Anne BoleynOn the morning of 15th May 1536, while Anne Boleyn prepared herself for her trial, Jane Seymour received a message from the King telling her that “he would send her news at 3 o’clock of the condemnation of the putain.”1 Obviously there was no need for a trial, really, when the King already knew that Anne would be condemned!

Queen Anne Boleyn was tried in the King’s Hall of the Tower of London in front of an estimated 2,000 spectators. A great platform2 had been erected in the hall so that everybody could see. The Lord High Steward, the Duke of Norfolk, who was representing the King, sat on a special throne underneath the canopy of estate. In his hand was the white staff of office and at his feet sat his son, the Earl of Surrey, holding, on his father’s behalf, the golden staff of the Earl Marshal of England.3 Sir Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, were on either side of the Duke.

As Queen, Anne Boleyn was given the privilege, if it can be called that, of being tried by a jury of her peers, rather than by the commission of oyer and terminer who sat in judgement on Norris, Weston, Smeaton and Brereton. In reality, this was no privilege. Her trial had already been prejudiced by the guilty verdicts of the four men, and her jury was made up of her enemies. Here are just a few of them:4

  • Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk – Henry VIII’s brother-in-law and good friend. A man who disliked the Queen and who would, of course, support the King and do the King’s will.
  • Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter, and his cousin Henry Pole, Baron Montague – Both men were supporters of the Lady Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Chapuys had also linked them to Sir Nicholas Carew and the plotting to replace Anne with Jane Seymour.
  • John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford – Oxford bore the crown at Queen Anne’s coronation in 1533, but he was a good friend of the King’s.
  • Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland – The Earl had once been in love with Anne Boleyn, but that love seemed to have turned into bitterness and hatred.
  • Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland – A loyal servant to the King in the North.
  • Henry Somerset, Earl of Worcester – It was rumoured that his wife, Elizabeth Browne, the Countess of Worcester, gave evidence against the Queen to Cromwell and was the prosecution’s key witness.
  • Thomas Manners, the Earl of Rutland, George Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon – Both men were related to the King and were royal favourites.
  • Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex – One of the King’s best friends.
  • Henry Parker, Lord Morley – Father of Jane Boleyn (George Boleyn’s wife), one time servant to Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VIII’s grandmother), staunch conservative and a supporter of the Lady Mary.
  • Thomas Fiennes, Lord Dacre – A man with a rather colourful past who needed to please the King.
  • George Brooke, Lord Cobham – Brother-in-law of Thomas Wyatt, close friend of Henry VIII and husband of Anne Braye (Nan Cobham), one of the Queen’s ladies who is thought to have given evidence against the Queen.
  • Edward Grey, Baron Grey of Powys, and Thomas Stanley, Lord Monteagle – Both were son-in-laws of the Duke of Suffolk, so their allegiance lay with him and, of course, with the King.
  • Edward Clinton (Fiennes), Lord Clinton – Husband of Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount and stepfather of the King’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond.
  • William, Lord Sandys – A great friend of the King and also Lord Chamberlain. Sandys was one of the men who escorted the Queen to the Tower of London on the 2nd May.
  • Andrew, Lord Windsor – Another friend of the King.
  • Thomas, Lord Wentworth – A cousin of Lady Jane Seymour, the King’s new flame.

Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, described Queen Anne Boleyn as she entered the hall, commenting on her grace, her beauty, her lack of fear and how she entered the court “with the bearing of one coming to great honour”, “comme venant a l’honneur d’un grant bien”.5 Other witnesses described that she was wearing a black velvet gown, a scarlet damask petticoat and a cap decorated with a black and white feather.6 She looked every inch a queen and the proceedings did not seem to faze her. She defended her honour “soberly” and although she said little, her face showed that she was not guilty of the crimes she was accused of.7 Anne pleaded “not guilty”, after which the Attorney General, Sir Christopher Hales, put forward the case against her. He accused the Queen of incest, adultery, plotting the King’s death, promising to marry Sir Henry Norris after the King’s death, and of making fun of the King and his dress. Chapuys also reported that Anne and George had laughed at “certain ballads that the King has composed”.8 No witnesses gave evidence against her.

The chronicler Charles Wriothesley, recorded that after her indictment was read out, Anne “made so wise and discreet aunsweres to all thinges layde against her, excusing herselfe with her wordes so clearlie, as thoughe she had never bene faultie to the same”.9

The Queen defended herself admirably, denying all of these preposterous charges and admitting only to giving money to Sir Francis Weston, just as she gave money to many young gentlemen at court. Notwithstanding, the jury were unanimous in their verdict: “guilty”. The Queen 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, 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.”10

The shock was too much for the Earl of Northumberland, who collapsed and had to be taken out of the hall, and also for Mrs Orchard, a lady who had cared for the Queen when she was a child, who “shrieked out dreadfully”.11 The Queen kept her composure. Although she did not argue against the sentence, she said that she “believed there was some other reason for which she was condemned than the cause alleged”.12 Lancelot de Carles recorded that Anne then addressed the court, saying:

“I do not say that I have been as humble towards the King as he deserved, considering the humanity and kindness he showed me, and the great honour he has always paid me; I know that my fantasies have led me to be jealous… but God knows that I have never done him any other wrong.”13

Victorian historian Agnes Strickland records another speech by Anne Boleyn at court that day, recorded by Crispin, Lord of Milherve:-

