17 May 1536 – Tragedy at Tower Hill – The Fall of Anne Boleyn

On this day in 1536, 17th May, George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were executed on Tower Hill for high treason after being found guilty of adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn and conspiring with her to kill King Henry VIII.

In today’s video, I share what happened on this day, along with contemporary accounts of these men’s scaffold speeches. I also share a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt about the men.

I’m doing these “Fall of Anne Boleyn” videos daily until 19th May and I started on 24th April. You can catch up with them on the Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society Youtube Channel.

You can find out more about my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown at http://getbook.at/fallanneboleyn.

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16 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – Tragedy at Tower Hill – The Fall of Anne Boleyn”
  1. A very sad day. Through the legal machinations of the Tudor court 5 men known to be innocent were slaughtered by the state. All so a tyrannical monarch could get rid of the wife/queen he no longer loved.

    Wyatt’s poem is so heartfelt but his feelings towards Mark Smeaton I kind of understand. Wyatt didn’t have the advantage that we do of 483yrs of hindsight and probably believed that without Smeaton’s ‘confession’ none would have died. We know otherwise, that the sentence of death was most likely decided before any arrests were made. Even if Mark Smeaton had not broken Thomas Cromwell would have found something else and the outcome would have been the same.

    If Anne had any hope of surviving I’m sure on this day so long ago those hopes evaporated.

  2. I agree Michael. They were dead men as soon as they were sent to the tower.

    The other thing to remember is Mark Smeaton was of lowly birth. He faced the full traitors death, which was not a pleasant way to die. The other’s were of noble birth so they didn’t have this hanging over them. I would believe Cromwell offered Mark beheading for a confession, Mark was going to die anyway.

  3. I can’t stop wondering if Henry knew that Anne and the others were innocent when he had them executed…
    Will we ever know for sure?

  4. Just to say Claire, a huge thank you for the recitation of this poem. I really loved hearing it as my imagination saw each man mount those wooden steps to heaven, and really think about them, their lives, families and possible reasons they were singled out to be Cromwell’s “collateral damage”.

    Michael, if you could put yourself in Cromwell’s shoes, standing there watching over this slaughter,
    what thoughts would be uppermost on your mind? Relief? Or what?

  5. Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone, today we remember the dreadful butchery of five innocent men who were merely sacrificed so a tyrannical King could rid himself of his unwanted wife, all of them young men, except the eldest being Sir Henry Norris who was nearing his fiftieth year, all of these men were close friends of the King, had served him faithfully and yet this morning on 17th May 1536 they were taken out of their cells and executed on Tower Green, they died according to their rank and so Mark Smeaton had to witness his companions die before him, George Boleyn chose his last minutes on earth to preach his chosen faith to the crowd, he also said the usual things he was a sinner etc and said he had been vain and he was sorry if he had offended anyone, he was known to be arrogant rather like his sister so maybe he was thinking of that as he made his farewell speech, I have often wondered if his wife Jane was there there are no sources that tell us so, maybe she found it too traumatic which is understandable, she could have been at court carrying out her duties but she must have found it very difficult to do so on the day her husband died, Sir Francis Weston was about twenty five and had a baby son just a year old, in desperation his family had raised a huge ransom for his life but they had not succeeded and his scaffold speech is very sad, he last words were ‘I had thought to live in abomination I thought little it would come to this’, poor young Weston he had been one of the Kings company who would regularly join him when he played bowls and dice and often beat him, there is a portrait said to be of him and it shows a pleasant faced young man with a serious expression, on Anne Boleyns coronation he had been made a knight of the bath so his career was floutishing, in the museum at Saffron Walden there houses a marriage chest showing the heads of both Weston and his wife Lady Anne Pickering, evidence of a union that was sadly broken when Weston went to the scaffold, Sir William Brereton was chosen it is believed by Cromwell because there was some conflict between himself and Kings first minister over his dealings in Wales, it is said Cromwell threw his name in because the coup he had plotted against the queen gave him the excuse to rid himself of any who was a nuisance to him, Brereton had been married with two sons and was not in the queens circle he was merely sacrificed because Cromwell found his death expedient to him, as he stood near the block he remarked that if any were to judge him judge the best, it was a clever thing to say as he was saying he was innocent yet in such a way his family would not suffer for it, Sir Henry Norris was offered a pardon previously by King Henry if he admired to adultery with the queen but Norris was a man of honour, and staunchly defended Anne, he had known the King for years and was groom of the stool a highly favoured position, he was his close friend but he to was abandoned by the King, he had been married with two sons and a daughter and was engaged to Madge Shelton Annes cousin and a member of her household, some historians have speculated Anne was in love with him or he her because he seemed in no hurry to marry Madge, there was flirting between him and the queen but nothing more, one of his sons went onto serve Queen Elizabeth and it is said she honoured his father’s memory for the way he had defended her mother, he said very little at his death but in the words he used he must have asked the people to pray for him, Mark Smeaton said little merely said he had deserved the death and desired everyone to pray for him, the axe came down like it had with the others and he was no more, the scaffold that day must have been soaking in blood, it must have fallen onto the fresh green grass and stained it crimson red till the rains came, thus ended the lives of these five men, most of them had been well loved by the King one of them his brother in law, Sir Thomas Wyatts beautiful and haunting poem describes the wretchedness of those days, ‘ these bloody days’ he describes them is accurate indeed, today we can look upon the memorial to them at the Tower of London and see their names inscribed for all eternity, after their deaths the King tried to put them from his memory but he must have thought of Norris especially because he had known him since young, and of George did he really believe he was guilty of an incestous relationship with his sister? He had been fond of young Weston and Brereton he possibly was not on very friendly terms with, although Brereton would have treated him with the deference due to his monarch, Henry was to say he had believed Anne had slept with upto a hundred men but he was just blustering I believe, after the five bloody deaths of his one time friends and courtiers Henry carried on blithely with his wedding plans, I suppose whilst the five men’s bodies were rotting in their graves we can assume Henry slept quite comfortably that night, as only a King with a clear conscience could.

