On this day in history, Tuesday 16th May 1536, five of the seven men imprisoned in the Tower of London to do with Queen Anne Boleyn’s fall prepared for their executions.

While Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page were being held without charge in the Tower, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, had been found guilty of high treason and were to suffer death by beheading on 17th May 1536.

How on earth do you prepare for your execution? It really doesn’t bear thinking about, but you can click here to read about how these men prepared.

Something very strange happened on this very same day in 1536. Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London and Queen Anne Boleyn’s gaoler, wrote to Thomas Cromwell that “this day at dinner the queen said that she should go to a nunnery and is in hope of life.” How very strange for the queen to be “in hope of life” the day after she has been sentenced to death for high treason. How could this be?

Well, earlier in the day, Anne Boleyn had received a visit from her good friend, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He’d been sent to the Tower of London to act as the queen’s confessor and to obtain her consent to the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII. Had Anne been led to believe that her consent would lead to her being sent to a nunnery instead of being executed? Was Anne reading too much into things or had Cranmer been told to offer her a deal? We will never know.

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12 thoughts on “16 May 1536 – 5 men prepare to die and a queen is in hope of her life”
  1. All the neligious houses : nunneries, convents, monasteries and Abbeys had been closed (returned to the crown) and dissolved due to the shift that allowed the King to marry her. Why would she have thought of such a notion?
    She knew that the Queen before her been abandoned and left to die prematurely.

  2. It must’ve been awful for these men. It’s one thing to prepare for execution when you have committed a crime and you are paying for it with your life but how do you prepare for an unjust death where no crime has been committed. The only ones guilty here are the King and Cromwell who over the next 3 days will commit mass murder under the umbrella of execution for treason.

        1. I agree that Henry was a psychopath, but disagree as to Cromwell. I think it is rather significant that Cromwell didn’t arrest anyone until after Anne’s conversation with Henry Norris (“if aught came to the king but good ….”). Also, I have a great deal of difficulty in seeing that Cromwell had a motive … it would be Henry (not Cromwell, who supported mandatory, tax supported poor relief) who would be angered that Anne wanted the money from the monasteries to go to charitable purposes, not Henry’s coffers and Cromwell had been implementing a pro-French policy for years, so I don’t see how any refusal to make peace with the Emperor would be so threatening that he needed to kill people.

        2. Motive self preservation. He had received two public rebukes in two days and now received a threatening one from the King and he saw the person who could weaken his position as Anne. I don’t think he intended on her execution but having suggested to Henry that he may be able to find a way to remove her, then he was permitted to investigate and the rumours about Anne led to the Grand Jury investigation. The legal apparatus was in place, the Parliament available to meet, then the opportunity presented itself with careless remarks about Dead Men’s Shoes. Henry by now wanted her out of the way and Cromwell created the way to do it via a confession, more careless talk and a full investigation after arrests were made.

  3. If Anne had been offered a pardon in return for her consent that was very very cruel yet I would not put it past Henry, he was to treat Robert Aske much the same way, double dealing was something monarchs were apt to do in their dealings with their friends and allies and Henry must have impressed upon Cranmer to promise her anything to get her to sign, or maybe Cranmer just hinted and Anne with the wild desperation of a caged bird intent on escape read too much into it, maybe she still thought she was in this horrible nightmare and it must have appeared surreal to her and the men to, for her to be charged and imprisoned in the Tower was unprecedented and so she had no horrific example to torture her mind, unlike Catherine Howard years later, other queens we have mentioned were not put to death just banished from court, Kings did not execute women, there was that chivalric sense of feeling that forbade them from harming them, mere banishment and a secluded life in the nunnery was enough so Anne must have felt she would not actually die, the courtroom trial was just a phase she had to endure and the awful sentance too was just said because the law demanded it before she was sent of to the nunnery, but her hopes were cruelly dashed when on the eighteenth she was told to prepare for death, for now she seemed rather cheerful as one would be when one is given hope of life and enjoyed her meal with gusto, poor Anne to be so deceived, and as for her so called lovers they busied themselves writing letters to their loved ones,Weston’s letter I to find appealing, he sends love to his parents and wife and son, and George and Norris were getting in a state worrying about money affairs, they were to have a priest so they could pray and make their piece with their saviour, the last few days of their life must have been dreadful, they all wanted to die with clear consciences, I’m glad at least they were allowed the luxury of writing to their families, was Jane ever allowed to visit George and were the others men’s families allowed to visit them I wonder? If they did visit them we hear nothing of it, they were told they were going to die the next day how did they get their thoughts round it, maybe that way is kinder as the longer the waiting the greater the anguish, as Anne herself said when told her execution was to be postponed, she had thought she would be dead and past her pain, we must spare a thought for the torment their families were going through as well, Sir Thomas and his wife must have pleaded with Cromwell to show mercy to their son and daughter, but Thomas was all about self preservation and maybe he thought it would do no good and he could well have incurred the Royal wrath on himself! he had to tread carefully for himself and his wife who was not well, young Weston’s family put up a huge ransom but it did no good, he was only twenty five and Smeaton possibly not more than nineteen, Smeaton whose name as gone down as the man who betrayed his queen and mistress, his name was mud and mud sticks, but historians have treated him much kinder than his contemporaries did, Wyatt was fortunate as he was Cromwells friend and his presence in the Tower was a mere formality, he would later be released along with Sir Richard Page, alone in his cell he turned his thoughts to poetry and penned what I think is one of the saddest poems of all.

