15 May 1536 – The trials of Queen Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford – The Fall of Anne Boleyn
Posted By Claire on May 15, 2019
On this day in 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were tried by a jury of their peers presided over by their own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.
Did they have any hope of justice?
What do the contemporary sources tell us?
And what happened when George disobeyed an order?
I explain exactly what happened in today’s video.
I’m doing these “Fall of Anne Boleyn” videos daily until 19th May and I started on 24th April. You can catch up with them on the Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society Youtube Channel.
You can find out more about my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown at http://getbook.at/fallanneboleyn.
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10 thoughts on “15 May 1536 – The trials of Queen Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford – The Fall of Anne Boleyn”
I don’t know if setting up the scaffolding to allow so many witnesses view the proceedings was such a good idea. Anne and George defended themselves so well that this probably cast doubt in more people’s minds than otherwise.
I totally agree and I’ve always wondered and hope its true that people knelt for Anne when she was on scaffold n not cheering. I’m sure for safety their opinions were quiet
Hi Lorraine, yes, sources tell us that most people knelt when she prayed, save the Duke of Suffolk and I think Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, the former being an old enemy and the King’s son perhaps taken in by his father’s tears a week or so earlier over rumours he claimed that Anne wanted to poison him and his half sister. All we have for that mad claim is Henry and his self pity, no other evidence. It does seem odd though as the young man had reason to be grateful to Anne but well I suppose dad could be persuasive. Apparently everyone knelt in prayer in unity and pity for Anne who had shown such dignity and as was custom as she said her last commendation prayer, but Suffolk remained on his feet, watching the reaction of those present. To him Anne deserved her fate but others were impressed by her last words and the courage she had shown. I hope that some also believed in her innocence.
The sources are from Edward Hall, Claire in her book Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, Charles Wriothesley “Chronicle of the Reign of King Henry Viii”, the Chronicle of Calais and the official records in the Letters and Papers.
I find the idea of the axe turned towards the condemned quite harrowing, just like in the days when they used to hang people, and the judge put the little black cloth on his head, both actions pronounced doom, the trial of Anne Boleyn as we know was a farce like everything else and after her alleged lovers had been found guilty the day before, she to would be thus condemned, they say she wore a little hat with a feather in as she came into the hall and there must have been a hush when she walked to her chair of state and sat down, there were two thousand spectators so the hall must have very large indeed, I should imagine it would have been quite daunting for her to be the centre of attention with those faces turned towards her, in her days when she had been the Kings darling she had been used to being the centre of attention, then she had exulted in it, but now she was on trial for her life and was painfully aware that it was merely a show to condemn her to death, she gave a good defence as one does when one knows one is innocent but justice was dead in the trial of Anne Boleyn and the jurors were no friends of the Boleyn family, she was not to be burned as Henry had ordered the swordsman from Calais before the trial, but nevertheless her uncle the Duke of Norfolk who had once called her a whore had to read out the terrible words, burnt alive or either thy head be smitten off according to the Kings pleasure, never had the queens courage been so evident then, she merely looked at her peers and replied possibly with her caustic tongue that she believed they had reasons other than that which she was condemned, she was telling them they had condemned her because they had to and it was for one reason only, the King wished to wed another and get a son on her because she Anne had failed to do so, throughout the trial she had had to listen to her character being ripped apart and her household made out to be like that of Sodom and Gommorah, the tittering of the crowd and gasps especially after it was said she had kissed her brother in an inappropriate fashion, (French kissing ) must have been unendurable to her, but her strength of character carried her through to the end and really by her very calm manner and demeanour it was Anne who was the victor that day, not the Kings yes men, it was said by one onlooker it was just all bawdy and lechery, women’s gossip so to speak, the daft tale about the queen calling for marmalade was a sign she wished to have Smeaton sent to her, and she had even indulged her sexual appetite when she was still recovering from the birth of Elizabeth, this stage in a woman’s life after she had just given birth was held to be sacred and it was when she had to abstain from sexual relations with her husband for some time, it was when blessings and thanks were given to the church for seeing the woman through her ordeal, and for the safe delivery of her child, this was a marked slur on her character as she was a woman known for her deep piety and strictly run moral household, and the fact that she would even go so far as to indulge in an affair when she was going through such a spiritual and sacred stage in her life shows to what depth the crown would sink to show her as depraved as possible, the act of incest was by far the worst of them all, even plotting the murder of the King, only a person without any morals at all would sleep with their own brother, this had been debunked by every historian who has ever argued her case, there have been rare examples of siblings who have had an attraction to each other and fathers and daughters, mothers and sons known as the Oedipus syndrome, some were parted at birth and after years of seperation found upon meeting they had sexual feelings for each other, it is wholly repulsive and disgusting and yes thankfully very very rare, and to even bring that charge into the indictments against Anne and her brother shows the vile character assassination they were subjected to, after the verdict was announced the queen was led back to her apartments and it was Georges turn, he gave a good account of himself as his sister so well in fact, there were bets on his acquittal, this shows how weak the case against him was as only the innocent could defend themselves so well, but he was condemned the same, his reading out the toxic letter about the