May 17, 1536 – Executions of George Boleyn and Others

Posted By 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.

19 thoughts on “May 17, 1536 – Executions of George Boleyn and Others”

  1. Emma says:

    Thank you for all you do with this website! It is so important that, all these years later, we continue to promote and remember Anne. It is a mournful time of year for any “Anne Fan” but she was so much more than the circumstances surrounding her death. Your entries are a wonderful reminder of her character and strength. Thank you thank you!

  2. admin says:

    Thank you, Emma, for your support and thanks. I love running this site and spreading the message and it’s so special when people like you make a comment – thank you. Claire x

    1. Kirsten Beall says:

      I agree. Anne was not guilty of the crimes they accused her of. She was an intelligent women, she would have known better than that. There were alot of people at court who wanted to see her deposed for what she and her family had done to the queen,Princess Mary, and the church. She had no shortage of enemies, but people seem to forget that there were others involved as well. Henry, Cromwell, Cranmer, just to name a few. Anne wasn’ t so much interested in the destruction of the churches either. I’m not saying she was a saint, but I don’t think she was a monster either. She was a woman. She was used by the men in her family, to gain wealth, power, and position. It wasn’t an uncommon practice in Tudor times. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, it just was.

  3. Bassania says:

    I think that what most are forgetting is that Anne was only great because of her tragic end, she would never have been mentioned except she was the first Queen to be executed. While her story was so tragic we have to acknowledge that, when Anne and Henry were married, Henry was already 42, he was aging, and starting to get fat. It wouldn’t be surprising that Anne had an affair. In order to protect her life, she would have had to concieve a child, if that child wasn’t sired by Henry, it might have taken a while for him to find out, but in order to protect her life, she tried almost all she could.

    1. SYLVIA says:

      I am now watching the series “The Tudor’s” on Netflex and realize it is fiction based on history. I feel more sorrow for Queen Katherine and the indignities she suffered at the hands of Ann and Henry . Ann seduced Henry knowing that he was married. I am not an Ann Fan. She played her game and lost.

  4. admin says:

    Hi Bassania!

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and it’s so great to hear people’s different opinions on Anne Boleyn but I have to say that I don’t agree with you.

    Anne Boleyn was the first English queen to be executed and that in itself makes her a memorable person but she was so much more than that. Her “greatness” lies in the following:-
    – She caused the Church of England to be formed and changed English history – Henry’s passion for her led to him doing this but she also had great influence over him and passed him religious books and shared her “evangelical” ideas and opinions with him.
    – She was Henry’s equal – No other wife had her influence over him – she debated with him, planned Whitehall Palace with him, shared her opinion over foreign policy etc. That’s why Cromwell had to get rid of her.
    – She gave birth to one of the greatest monarchs England has ever seen, Elizabeth I – Elizabeth had much of her mother’s character and we should not forget this.

    Those are just a few of the reasons why I believe Anne was great (I feel a blog post coming on!). I also do need to point out that while it may be understandable that Anne would have an affair, like Catherine Howard did, Anne did not. All historical evidence points to her being faithful to the King and to these being lies used to frame her and get rid of her. Anne may have been desperate to have a son but she was intelligent enough to know her position and not to mess around. I think books and movies like The Other Boleyn girl have coloured our views here and some seem ready to believe that Anne would have slept with her own brother to have a son.

    Sorry to go on and as I said it’s great that we can all have different views as it can lead to lively debates!

    Claire x

  5. Tudorrose says:

    the executions of Anne Boleyns brother George and the other men that followed being Henry Norriss william Bereton Francis weston and Mark Smeaton were all beheaded a couple of days before Anne herself was executed.
    I think that the executions of theese men was unjustified and so was it of Anne.I think that they were only beheaded because they were all part of the reforming process.That being of the reformed religion being lutheran.Anne her brother George and the rest of the co-accused were all part of the Boleyn faction.This is what I think caused there downfall.Nothing else and nothing more.Just because they supported Anne and the religious changes.

  6. Ronnie says:

    3 things
    why Anne Boleyn is remembered
    1. execution
    2. Elizabeth
    3. she made Henry break with the church
    If she didn’t make Henry break with the church she wouldn’t be as remembered.
    and her execution being a queen and being killed was a massive inpact in being remembered
    and the mother of the most famous English Queen
    if she just divorced the king she would be forgotten in time like all the other queens or as her and the King lived together and had a boy with him. King Henry wouldn’t be as remembered and hated by some people. what he did just to be with a person and in the end kill her is what made him hated. don’t get me wrong i love the whole histroy bit but you need to put this in to consideration and think the only reasons she is remembered is the above reasons.

