On 17th May 1536, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, Sir William Brereton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were led out of the Tower of London to a scaffold which had been erected on Tower Hill. I cannot imagine how they felt as they surveyed the scene and realised that death was closing in on them. Their only comfort was that their sentences had been commuted to beheading, a much more merciful death than being hanged, drawn and quartered.
As the highest in rank, Anne Boleyn’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was the first to be executed. This at least spared him the ordeal of watching as his friends and colleagues were killed one by one. Before he knelt at the block, he made a speech, but it is hard to know exactly what he said; there are a few different versions of his final speech. Here is The Chronicle of Calais version:
“Christen men, I am borne undar the lawe, and judged undar the lawe, and dye undar the lawe, and the lawe hathe condemned me. Mastars all, I am not come hether for to preche, but for to dye, for I have deserved for to dye yf I had xx. lyves, more shamefully than can be devysed, for I am a wreched synnar, and I have synned shamefully, I have knowne no man so evell, and to reherse my synnes openly it were no pleaswre to you to here them, nor yet for me to reherse them, for God knowethe all; therefore, mastars all, I pray yow take hede by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the cowrte, the whiche I have bene amonge, take hede by me, and beware of suche a fall, and I pray to God the Fathar, the Sonne, and the Holy Ghoste, thre persons and one God, that my deathe may be an example unto yow all, and beware, trust not in the vanitie of the worlde, and especially in the flateringe of the cowrte.
And I cry God mercy, and aske all the worlde forgevenes, as willingly as I wowld have forgevenes of God ; and yf I have offendyd any man that is not here now, eythar in thowght, worde, or dede, and yf ye here any suche, I pray yow hertely in my behalfe, pray them to forgyve me for God’s sake. And yet, my mastars all, I have one thinge for to say to yow, men do comon and saye that I have bene a settar forthe of the worde of God, and one that have favored the Ghospell of Christ ; and bycawse I would not that God’s word shuld be slaundered by me, I say unto yow all, that yf I had followecl God’s worde in dede as I dyd rede it and set it forthe to my power, I had not come to this. I dyd red the Ghospell of Christe, but I dyd not follow it; yf I had, I had bene a lyves man amonge yow : therefore I pray yow, mastars all, for God’s sake sticke to the trwthe and folowe it, for one good followere is worthe thre redars, as God knowethe.”
George followed convention by acknowledging that he had been condemned by the law and confessing that he was a sinner who deserved death. However, although he the started by saying that he was not going to preach a sermon, he “spoke the language of Zion”, urging those witnessing his death to “stick to the truth and follow it”, and not make the mistakes that he had. George then knelt at the block and was beheaded.
As the next in rank, Sir Henry Norris followed George Boleyn onto the scaffold. George Constantine, Norris’s manservant and a witness of these bloody events, recorded that the others confessed, “all but Mr. Norice, who sayed allmost nothinge at all”. I do not think that Constantine means that the men confessed to sleeping with the queen, rather that they had confessed to being sinners, as was usual at executions.
Sir Francis Weston was the third of the men to be executed. Before he knelt at the bloody block he warned people to learn by his example. He then knelt at the bloodsoaked block and his life was taken.
Sir William Brereton was the fourth man to climb the scaffold. According to The Spanish Chronicle, he simply said, “I have offended God and the King; pray for me”, but other reports have him repeating the phrase “I have deserved to dye if it were a thousande deethes. But the cause wherfore I dye, judge not. But yf ye judge, judge the best.” He was then beheaded.
Mark Smeaton was the final man to be executed. How awful it must have been to stand by as the four men died such violent deaths in front of him, knowing that he himself had only minutes to live. He was lucky, however. As a man of lower class he could have ended his life in a much more brutal way by being hanged, drawn and quartered. The axe was preferable. He did not take the opportunity to retract his confession on the scaffold and when Anne Boleyn heard of this she said, “Did he not exonerate me… before he died, of the public infamy he laid on me? Alas! I fear his soul will suffer for it.”
Because they were commoners, Sir Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, Sir William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston were buried in the churchyard of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. George Boleyn’s head and body were taken inside the Chapel, however, and interred in the chancel area before the high altar. Just two days later, his sister’s head and body would be joining him.
Also on this day in 1536
Also on 17th May 1536, at Lambeth, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in the presence of Sir Thomas Audley, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Oxford and others, declared that the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was null and void. This sentence of “nullity” meant that it was as if the marriage had never happened and automatically rendered the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, illegitimate.
Snippets taken from a chapter of Claire Ridgway’s The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown.