17 May 1536 – The Executions of Norris, Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Rochford

Tower Hill scaffold memorial
Tower Hill scaffold memorial

On 17th May 1536, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were executed on Tower Hill. They had all been found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, but their sentences had been commuted to the more merciful death by beheading.

Today, I want to share with you an extract from The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown audio book about their executions. The audio book is currently on offer for $5 if you want to hear more – see www.madeglobal.com/downloads/fall-anne-boleyn-countdown/.

The photo you can see here is from the scaffold site on Tower Hill, where the men were executed, and I laid a rose there when I visited one May. It is across the road from the Tower of London and is near to London Wall (the Roman wall built c. AD 200) and next to the Tower Hill Memorial, which commemorates the men and women from the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in World Wars I and II and who have no grave.

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21 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – The Executions of Norris, Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Rochford”
    1. I always wondered that, were the wives, mothers allowed to show some form of comfort to their beloved ones before they mounted the scaffold?

      1. If the family were present, It must have been a horrible site….four executed. I’m disturbed just reading it 500 hundred years later. Thinking of Anne’s thoughts…….

        1. and the fact that the men that were executed were not even guilty of being with Anne – the only man who had been with her was allowed to live…. and witness her death and their relationship had happened long before Henry. Incredible times…..

  1. I am always sad these dates 17th May which is my daughter’s Birthday and the 19th of May I think of Anne and her torment, fearon this day, was there anyone to comfort her in her last few seconds?

  2. I just think it is so sad that one man Henry V111 had the power to execute so many people on a whim or trumped up charges. So many families losing loved ones. It was a wicked time to live in around the Tudor court because there were so many people trying to find favour with the King who would think nothing of causing trouble for others and then sadly find themselves at the block a few years later. I am surprised that some did not die from shock before they reached the block..

  3. I agree with Linda in that dying from shock alone would be very understandable. Even now the thought of having to die in such a horrible way shocks me! I just cannot imagine it!

  4. I always wonder how much they actually knew about what was happening with their co-accused – would Anne have been informed of the deaths, or even know the sentences had been passed on the men? Same with Katherine Howard – did she know Culpeper and Derham were executed and her step-grandmother and the rest in the Tower?

      1. I wonder if he meant she saw them being led out of the Tower. Unless she had been taken to a spot on the ramparts she would not be able to see Tower Hill..

        1. I do hope Chapuys was misinformed about this and that Anne wasn’t forced to witness the executions.

  5. It is all very well condemning Henry VIII for condemning these people but had they been guilty he would have been justified. They were condemned by the law, under the law and through the law they suffered. If people think that Henry VIII was cruel they should read about King John or a few other earlier Kings who just had people starved to death because their father refused to hand them over as hostages; or killed their own nephews in a drunken rage or even Ivan the Terrible who killd his own son with his own hand; partly as he was drunk, partly as he thought he was plotting against him, or Herod the Great who killed his three eldest sons and his favourite wife; all of his rivals, an old man in his 90s and had the high priest drowned. Yes, this is an indication that Henry was getting crueller, but as susanna lipscombe points out in her two videos and the bloody tales video, Henry became cruel only in the final decade of his reign as these charges shocked and traumatised him. She believed that Henry believed the charges to be true and was harmed by this incident in a phychological way. That may be true, but I think an earlier incident actually led to this change and this moment, and medical science confirms this: his fall back in January 1536 and the loss of his son by Anne.

    Henry VIII was not a monster and people who claim he is are misguided and not historians. Henry was a man of his time and no better or worse than any other ruler of the day. The fact that he condemned his wife does not make him a monster; it makes him unusual and these other executions are acute and out of the norm. But what if these people and his beloved Queen had have plotted against his life and tried to put a bastard on the throne from their adultery? We know they were innocent and the real circumstances, but we are looking backwards through history via a lense; the people in the courts and trials did not have that advantage. Tudor trials were no different than any other trials of the day. May-be they were all set ups; but this situation is not normal; it is shocking and disgraceful; disgraceful as the people are innocent, shocking as the charges could have been true. Henry had to act as he did as his honour had been challenged as had his authority. He could not allow such treasons to pass from his point of view.

