Tower Hill scaffold memorial
Tower Hill scaffold memorial
On this day in history, Wednesday 17th May 1536, five courtiers were beheaded on Tower Hill. Their names: Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, Sir Henry Norris and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Their crime: high treason; they had been found guilty of having sexual relations with Queen Anne Boleyn and of plotting with her to kill the king.

The men were executed in order of rank, with the highest going first. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, climbed up onto the scaffold and chronicler and herald Charles Wriothesley records his execution:

“[…] the Lord of Rocheforde, brother to Queene Anne, sayde these wordes followinge on the scaffolde to the people with a lowde voyce: Maisters all, I am come hither not to preach and make a sermon, but to dye, as the lawe hath fownde me, and to the lawe I submitt me, desiringe you all, and speciallie you my maisters of the Courte, that you will trust on God speciallie, and not on the vanities of the worlde, for if I had so done, I thincke I had bene alyve as yee be now; allso I desire you to helpe to the settinge forthe of the true worde of God; and whereas I am sclaundered by it, I have bene diligent to reade it and set it furth trulye; but if I had bene as diligent to observe it, and done and lyved thereafter, as I was to read it and sett it forthe, I had not come hereto, wherefore I beseche you all to be workers and lyve thereafter, and not to reade it and lyve not there after. As for myne offences, it can not prevayle you to heare them that I dye here for, but I beseche God that I may be an example to you all, and that all you may be wayre by me, and hartelye 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 Kinge.”

Rochford then knelt at the block and was beheaded.

Sir Henry Norris, the king’s groom of the stool, was next. The Spanish Chronicle account states that Norris “made a great long prayer” and declared that he deserved death because he had been ungrateful to the King, but Norris’s servant, George Constantine recorded that unlike the other men, who confessed that they were deserving of death, his master “sayed allmost nothinge at all”.

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, was the third man to be beheaded. According to George Constantine, before he was beheaded 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.”

The fourth man to climb up onto what must have been a bloody scaffold by this point was William Brereton, a groom of the privy chamber and a man who was powerful in Cheshire and North Wales. Constantine records 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”.

The fifth and final victim of the executioner that day was Mark Smeaton, a court musician and the only one of the men to have confessed to sleeping with the queen. Smeaton had pleaded guilty at his trial, unlike the others. According to Constantine, before he was beheaded Smeaton simply said “Masters I pray you all praye for me, for I have deserved the deeth”. Queen Anne Boleyn was shocked when she heard that he had not taken the opportunity to retract his confession: “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.”

Charles Wriothesley records that the heads and bodies of the men were buried together, with Lord Rochford’s remains being buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula and the others being buried in the churchyard, Weston and Norris in one grave, Brereton and Smeaton in another. Their heads were not displayed on pikes.

I’ll leave you with a poem written by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, who was also imprisoned in the Tower of London in May 1536, but who was later released without charge.

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
Sould 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.

Rest in peace Lord Rochford, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton, you are remembered.

Notes and Sources

  • Wriothesley,Charles. A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Volume 1, Printed for the Camden society, p. 39-40.
  • Constantine, George. Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, p. 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.

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