17 May 1536 – The Executions of Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton

Posted By on May 17, 2011

Sir Henry Norris

Following on from our report on the execution of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, we continue with the executions of the other four men found guilty of adultery with the Queen and treason.

Thomas Wyatt, the poet who is at this very moment himself imprisoned in the Tower of London has written a poem about their executions, entitled “In Mourning wise since daily I increase”. I have included excerpts in the accounts of the men’s executions.

Henry Norris

Henry Norris was the next man on to the scaffold. We have two different accounts of his execution with his servant, George Constantine, saying that Norris “said almost nothing at all”1 and Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, saying:-
“I do not think that any gentleman of the court owes more to [the King] than I do, and hath been more ungrateful and regardless of it than I have.”2

Burnet goes on to say that Norris defended Queen Anne Boleyn, saying that he “loyally averred that in his conscience, he thought the Queen innocent of these things laid to her charge; but whether she was or not, he would not accuse her of any thing, and he would die a thousand times rather than ruin an innocent person.”

Norris then knelt at the block and was beheaded.

“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 deat and gone.’”
Thomas Wyatt

Sir Francis Weston

The third man to climb the scaffold and face the executioner was Sir Francis Weston who said:-
“I had thought to live in abomination yet this twenty or thirty years, and then to have made amends, I thought little I would come to this”
and then advised the crowd that they should learn “by example of him”3.

It is easy to read too much into his speech and think that he is confessing to adultery with the Queen, or worse illicit sexual acts, but here at The Anne Boleyn Files we feel that he is simply confessing to leading a sinful life and to not taking the opportunities that he was offered to change his ways. Aren’t we all guilty of that?

He too knelt at the block and his life was ended.

“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.”
Thomas Wyatt

William Brereton

Fourth in line was William Brereton who said:-
“I have deserved to die if it were a thousand deaths, but the cause whereof I die judge ye not. But if ye judge, judge the best.”4
He then repeated the last part, “but if ye judge, judge the best”, three or four times, before he knelt and was beheaded.
Sir Henry Norris’s servant, George Constantine said of Brereton:-
“if any of them was innocent, it was he, for if he were guilty, I say therefore that he died worst of them all”5, meaning that Brereton must have been innocent because he risked damnation by not confessing to his sin.

“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.”
Thomas Wyatt

Mark Smeaton

Poor Mark Smeaton. This man had seen four men beheaded right in front of him and he had already likely suffered some torture. It was now his time to climb on to the scaffold, now covered in blood, and face the crowd and the executioner. According to George Constantine, all he said was
“Masters, I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death.”6
Short and sweet!
Then he was beheaded.

Smeaton did not take the opportunity to retract his confession and when Anne Boleyn heard this she apparently said:-

“Has he not then cleared me of the public infamy he has brought me to? Alas, I fear his soul suffers for it, and that he is now punished for his false accusations! But for my brother and those others, I doubt not but they are now in the presence of that great King before whom I am to be tomorrow.”7

“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!”
Thomas Wyatt

The bodies of these fine five men, all respected courtiers, were then stripped and taken away for burial. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was taken inside the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula where he was interred before the high altar, whereas the other men, who were commoners, were buried in the Chapel churchyard. May they rest in peace.

I’ll leave you with the final verse of Wyatt’s poem:-

“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.”
Thomas Wyatt

Notes and Sources

  1. George Constantine, quoted in The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir, p244
  2. Burnet, quoted in Weir p244
  3. Weir, p245
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p248

14 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – The Executions of Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton”

  1. Daniela says:

    Bloody days indeed. Weston did right by defending the Queen, as much as she was hated, it seems not too many believed the accusations to be true though.
    Cromwell had done a proper job making sure that noone would speak up for the condemned, especially his enemy Queen Anne.
    Little did it matter that Weston defended her and that others were thought to innocent aswell. It’s a real shame what happened, that hearsay tales that some maids mentioned or of people that weren’t even thought of beng close to the queen would be twisted into untruths and put against innocent people.

    I’ve heard even the locations where alledged meetings of the Queen and the accused men were often very inaccurate. They claimed her to be at York Place (Whitehall) whan indeed she was a Greenwich or to be at Richmond when she was at Hampton Court, something in this kind of way, so how would she physically be able to be at some other place? She couldn’t have multiplied herself and gone to other places. I believe in her innocense and the men accused with her, the one or other might have taken a fancy on her, such things happen, but she was a) a queen and b) married, so off limits, so hopefully as righteous and virtuous as she tried to live she would have told him off his fancy for her.

