The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day-7
Posted By Claire on May 12, 2020
On this day in history, 12th May 1536, just twelve days after the first arrest in the fall of Anne Boleyn, four men were taken to Westminster Hall and tried for treason. Their names were Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton.
All four men were found guilty.
Let me explain what happened…
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12 thoughts on “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day-7”
Not only a stacked jury gave this so called ‘trial’ any lack of fairness but if justice and the truth were what were really sought Anne would have been tried first to determine if the crimes she was accused of could be proven and if so the trials of her co-defendant’s. Chapuy may not have liked Anne or the Boleyn faction but he does appear to have been fair minded. I feel terrible for Thomas Boleyn. To have to sit and listen to the terrible accusations against these men and what they were doing with his beloved daughter would have been heart rending. Was he part of the jury because of his position or was this just a continuation of Cromwell/Henry’s sick joke to punish Thomas Boleyn for being Anne’s father? In any other trial under any other monarch that sounds like a ridiculous assumption but here anything is possible.
It must have been dreadful I agree for Sir Thomas Boleyn to have to sit on trial at these men for if they were condemned, then so was his son and daughter, Sir Thomas had to sit on their trial as he was a peer no it was not petty vengeance, Henry V111 liked Thomas indeed he had served him and his father faithfully for a great many years, Chapyus was a decent man I also agree he had long been at court and knew of the kings desire to have a son, it was the main reason he had put aside his first queen, now he was about to abandon his second because of that need, he knew the men at court and although loathing the queen, as he said afterwards he did not think she was guilty of the crimes she was charged with, how many believed the incest charge meant to shock and horrify? Anne and George were healthy adults both attractive and married, George was said to be a womaniser and in his scaffold speech there is a reference to his immoral lifestyle when he calls himself a great sinner, but incest that is a whole knew category, I doubt many believed that as many did not believe that Anne herself had betrayed the king with three courtiers, and her lute player, Tudor justice well if you could call it that, really did stink, there was one case I heard of where one defendant earned himself an acquittal and the king was furious, it just goes to show that the jury handpicked because of their hostility towards the accused, had to deliver a guilty verdict if the king commanded it, these poor men tried in the ancient hall of Westminster had no chance of an acquittal and they knew it, the king had deserted them as he had deserted his queen, only a guilty verdict would suffice, they were condemned as traitors and the awful sentence of hanging drawing and quartering was read out, common people were tied on wooden hurdles and dragged the way to Tyburn tree, now long gone but Marble Arch in London stands on the spot, as noblemen except Smeaton they would be simply beheaded, but Smeaton died the noblemans death, his reward for his guilty confession, it was a bleak day that May 12th 1536, after the verdict was announced they were rowed back to their cells and had to try to prepare themselves for death, nothing could save Anne now.
You mentioned Tudor ‘justice’. I can’t remember the details off hand but it happened under Mary’s reign when a verdict of not guilty was reached in a particular case and it wasn’t the outcome she wanted so she threw the jurors in the clink. At least no executions here. Her role model of course was her father so par for the course.
Apparently, her father did something similar when a Lord Dacre was acquitted.
Also, the idea that the jury should not know the defendant did not exist in the Tudor era … at that time, r people who knew the defendant (and the witnesses) were the ones considered to be best suited to assess credibility.
Seriously, the reason why things could easily happen so rapidly is inherent in Tudor era criminal procedure. After all, you don’t have to waste time investiga- ating the credibility of witnesses when there is no requirement that witnesses be produced for cross-examination (and no right to counsel to conduct that questioning)
Next time you feel like complaining about some guilty person getting off because of a “technicality”, please remember what happens when those technicalities don’t exist!
I completely agree with you. Like anybody else I from occasionally complain but I also quickly remind myself of how thankful I am that all of the checks and balances now exist.
It could have been Lord Dacre I was thinking of Esther.
Yes, that was the case of Nicholas Throckmorton – see https://youtu.be/4Vzg9fo8Zww
Thank you so much for that Claire. Don’t know why I couldn’t remember his name.
