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17 May 1536 – The Execution of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford

Posted By on May 17, 2011

Today is an awful day, a bloody day, a shocking day. Today has seen the brutal executions of five innocent members of the Tudor Court: Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, George Boleyn (Lord Rochford) and Mark Smeaton. The only good news is that all five men were beheaded rather than hanged, drawn and quartered, a more merciful death but still an awful way to die.

The first to die was George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Being the highest in rank, Rochford was the first man to face the executioner. Before he knelt at the block, he made the following 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.”1

In this speech, George Boleyn is not only following the usual execution convention, by acknowledging that he has been condemned by the law and deserves death because he is a sinner, he is also preaching a sermon to the crowd, urging them to learn from his mistakes and to stick to the truth and follow it. Tudur court expert, Eric Ives, commented that Rochford “spoke the language of Zion”2 and it was truly a moving speech from a man who knew that he was justified by his faith in God and that he would shortly be meeting his Father.

After the speech, he knelt at the block and was beheaded. It was the end of a popular man, a man known for his reformed views, his good looks, his intelligence and his poetry. RIP George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.

In his poem “In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase”, Thomas Wyatt wrote of Rochford’s execution:-

“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.’”

Notes and Sources

  1. The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, edited by John Gough Nichols, page 46 – This version of George Boleyn’s speech is very similar to one recorded in the Excerpta Historica, 1831, in a contemporary account by a Portuguese man, so is thought to be an accurate record of the speech.
  2. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives p278

Further Reading

36 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – The Execution of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford”

  1. Louise says:

    George was a brave and honourable man, yet in both posts regarding his trial and execution there is a photo of a person who played him as a foolish man who was also a rapist and wife abuser. That seems a real kick in the teeth to me and has spoiled these articles for me, which is a real shame.

    1. Claire says:

      I’m sorry you feel that way but obviously no contemporary image remains of him and my articles really do need an image, nothing was meant by the use of these images.

        1. Claire says:

          At least when you click on the image for details, it says “A portrait drawing of an unidentified man, possibly George Boleyn, 2nd Viscount Rochford”. It’s so sad that we don’t have one of him.

  2. Leigh says:

    I have always liked this poem. I think it is somewhat strange that George really only gets about half a stanza about himself, while the rest each get about eight lines apiece. Didn’t the Boleyns and Wyatts have a close connection? I would have expected that Wyatt would have written more about George in his ode.

  3. Louise says:

    When there’s an article about George, why are we forced to look at a man who played him as a pathetic rapist and wife abuser. It rather goes against what’s been said in the articles and is a complete kick in the teeth for a brave and honourable man. I find the choice of photos incredibly insensitive. Once was bad enough, but twice seems like a deliberate desire to offend. I really hope that’s not the case, but to be on the safe side I’ll make this my last comment on the Anne Boleyn Files. I’m starting to think that my passion for George is actually having a negative effect rather than a positive one, which obviously defeats the object.

    1. Claire says:

      I can’t quite believe that you have said that, Louise, when you know how much I love and admire the whole Boleyn family. No contemporary portrait exists and posts really need images of some type, particularly when they are written in a modern, newspaper style. I never meant to offend anyone and I find it a bit strange that you would accuse me of that. Oh well…

  4. Anne Barnhill says:

    I have never understood George Boleyn. To some, he is a reformist zealot; yet to others, he is proud and has led a liscientious life. Will the real George please stand up? I like all the pictures–there must be something more to him than I know. Anyone help?

    1. Tudorrose says:

      Indeed I quite rightly agree! 🙂

  5. Tudorrose says:

    These poor men and poor George, really and honestly. George would of course gone first in the line of execution due to who he was and what rank he was, being a Lord and a man of nobility, then the rest would follow and the Queen of course going last.

    I remember in the show that they had Anne’s cell window just looking over the site of the scaffold so she could see her unfortunate brother and the other four men being executed. I am not too sure if this had been and was the case in reality as I know the show had it’s errors and what not as far as I know nobody really knows whether that had been the case or not and there are no records stating that this had been or was so anyway, anyhow.