    1. Anne’s execution was the “canary in the coal mine” for how the rest of Henry’s reign would be. Anne was hated during the annulment ans her tenure as queen but even Chapuys was appalled at her fall.

      For those who hate Anne at least have pity for the 5 men, especially Mark Smeaton

      1. Nicely said. Personally I don’t think I would have liked Anne but I support her for the simple reason that she is no more guilty of the charges than the five men and she/they were slaughtered so that Henry could play the victim. Perhaps that plan worked for a while but the conversations were having today show it didn’t stick.

        1. Even back then people didn’t buy it. It was reported a woman said “it’s a shame for a queen to be killed for dancing with a few young men.”

  6. May 19tj is a day i celebrate Anne’s death. I rejoice that Queen Katharine and princess mary were at last avenged. I don’t acknowledge any other women in English history as queens other than Katharine and Mary. Katharine was queen from 1066 till 1553, Mary queen from 1553 to 1558 and Katharine queen again from 1558 and ever after.

  7. I always feel very sad at this time remembering the horrifying deaths of these men. It must have been horrendous knowing you were innocent of the charges and yet having to “make a good death”. What must have gone through their minds as they “waited their turn”?
    I’ve read the countdown Claire, Thanks for doing them.

  8. Out of your mercy and compassion remember before God those who have died on this terrible morning in 1536 and pray out of charity for Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and Richard Brereton and George Boleyn. May they rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon them. RIP YNWA.

    I have read just about every link today about the last words of five innocent men, although two were probably barely so by our standards, being in their early twenties. We will never truly know why these particular men were targeted as Anne Boleyn’s potential paramours and co conspirators but we can make some educated guesses. Mark was targeted because he was an easy mark to get a confession out off and because he was known to have received several expensive gifts from Anne because he sang and played in her service, although he also played for the King. He was also mentioned by Lady Worcester in her arguments with her brother and was subsequently arrested by Cromwell when he went to the invitation for dinner at his home in Stepney. His confession led to other arrests and on and on it went. He confessed for three times and then he didn’t retract anything. There is nothing to point to him being tortured, although it remains a possibility and George Constantine, a retainer of Henry Norris believed he was, but he was reporting rumours. On the scaffold her was scrupulous and said nothing either way, he merely made one brief statement.

    “Masters pray for me, for I have deserved death”

    I don’t believe Mark Smeaton confessed the truth, nor that a sulking man, ticked off by his mistress the Queen acted out of revenge. He was sighing for her, nothing more. No, a terrified young man who didn’t fancy the idea of pain admitted to anything after 24 hours with Cromwell and his henchman rather than face the horrific possibility of being sent to be tortured. A warrant was required from the King but remember Henry wanted Anne gone on any terms so would probably have given an order to find any further lovers to help the crowns case. A terrified man, questioned over and over and fearing a terrifying drawn out death, being well down the pecking order, normally not likely to have such a death commuting to beheading, maybe he was a dreamer and fantasized about Queen Anne; he was forced to confess and now he stuck to his bargain with the Devil.

    Anne was shocked when she learned that Mark had not just confessed, plead guilty to adultery and not treason, but now he had failed to vindicate her in the public, wallowing in his own self pity instead. She feared for his soul but Thomas Wyatt was harsher, saying in his poem that Smeaton alone deserved death indeed. Well it is not fair for us to judge him the same because we don’t know the fear inside him and we don’t know how we would hold up in such similar circumstances. I believe in a merciful God and His Compassion and if he repented in his soul He will have mercy. RIP.

