The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day -2 – Tragedy at Tower Hill
Posted By Claire on May 17, 2020
On 17th May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn may have still had two days to live, but, for the accused men, this was execution day.
Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, Sir Henry Norris, and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were executed by beheading on Tower Hill on the morning of 17th May 1536. They were executed as traitors, but the majority of historians believe they were innocent of the charges, and I definitely believe this.
I this talk, I share what happened on 17th May, along with contemporary accounts of the men’s scaffold speeches. I also share a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt about the men.
You can find out more about the executed men in this talk from Clare Cherry:
and more about George Boleyn in this George Bolen playlist of talks:
and this talk from Clare Cherry:
And today’s normal “on this day” video is about Tudor spy Anthony Bacon, brother of philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon. Anthony led a very interesting life too!
There are lots and lots of Tudor history videos on my Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society YouTube channel, so please do consider subscribing – click here. I add new content on a daily basis. If you prefer audio, then my talks are also available as podcasts on Podbean or your usual podcast app.
If you prefer reading, then this website has thousands of articles, including one on 17 May 1536.
19 thoughts on “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day -2 – Tragedy at Tower Hill”
I can’t begin to express how sick these proceedings make me. What happened on this day in 1536 was nothing less than a slaghter of the innocents. These 5 men had done nothing to warrant this except to know Anne. The only reason they had to die was to make Anne’s own death look legitimate for appearances sake. People were already seeing through this charade however. But wait! It’s not over yet. In two days time the real target of Henry’s vitriol and hatred will also be callously murdered. Christine stated in a previous post that deceiving Anne into thinking she may live was not worthy of a king. None of this was worthy of a king.
I agree it was the slaughter of innocents and Wyatts poem sums up perfectly the wretched sadness he felt as seeing the deaths of his friends, it is a long poem in which he mentions each of his friends even down to Mark Smeaton who he describes as ‘ a rotten twig upon so high a tree’, George he describes as proud and he probably was like his sister who was known for her arrogance, there is a drawing of George in Wikipedia and he does resemble his sister, if it is him, he is handsome with a rather strong nose the same nose that Anne has in her sketch by Holbein, it is not known exactly if the sketch is of Anne but it is headed with her name at the top, George also was a talented poet, and alone in his cell whilst awaiting death he is said to have composed a beautiful poem the words are which : My lute awake perform the last, Labour that thou and I shall waste, And end that I have now begun, And when this song is sung and rest, My lute be still for I have done, it is generally attributed to Wyatt yet it could have been written by George, there are several more verses and Anne herself is said to have also composed a poem whilst awaiting death, ‘Farewell farewell my pleasures past, welcome my present pain, I feel my torment so increase that life cannot remain,’ in this poem if she did indeed write it, we can see the wretchedness she must have felt, both siblings were very talented and in their despair they could well have put quill to parchment, for now this 17th of May 1536 was the day these poor men were to breath their last, George was the first to suffer according to rank and he made a beautiful eloquent speech, then Norris who did not say much, maybe he thought there was no point, he was innocent but he must have despaired as to how he had got caught up in all this mess, he had served the king faithfully for many years and no doubt thought he would die in his bed, he left behind a grieving fiancée who must have believed in his innocence, Sir Francis Weston was the next, he had been made a knight of the bath at Anne’s coronation proof of the kings favour and was in his own circle of friends, whom the king would hunt with play sports and gamble, Brereton was after Weston and by now the scaffold was awash with blood, I pity Smeaton who was the last to die and had to witness the full horror of the executions but he must have been so grateful he was not dragged on hurdles to Tyburn, whatever prayers Smeaton had offered up god he must have sought forgiveness of his sins, chief of these must have been his false accusation of the queen, it was terror which had made him betray her and in the quietness of his cell, he must have made peace with god and exonerated the queen from guilt, this ‘rotten twig‘was merely a frightened and wretched young lad, the senseless butchery over the decapitated bodies with the heads were piled onto the cart and it trundled over the green to the sad little church of St Peter Ad Vincula, there they were buried and their names were no more, unusually their heads were not put on spikes and displayed on Tower Bridge, why was that we ask, maybe the king knowing full well their innocence decided to spare them that indignity, it was a different scenario with his fifth queen, then both Culpeper and Dereham who had suffered the dreadful death of disembowelment had their heads displayed till they rotted, it was the 17th of May, Anne now had two more nights to live through, she was spending most of her time in prayer and she could not been sleeping or eating well, she must have wept when she heard the news of her brothers death and that of the others, she would have heard George had died boldly, she too would make a good ending, she had no qualms about facing her maker on the judgement day, she was innocent and about to be murdured like the others, she prayed she to would have the courage to face her ending with fortitude.
