15 May 1536 – The Trial of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford

Posted By on May 15, 2014

george_signingFollowing Anne Boleyn’s departure from court, her brother George was brought in to face the same hostile jury. He was, of course, prejudiced by his sister’s conviction because she had been found guilty of incest with him and of conspiring to kill the King with him, but he still put up a spirited defence. So good was George’s performance in court that Lancelot de Carles wrote “one never saw a man respond better/No not even More, who had such an abundance/of eloquence and knowledge” and Eustace Chapuys reported “To all he 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, as is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”

It was no use and George must have been well aware of the futility of his defence. When he was handed a note regarding his wife and sister discussing the King’s alleged sexual problems, 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.”

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. The action of reading the note aloud is often seen as arrogance and rebellion, and Clare Cherry and I discuss this in our book on George:

“But George’s recklessness was not mere arrogance, as is so often suggested. It actually exemplified his intelligence and linguistic skills. Chapuys says that George was referring to any future issue the King may have produced from any subsequent marriage, thereby effectively bringing out into the open the likelihood of the King’s imminent remarriage, and the real reason for the trial. But George may also have spoken out in an attempt to protect his niece, the future Queen Elizabeth, from any subsequent rumours relating to her paternity. The fact that the issue was raised at all shows that gossip regarding the King’s virility was circulating. Although George read the allegation out loud, he did not admit it was true.”

As Chapuys notes, no evidence regarding the charge of incest was produced “except that of his having once passed many hours in her company, and other little follies” and all evidence for the other charges was hearsay, no witnesses were produced. However, a unanimous verdict of George’s guilt was delivered by all 25 peers who sat on the jury and George was sentenced to 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 Tyburne, and there to be hanged, being alive cut down, and then his members cut off and his bowels taken out of his body and brent [burned] before him, and then his head cut off and his body to be divided into 4 pieces, and his head and body to be set at such places as the King should assign.”

13 thoughts on “15 May 1536 – The Trial of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford”

  1. BanditQueen says:

    Whoever handed George that piece of paper claiming that the king had sexual problems was a good judge of human nature and laying a trap. Of course George was going to read it out! Humans do such things; the opposite of what we are commanded or asked not to do. In any event he probably reasoned he had nothing more to lose. He was already going to be condemned to death in any case: they can only hang draw and quarter him once; and perhaps he also believed he was repeating something that was widely known. But who would know such a thing: only Anne and she must have repeated this charge to someone: Jane Rochford for example; who told it to someone else, who passed it on to Cromwell who passed it on to the clerk of the court, who had it passed to George and told him not to repeat it. Reckless but probably not treason and not relevant.

    A trap in that perhaps the court may have hoped he would do just this, embarrass the King and set himself up for a fall. A trap in that they may have hoped he would comment further on this and so condemn himself by confessing yes he knew this secret as Anne had told him. Putting it about that the King was not the father of the Princess Elizabeth would have been treason as would making this accusation around the place as false rumours and slurs on the royal couple, especially the Queen were also dangerous crimes and could be punishable by death or prison as they were not merely slander; they could be seen as perjury, a serious crimal offence in Tudor England: if you lied about someone and the charge was found to be false you could face the same punishment they would have done. In this case death. George Boleyn even joking about such a thing would have to have been careful and an idiot to have done so. But was such a charge true?

  2. margaret says:

    Ears and eyes everywhere in the tudor court ,a hotbed for gossip and slander by people who really had nothing much else to do it seems,WHY did anne and George not realise that everything could be taken out of context and trumped up as treason or some other “crime” .why so ,so ,reckless in their speech ,George I would say was more careful somehow ,but anne just lost the run of herself completely.

    1. Claire says:

      I suppose that Anne thought that a conversation between herself and her sister-in-law would be kept private and I don’t think she could ever have known that Jane would be interrogated and have to pass on that information. With regards to Norris, Weston and Smeaton, she was actually reprimanding them, her words were just twisted. With hindsight of knowing that there was a plot against her, we can see how things could be used against her, but Anne had no idea that trouble was brewing.

      1. Anyanka says:

        If Ann had actually said those words to Jane it shows that Anne and Jane were close enough to disclose those kind of sisterly inimtacies and that Jane had no reason to blab about an inapprioate relationship betweeen Anne and George.