  7. Claire says:

    Hi Ronnie,
    Thanks for your comment. For a further discussion on this very subject see my post https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/execution-was-it-anne-boleyns-only-claim-to-fame/804/ . I think there’s definitely more to her than those 3 reasons – her influence over Henry, the fact that she was executed as an innocent woman and victim of a plot, her patronage of the arts, the fact that she was the first woman that an English monarch had married for love etc. (see my post).

    I’m not sure about your comment “if she just divorced the king she would be forgotten in time like all the other queens” because actually I don’t believe that Henry’s other wives have been forgotten. This year has seen a biography of Jane Seymour published and an Anne of Cleves biography is soon to be released. There have also been past books about Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, and countless books, fiction and non-fiction, on the six wives. I think there is something about all of Henry’s wives, they all affected him and left their mark.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s great to discuss Anne and Tudor history with other like-minded people.

  8. Louise says:

    Now, there’s an alternative history question: would Anne Boleyn have been remembered if she hadn’t been executed? I think the answer has to be ‘yes’. Henry’s determination to marry her changed the history of England. It’s also possible to argue that the religious confusion that followed the establishment of the Church of England led to the journey of the Pilgrim Fathers and so Anne has an impact on the history of the US.

    If you read Ives and Starkey, it’s clear that Anne was a star at the Tudor court, thanks to a combination of character and education. She understood the concepts of image and propaganda. Did she refine Henry’s understanding? If you look at the Field of Cloth of Gold it’s all gaudy magnificence. Yet that stunning Holbein picture of Henry which feels as if the king is observing you as you walk towards it post-dates Anne. So do all the Tudor family propaganda pictures. Perhaps her influence on Henry did survive to some extent.

    I think there are a number of reasons for being fascinated by Anne. Firstly, her story is the type of triumph to tragedy story that has been told for thousands of years and resonates in the human psyche. The difference is that in her case it’s real rather than mythological.

    The second reason is that the position she found herself in, as beloved of the king, meant she was able to make her own decisions in a way that modern women take for granted. As a result, she has a modern resonance. It’s not difficult to imagine her living nearly 500 years later and being a politician, a film star or the CEO of a major company. None of Henry’s other wives wielded such influence. A few other women in history managed to run their own lives: Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine for part of her life and Elizabeth I. But for sheer dramatic impact there’s none to rival Anne. I suspect she’d rather enjoy that!

    In reference to her cousin Catherine Howard, Starkey’s reading of Thomas Culpepper’s confession is that although he intended to ‘meddle’ with Catherine, they never did anything more than talk. So it is possible that both Henry’s executed wives were innocent.

  9. Claire says:

    Hi Louise,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It’s good to know that other people feel that Anne’s fame lies in who she was and what she did not just what was done to her. I think she had a major impact on Henry, her time, England and the country’s future, and that should not be downplayed or disregarded. I wonder if Catherine Howard was innocent too. Henry did not give her chance to explain herself and it seems that he just abandoned his wives when told bad things about them and completely cut them off. It is fortunate that Catherine Parr was able to speak to him and talk him round otherwise I’m sure she would have been beheaded too!
    Thanks again, Louise, you’ve made some great points.

  10. Catherine East says:

    I think Anne should be remembered for being unique, strong minded, a victim but most of all a role model for women whose place in English history cannot not be underestimated, and as Starkey describes her ‘the most interesting of Henry’s wives’. I cannot believe that she would be morally inept or politically stupid enough to have taken lovers even to begat a child. It is noteworthy that it would have been virtually impossible for her to have secret affairs because she was constantly in the company of her ladies even at night and in the clastrophobic atmosphere of court life it would have raised much suspicion if she had continually sought the privacy she would have needed without an accomplice as with Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford. If her medical condition of being Rhesus neg is to be believed it would not have mattered as she would not have had any other living children. Weir book interesting follows the line of Ives in suggesting that Henry was still loyal right up to weeks before her death as he was still very publically promoting her to the emperor, and it was definitely Cromwell who sealed her doom and presented a damning case to Henry who weakly took the easy option as was his fickle nature and opted to try a new model and not believe the woman who he had moved heaven and earth for.. This site is so brilliant as it promotes my heroine not only in her remarkable death but her life too, keep up the fantastic work

    1. Susan says:

      Good heavens, I never thought ot the idea of Anne being RH negative! That would explain so much! Has anyone ever actually verified this?

