Saturday, 27 December 2014

Five Men : Treachery And Iniquitous Deeds At The Tudor Court

The Tower of London from a 15 Century manuscript (

A Tudor Tragedy

On 19 May 1536, one of the most remarkable women in history mounted a low scaffold on East Smithfield Green.

Anne Boleyn had been tried and condemned of multiple adultery and incest and after delivering a brief speech, she was dispatched by a French executioner from St Omer with a heavy two handed sword.

The woman who had been so French in life, had died in the French fashion.

Two days before, five men had mounted a scaffold on Tower Hill. 

They had been accused of committing adultery with the Queen and of plotting the King's death. 

One of these men was the Queen's own brother, George Rochford. And another was a lowly musician named Mark Smeton.

But who were these men?

Five Men

Sir Henry Norris was almost fifty and “best loved of the King”. He held the office of Groom of the Stool and was a chief gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Norris was also chamberlain of North Wales.

Sir William Brereton was a gentleman of the King's Privy Chamber and was well favoured by the King, “flourishing in love”. He was also very promiscuous. Cardinal Wolsey's gentleman-usher George Cavendish paints a picture of an amoral man who had not always acted honourably.

Sir Francis Weston was a handsome twenty-five year old gentleman of the Privy Chamber. He was married with a baby son. Weston “was young, and of old lineage and high accomplishment” and according to George Cavendish - very licentious.

Sir Francis Weston (artist unknown)
Also among the accused were George Boleyn, Viscount Roschford and a young Flemish musician named Mark Smeton.

The Falling Star

George Boleyn was the youngest of the three surviving Boleyn children and was probably born in 1504. 

He was precocious and was given an excellent education, possibly at Oxford where he "was educated in all kind of polite learning".

George Boleyn was handsome, accomplished and cultivated. 

He could speak French Latin and Italian fluently and was a talented poet possessing “the art in meter and verse to make pleasant ditties” Boleyn owed his advancement at court to his sister Anne's connection to the King who favoured him highly as one he“specially loveth and trustith.” 

By 1528 George Boleyn was appointed as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and in October 1529 he was knighted and the title of Earl of Rochford was conferred upon him.

Opinions are polarised as to George Boleyn's character. He was witty, charming and gifted but could also be proud, arrogant and reckless.

In his book The Queen of Controversy. Lacey Baldwin Smith describes Rochford as a “relatively minor player who possessed a biting and witty tongue that earned him a host of enemies”. He was also “outspoken, scornful of others and overly proud of his achievements”. 

Sir Thomas Wyatt would lament of Rochford. "Hadst thou not been so proud, for thy wit, each man would thee bemoan". 

Like his brilliant sister Anne, George Boleyn had a fervour for church reform although he may also have had a disdain for conventional religion. The Spanish Amabassador Eustace Chapuys would describe the Boleyn's as “More Lutheran than Luther himself” 

All three of the Boleyn children were close, but there was a fierce bond between George and Anne Boleyn and they both had similar tastes. 

In late 1524 or 1525, Boleyn married Jane Parker daughter of Henry Parker, Lord Morley.
The Morley's were staunch supporters of Catherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary and at some point Jane switched allegiance to the Catholic faction

There is reason to believe that Jane's marriage to George Boleyn was not a happy one. She was excluded from the Boleyn inner circle and may have been jealous of the closeness between the Queen and her husband. 

Jane's testimony would be regarded as key evidence against her husband. She would report that “there was familiarity between the Queen and her brother beyond what so near a relationship could justify”. She would also reveal a remark which Anne Boleyn was alleged to have made to her regarding the King's lacklustre performance in bed. Jane had turned on her husband and "prejudiced the King with her own extravagant apprehensions and filled his head with many false reports"(If God Spare My Life, Moynahan, Brian)

George Wyatt would later state that "in this principal matter between the Queen and her brother, there was bought forth, indeed, witness, his wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood. What she did was more to be rid of him than of true ground against him" (The Lady in the Tower, Weir, Alison)  

"I am blameless, and never knew that my sister was bad" Rochford declared when he was interviewed by the Privy Council. Whilst during an exchange with Norfolk, Anne Boleyn would allegedly inform him  "if he (Rochford) has been in my chamber, surely he might do so without suspicion, being my brother".

George Rochford was also very promiscuous. 

Cavendish alluded to Rochford's “sensual appetite” and “lewd adultery”and described Rochford as living in a "bestial" fashion. This may imply that he had engaged in unlawful sexual acts such as sodomy. Rochford would proclaim that although he was innocent of the charges against him, he deserved to die“for more and worse shame and dishonour than have ever been heard of before”. 

Modern historians and writers have inferred that Rochford was gay or bi-sexual. Although this is not wholly inconceivable, there is no evidence to corroborate it.

