24 April 1536 – The legal machinery begins – The Fall of Anne Boleyn

As promised, here is the first video in my “The Fall of Anne Boleyn” video series for the Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society YouTube channel.

I’ll be doing these every day, up to an including 19th May.

On this day in 1536, Sir Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, set up two commissions of oyer and terminer, one for the county of Middlesex and one for the county of Kent.

What were these commissions and what did they have to do with the fall of Anne Boleyn, if anything?

Find out in today’s video:

If you prefer articles to videos, you can read my article from a few years ago – click here.

If you’re interested in my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown then you can find out more at http://getbook.at/fallanneboleyn

Related Post

17 thoughts on “24 April 1536 – The legal machinery begins – The Fall of Anne Boleyn”
  1. I reread the fall of Anne Boleyn every year this time which I’m doing now. I feel it was all planned with Seymours Cromwell and their factions and turned Henry against her to rid themselves of her I wonder if they thought it would be so many deaths. Just awful

  2. I did a Google search that disclosed references to commissions of oyer and terminer were used in perjury cases in colonial America — but I have been unable to find anything definitive about such use in Tudor times. If such commissions were used in perjury cases, they may have been established in connection with a potential annulment of the marriage to Anne, to be used if, for example, Henry Percy’s 1532 oath of no precontract were proven false. For this reason, I doubt that these commissions were the first step in a plot for judicial murder on anyone’s part — and I do not believe anyone would threaten Anne without Henry’s approval.

    1. I haven’t found mention of them being used for perjury in Tudor England, no.
      I do think they were something to do with Anne’s fall and I believe that Henry had already ordered Cromwell and Audley to get rid of Anne, they just hadn’t worked out the complete “how”.

  3. It was too much of a coincidence, and just goes to prove that Annes trial and execution was a cleverly set up job, Annes fall has astounded historians for the very fact it all happened so quickly, was she that dangerous so abhorrent to Henry V111 that she had to be eliminated with such speed? The special commissions set up by his Lord Chancellor which later led to the trial of the queen and her alleged lovers was a step by step staged coup which had to show that all legal avenues were followed properly, she was tried by her peers and so must be seen to be treated fairly by the law, but it was not justice which condemned her to death, her peers at the trial were not friends of her or her family, and they had to deliver a guilty verdict, even though the evidence was fabricated, we can see how the wheels of the legal machinery were well oiled in Anne Bolyens case and that they stunk with injustice.

  4. For me the key time which lead up to the Oyer and Terminer, are the missing days from 18th April to 24th because this is the point when Thomas Cromwell vanished from Court. Now I know the theory that Thomas Cromwell was at the heart of a conspiracy to take down Anne Boleyn is very controversial, but at this point he appears to have been concerned about Anne being heralded as Queen, because previously Henry had talked about an annulment in March and he may have suddenly believed his potential foreign policy was in danger with Anne as Queen. The alternative to Anne was the new lady on the block was Jane Seymour, the head of a Marian faction, to which Cromwell himself was affiliated and the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys had put together proposals with Cromwell for a reproachment that included the elevation of Mary back into the Succession. Cromwell may not have been able to go that far but he certainly believed her place at Court was restored, or so he hoped and so he worked out a deal he believed Henry approved off.

    On 18th April 1536, Easter Monday, Chapuys went to an audience with King Henry in which he put his proposals to Henry, who listened, with one of those proposals being the status of Mary and a marriage contract. There were trade proposals which in fact Henry agreed to at the Council the next day. However, Henry went bananas, demanding everything was in writing and that Charles apologise for all the wrongs he had done to Henry. Chapuys was confused and the whole thing broke down because Henry laid into Cromwell. Cromwell was terrified and speechless and left looking as white as a sheet. We don’t know what Henry said to him, but he had to excuse himself and became ill. We also know that he left Court and was gone for some time. Cromwell would later write that he had devised this whole mess because Henry told him too, inventing the whole thing. Chapuys that evening dined with allies of the Seymours.