    And poor Mark…I still don’t get why he didn’t retract his -possibly under torture retrieved-confession, it wouldn’t have mattered on the outcome now anyway, but I personally think, if something is unjust it needs to be mentioned and fought for – till the very end. I guess poor Mark was too sensitive and crumbled under the pressure.

    RIP y’all and I hope you are happy together now, dancing (you have a talented musician amongst yous, don’t you?) and being at ease, while the people responsible for that cruel deed will eternally be burning in hell, tortured by your ghosts every day and night, making them whish they had been in your place…!

    I am fascinated by how exact now some dates of events 475 years ago or even before that are known, it’s such a long time ago and they still have accounts for example on what the queen wore when she met her end and what the accused men and queen spoke, where Jane Seymour was at the time or the king…what time in the day Elizabeth and Mary were born. I am curious to see whether historians will find more pieces of the jigsaw in their detective work.

  2. Courtney says:

    I actually teared up while reading this. Those poor innocent men.

  3. Wendy says:

    A sad day indeed. Has anyone ever established where the Chapel Churchyard was in relation to St. Peter Ad Vincular?

  4. nd Shoshana says:

    I have read so much about the trials and executions of these men, and yet it still amazes me that anyone could believe Anne Boelyn guilty of adultry and incest with them. How could she manage to conceal such acts when her live was lived so openingly in front of her Ladies in Waiting and others? There was no privacy for the Queen; not even the most intimate of acts went unnoticed. Both she and Henry would have been continually guarded; even when behind closed doors at night. Guards would always be posted outside of their suites. Ladies in Waiting would come and go at all hours, the Queen would have someone sleeping in her room with her in case she desired something during the night. The first time Queen Anne changed her routine in anyway, it would have become gossip that would have raced through the court and probably straight to the KIng’s ears. One slip away from her normal routine and her enemies would have jumped on her like – as we say in the South – a duck on a June bug or white on rice. It would have been impossible for her to conduct an affair on any level with any courtier; she was too visible. Truly, she and these men died for no other reasons than politics and lust. The pain and tragedy of their deaths did not die with them either; their families, knowing they were innocent, most probably suffered for the rest of their lives. In manipulatijng this consipiracy against the Queen, Cromwell, destroyed many more lives than these; and unknowingly placed his foot on the first step to his own downfall. I imagine that given time, Henry would come to secretly question the validity of the accusations which made it that much easier to find fault when Cromwell pushed him to marry Anne of Cleves. Henry may not have voiced all his opinions but I’d bet the bankroll he kept a running account on Cromwell and many others so that when the account came due, he could justify any action he may wish to take against those who, in his eyes, did not conform to his requirements of them. Henry has always struck me as a man who kept account, and expected others to act as he wished – but who never revealed what he expected of them, expecting them to just know.

  5. Esther Sorkin says:

    Normally, a man of Mark Smeaton’s station in life would have been hung, drawn and quartered, not beheaded. He wasn’t of higher rank than Dereham (Catherine Howard’s lover before her marriage to Henry) who got hung, drawn and quartered even though he was less culpable than Culpeper (who was beheaded.) I think Smeaton may not have exonerated Anne because he feared losing his (comparatively) merciful ending.

    I like to think of these guys, with Anne, in heaven, laughing over the fact that Elizabeth proved to be such a great monarch, settling forever the issue of whether women could rule.

  6. lisaannejane says:

    After watching all those executions and knowing you were next, I am not surprised that Mark Smeaton could did not retract his confession. Under those circumstances, it would be hard to remember what to say at all. He was probably already in pain from being tortured so I think it would be hard to remember to recant a confession. A very sad day for all those innocent men.

  7. Tudorrose says:

    Sad, very sad indeed. At least Norris and Weston spoke up for her for which makes me happy as well as proud and I am sure that the other two of the remainder men including her own brother would have spoken up for her given the chance, if they had the chance that is but they never did.

    It is odd as well as strange that Anne thought that it was just her as well as Smeaton in the Tower and behind bars and none of the others or the rest she thought according to her as well in her own eyes that the rest including her brother would be at court with the rest of their peers by and next to the King as she thought that she would too herself the next coming day, little did she know, very little did she really know. Anne had obviously never been informed and kept up to date with what was happening. Not really, she could not of been which was very unfortunate but then again had she had of been it would of just led to more bicker as well as heartbreak and sent her into more of a frenzy which would not have been a good or great thing to do.

    +R.I.P+ Norris. Weston.Brereton.Smeaton. +

  8. BoleynBlue says:

    Those poor men, It makes me so sad to think of how and why they died.

