On This Day in Tudor History: The Men Accused of an Affair with Anne Boleyn Executed

by AlexandriaIngham

On May 17, 1536, George Boleyn and his fellow accused men were executed at Tower Hill. They were all convicted of having an affair with Anne Boleyn.

On May 17, 1536, the men who were accused of having an affair with Anne Boleyn were executed. They were, in order, Sir George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton. Their executions were quick and they were all given the easier execution of being beheaded by axe.

The Site of Tower Hill
The Site of Tower Hill

The Order of the Executions

Mass executions were carried out in order of importance and rank. George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was the highest ranking of the five men and went first. Mark Smeaton, the lowliest of all, went last. It must have been scary and nerve-wracking to watch four others be executed before you! The bodies would have also remained on the scaffold when Mark went to face the executioner.

There is debate between the order when it comes to William Brereton and Francis Weston. It is possible that they were the other way around but report accounts differ to make it clear.

The men were lucky to be executed by beheading, especially Mark Smeaton. While Lord Rochford was a nobelman, the punishment for treason for the four others was being hanged, drawn and quartered. This was an extremely painful death as the prisoners would be conscious throughout most of it until the heart was removed.

The Speeches of the Men

All five men apologised for their sins and acknowledged that they were to die by the law. This was convention for those to be executed. However, none openly admitted to their guilt of committing adultery with Anne Boleyn; not even Mark Smeaton who confessed. The only thing the men confessed to, except Henry Norris who said very little, was that they were sinners and deserved death.

It is likely that they viewed themselves as sinners – as anyone would. They were all God-fearing men and would have wanted to make sure their souls were clear for judgment from the Lord. This is why it is strange that Mark Smeaton never said anything about his confession being a lie, and leads to the possibility that he was telling the truth the whole time.

All speeches were short, except George’s, who went on to advise the people to tell the truth and learn from his mistakes.

Were They Really Guilty of an Affair with Anne Boleyn?

I often search for whether Anne Boleyn and the five men were really guilty. One thing that really strikes me odd is that Anne and George would commit incest. The Other Boleyn Girl depicts Anne begging her brother to make her pregnant after a miscarriage but it isn’t something that I could see either of them doing.

Anne Boleyn was a very strong-willed and smart woman. She had worked hard to become Queen, whether she originally wanted that or not. She had turned public opinion and became one of the greatest Queen Consorts England had seen. She wanted the best for the people and wouldn’t have jeopardised all of that for affairs.

George Boleyn was loved by the people. While there are doubts that his marriage was a happy one, there are signs that he had mistresses, so why would he risk his life to have an affair with his own sister? When George was first arrested, it was because he was withholding the truth about the Queen. George and Anne were close and told each other everything, so it is possible that he knew some of Anne’s darkest secrets that she didn’t want Henry VIII to know. That doesn’t mean that they were having an affair!

It was actually Lady Rochford who gave Thomas Cromwell the idea that incest was one of the crimes. She had mentioned how close they were, and it is unclear whether she was vindictive in this, but that didn’t mean that her words were true.

As for the other men, Sir Henry Norris and William Brereton were close friends to the King. It would make no sense for them to risk their friendship and their lives by betraying him in this way. There was nothing that they could gain. It was the same with Francis Weston. The only person who could have gained was Mark Smeaton.

While Mark confessed, it is likely that that was gained through torture. He was the only one out of the five men who could have been tortured due to being a commoner. It was also possible that he was promised an easier execution if he admitted to his crimes, despite them probably being untrue.

Problems with the Details

Were the men and Anne Boleyn really guilty? That will never really be known. None of the trial transcripts were kept; in fact, legal reporting didn’t start until during 1536 and was very unreliable. The chroniclers all state different views of the events at the execution, so it will be difficult to know if anything else they had to say were true.

When you look at the reports from the chroniclers, it is difficult to choose which one could be right. The problem is that the writers all had their own views and don’t seem to have reported without a biased opinion. For example, The Spanish Chronicler states that Henry Norris gave a long speech while all the others say that he barely said anything.

Whether they were guilty or not, they were executed as if they were. Anne Boleyn’s execution date was set for the day after but did not happen until May 19 due to her executioner being delayed. Anne was executed by sword, in the French manner, unlike the men accused of having an affair with her. Three days after the executions of the five men, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were betrothed.

Updated: 05/17/2013, AlexandriaIngham
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AlexandriaIngham on 05/22/2013

Thanks for that insight, Jo.

JoHarrington on 05/22/2013

May I interject? Part of the point of this was to inspire dread in the afterlife too. Yes, body parts strung around various cities was grisly, and the torturous death itself wasn't something to look forward to, but those fired up with a cause to die for might do it anyway.

Just think of those embracing martyrdom now. There's the general human belief that you won't be caught, but if you do, then the afterlife will be wonderful. You hear tell how suicide bombers in the Middle East are promised great things bestowed by Allah. Endless partying, virgins on tap and all the rest. Go back further, and you have Viking warriors prepared to die on the battlefield in order to enter Valhalla.

It's just the same in Tudor times. It's going through Hell for a Heavenly cause. God will open up Paradise for those who get caught. Unless the soul is trapped. This is the undercurrent of the dismemberment. The body won't be whole. It can't rise for the Last Judgment etc.

The other part of it being far more prosaic. Heads, organs and other limbs hanging on a gate warns those passing under that it could be them next. It gets them physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. But, of course, some still did it; and some were framed.

Mira on 05/22/2013

Oh, my! . . .

AlexandriaIngham on 05/22/2013

I really don't know how it would fit in with the Christian beliefs. That's an interesting one. One of the worst deaths was being hanged, drawn and quartered -- it was the death for commoners who committed treason -- and involved dragging the prisoners to the scaffold, repeatedly hanging them until close to death and then they removed the organs. Excruciating, especially since many would have been conscious throughout it all. Their bodies were then cut up and scattered to the four corners of England -- so again, I really don't know how that fit with the Christian beliefs of the body remaining whole.

Mira on 05/22/2013

So wait, was it common practice to take people's hearts out after hanging them??? It sounds awful. And not only that: how did that fit with Christian beliefs that the body should remain whole?

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