17th May 1536- Execution of George Boleyn

Site of the scaffold on Tower Hill

On the morning of Wednesday, 17th May 1536 George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were led out of the western entrance of the Tower under close guard and beheaded on a high scaffold on Tower Hill. Large crowds had gathered to see the bloody end of these once great men – among the onlookers stood a number of courtiers.

It is often said that Anne witnessed the execution of her beloved brother and of the other men accused alongside her but for this to have happened the Tower officials would have had to have moved Anne from the Queen’s Lodgings in the south-east corner of the Tower, where she was detained for the duration of her imprisonment, to a room on the north or west side of the Tower – possible but highly unlikely according to Anne’s biographer, the late Eric Ives.

Tradition has it that Thomas Wyatt may also have watched the executions from his prison in the Bell Tower (or somewhere nearby), as described in a poem he wrote later that year:

“The Bell Tower showed me such a sight

That in my head sticks day and night;

There did I learn out of a grate…”

The injustice and futility of these judicial murders must have made them all the more tormenting to witness.

It was reported that all five men died in a dignified manner and observed scaffold etiquette by confessing their faults and confirming the justness of their punishments in their farewell speeches. What they did not allude to though, were the specific crimes that brought them to this terrible fate.

The highest ranking, being George Boleyn, faced the axe first but only after he had delivered a very long speech, of which several versions survive.

This version is in the Chronicle of Calais and has Rochford stating:

Christian men, I am born under the law and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved to die if I had twenty lives, more shamefully than can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully. I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly, it were no pleasure to you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all. Therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, the which I have been among, take heed by me and beware of such a fall, and I pray to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, that my death may be an example unto you all. And beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court. And I cry God mercy, and ask all the world forgiveness of God. And if I have offended any man that is not here now, either in thought, word or deed, and if ye hear any such, I pray you heartily in my behalf, pray them to forgive me for God’s sake. And yet, my masters all, I have one thing for to say to you: men do common and say that I have been a setter forth of the Word of God, and one that have favoured the Gospel of Christ; and because I would not that God’s word should be slandered by me, I say unto you all, that if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this. If I had, I had been a liv[ing] man among you. Therefore I pray you, masters all, for God’s sake stick to the truth and follow it, for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knoweth.  (Weir, Pg. 243)

Alison Weir believes this is a reliable account and one that ‘goes a long way towards confirming the theory that he had indulged in what were then regarded as unnatural sexual practices’ (Pg. 243) not that he had committed incest with his sister, as some might infer.

Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton soon followed him.

It is difficult to imagine what these men must have been thinking and feeling whilst awaiting their brutal deaths. One can be sure that they would have been overcome by mounting fear as the axe claimed more victims and the scaffold became littered with mutilated corpses. To make matters all the more terrifying, the axe was never a kind bringer of death. It was observed that George Boleyn had endured three strokes of the axe to completely sever his head from his body.

Smeaton was the last to die. The sight that lay before him must have been horrendous. The block floating in a sea of red surrounded by bloodied bodies and butchered heads. Yet still he managed to find the courage to utter a few words and then lay his head on the block.

There their mutilated corpses remained until Tower officials stripped them of their clothes and piled them onto a cart that would transport them to their final resting places; the Chapel Royal of St. Peter Ad Vincula for Lord Rochford and the adjacent churchyard for Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton.

Thomas Wyatt was obviously deeply affected by what he saw from his cell and responded by writing a poem about the fate of those who rise and fall at court. Read the full poem entitled ‘Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me intimici me’.

Wyatt later completed a longer poem about the sorrow he felt at the loss of his friends. Read ‘In Mourning wise since daily I increase‘ where he writes that after Rochford’s execution ‘many cry aloud
It is great loss that thou art dead and gone.’

I sincerely hope that these men are now resting in peace a long way away from their brutal Earthly departure.

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Comments

  1. laura hill says:

    I can’t believe that Henry VIII could be so cruel.

    • He was a Monster, so cruel, he had no mercy for queen Ann, i hate him, i pray every day for ann soul. rest in peace.

    • Today he would be a monster.

      Then he was a King free to exert his will. Perfectly acceptable behavior.

      • He was a monster back then too. He was cruel and a tyrant. He showed no mercy for Anne, not even her brother and the other men who were accused with her.

    • Tina Di Troia says:

      And why not? He wanted them to relieve himself of the burden of Anne and hers. He could not admit to the world that he was wrong. It was just the pill he needed to swallow. Those were barbaric times and a King’s strength was shown in his ability to rule ruthlessly and without waiver. Of course he could be that cruel. He was the epitome of a King.

