May 12, 1536: The Trial of Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton

By: Natalie Sweet

Events moved rapidly in the week before May 19th. Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, heard from his agent, John Hussee that,

“Today Mr. Norrys, Weston, Bryerton, and Markes have been arraigned, and are judged to be drawn, hanged, and quartered. They shall die tomorrow or Monday. Anne the queen, and her brother, shall be arraigned in the Tower, some think tomorrow, but on Monday at furthest, and that they will suffer there immediately “for divers considerations, which are not yet known.” Mr. Payge and Mr. W[y]at are in the Tower, but it is thought without danger of life, though Mr. Payge is banished the King’s court for ever.” (Letters and Papers)

The accused men faced a prejudiced jury who was well aware of the verdict Henry wanted, and Tudor law did not aid defendants. Justice at this time was more subjective, more informal, and could not be separated from morality. Juries operated based on their own knowledge. There was no effort to keep them from gossip. In fact, questions were put to juries about their knowledge of the case, and the more they “knew,” the more fit they were considered for service.

The trial itself would have been very speedy – any crime, from petty theft to grand larceny to murder, would only take thirty minutes at the most. Most important in any Tudor trial was the assessment of character – if a person was found to be acting outside of their proper place, they were considered to be gravely in the wrong. There was no such thing as a defense lawyer – the “victim” was both the defense and collector of evidence. At any time when a king or queen had a vested interest in a case, they would be favored. This was true even in cases where there was just an ordinary judge and jury – judges were always appointed by the monarch and they could be fired at will. In other words, they were agents of the monarch. Challenges to this approach to law would not occur until the early Stuart period, when Edward Coke called for judicial review.

Three of the men – Norris, Brereton, and Weston – pleaded “not guilty.” Smeaton, likely under torture, “pleaded guilty of violation and carnal knowledge of the Queen, and put himself in the King’s mercy” (Letters and Papers). The result: “the jury return a verdict of Guilty, and that they have no lands, goods, or chattels”  and that the said men were to be executed (Letters and Papers).

Anne’s anguish at hearing this verdict must have been great. She could not know if Henry would spare her life, but she knew how drastically the verdict would affect the families of these men, who would not only lose their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, but their livelihood as well. Finally, she knew she stood judged as an adulteress – the only question that remained was what punishment would be handed down to her.

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Filed under Life in 16th century England, May 19th, 1536 Feature

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