17th May 1536 -The Deaths of 5 Men and a Marriage Destroyed
Posted By Claire on May 17, 2010
On the 17th May 1536, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford were led out of the Tower of London to a scaffold which had been erected on Tower Hill. I cannot imagine how they felt as they surveyed the scene and realised that death was closing in on them. Their only comfort was that they were all to be beheaded, a much more merciful death than being hanged, drawn and quartered.
I will now examine each man’s execution in the order that they were said to have been killed.
George Boleyn, Lord Rochford
As the highest in rank, Anne Boleyn’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was the first to be executed and at least he did not have to watch as his friends and colleagues were killed one by one. Before he knelt at the block, he made a speech, but it is hard to know exactly what he said when there are a few different versions of his final speech.
According to a Spanish record in Letters and Papers:-
“The count (viscount) Rochefort, brother of the queen (unjustly so called) Anne Boleyn, was beheaded with an axe upon a scaffold before the Tower of London. He made a very catholic address to the people, saying he had not come thither to preach, but to serve as a mirror and example, acknowledging his sins against God and the King, and declaring he need not recite the causes why he was condemned, as it could give no pleasure to hear them. He first desired mercy and pardon of God, and afterwards of the King and all others whom he might have offended, and hoped that men would not follow the vanities of the world and the flatteries of the Court, which had brought him to that shameful end. He said if he had followed the teachings of the Gospel, which he had often read, he would not have fallen into this danger, for a good doer was far better than a good reader. In the end, he pardoned those who had condemned him to death, and asked the people to pray for his soul.”1
The Chronicle of King Henry VIII (The Spanish Chronicle) says:-
“Then the Duke turned to the people and said in the hearing of many “I beg you to pray to God for me; for by the trial I have to pass through I am blameless, and never even knew that my sister was bad. Guiltless as I am, I pray God to have mercy upon my soul.” Then he lay upon the ground with his head on the block, the headsman gave three strokes, and so died this poor duke.”2
The Chronicle of Calais records George Boleyn’s execution speech as:-
“Christen men, I am borne undar the lawe, and judged undar the lawe, and dye undar the lawe, and the lawe hathe condemned me. Mastars all, I am not come hether for to preche, but for to dye, for I have deserved for to dye yf I had xx. lyves, more shamefully than can be devysed, for I am a wreched synnar, and I have synned shamefully, I have knowne no man so evell, and to reherse my synnes openly it were no pleaswre to you to here them, nor yet for me to reherse them, for God knowethe all; therefore, mastars all, I pray yow take hede by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the cowrte, the whiche I have bene amonge, take hede by me, and beware of suche a fall, and I pray to God the Fathar, the Sonne, and the Holy Ghoste, thre persons and one God, that my deathe may be an example unto yow all, and beware, trust not in the vanitie of the worlde, and especially in the flateringe of the cowrte. And I cry God mercy, and aske all the worlde forgevenes, as willingly as I wowld have forgevenes of God ; and yf I have offendyd any man that is not here now, eythar in thowght, worde, or dede, and yf ye here any suche, I pray yow hertely in my behalfe, pray them to forgyve me for God’s sake. And yet, my mastars all, I have one thinge for to say to yow, men do comon and saye that I have bene a settar forthe of the worde of God, and one that have favored the Ghospell of Christ ; and bycawse I would not that God’s word shuld be slaundered by me, I say unto yow all, that yf I had followecl God’s worde in dede as I dyd rede it and set it forthe to my power, I had not come to this. I dyd red the Ghospell of Christe, but I dyd not follow it; yf I had, I had bene a lyves man amonge yow : therefore I pray yow, mastars all, for God’s sake sticke to the trwthe and folowe it, for one good followere is worthe thre redars, as God knowethe.”3
The editor of The Chronicle of Calais points out that this speech is very similar to the one given in the Excerpta Historica, 1831, in a contemporary account by a Portuguese man. My favourite speech is this one. George followed convention by acknowledging that he had been condemned by the law and confessing that he was a sinner who deserved death, but then, although he started by saying that he was not going to preach a sermon, he then “spoke the language of Zion” (Ives p278), urging those witnessing his death to “stick to the truth and follow it”, and not make the mistakes that he had. Powerful words indeed and spoken by a man who believed that he was justified by faith even though he may not have had the most perfect of lives.
