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.