Thomas Cromwell the Plotter
Thomas Cromwell the Plotter

In last week’s post, William Brereton Part 1, I introduced you to Tudor bad boy William Brereton, a man who may have been innocent of adultery with the queen but who was certainly guilty of a handful of other crimes, but he didn’t deserve to die did he?

This week, I’m going to examine Brereton’s arrest, trial and execution, and the consequences of his death for his family.

Brereton’s Arrest

As I have written many times before, the majority of today’s historians believe that the coup against Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction was a conspiracy thought up by Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell and that Anne and the five men were framed and executed for crimes that they did not commit. Eric Ives describes it as a “faction battle” and perhaps Cromwell realised that framing Norris, Brereton and Weston, who had been good friends of the King for many years, would hurt the King immensely and make Anne’s crime of infidelity all the more “heinous” and shocking. The King would not only feel betrayed by Anne, but by his closest friends and he would want revenge and justice.

So, how did Cromwell bring down men like Sir Francis Brereton and how was Brereton implicated?

Alison Weir, in “The Lady in the Tower”, writes of how “The Spanish Chronicle” told the story of an old waiting woman called Margaret helping Anne Boleyn with her extramarital affairs by hiding Mark Smeaton behind the royal bed curtains and how this same woman incriminated Henry Norris and William Brereton after she had been arrested and wracked. Of course, there is no evidence to support this story but rumours like this were obviously circulating at court and it does seem that the only evidence against Brereton, the other men and Anne, is based on hearsay. Weir also reports of how it was allegedly Brereton’s wife’s sister-in-law, the Countess of Worcester, who was the first person to give Cromwell the evidence he needed against Anne Boleyn. According to Eric Ives, three court ladies – Anne Cobham, “my Lady Worcester” and “one maid more” – were listed in a letter by John Hussey to Lord Lisle as sources of information against Anne.

The first hint of trouble for Brereton was the King’s behaviour at the May Day jousts of 1536. It is said that the King suddenly got up and left the jousts after receiving a message, which Weir feels must have informed him that Mark Smeaton had confessed to adultery with the Queen and that he had also incriminated Lord Rochford, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton. Immediately after the jousts, Brereton was detained for questioning but he was not formally arrested until the 4th May and the charges against him were never made public. Norris’s servant, George Constantine, wrote of Brereton:

“What was laid against him I do not know, nor ever heard.”

Like Sir Francis Weston, Brereton was questioned by members of the Privy Council but his protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears and he was taken to the Tower of London to await trial. George Constantine wrote of how he was able to speak to Brereton before he was imprisoned and that Brereton said “that there was no way but one with any matter alleged against him”words that Constantine took as meaning that he was innocent of the charges against him.

The Charges Against Brereton

The charges against Brereton listed in the Middlesex Indictment are:-

“Also the Queen, 3 Dec. 25 Hen. VIII [1533], and divers days before and after, procured William Brereton, Esquire, late of Westminster, one of the gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber, to have illicit intercourse with her, whereby he did so on 8 Dec. 25 Hen. VIII [1533) at Hampton Court, in the parish of Little Hampton, and on several 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”

Another indictment, this time of the Grand Jury of Kent, which related t0 offences that had been committed in that county, accused the Queen of soliciting Brereton at Greenwich on the 16th November 1533 and sleeping with him at Greenwich on the 27th November. It went on to charge Anne, her brother, Norris, Weston and Brereton of “compassing” the King’s death at Greenwich on the 8th January 1536.

Again, as in the cases of Smeaton and Weston, these dates just do not make sense and it is as if Cromwell just plucked them out of the air. At the beginning of December 1533, there is evidence that Anne Boleyn was pregnant again and that she was suffering from exhaustion and other pregnancy symptoms. It is therefore unlikely that she would have committed adultery with Brereton at the end of November, when she was certainly pregnant.

The Trial

Henry VIII ordered a trial at Westminster after the men refused to confess and it is interesting to note that 16th century procedure in treason trials meant that the men were not given full details of the allegations against them and so were unable to fully prepare their defence.

As commoners, Weston, Norris, Smeaton and Brereton were tried at a special sessions of oyer and terminer and it looks like Cromwell had fun choosing the jury! Did the men ever stand a chance? No, not when the jury included men who would benefit from their deaths, those who wanted to see the Boleyn faction brought down and people who owed the King or Cromwell a favour. The hostile jury included:-

  • Edward Willoughby as foreman – Willoughby owed Brereton money so it was in his interests to get rid of Brereton.
  • Sir Giles Allington – A son-in-law of Sir Thomas More.
  • William Askew – A supporter of the Lady Mary.
  • Walter Hungerford – A man who Eric Ives describes as “a scape-grace dependant of Cromwell’s” and a man who would later be executed for buggery.
  • Sir John Hampden – A man whose daughter was sister-in-law to the comptroller of the royal household, William Paulet.
  • William Musgrave – A man who was desperate to be seen in a good light by Cromwell after his treason charges against Lord Dacre had failed.
  • Robert Dormer – A Catholic Conservative who had opposed Henry VIII’s break with Rome.
  • Thomas Palmer – A gambling partner of the King.
  • Richard Tempest – One of Cromwell’s men and an ally of the conservative Lord Darcy.
  • William Sidney – A friend of Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk.
  • Anthony Hungerford – A man related to Jane Seymour, Henry’s new love.

