17 May 1536 – Five courtiers are beheaded on Tower Hill – The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Posted By on May 17, 2021

On this day in Tudor history, 17th May 1536, courtiers George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were beheaded on Tower Hill for high treason.

All five had been found guilty of treason, for their alleged affairs with Queen Anne Boleyn, and for plotting with her to kill her husband, King Henry VIII.

Find out what happened on this day, and hear contemporary accounts of the men’s scaffold speeches and a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt about the men, in this video:

Here is the transcript:

On this day in 1536, 17th May, the five men found guilty of sleeping with Queen Anne Boleyn and plotting with her to kill King Henry VIII, were escorted out of the Tower of London up to the scaffold on Tower Hill to be executed for high treason.

Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, had all been sentenced to a full traitor’s death, i.e. to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but the king, in his ‘mercy’, had commuted their sentences to death by beheading. It might not seem very merciful to us, but at least beheading was usually quick, compared to the lengthy pain and suffering of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

The men were executed in order of rank, with the highest going first, meaning that George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, went first and the lowly Mark Smeaton had to watch four men beheaded in front of him.

Chronicler Charles Wriothesley recorded George’s execution speech:

“[…] the Lord of Rochford, brother to Queene Anne, said these word following on the scaffold to the people with a loud voice:
Masters all, I am come hither not to preach and make a sermon, but to die, as the law hath found me, and to the law I submit me, desiring you all, and specially you my masters of the Court, that you will trust on God specially, and not on the vanities of the world, for if I had so done, I think I had been alive as ye be now; also I desire you to help to the setting forth of the true word of God; and whereas I am slandered by it, I have been diligent to read it and set it forth truly; but if I had been as diligent to observe it, and done and lived thereafter, as I was to read it and set it forth, I had not come hereto, wherefore I beseech you all to be workers and live thereafter, and not to read it and live not there after. As for mine offences, it can not prevail you to hear them that I dye here for, but I beseech God that I may be an example to you all, and that all you may beware by me, and heartily I require you all to pray for me, and to forgive me if I have offended you, and I forgive you all, and God save the King.”

George then knelt at the block and was beheaded.

Sir Henry Norris, the king’s former groom of the stool, was next. His servant, George Constantine, recorded that unlike the other men, who confessed that they were deserving of death, his master “said almost nothing at all”.

The third man to be executed was Sir Francis Weston, a man who had been made a Knight of the Bath in 1533, as part of Queen Anne Boleyn’s coronation celebrations and who was a favourite of Henry VIII. According to George Constantine, Weston addressed the crowd, saying: “I had thought to have lived in abomination yet this twenty or thirty years and then to have made amends. I thought little it would have come to this.”

William Brereton, a groom of the privy chamber, and a man who had been powerful in North Wales and Cheshire, was next to die. Constantine records him repeating the phrase “I have deserved to die if it were a thousand deaths. But the cause wherefore I dye, judge not. But if ye judge, judge the best”.

Then it was finally the turn of court musician Mark Smeaton, the only man to have confessed to sleeping with the king and to have pleaded guilty. According to Constantine, Mark said: “Masters I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death”.

He made no mention of his confession and Queen Anne Boleyn was shocked when she heard that he had not retracted it in his final moments. She is reported as saying: “Did he not exonerate me […] before he died, of the public infamy he laid on me? Alas! I fear his soul will suffer for it.”

When we read scaffold speeches and see these people stating that they deserve death, we must bear in mind that they are not confessing to the charges laid against them, they are stating that they, as sinners, deserve to die. There was also scaffold etiquette, which is why speeches tend to be very similar – you would praise the monarch, confess to being a sinner deserving of death, ask those there to pray for you etc.

After the executions, according to chronicler Charles Wriothesley, the heads and bodies of the five men were buried together. None were displayed on pikes on London Bridge. George’s remains were buried in the chancel of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, and the remains of the other four men were recorded as being buried in the churchyard of the chapel, Weston and Norris in one grave, Brereton and Smeaton in another.

Poet and courtier Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time, wrote this poem about his five colleagues:

In mourning wise since daily I increase,
Thus should I cloak the cause of all my grief:
So pensive mind with tongue to hold his peace.
My reason sayeth there can be no relief;
Wherefore give ear, I humbly you require,
The affects to know that thus doth make me moan.
The cause is great of all my doleful cheer
For those that were, and now be dead and gone.

What thought to death desert be now their call
As by their faults it doth appear right plain?
Of force I must lament that such a fall
Should light on those so wealthily did reign,
Though some perchance will say, of cruel heart,
‘A traitor’s death why should we thus bemoan?’
But I, alas, set this offence apart,
Must needs bewail the death of some be gone.

