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.

14 Responses to “17th May 1536 – The Executions of Five Men”

  1. Brian Westbrook says:

    Just downloaded “The Fall…” Looking forward to reading it. I enjoy reading all of the interesting articles on your web-site. Regards, Brian

  2. Lori says:

    My heart aches for her and them even now. So tragic!

  3. Cait Carlsberg says:

    In a few versions, Anne supposedly watched the executions (or at least George’s execution). Do you think this could have possibly been true?

    • Claire says:

      In his report to the Emperor, Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded Anne witnessing the executions: “the Concubine saw them executed from the Tower, to aggravate her grief”, but she would not have been able to see them from her lodgings in the royal palace. My good friend Gareth Russell points out that Anne may have asked Sir William Kingston to move her to either the Byward Tower or Bell Tower so that she could witness her brother’s last moments, but we just don’t know.

  4. WilesWales says:

    Claire, as usual is quite correct! We really don’t know. I remember years ago, reading something of this nature in an historical fiction novel. I do know that I read this supposedly happened to Marie Antionette, but that’s another whole subject for a quite different forum.

    We must remember that Eustace Chapuys was the ambassasador for Spain even in before the break from Rome when Katharine (corect spelling) of Aragon had not been disgraced yet, and that he was at Katharine’s trial where she in Tremlett, Giles, “Catherine of Aragaon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII,” p. 292-93, “the king, hower, never provided Clement with a direct answer to his observation that Catherine had vowed to accept his word on the question of her virginity, and if only he was prepared tot swear under oath. Catherine was calling Henry’s bluff. The fact that he never provided an answer the necessary sworn statement is sthe strongets evidence of all that she wa telling the truth. His own side argued that Henry had been so young and inexperienced when he married that had been incapable of telling whether she was a virgin or not…Catherine perhaps understood that Henry’s sense of nobility would, in any case, not allow hiim to lie outright – especially on oath.”

    Eustace Chapuys was one of Queen Anne’s most vehement enemies, most especially after the “Act of Supremacy” had been passed, and England’s break with Rome. A lot of his documents with regard to Queen Anne have been proven completely false. As to how many were not as to how many were true, I don’t know. The point is he did his fair share of lying. It does not surprise in the least that he would write something like this either out of spite or to the correct reader a need for his position or just cruelty.

    Claire, I have to hand it to you, as usual you are right, we just don’t know! I will defend Queen Anne for as long as I’m around, and she also brought England, Queen Elizabeth I, the greatest absolute monarch it ever had!

    “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes…” Psalms 118:23

  5. WilesWales says:

    George, like Queen Anne, did not admit his guilt either, and I really think he was speaking for those who couldn’t. My interpretation (oh, help me…), and I have written this in the past on another comment, is that George was confessing all the sins he had committed in his life. It was, after all, his last statment before dying with poor Mark Smeaton a the very end. Any other interpretation with regard to his often speculated lifestyle, really doesn’t fit in her at all as far I can read, and I’ve read it many times. Queen Anne was much more interpretative, and that’s the least I can say about fantastic speech.

    We must also remember that these speeches were chronicled and that help in writing and memorizing them, was quite the chore in and among themselves. So as long as George’s very long (and the longest I have read in almost any I’ve read) must have not only taken a lot of work, but also mind provoking on his part as well.

    I will defend Queen Anne for as long as I’m around, and she also brought England, Queen Elizabeth I, the greatest absolute monarch it ever had!

    “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes…” Psalms 118:23

    • WilesWales says:

      Please forgive me, but with regard to the annulment, Anne never signed it!

      I will defend Queen Anne for as long as I’m around, and she also brought England, Queen Elizabeth I, the greatest absolute monarch it ever had!

      “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes…” Psalms 118:23

    • Claire says:

      Yes, the execution speeches have been twisted to try and prove that these men were guilty or that they were homosexual, but it was the norm for people to say that they were deserving of death and that they were sinners because of the belief in original sin. I believe that they were all innocent and were simply confessing their sinful lives, lives just like ours (i.e. full of mistakes), and asking for forgiveness. It is horrible to twist their words. I love the fact that George used his speech to preach to the people!

  6. Dawn 1st says:

    It is awful to think of them standing in line and one by one taking their place at the block and probably lying in each others blood, it does bear thinking about.
    I wonder if Mark didn’t retract his confession under threat of his execution being halted and then being taken off to suffer the full execution doled out to traitors…

    • WilesWales says:

      Mark Smeaton was very, very lucky to get the axe as he was not of the nobility or in any way given this favor unless given by decree. He under any other circumstances would have been drawn and quarterd, and what other punishments, such as disemoulment (sp?) while hanging and cut down while he still was alive beforehand, or whatever had been the death of any other commoner would have gotten. I am sure he was very, very frightened, and might have, but we just don’t know that either. The crowd that day was waiting for a real “fair and show,” as it were. I don’t think he would have been given the chance either. I don’t know if he would have been taken out of line, though. So Dawn, you might be onto something….

      I will defend Queen Anne for as long as I’m around, and she also brought England, Queen Elizabeth I, the greatest absolute monarch it ever had!

      “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes…” Psalms 118:23

  7. Mackenzee hunter says:

    I just finished reading “The Other Boleyn Girl.”
    I don’t have the other books , but was entirely infactuated with the story . It broke my heart though . I can’t refuse to beleive the 5 men executed were guilty . I beleive King Henry was was tired of her additude but didn’t want her living without him . I’ve read the last chapter where they execute george and the 4 other men , then a couple day laters anne , over and over and over again . Probably 20 times . Litteraly . it was just so heart breaking . And I couldn’t understand why it happened . I’ve been craving more information about the boleyn family and that era in general . So i LOVE this website . I wish I knew where to find more about Marry Carey as well .

  8. Mackenzee hunter says:

    *i refuse to beleive

Leave a Reply