabeth was not the King’s son, which was treason. He probably didn’t, but it was made convincing that he had. I’,m certain something was reported to back up treason but what exactly and by whom, may well be the secret destroyed with any missing papers.

      1. Thought so. The indictment that Anne conspired with the men about the King’s death made by the Middlesex Jury on 10th May 1536, after it lists Anne procurement of each man through evil and carnal lusts and has illicit intercourse on various occasions, the last paragraph says that all of the men were jealous of each other and the Queen was also, but she satisfied them and encouraged them with gifts and promised to marry them. It makes a general statement that while they were intimate with the Queen she promised to marry one of them and plot the King’s death. Nothing specific, just a vague statement, which would probably be enough to present in court later. The indictment was the basis of the case and unfortunately these and a few eye witness reports of the trials are all we have.

        On the link 10th May 2017 there is a click here which links to the article of 10th May 2013, which gives the full details of the Indictments.

        1. The incident of the 29th with Norris (“if aught came to the King but good ….”) probably was a good bit of the evidence. It certainly compassed Henry’s death!

        2. Gosh BQ – are we saying that a ‘general statement’ to the effect that the Queen took lovers, was added the corollary that she ‘promised to marry them or one of them and plot the king’s death….. meant that, all the men she slept with were lured with the promise of marriage upon the murder of the king? Oh dear! So there was no collusion? Each one was separately seduced and separately inspired to kill the king?
          Even poor Smeaton? Have I got that right?

  4. Globerose, the indictments name each accused separately, having the same language used regarding their adultery and then names all of the men, with a general statement that she promised to marry one of them, gave them all gifts to encourage them, to stop them loving anyone else and there was a plot while they were intimate against the King’s life. I think by the language used that the indictments are saying she plotted individually, not with all of them, yes. I think Cromwell is being deliberately vague here because he doesn’t have the evidence and knows he doesn’t. The wording is general and includes all the accused rather than one single one, it can be any of them. It’s very clever as he may not need to name who Anne actually plotted with, a general statement that she plotted with them individually as each of them made love to her and promised to marry them. Is that collusion? I don’t know. Yes, the passage is a general accusation which includes all of the men individually, without naming any one individual as her accomplice. Cromwell knew the Queen was innocent. I doubt he enjoyed this. He had been looking into an annulment, but now he was acting for the King on a more permanent solution. He would do his duty. He would put together the vilest case he could, but only treason drew the death penalty, no number of alleged lovers equalled treason. But how did he prove something he had no evidence for? Invent the idea of colluding with her lovers, either individually or together, but leave the details open. By not stating which lover he gives the impression they are all guilty and a general vague statement absolves him from any of the cases falling apart. It’s like the individual indictments saying Anne procured so so on such a date at such a place included the statement at diverse other places. If a date was challenged in court and fell apart, he can say that there were many other times she met her lovers. Cromwell has all of his bases covered. It’s clever, devious and terrible. Cromwell is the architect and the practically pre selected jury in his debt enough to believe these lies.

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