As for them all I do not thus lament,
But as of right my reason doth me bind.
But as the most doth all their deaths repent,
Even so do I by force of mourning mind.
Some say, ‘Rochford, haddest thou been not so proud,
For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan.’
Since as it is so, many cry aloud
‘It is great loss that thou art dead and gone.’

Ah! Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run
To think what hap did thee so lead or guide
Whereby thou hast both thee and thine undone
That is bewailed in court of every side;
In place also where thou hast never been
Both man and child doth piteously thee moan.
They say, ‘Alas, thou art far overseen
By thine offences to be thus dead and gone.’

Ah! Weston, Weston, that pleasant was and young,
In active things who might with thee compare?
All words accept that thou diddest speak with tongue,
So well esteemed with each where thou diddest fare.
And we that now in court doth lead our life
Most part in mind doth thee lament and moan;
But that thy faults we daily hear so rife,
All we should weep that thou are dead and gone.

Brereton farewell, as one that least I knew.
Great was thy love with divers as I hear,
But common voice doth not so sore thee rue
As other twain that doth before appear;
But yet no doubt but they friends thee lament
And other hear their piteous cry and moan.
So doth each heart for thee likewise relent
That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.

Ah! Mark, what moan should I for thee make more,
Since that thy death thou hast deserved best,
Save only that mine eye is forced sore
With piteous plaint to moan thee with the rest?
A time thou haddest above thy poor degree,
The fall whereof thy friends may well bemoan:
A rotten twig upon so high a tree
Hath slipped thy hold, and thou art dead and gone.

And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!
The axe is home, your heads be in the street;
The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes
I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.
But what can hope when death hath played his part,
Though nature’s course will thus lament and moan?
Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart
Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone.

Also on this day in 1536, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, at a special court at Lambeth Palace, declared that the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was null and void. Chronicler Charles Wriothesley recorded that it was due a pre-contract between Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Anne, whereas Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, put it down to the impediment caused by the king having had a sexual relationship with Anne’s sister, Mary.

2 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – Five courtiers are beheaded on Tower Hill – The Fall of Anne Boleyn”

  1. Banditqueen says:

    George Boleyn said he wasn’t going to preach a sermon and then did exactly that. It’s not a bad speech but we shouldn’t read too much into any phrases about deserving death and having committed many sins. He, like the others, like many others, followed protocols and made a good death. He repented his sins in life, prayed for the King etc, spoke of his reformed faith and the need to set an example and live by the Gospel. He also spoke of his misspent time on earth and that he wished he had lived a better life. One could read ten thousand different things into this, but it was really conventional as George was about to die and face the Judgement of the God he believed in. All men and women are sinners and George was expressing a belief that repentance was needed for salvation. He also followed the usual convention of praying for the King etc and accepting the King’s justice.

    The others followed, but were much briefer, whereas Mark merely asked all to pray for him. He said nothing different to his forced confession, which made Anne mad as it made her look guilty. It was a terrible thing because Anne maintained her innocence and Mark’s scruples, sticking to his word, to his guilty confession, made her look like a liar. Anne may have been both outraged and distressed that Mark didn’t exonerate her, but she couldn’t know the reason why. He may or may not have been tortured, the servant of Henry Norris, George Constantine, believed he was. He was at the very least interrogated for 24 hours by Cromwell with a couple of heavies standing by and may have been deprived of sleep, food and water, in a high humidity and low light room. That would make him very susceptible to suggestions and he probably believed the lies he was terrified into admitting. He would also eventually give it up as we say today, start saying anything Cromwell wanted him to, in order to avoid torture or in exchange for something. That something was most likely a promise of a more merciful death than hanging, drawing and quartering and to merciful treatment while in custody. None of these men were automatically granted the more merciful death of beheading, but the others were gentlemen and it was conventional for the King to reduce their sentences in this manner. Smeaton was a young man, a good musician, a good singer as well most probably, he was patronized by both Anne and Henry and they provided him with good clothing and money. He could live well but he was of lower status, a commoner. He had no such hope of his sentence being commuted without intervention. Cromwell had the political power to recommend mercy in exchange for a confession he then stuck to. I don’t believe he was tortured as he showed no signs of physical distress at his trial or execution. He didn’t change his story. He didn’t change it during the trial or at the moment of his death. I believe he was too afraid to and kept his dark bargain with the state. Anne and Thomas Wyatt would blame him, but they hadn’t experienced his terror and fear of worse to come. I don’t think we should judge him too harshly. We will never, thankfully, face such a dilemma either.

