17 May 1536 – Five Executions on Tower Hill
Posted By Claire on May 17, 2013
“These bloody days have broken my heart”, wrote the famous Tudor poet, Thomas Wyatt, after witnessing the executions of the five men, and then Anne Boleyn, from his prison in the Tower of London’s Bell Tower.
Those days of May 1536 were indeed “bloody” and the 17th May saw the executions of five men, all former royal favourites, for high treason. The men’s sentences were commuted by the King, in his mercy, from hanging, drawing and quartering at Tyburn to beheading at Tower Hill. It was a small mercy.
The men were led out of the Tower of London up to the scaffold site on Tower Hill. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford and brother of Queen Anne Boleyn, was the first to be beheaded due to his high rank. He climbed the scaffold and addressed the crowd before him:
“Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved for to die if I had 20 lives, more shamefully than can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully, I have knowne no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly it were no pleasure to you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all.
Therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, the which I have been among, take heed by me, and beware of such a fall, and I pray to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, that my death may be an example unto you all, and beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court. And I cry God mercy, and ask all the world forgiveness, as willingly as I would have forgiveness of God; and if I have offended any man that is not here now, either in thought, word, or deed, and if you hear any such, I pray you heartily on my behalf, pray them to forgive me for God’s sake. And yet, my masters all, I have one thing for to say to you, men do come and say that I have been a setter forth of the word of God, and one that have favoured the Gospel of Christ; and because I would not that God’s word should be slandered by me, I say unto you all, that if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this. I did read the Gospel of Christ, but I did not follow it; if I had, I had been a live man among you: therefore I pray you, masters all, for God’s sake stick to the truth and follow it, for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knoweth.”1
George followed convention by acknowledging that he had been condemned by the law and confessing that he was a sinner who deserved death. However, although he the started by saying that he was not going to preach a sermon, he “spoke the language of Zion”,2 urging those witnessing his death to “stick to the truth and follow it”, and not make the mistakes that he had.
After he had finished speaking to the crowd, George knelt at the block and was beheaded. Although The Spanish Chronicle says that it took three strokes of the axe to finish him off, no other record corroborates it.
Next on the scaffold was Sir Henry Norris, Henry VIII’s former Groom of the Stool and great friend. Norris’s servant, George Constantine, recorded that the other men confessed, i.e. confessed to be deserving of death, “all but Mr. Norice, who sayed allmost nothinge at all.”3 The Spanish Chronicle reported that Norris “made a great long prayer”4 and declared that he deserved death because he had been ungrateful to the King. He then knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Norris was followed by Sir Francis Weston, gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Even though his family had fought for his release and Jean, Sieur de Dinteville, and Antoine de Castelnau, Bishop of Tarbes, French ambassadors, had interceded on his behalf, he had not been pardoned.5 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.”6 Heartbreaking words. Although his use of the word “abomination” has been used by some historians as evidence of homosexuality and illicit sexual acts, it is more likely that Weston was just referring to the fact that he, like everyone, was a sinner and that he had hoped to have had an opportunity to have put things right and to live a better life. It was too late; he knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Then it was the turn of William Brereton, a groom of the privy chamber and a royal favourite. This man who Eric Ives described as “the dominant royal servant in Cheshire and north Wales”,7 finished his life on a bloodsoaked scaffold. According to The Spanish Chronicle, he said, “I have offended God and the King; pray for me”,8 but other reports have him repeating the phrase, “I have deserved to dye if it were a thousande deethes. But the cause wherfore I dye, judge not. But yf ye judge, judge the best.”9 He then knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Finally, court musician Mark Smeaton climbed the scaffold. Smeaton was of humble origins but his musical talent had led to obtaining a position at court and winning the King’s favour. There are frequent mentions of Smeaton in Henry VIII’s Privy Purse Expenses and it appears that Smeaton was “wholly supported and clothed” by Henry VIII.10 How far he had fallen now! According to George Constantine, Smeaton addressed the crowd, saying, “Masters I pray you all praye for me, for I have deserved the deeth”11 and then he was beheaded. He was the one man who had confessed to adultery with the Queen and who had pleaded guilty at his trial, and he did not make any effort to retract his confession at the end. When Anne Boleyn found out, she cried, “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.”12 Perhaps Smeaton was in fear that he’d be dragged off the scaffold and hanged, drawn and quartered if he tried to do anything.
George Boleyn was buried in the chancel area of St Peter ad Vincula, the Chapel Royal of the Tower of London, and the other men were buried in its churchyard.
I’ll leave you with the poem Thomas Wyatt wrote in honour of the five men. It implies that Wyatt thought that these men were innocent.
In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase
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 affect 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 eah 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.
By Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
Notes and Sources
- ed. Gough Nichols, J. The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, 46.
- Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 278
- Constantine, George. Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 63.
- Hume, Martin Andrew Sharp. Chronicle of King Henry VIII. of England: Being a Contemporary Record of Some of the Principal Events of the Reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. Written in Spanish by an Unknown Hand.
- LP x. 909
- Constantine, 65
- Ives, Eric. William Brereton. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Constantine, 69
- Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. The Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry the Eighth, from November 1529, to December 1532, 100.
- Constantine, 65
- LP x. 1036