    Wyatt’s poems are really good as well as very heart feeling and they just tell you a little bit about these five men, they tell a story, funny though he did not mention Anne in them…I mean I know a couple of his poems were written about Anne or at least said to have been when read but not in this particular poem even though Anne’s execution was to take place last and not until the next day but really the day after that as there would be apparent problems. George like Wyatt said was probably a proud man I can believe that, this alongside the whole of the Boleyn family and this was probably one of the reasons that they including George came unstuck and the other four of the remaining men that went down with them.

    +R.I.P+ George Boleyn.

  6. miladyblue says:

    I have seen some Holbein paintings of noble men and women that have been labelled as “Unknown gentleman” or “Unknown lady” because there is no indication of the identity of the sitter.

    One of them shows a handsome, bearded young man sitting at a table, with a lute nearby. Naturally, there is no indication of who he is, but I always like imagining him as George Boleyn. I WISH I could find that online gallery again, so I could post a link to it, so we could have what may have been a contemporary portrait, at least in our hearts and minds, of George Boleyn.

    In the meantime, the images of the actors who have (wrongly) portrayed George that Claire is using are NOT meant to be insulting to George. The actors themselves simply played a role that was written for them – [sarcasm/] and everyone KNOWS Hollywood is so much “better” at creating “good” or “interesting” stories rather than the “boring tripe” that is Tudor history. [/sarcasm]

  7. Shannon says:

    I would just like to say that, although everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, how can you really know what these people were like? George could have quite possibly been a wife abuser, or even a rapist, we’ll never know for sure. Although I like to believe the best about everyone, these people were living in a time where ambition was everything and the throne was the greatest prize, meaning lots of feelings get trampled. I hate to think of how they execute people though, that’s just awful.

    1. Louise says:

      This comment actually exemplifies why I was so distressed when I saw this post. George was a wife abuser and rapist in The Tudors, and no offence to you Shannon, but you’ve read the post, saw the picture, and think that that portrayal is being condoned and that there is an acknowledment here that George may have been the man portrayed in that programme. Claire didn’t intend that, but to some people reading this, that’s the net effect. I had a go at Claire in my above comment and I accept I overreacted and that in no way did Claire have any intention of being deliberately offensive.
      Maybe George was the man portrayed in that programme, even though there’s no evidence to suggest he was, and I know that Claire doesn’t believe that, but to most people lack of evidence is neither here nor there. For every one person who takes time to reflect on the facts there are thousands who take a TV programme at face value, or simply say, ‘there’s no smoke without fire.’
      It’s made me realise my belief that the public perception of George could be changed is misconceived and that I’ve wasted four years of my life on researching this remarkable young man. It’s not helped by the fact that Weir has backed up a fictional programmes view of George, and of course she is the most popular writer of tudor history and to many what she says is gospel. That’s impossible to fight against. To most people George will always be the person they saw in The Tudors, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. It’s my frustration at that knowledge which is so distressing and why Claire now has the baton, not only for Anne, but also for George.

      1. Claire says:

        I don’t think Shannon was saying that at all, she was simply stating that we don’t know the full truth. I personally don’t believe that George was a wife-beater or rapist and I will fight those myths until I’m blue in the face. I don’t see any evidence for that kind of portrayal so I fight it and produce the evidence for what these people were like, but there will always be gaps that people can fill with wild ideas. Why they can’t portray George as a Renaissance man, a talented poet, a Reformist etc. is beyond me and incredibly frustrating. Debunking myths is a daily battle!

      2. Claire says:

        Louise,
        It’s a shame that you feel that you have wasted four years of your life researching George and I’m not sure why you feel that way. Historical characters will always suffer at the hands of authors, movie directors, bad history in schools etc. but that doesn’t mean that we should just give up. I’m happy to take the baton and fight for George but I just think it’s sad that you want to give up when you feel so passionate about him and have spent so much time researching his life. I’m so sorry.

