Tower Hill scaffoldThe 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.”

Notes and Sources

  1. ed. Gough Nichols, J. The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, 46.
  2. Constantine, George. Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 63.
  3. 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.
  4. Cavendish, George. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume 2, 31.
  5. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X, 909.
  6. Constantine, 65.
  7. Ives, Eric. William Brereton. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  8. Hume.
  9. Constantine, 69.
  10. Constantine, 65.
  11. LP x. 1036.
  12. V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei by Thomas Wyatt the Elder.

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31 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – These bloody days have broken my heart”
  1. I read that Francis Weston was only twenty five how awful, does anyone know how old Smeaton was?

    1. Very little is known about Mark Smeaton. Eric writes of how it is possible that Mark was around 20 years of age at Anne’s fall in 1536, but Weir dismisses this, concluding that he must have been older to have been made Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1529. I agree with Ives, I think Smeaton was young and that’s why everyone referred to him as “Mark” rather than “Smeaton”. Grooms and pages were boys/young men and if he was 20 in 1536 then he’d have been 13 in 1529 and I think a perfectly acceptable age to be a groom. Weston is thought to have been around 25 when he died and he became a gentleman of the privy chamber in 1525, so at the age of 14. I’m no expert as far as the Privy Chamber goes though so I can’t say for definite what was an acceptable age.

  2. “It may well be that Smeaton feared being executed by the usual traitor’s death if he didn’t stick to his story.”

    Maybe, maybe not. It is hard to argue the fact of the confession with supposition., though it is fun.But it remains there like a big red arrow.

    We all ignore the Norris “confession” because we don’t know what it was, but at the time henry did know what it was so there is that intriguing nugget to speculate as well.

    1. We don’t ignore it and I’ve mentioned it several times on this site, but Norris was adamnant to Henry VIII that he was innocent and all we know about his alleged confession is that Sir William Fitzwilliam claimed that he persuaded Norris to confess but that Norris claimed he was tricked and so retracted it. Words could be twisted, just like what Richard Rich did with poor Bishop Fisher.

    2. To JudithRex I find the word fun used in the case of analysing the confession of someone who was tortured and violently executed horrifying. Mark Smeaton’s confession cannot be taken as anything other than forced from him or his pure imagination, and as has been stated many times Henry Norris did not confess, par say, he was tricked into making admission of something, but retracted it. He was confident that he was innocent and did not crack when confronted by the King himself; he was even willing to prove the Queen innocent on his own body. It is a pity that this was not a few generations earlier as he would have been able to demand a trial before the Court of Chivilary and given the chance to prove his innocence and that of the Queen under arms, in a trial by combat. I can well imagine him taking up his lance and sword to prove Anne’s innocence and I can well imagine him winning. But he does not have that option. He has retracted anything that he was tricked into saying and this is important as it is clear that he is declaring his innocence at the trial and I feel his silence at his execution also shows he has given up on any sense of justice and feels betrayed by his friend the King.

      1. I agree. The word “fun” in any of these observations is as twisted as the people that murdered them.

  3. Thanks Claire also he was said to be Flemish, he may not have spoken English very well, I think it very sad that he was picked on by Cromwell to assist him in bringing Anne down, I believe he was tortured or threatened with torture, he was not noble and had no powerful family backing him, he must have felt very alone and terrified at what was happening, he’s been condemned by some as not retracting his confession when he was on the scaffold but he did have a noblemans death, simple beheading instead of the dreadful hung drawn and quartered death so I think he was given this as an alternative if he didn’t retract, poor poor man, what choice did he have? An awful ignominious death or a quick one, I know what I’d have chosen even tho it meant slandering the others, I believe when he made his last confession to the priest he admitted they were all innocent.

    1. I think he was ‘picked on’ because of his humble background, making it easy to put pressure on him without anyone complaining about it, and because he apepars to have had a crush on Anne Boleyn which could be twisted to look like a relationship. Poor boy.

      1. Yes I doubt he would have treated any of the others like it, Smeaton was an ideal choice for Cromwell because he was young and an ordinary person.

    1. I do too. Such an unnecessary turn of events. Yes, he got the boy he wanted but the boy wasn’t the king he desired. I do love the irony of Elizabeth though!

  4. These men are innocent: these deaths must have been hard for Thomas Wyatt to witness. I agree that the speeches do not show any signs of admission of homosexual behaviour as has been speculated by authors who like title tattle. Not that it would matter today if this was the case, but in that time it would have been seen as a great sin and in 1536 Henry made this a crime punisable by death. Lord Hungerford was executed for this among other things at the same time as Thomas Cromwell in 1540. The word sin can mean anything. George Boleyn was a member of the reform movement and would have been keenly aware of the state of his immortal soul, that he was about to die and stand before the judgement seat of God. He was a human being, a sinner, as we are all sinners and will be judged, so he made his confession and prayed for the mercy of God. We do not know to what he specifically referred; we cannot guess and it is wrong to accuse him of something for which there is no contemporary evidence.