conversation he had with Anne about the Kings inability to make love, showed his reckless spirit and immense courage and utter contempt of the farcicial trial that day, he had been arrested and sent for trial without any evidence at all, as had Weston Brereton and Norris, he probably knew Smeaton had been frightened into making a false allegation and they were being sacrificed to bring down the queen, his beloved sister, he was also accused of saying Elizabeth was not the Kings child, why on earth would he slander his own sister and bring his nieces parent hood her very legitimacy into question, he was the one who advised Anne against the remarks she had made about killing Mary when the King went abroad, it is hardly likely he would make such reckless talk himself, there must have been gasps rippling around the court when he read out loud that note, but he was saying to everyone I am a condemned man already what have I to lose, of course in his fury the King could well have let him suffer the full traitors death but he never did, he and the others were all to die by the merciful act of beheading, when sentance was passed on him the dreaded axe was also turned his way, but he had in a sense won like his sister, the Lord Mayer who was present at Annes trial remarked that the jury had found nothing against the queen, they had merely created a situation to rid of her, thus it was with George, this so called trial was unique in English history as never before had a Queen of England been put on trial and the charges were absolutely shocking, years afterwards the people present must have recalled that day and spoken of it to their children and grandchildren, centuries after we debate it now but we are apart from the events of those tumultuous weeks in May 1536, we look back and try to imagine how it affected people at the time, we can only imagine what it felt like to be alive then, and especially for Anne herself and the courtiers who was condemned with her, the truth is we can never really know what it was like but it was one of the most momentous events in our islands history, it was not a bloody war like Bannockburn or the great plague of 1665 which devastated the country, but it was unprecedented at the time for an English queen to be charged with and put on trial for adultery incest and plotting murder towards her husband the King, more so for her to be actually condemned to die instead of banishment to a nunnery or sent into exile abroad, Anne had already made history by marrying the King after refusing to be his mistress and deposing his first queen, she was now to be known to history as being the first queen to be publicly put to death.
Anne’s sentence was unusual as the Jury left a choice for the King for her to be burned as she should have been because that is for a female traitor or to be beheaded, which was not usually given as the sovereign only commuted this to beheading as an act of mercy. It was actually met with murmuring as it was not usually done. The law was for women to be burned, but noble women were usually beheaded. Of course no Queen had been condemned in England before so maybe this was something unique and the King would decide.
Anne gave a good account of herself but she had no chance and she could only keep her dignity. There was nothing she or her brother could do, they were condemned from the very outset. This was a truly terrible miscarriage of justice.
IMO, this trial was no more a miscarriage of justice than any other trial in the Tudor era. I just wish people would remember what trials were once like before they complain about the “legal technicalities” that make modern trials a little more reliable (let alone just) than those in Tudor times.
Hi Esther, yes, I am not criticising the due process of the case: I think I said everything was done legally and there is no way Cromwell would allow anything to be out of order so the procedure as far as the legal standards of Tudor England were followed. I most certainly don’t expect the same from the sixteenth century as I do from the twentieth, treason trials were not about guilt and innocence, they were show pieces, they were fair as far as the state was concerned and they were meant to be that way. A good number of them ended in the expected way, there was always a presumption of guilt, no defence and so on, these things only began to change later in the 17th and 18th centuries, when lawyers argued for defendants having rights. Everything in terms of legal proceedings in this trial was absolutely spot on. That’s not what I mean by miscarriage of justice.
I am referring to the travesty that this entire thing was. From before the first arrests to the final two trials, the evidence was manufactured, the witnesses were carefully selected and in at least one case, that of Lady Worcester, there was a political motive for her brother to gain her cooperation and what testimony she may or may not have given was nothing but gossip: the legal apparatus was in place before any arrests were made, some of those who fell into the trap laid by Cromwell (on Henry’s orders, I will concede that) were targeted because of political rivalries and the dates that the indictments were set upon were made up. Much of what went down at the two trials was known in advance and the accused didn’t stand a chance. The two juries and the peers at the trial of Anne and George were selected because many were the enemies of the accused, were clients of Cromwell or Suffolk or Norfolk, owed loyalty on a personal level to the King or linked via marriage, patronage or relationships. Most had good reason to co operate with finding the accused guilty. Henry had let it be known before hand that the accused should be found guilty and he knew Anne was going to be found guilty because that’s what he wanted. Of course the second trial was naturally prejudiced by the guilty verdict in the first trial so of course Anne and George were going to be found guilty. The accused never stood a chance. It was all arranged in advance and Henry wanted it out of the way in his favour as swiftly as possible. Yes, several treason trials went the same way, but few appear to have been so completely rigged from the outset as these two trials. I am sorry, Esther, I believe it was a complete stitch up from the very beginning and was even harsh by the standards of the day. The case was based on a few whispers and misunderstood odd conversations, not on anything solid, no real eye witness testimony and mere tittle tattle. It was completely nonsense. The proceedings were everything one might expect but they might appear under the colour of authority, but they were still a complete farcical invention. Anne and her brother and the other men were totally innocent but that counted for nothing as it was down to them to prove that. I doubt the prosecution actually proved it’s own case but when the outcome is decided before hand that didn’t matter.