    Henry went downhill after the death of Anne, may-be as a matter of his failing health after his accident and his leg getting worse; may-be because he took more power to himself. May-be his other Queens could not counter balance him quite in the way Katherine had and Anne tried to do. The last 10 years was full of contradictions: he sought out and got rid of rivals to the throne with a renewed vigour and ruthlessness; but at the same time he settled many national problems and our defences; he sought to bring a balance between the religious and political forces and to take back parts of Franc we had lost; he led the nation in times of crises as no other monarch could, and he again kept order in the violent north and east of the country. He was tolerant for a period to those condemned even for heresy, but then turned on them later on with renewed vigour; he restored his daughters to the succession and tried to act fairly to resolve the on-going international crisis. He was at times more of a tyrant, at others he was more of a recluse, at others he made decisions to pardon entire groups of people out of the blue.

    But this is 1536: he had not yet turned into the tyrant and would not do so for some time. However; the laws he had passed to protect his position and his marriage to Anne had resulted in deaths that would not have happened otherwise. Did that make him a monster? No; it made him no different than either of his two daughters who killed far more than their father both for rebellion and for religious beliefs. Henry was not a man to cross, but there came a point in or around 1531-1536 when his courtiers noted he no longer accepted their advice even thought they still gave it. It was in this period that he was listening more to Anne and to Cromwell so this is not surprising. Henry had also become insecure and his judgements were not always great. Yet before 1533 he was tolerent and calm, he was much loved and his jsutice was fair. By 1532 he was changing; and changing fast; may-be he was just realising what power could do and not simply handing things over to his council. But Henry did not rule without either council, law or Parliament. He was clever in the way he used them; and he could point to the support of all of these; plus the support of the church and his people. Monsters do not consult any of these; so he was no monster.

    As to the events of the day: it is sad that these five men had to die for no reason; set up perhaps by Cromwell, but they were condemned by the law; the same law ironically passed to protect his marriage to Anne.

    1. Gracious, I made the same exact comment re the law a few days ago! 🙂
      This history must be so picked over that either people come to the exact same conclusions, or one doesn’t know when one has copied someone else almost verbatim
      Because the idea stays in ones head as reasonable. So I am not saying you
      Copied me bandit, only that is strikingly similar to my own words.

      I think I have internalized much of Alison Weir et al, so I am sure I am a combo of
      Various historians as well as my own intellect. Perhaps they would read my comments
      and think I should reference them…:-)

      1. You may well be a combo of historians, but I am quite capable of independent thought and do not copy any ones comments, especially when I have not even seen them.

  6. All the men certainly made sure they were following convention; may-be trying to gain some relief for their widows or families when they made sayings that you could expect from five ‘Christian’ men to make, confession of sins, regret for a wanton life and so on. All also as in your extract which is what I am referring to said they are condemned by the law, as did Anne of course, when she stated that she came to die under the law as she was condemned by the law and would say nothing against her death. Some of the conclusions that you point out that older historians made of the sins being referred to, that they say they have committed sodamy show more about the minds of such writers than the facts and the evidence from their lives. I am certain that as young, lusty men of the English court, Weston, Brereton and George Boleyn had at some point gotten up to all kinds of exploits, especially in their younger days. May-be they one or two mistresses and affairs outside of marriage or were a bit wild; the Tudor court was said to be a sexual hotspot in any event. It is a wonder, according to Chapyrs that there were any ladies of good virtue if they spent time at court. I know he was guessing and writing as a foreigner telling a tale or two; let me guess Spanish ladies + virtue English ladies= none virtue; but with regards to these and other men at the court; there must have been some talk to give them a poor reputation. And what did Thomas Wyatt know about them? Details please Mr Wyatt.

    To be serious though his poem is very moving and very telling. It is clearly a man remarking on the lives of his friends and who will miss them. He gives us here a small insight into the lives of five vibrant human beings, with flaws yes; but all the more alive and true for that; men who had lived a little and I suspect had gotten into a bit of trouble now and then; but men who had a real presence in the court, who had influence in the world and would I suspect leave a large wide gap when they went. i enjoyed your rendering of the last moments and the varied sources in your audio above; very well put together and brings them back to life for a few moments. The speeches may refer to wanton lives and sins, but I agree it is not clear what they are talking about and cannot be taken as evidence of guilt or homosexual living. Had these men been in some kind of homosexual ring or relationships with each other or other men, would that not have been part of the charges and evidence against them to blacken their names further. Sodomy was a grave sin; the Old Testament condemns it and so do references in the letters of saint paul. The Church took and still takes a harsh line on this behaviour and the criminal law in England had passed a law against it. It could lead to death. An ironic thing is that one of the jurists/judges in these cases was Lord Hungerford; and he was beheaded on the same scaffold as Thomas Cromwell in July 1540 for the acts of sodomy, incest and rape. The court would be rife with rumours and gossip about these men if they had relationships and someone would have denounced them sooner or later. If you are going to condemn a man or woman for adultery and treason, why not add a few more things if you believe them to be true, like sodemy? No, I think it refers to many things unknown, and not to what these so called writers want to believe.