George then knelt at the block and was beheaded. I do hope that the Spanish Chronicle is wrong when it says that three strokes were required.
Henry Norris followed George Boleyn on to the scaffold. George Constantine, Norris’s manservant and a witness of these bloody events, recorded that “the others confessed, all but Mr Norris, who said almost nothing at all”4. I do not think that he means that they confessed that they had slept with Anne Boleyn, more that they had confessed that they were sinners, as was the done thing at executions. However, Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, wrote of Norris 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”5
and then defending the Queen:
“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.”6
The Spanish Chronicle reported that Sir Henry Norris “made a great long prayer” and declared that he deserved death because he had been ungrateful to the King. He then knelt at the block and was executed
Sir Francis Weston
Sir Francis Weston was the third of the men to be executed and before he knelt at the bloody block he 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.”
He then added that the people gathered should learn “by example of him”7.
Weston’s speech is different in that he mentions living in “abomination”, rather than being just a plain common and garden sinner. As I have said before, in previous articles on Weston, I think it is reading too much into his words to see him as someone who was homosexual, as Retha Warnicke would have us believe, or even, as Weir says, someone who had committed “illicit sexual acts”. In my opinion, Weston is 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. We probably all wish that when faced with death.
He then knelt at the bloodsoaked block and his life was taken.
William Brereton was the fourth man to climb the scaffold. According to The Spanish Chronicle, he simply said “I have offended God and the King; pray for me”, but other reports have him saying:
“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.”8
Was Brereton simply exaggerating in his fear or do his words about deserving a thousand deaths suggest that he had led a criminal life and perhaps been involved in sodomy and illicit sexual acts? I cannot see any evidence for Retha Warnicke view that all five men were libertines who committed sodomy on a regular basis, but it does appear that Brereton was a bit of a Tudor bad boy, someone who I described in one article as being “a womaniser who protected murderers and used his influence for revenge”. Perhaps his rather colourful past and less than perfect lifestyle caused him to suffer a pang of guilt on the scaffold.
Norris’s servant George Constantine wrote of how Brereton repeated “But if ye judge, judge the best” three or four times and Constantine felt that “if any of them was innocent, it was he, for if he were guilty, I say therefore that he died worst of them all”9 , meaning that if Brereton had been guilty then he would surely have confessed his guilt and asked God’s forgiveness, rather than risking eternal damnation by dying with unconfessed sin.
Mark Smeaton was the final man to be executed and how awful to have seen those three men die such violent deaths in front of him, knowing that he only had minutes to live. In “The Lady in the Tower”, Alison Weir writes that “by now, the block and scaffold would have been awash with blood and piled with butchered bodies” and comments that he faltered as he spoke to the crowd. Weir describes his speech as “brief and damning”. According to George Constantine10, Smeaton said:-
“Masters, I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death”
and then he was beheaded. He did not take the opportunity to retract his confession and when Anne heard of this she 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.”11
Crispin de Milherve reported that the men’s corpses “were allowed to lie on the scaffold for hours, half dresses”12 but then they were stripped and prepared for burial. Norris, Smeaton, Brereton and Weston, as commoners, were buried in the churchyard of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, but George Boleyn’s head and body were taken inside the Chapel, where, according to John Whitcombe Bayley in “The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London” 1821 (cited by Alison Weir), they were interred before the high altar. Just two days later his sister’s head and body would be joining him.
A Marriage Destroyed
Also on this day in 1536 at Lambeth, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in the presence of Sir Thomas Audley, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Oxford and other, declared that the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was null and void13. It was as if they had never been married and Henry VIII was now free to marry again and there was a woman waiting in the wings.
Notes and Sources
- L&P x.911
- “The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England”, translated by Martin A Sharp Hume P67
- The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, edited by John Gough Nichols, page 46
- George Constantine, quoted in The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, AlisonWeir, p244
- Burnet, quoted in Weir p244
- Weir, p245
- Ibid., p248
- Ibid., p246
- L&P x.896