    Sir Henry Norris was unfortunate indeed because he was implicated three times in different ways because of his close association with the Boleyn family, her cousin, Madge Shelton, whom he was courting and his obvious open admiration for the Queen. Firstly there was the fatal “dead man’s shoes” incident, courtly love gone wrong but Anne was the aggressive partner in this way, initiating the conversation and taking it beyond professional and accepted boundaries. Anne made things worse by commanding him to go to her chaplain and confess that she was a good woman and to the King. When you make a complete fool of yourself you don’t highlight the fact by drawing attention to the incident and advertising your stupidity. Henry heard and confronted Anne with anger, although he appeared to have calmed down by the next day, the May Day Joust. However, on receiving a mysterious note Henry stormed off and questioned Norris on the way home. Norris was subjected to demands about his affair with Anne and offered a pardon if he confessed. He refused, swore he was innocent and stated he would defend the Queen with his body, in single combat. The next day he was taken to the Tower. Norris was also named by the imagination of Smeaton and came up again in the fatal conversation between Anthony Browne and his Lady Gossip sister. Anthony told Cromwell and Cromwell told the King. This may also have been the original source for the rumours that George Boleyn had joked that the real father of Princess Elizabeth was Henry Norris which was used against George at his own trial. There was no substance to any of this gossip and in fact Lady Worcester may well have given evidence under duress. Her brother had his own reasons to help get rid of rivals such as his troublesome brother in law and possibly even Norris, both of whom held certain lands he wanted and opposed legislation he and Cromwell were introducing into North Wales. On the day of his trial he recanted an alleged confession and the “dead man’s shoes” wasn’t even one of the indictments , although Anne was accused of promising to marry him. As he stepped up to die, he said nothing. It was a devastating comment on the man who had been his friend and King and had sacrificed him regardless of loyal service and intimacy and threw him to the wolves, knowing he was innocent. RIP Sir Henry Norris.

    Francis Weston was here by accident. He was a young man, the King’s page, from an influential family and he had very little connection to Anne Boleyn. He was in her orbit for a short time and had come to her presence, probably on one of her many fun evenings but he was in for a shock. Weston is believed to have been a bit of a libertine and Anne had heard he was not being faithful to his wife. He had babbled something about loving another and it appears that other was Anne, who was not amused and rebuked him. This was two years earlier but Anne in her fear and delirium had recalled this perfectly innocent conversation to the spies, who were her ladies in the Tower. They told Kingston who told Cromwell and Weston was in the soup.

    His parents tried to redeem him with blood money for the King, who was not normally adverse to such bribery but on this occasion it was refused. He wrote a touching short note to his parents and wife, asking for forgiveness, saying he was a sinner and commending himself to his wife and children. Two ambassadors and an Archbishop intervened for him but to no avail. Weston left a list of bills and debts to be paid and his last words were formal and short and traditional. RIP Francis Weston.

  9. William Brererton was a powerful favourite of the King and the same age as the King, experienced in representing the government in North Wales and the Marchers of North Wales and the principality of Chester. He was a man of controversy and didn’t exactly extend justice with equity and partiality. He was involved in corruption proceedings in 1518 when the offender was killed in mysterious circumstances and the young man never charged with murder. He didn’t proceed against a client whom Cromwell wanted charged with a capital crime and the men fell out over it in 1528. He was involved in a number of illegal dealings and was a very powerful land owner and official in the area. He and his family had lived and served in the principality for several generations. He was rich and influential and had a wide web of contacts and networking with the local Welsh Lords. They worked with him in exchange for his political favour. However, Thomas Cromwell was bringing forward legislation which would threaten his power base and annex the entire Welsh counties into one unified country with more control from Westminster. This legislation would also have ended the corruption on the borders and the Welsh Council. Cromwell had formed a rivalry with William Brereton which challenged his position as Great Chamberlain in North Wales and Anthony Browne, his brother in law, wanted lands belonging to him. His sister, Lady Worcester was the medium through which both men involved him in the tangled web of the conspiracy to trap the Queen of England.

    William Brereton was accused of being the lover of the Queen in October 1533 but Anne was in her confinement after the birth of her baby daughter and again the other charges were ridiculous and could be easily disproved but Henry wasn’t interested. He may have been corrupt but he wasn’t a traitor or involved sexually with Anne. His own speech was also brief and he begged forgiveness for living an abominable life and his many corrupted sins. He then died well by the axe. RIP William Brereton, my local man of much colourful life and heroic defence of local rights.

