The famous Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt the Elder wrote two poems about the executions he witnessed in 1536 from his prison in the Bell Tower of the Tower of London. In one, he wrote of how “These bloody days have broken my heart” and I am always moved by those words and the refrain at the end of each verse “circa regna tonat”, or “about the throne the thunder rolls”.
The executions Thomas Wyatt witnessed were the beheadings of Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton, all former royal favourites who had been found guilty of high treason for sleeping with the Queen and for conspiring to kill the King. The men were executed on Tower Hill, with George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, going first due to his high rank. He addressed the crowd:
“Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved for to die if I had 20 lives, more shamefully than can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully, I have knowne 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 unto 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 now, 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 live 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
George followed convention by acknowledging that he had been condemned by the law and confessing that he was a sinner who deserved death. However, although he the started by saying that he was not going to preach a sermon, he did in fact do so and urged those witnessing his death to “stick to the truth and follow it” and not make the mistakes that he had.
George then knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool and former friend Sir Henry Norris was next. Norris’s servant, George Constantine, recorded that the other men confessed, i.e. confessed to be deserving of death, “all but Mr. Norice, who sayed allmost nothinge at all.”2 The Spanish Chronicle reported that Norris “made a great long prayer” and declared that he deserved death because he had been ungrateful to the King.3 He then knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Next came Sir Francis Weston, a man who was described by George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher, as having been “daintily nourished under the King’s wing”.4 Even though Weston’s family had fought for his release and Jean, Sieur de Dinteville, and Antoine de Castelnau, Bishop of Tarbes, French ambassadors, had interceded on his behalf, he had not been pardoned.5 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.”6 Although his use of the word “abomination” has been used by some historians as evidence of homosexuality and illicit sexual acts, that is reading far too much into it and it is more likely that Weston was just referring to the fact that he, like everyone, was a sinner and that he had hoped to have had an opportunity to have put things right and to live a better life. He knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Weston was followed by William Brereton, a groom of the privy chamber and a royal favourite who was described by historian Eric Ives as “the dominant royal servant in Cheshire and north Wales”.7 According to The Spanish Chronicle, he said, “I have offended God and the King; pray for me”,8 but other reports have 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.”9 He then knelt at the block and was beheaded.
Finally. it was the turn of court musician Mark Smeaton, the only man to have confessed and to have pleaded guilty to the charges brought against him. According to George Constantine, Smeaton addressed the crowd saying, “Masters I pray you all praye for me, for I have deserved the deeth” and then he was beheaded.10 He did not make any effort to retract his confession at the end and when Anne Boleyn found out she cried: “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.”11 It may well be that Smeaton feared being executed by the usual traitor’s death if he didn’t stick to his story.
Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton were buried in the churchyard of St Peter ad Vincula, whereas George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was buried in the chapel’s chancel.
Thomas Wyatt’s poems show that he viewed Anne and the men as innocent, but he knew full well that ‘innocency’ did not protect people from falling to their doom at Henry VIII’s court:
“By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.”12
Notes and Sources
- ed. Gough Nichols, J. The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, 46.
- Constantine, George. Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 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.
- Cavendish, George. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume 2, 31.
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X, 909.
- Constantine, 65.
- Ives, Eric. William Brereton. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Constantine, 69.
- Constantine, 65.
- LP x. 1036.
- V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei by Thomas Wyatt the Elder.