The Singing Boy

Mark Smeton was probably born around 1512. 

He was the son of a carpenter and a seamstress and was of Flemish origin but little is known of him before he came to court. Smeton became a choirboy in Thomas Wolsey's chapel later transferring to the Chapel Royal after the Cardinal's fall in 1529. 

By 1532, he had been named a Groom of the Privy Chamber although due to his "poor degree" he would not be admitted into the Boleyn inner circle. 

Mark Smeton was described as a “very handsome young man” and “one of the prettiest monochord players”and was reputed to be “the deftest dancer in the land”. While George Cavendish referred to him as a “singing boy”. Success had perhaps gone to the young musician's head and it was noted that he had become "very grand". 

In her book The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Retha Warnicke considers Mark Smeton and Rochford to be lovers. There is no evidence to support this and the theory rests upon the fact that Rochford had given Smeton a book of poetry implying some familiarity. But the gesture is entirely conventional considering Rochford was his patron. Anne Boleyn rewarded the young musician with gifts of plate, rich clothes and a horse. 

Circa Regna Tonat 

The fall of Anne Boleyn and the purge of the Boleyn faction was swift. 

“I invented the whole affair” the King's chief advisor Thomas Cromwell would boast to the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys. 

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Hans Holbein the Younger)
Cromwell was an unscrupulous politician and a great admirer of Niccolò Machiavelli. 

Eric Ives, David Starkey and G.R Elton are of the opinion that Cromwell and the Seymour faction conspired to bring the Queen down. Alison Weir asserts that Thomas Cromwell “had good cause to believe that Anne's influence with the King posed a real threat to his policies and to his very life”. 

It is more likely that it was the King who ordered his chief advisor to investigate certain allegations against the Queen, although he may have initially doubted there veracity. And it may be that Henry was "persuaded to destroy her before he changed his mind". 

According to Alexander Aless, Thomas Cromwell's agents "tempt her porter and serving men with bribes , there is nothing which they do not promise the ladies of her bedchamber. They affirm that the King hated the Queen, because she hath not presented him with an heir to the realm, nor was there any prospect of her doing so" (Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII's Obsession, Norton, Elizabeth) Apparently, "The Queen's incontinent living was so rank and common that the ladies of her privy chamber could not conceal it".

On 30 April, Mark Smeton was arrested and interrogated at Thomas Cromwell's house in Stepney. Under torture or threat of torture, Smeton confessed to having slept with the Queen on three occasions although the veracity of his statement is suspect.  

Historian Suzannah Lipscomb likens Smeton to a modern day celebrity stalker who believes that his confession will convey kudos and glory upon himself. While in his book Fatal Attractions G. W Bernard depicts Mark Smeton as an unrequited lover “hopelessly infatuated” with the glamorous Anne Boleyn.

The accused men (excluding George Rochford) were tried at Westminster Hall on 12 May 1536. 

They were charged with having “violated and had carnal knowledge of the Queen” and of having conspired the King's death. 

The Queen was depicted as a sexually voracious woman keeping a male harem

So rank was her "malice and adultery" that "there was never such a whore in the realm".

The jury heard that the Queen's lovers, "being jealous, gave  her presents, she being jealous of them and of any other women ... and gave them great gifts to encourage them in their crimes" (Anne Boleyn, Chapman, Hester) The entire case seems  to rest upon the fact that the Queen “admitted some of her court to come into her chamber at undue hours”.

According to Lancelot de Carles, one the King's courtiers, identified by G.W. Bernard as Sir Anthony Browne, quarrelled with his sister Elizabeth Browne, Lady Worcester, over her loose morals and she was alleged to have replied that her conduct was nothing compared to the behaviour of the Queen. Suzannah Lipscombe believes that it was this exchange that precipitated the crises that led to Anne Boleyn's fall. 

The men were charged "that they had violated and had carnal knowledge of the Queen, each by himself at separate times". 

Only Mark Smeton confessed "that he hath knowledge of the Queen three times"

Of the twenty-two counts of adultery, twelve can be thrown out and the rest are unconvincing. This strongly suggests that the Queen was framed and that the accused men were fall guys. 

All four men were unanimously found guilty and sentenced to a “traitors death”. They were to be "hanged, drawn and quartered, their members cut off and burnt before them, their heads cut off and quartered". 

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, before the news of Anne Boleyn's trial had even reached him opined that "the King will put her and her accomplices to death and take another wife, as he is of amorous complexion and always desires to have a male child”. 

Westminster Hall
On Monday 15, 1536 Anne Boleyn and George Rochford were tried in the Great Hall of the Tower of London before a jury of twenty-six peers presided over by Norfolk. 

