Tuesday 18 May 2010

May 17th, 1536: The Deaths on Tower Hill

"Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the sea; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal."
- William Penn (1644 - 1718), "More Fruits of Solitude"

Thousands upon thousands gathered on the balmy spring morning of May 17th, 1536 to see the five men accused of having cuckolded the King of England meet their fates on a tall scaffold on Tower Hill in London. The writer, Crispin de Milherve, waiting in the crowd near the scaffold was not alone when he later recalled, secretly, that all five “suffered a death they did not deserve.” From the Bell Tower within the nearby fortress, Sir Thomas Wyatt who might have been joining his former friends and colleagues upon the scaffold had things gone differently, watched on in horror as his childhood playmates and drinking partners were scythed down for a crime that he and half of England knew they had not committed. Elsewhere in the same tower, or perhaps in the nearby Byward Tower, the Queen of England also watched. 

For some years, there has been confusion about whether or not Anne did actually witness the executions as romantic legend states – the Constable's letters do not mention it, but there are gaps in the narrative thanks to the 1731 fire at the Cottonian Library, where the papers were held. It is clear that she could not have seen the hill from her present rooms in the Tower, but the Spanish ambassador was quite insistent that she saw the five men die and he had an interview with one of the Queen's compansions, Lady Kingston,  in the days immediately after the executions. What cannot be right is the story that the Queen was forced to witness the butchery of her brother and her friends – to have coerced her across the Tower from her rooms to the Byward or the Bell Tower would have required significant force and created a scene that neither Cromwell nor Kingston wanted. It therefore seems clear that Anne wanted to watch – or, perhaps more accurately, felt that she should watch. Nothing in her life had prepared her for what she was about to witness.

Executed in order of rank, it was the Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, who died first – the handsome, arrogant, charming Adonis of the Tudor court. Far from the sobbing, blubbering wreck we see in The Other Boleyn Girl, George Boleyn addressed crowd in a loud, clear, confident voice that carried across the crowd for the duration of his fairly lengthy speech. Like his co-accused, he hedged around the issue of his own guilt, for to rage against the injustice now would only bring further dishonour on his family and possibly further government repercussions. It also showed a lack of Christian resignation in the face of death and George’s mind was very much on religion that morning. “Christian men,” he began, “I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me.” The law then, not his own actions, were to blame and those listening, particularly his fellow aristocrats, knew what George was trying to say without actually saying it.

George then proceeded to confess that he had committed many heinous sins, none of which he would regale the crowd with since it would be as unpleasant for them to hear the confession as it would be embarrassing for George to deliver it. Indeed, if Retha Warnicke and Alison Weir are correct and some of those sins included same-sex love affairs, it is difficult to know if he could have articulated them without running the risk of even greater public humiliation; some of his lovers might still be alive and to publicly confess to having homosexual tendencies would have meant that everyone who had ever known him would be under suspicion. Whatever the truth, George Boleyn was clear that whilst most of his sins had been ones of lust, he had never used his body to offend His Majesty the King – it was as close as he could come to proclaiming he was innocent of the hateful, despicable charge of incest for which he was about to die.

Now, George Boleyn had only one last concern – to make sure that the emerging Protestant faith in England was not slandered because of his downfall. He knew he was linked with the new religion in the public’s mind and that the charges of sexual perversion for which he was dying would not help its cause. “I have one thing to say to you,” he said, “men do common 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. I did read the Gospel of Christ, but I did not follow it. If I had, I had been a live 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.”

Then kneeling down by the block, he positioned himself and prepared to die. It was not, however, a quick death. The axe-man, perhaps nervous at being asked to execute such a famous person, bungled it and it took three strokes of the axe to severe Lord Rochford’s head from his shoulders. The Queen, his friends and those waiting to come after him on the scaffold saw it all. Norris, who was next, would have seen it in excruciating detail.

