In last week’s post on George Boleyn, I examined the beginning of George Boleyn’s downfall, his arrest and the role that his wife, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, had in the downfalls of both George and Anne Boleyn. Today, I’m going to continue George’s story to its tragic end.
The Case Against George Boleyn
George Boleyn was arrested on the 2nd May, the day after the May Day jousts, and taken to the Tower of London to await trial.
The part of the Middlesex Indictment pertaining to George Boleyn says:-
“Also that the Queen, 2 Nov.27 Hen.VIII  and several times before and after, by the means therein stated, procured and incited her own natural brother, George Boleyn, knight, Lord Rochford, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents and jewels, against the commands of God, and all laws human and divine, whereby her, despising the commands of God, and all other human laws, 5 Nov.27 Henry VIII , violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster, which he also did on divers days before and after, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s…Moreover, the said Lord Rochford, Norris, Brereton, Weston and Smeaton, being thus inflamed with carnal love of the Queen, and having become very jealous of each other, gave her secret gifts and pledges while carrying on this illicit intercourse…”
The indictment of the Grand Jury of Kent accused Anne of soliciting George on 22nd December 1535 at Eltham Palace, committing incest with him there on the 29th December and compassing the King’s death with him, Norris, Weston and Brereton on 8th January 1536 at Greenwich.
Alison Weir writes of how accusing Anne and George of incest in November 1535 may have been intended to imply that George was the father of the child that Anne miscarried in 1536.
Both Eric Ives and Alison Weir state that many of the charges against Anne were impossible, due to her being in different places or with the King on the dates mentioned, but however illogical these dates and charges were, Anne, George and the four other men were all found guilty and sentenced to death.
George Boleyn’s Trial
Norris, Brereton, Smeaton and Weston were tried as commoners at a special sessions of oyer and terminer on the 12th May at Westminster Hall and then the Queen, Anne Boleyn, was tried on Monday 15th May in the King’s Hall at the Tower of London, by a jury of her peers, with George following directly after. The fact that Norris, Smeaton, Brereton and Weston were all found guilty of adultery with the Queen meant that the trials of George and Anne were extremely prejudiced – how could they be found innocent now?
On 15th May, the Letters and Paper, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII (LP 10.876) tell us that the Duke of Norfolk, the uncle of Anne and George, was the Lord High Steward presiding over the trial and that the panel consisted of:-
“Charles duke of Suffolk, Hen. marquis of Exeter, Will. earl of Arundel, John earl of Oxford, Hen. earl of Northumberland, Ralph earl of Westmoreland, Edw. earl of Derby, Hen. earl of Worcester, Thos. earl of Rutland, Rob. earl of Sussex, Geo. earl of Huntingdon, John lord Audeley, Thos. lord La Ware, Hen. lord Mountague, Hen. lord Morley, Thos. lord Dacre, Geo. lord Cobham, Hen. lord Maltravers, Edw. lord Powes, Thos. lord Mount Egle, Edw. lord Clynton, Will. lord Sandes, Andrew lord Wyndesore, Thos. lord Wentworth, Thos. lord Burgh, and John lord Mordaunt.”
The Letters and Papers (LP 10.876) go on to say of Anne:-
“And afterwards, Monday, 15 May, queen Anne comes to the bar before the Lord High Steward in the Tower, in the custody of Sir Will. Kingston, pleads not guilty, and puts herself on her peers; whereupon the said duke of Suffolk, marquis of Exeter, and other peers, are charged by the High Steward to say the truth; and being examined from the lowest peer to the highest, each of them severally saith that she is guilty.
Judgment:—To be taken to prison in the Tower, and then, at the King’s command, to the Green within the Tower, and there to be burned or beheaded as shall please the King.”
Straight after Anne’s trial was George’s trial and the Letters and Papers say of George’s trial:-
“The same day, lord Rocheford is brought before the High Steward in the custody of Sir Will. Kingston, and pleads not guilty. The peers are charged, with the exception of the earl of Northumberland, who was suddenly taken ill, and each of them severally saith that he is guilty.
