15th May 1536 – The Trial of Anne Boleyn

Posted By on May 15, 2010

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk

On the 15th May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn was tried in the King’s Hall in the Tower of London. The trial was to be a huge public spectacle, attracting, according to Chapuys, around 2,000 spectators, so Sir William Kingston had arranged for a “great scaffold”1 (platform) to be erected in the middle of the hall, and benches and seats arranged for the lords. The Lord High Steward, the Duke of Norfolk, sat on the dais at the end of the hall, underneath the canopy of estate which bore the royal arms – the Duke of Norfolk was to represent the King and would have to put aside the fact that Anne and George were his niece and nephew.

Charles Wriothesley records that Norfolk held his white staff of office, and his son, the Earl of Surrey, sat at his feet holding the golden staff of the Earl Marshal England, his father’s office. Norfolk was flanked by Sir Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, who was there to give Norfolk any legal advice that was required, and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and a man who hated Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn and her brother, George, had not been tried at the commission of oyer and terminer with Norris, Smeaton, Weston and Brereton, but instead had the privilege (if you can call it that) of being tried by a jury of their peers. Their trials were already extremely prejudiced due to the fact the others had already been found guilty and sentenced to death, but even so, they had no hope if you consider the men who made up the jury.

The Jury

The Letters and Paper, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII (LP x.876) tell us that the panel consisted of:-

“Charles duke of Suffolk, Hen. marquis of Exeter, Will. earl of Arundel, John earl of Oxford, Hen. earl of Northumberland, Ralph earl of Westmoreland, Edw. earl of Derby, Hen. earl of Worcester, Thos. earl of Rutland, Rob. earl of Sussex, Geo. earl of Huntingdon, John lord Audeley, Thos. lord La Ware, Hen. lord Mountague, Hen. lord Morley, Thos. lord Dacre, Geo. lord Cobham, Hen. lord Maltravers, Edw. lord Powes, Thos. lord Mount Egle, Edw. lord Clynton, Will. lord Sandes, Andrew lord Wyndesore, Thos. lord Wentworth, Thos. lord Burgh, and John lord Mordaunt.”3

but these names mean nothing until you examine some of them more closely:-

  • Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk – Henry VIII’s brother-in-law and a man who, as I have already said, hated Anne Boleyn. He was also well aware of what his great friend the King wanted from this trial.
  • The Marquis of Exeter and his cousin Lord Montague (Henry Pole) – Both men were supporter of the Lady Mary.
  • Earl of Oxford – A good friend of the King.
  • The Earl of Northumberland – Henry Percy who Weir describes as “now an ailing embittered man, whose former love for Anne had long since withered into contempt.”4
  • Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland – A loyal servant to the King in the North.
  • The Earl of Worcester  – His wife, Elizabeth Browne, the Countess of Worcester, was said to have given evidence against the Queen and to have been their key witness.
  • The Earls of Rutland and Huntingdon – Both of these men were related to the King and were royal favourites.
  • The Earl of Sussex – One of the King’s best friends.
  • Lord Morley – Father of Jane Boleyn, George’s wife, but a staunch conservative and a supporter of the Lady Mary.
  • Lord Dacre – A man who had narrowly escaped from being convicted for treason and who obviously wanted to please the King.
  • Lord Cobham – A man close to the King and possibly the husband of Nan Cobham, the woman mentioned as giving evidence against the Queen.
  • Lord Grey of Powys and Lord Monteagle – Both were son-in-laws of the Duke of Suffolk.
  • Lord Clinton – Husband of Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount and stepfather of the King’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond.
  • Lord Sandys – One of the King’s good friends and also Lord Chamberlain.
  • Lord Windsor – Another friend of the King.
  • Lord Wentworth – A relative of Jane Seymour. His aunt was Jane’s mother, Margaret Wentworth.
  • Lord Mordaunt – A man described by Weir as “a career courtier who served on several treason trials”5

Some (Alexander Aless, Chapuys, the Bishop of Faenza and Dr Ortiz) reported that Thomas Boleyn, the Earl of Wiltshire, was even present at his children’s trials but the Baga de Secretis makes no mention of his name. I do hope that he was not forced to sit in judgment on them.

