According to Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, on the morning of the 15th May 1536 Jane Seymour received a message from the King informing her that he would send her a further message at 3 o’clock regarding the “condemnation” of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII was sure that Anne Boleyn was going to be found guilty and she really didn’t have a hope of acquittal after Norris, Smeaton, Brereton and Weston had been found guilty.
The Boleyn siblings were tried on 15th May 1536 in the King’s Hall of the Tower of London in front of an estimated 2,000 spectators. A great platform had been erected in the hall so that everybody could see the proceedings. Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton had been tried by a commission of oyer and terminer, but Anne and George were given the privilege of being tried by a jury of their peers, presided over by their uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, as Lord High Steward.
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”. 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.”
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”. 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.
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. 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” and Lancelot de Carles commented on George’s good defence and his eloquence, which de Carles likened to that of Sir Thomas More.
George defended himself so well in court “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted”, but he was also rather reckless. Perhaps he realised that there was no hope of justice and thought he had nothing to lose, for when he was handed a note regarding the King’s impotence, George recklessly read it aloud even though he had been commanded not to. George had allegedly joked or gossiped about the King’s sexual problems, his lack of sexual prowess, and he had also 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. Unsurprisingly, George was found guilty and sentenced to a full traitor’s death. Like his sister before him, George Boleyn was then taken back to his prison in the Tower to prepare himself for death.
(Based on an excerpt from my book On this Day in Tudor History)
You can read more about their trials in the following articles:
- 15 May 1536 – The Trials of Anne and George Boleyn – This includes a run-down of some of the peers who made up the jury.
- 15 May 1536 – The Trial of Anne Boleyn – Includes Lancelot de Carles’ account of Anne at her trial.
- 15 May 1536 – The Trial of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford – More details on George’s trial.