Judgment:—To be taken to prison in the Tower, and then drawn through the city of London, to the gallows at Tyburn, &c., as usual in high treason.”
Charles Wriothesley recorded that after George pleaded not guilty, “he made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, but never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended” and Lancelot de Carles wrote of “his calm behaviour and good defence. More [Thomas More] himself did not reply better”.
Elizabeth Norton, in her book “Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession”, quotes Chapuys as saying the evidence presented for the charge of incest was that “he [George] had been once found a long time with her” – was a man not meant to spend time with his sister?? Norton writes that “George contemptuously dismissed it” and no wonder! According to Norton, George was also charged, like Anne had been, with having laughed at the King and the clothes he wore, something that Norton feels that Anne and George could have been guilty of because of their own stylish way of dressing.
In a letter from Chapuys to Charles V, written on 19th May (LP 10.908), Chapuys writes:-
“I must not omit, that among other things charged against him as a crime was, that his sister had told his wife that the King “nestoit habile en cas de soy copuler avec femme, et quil navoit ne vertu ne puissance.” This he was not openly charged with, but it was shown him in writing, with a warning not to repeat it. But he immediately declared the matter, in great contempt of Cromwell and some others, saying he would not in this point arouse any suspicion which might prejudice the King’s issue. He was also charged with having spread reports which called in question whether his sister’s daughter was the King’s child.”
The French in this quote translates to mean that Henry VIII was not able to have sexual intercourse with a woman because he lacked the potency and vigour, i.e. he was impotent. As Chapuys writes, George was instructed not to read this out in court but by this George did not care and he rebelliously and contemptuously read it out. Norton points out that the Act of Succession made this kind of talk, and his gossip over whether Elizabeth was the King’s daughter, treason because it impugned the King’s issue.
George defended himself as strongly and eloquently as Anne had done and Chapuys wrote:-
“Her brother was charged with having cohabited with her by presumption, because he had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies. To all he replied so well that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.” (LP 10.908)
No witnesses and an eloquent defence, but George was still found guilty:-
“Her brother, after his condemnation, said that since he must die, he would no longer maintain his innocence, but confessed that he had deserved death. He only begged the King that his debts, which he recounted, might be paid out of his goods.” (Chapuys LP 10.908)
What do Chapuys’s words mean though? Do they mean that once he was condemned, George confessed to incest? No, I don’t think so. I think George was just admitting that he, as a sinner, deserved judgement from God. I don’t think we should read too much into Chapuys’s words. As Leanda de Lisle explains, in her book “The Sisters Who Would be Queen”, people convicted of a crime “did not doubt that they deserved to die” and that it was a punishment from God for their sinly life, even if they were innocent of the crime they were convicted of.
George Boleyn’s Execution
On the morning of Wednesday 17th May, George Boleyn, Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton were led out of the Tower to a scaffold on Tower Hill. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was the highest in rank and so was the first to be executed. Letters and Papers (LP 10.911) has the following record:-
“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.”
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.” (” Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England”, translated by Martin A Sharp Hume P67)
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.”
(The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, edited by John Gough Nichols, page 46)
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.
I get goosebumps when I think of the three blows that it is said to have taken for the headsman to finish George off. An execution by beheading is a scary enough death but prisoners always hoped that they would die from one swift, clean blow. Three sounds rather awful.
Once the men had been executed and their bodies stripped of their clothing, George, as a nobleman, was taken to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula where, according to John Whitcombe Bayley in “The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London” 1821 (cited by Alison Weir), Rochford’s head and body were interred before the high altar.
George Boleyn’s Legacy
George and Anne were dead and gone, but they left behind a family who were lucky to escape Cromwell’s coup against Anne and the Boleyn faction.
Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire – George and Anne’s father, Thomas, has escaped with his head and neck intact and remained on the King’s Council, but he lost his position as Lord Privy Seal in June 1536. Alison Weir writes of how there is record of him attending the christening of Prince Edward in October 1537 , lending Cromwell his garter insignia and helping to suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537. Although there were rumours of him marrying Lady Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece, after his wife’s death, he never remarried and actually died on 12th March 1539 at Hever, one year after his wife.
Elizabeth Boleyn (nee Howard) – Both Weir and Norton give April 1538 as the month of George and Anne’s mother’s death. Norton writes that Elizabeth remained a countess until her death and was given a “grand funeral on 7 April 1538 as befitted her rank.”
Mary Boleyn – Mary, the sister of George and Anne, died on 30th July 1543 in relative obscurity at Rochford Hall in Essex. She left behind her husband, William Stafford, and her children Henry and Catherine Carey.
George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield – This man was Dean of Lichfield under Elizabeth I and Weir writes of how “he described himself in his will as the kinsman of her cousin, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who was Mary Boleyn’s grandson and Anne Boleyn’s great nephew.” Weir points out that it is unlikely that he was a son of George and Jane Boleyn because when Thomas Boleyn died his heir was Mary Boleyn, not a son of George, but it could be that he was an illegitimate son of George’s.
Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – After George Boleyn’s execution, his goods and assets were seized by the crown and Jane was left in financial difficulties, so difficult that she wrote a letter in that same year begging Cromwell for help. At the end of May 1536, there is record of this letter in Letters and Papers (10.1010), saying:-
“Jane, widow of Lord Rochford, to [Cromwell].
Beseeching him to obtain from the King for her the stuff and plate of her husband. The King and her father paid 2,000 marks for her jointure to the earl of Wyltchere, and she is only assured of 100 marks during the Earl’s life, “which is very hard for me to shift the world withal.” Prays him to inform the King of this. Signed.”
There is evidence that Cromwell did help Jane and by the end of 1536 she was back at court working as a lady-in-waiting to the new Queen, Jane Seymour. Jane Rochford carried on at court, serving Jane, then Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard until she was executed on 13th February 1542, along with Catherine Howard, for acting as a go-between for the Queen and her lover, Thomas Culpepper. Those who believe that she falsely accused Anne and George of incest may feel that she got her come-uppance.
Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn and niece of George Boleyn – The little girl who was just two years and 8 months old when he mother and uncle were executed on her father’s orders was to become one of the greatest monarchs in English history. What a legacy!
Whatever we think of George Boleyn, his personal life and behaviour – whether you believe that he was a reckless libertine or that he was a talented diplomat and poet – George Boleyn did not deserve to die a gruesome death on the block and to still have his reputation maligned today. In my eyes, he was a highly intelligent man who was passionate about religious reform and the Arts. He was a man of his time in that he probably had an unhappy arranged marriage and may well have enjoyed the odd dalliance on the side, but his rise at court and his popularity shows that he was held in high esteem by those around him and the King trusted him with highly sensitive information and important jobs.
I leave you with the words of another poet, Thomas Wyatt, who wrote about the executions of the five men in his poem “In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase”:-
As for them all I do not thus lament,
But as of right my reason doth me bind;
But as the most doth all their deaths repent,
Even so do I by force of mourning mind.
Some say, ‘Rochford, haddest thou been not so proud,
For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan,
Since as it is so, many cry aloud
It is great loss that thou art dead and gone.’
and the words on the Tower of London’s monument to those who died there:-
“Gentle visitor pause a while,
Where you stand death cut away death cut away the light of many days.
Here, jeweled names were broken from the vivid thread of life.
May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage,
Under these restless skies.”
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII – Found online at British History Online
- “Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession” by Elizabeth Norton
- “The Lady in the Tower” by Alison Weir
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives
- “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Retha Warnicke
- “The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn” by Josephine Wilkinson
- “Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford” by Julia Fox
- “The Chronicle of Calais in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the year 1540” Edited by John Gough Nichols
- “Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England” translated by Martin A Sharp Hume
- Charles Wriothesley’s“A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors from AD 1485-1559″
Thank you to Paudie Kennelly for the photos.