Oh boy, the justice of Tudor treason trials! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. A jury completely set up to find these men guilty, headed by Sir William Fitzwilliam, the man who lead the interrogation, a group of other men who were affiliated to each other and Anne’s enemies, those who owed Cromwell a favour, the accused normally didn’t know the details of the evidence or charges against them, the accused had no defence and the Jury was expected to give the right verdict, that is they were expected to find people guilty. The accused had to prove their innocence, they faced well trained, well prepared, experienced crown prosecutors and in truth had very little chance.
Our justice system is flawed but in it at least we have well fought for rights that have developed over 200 years. The crown now has to prove its case and a tainted identification or search would throw the case out. The defence knows what they are up against and you prepare for the case over several weeks, maybe even months. Certain evidence may be withheld if its too prejudicial and several hearings review that evidence. The defence may have grounds to Appeal if something is unfair or certain evidence or circumstances that may help their case are not included. The system has many safeguards. In the sixteenth century treason trials no such safeguards existed. That doesn’t mean no defence was possible. Thomas More knew the law better than anyone, certainly better than any of his judges and he used an old principle of silence gives consent. He was among other things accused of being malicious, of deliberately denying the King his royal title by also being obstinate, wilfully refusing to swear to the oath, despite reason. He was able to argue to the contrary. However, it did him no good because he was trapped by the perjury of Richard Rich and condemned. His last speech was brilliant, his mind was well able to explain his reasons after he was condemned and is still considered one of the great speeches of history. However, the King wanted his verdict and that was the end of it.
The three men who pleaded not guilty, Henry Norris, who refuted an alleged earlier confession, saying in fact he was tricked but now he was going to defend himself, Francis Weston and William Brereton would probably have had a fairly tough time. Whatever answer they gave, it wasn’t going to save them. Mark Smeaton pleaded guilty much to the disgust of the Queen and was the only man to hold to sleeping with Anne. There aren’t many details of any witnesses and Chapuys pointed out that the guilty verdict rested now on only indications or rumours and presumption, no actual evidence or testimony. He found it very hard to believe. The four men were found guilty in a few hours and condemned to a full traitors death at Tyburn, which thankfully Henry commuted to beheading for all of them. It wasn’t a right for the gentry, but it was normal for their death sentence to be commuted in this way, although Mark Smeaton wasn’t a gentleman. He could expect to be dismembered and disemboweled and then beheaded in full horror. However, he too was spared all of that and was beheaded, maybe because he stuck to his false confession. Henry didn’t even have their heads put on Tower Bridge. Unusually all five men were buried with their heads.
None of these four men, or George Boleyn were guilty and they almost knew at once they had no hope. Thomas Boleyn was on the first trial bench as a Judge, it must have been awful to hear those things, those lies read out about how these men had plotted and committed such terrible and shocking acts with his daughter. He must have felt exposed and ill. His duty was to sit there and listen and I doubt he had any choice. There is no evidence that he was cold hearted or believed these charges and like so many people one has to wonder how he could serve on these juries. His status required it of him, but how terrible to listen to these accusations against his own son and daughter as well as men his family had known well. Thankfully Thomas Boleyn wasn’t called to give judgement on his daughter or son. He wasn’t present on their jury or as a Judge. Unbelievably difficult for any father and I really can’t imagine the pain he felt at this moment.
I have no doubt that along with the actual executions of his son and daughter that sitting on this jury contributed to his death a few short years later. I think he should have been excused from that terrible duty but he was forced to endure that nightmare.
We know how insensitive and inconsiderate it appears to have Thomas sit on this trial and later, when he was forced to attend the christening of the baby Prince Edward, but personal feelings did not come into it at the Tudor court and Thomas had to attend these events because of his very position, I agree it must have been a nightmare for him and he knew because the men were condemned, so must his daughter and son be, Anne whilst in the Tower was not allowed any visitors either who could give her comfort, at least we do not know of any as there is no source that tells us her family and friends tried to visit her, alone locked up with women she disliked who spied on her and were catty towards her, she must have been in absolute despair, the hastily gathered evidence by the kings cronies meant that everything was moving with frightening speed, and it was to culminate in one of the most awful miscarriages of justice in English legal history, Anne must have known that her husband meant to abandon her to her fate, and she must have been terrified beyond belief, locked in her gilded cage, where in other lodgings in the same prison, her co accused also languished the sands of time were running out.