Alison Weir comments that “Given the affiliations of these men, and the unlikelihood that any of them would risk angering the King by returning the wrong verdict, the outcome of the trial was prejudiced from the very outset” and the men must have known that their fates were sealed as soon as they saw the jury.

Only Mark Smeaton pleaded guilty (to adultery, although he pleaded not guilty to the other charges), Brereton, like Norris and Weston, pleaded not guilty to all charges. Eric Ives writes:

“Even where a jury was not loaded in advance, defendants in a Tudor criminal trial – even more, a state trial – were at an enormous disadvantage. They had no advance warning of the evidence to be out, and since defence counsel was not allowed, they were reduced to attempting to rebut a public interrogation by hostile and well-prepared Crown prosecutors determined not so much to present the government vase as to secure a conviction by fair questions or foul.”

Records of the trials are missing, so we can only go on witness accounts. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, reported that no witnesses were called for William Brereton, which implies that witnesses were called for the other men, although we have no idea who they were. We do know that all four men were found guilty (surprise, surprise!) and sentenced to be “hanged, drawn and quartered, their members cut off and burnt before them, their heads cut off and [their bodies] quartered”, which was the usual execution method for traitors and which was obviously a brutally slow and painful way to die.

William Brereton’s Execution

Henry VIII, in his mercy (?!), commuted the sentences to decapitation by axe, which was still a horrible way to go and depended on the skill of the axeman, and on Wednesday the 17th of May all five men were led out of the Tower of London to the scaffold on Tower Hill.

Lord Rochford (George Boleyn) was the first to be executed, due to his higher rank, and was followed by Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and then finally Mark Smeaton. We can only imagine the horror and fear that Brereton felt as he saw Rochford, Norris and Weston killed in such a bloody way. The scaffold would have been a mess of headless bodies and blood and Brereton must have been terrified.

The Spanish Chronicle reports that Brereton just said “I have offended God and the King; pray for me”, but other reports have Brereton 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.”

Alison Weir thinks that in the first part of his speech, the bit about deserving a thousand deaths, is referring to his criminal activities in the Welsh Marches and even forbidden sexual practices, because she feels that his admission to deserving a thousand deaths is a bit over the top for someone just admitting to the usual guilt of original sin. However, although Retha Warnicke believes that the men were all involved in sodomy and illicit sexual practices, I believe that Brereton is simply confessing his guilt as a sinner and recognising that, as a sinner, he deserves to die many times over. I’m not sure that we can read too much into the words of a a man facing death in such a brutal way.

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” , meaning that if Brereton had been guilty then he would have confessed and asked God’s forgiveness, rather than risking eternal damnation by dying with unconfessed sin.

After Brereton was executed, his body was taken to the graveyard of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, the Tower chapel, and he was buried in the same grave as Mark Smeaton. As I have written before, this graveyard was built on in the 19th century and the Waterloo Block now stands where the graveyard once was. During the preparation for this building work, any remains that were found were re-interred in the crypt of the Chapel so we can assume that Brereton now lies at rest in the chapel somewhere.

In the writings of George Cavendish (“Metrical Visions”), Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher and biographer, William Brereton laments his ruin by reflecting that he  “who striketh with the sword, the sword will overthrow” and sees his fall as divine punishment for all of the sins and crimes that he has committed:-

“Lo, here is the end of murder and tyranny!
Lo, here is the end of envious affection!
Lo, here is the end of false conspiracy!
Lo, here is the end of false detection
Done to the innocent by cruel correction!
Although in office I thought myself strong,
Yet here is mine end for ministering wrong.”


Both Alison Weir and Eric Ives believe that Elizabeth Somerset, Brereton’s widow, believed in her husband’s innocence, even though her sister-in-law may well have provided the evidence needed to bring down Anne and her circle. According to Ives, Elizabeth bequeathed to her son in her will  “one bracelet of gold, the which was the last token his father sent me”, a piece of jewellery that was obviously precious to her.

It appears that men were queuing up to get the spoils after the fall of Norris, Weston, Brereton and Rochford, and Brereton’s estate near Greenwich was granted to one of Cromwell’s favourites, Sir Ralph Sadler, a man who served under four Tudor monarchs as a diplomat. In June 1536, Brereton’s brother, Urian Brereton (the man whom Anne Boleyn’s beloved greyhound was named after), a page of the Privy Chamber, was granted four properties and 200 acres of land in Cheshire which had belonged to his brother and on the 30th June Elizabeth Brereton (nee Somerset) was granted “all the goods, chattels, rents, fees and annuities belonging to the said William at the time of his attainder”.

Whatever our thoughts about Brereton and the crimes he may have committed in the Welsh Marches and by using his influence and position, nobody deserves to die for a crime that they did not commit. All too often the five men who died just a few days before Anne Boleyn are forgotten but they need to be remembered as innocent victims too. I leave you with the words of the poet Thomas Wyatt who saw Brereton and the otehr men get executed from the window of his prison cell in the Bell Tower:-

“Brereton farewell, as one that least I knew.
Great was thy love with divers as I hear,
But common voice doth not so sore thee rue
As other twain that doth before appear;
But yet no doubt but they friends thee lament
And other hear their piteous cry and moan.
So doth each heart for thee likewise relent
That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.”


Book Review

You can read my review of Dr Josephine Wilkinson’s book “The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn” over at our special Tudor books review site – click here or on our Book of the Month page.

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