17 May 1536 – “Stick to the truth and follow it” – The Execution of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, brother of Queen Anne Boleyn

On this day in Tudor history, 17th May 1536, five courtiers lost their lives to the executioner on Tower Hill in London.

The men were George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton.

George was first to died, being the highest in status, and he made a moving speech:

Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law hath condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved to died if had 20 lives, more shamefully than can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully.

I have known 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 to 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 how, 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 living 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.

As well as following the traditional pattern for scaffold speeches, by acknowledging that he was a sinner deserving of death an acknowledging that he had been condemned by the law, George used his last moments to preach to the crowd. He was a reformer but felt that he could have done more to follow God’s word.

He died with courage.

His friend Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder wrote of George’s execution in his poem “In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase:

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.

You can find out more about the men who died on this day in 1536 in my article 17 May 1536 – Who were the men who were executed in May 1536?

If you want to know more about George Boleyn, then please do consider buying “George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat” on kindle or in paperback. Here’s a link to it on your country’s Amazon site – http://getbook.at/george-boleyn

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  1. It was said after the deaths of Anne Boleyn and her brother that the court was a much quieter and rather dull place without them, where an enthralled crowd would gather round the queens person and listen to her sing maybe, whilst Smeaton strummed at his lute and Wyatt and George would regale the company with their poetic verses, where there was laughter and merrymaking now there was none, many tears were shed when George Lord Rochford went to his death, no doubt men as well as women, for he must have left many a broken heart behind, his widow wore black all her life and she to tragically, was to die by the axe years later, George possibly was not the ideal husband, he could also be rather cruel and made unsympathetic comments about Lady Mary when her mother died, he was ambitious like his sister and father and was said to be a notorious womaniser, but I do not believe he was anything other than a healthy heterosexual male, unlike the recent rumours that have cropped up by a well known historian in recent years, he appears to have been gifted with grace and charm a ready wit and a keen fertile brain like his older sister, there is a sketch said to be of him but it is not authenticated, his unhappy marriage is a myth and yet many people have believed it for centuries, his wife has been besmirched with the fall of both him and the queen and in this, history has done her a very real injustice, Wyatt’s grieving sonnet spoke for every person at Henry V111’s court when he wrote ‘ for thy great wit each man would thee bemoan’, he was a colourful larger than life personality, proud yes and no doubt vain, the gods had bestowed great fortune on him and like his sisters, a ruthless king took it all away in an instant, his sudden arrest trial and bloody death was as unprecedented as hers, her fall was his, he went to his death boldly with the shadow of treason hanging over him and most ungodly, the charge of incest, he would grace the court no more with his Adonis like presence, his witty retorts his beautiful verses, Wyatt a friend of the Boleyn’s for many years must have cherished their memory all his life, indeed his grandson was to write Anne Boleyn’s first biography which meant that George must have been written about with much reverence to, RIP George Boleyn Viscount Rochford and the other innocent souls who perished that day.

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