Tag Archives: execution

May 17th, 1536: In tribute to George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, and Francis Weston

Who list his wealth and ease retain,

Himself let him unknown contain.

Press not too fast in at that gate

Where the return stands by disdain,

For sure, circa Regna tonat.


The high mountains are blasted oft

When the low valley is mild and soft.

Fortune with Health stands at debate.

The fall is grievous from aloft.

And sure, circa Regna tonat.


These bloody days have broken my heart.

My lust, my youth did them depart,

And blind desire of estate.

Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.

Of truth, circa Regna tonat.


The bell tower showed me such sight

That in my head sticks day and night.

There did I learn out of a grate,

For all favour, glory, or might,

That yet circa Regna tonat.


By proof, I say, there did I learn:

Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,

Of innocency to plead or prate.

Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,

For sure, circa Regna tonat.

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May 16, 1536: Adding Agony to Injustice

Ravens at the Tower

The sentences themselves were a gross injustice.  But two “smaller” yet horrible cruelties were visited this day on Anne and the men with whom she was condemned.

On this day in 1536, Henry signed all the death warrants.  But although the men were due to die the next day, they were left in suspense as to the method of their execution, which normally was commuted for royals and nobles from hanging (to be followed by drawing and quartering) to beheading.  As late as after dinner on the 16th, Kingston was begging Cromwell to let him know how they were to die, but word didn’t come until much later, possibly the following morning.  George and the other nobles thus spent many unnecessarily agonizing hours anticipating the more excruciating, humiliating death.  In the end, all of them-even Smeaton—met death by beheading.  But Henry was apparently too occupied cavorting with Jane to spare them any torment.

Also on May 16th, Cranmer saw Anne, with something other than spiritual comfort in mind.   Cromwell had been working to find a way to annul the marriage and bastardize Elizabeth.  Two likely “impediments” to the lawfulness of the marriage were a possible precontract with Percy and the “consanguinity” of the King’s affair with Mary Boleyn.  Percy denied the precontract, so Cranmer was sent to get Anne to admit that she knew of the relationship with Mary when she married Henry.  Weir speculates—accurately, I believe—that Cranmer may have suggested to Anne that if she admitted to the impediment, the King might spare her death.  The evidence for this is that after he left, Kingston reports that Anne was “more cheerful” and told Kingston that she was “in hope of life” in a nunnery.  Instead, the only “mercy” Henry had planned was her death by a French swordsman, who was already on his way.

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May 10, 1536: “News” (!) travels

spinetThe Bishop of Faenza, in the Vatican, tells Signor Protonotario Ambrogio that “news came yesterday from England that the King had caused to be arrested the Queen, her father, mother, brother, and an organist with whom she had been too intimate.” (Letters and Papers of Henry VIII)

This is just one of many examples of how freely false gossip circulated around the arrests. Earlier, on May 2, Chapuys had reported to Charles that the reason for Anne’s arrest was that “she has for a length of time lived in adultery with a spinet-player of her chamber” and that Norris was arrested “for not having revealed what he knew of the said adulterous connexion.” Later on,  various dispatches report that “The so-called Queen was found in bed with her organist, and taken to prison. It is proved that she had criminal intercourse with her brother and others, and that the daughter supposed to be hers was taken from a poor man.” (to Charles, from Hannaert, LP) And:

“The reports from England are more than tragic.  The Queen in thrown in prison, with her father, brother, two bishops, and others, for adultery.” (Melancthon to Justus Jonas, LP).

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May 7-8, 1536: Strange Days

JaneSeymourJane Seymour remains sequestered at Beddington. It is no secret that the King is involved with her. As early as April 1st, Chapuys had written to the Emperor that the king was “paying court” to Jane, and that he had “heard that the young lady has been well tutored and warned by those among the King’s courtiers who hate the concubine, telling her not in any wise to give in to the King’s fancy unless he makes her his Queen, upon which the damsel is quite resolved.  She has likewise been advised to tell the King frankly, and without reserve, how much his subjects abominate the marriage contracted with the concubine.”

While Jane remains hidden away, the King is also rarely seen, except at night, when he “banquets” with diverse ladies, “sometimes remaining affter midnight, and returning by the river…accompanied by various musical instruments” and “singer of his chambers.”  Is this some sort of bachelor party, a smokescreen for his intentions with Jane, a show of macho bravado?

In the meantime, new of the arrests is reaching the outlying shires.  On May 7, it has reached the Welsh border, and was received by dismay.  “As the news in this letter is very doleful to this council and all the liege people of the realm,” writes Rowland Lee, Bishop of Coventry, “God forbid it should be true.” The same day, the King informs the sheriffs of every county of the calling of Parliament due to “matters of high importance”

And the investigation proceeds. On May 8, William Latymer, chaplain to Anne, is informed and–as he had just returned from business in Flanders–is searched for possible evidence.