      3. Eunice Wormald says:

        For Louise

        I spent years researching Richard III for and against it certainly was not a waste of time and I do not think your four years researching George Boleyn was.
        The Tudors was such a mix up it amazed me showing HVIII as a gorgeous man, instead of him becoming old and fat and maybe smelly so I would not think they’re portrayal of Jane Boleyn was anywhere near the truth – hundreds of ‘historians’ are know having to revise their opinion of Richard why not of George? Keep on keeping on.

  8. Lauren says:

    I first became obsessed with George Boleyn about 7 years ago, and his story, and that of another, has become a focus for much of my academic work, including my currect dissertation and future PhD topic, and I will continue to fight for him so to speak! However, I do not get offended by the pictures, just as I would not get offended by pictures of Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson, even though their portrayals were ghastly. The Tudors brought George more to the forefront of Anne’s life than other portrayals, and yes, there were some completely incorrect aspects to his character, but he isn’t the only one on that show to have been completely misrepresented.

  9. JADE says:

    YOU WERE RIGHT, CLAIRE! I HAVE JUST READ GEORGE BOLEYN’S SCAFFOLD SPEECH, AND HE DOES NOT MENTION FORCING WIDOWS…..MY MISTAKE! HOWEVER, I DID READ THIS ACCOUNT OF GEORGE’S SPEECH IN A HISTORY BOOK BY ALISON WEIR, SO IT SEEMS THAT EVEN WHEN THE AUTHOR IS CONSIDERED KNOWLEDGABLE OF THE BOLEYN’S AND TUDORS, WE SHOULD STILL EXERCISE CAUTION IN WHAT WE BELIEVE.

    1. Claire says:

      Alison Weir relies on George Cavendish’s Metrical Visions and she and Retha Warnicke also believe that this is proof that George was homosexual, because Cavendish has George mentioning “unlawful lechery”. However, Cavendish also uses the same language in describing Thomas Culpeper and Henry VIII and nobody argues that they were homosexual!

  10. margaret says:

    everyone has the right to their own opinion and are free to make up their own minds as to what they think ,watch on tv,even if its the other Boleyn girl ,its true there is nothing written down on George boleyns sexuality ,but no evidence does not mean he was not,im not saying he was or was not ,that’s a personal choice but these people have to be viewed objectively and unbiased ,anyway if and only if he was homosexual ,henry would have hidden that well

    1. Claire says:

      But we could say “no evidence does not mean he was not” about anything. Surely if there’s no evidence that he was homosexual then that suggests he wasn’t, just as there’s no evidence that Henry VIII was homosexual, so that suggests he wasn’t. There’s no evidence that Anne Boleyn was gay, so she probably wasn’t, etc. etc. It just seems an odd argument.

      Perhaps some people can choose their sexuality, but I’ve never met a gay person who chose to be gay or a straight person who chose to be straight, I don’t think it’s a decision that people make.

      1. Julie G says:

        I have always wondered why the historians bought into the George being gay thing. If George had felt those feelings he would have rushed down to the church and had them purged. In those times the bible was strictly against homosexuality. George was very serious about his believes and I just don’t see him as acting on any homosexual thoughts he might have had. He would have been ashamed and ignored them. Now I have no problem with him having adventurous sex with women. Procreation was for wife sex and lovers were for sexual pleasures so yeah I imagine if he did womanize that he hopefully had a good sex life with his other women. I am just saying you have to see them in their time period, and I just don’t see George acting on any homosexual acts in a time that such acts could get you beheaded quick . We are different nowadays and if you have those feelings you can act on them but even know it is censored by many religions.

  11. Holly lehman says:

    Did George only write the word thank you back to jane? Is there actual copies of their letters or is that just what’s rumored?

  12. Floyd says:

    Can anybody help? I am curious to know whether George Boleyn asked for communion with a priest before he walked to the scaffold. He was keen to circulate the English translation of the bible which does not include sacraments. Tyndale was not (if I have read him correctly) in favour of sacramental ‘superstitions’. Anne, according to Ives, took communion before her death. Did George?

    1. Claire says:

      Some Reformers were against the superstitions associated with the sacrament, i.e. transubstantiation (the bread and blood actually changing into Christ’s body and blood), but they were not against the sacrament itself. Holy Communion is still taken today by Protestants around the world.

      1. Claire says:

        A chaplain was sent to them on the 16th May for them to make their last confessions and I assume they would also have received the sacrament. George also did ask for the sacrament specifically so that he could swear his innocence before God prior to his death, just as his sister did.

        1. Floyd says:

          Right ho Claire thanks for that. Do you have a source for that information? I’d be interested to read it. Cheers.

        2. Claire says:

          Which information? About George? Not offhand, I’d have to check through my notes and I’m preparing to go on holiday at the moment. I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s in Kingston’s letters to Cromwell. I know the bit about the chaplain is, and some of them are in Letters and Papers and they’re also in the appendix of Volume 2 of Cavendish’s “Life of Cardinal Wolsey”.

      2. Floyd says:

        Yes I am aware that Anne did not reject communion even though she was probably influenced by the writings of Luther and Tyndale who did reject it. I was curious to know if George had rejected it as he was, it seems, as dedicated to spreading the scriptures in English as she was. It’s odd that both Boleyns were prepared to cherry pick bits from reformist thinkers who did reject transubstantiation. Wycliffe, Huss, Erasmus, Luther etc would have scratched their heads.

        1. Claire says:

          Those Reformers you name there didn’t reject the Communion, they rejected what they saw as superstition surrounding it.

        2. Claire says:

          And they didn’t cherry pick at all. The Reformation was in its infancy and there were lots of Reformers, all with their own ideas. Anne was very much influenced by the French Reformers, like Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples and Clement Marot, and their beliefs were very different to those of people like Luther. It wasn’t a case of cherry picking at all, there were just so many ideas and nothing had settled. You couldn’t label Anne or George as Protestants, it was far too early for labels like that and Anne was influenced by Reformers looking to reform the church from within. She was not Lutheran. It appears that George’s reading was wider, but he also could not be termed Lutheran.

        3. Claire says:

          I go into more detail on the Boleyns’ faith in my book “The Anne Boleyn Collection II” and also in the biography of George I wrote with Clare Cherry.

        4. Claire says:

          Anne believe in the dissemination of the Bible in the vernacular, poor relief, and justification by faith, but she had not gone as far as rejecting transubstantiation. If you read the works of Lefèvre d’Étaples and Clement Marot, and the texts Anne owned, you get a good idea of what her faith was. It was just a different flavour of Reform and there were so many ideas coming into England at the time. Nobody would be scratching their heads as each Reformer has their followers.

