May 17, 1536 – Executions of George Boleyn and Others
Posted By Claire on May 17, 2009
On this day in 1536, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and George Boleyn were all beheaded by axe on Tower Hill. The first four had all been sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering, but the King commuted their sentences to beheading.
Thomas Wyatt reported that George Boleyn made a speech defending his religious beliefs, Sir Francis admitted to having led a sinful life, Norris “sayed all most nothinge at all”, Brereton protested his innocence and Smeaton did not take the chance to retract his confession – see www.theanneboleynfiles.com/resources/execution-speeches/ for speeches.
Each man was beheaded and their bodies taken away. George was buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where Anne would join him two days later, and the other men to the churchyard.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower
Anne Boleyn’s execution was scheduled for the next day, 18th May and she was in the Tower awaiting her death and making her peace with God. Joanna Denny points out that it is unlikely that Anne would have been able to see the executions of the four men, as this would have meant moving her from her confines.
Anne had been sentenced to death by burning or beheading and it was her jailer, Sir William Kingston, who wrote to Thomas Cromwell asking:-
“What is the King’s pleasure touching the Queen, as for the preparation of scaffolds and other necessaries?”
While Anne was waiting for her execution, Henry announced that she would be beheaded by a French swordsman from Calais which was seen to be merciful because her head would be cut off cleanly in one quick blow. However, the King was being anything but merciful. For the swordsman to have travelled from Calais to London by the date of Anne Boleyn’s execution, he would have to have been ordered BEFORE Anne’s trial!
Eric Ives writes of how Anne spent her time in the Tower imagining that her people were praying for her, that bishops would intervene for her and that the King would be merciful and send her to a nunnery. Her black humour had her saying that she would be known as “Queen Anne the Headless” and saying that famous quote “I have heard that the executioner is very good. And I have a little neck.”
Another cruel action, to both Anne and her old friend, Archbishop Cranmer, was the instruction to Cranmer to convince Anne to sign a document admitting that her marriage to Henry was false, and her daughter, Elizabeth, illegitimate in return for clemency. Anne Boleyn was told that she and her daughter, Elizabeth would go free and be allowed to go into exile abroad. Anne signed this document. Did Cranmer know he was being used or did he truly believe that Anne would be freed? I guess we’ll never know.
Although some say that Anne spent her time in the Tower flitting from babbling to hysteria to quiet, her jailer, Sir William Kingston, reported her dignity and courage. On hearing of Mark Smeaton’s execution, without a retraction of his confession, Anne was concerned for his immortal soul, saying:-
“Alas!Has he not then cleared me of the public shame he has brought me to? Alas, I fear his soul suffers for his false accusations!”
However, she said of the other four men:-
“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.”
One thing we have to remember is these five men were framed just as much as Anne and were innocent of all crimes. Henry VIII had much needless bloodshed on his conscience, what with these deaths and the massacres and executions of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Watch out for my next blog post tomorrow!
P.S. I’ve just put a post on The Anne Boleyn Files Wiki asking people how they are going to celebrate/commemorate Anne Boleyn Day on May 19 – add your comments or idea by clicking here.