I’ve read Wyatt’s poem. Very powerful. Even more so since he was there. I really can’t fault him for his animosity towards Mark Smeaton. I’m sure at the time not that many realized he was either tortured or forcefully coerced into a false confession.
It is a beautiful poem I believe it is one of the saddest in English literature.
Can you imagine anything sadder. In prison while your friends are being slaughtered right outside. Horrible.
“My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of paine,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And al my good vaine hope of gain.
The day is past and yet I saw no sunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
(said to be written on the eve of his execution)
Wow. Thank you for that.
That’s beautiful Globerose.
You can read the entire thing online. It’s ‘Tychborne’s Elegy’.
Thanks Michael, I’ve heard great news our boys in Oxford have a vaccine for covid 19, they reckon it will be ready in September.
That’s lovely, Globerose, and that’s good news about a vaccine. Maybe we are getting there at last. The idiots holding protests this weekend need locking up. You can go for a walk, you can’t hold gatherings. If we can’t have fans in football stadia then you can’t have crowds in the park, protesting against social distances, against vaccination and common sense. We will be back in lockdown with even more restrictions thanks to those idiots.
That is fantastic! Not to far in the future either.
I think Henry Norris would echo your words, Michael, it was sickening and unworthy of a King. His use of silence or very few words said it all. He knew he was innocent and yet a man he had been especially close to, during his most intimate moment, close to for years in fact, had believed the worst of him and sacrificed him, probably well aware of his innocence, regardless. It must have cut him to the quick. What words could sum up the disgust he might have felt inside? None at all. He accepted his fate but remarked upon it with his blood.
George Boleyn, the first to die, unfortunately made a long speech and although he wasn’t going to preach a sermon, he did just that. Yet his words are quite profound and give us a unique insight into the spiritual life of this man, a sinner, yes, a man who wasn’t perfect, nobody is, but who believed in salvation and forgiveness. He repented of whatever lifestyle he had lived, good and bad, he submitted to judgement, Eternal and the one he now faced and warned people to learn from his mistakes. He spoke about the Gospel and life of the Holy Spirit and of his own failures in not living up to the standards of the Gospel. He spoke of his life at Court and the hope for mercy in Eternity and committed himself to that fate at the end. Then he died and was at peace.
Francis Weston and William Brereton followed, the former had powerful people to intervene for him, but to no avail and they too left this life after speaking briefly, but Brereton used one word to describe his life “abominable” a word which has destroyed his reputation ever since . It has often been said that he admitted to being homosexual but there isn’t any known evidence of that, and yes, the sixteenth century would have condemned what they called sodomy after the town of Sodom in the Old Testament, but we don’t have any idea what he was referring to. It doesn’t matter anyway as he wasn’t executed for that particular crime, he was executed as yet another innocent target of this imaginary conspiracy of treason, adultery and incest against the crown.
Finally, the last man to climb the scaffold and die by the axe that May morning was the lowest in status, the youngest and the only man who had confessed to the crimes for which he was now to die. Mark Smeaton, the man whose confession had started all of this eighteen days earlier, who refused to even retract his lies, merely asked the people to pray for him. He most probably stuck to his story in exchange for this quicker death rather than suffering the full traitors death. We cannot condemn him for doing so, he may well have feared that changing at the last moment if he changed his tune. Anyway, he made a good end and I am certain all five men found mercy in the next world. Anne was angry that he didn’t clear her on the scaffold and Thomas Wyatt condemned him in his beautiful and poignant poem. I don’t blame him. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a long drawn out and painful death and very much to be feared. He had already been subdued by Cromwell, he had suffered enough.
These five men often get overlooked. We must never forget them. The poems of Thomas Wyatt sum up “These Bloody Days Have Broken My Heart” and ” In Mourning Wise” the terrible tragedy of their deaths and how movingly he wrote those words as well. Wyatt witnessed their execution, although not that of Anne Boleyn and its unlikely that Anne witnessed their execution either, but he kept their memory alive with his words. He knew all of them well, having served with them at Court for many years. His name even appeared in a book which once belonged to George Boleyn, which as a priceless gift I am sure he treasured for the rest of his life. Weston, Brereton, Norris and Smeaton were buried, with their heads in the graveyard at Saint Peter ad Vincula in the Tower grounds and George Boleyn as a member of the nobility, raised by the King, was laid to rest inside the chapel itself and lies practically next to his sister. May they all rest in peace.
Amen. Beautiful summary.
Wow, you’re 8,000 miles away from me but we both seem to have the same idiots!