While Jane waits, the King parties, and Cromwell assembles his case, Anne’s moods, according to Kingston, vacillate wildly, from resignation to hope to anxiety. She searches her memory–and speaks of what she recalls–for words or indiscretions that might lay behind the charges

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May 5, 1536: Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page arrested (both later to be released)

Anne, searching her mind for the reasons for her arrest and clearly feeling tremendous anxiety, begins to think out loud about the conversations she has had with the arrested men which might have been misconstrued. (See Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower, pp. 166-171, for a full account of Anne’s ramblings.)  Weir’s conclusion: “It was becoming clear, through her own revelations, that she had not kept a proper regal distance between herself and her courtiers, and thus had made herself and them vulnerable to accusations of impropriety.”  Do you agree with Weir, or is this a version of “blaming the victim”?

Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, 1535-1537

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May 3, 1536: Poor Cranmer–No Match for Cromwell

Cranmer, who has been Anne’s champion since before the marriage (which he was instrumental in making happen) is in emotional turmoil, on hearing of Anne’s arrest.  He writes to Henry, his soul clearly in struggle, wanting to defend Anne but fearing for his own safety: “I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable.  I am most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent.  Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy.” At some point his letter-writing is interrupted, as he had apparently been called to the Star Chamber by Cromwell and his cronies; they report where matters stand, and when he returns to his desk, Cranmer concludes his letter: “I am sorry such faults can be proved against the Queen as they report.”

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke, 1545

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Anne’s Final Days: Facts and Fictions – Anne’s Letter from the Tower: Authentic or Not?

In the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the words and behavior attributed to Anne during her final weeks. We begin with the letter that some believe she wrote to Henry while she was imprisoned in the Tower…


For Anne, the arrest was sudden and inexplicable. On April 30th, Anne had no idea that Cromwell and Henry, that very day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” that Anne had engaged in multiple adulteries and acts of treason. That evening, while court musician Mark Smeaton was being interrogated (and probably tortured), there was even a ball at court at which “the King treated Anne as normal.” He may have been awaiting Smeaton’s confession, which didn’t come for 24 hours, to feel fully justified in abandoning the show of dutiful husband.  Although we don’t know for sure what message was given to Henry during the May Day tournaments, it was probably just that, for he immediately got up and left. Anne, who had been sitting at his side, would never see him again; the very next day, as her dinner was being served to her, she was arrested and conducted to the Tower.


Anne’s first reaction was disbelief:  “Master Kingston,” she asked the constable of the Tower, “do you know wherefore I am here?” Just a few months before, she had been pregnant, and Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower. She searched her memory for words or indiscretions that might lay behind the charges—conversations with Smeaton, Norris, and Weston that could be taken (and ultimately were taken) in a compromising light—and reeled back and forth between the conviction that she was doomed and the hope that the King was just testing her. Until very near the end, she still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. As we know, Henry had no such plans in mind.


After his death, among Cromwell’s possessions was found an (undelivered) letter that some claim Anne wrote to Henry during her imprisonment. Historians have questioned its authenticity, claiming the neither the handwriting nor the style are Anne’s.  What do you think?  Did Anne write this letter?


Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me such a one, whom you know to me mine ancient professed enemy (Cromwell); I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth indeed my procure my safety I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.

But let not Your Grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and Your Grace’s pleasure had so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received Queenship, but I always looked for sucher alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than Your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient, I knew, to draw that fancy to some other subject.

You have chosen me from a low estate to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honor, good Your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good Grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant Princess, your daughter, Elizabeth.

Try me, Good King, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignonimy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatever God and you may determine of, Your Grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party (Anne new of Henry’s affection for Jane Seymour), Mistress Seymour, for whose sake I am now as I am; whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.

But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that He will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at His general judgement-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgement, I doubt not; whatsoever the world think of me; mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.

My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of Your Grace’s displeasur, and that it may not touch the innocent sould of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.

If ever I have found favour in your site – if ever the name of Anne Boleyn have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble Your Grace no further; with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have Your Grace in His good keeping and to direct you in all your actions.

From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.

Anne Boleyn


Anne’s Letter from the Tower: Authentic or Not?
Our first sample of Anne’s handwriting: “Le temps viendre” and Anne’s signature, from her prayer book.
Our second sample of Anne’s handwriting: a letter to Cromwell, 1535.
Our third sample of Anne’s handwriting: letter to her father from Belgium, in 1513, when she was around 12, so probably not her mature writing.