Sir Henry Norris, the brave gentleman-in-waiting and knight who had refused the plea bargain to spare his own life by incriminating the Queen, stepped up to where George Boleyn's body was still convulsing and spitting blood after its agonising death. “I do not think that any gentleman of the court owes more to [the King] than I do,” began Norris, who had always had a strong stomach, “and hath been more ungrateful and regardless of it than I have.” Was he saying that he had loved his master’s wife, without actually having been her lover? In a little commented upon follow-up to this, the Bishop of Salisbury reported that Norris then went on to defend with his last breath the Queen for whom he was dying and who, I believe, it is very possible he did indeed love. “He loyally averred that in his conscience, he thought the Queen innocent of these things laid to her charge,” the bishop wrote, “but whether she was or not, he would not accuse her of any thing, and he would die a thousand times rather than ruin an innocent person.” It was a chivalrous and noble end for a chivalrous and noble man. He was, as much as possible, sincerely mourned and Wyatt recalled that his death “is bewailed in court of every side ... both man and child doth piteously thee moan.”

Handsome, cocky, debonair Weston took to the stage next. “All should weep that thou art dead and gone,” was Wyatt’s verdict on the death of the handsome playboy. By this stage, the scaffold was awash with blood and the truncated remains of George Boleyn and Henry Norris. The executioner, unusually, was by now weeping – either out of shock at the bloody incompetence of Rochford’s beheading or at witnessing the two very brave deaths he had just seen.

Standing in pools of blood, 25 year-old Weston made the pronouncement of the cheerful sinner down through the ages: “I had thought to live in abomination yet this twenty or thirty years, and then to have made amends. I thought little I would come to this.” He asked those present to learn from this example, but he failed to mention the Queen or the specific charges against him. The Bishop of Riez noted that the rest of the men said very little, after Rochford’s lengthy speech, and Norris’s impromptu defence of the Queen. In a letter to Paris, he opined that this was probably because they had nominated Rochford to speak for them, but how they could have reached this decision since they were kept in isolation from one another prior to being led out onto Tower Hill is unclear. The most likely explanation is that George Boleyn was both the more eloquent of the group and the more ideological. In short, he had more to say and he knew how to say it.

After a life-time of political misdeeds and financial corruption, Sir William Brereton took to the scaffold. He seemed dazed and confused by the sight before him, as well he might be given that even by Tudor standards the amount slaughtered on the Boleyn scaffold that day was unusually high. “I have deserved to die a thousand deaths,” he began, which was probably true given the mafia-like nature of his control over certain parts of northern Wales, “but the cause thereof I die ye judge not. But if ye judge, judge the best.” He repeated the last sentence several times, as if confused and unsure of what to do. Eventually, he was helped to the block and the head came off with a single stroke.

Then poor, stupid, ambitious Mark Smeaton was brought forward. He had been lucky, given his lower-class birth, to be granted the upper-class privilege of a beheading. Certainly, it suggests some kind of macabre “deal” had been done in order to secure his testimonial against the Queen. Anne, watching from the fortress, was distraught that, at the last, Smeaton did not recant his false confession against her. She feared the interpretation history might put upon it and she was still, apparently, unable to forgive him for not dying as nobly as the others. “Masters,” he began, in a screechy, hysterical voice racked with pain, “I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved this death!”

What is it a final admission of guilt? It hardly seems so, for it is by no means any more explicit than, say, William Brereton’s final words. The Queen certainly felt that if it wasn’t a confession, it wasn’t a retraction either. Having puzzled about these mysterious words for some time, I am indebted to my friend Laura Bradley, who once suggested to me that maybe Smeaton did feel he deserved to die – precisely because of the false confession that had almost literally been ripped from him three weeks earlier. It seems as good an explanation as any and it certainly makes the most logical sense, for who knows what goes through the minds of the dying?

A sobbing Thomas Wyatt sat in his cell and began to write a poem - beautiful, haunting and tortured - about the sight he had just seen. For the imprisoned poet, the events of May 17th were the end of his innocence and the end of his youth. He wrote that the lesson to learn from it was that, always, cerca regna tonataround the throne, the thunder rolls. Writing a second poem about the day that he never quite managed to get out of his mind’s eye, Wyatt recalled that the hardest thing of all was that despite his grief, no-one was allowed to be seen public mourning, or even unhappy, for what had happened: -

“In Mourning wise since daily I increase,
Thus should I cloak the cause of all my grief;
So pensive mind with tongue to hold his peace
My reason sayeth there can be no relief:
Wherefore give ear, I humbly you require,
The affect to know that thus doth make me moan.
The cause is great of all my doleful cheer
For those that were, and now be dead and gone...

And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!
The axe is home, your heads be in the street;
The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes
I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.
But what can hope when death hath played his part,
Though nature’s course will thus lament and moan?
Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart
Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone."