  2. It was just business. Just another day at the office for Henry!

  3. Patti Cowan says:

    I am a new comer to your site. I love it! You’ve done such a tremendous job. I look forward to many conversations in future! Thank you for giving me & others who love so much the Tudor period this outlet of joy! Sincerely, Patti

    • Welcome Patti! Thank you for your comment, I am so glad that you are enjoying my website. I dedicate a lot of time and energy to it and love hearing from happy visitors. You might also be interested to know that I am currently co-authoring a book about historic sites connected to Anne Boleyn that will be published later this year. Watch this space for more information! PS. You can also join me on my writing journey here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/In-the-Footsteps-of-Anne-Boleyn-A-Time-Travellers-Guide/254288781275715

      • Patti Cowan says:

        Natalie: Thank you for replying to me! I feel so honered that you contacted ME! I would love to follow your writing journey on Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook account but I’m going to get one so I can do that! I can’t wait to read your upcoming book. What a great idea for a book. I know I’ve said it before in my first comment but I just got to say again, thank you, thank you so much for the time & effort you put into your great site! You should have seen my face when I found it! I feel like I hit the Tudor jackpot! Please know you have made me & many others very happy!! Keep up the great work. I’m your biggest fan! -Patti

      • Lisa maradiaga says:

        I just read Ann Boleyn by Norah lofts which states that to ensure that Ann died swiftly he hired a swordsman close by. Did not the 5 men get the same treatment. It states that the axe had to strike George’s neck thrice before it finally detached. Just curious. I love this part of history. Thx Lisa

  4. I love your site. I’ve long been a fan of Anne Boleyn, from the very first time I heard of her. Thank you for what you’ve put together here.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I just cannot believe how brave these men were to actually lay their head calmly on the block and not shout and scream their innocents! I can only assume their belief in God must have been so strong that they truly believed they would be seen to be innocent…makes you wonder what happened to Henry once he died!!! and maybe…just maybe, those ulcers was karma…a bit….

  6. HI
    Wonderful site!!!
    I became interested in The Tudors after watching the showtime series this past summer and watching Anne of the thousand days

  7. Mary the Quene says:

    I’d like to think George Boleyn had the same wry, sly, spot-on sense of humour that Anne Boleyn had, and in his scaffold speech he was taking a swing at all the men who fell in behind the King on the witch-hunt – that basically, he was saying, “I cuckolded so many of you . . . and you didn’t even realize it until now . . . ” except I doubt that he really did – it’s Anne Boleyn’s “pallets/ballads” remark that made me have this thought.

  8. what brave souls so very brutal ! How on earth Henry carried on like nothing had happened is beyond me he ruthlessly persued Ann in today’s terms sexually harassed her for 7 yrs then disposed of her when he didn’t get what he wanted .cold calculated murderer in my eyes ! I am so glad he suffered so much pain with ulsers got fat and smelly serves him right wicked tyrant !!!

  9. What a great site,the Tudors are my guilty pleasure,I much admire Ann Boleyn,a lady born ahead of her time,strong and opionated at a time when women were seen but not heard,Al’s have empathy for Catherine Howard,very young,forced to marry an old,fat man with a suppurating ulcer on his leg,is it any wonder she was attracted to a young handsome man,such a tragedy.

  10. acabo de ver por la TV de Argentina un film sobre Mary Boleyn y su familia.Es increíble no solo la solo la crueldad de Henry Tudor sino también la ambicion de la familia Boleyn.

  11. paul Mansell says:

    i cannot conjur up any sympathy for this woman. She thought she could play cat and mouse with henry and she thought wrong. as well as being arrogant and ambitious, she was cruel, making Mary a servant to her daughter Elizabeth. Although I do not believe her guilty of having affairs i do believe she got what she deserved

  12. Henry is glorified as one of the greatest kings England ever had, which just shows what the distance of time can do. In fact he was a petulent, spoilt, grasping and inadequate excuse for a man. Even considering the times he lived in he doesn’t measure up.

  13. The people that Vilify Anne are really odd. For example Paul Mansell describes her as being “arrogant and ambitious, she was cruel, making Mary a servant to her daughter Elizabeth”, he is using guess work here, but if it is true of Anne then it is far more correct about Henry. And then he comes up with the STUNNING and UNBELIVEABLE comment “Although I do not believe her guilty of having affairs i(sic) do believe that she got what she deserved”! Let’s all be thankful that he is not a Judge( well hopefully not) in his world people get murdered for arrogant and ambitious. A TRULY ODD man!

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