    I also believe that Mark Smeaton did not clear the Queen’s name for fear of his own demise. I have also often wondered why he was beheaded instead of being hung, drawn and quartered – guilt perhaps, because he was innocent.

    1. miladyblue says:

      It is spectulated that Smeaton was either physically tortured (racking or whatever) or possibly that Cromwell played mental games with him, offering the “merciful alternative” of beheading, rather than hanging, drawing and quartering, if he confessed to what Cromwell and Anne’s enemies wanted. Since executions in those days were public, Smeaton had probably seen more than one commoner hanged, drawn and quartered – it was NASTY.

      Poor Mark probably feared – rightly so? – that if he DID retract his confession, that Cromwell or whomever was in charge, would put him through the whole gamut of hanging, drawing and quartering. I wonder if it is possible that Cromwell told him beforehand that if he did try to exonerate Anne, the other executioner was standing by to do exactly that, and to behave accordingly.

    2. Tudorrose says:

      Yes, I agree. I think Mark did it out of his friendship and protection for the Queen not so much himself or both and as to why Smeaton was be-headed rather than being hung drawn and quartered as would be the execution method for his station, I do not really know, this and that is something nobody really knows but it may just of been because they knew of his innocence, that is probably mostly likely what it was and had been because I am sure if it were true they would have had him hung drawn and quartered. This would of been very rare to execute someone of such a low status of her by axe and also as the rest went the same way, they thought well we will not be too mean we will grant him and spare him the axe that is the least we can do. Had things have gone really according to plan and how they should of been according to rank and status that would of been really mean if he was really and most truthfully innocent but at the same time nobody would be really questioning it as it would of just been following the normal procedure back then for the condenmed but then at the same time that is who people would have had the most sympathy for and I mean due to the fact that he had been tortured prior to his interment and execution he was tortured and as far as we know was the only one that was the rest suffered just not as bad and I am sure that was probably one due to his resistance at the beginning under interrogation and also because hew as low of rank, where as the others perhaps gave in more quicker than he that is why they did not suffer the same and of course because they had been higher in rank than he so as it was Mark was the one who did really suffer the most and he as a result is the one that I feel the most sorry for despite feeling sorry for all of them.I think that they the monarchy that being the King and the council namely Cromwell just wanted them gone really and truthfully gone and they just wanted to see blood spill, seeing how bloodthirsty they were, they did not seem to care who they hurt or killed in the process and it just goes to show you how much. Bad I know but true.

  9. Tiffaney says:

    Mark Smeaton…could bearly speak for the state that the previous days of his life had left his poor mind in. ~Please try to imagine what the magnitude of this situation would do to a man who had been tortured for what must have seemed like an eternity prior to having to mount those awful stairs. …Mark, didn’t think of much that fateful day. He couldn’t.

    Rest In Glorious Peace all ye men of such precarious times.

  10. Sway says:

    “These bloody days have broken my heart,
    My lust, my youth did them depart.
    For your wit alone many men would bemoan,
    And since it is so, many still cry aloud.

    It is a great loss that you are dead and gone,
    A time you had above your poor degree,
    Before whereof your friends may well bemoan,
    A rotten twig upon so high a tree has slipped your hold
    And you are dead and gone.

    These bloody days have broken my heart,
    My lust, my youth did them depart.
    And blind desire of ambitious souls,
    Who haste to climb seeks to revert and about the throne
    The thunder rolls.

    These bloody days have broken my heart….”

    ;(

  11. Ali says:

    what a tragedy, humans are cruel, so cruel. I really feel so sad for poor Mark Smeaton . I don’t think human nature has changed, different cultures permit different things you only have to look at the Middle east and places like Afghanistan and Rwanda and Bosnia and Serbia to see that human cruelty is the same as it was back then. The whole Anne Bolyen killing and that of her “alleged” lovers shows that Henry was a pyschopath and a syphyilitic gargoyle.

  12. Anne says:

    Henry loved Anne more than any of his other wives, at least at the beginning (as much as a man driven by lust could love). But he needed to get rid of her because he needed to have a son and because after delivering a baby girl, Ann didn’t please him in bed any longer and he had already set his eyes on the next one, one that had not had a child yet. Ann did not commit adultery but she was terrified of him seeing how angry he was because she wasn’t a virgin anymore and how he looked at her with hatred. . . So she was indeed planning to kill him and it was discovered. She was beheaded with a sword because he thought his daughter Elizabeth would have appreciates that in the future. Henry loved his daughter Elizabeth dearly. How do I know all this? I just do and I can’t explain why.

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *