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

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