“How did Thomas Boleyn feel sitting in judgement on his children?” is a question that I was asked recently, and it’s one I’ve been asked before.
But did Thomas Boleyn even sit on the jury that tried Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford?
Find out what history tells us about the jury in this talk, or by reading the transcript below.
I was inspired to do this talk after I was interviewed on Anne Boleyn by a TV production company. I was asked how I thought Thomas Boleyn felt sitting in judgement on his daughter, Queen Anne Boleyn, and his son, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, in May 1536. I pointed out that he didn’t sit on the jury at their trials, and this caused some confusion.
I’ve been asked this before several times, and I often see comments on social media about Thomas being on the jury, but I can tell you categorically that he was not; we have the records, and his name does not appear in the list of men appointed to the jury.
But let me tell you about Thomas’s role in the bloody events of May 1536.
Although he didn’t thankfully have to give a verdict at Anne and George’s trials, poor Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, was forced to play a part in their fall. He was appointed to serve on the commission of oyer and terminer that tried the four men implicated in Anne’s fall.
Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were arraigned for high treason at Westminster Hall on 12th May 1536.
According to the indictments drawn up by the Grand Juries of Middlesex and Kent, Thomas’s daughter, Anne, who had been married to King Henry VIII for three years, did “falsely and traitorously procure by base conversations and kisses, touchings, gifts and other infamous incitations” these men, so that they “yielded to her vile provocations”. She had seduced them with “kisses, touches and otherwise …. to have illicit intercourse with her”, and had rewarded them with presents.” Then, she had “compassed and imagined the King’s death” with them and her brother, and she had “frequently promised to marry some one of the traitors whenever the King should depart this life, affirming she would never love the King in her heart.” The dates of the alleged offences ran from early October 1533 to early January 1536.
Musician Mark Smeaton, who had been interrogated at Thomas Cromwell’s own home for 24 hours, had confessed to having known the queen carnally three times, so it was no surprise that he “pleaded guilty of violation and carnal knowledge of the Queen”. The other men pleaded not guilty.
They didn’t have a hope of being acquitted, even with the queen’s father on the jury, and Thomas Boleyn must have known that. In cases of high treason, a plot to kill the monarch, God’s anointed sovereign, a jury was meant to do their duty and find the defendant guilty. That defendant was presumed guilty, not innocent, unless they proved themselves innocent, and they were often unaware of the charges against them.
It’s impossible to know how Thomas felt walking into Westminster Hall that day, knowing that his duty to his king would mean the brutal deaths of his children, for they weren’t going to be found innocent if these men were found guilty. While Thomas would have been sympathetic to his children’s cause, many other members of the commission were hostile to the men and the Boleyns – some owed the king or Cromwell money or favours, others were religious conservatives and supporters of Mary, one owed William Brereton money, and one was related to Jane Seymour. Thomas must have known that he couldn’t do anything to help George and Anne, and that he had to do his duty to the king.
The commission unsurprisingly returned a verdict of guilty, and the men were sentenced to a full traitor’s death at Tyburn, although this was later commuted to beheading on Tower Hill.
Three days later, Anne and George were tried by a jury of their peers in the King’s Hall at the Tower of London. The jury was presided over by their uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Lord High Steward, with his son, their cousin, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, sitting at his feet and holding the golden staff of Earl Marshal of England. The duke was flanked by Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. We know who was on the jury as we have records of the trials of Anne and George in the Baga de Secretis and in Letters and Papers. The peers listed are, and I quote:
“Charles duke of Suffolk, Hen. marquis of Exeter, Will. earl of Arundel, John earl of Oxford, Hen. earl of Northumberland, Ralph earl of Westmoreland, Edw. earl of Derby, Hen. earl of Worcester, Thos. earl of Rutland, Rob. earl of Sussex, Geo. earl of Huntingdon, John lord Audeley, Thos. lord La Ware, Hen. lord Mountague, Hen. lord Morley, Thos. lord Dacre, Geo. lord Cobham, Hen. lord Maltravers, Edw. lord Powes, Thos. lord Mount Egle, Edw. lord Clynton, Will. lord Sandes, Andrew lord Wyndesore, Thos. lord Wentworth, Thos. lord Burgh, and John lord Mordaunt.”
There is absolutely no mention of Thomas Boleyn.
So where does the idea that Thomas Boleyn sat on the jury come from? Well, in “A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors”, it quotes Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, writing in his 17th-century work “The History of the Reformation of the Church of England” that Anne and George were “brought to be tried by their peers… of whom their father the earl of Wiltshire was one”. However, as T B Howell, the editor of State Trials, points out, Burntt made a mistake, something which he acknowledged in an addendum to his work. In the addenda, he is quite apologetic, explaining that he thought all the records had been destroyed so he “too easily followed the printed books in that particular”. He goes on to say, “But after that part of history was wrought off, I by chance met with it in another place, where it was mislaid; and there I discovered the error I had committed. The Earl of Wiltshire was not one of her judges.” So Burnet put his mistake right.
We don’t know where Thomas Boleyn was at the time of Anne and George’s trial, whether he was still at court or whether he’d retreated to Hever, knowing like many before him that there was nothing he could do to save his children.
I’m often asked how Thomas could stand by and let it happen, and in this I completely agree with historian Lauren Mackay, who writes “to ask how Thomas could stand by and watch the tragic events unfold for his children is the wrong question, and we are demanding answers from the wrong person. If Henry, the most powerful man in England, divinely appointed, had made clear his desire to be rid of Thomas’s children, who logically would he have complained to and what would he have been able to achieve?” Exactly. He needed to think of the rest of his family.
So, Thomas Boleyn was definitely not on the jury that tried his son and daughter, but, sadly, he was made to sit in judgement on Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton. I don’t think it’s any surprise that both Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, died within 3 years of their children’s executions. I think the tragic events of 1536 broke them.
Links to other videos on Thomas Boleyn:
- ‘Henry VIII: May 1536, 11-15’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1887), pp. 349-371. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol10/pp349-371
- Burnet, Gilbert (1643-1715;) The history of the Reformation of the Church of England, 1816 edition, Clarendon Press, p.368 – https://archive.org/details/cu31924092325889/page/368/mode/2up
- Ibid. p.656 – https://archive.org/details/cu31924092325889/page/656/mode/2up?q=addenda
- Mackay, Lauren (2018) Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn, I.B. Taurus, p. 217.
- Ridgway, Claire (2012) The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, MadeGlobal Publishing.