    Did they confess guilt in this speech? I think that actually seems to be unclear. The sources agree they all confessed to being sinners and deserving death, save Norris who oddly said little or nothing. But the language they use is very much the same and many other speeches have these phases in them; and even if the witnesses thought they meant guilt, I do not agree, for they are not specific enough. In fact they do not speak directly to the charges directly, they speak only to the gospels, sin, their souls and youth. All of them also followed another convention, asking for mercy from God and from their fellows, forgiving those who had harmed them and hoping their souls would find peace. It is a very harrowing but moving scene and i hope that they did find that peace and mercy. May they all rest in peace.

    The last to die was Mark Smeaton and I find he is the odd one out here. He was the only one to confess and Anne seems rather annoyed at the fact he is the cause of her sorrow. Anne is rightly angry with Mark, but even then in the end she is gracious enough to hope he finds forgiveness for his soul. Even on the block he does not retract his confession which I think made some people believe him guilty. But he is also the fall guy as he was the easiest target being the lowest born and in status of the five men. He was the one arrested and bullied or may-be tortured into a false confession and may-be now he believed that confession. I wonder if when he says he most deserves death is that he has committed perjury and is guilty of the deaths of his fellows and the Queen. I feel sorry for him for I do not think he had any other choice and feel sad for him as his will has been stolen from him. I think he would find mercy in heaven. May he also rest in peace.

  7. What ever we think today it’s all speculation !! Will we ever know the truth ? We are all entitled to our opinions and it makes good debate !! Henry loved to make himself look the victim to justify what he did and he always had good reason in his eyes . When u are surrounded by so many power hungry people who all had evil intentions makes it easier to understand Henry’s actions and why he did them ! personally i find him fascinating ! What he did to Ann and those unfortunate men haunts me to this day so very sad ! But I think Henry suffererd for his actions he gained a son lost a wife he adored! His prolonged agony with his leg must have driven him mad . Katherine really did betray him broke his heart ! His final yrs were not happy ones ! But he always put this country first stood up to Europe that I admired him for !!!

  8. I knew BanditQueen would ably defend herself against claims of copying Judith Rex. I had intended to ask JudithRex to cite the post in question of “the same exact comment re the law a few days ago!” because I could not find it. Now it doesn’t even matter to me. What matters is the ability of this site to be a place to share information and state our views without any fear. Anne Boleyn Files enthusiasts may very well have different opinions and/or the same opinions about a subject that owns our passion. Let’s keep TABF amicable and cordial so that not a soul will be reluctant to express their thoughts. I enjoy being in the cyber company of all of you.

  9. Oh dear, hornets nest. My point was that so many of the same things are said over
    And over on the topic of Anne Boleyn that it can be hard to see if one had been stolen
    From or stealing. I have read all the books and while I believe my opinions to
    Be fresh, I noted I may indeed have internalized the comments of another writer myself.

    In fairness. I rarely read bandit’s posts as they tend to be too long, but this jumped out at as something I had just posted myself recently – using the word ironic about said law and making the same point. I did think She copied it, but then was amused that I thought that since I doubt anything written about this topic can truly be new anyway.

    1. Judging from the rest of your other, quite ludicrous comments I don’t even think you’d be able to write such comments as BanditQueen does.

  10. We are all entitled to our opinions weather they be right or wrong ! we all know there was far worse rulers through out history especially some Romans who where sycotic doesn’t make Cromwell and Henry saints !! They where murderers in my eyes cruel wicked devious men who also had there good points and have left lasting legesys ,that was the way of life if u had the power u disposed of your enemies and Henry and Cromwell did that very well but would always pass the blame and make themselves look the victims !!!

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