We are unfortunately bereft of sources which give us an insight to how Thomas or Elizabeth felt over the death of Anne and George or very much information about their lives immediately afterwards. They did retire to Hever and we can assume it was to weep and mourn as well as in semi exile. They were away for approximately a month to six weeks before we have any mention of them again in July 1536. On 2nd July Thomas received two letters from the King, one via Cromwell asking for a pension or income for Jane Boleyn, the widow of George who had lost out with her husband’s execution, the other was directly from the King. Thomas promised to give Jane £100, the same money he had given Mary every year and thanked Cromwell for his kindness, but also his letter was short and more or less indicated he wished to be left alone.
Unfortunately, just as Anne and George suffered death and the death of their personal reputations, Thomas suffered in his own reputation by historians, not from his contemporaries. It is more likely that neither Elizabeth or Thomas was allowed to visit them and they were both powerless to stop their execution. Henry had set his mind to something and there was no way to change it. The rest of the family didn’t suffer with their fall and didn’t fall with them. That has caused a certain amount of criticism of them as cold hearted and bad parents, heartless and they have been accused of abandoning them. There isn’t any evidence to support these modern day allegations and we have to see things in light of how it was at Court and the frightening realities of sixteenth century power and duty. The Boleyn family now found themselves surrounded by enemies and in letters to Lord and Lady Lisle they were called traitors and maligned for their duplicity during the trial itself.
The truth, however, was that this took a great strain on both the health of Elizabeth and of Thomas himself, both of whom were dead within less than three years. Anne showed great concern for her mother to whom she was close while in the Tower and she also asked where her father and brother where, suggesting that she may not have had news of them. Elizabeth Boleyn was already ill, Anne spoke of her concerns about her mother and wept because of her arrest would break her heart, but I also believe that this deep loss of two adult offspring in such violent and shameful circumstances, hastened her death from that illness. Although a good age, having served two Tudor Kings, Thomas died ten months after his wife. The loss of Anne and George must have been traumatic and those two months of grief must have been heart breaking.
There is one piece of evidence that may show that Thomas was annoyed at the role of certain family members in his children’s downfall, condemnation and trials. Norfolk presided over the trial of his niece and nephew as was his duty as Earl Marshall, but he did so with very few qualms. Yes, he was also reported to have wept as he gave the verdict over Anne but he was a man with very little to his name than the qualities of a soldier and a political administrator. Norfolk and Boleyn for years had had a good working and productive relationship but the Duke’s role in this spilled over even during the Pilgrimage of Grace. There was a clear breach during 1537 which was demonstrated through quarrels and a public dispute. Norfolk complained to Cromwell that the Boleyn minstrels had been singing insulting songs about Norfolk and that Thomas had approved of it. We don’t know if he did or not but the public mention of such an insult reveals that things were not as cosy on the Howard Boleyn domestic front as they had once been. However, there is no evidence of any breach between Elizabeth and Thomas themselves, merely between him and his brother by law.
Personally I think Thomas was a typical sixteenth century father and courtier, strict, dutiful and ambitious. He was extremely talented and he wanted the best for his family and for himself. He was a humanist and a renaissance man, he did well at the Tudor Court long before his daughters appeared there and he remained friends and loyal to his King. He treated his children according to their own talents, which meant he knew them well and provided for them as best he could. He demanded obedience and discipline and as with many children and parents, he didn’t always get it. Mary did her own thing and he reacted the same as other sixteenth century fathers, he disowned her until she asked for his forgiveness. He may have appeared slow to help his daughter in a crisis but in truth, she hid her problems from him. He was a courtier and therefore he owed a duty to the King first and even above his duty to family. That is what his oath of loyalty bound him too and he had no choice but to obey when summoned back to Court after his children’s execution. It was a heartless move on the part of King Henry to summon him to his son’s baptism but it was over a year earlier that Thomas had returned to his service. Everyone had to attend the baptism of the heir to the throne, regardless of their mixed feelings. Other families had lost loved ones to the axe and regained royal favour. That was the way these families survived. It might turn our stomachs but it was a matter of family honour and survival. Thomas had his wife and surviving heir to think about. That was the harsh reality of being in the service of the King, loyalty left very little room for anger and revenge or resentment, not in the cut throat world of the Tudor Court.