The Queen – and God knows what state she must have been in by the end of May 17th – was back in her apartments by the afternoon and there are no records of how she spent the rest of the day. Given what she had just witnessed, she was almost certainly in a state of what we would now recognise as shock

As Wyatt wrote and the Queen wept, the city buzzed with the news of what had just happened. In Vienna, the Empress Isabella heard later that the bodies of Mark Smeaton and William Brereton were quartered and displayed around London, to advertise their hateful treachery in violating the Queen. Perhaps the Empress’s informers were correct, but if they were, at some point the heads at least must have been returned to the Tower for burial in the same churchyard that Henry Norris and Francis Weston now lay in. It was a poor and ignoble resting place for such men - particularly Henry Norris. As an aristocrat, George Boleyn’s body was taken into the Chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula and interred beneath the High Altar where, forty-eight hours later, his body would be joined by that of his royal sister.

It had been a grim, hideous, bloody day even in the long grim, hideous and bloody reign of Henry VIII and it is not difficult to see, when one considers the dark, terrible and repugnant events of May 17th, why Charles Dickens would later describe Henry VIII as a spot of blood and grease on the pages of English history. For the Queen, all that was left now was to die and die well.

(A shortened but emotive dramatisation of the executions is available below. It omits the speeches and the character of Sir Francis Weston, but it is primarily worth watching for the phenomenal performance of Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Jamie King’s voice-over as Sir Thomas Wyatt. It comes from the 2008 Showtime series, The Tudors.)


  1. Goodness...how utterly gruesome. Watching all this must have been like dying over and over again for Anne.

  2. "By this stage, the scaffold was awash with blood and the truncated remains of Rochford and Norris. The executioner, unusually, was by now weeping – either out of shock at the bloody incompetence of Rochford’s beheading or at witnessing the two very brave deaths he had just seen."--the horror of the executioner! As you say, it's been an awfully bloody day when the executioner is crying.

  3. Darling you are, as ever, welcome to mention my name in your blog whenever you like ;) The thing which strikes me as saddest, really (after the deaths, of course) is that they couldn't even declare their innocence at the gallows, for fear of what would happen to families/lovers. Denying them the chance to protest the truth even at the end. But then we've had this conversation before.

  4. Somehow the events of May 17th seem even worse in the re-telling than the story of May 19th. The grimness and horror of the day doesn't really lose its impact to shock.

    Darling, thank you very much and I completely agree! As you know :)

  5. It is perhaps dangerous to put today's expectations and emphasis on the individual on yesterday's people.
    The men executed that day knew they were going to a "better place." They also knew that by entering the volatile English court, they were gambling, and they knew their lives could be the ultimate price.
    Anne's downfall probably began in January 1536, with the death of Katharine of Aragon. That, combined with her failure to produce an heir, and her continued unpopularity with the populace, were as much pressures as anything else. Especially the death of Katharine. That meant that in the eyes of the Roman church, Henry was a widower. So if Anne died, Henry would be able to remarry free and clear. He would have a chance to negotiate with the Roman church, maybe even rejoin it. She must have known that.
    Anne's death was as much a result of politics, perhaps more so, as her increasingly difficult relationship with her husband. Ever since Charles Laughton rolled out his brilliant caricature of Henry, the real monarch has been shown as a fat, stupid, selfish man. He was highly intelligent, no less or more selfish than any of his kind, probably better than someone like Francois I, and he could see that his country needed an heir. If Anne had produced a son, she'd have been safe. Or she'd have ended in a convent, as she requested, but while England lacked a male heir, she was in danger.
    Henry left the country relatively prosperous and stable. He achieved much, and his people loved him. Probably because of the peace the country experienced, and the chance to prosper.

  6. Lynne, thanks for your comments. I've heard the argument before, but suggesting that people were left indifferent by deaths such as these simply because they knew of the risk factor of entering into a life at Court seems to me a bit like saying that no-one should be surprised when someone dies sky-diving. Wyatt's eulogy to the dead man came from a life-long courtier. But I take your point that many would have thought these men entered a game and lost.

