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