    I find the words of the poems of Thomas Wyatt and the witness statements very moving. These are young men in the prime of their lives; they are all from the inner court of Henry Viii and Anne Boleyn. Four of these men have been intimates of the King, members of the Privy Chamber and the Council, members of the household; and one was even his most important intimate: his Groom of the Stool. Sir Henry Norris had served in the kIngs household from the start of his reign. He did not just have the responsibility for being with the King at his most personal moments; he was the most important person in his household. He laid out the kings wardrobe; he had the keys to the kings inner chambers and he controlled access to the kings person. He was also a companion in the hunt and the joust, something that should have preseved him from this sort of accusation; but it did not.

    Mark Smeaton is the odd one out. He was a rising musical star who made it at the Kings court because he was good. Anne took him into her own household and he was her personal music maker. She would reward him with gifts of money and rich garments; this was not unusual, nor did it mean that she was sleeping with him. These gifts would be given to people for their service in the royal household. Henry also would reward people with gifts of rich clothing; it was not out of the normal. But for some reason, Mark seems to have come to the notice of Cromwell. He is reported to have been a little forward and to have said to have made remarks to the Queen while mooning over her one day. Anne corrected him, as this was rude and he was above himself. Mark may have been a foreigner and it is certain that unlike the others he did not come from a genttlemans background or powerful family.

    I agree that Mark was picked on and this was why he was able to be turned. Cromwell could be a brute when he wanted to and in the kings service he would do anything. As an outsider, he was possibly younger than the others, although we do not really know for certain, he was a prime target. Mark had no powerful family members of patrons to plead his cause; Cromwell must have seen him as disposable. We have no absolute proof that he was tortured; it was not possible to torture someone without a warrant form the King in English Law. However, that did not stop the use of unofficial torture or the use of instruments of restraint used to question people. Goerge Constantine says that he had heard he was tortured, other authorities say nothing about this. But the traditional story was that Mark was invited to dinner at the house of Cromwell at Putney and then he was asked about his love affairs with the Queen. When he denied this, he was restrained by Cromwells henchmen, he was held down and a rope and crundle were used tight into his forehead or eyes and he screamed out that he had slept with the Queen. He was then pressured into giving up names including Henry Norris.

    Mark seems to have been helped to his death, may-be evidence of some mistreatment or torture, but he did not retract his confession. He may well have believed what he said; he may also have been promised his life had he turned King’s evidence. The fact is that Mark Smeaton was an easy target and in fear he gave Cromwell the lies that he needed to bring down the Queen.

    Five executions cannot have been easy for anyone to have watched that day and despite the fact that such things were generally seen as entertainment; I doubt that anyone can have been less than moved by the courage of the men that day or their confidence of salvation and mercy. They generally died with dignity and we must remember them with prayer and honour, not by defaming their memory with baseless modern day slurs on their reputations.

    1. To BanditQueen

      You wrote that because Henry Norris was so close to the king, it should have preserved him of this sort of accusation.

      Yet, there are numerous examples in history and fiction how just the closest ones, or even relatives, betray. Guinere betrayed Arthur with Lancelot, Isolde’s lover Tristan was her husband Mark’s nephew. Among Caesar’s murderers were Brute, evidently to his own surprise. Kim Philby betrayed his friends as well as his country.

      Henry was suspicious by nature and evidently did not trust anyone completely. And as is shown in the fate of Wolsey and Katherine of Aragon, once he stopped loving somebody, he could treat them badly.

      What is remarkably in Norris’ case is that Henry questioned him himself whereas usually anybody who was suspected of treason was denied access to the king. Why, when he then did not believe Norris’s denial?

      1. Yes I can’t understand either why Henry didn’t believe Norris who was an old and close friend of his, I said this in an earlier post, surely he knew he was telling the truth but I think he had convinced himself that Anne had deceived him because it was convenient for him to do so and of course he couldn’t pardon him and condemn the others, I think he could have offered him his life tho had he confessed to adultery with her but Norris wouldn’t lie to save himself, he comes across as very admirable to me, and not a hypocrite unlike the King.

    2. One source said he was racked but at his trial he was able to walk ok I think he probably had a lot of mental pressure put on him, I should think Cromwell could be very frightening to a young lad he was Chief Minister and Smeaton must have thought he was quite awesome, he could well have promised him that no harm would come to him if he confessed, we will never know what passed between Smeaton and Cromwell but his death four years later does prove that no ones position was safe at King Henrys court, as Ye reap Ye sow, Cromwell must have been aware of that as he languished in the Tower awaiting his own death.