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April 30, 1536

Medieval lute rose by John RollinsCromwell and his colleagues lay all the charges before Henry, and Smeaton is arrested. By the end of the day, the planned trip with Anne to Calais is cancelled.

How to explain Henry’s swift reaction?  Here are the explanations of two respected scholars, Alison Weir and Eric Ives. Which do you find most convincing?

— Alison Weir considers that the charges, in themselves, were “more than enough to arouse fury in any husband, let alone an egotistical monarch” and that from the moment the Council reported the charges to him, he was “convinced that he had nourished a viper in his bosom, and that Anne had betrayed and humiliated him, both as a husband and a king” (118).

–Eric Ives thinks that the King was not yet certain that Anne was guilty. Yes, he was simmering–but not convinced. He had been seen (by Alexander Ales) to have had an argument with Anne the day before, in which he appeared very angry while Anne, with Elizabeth in her arms, appealed to him. Ives speculates that Anne’s anxiety and Henry’s anger were likely due to a very public argument between Anne and Norris the day before, in which she had accused Norris of “look[ing] for dead men’s shoes” (the shoes being Henry’s) and having Anne for himself, and then asked Norris to go to her almoner to swear that the queen “was a good woman.” Everyone at court knew about this, and it was enough, Ives argues, to occasion the cancelation of the Calais trip, but not enough to convince him of Anne’s guilt. “The fatal catalyst,” he writes, “would be Mark Smeaton”–that is, his confession, which wouldn’t occur until the next day (325).

What do you think?


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April 28th-29th, 1536

Nicholas Carew

Nicholas Carew

April 28th-29th: Chapuys is clearly (and gleefully) aware that plots are being hatched against Anne. He writes to Charles that Nicholas Carew is “daily conspiring” against Anne, “trying to convince Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the King’s chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed, the King being so tired of the said concubine that he could not bear her any longer.”

It’s also clear from Chapuys’ dispatch of April 29th that there is much covert discussion, at court, as to whether or not “the King could or could not abandon the said concubine.” He reports that the bishop of London, John Stokesley, was asked his opinion on this (by an unnamed courtier), and demured, “knowing well the King’s fickleness” and fearful that should Anne be restored to favor, he would be in danger. Chapuys is sure, however, that his true opinion is that the King “would certainly desert his concubine.”

The king, however–more dissembling for public consumption?–is still planning to take Anne with him to Calais on May 4th, after the May Day jousts, and is still pressing Charles to acknowledge the validity of his marriage to Anne. What, in your opinion, is Henry thinking at this time?

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April 27, 1536

MythWyattAs April drew to a close, Anne’s life was clearly in danger. The following is a list of those who would be accused along with Anne, and the charges against them.

Anne Boleyn: Then Queen of England, she had suffered a miscarriage earlier in the year. She, along with those who were accused of being her lovers, would be charged with high treason against the King for their supposed acts of adultery and other treasonous actions.

Mark Smeaton: The first to be arrested, Smeaton was a court musician. After being accused of adultery with the Queen, he was almost certainly tortured for information about his relationship with Anne, and confessed. The charge: high treason and adultery.

Henry Norris: Both a supporter of the Boleyn family and the Groom of the Stool in the King’s privy chamber, Henry staunchly denied the accusations against him. Because of his position, he would not be tortured. The charge: high treason and adultery.

Francis Weston: Weston was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, which meant he was frequently with Henry. At the time of his arrest, he was married to Anne Pickering and they had a baby boy, Henry. The charge: high treason and adultery

William Brereton: Brereton was a Groom of the Privy Chamber and had married a distant cousin of Henry. He was accused of being seduced by Anne on November 16, 1533, and of committing “misconduct” on November 27.   The charge: high treason and adultery.

George Boleyn: Boleyn was the Viscount of Rochford and Anne’s brother. George’s wife, Jane Rochford, would give evidence against him. The charge: high treason, incest, and adultery.

Thomas Wyatt: Wyatt was an advisor in Henry’s court and a poet who is credited with introducing the sonnet into English. It was rumored that he and Anne were romantically connected before Anne’s marriage to Henry.  Whatever Wyatt felt, there is no evidence that Anne reciprocated his feelings. Wyatt was brought in for questioning at the Tower of London, where he viewed the executions of the condemned men and wrote a famous poem about the “bloody days” that had “broken his heart.” He may also have viewed Anne’s execution. He was later released.

Richard Page: Page was appointed as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber after supporting Anne against Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the advisor who so greatly influenced Henry’s decisions early in his reign. Like Wyatt, Page was later released from the Tower.

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