Others present includes the Attorney General (Sir Christopher Hales), the Mayor of London (Sir John Aleyn), the French Ambassador and various foreign diplomats, and members of the public. Eustace Chapuys did not attend because he was ill.

The Trial

The trial records, transcripts, statements and records of evidence are all missing, and we have to rely on eye witness accounts. We have some records in Letters and Papers and this is what is recorded from Anne’s trial:-

“And afterwards, Monday, 15 May, queen Anne comes to the bar before the Lord High Steward in the Tower, in the custody of Sir Will. Kingston, pleads not guilty, and puts herself on her peers; whereupon the said duke of Suffolk, marquis of Exeter, and other peers, are charged by the High Steward to say the truth; and being examined from the lowest peer to the highest, each of them severally saith that she is guilty.

Judgment:—To be taken to prison in the Tower, and then, at the King’s command, to the Green within the Tower, and there to be burned or beheaded as shall please the King.”6

Witness Accounts

Alison Weir has a fantastic chapter called “Fighting Without a Weapon” in her book “The Lady in the Tower”, where she examines exactly what went on at the trials of Anne and George Boleyn. She quotes Lancelot de Carles describing Anne’s entry into the hall:-

“She walked forth in fearful beauty” and “seemed unmoved as a stock, not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honour”7

and quotes George Younghusband as saying that Anne was dressed in a black velvet gown with a petticoat fo scarlet damask and a cap decorated with a black and white feather. Crispin de Milherve, quoted in Alison Weir8, wrote that Anne “made an entry as though she were going to a great triumph… She presented herself with the true dignity of a queen, and curtseyed to her judges, looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear… She returned the salutations of the lords with her accustomed politeness… [after seeing her father] she stood undismayed, nor did ever exhibit any token of impatience, or grief, or cowardice.”
Talk about composure!

After Anne had taken her seat on the platform right in the middle of the hall, her indictment was read out and Anne listened, “her face said more than words, for she said little; but no one looking at her would have thought her guilty.”9 She then pleaded “Not Guilty” to all of the charges but had to listen as Sir Christopher Hales, the Attorney General, argued the case for the Crown, accusing Anne of incest, adultery, promising to marry Norris after the King’s death, conspiring the King’s death and laughing at the King and his dress. Anne “made so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly, as though she had never been guilty of the same”10, denying all the charges but admitting that she had given money to Weston, which was nothing sinister as she gave money to many young gentlemen.

Anne’s quick wit and intelligence helped her to defend herself admirably, but she was fighting a losing battle, the guilty verdict had been decided before she had even walked into the court. The jury were unanimous in finding Anne guilty and after they gave their verdict Anne was stripped of her crown and her titles, although Weir points out that her title of Queen was not mentioned – she was Queen without a crown.

The Sentence

Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, then pronounced the sentence and George Constantine, Sir Henry Norris’s manservant, wrote of how tears coursed down his cheeks as he sentenced his niece:-

“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.”11

Anne was left dangling, not knowing whether she was going to die the usual female traitor’s death, of being burned at the stake, or the more merciful death by beheading.

As her death sentence was read out, the Earl of Northumberland collapsed12 and had to be taken out of the hall and one of Anne’s ladies, Mrs Orchard, the woman who had been Anne’s nurse in childhood, was said to have “shrieked out dreadfully”13. Anne, herself, was calm, as Chapuys describes:-

“The Concubine was condemned first, and having heard the sentence, which was to be burnt or beheaded at the King’s pleasure, she preserved her composure, saying that she held herself “pour toute saluee de la mort,” and that what she regretted most was that the above persons, who were innocent and loyal to the King, were to die for her. She only asked a short space for shrift (pour disposer sa conscience).”14

and then, according to Lancelot de Carles, Anne addressed the court:-

“I do not say that I have always borne towards the King the humility which I owed him, considering his kindness and the great honour he showed me and the great respect he always paid me; I admit too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him… But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong.”15

As Eric Ives points out, these types of speeches are prone to embellishment by the witness, but he also says that parts of this concur with Chapuys’ report, where he said that Anne said that she was ready to die but regretted that other innocent people were to die because of her.