  5. Henry Norreys esq, (no knighthood found) was closer to 50+yrs.
    His supposed father Edward died Jun 1487 and he had an older brother, John.

    If anyone has seen or found reference to his ‘coat of arms’, I would be most grateful for the information.

      1. Hello Claire,
        Thats great research, well done Leandra.

        Which primary source is it based on? I’ve read through a few times now for the ref. The ‘Attainted’ note from national archives on the parliament site still has our Henry as Esquire.

        Sir Henry Norreys of Speke born circa time is still in the frame as this Black rod mentioned in lists.

        1. Leanda gives her references further down the thread of the link I gave you, but here it is for ease:

          The most noble Order of the Garter, 650 years by Peter J. Begent and Hubert Chesshyre, published in 1999 by Spink & Son.

          From p.89, appendix to chapter 4 (Statutes and records), Illustrations in the black book: King Henry VIII and the Knights of the Garter:
          “24. Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.
          Henry Norris. Appointed 23 Oct. 1526.
          Friend of Henry VIII, receiving many grants and offices.
          Took part in the Greenwich tournament, after which he was arrested on suspicion of an intrigue with Anne Boleyn.
          Probably innocent, but found guilty and executed 17 May 1536.”

          From p.133:
          “Following [Sir William] Compton’s death [in 1528] the keepership of the Great Park passed to Sir William Fitzwilliam and Sir Anthony Brown, but that of the Little Park to his successor as Black Rod, Sir Henry Norris.”
          [the source is listed as Letters and papers foreign and domestic in the reign of Henry VIII, edited by J. Gairdner, X 878(ii)]

          Henry Norris does not appear in the chronological list of Companions of the Order in Appendix A.

          I hope that helps. She researched him while working on her book “Tudor”. I looked up LP x.878, which is an inventory of the lands and offices of the men who were arrested in May 1536 and subsequently executed. It lists Norris as Esquire of the Body and mentions his office of Black Rod – “Offices:—Of the “Exchequireship” to the Body, 33l. 6s. 8d.; mastership of the Hart hounds, 18l. 5s.; Black Rod, 18l. 5s.;[…]”

      2. Black Rods a very strange ceremony at the opening of parliament he walks behind the Queen for quite a way till she takes her seat, do you know it’s origins Claire?

  6. Thomas Wyatt’s, “These bloody days have broken my heart” are only seven words. When put together, those words have such power, such agony that it’s little wonder they have remained as meaningful today as when he first wrote them. Wyatt was broken after the executions in May, 1536 – and further broken upon witnessing Cromwell’s extremely ugly execution a scant four years later. Wyatt felt it for alll of us who rail against the excesses of corrupt power and unbridled ego in the reign of Henry VIII.

  7. I find the whole business disturbing and sad. I hate Henry VIII’s actions and don’t look at him as a just and merciful king. But so much has been made of the possibility of head trauma and/or disease affecting his brain and thoughts, that I have to wonder if his lack of impulse control really was beyond his control and that those around him-like Cromwell-simply did what he wanted in order to keep their heads.

  8. The days before the end, how many things will one think before the certain death. These men were very courageous, maybe because their beliefs in the eternal life. They made peace with their conscience and bravely said their last words. After centuries of war and peace, their last day on earth is still remembered. It’s remarkable how little of their lives remain. Wish I knew more about their lives.

  9. I feel very moved that it’s the anniversary today of their execution. I was at the Tower recently and saw the spot where they were beheaded.. very poignant .. RIP

  10. How I do hate Anne Boleyn even after almost 500 years. I knew her in her haughty glory and did rejoice in her fall which came too late to do anyone any good. She was a most vile witch in life and has not been made less so by death. She inspired lust in a monarch that would destroy the True Church in England and cause the deaths of many who were her superior in every way. Shrewish and calculating, much pain did she cause a Spanish Princess who had done her no harm. She spat upon a Queen of whom she was not worthy to empty the night jar. How I hope there is a Hell for she is surely queen there as she was never was on Earth. I pray she writhes in the agony she most justly deserves. God Save good Queen Katherine and Good Queen Mary.

    1. God bless Queen Katherine and Mary, but you are talking nonsense about Anne Boleyn and she was still innocent of the vile charges against her. You are being quite ridiculous. Thankfully God is more merciful than you and I actually think, as Thomas Cranmer did, that Anne Boleyn is in heaven.

      Was she a perfect human being? No, absolutely not but she has been maligned by history for far too long. I find it sad when there is so much research out there now that people still hold opinions like this.

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