Anne’s trial was dramatic and she made a dignified but very detailed and assertive speech to defend herself. She was surprised to find that the Lords had not risen to greet her as she was still their Queen. Although her trial and that of her brother, George, which followed hers by the guilty verdict of the four men accused of treason, adultery and conspiracy with her. Anne held her dignity and looked queenly in her estate and dress and she answered everything well. She stated that she may not have always shown true reverence to the King who had always been good to her but had not dishonoured him in any way or betrayed him. She declared that she was his true wife and had never been unfaithful to him and oddly no witnesses were called. Yet three women are named by Judge Spelman in his report as giving testimony, although we don’t know if they actually bore witness in Court or if they made a sworn statement which was read out. Anne defended herself and the men as being innocent and said she would live an “endless life with them in Paradise” , meaning they would be redeemed in the next life. There was nothing else she could do and everyone there felt some sympathy for her.
2000 people had come to see the trial of the century, that of an anointed Queen, the first time in our history. A grand stand had been erected in the Great Hall of the Royal Palace at the Tower of London and it was crammed full of people. (I wonder if they sold tickets) Here every detail of an imaginary love life of the King’s wife was read out and even though Anne was innocent, it must have been terribly embarrassing in front of all those people. However, she held it together and even when she was demoted as Queen and her horrible sentence read out by the Duke of Norfolk Anne remained calm. Norfolk had tears in his eyes but some believe these were insincere and he was not very sympathetic when Anne was arrested. All she could do now was prepare for death and make ready her soul.
The trial of George Boleyn is much more interesting because he was proud and arrogant during it and took risks because he knew he was going to die in any case. There are witnesses recorded as being called but there was one charge which turned the tables against him. He was given a piece of paper and told not to read it out loud, probably knowing he would do just that. The paper said that George had heard from his wife that Anne had told him that Henry had problems in bed and couldn’t satisfy a woman with skill or stamina. You can just imagine the laughter all around that public crowd and the consternation and uproar in the Court, Norfolk or someone calling for order, the King had been humiliated. George also gave a good account of himself and again there was no evidence against him, so people took bets that he would be let off but that wasn’t going to happen. If Anne was guilty, George was guilty by default. He was also accused of laughing at the King’s poetry and clothing and more seriously spreading rumours that Princess Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir Henry Norris. This last charge was probably enough to condemn him and it was certainly reckless if it was true. George defended himself well and denied these more serious charges and also incest with his sister. For all that, however, he was condemned to a full traitors death at Tyburn.
As I said at the beginning, the trial of the other four men, three days earlier impacted on the outcome of this one, but in reality, nothing would have made any difference, such was the nature of Tudor treason trials and this one in particular, being rigged from the start. Five innocent men and one innocent Queen had to die so as an egotistical King could move on to wife no three with the minimum of fuss and hopefully secure the succession.
Royal women had been accused of adultery before but rarely did they face fatal consequences. Margaret, the first wife of Louis x of France, before he became King after his father, Philip the Fair, was accused of criminal adultery, which was a crime in fourteenth century France but not sixteenth century England, but she wasn’t harmed. Her two accused lovers were summarily executed. Numerous others have been involved with lovers but few decapitated, although imprisonment was the fate of several noble women. It was often a political method to curb the power of an active political Queen or to replace her with a rival, but Henry Viii was pretty unique in that he accused two wives, related to each other of adultery and treason and executed them both. In this case he also sacrificed a number of his friends and intimates from his inner circle. No wonder Thomas Cranmer was “clean amazed” anyone who knew her certainly would be.
Hi there Clare Ridgway..I will b in London in May 2020. Of course i am visiting to breathe in and experience all things Tudor. On the longshot might there b a way i could meet u. It would b such a great honor.
If you’re going to be at any of the places that I’m visiting with the group then please do look out for me and come and say hello. It would be lovely to meet you. I don’t tend to have much spare time as I’m with the group and then I have some research to do as well, but it would be lovely to say hello.