    Finally, here we have the Queen’s own brother and the most shocking of all the charges laid at Anne’s door. George Boleyn was most probably the youngest of the surviving Boleyn siblings and he was close to his sister and Anne often confided in him. He was in her chambers often but only as her brother and there may have been times when she might have spoken with him long into the night but never alone. George comforted her when she became depressed and upset about Katherine of Aragon and Mary and her failure to give Henry a living son. Her hysteria sent her over the edge with laughter and odd behaviour, heavy drinking and saying she could just order their deaths if Henry was out of the country. George kept her calm and brought her back to reality. Most of his missions abroad were on the business concerning the Queen. George was there for Anne when others betrayed or deceived her. However, there was no evidence of anything other than brother sister love and that they had a close relationship and a lot in common.

    George and Anne were both interested in the French reformers and had books in French and from the theological masters in France and Germany and George even translated two works dedicated to his sister. Like Anne he had an education which made him literate in an advanced sense and he knew the classical scholars well. He had put Henry’s case to Convocation and he was a keen poet. Like Anne he knew his Gospel, even if his life wasn’t exactly as the life of Christ demanded. He was a bit of a lady’s man but there is no evidence that one of those ladies was his sister. Incest would have horrified both of them and neither of them were likely to go down that sinful route because they did believe and fear divine retribution for such a shameful relationship. There is no evidence to support accusations that Anne used George to become pregnant when her husband had periods of impotency and Henry would have known the child wasn’t his in any case so it would have been a dangerous and stupid thing to do. Any children born from incest would be deformed or slow or have mental problems so your brother would be the last person that you would sleep with in any case. Two charges put to George do, however, show he had a sick sense of humour and a reckless streak. He was given a piece of paper in his trial and told not to read it out. However, he did and the gathering of 2000 people laughed. He said he had been informed that Henry could not satisfy his wife in bed. Anne had told her sister in law this and Jane Boleyn had told George but there is no evidence that Henry even had bedroom problems at this time. George was also challenged about saying his sister’s child didn’t belong to Henry which was treason but we don’t really know if this was true and George wisely kept quiet this time. However, it does seem odd that he would spread rumours about his sister and Princess Elizabeth which would risk her position and that of the entire family. It is possible a joke was made and then he withdrew it, realising what he had said. None of the so called evidence against George and Anne amounted to anything very much and we don’t have much reason to believe they were lovers. The crowd didn’t believe it, putting bets on that George would be found innocent. However, he was condemned before he opened his mouth.

    On the scaffold George was the first to die because of his status. His speech was rather long and more of a sermon. Although he said he didn’t come to preach, that was exactly what George did. He began by saying people should take note not to follow his example but to follow the Gospel and the Holy Ghost and if he had done the same he would not now be on the scaffold. He called upon the law to condemn him as a great sinner and that he had lived the life of a great sinner and not in accordance with the law of God. He told the Lords present and those of the Court to learn from his example and avoid his sinful life. He spoke of himself as a reader and peddlar of the Holy Gospel (someone who spreads the word in some way, such as by giving someone a Bible or explaining the Bible) but admitted he had not lived as he should as a Christian and therefore this life had been punished now with execution and death. George finished with the normal requests for mercy and prayers and repentance of his sins. As speeches on the scaffold go this one was a definite departure from convention and he made no indication that he was admitting his crimes. He was merely saying he as a human being had made a lot of errors and had lived as we all do from time to time a sinful life. George may not have taken the Gospel as seriously as Jesus intended but he was innocent of the shameful lies made against him and his beloved sister, Queen Anne Boleyn. RIP George Boleyn.

  10. Thomas Wyatt witnessed the terrible death of men he had known well and some he knew hardly at all, yet wept for them all, save his words about Mark were harsh. From the Bell Tower he witnessed the bloody spectacle and his heart broke. As his poem, beautiful and mourning described each one and their loss in memory, let us remember them because the men are often overlooked. Five innocent men were sacrificed just so as a King could move on to wife number three. They may not have been the most perfect beings on earth and had many faults, certainly they loved life and lived it to the full, enjoying sexual diversity and yet, they tried to do their duty as Christians as well. They were still innocent of these scandalous crimes and didn’t deserve this violent end. They were simply human beings making the best they could in a world full of vultures and wolves. I have seen much speculation over the years that the men were sexual deviants, homosexual and even rapists or wife beaters but there are very few foundations for these labels to be applied. The verses written by George Cavendish come from a hostile source and a vivid imagination. Even if anything was true, they lived loose lifestyles, that still doesn’t mean they deserved the death penalty for something none of them did. The reputation of these men has been put on trial far more times than they were and it’s time to remember them with dignity and respect and continue to pray for their innocent souls. Amen.

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