    Those who go for the Cromwell theory argue that Henry may have wanted to leave Anne at this point but that he hadn’t yet sought a permanent end to their marriage. However, Cromwell, concerned for his own status, perhaps his safety, feeling threatened by Anne and the Boleyn faction, feeling that removal of Anne and others was the only way for his foreign policy to succeed, put his plan into action, putting his own conspiracy into action. Cromwell was aware that the Queen was vulnerable and that there were rumours about her behaviour among the gossips at Court and this was something he could exploit. Over the next few days there were secret meetings and errands ran back and forth and we can assume that at some point Henry gave permission or orders to set up the means to investigate crimes of treason and to investigate those rumours.

    Oyer and terminer were to investigate a number of serious crimes including treason, rebellion and various felonies, with the Judge of the Aziezes and Grand Juries were set up to determine the charges and if the evidence was sufficient for a formal trial. One normally needed to have arrested someone, but in some instances the Commission could be put into place before hand if several crimes were being investigated. They could be central but were normally set up in each county. The legal apparatus set up by Lord Thomas Audley may well have been a coincidence but I doubt it. The crown was getting ready. There may not be any accused or even any evidence, but the investigation may have been underway. Cromwell and Henry had to wait for things to happen and in the tense, probably heightened and stressful and suspicious atmosphere this all created at the English Court, it didn’t take long for people to be caught off guard, for foolish conversations to be overheard, people to fall into traps and arrests to be made.

    1. I’ve become convinced that Cromwell was busy turning Henry VIII’s wishes into reality, that he’d been ordered by the king to get rid of Anne in some way and needed time to actually work out how he was going to do this. I think he knew that it would have to be in some final way, as Henry couldn’t handle her being a thorn in his side like Catherine had been, and I think he also turned the situation to his advantage by getting rid of men who were obstacles to what he wanted to do, e.g. Brereton and the North Wales/Cheshire situation.

      1. Yes, 100%, yes, yes, yes, agree!!!! I wouldn’t put it as strongly as Professor McCullough “he was out to get the Queen” but oh boy, Cromwell was taking advantage as well as putting Henry’s needs into practice. I also think he was nervous after the Skip sermon and the encounter with Henry Viii, he saw an opportunity to be rid of a difficult Queen, the King wanted out and Cromwell was there obliging and taking his own advantage. The conversations at the end of the month were a gift for his investigation. I doubt he was literally rubbing his hands with glee, Cromwell probably wanted to find grounds for an annulment, but Henry didn’t want one of those, they take time. Henry wanted out, like yesterday. It wouldn’t surprise me if in his meltdown Henry actually gave the fatal order to get rid of Anne at any cost. We don’t know why Cromwell was as white as a sheet, but it could be Henry told him he wanted her set up good or he would be next. Not that I am defending Cromwell, the man was ruthless enough to do his own dirty work, but he also had a lot in common with the Queen, despite recent disagreements. He was, for example a reformer and supported social reform, as did Queen Anne. He went too far with the monasteries, not using their revenues for philanthropic projects, but that was Henry’s pet idea. He needed the money to defend the realm and decorate his new palaces. Anne disagreed and Cromwell thought she wanted his head. Anne had lost her influence with the King, but we all have our imagination and I believe in his imagination Cromwell saw Anne as an obstacle to be removed. Henry, unfortunately saw her as an obstacle to be removed permanently because as you say, Katherine had been a thorn for three years before the poor woman died. Anne was only between 29 and 37 depending on her date of birth, in good health as far as we know and likely to be around for several years. He didn’t want a second stubborn Queen being a thorn in his side and I can’t see Anne going quietly or at least swaning around the place. Henry needed a fresh start with Jane Seymour, he couldn’t put any doubts on the succession again. Henry Viii didn’t grow up until 1544 when he saw sense and put his three kids in the succession by law. Cromwell took advantage here getting his own back on some people, William Brereton especially, yeap I agree, agree agree, very big advantage for Cromwell. This was his chance and he gained from it as well with the prestigious position of Lord Privy Seal being surrendered by Thomas Boleyn and given to Cromwell.