    Norris said practically nothing, such was his disgust on the fact he had been targeted and was disbelieved by the friend and King he had served for so many years and was in the closest position of them all. Weston and Brereton were brief but conventional and didn’t admit to anything. Weston had written a short and touching letter of farewell to his parents and his young wife and child. He also discharged his debts as did the others and sought pardon of all. Thomas Wyatt wrote his poem to commemorate these men, who are often overlooked, his heart and soul in torment as he did. Wyatt may have even have witnessed their awful end. Thus the bloody scenes came to their close and five bodies were taken to their repose. Both heads and bodies were laid to rest in the Churchyard of Saint Peter ad Vincular in the Tower of London, except George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, who was lain inside before the Alter. Here, in time, his wife, sister and cousin would join him. Anne’s last breathe would be taken all too soon.

    RIP. George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton. YNWA.

  2. Christine says:

    In the tragedy that was Anne Boleyn these five men are often overlooked I agree, we know a lot about Anne, her character her looks, how she was courted by the king, the long passionate letters the king wrote her, their fiery relationship the miscarriages she had, then the complete desertion by the king of her, and finally her shocking and bloody death, yet her co accused are sometimes overlooked by history, and to some are merely seen as shadowy figures in connection to her, they know little of their lives and characters forgetting that these too were living beings who also lived loved suffered and died, on this day the seventeenth of May these so called traitors were led out of their cells and over to the green where the scaffold had been newly built, they were beheaded according to rank, so Lord Rochford George Boleyn went first, we have Sir Charles Wriothesley’s very detailed account of the speeches the men made, George addressed the crowd and chose his last minutes on earth to promote his faith, of which he felt most keenly, he said it was not a sermon but to many watching, and us reading from this distance in time, it sounds just like one, Weston’s speech was particularly poignant, ‘i had thought to have lived in abomination these twenty or thirty years then to have made amends, I had thought little it would come to this’, Norris said very little, they probably still felt bemused by it all, one minute they had been at court carrying out their duties, hunting with the king, laughing together over goblets of wine, the next they had been arrested and hauled to the Tower, I agree with Bq, Norris must have felt little but disgust towards the king who he had given his life in service to, he had even been questioned by the king after the May Day joust and had sworn both his and the queens innocence, yet Henry had chosen not to believe him, Brereton of whom his servant had said if any of the men were innocent it were he, spoke of how he deserved to die a thousand deaths, but the cause for which he dies if any where to judge him to judge the best, simple words like Weston but they ring with innocency, Smeaton who must have been steeling himself as time and again his companions were butchered, was the last soul left and the blood of the last victim was washed away before he to made his speech, it was brief and simply declared he deserved the death and he prayed for the crowd to pray for him, by all accounts the headsman that day dispatched his victims easily, there are no accounts of awful butchery as in the case of Lady Salisbury and Cromwell, now five men had been slain and the little cart carried these bodies over to the little church of St Peter Ad Vincula, where all except Lord Rochford were buried in the churchyard, Rochford was buried in the chancel where he would be shortly joined by his sister, it had been a most horrific day and Sir Thomas Wyatt the famous poet and one who had courted Anne Boleyn in the past, had written a beautiful and eloquent poem on the tragedy of the men’s passing, it is long and filled with the misery of life and lost ambition, he speaks of them all in turn and finally comes to Mark Smeaton, he describes him as a rotten twig upon so high a tree, it must have been how all the men viewed him, he was the traitor the one who betrayed his mistress by his false confession, and when he had the chance to clear his name and hers, failed to do so, but kept company with his lie, we can understand their loathing and Wyatt’s, ,Wyatt particularly had known the queen since childhood and his sister was a close friend of hers, he had courted her when they were both young and so his feelings were of a more personal kind, us today can understand Smeaton’s failure to clear the queens name as sheer fright on his behalf, we can only assume his quick death reserved just for nobleman was his reward for his confession, to renege now on the moment of death meant he could just as easily be dragged away and taken to Tyburn, he was the youngest of them all, he was known at court as merely Mark which points to his youth, he was simply I believe a scared youth and because of that, he is the most tragic of all the men who died that day, the butchery over with, the scaffold was washed and the somber crowd dispersed, it could not have been pleasant watching five executions but people always turned up to watch one, however to watch five must have been an ordeal, and there must have been some in the crowd who could not have seen it through to the end, the king was informed of the men’s deaths and what he though we have no idea, Weston and Norris had been his friends, Boleyn his brother in law, to Cromwell it had simply been the fulfilment of his master plan, but it was still not over with, the queen had yet to die, the headsman himself always the anonymous figure in these tragedies, must have been weary with his arduous task, it is not easy to decapitate five grown men, it took strength and skill, soon the final part in this tragedy which has all the essence of a Greek tragedy, was yet to come.

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