"Care was taken to select those who would be relied upon to gratify the King's will". 

George Rochford was charged with having “violated and carnally known his own natural sister".

Eric Ives asserts in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, that the “performance of Anne and George that day is a clear indication of their calibre and why they had to die, they were certainly not upstarts or pasteboard figures”. 

Anne Boleyn "walked forth in fearful beauty" to her trial and gave "so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with words so clearly, as though she had never been guilty of the same". 

The court documents have not survived, but the indictment does and it appears that Anne Boleyn's legendary sexual magnetism and unguarded conversations were turned against her. 

The jury heard that the Queen had "incited her own brother to violate her".

She allegedly seduced her brother "alluring him with her tongue in the said George's mouth, and the said George's tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents and jewels" (Anne Boleyn, Erickson, Carolly)

The Lord Mayor declared of the trial, "I would not observe anything of the proceedings against her. but that they were resolved to make an occasion to get rid of her at any price". 

Not long after it would be regarded as odd by some that "within one and the same month that saw Queen Anne flourishing, accused, condemned and executed" another was "assumed into her place , both of bed and honour".

The "other" was the King's intended Jane Seymour whom Chapuys wryly described as "not a woman of great wit" adding naughtily that "she may have a fine enigme (vagina)". 

When the King heard of the Anne Boleyn's eloquence and self possession at her trial, he remarked, "She hath a stout heart but she shall pay for it".

The trial of George Rochford was delayed while Norfolk wept crocodile tears. 

One spectator claimed that Rochford rebutted the allegations against him "so prudently and wisely" and "to all articles laid against him, that it was a marvel to hear. He never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended".

Lancelot de Carles wrote of Rochford that in his "calm behaviour and good defence (Thomas) More himself did not reply better".

Nevertheless, twenty-six peers found the Queen and Rochford unanimously guilty and their uncle Norfolk pronounced the death sentence.


"Be in readiness to suffer tomorrow" Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower informed George Rochford in his cell. 

"I will do my best to be ready" Rochford replied.

On the morning of Wednesday 17 May 1536, George Rochford, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and Mark Smeton were executed on Tower Hill. 

Their sentences had been commuted to decapitation. 

George Rochford delivered a heartfelt speech on the scaffold;

“Trust in God, and not in the vanities of the world, for if I had so done, I think I had been alive as ye be now. Men do common and say that I have been a setter-forth of the word of God and one that hath 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 ans set forth to my power, I had not come to this. Truly and diligently did I read the gospel of Christ Jesus, but I turned not to profit that which I did read; the which had I done, of a surety I had not fallen into so great errors. Wherefore I do beseech you all, for the love of our Lord God, that you do at all seasons hold by the truth, and speak it, and embrace it.

The headsman struck off his head with one blow.

Mark Smeton was the last to die.

He mounted a scaffold awash with blood, decapitated heads and bodies. 

“I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death” Mark Smeton declared before the headsman cut off his head with one strike of the axe.

Smeton never recanted his confession.

O Death, Rock Me To Sleep

Just before dawn, the day before her execution, Anne Boleyn swore twice on the Blessed Sacrament that she had never been unfaithful to the King in the presence of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Sir William Kingston.

Early on the morning of Friday 19 May 1536, Kingston appeared at her door.

"Madam, the hour approaches - you must make ready" He informed her. 

"Acquit yourself of your charge for I hath been long prepared" Anne Boleyn replied fearlessly.

Anne Boleyn met her death with great courage and dignity.

“When she arrived at the scaffold she was dressed in a night-robe of damask, with a red damask skirt, and a netted coif over her hair” (How Anne Was Beheaded Hume, Martin)

Anne Boleyn mounted the scaffold "with an untroubled countenance". A Portuguese observer wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” 

Showing a "a goodly smiling countenance", Anne Boleyn addressed the crowds and delivered a brief and affecting speech which made her maids and many of her spectators weep;

" Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak any thing of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never; and to me was he ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord, have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. "

Anne Boleyn said her prayers and prepared her soul for death. 

Then it seemed that the French executioner struck off her head "before you could say a Paternoster". 

Due to the hasty proceedings, no coffin had been provided and Anne Boleyn was laid to rest in an elm arrow chest and buried later that afternoon beneath the altar in the chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula within the Tower. 

“The Queen died boldly. God take her to his mercy.” wrote Sir William Kingston to Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury would champion Anne Boleyn in a cautious letter to the King;

'If it be true that is openly reported of the Queen's Grace... I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman than I had in her; which maketh me to think that she should not be culpable... Next to Your Grace, I was most bound to her of all creatures living... I wish and pray for her that she may declare herself inculpable and innocent... I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel'

While Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote in his poem V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei;

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.

Tower of London 


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