“My lords, I will not say your sentence is unjust, nor presume that my reasons can prevail against your convictions. I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done, but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you then laid to my charge. I have ever been a faithful wife to the king, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me and the honour to which he raised me merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him which I had not discretion and wisdom enough to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I never sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, God hath taught me how to die, and he will strengthen my faith. Think not that I am so bewildered in my mind as not to lay the honour of my chastity to heart now in mine extremity, when I have maintained it all my life long, much as ever queen did. I know these my last words will avail me nothing but for the justification of my chastity and honour. As for my brother and those others who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly suffer many deaths to deliver them; but since I see it so pleases the king, I shall willingly accompany them in death, with this assurance, that I shall lead an endless life with them in peace.”14

Similarities can be seen between this speech and the words recorded by Lancelot de Carles and this is because, as historian John Guy has pointed out, Crispin de Milherve is actually a ‘phantom’ and his poem was written by Lancelot de Carles.15

Anne Boleyn was then escorted out of the court by her gaoler, Sir William Kingston, with the axe turned against her to show that she had been sentenced to death. It was now her brother’s turn to face the hostile panel.

While Anne Boleyn was taken back to her lodgings in the Tower of London, her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was taken to the King’s Hall to stand before the same jury. George’s trial is mentioned briefly in Letters and Papers:

“The same day, lord Rocheford is brought before the High Steward in the custody of Sir Will. Kingston, and pleads not guilty. The peers are charged, with the exception of the earl of Northumberland, who was suddenly taken ill, and each of them severally saith that he is guilty.
Judgment: – To be taken to prison in the Tower, and then drawn through the city of London, to the gallows at Tyburn, &c., as usual in high treason.”16

All witnesses agree that George put up a good fight in the court room that day. In his Chronicle, Charles Wriothesley recorded that after George pleaded not guilty, “he 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”17 and Lancelot de Carles commented on George’s good defence and his eloquence, which de Carles likened to that of Sir Thomas More.18

But George wasn’t just prudent, he was also rather spirited, as my friend Clare Cherry says in her research into George Boleyn’s life:

“Ironically, during life it was Anne who was the more tempestuous and reckless of the two siblings. Yet she faced her accusers with the quiet and restrained dignity of a true Queen. It was her brother who approached the trial with all guns blazing.”19

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”.19 And when he was handed a note regarding the King’s impotence, George recklessly read it aloud even though he had been commanded not to. Chapuys recorded this incident in a letter to 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.”20

Not only had George joked or gossiped about the King’s sexual problems, his lack of sexual prowess, he had also allegedly joked about Elizabeth not being the King’s daughter. This meant that he had unwittingly committed treason because this kind of talk impugned the King’s issue. What was worse was that George had disobeyed instructions and read out this note in court, embarrassing the King and not endearing himself to the jury.

George Wyatt, Thomas Wyatt’s grandson, wrote a few years later that “the young nobleman the Lord Rochford, by the common opinion of men of best understanding in those days, was counted and then openly spoken, condemned only upon some point of a statute of words then in force”.21 Even “the judges at first were of different opinions”.22 However, they were able to give an unanimous decision in the end. No witnesses and an eloquent defence, but George was still found guilty by a jury of his peers. His uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, then sentenced George to a traitor’s death:

“that he should goe agayne to prison in the Tower from whence he came, and to be drawne from the saide Tower of London thorowe the Cittie of London to the place of execution called Tyburne, and there to be hanged, beinge alyve cutt downe, and then his members cutt of and his bowells taken owt of his bodie and brent[burnt] before him, and then his head cutt of and his bodie to be divided into quarter peeces, and his head and bodie to be sett at suche places as the King should assigne.”23

Chapuys records George’s reaction to his sentence:

“Her brother, after his condemnation, said that since he must die, he would no longer maintain his innocence, but confessed that he had deserved death. He only begged the King that his debts, which he recounted, might be paid out of his goods.”24

Some might read Chapuys’ words and conclude that George Boleyn thought it was not worth maintaining the pretence any more and so confessed to committing incest with his sister, but I do not agree. I think that George was simply admitting to being a sinner, a sinner who deserved judgement from God. People who were convicted of a crime, even if they were innocent, “did not doubt that they deserved to die”25 and that it was a punishment from God for their sinful life. There was a strong belief in original sin.

George Boleyn was then taken back to his prison in the Tower to prepare himself for death.

(Taken from The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway)

Notes and Sources

  1. LP x. 908
  2. Ibid., 902
  3. Wriothesley, Charles. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, 37.
  4. LP x. 876
  5. Ascoli, Georges. La Grande-Bretagne Devant L’opinion Française Depuis La Guerre De Cent Ans Jusqu’à La Fin Du XVIe Siècle, 261.
  6. Younghusband, George. The Tower from Within
  7. Ascoli, 261.
  8. LP x. 908
  9. Wriothesly, 37-38
  10. ed. Williams, C.H. English Historical Documents: 1485-1558, 724, and ed. Baker, J.A. The Reports of Sir John Spelman, note i.71.
  11. Weir, Alison. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 218.
  12. LP x. 1036
  13. Ascoli, 263
  14. Guy, John. “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir – Sunday Times Review., November 1, 2009.
  15. LP x. 876
  16. Wriothesley, 39
  17. Ascoli, 259
  18. Cherry, Clare. “George Boleyn”, unpublished manuscript
  19. LP x. 908
  20. Ibid.
  21. Cavendish, George. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume 2, 212.
  22. LP x. 1036
  23. Wriothesley, 39
  24. LP x. 908
  25. de Lisle, Leanda. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen.

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