  13. Floyd says:

    Clement Marot was associated with Marguerite de Alencon sister to the French King Francis 1. He later sought out Rene, duchess of Ferrara who was a supporter of the Protestant Reformation but he had to leave Ferrara for fear of persecution and recanted his heretical views in order to be accepted back into the Catholic Church so he was hardly a role model for Anne’s later more mature concern for saviour through faith alone to follow.
    Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was also regarded as an influential early figure in French Protestantism but like Marot and Erasmus, he never left the Catholic Church even though some of his views were regarded as heretical. It is interesting that Erasmus, unlike Anne, never asked for communion on his pending death. Perhaps he was too ill, who knows. Like Luther and Tyndale his view was that unadulterated Holy Scripture was the way to salvation through faith alone. Basically he, along with all the other ‘protesters’ of the period were criticising the Catholic Vulgate version of the bible upon which behaviour of congregations were based, mystifying them in Latin.
    We know that Anne had a close friendship with Marguerite de Angouleme and that Marguerite must have been influenced by all the writers of her time including Calvin so there must have been a broad spectrum of views from which she (Margeurite) could base her own ‘protest-ant’ opinions. Anne was a young girl under Marguerite’s charge at the time so must have absorbed her views and was primed to accept the view of religious ‘protesters’ that the way to achieve salvation was through direct access to the word of god.
    The whole period was a hotch potch of ideas and Anne preferred to read the views of reformers in French but she was also aware, as was George, of the writings of other protesters that rejected transubstantiation. Tyndale rejected it as a logical consequence of his doctrine of saviour by faith alone. Anne had a choice; did she believe in the ‘superstition’ of transubstantiation or not? The fact that she took communion at the end proves that she was superstitious. I was interested to hear that George shared her superstition. Thanks for that information.
    So how is she to be viewed in retrospect of the reformation? Was she a ‘protester’ (a Protestant) or was she a pretender?
    Chapuys called her a Lutheran along with her father and brother and she and George must have read some of the smuggled books her father imported as well as the articles that her father had commissioned from Erasmus. However the nearest influence must have been Tyndale as he, like Anne and Geroge, were interested in the purity of the scriptures in English which if you follow the logic of purity must have entailed the rejection of transubstantiation. But she did not reject it. Perhaps neither of them followed the logic implied in Tyndale. She was, as Ives describes her, evangelical. She was superstitious to the end but a ‘protester’ she became nonetheless by default. Picky in what she believed in. It was not until after her death that the Book of Common Prayer recognised communion as an Anglican sacrament so during her lifetime she had choices to make.
    It is also interesting that Anne followed Marguerite’s example of humanist behaviour in her concern and care for the poor. Simon Fish’s ‘Supplication for the Beggars’ was sent to Anne even though it was intended for Henry because it was a direct appeal to him to curtail the power of the Catholic Church and Fish employed many of Luther’s scathing observations. While Fish’s main theological criticism was based around the existence of purgatory and the selling of indulgences he also believed in Solar Scriptura, which again would follow Tyndale’s logic. So Anne had enough reformist views presented to her in pamphlets as well as books in order to accept some ideas and reject others.
    Erasmus would have rolled his eyes.

    1. Claire says:

      Why would Erasmus roll his eyes? Why would anyone roll their eyes? I’m not sure what you are trying to get at when you say that.

      If you read the texts that Anne was reading, for example, Marot, Lefèvre d’Étaples, the Ecclesiaste… then you really do get a very good idea of her faith and her actions match it. Chapuys called all of them “Lutheran” but then he would have used that term for anyone who was different to a conventional Catholic.

      Regarding the ‘miracle’ of communion, a belief in justification by faith did not necessarily mean a rejection of transubstantiation, neither did believing in the authority of the scriptures.If we take Lefèvre as an example, his work shows that believed that sinners were justified and pardoned by faith alone, through the divine grace of God and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and that all the glory should go to God for his mercy and grace. Lefèvre also saw scripture as the highest authority, being the Word of God, and wrote that Jesus Christ was the sole mediator between God and man. A belief in justification by faith alone through the mercy of God led to a rejection of the idea that good works were necessary for salvation, not a rejection of transubstantiation, not by the French Reformers of this time anyway. There wasn’t an actual rejection of good works in themselves, either, good works were still seen as important because they came from a person’s faith and a willingness to be like Jesus.
      A belief in the authority of the Bible also does not have a bearing on transubstantiation, as Jesus did say “This is my body”, it is down to a believer’s interpretation of that.

      In the early to mid 1530s, a rejection of transubstantiation was still a rather radical view in evangelical circles, it wasn’t until later that it became more mainstream.

      Had the Boleyns lived longer then I think they would have become what we term as “Protestant”, but I think the best label, if we have to label, for them is “evangelical”. They believed in the authority of scripture, they believed in justification by faith alone through the mercy of God, they believed in Jesus being the only mediator between God and man, they believed in the importance of good deeds and charity as a reflection of one’s faith. I think Eric Ives sums it up well when he says of Anne “Her attitude would be characteristic of all shades of English evangelical reform for at least a decade more: real spiritual experience, yes; the priority of faith, yes; access to the Bible, yes; reform of abuses and superstition, yes; but heretical views on the miracle of the altar, no.”

      Have you read the works of the French Reformers from that time? They really are very interesting.

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