  4. I find the short simple letter from Francis Weston to his parents and wife very moving. His parents also offered a lot of money to Henry for a pardon, I believe.

    Poor George worrying about his debtors who owed him money as the debt was now due to the crown. I assume his parents would have to pay his creditors if the crown didn’t. What a situation to be in and Francis Weston had more creditors than me. Look at the details, payments to ordinary people who had done him a service in his lifetime. It must have been all overwhelming.

    How do you prepare for death when you are innocent? I guess they must have made confession and received absolution as they were still Christian souls. They would face Divine Judgement so had to seek the mercy of God for we are all sinners and the grace of God as their comfort. They probably prayed quite a bit and I hope they found solace that last night and some rest.

    Anne too must prepare for death, but she hoped her faith would be different. We know that she had dinner with William Kingston as she expressed hope of going to a convent. The smaller houses had been dissolved but the larger ones were still open and didn’t get dissolved until 1538 to 1540 as the Bill for them had not gone through Parliament yet. We also know they were still open as a negotiation to save one convent took place in Jane Seymour’s apartments. Anne ironically, though a religious reformer was not in favour of them all being dissolved but wanted to reform them. Henry and Cromwell wanted their money and land and so they all had to go. The participation of some larger monasteries in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, however, led to them all closing. But for now Anne hoped this would be her fate because Henry had sent Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to ask her co operation in annuling her marriage. She must have believed that this would happen in lieu of execution. I wonder what Henry would have done with her once the convent closed, if he did agree. As with earlier articles, it was not normal for a Queen or Princess or even a high born lady to be executed. Women were in earlier times thought not to be responsible for their actions, especially if under the influence of another. Their male relations were made responsible for their future behaviour, if themselves innocent of conspiracy and they would be sent to a life of prayer and penance or to confinement. This was considered chivalrous and Medieval King’s with a few exceptions, certainly didn’t execute noble women.

    As I said Archbishop Cranmer had been to visit Anne and her mood was certainly different. We don’t know if he made her a promise in order to gain her consent to a much-needed annulment. We do know her marriage to Henry was annulled. This might seem quite bazaar as Henry would have been free to marry again after Anne’s execution but there was a dark purpose behind it. Henry Viii believed what was convenient and he also held his marriage to Anne as invalid. He wanted a clean sheet and that all of his legitimate succession should be invested in his marriage with Jane Seymour and he asked Parliament at it’s next sitting to pass a new Act of Succession to this affect. He wanted to declare his second daughter, Elizabeth, illegitimate and as Harry Percy hadn’t agreed that he had contracted with Anne, he used his own relationship with her sister Mary as the cause. Anne it appears agreed.

    Unfortunately, we don’t know if Henry told the Archbishop to promise Anne her life if she agreed, but it was probably assumed by her that now she would live. However, even as she hoped to be spared, that Henry was testing her, Anne was still abandoned, without a friend and she must have worried and even despaired of that hope, preparing her soul for death.

    Meanwhile Jane Seymour was being pampered and she was preparing for her wedding and I just wonder how conscious she was of these terrifying events. We are not given any details. If she did feel for Anne, then in reality she could only accept what must be and know she could do nothing to change it.

  5. Our thoughts do indeed go out to the five men in Tower of London, on this night before their execution; how can we begin to understand what it was like for them?
    I found a letter written by Sir Walter Raleigh to his wife, Elizabeth, in 1618, a letter of loving farewell, which powerfully encapsulates the thoughts of a husband facing death. It’s not a long piece, well worth a read, but I’d like to briefly quote this…
    “I cannot write much, God knows how hardly I steal time while others sleep, and it is also time that I should separate my thoughts from the world. Begg my dead body, which living was denied thee; and lay it at Sherburne, by my Father and Mother; I can say no more, time and death call me away.
    Pray for me, and let my good God hold you both in his arms.
    Written with the dying hand of sometimes thy Husband, but now alas overthrown.”
    Very moving.

    1. Thomas Wyatt wasn’t even charged or tried, Rose, he was arrested on suspicion but he was kept in the Tower for several weeks before he was eventually released as a suspect. He was actually in protective custody as he was a client of Thomas Cromwell. His father may or may not have petitioned him for his son but his connection to Cromwell, combined with his previous release of any romantic claim on Anne worked in his favour. This and the suspicion by many historians that he and two others were merely arrested to make the investigation look good was enough to keep him out of the unfolding tragedy. Richard Page was also held and released but banished from Court and Francis Bryan, a favourite of the King and relative of Anne was not even arrested but questioned and released. He was a supporter of Jane Seymour.

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