Alison Weir quotes Crispin de Milherve’s version of Anne’s speech:-

“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 honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, 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 and joy, where I will pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.”14

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.

Notes and Sources

  1. Wriothesley,Charles, A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, p. 37.
  2. L&P x. 876
  3. Weir p206
  4. Weir p207
  5. L&P x. 876
  6. Lancelot de Carles, quoted in Weir p212
  7. Weir p213
  8. de Carles in Weir p213
  9. Wriothesley, p. 37.
  10. Spelman, Reports, i.71, quoted in Ives p341
  11. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p341
  12. Weir p218
  13. LP x.908
  14. Ives 341
  15. Weir p219-220

11 thoughts on “15th May 1536 – The Trial of Anne Boleyn”

  1. rosalie says:

    It is hard to believe that Chapuys couldhave been so ill as not to attend Anne’s trial. Since he gave 1st , or 2ndhand reports of so much else – this would be coup for him, as ambassador for Spain. IF we assume his reports are accurate and relfect his own feelings; then maybe tAnne’s trial was something he wished to avoid.

    But men did remove themselves from court, when it was dangerous for them. Mary Queen of Scots brother absented himself at critical times in hier reign.

  2. HannahL says:

    Regardless of the exact specifics of the words and events at Anne’s trial, the general picture we have of it makes me so proud of Anne. What a strong person she was.

  3. Eliza says:

    Anne was really brave! A true Queen!

  4. julie b says:

    One thing stands out for me in Anne’s speech, she admits to feelings of jealousy because she suspects the king of affairs, which he was guilty of, but Anne was being murdered for affairs she never had.
    Did Anne really feel that Henry treated her with respect, honor and kindness as she says at her trial? Maybe in the beginning of their relationship but certainly not later.

  5. Peter B says:

    The fact remains that Henry was a failure as a human being. Anne, on the other hand,for all her faults and failings, surpassed him in all areas. To say that she was given a trial is to acquiese in her murder. A panel of grovelling sycophants sold themselves to ingtatiate themselves with a piece of excrement. Personally, I would have liked to have known her, I am sure I would havew been proud of her. She was brave.

  6. Tamara van Utens says:

    I hope that someday, within my lifetime, the missing trial records are found although the above certainly gives me more information about the trial than I ever had before. Many thanks.

  7. If Henry Percy’s love for Anne had long since turned to contempt, why would he have collapsed when sentence was passed? I think too many historians like to give their own personal opinions and call them facts, supporting their opinions with their qualifications.

  8. Pamela Thompson says:

    I Believe since the king set Ann up for Death he should of had to watch her die. Henry the viii was a Coward and a low life tyrant. I believe Ann was innocent but we all know the King was a Cheater. I guess when you were a king in that age it was a one way street. Ann never wanted him he stalked her and she couldnt get away and he stopped her from marrying who she loved. GOD BLESS QUEEN ANN AND the others for their tragic end. So sad. Well when that Fat beyound Fat King I heard when he passed and was in his coffin his body exploded and the Dogs where likeing the fluids off the floor. Yep for him because he was a Dog.

    1. As a dog lover, I resent that! Dogs do not behave like this.

      Henry VIII never met with anyone once he had condemned them. He refused to see Thomas More, his so-called great friend. He refused to see Katherine of Aragon or Catherine Howard. Like all bullies, he was a coward.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        Why do people insist on repeating unsustainable nonsense? Just because there was a prophecy about this doesn’t mean it actually happened. No contemporary source confirmed it and Henry wasn’t a dog. He didn’t stalk Anne Boleyn and they had a long and beneficial relationship for many years. That doesn’t excuse how he turned against her with false charges, but citing unsubstantiated myths isn’t helpful.

        1. Mika says:

          Of course he wasn’t a dog, dogs aren’t psychopaths.

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