Christine, I do love your phrase ‘wretched sadness’ to describe Wyatt’s feelings as he watched the bloody executions of the five innocent men below. He himself, but for the grace of Thomas Cromwell, would have been in their number, waiting in that miserably dwindling line for his own end. This is a sad, sad, sorry business; and your use of the adjective ‘wretched’ gives it that heart-wringing edge of despair. But what if you had to endure that ‘long night of the soul’ yourself; I’ve often wondered how they coped? One minute George and Norris had been jousting, roistering knights in the field, dressed in their finest armour, looking glorious in that terribly masculine way … and the next prisoners in the tower, wretched shadows of men, mere ‘bodies’ waiting to be ‘brought up’ and ‘led out’ and buried. Sigh!
Hi Globerose I cannot imagine how I would feel but I doubt I would be as brave as Anne, and the poor men your right, one minute they were enjoying life in the sunshine, next in the gloomy walls of the Tower awaiting death, what had they done nothing to warrant that? After hearing of her brothers death Anne herself must have longed for death herself, she had lost everything her marriage had been annulled and her daughter reduced to the mere status of being a kings bastard, she must have trembled for her growing up in a world without her mother to guide her, she had been raised high had been crowned and anointed, and yet in a few short weeks she had been arrested tried and condemned her title stripped from her, her household disbanded and now was told to prepare for death, she had one more night to live through I just hope her women had eased their animosity towards her and were a comfort to her, in these last few hours on earth.
Hi Globerose, that phrase “bring up the bodies” is really a very frightening and horrible phrase, it leaves one feeling cold. The men were already treated like livestock , like corpses without rights, being ordered before the Court. Now they were literally corpses, slaughtered like cattle, bodies in the cold dark ground, souls in heaven and they could never again walk out into the sunlight, dance or joust, no longer vital and vibrant, no longer laughing or crying, no longer stars in the Tudor Court, no longer warm blooded, beautiful human beings, full of life and history and so many many gifts and stories to tell us. Now they were gone with only the words of a poem to remember them.
I read the story of the other poem. The gentleman was caught up in the Babbington Plot in 1586,_he isn’t as well known as the others, but his poem was enclosed in a letter to his wife, Agnes. It’s very touching, his story is of an ordinary young man caught up in the political nightmare of freeing a rival Queen, but again, the victim of a paranoid regime. We forget that they were all people, that they had families and children, people who loved them, they had passion and ideas and unique stories, they had memories and lives never lived, they were no different to most of us, a bit more determined to die for some wild cause perhaps or more likely to get themselves in trouble, but they were still human beings, their future taken from them. Those who died for the so called Babington Plot, including Anthony Babington were forced to suffer the full horror of a traitors death, including Childerick Tichbourne who was about 23 when he died. He may actually have only agreed to join the plot at the last moment after several members of his family had already been arrested several times for their religious faith. Elizabeth I was forced to order the second group of men to did, after the first seven, to be dead before they were cut down from the hanging, before being disembowled and quartered. The poem has become a favourite of many romantics and celebrated both youth and passion as well as heroic single minded martyrdom. Even though the Babington Plot was an attempt to kill Elizabeth I, there are a number of controversial elements to it, the implied innocence of some of the alleged plotters for example, the set up of certain elements by Walsingham and Cecil and the manner of their deaths. This was a terrible way to die. We can only imagine how their minds prepared for death and how they stirred themselves knowing what awaited them.
I really can’t answer how I would cope, a lot of weeping and praying most probably. Like Anne, I would find strength in my faith, which is what she did in the end. She must have been told the truth at some time during 17th because she was due to die on 18th May. Her final night was spent praying and with her memories and she made her last confession, took communion and asked William Kingston to remain during her confession, in which she stated her total innocence. As she received the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus, Anne declared that she had not betrayed the King with her body, she was innocent. This was a very important moment, a deeply spirited moment, one that the witnesses would have recognised as a moment of grace and truth. Anne’s immortal soul was about to be judged: to lie now may condemn herself for Eternity. Such an oath was very sacred and all present would recognise it as being the truth. Anne gave her confessor permission to repeat her last confession, to let the world know her innocence. No doubt Henry was informed but it didn’t make any difference, her death was still to follow the next day. Anne must make herself ready. There was nothing left to do but to prepare and die in grace and with courage and the consolation of peace.
Gosh BQ, only 23, oh dear, how sad. Thanks for filling in his (Tichbourne’s) background for us. And also pointing up how valuable, in terms of determining guilt or innocence, is that last confession. It is everything really, isn’t it? Today, as I am typing, is the 19th and it is 8.25am. Christine’s ‘wretched sadness’ is here………..