        1. Claire says:

          Yes, the fact that Anne confided in Jane and also asked her help previously, when Henry was attracted to another woman at court, leads me to believe that the two women were close.

  3. BanditQueen says:

    There was only one place safe to have a conversation: in the space: the seat at the side of the fireplace in the hollowed out place at the side of it: not just because it kept you warm but no-one could overhear you there for the roar of the fire. I agree, there was no way for Anne, George or anyone to really believe things between them and family members would be anything but private. And people must have laughed and joked about all kinds of things at the parties at night; the wine flowed, the music played, people danced, friends became a bit too friendly, things were said in jest, confidences shared; most people probably let their hair and guard down; and I am sure many things were overlooked. It was only in the light of charges being brought that an innocent or confidental remark was taken out of context, recalled and used in evidence against you. And not even Cromwell or his spies could literally be everywhere. Having said that, hidden panals in the walls allowed people to listen in to conversations at the sides of the halls and the wisper gallery was another method of spying or eaves dropping. The figures in the eaves of the beams of the halls were also meant to remind people that no-one was safe from someone listening in on even private conversations. But it is only with hindsight that you realise what was being used in these cases and how it was gathered, recorded and twisted. Life at court had so many attractions but was also fraught with danger.

  4. JudithRex says:

    Claire, there is no evidence that Anne made said remark only to jane
    or that it was jane who repeated them. Anne made her
    remarks to Norris about his seeking “dead man’s shoes” in front
    of an audience, and she may well have been overheard making
    remarks to her sister in law in defense of not being pregnant at
    one time or another, or maybe Anne was just being potty mouthed which
    she apparently was a lot of times in naughty humor. Who knows
    what the context was? But men never find comments about their lack
    of virility humorous or acceptable, and surely Anne of all people
    should have known to zip it on this because it was
    TREASONOUS now.

    On the other hand, maybe Anne did oh say it to jane, in
    which case Jane betrayed her by telling someone else
    or else how could anyone have known?

    1. Claire says:

      I don’t know what you mean, Judith, are you referring to Anne confiding in Jane about Henry’s sexual problems? If so, there is evidence, from Chapuys (LP x. 908), which I quote in the article, but here it is again:

      “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. To which he made no reply.”

      The French translates roughly to “was not able to copulate with a woman, he did not have the virtue/strength or power.” Chapuys says quite clearly that Anne talked to Jane about it, and there is no mention of anyone else. Jane was interrogated and the Crown had this information, so she must have told the Crown. It isn’t mentioned in reference to any of the men.

    2. margaret says:

      At the end of the day anne did commit treason by the dead mens shoes talk and that is punishable by death ,that was not a trumped up charge so she was not altogether as innocent as some people brand her ,

      1. Claire says:

        But she was reprimanding Norris and certainly was not discussing the King’s death in a treasonous manner. She was not charged with discussing the King’s death or mentioning the King’s death, she was charged with conspiring to kill the King, and I don’t see any evidence to back up that charge. The date of her argument with Norris was also not included in the indictments, so her words regarding “dead men’s shoes” were completely ignored by the prosecution.

        1. BanditQueen says:

          I agree with you Claire; Anne’s words were meant to put Norris in his place as she thought he was taking his time over his proposal to her cousin Madge Sheldon as he loved her instead (courtly love that is). She wanted him to hurry up and marry Madge and Anne often said foolish things that she did not mean and as you say, this was not held against either her or Norris. It may have led to his arrest but that I don’t believe is clear. Anne also tried to put things right with Norris who was offended by her remarks and sent him to her almonor to swear that she was a good woman. Anne may have said something foolish but she was not committing treason and she was not plotting the Kings death. Cromwell, of course and his laywers could construe what they would from these sorts of incidents; but it was a bog stretch from a foolish remark she clearly regretted to treasonous talk. As you say, the prosecution would have had a field day with this one had they wanted to but they too must have realised it was in jest.

  5. margaret says:

    Anne Boleyn grew up in court ,surely she should have known that their were people about that would have just waiting to here something to gossip about and bring her down with it ,I think she was very reckless by discussing anything about henry ,she should have taken a leaf out of Katherine of aragons book and just shut herself up about everything for her safety if nothing else.

  6. Sarah Page says:

    It seems to me that George was charged because he was the one who might have taken Anne’s side when she was tried or later supported Elizabeth’s legitimacy as heir, making any future issue of Jane Seymour lower in the line of succession.

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