15th May 1536 – The Trial of George Boleyn

Posted By on May 15, 2010

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 as Anne. George’s trial is mentioned briefly in Letters and Paper:-

“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.”1

Guns Blazing

All witnesses agree that George put up a good fight in the court room that day. In his Chronicle2, 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 wrote of “his calm behaviour and good defence. More [Thomas More] himself did not reply better”.

But he wasn’t just prudent, he was also rather spirited, as Clare Cherry says in her research into George Boleyn’s life3:-

“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.”

When the only evidence for George committing incest with Anne was that “he [George] had been once found a long time with her”, “George contemptuously dismissed it”4 and when he was handed a note, regarding the King’s impotence, he 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.”5

Not only had George joked or gossipped about the King’s sexual problems, he had also joked about Elizabeth not being the King’s daughter, which meant that he had unwittingly committed treason because this kind of talk impugned the King’s issue. What was worse is that George had disobeyed instructions and read this note out in court, embarrassing the King and not endearing himself to the jury. I have to say that I admire his guts – George knew he was going down so what was the point in behaving?

So eloquent was George’s defence that some even thought that he might be acquitted:-

“Her brother was charged with having cohabited with her by presumption, because he had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies. 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 it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”6

and George Wyatt7, 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”. Even “the judges at first were of different opinions”8 but that 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 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 Tyburn, and there to be hanged, being alive cut down, and then his members cut off and his bowels taken out of his body and burnt before him, and then his head cut off, and his body to be divided into quarter pieces, and his head and body to be set at such places as the King should assign.”9

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.”10

Some might read Chapuys’ words and conclude that George Boleyn thought it was not worth maintaining the pretence anymore 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 judgment from God. As I have said in previous articles, people who were convicted of a crime, even if they were innocent “did not doubt that they deserved to die”11 and that it was a punishment from God for their sinly life.

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

Notes and Sources

  1. LP x.876
  2. Wriothesley’s Chronicle, p39
  3. Clare Cherry, research on George Boleyn
  4. Elizabeth Norton, p156
  5. LP x.908
  6. LP x.908
  7. George Wyatt in Wolsey, ed. singer, p 447
  8. Quoted in The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p226
  9. Hamer quoted in Weir p227
  10. LP x. 908
  11. The Sisters Who Would Be QueenLeanda de Lisle “
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