        His disappearance from Court is very suspicious, time to put everything in place and he must have had orders or permission from Henry, putting his wishes and his conspiracy into place. I think the fall was a mix of Henry and Cromwell because the latter could not just go about setting up a commission of Oyer and Terminer on his own, he wasn’t the High Constable of England, he needed the nod, then Audley had the authority to act. Henry was given the ammunition after the unfortunate events at the end of the month and the “investigation” swung into official mode, but this was all preparations in readiness. I don’t think Henry had the brains to put it all together, Cromwell was his man for everything, he was the mastermind, if Henry was the instigator.

  5. Eric Ives says Brereton was added to the coup because he was causing trouble in the Welsh Marches and that Cromwell wanted to de centralise and organise the government there, he instigated the ruthless murder of some man who had killed one of his retainers, so Cromwells reasons for choosing him were purely political, he was fifty at the time so not young by Tudor standards and was happily married with two sons, Brereton had served at court as his father had served Henry V11, he was groom of the Kings privy chamber and was not connected in any way to the queens household, he appears a serious minded man who did his duty well and went home to his wife each evening, the least likely candidate for indulging in illicit relations with his masters wife, it was said of him, if any of the men accused were innocent it were he.

  6. There is a huge Victorian portrait of Sir William Brereton in Cheshire Town Hall and his son as both of them served as elder men in the county, basically on the city and county council. Cheshire is a county palletine, which means it has special privileges. It’s governments were almost self governance, answerable only to the King and the Earl of Chester was usually a high ranking member of the nobility. I believe the Prince of Wales pinched the title at some point. Yes, the Prince of Wales holds the title since the fourteenth century. The rights of the principality have not changed, however, and Henry knew he would have to control every March town before he could legally formulate Wales as fully being English. His legislation of 1536 the Act of Union made Wales one country and ended the border marches as they had been. Wales was absorbed into England and representatives came to the English Parliament but laws were now in English, not Welsh and English authority was enforced more formally. The pretence for this was that criminals were not being dealt with properly and as most of the old families were Catholic, the Reformation was slow to take off in Wales also. In Chester, before this Act, any Welshman found in the city without a special permit after dark could be executed on the spot. After 1536, this practice stopped at least.

    Cromwell was trying to make changes in Wales where the Earl of Richmond and our William B had a free hand and much independence as did all the deputies in the area. He was Chamberlain of North Wales and help sway over the two counties. He was coincidentally the brother in law of Anthony and Elizabeth Browne through her husband, Sir Henry Somerset, so was considered a nuisance by the brother of the Countess of Worcester. Here the plot thickens because Elizabeth was named as first testimony against Anne Boleyn in the trial report of Justice Spelman. Could Cromwell have conspired with Anthony Browne to use Elizabeth to get rid of a rival in the Principality by getting Elizabeth to use her tittle tattle against the Queen and in order to name William Brereton as a co accused? Cromwell saw Brereton as an irritating nuisance whom he had previous run ins with and this was an opportunity to remove someone from North Wales who was not just influential in the area, but whose behaviour would make his reforms difficult to implement. By naming William B as one of Anne’s lovers Cromwell served the King’s political interests, laying the groundwork for the Act of Union and his own by removing a potentially dangerous rival.

    I am going to make a confession now, I think the invention of William Brereton as a mad Jesuit, super sleuthing spy and Vatican hitman in the Tudors who gave up a false confession so he could become a martyr and get rid of his target, Anne Boleyn was brilliant. It was utter rubbish, but I have to say it was very enjoyable rubbish. It was a brilliant dramatic twist putting him at the centre of events like that and I loved it. Unfortunately, the reality makes a lot more sense because William B wasn’t part of the Queens circle, probably only met her a few times and was even older than the King. He had a colourful enough life in any event.