  11. Claire says:

    Great comment, Catherine. I agree, she was far too intelligent to take on a lover even in complete desperation to give Henry and heir. It is so sad that Cromwell got away with framing her when the evidence was just so flimsy. The dates just didn’t make sense! As Weir says, and also Ives, Anne just couldn’t have been committing adultery on those dates because she was either in confinement, recovering after childbirth or with Henry! The case definitely wouldn’t stand up in today’s courts of law but then Cromwell picked the jury! Even Chapuys was confident that Anne was innocent – so sad!
    I also agree with you about Henry’s fickle nature. Perhaps part of him wanted to believe Cromwell because it was covenient to do so, he wanted to move on and have the chance of a new marriage and a potential baby boy. It is such a tragic story but Anne shines out of it. She was such an amazing woman – strong, determined, charitable, brave, courageous and with such a strong faith, a faith that got her through those dark days in the Tower.
    It makes me so happy when I get comments like yours and I am so glad that you like the site – thank you!

  12. Shelia says:

    Hi Claire, I believe that Anne Boleyn was ahead of her time. This woman was so profound in intelligence, wit, strong-willed, brilliant, charismatic and a fashion icon of her day. I believe she was born during the wrong time, she would have been a CEO, civil rights activists, entrepreneur–you name it in this day and age! She had the ability to rule England in her own right. However, I think old Catherine of Aragon got her revenge after all with Anne Boleyn falling from grace and being replaced by Jane Seymour. I feel as though Anne disrespected Catherine in some ways. I admire Catherine too, she was faithful, smart and strong. She just could not give Henry a son. She was a good woman. Also Anne was pimped by her father and uncle. Sadly women were used for material gains and favors from monarchs. I also believed that Henry had diabetes and VD. He was too irrational, cruel and psycho-pathic. He suffered from mood swings, mental illness and high blood pressure. It was ridiculous of him to believe she had affairs with other men. He just wanted the Boleyns out because Anne could not give him a male heir. People were really stupid back then too to have believed and went along with such lies. Common sense would have told them that Anne could have never committed treason or any crime against the king because he had their marriage null and void. So if the king was never married to her, then how could she have committed treason. They were officially never married. History tells us that most of Europe in particularly the Emperor, the Pope, the King of France and the list goes on; did not honor their marriage. Furthermore, Anne seemed to not have very many friends at court either. She had a lot of enemies. As smart as she was, you would think that she would have kept her enemies close to her. Anne was in desperate need of allies. Moreover, one of Anne’s biggest mistakes was not petitioning the reinstatement of Princess Mary back to court to the king. She should have made sure that everyone knew she was on good terms with Mary and had her best interest. But we all know her father Sir Thomas Boleyn would have never allowed it! The people of England loved Mary and her mother Queen Catherine of Aragon. You think Cromwell got away with Anne’s downfall? Not the case. Cromwell met his doom too when those at court plotted and succeeded in his demise. You know the old saying, “you reep what you sow!” Lastly, the most remembered or famous queen in Europe next to her daughter Elizabeth I, simply married a fool. This man was a tyrant, cruel, insane and did not care for nor appreciate the people who had his best interests or made efforts to please him. The truth is after the execution of Anne Boleyn, no woman should have wanted to married him. It is shocking to me that four women later married him!

  13. Jill says:

    Women in those days had no choice but to marry these men. They were simply chattel and brood mares. They were ill appreciated for their intelligence because they were women. Consider the fact that the only education available to females of that age was the monasteries, they learned their letters and numbers through needlework samplers still on exhibit at Victoria and Albert Museum and after those monasteries were dissolved and assets basically stolen a female or male’s right to an education disappeared. I do believe that Henry broke with the Catholic church not only because of Anne Boleyn but to seize the wealth and power that the monasteries held. However he remained in comparison with Constantine who remained a pagan his whole life but created the state religion of Christianity not for faith but for political ends. These days I believe Henry VIII would have been brought to trial for crimes against humanity.

  14. Shelia says:

    Jill, I could not agree with you more. It has taken centuries for women to be appreciated and valued. America has been a springboard for women to become equals to men. However, the struggle continues. I agree totally that Christianity has been used for political purposes and unfortunately still is today. It keeps the masses of the people under control. And as for King Henry VIII, yes, he would be considered one of the world’s most hated leaders in today’s world! In addition to him being charged with crimes against humanity. Jill your insight into history is interesting.

  15. Jill says:

    Thank you, Sheila as there are many who would not agree with me. We must learn that if we are to behave as humanist Sir Thomas More had some of it but not all that the first job we have as Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or Hebrews is something an ancient Greek philosopher whose name escapes me is to “know thyself”.

  16. Shelia says:

    You’re absolutely right Jill. Actually before him was an Egyptian Pharoah from the old kingdom that also said, “know thy self”. With all of the different perspectives regarding humanism we should be creating melody, but unfortunately we are not.

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