    On the subject of Henry's achievements, I really have to disagree - respectfully. Henry VIII's reign was an unmitigated disaster, not just from an humanitarian point of view but also from a political one. His ruinously expensive wars throughout the 1540s crippled the financial bedrock of the monarchy, his father's strongest legacy, which Henry VIII had been undermining almost from the moment of his accession. His grotesquely extravagant private life - including owning fifty-five palaces and residences, which his three children had to sell off in order to move the monarchy from debit to credit - was as nothing compared to the ineffectual handling of the military and economy. By 1547, the coinage was debased and the economy entering a period of what we would now recognize as a recession, which his son and eldest daughter were stuck with and which his youngest daughter had to finally end decades later. The French wars of the 1540s were not only unnecessary but ruinous, so much so that Edward VI's government had to give back Henry's captured city of Boulogne because it was a) useless and b) too expensive to keep.

    Henry VIII may not have been Laugthonesque in his behaviour, but that doesn't he wasn't egotistical, vain, reckless and vicious. And in comparison every other monarch around him, including his predecessors and successors, he was much more guilty of these faults. Unlike Mary who saw the Church and Elizabeth who saw the nation, Henry saw only himself. He left the country crippled by sectarian tensions that he had almost single-handedly created and then failed to manage, the entire last decade of his reign saw the power of factions in government grown to endemic proportions, England was diplomatically isolated, its foreign policy was a shambles, its monarchy was debt-ridden and its economy in ruins.

  7. Yes, he was egotistical. Vain, I'm not sure about, because it was a requirement of the job. Was Elizabeth vain, because she set up an elaborate front? Public and private were rigorously separated at this time, for those that could afford it. There are so few accounts of Henry in private moments, that we can't be sure. Not a Nice Man, to be sure, but that's not a requirement of a Good King.
    I don't think Henry was entirely self-serving. I think he had an eye to the welfare of his people. Some of the innovations of the period (eg the printers' and the barber/surgeons) were enabled by his patronage. Most of the excesses of his reign were in the last ten years, when his mind may have been affected by the steep deterioration in his health, whatever the cause of that might have been.
    Volatile, maybe, but he was nowhere near as volatile as, say, the Viscontis, the D'Estes or even the Borgias. Nor as destructive or amoral. Nor as indolent as Francois I.
    I think the sectarianism of the last part of his reign was a result of his failure to manage the Catholic question. As you know, he remained Catholic to the end of his days, and persecuted Protestants rigorously. I think his original secession from Rome was entirely political, not a result of the refusal to allow his marriage. That was the tip of the iceberg, but as England was preparing to ally with France instead of Spain, it was a necessary move, because of the sack and occupation of Rome in 1528. No coincidence, that it coincided with a change of thought in England at the time. I think he wanted to return to Rome on his own terms, when the occupation was over, but he misjudged his courtiers' greed and the volatility of the European situation, as well as the intelligence and cunning of the young Charles V.
    If you look at the reign from the bottom up, so to speak, you'll find a lot of praise from the common people, and it wasn't always from fear that they'd be imprisoned or punished. Private letters show similar attitudes.
    My own tiny discovery was when I was reading the inventories of the royal household, as part of my dissertation. To my chagrin, I didn't realise that the lack of records of the purchase of the very specific ingredients for the "cure" for syphilis meant it was unlikely that Henry ever had that disease. Someone else realised that.
    I couldn't find any reference to the earliest work done by Holbein for the King. I found those in the inventories of Thomas Cromwell. "Two table portraits of the King and Queen" (Jane Seymour). So Cromwell was the first man at court to employ Holbein on his second visit to England. That led me to think that Cromwell and Holbein dreamed up the image of Henry as he appears on the Whitehall fresco, the absolute epitome of the King. A masterstroke any advertising executive would be proud of today. They presented it to the King, and he recognised the cleverness, and the way the image could be used to perpetuate the Tudor line and its image, and also images that could replace, in secular iconography, the images of the Holy Trinity that were being wiped from the Churches. In an age when literacy was far less important than the ability to "read" a picture, that was nothing short of genius.

  8. Consider Life and death: 500 years or so have gone bye, 500 years give or take a few; where are they all now, Henry VIII, Thomas More, John Fisher, these young boys, Anne.
    We all must come before the Just Throne of God and see, hear and live all the hurt or good we placed on others, then Heaven or Hell.
    What does a few more or less years of vain glory or brave suffering really matter.
    Those victims of vain Henry now live in eternal happiness, and you vain Henry, where are thou?


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