    Trivia. The traditional border between England and Wales at Chester runs through the middle of Chester Football Club, right down the middle of the pitch.

    There are several memorials to the families in the parish Medieval Church of Saint John in Chester and the parish at Malpas, Cheshire.

  7. Very interesting Bq thanks for that, and regarding Breretons portrait I’m often curious about what Annes alleged lovers looked like, can you describe him to me thanks.

  8. Does anyone else think the still on the video with Claire and that sword makes it look as if she means business lol? We had best behave or off with our heads ha!

    It’s Victorian, Christine, so it’s very idealistic, probably nothing like him, but as it’s a while since I took it I will have to take a look through 1000 digital photos and get back to you. I think it was kinda pre Raphelite and he looked like a Medieval hero rather than an actual portrait. I remember it was quite distinguished but as soon as I find it, I will let you know.

    1. Hi, its Victorian but its not far from a seventeenth century portrait copied from a contemporary sketch, lost and I think there is one in the NPG which was of him as a young man. He is tall, in fancy black and blue and silver armour, he has a ginger brown beard and moustache, slim but long shaped face and brown eyes, looking between 40 and 50 and his upper body is well built and stout but strong and firm, his waist is slim and his lower build is athletic and slim. Although very stylised it isn’t as pre Raphelite as I thought, although his armour is more ceremonial than one for combat. His eyes are very attractive and he looks very kind and experienced. His beard is slightly pointed. He has very nice eyebrows. His sword is one of those huge ceremonial Knight of the Round Table things, standing at his side and he has badges of office and coats of arms around him. He has very nice slim but strong long legs and his armour shows off his thighs and legs very well. His face is long but oval and slim and his hair also brown and gold. In another portrait there he has a plain black armour but with feathers in his helmet. That one looks very Medieval as are all the portraits there.

      Another William Brereton had a key role as the commander who took over Chester after it surrendered during the English Civil War. King Charles I saw the Battle from the Tower on the city walls and Chester has one of the best preserved Medieval walls. A bullet whistled past his head and hit the man next to him. This Colonel William Brereton is buried in the parish Church of Saint John.

  9. Thanks Bq he does sound as if he was quite an attractive looking man, his sons must have been proud of him and I feel very sad that he was sacrificed just so Henry V111 could rid himself of an unwanted wife, likewise the other poor men.

  10. I believe, that Anne was set up. Henry VIII could have sent
    Anne to a Covent. He could have saved her, and sent her to
    France. Instead he had some innocent men executed. He
    might as well have killed them all and Anne for crimes, that
    his twisted mind believed.

    Henry VIII acted like he was above the law.

    Anne was innocent. She was no more a witch than I’m a

    The old goat wanted a Male heir. He didn’t get a son by
    Catherine or Anne. Sadly Jane died after giving birth to
    a son.

    1. Yes, Anne was set up but no Henry couldn’t have sent her to a convent. She was tried on capital crimes and although innocent Henry wanted rid of Anne permanently. Besides which the religious houses were all closed within the next four years so what then? Henry was of the mindset now that Anne was too much of a threat and much as we want him to have acted differently, he wasn’t going to do anything else and its modern wishful thinking otherwise.

      I agree, Henry had a number of options, divorce, religious imprisonment, exile, banishment, to live separately from Anne but if he believed the charges then a trial and imprisonment was the only alternative to execution. Anne would have been more trouble than Katherine and that’s the real reason Henry agreed to a more permanent method of getting rid of her.

      Henry didn’t act as if he was above the law, on the contrary every legal principle of the time was followed, but the trial was rigged and the evidence invented.

      Anne and the five men were indeed innocent. However, she wasn’t charged with witchcraft. She was charged with treason, adultery and incest. You are right, this all came from a desire for a male heir which he tragically failed to get on his first two wives. He was lucky with Jane, but he sadly lost her from childbirth complications.

Leave a Reply

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