Anne Boleyn, painted by an unknown artist
The fall of Anne Boleyn is a rather extraordinary episode in English history. After waiting for so many years to make her his wife, Henry VIII approved the execution of Anne for treason and adultery after just three years. She was found guilty of having not one but five lovers, one of them her brother; she was also accused of high treason and plotting the king’s death in order to marry one of these lovers. Harsh charges indeed, and charges that many people believe today to be false. (Contrary to popular belief, Anne was never accused of witchcraft.)
What happened between Henry and Anne that caused their relationship to break down so dramatically? If the charges against Anne are believed to be false, then something must have happened. Anne had many enemies at court, was known to have a sharp tongue and a bad temper, she had displaced the beloved queen Catherine and her daughter, Mary, she was friendly with the men in her household and above all, had not had a son with the king. None of these incidences in isolation, I think, will have had such a dramatic effect on Anne’s life, but put them together and the result was a swift, bloody downfall.
When Anne Boleyn fell, she took five men with her- her brother George, Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and Henry Norris. The rise and fall of George Boleyn I have already discussed (click here), so today I want to have a look at the four lesser-known courtiers.
David Alpey as Mark Smeaton in Showtime’s TV series “The Tudors”
The first person to be swept up in this court coup was Mark Smeaton, a musician in Queen Anne’s household. Mark’s origins are unknown, though it is believed he was Flemish. He was a skilled man, singing in the household of Cardinal Wolsey before joining the royal court and could play the organ, violin, lute and virginals beautifully. Though he was from humble origins Mark wished to be treated as a gentleman, attracting criticism for having ideas ‘above his station’ and overreaching himself. Serving in the royal household, however, required a certain amount of manners and sophistication and I find it hard to criticise Mark for wanting to better himself. Popular culture often portrays Mark as homosexual, yet there is no evidence for this.
On April 30th 1536 Mark Smeaton was invited to the home of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s most trusted ministers. There, he was suddenly arrested, accused of having had sex with Queen Anne. At first, Mark denied the accusation, but eventually confessed his guilt. How this confession was obtained we do not know; one source tells us Mark had a knotted rope placed over his eye, which was then tightened to cause appalling pain, another source tells us Mark was racked. The sources of this episode are not always to be trusted, however; another one tells us Anne used to hide Mark in her marmalade cupboards, releasing him to join her in bed when she thought it was safe (she would ask her trusted lady for marmalade, apparently, and the lady would bring her Mark- I have no words). This is an interesting confession for me, mainly because I believe it was false- was it wishful thinking on the part of a man who was enamoured with the queen, desperation, or genuine guilt? Regardless of how the confession was obtained, Mark said he had slept with the queen, and incriminated the other men involved in Anne’s downfall when he did. He was transferred to the Tower of London to await trial while the other men were rounded up.
William Brereton, played by James Gilbert in the Showtime TV series “The Tudors”. The programme portrays William very inaccurately; he was not a Catholic assassin against Anne Boleyn, he was not a “soldier of Christ” for Pope Paul, he did not attempt to shoot Anne during her coronation procession and he did not confess to adultery with the queen
William Brereton was one of eight sons born to Sir Randall Brereton, a knight in the service of king Henry VII, and Eleanor, his wife. Four of William’s brothers joined the church; he and three others followed their father’s footsteps and entered royal service. By 1524 William was a trusted member of the king’s court and was a Groom in the privy chamber, and in 1529 married the king’s second cousin Elizabeth Savage. He was always supportive of the king’s annulment of his first marriage and the rise of Anne Boleyn, and as a result of this loyalty William was granted many lands in Cheshire and North Wales, and was knighted during Anne’s coronation celebrations. There was a groom present at the secret wedding ceremony between Henry and Anne, and there is every possibility this groom was William.
As popular as he was with the king and queen, William had made an enemy in Thomas Cromwell. When one of William’s retainers died in 1534, he placed blame on a local gentleman, John ap Gryffith Eton. John was acquitted and released following a trial, however William had him re-arrested, found guilty and hanged. This happened against Thomas Cromwell’s wishes, as he had worked very hard to save John from the gallows.
Henry Norris was born around 1482, joined the royal court as young man and became a firm friend of Henry VIII. The two men had plenty in common, they played cards, tennis, and jousted together, and Henry was present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. The king trusted Henry deeply, appointing him Groom of the Stool in 1526 (the role that gave him the most intimate access to the king) and Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Henry gained land for his loyal service, was completely supportive of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, and was knighted as part of her coronation celebrations.
Francis Weston, who was born in 1511 to Sir Richard Weston and his wife Anne, was also a member of the king’s inner circle. He was appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber in 1525, married a woman named Anne Pickering in 1530, and also was knighted as part of Queen Anne’s coronation celebrations.
Sir Henry Norris, played by Stephen Hogan in the Showtime TV series “The Tudors”
William and Henry, along with George Boleyn, Sir Richard Page and Thomas Wyatt, were the first to be arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, accused of treason and adultery with the queen. Not one of them confessed to their supposed guilt- in fact they all passionately argued for their innocence. Mark Smeaton, however, did not retract his confession, and soon enough the queen arrived at the Tower too, aware of what she was accused of. She was lodged in the Queen’s Apartments, where she had stayed just a few years earlier while awaiting her coronation, and not the dungeon she thought she would be taken to. Anne must have been under extreme pressure, wondering why she had been accused of the things she had. She began to recall conversations she had had in the past, and a few of the things she said incriminated Francis Weston further. As reported by Master Kingston, the constable of the Tower:
“She more feared Weston, for on Whitsunday Tuesday last Weston told her that Norris came more unto her chambers for her than for Madge Shelton.”
“She had spoke to him, because he did love her kinswoman Ms Shelton and that he loved not his wife. Weston replied that he loved one in her house more than both Madge and his wife- the queen.”
Francis was now transported to the Tower. Like William and Henry he confessed to nothing but his innocence, but to no avail. The confession of Smeaton and the words of the queen were evidence enough to bring him to trial, and the financial support he had received from Anne in the early days of his marriage was also implied to mean more than was intended.
Portrait of Francis Weston by an unknown artist
On May 12th 1536 Francis, Mark, William and Henry all faced trial at Westminster, and all the men except Mark pleaded not guilty to the charges of adultery with the queen and treason. Evidence was produced for the alleged offences but it was weak, to say the least; in Henry Norris’ case, for example, he was accused of committing adultery with the queen on the sixth and twelfth October 1533, at Westminster, yet Anne was actually at Greenwich at this time, recovering from the birth of Princess Elizabeth on September seventh.The caveat ‘and divers other days and places, before and after‘ was crucial in securing the conviction. Was the evidence doctored, or made up? Or was it simply too difficult for the prosecutors to recall exact dates? Despite any arguments against the reliability of the evidence the men were all found guilty, and were sentenced to suffer traitor’s deaths. The sentences were commutted to beheading- a much more merciful execution at the time, which was usually reserved for the nobility. The trial of Anne took place a few days later, followed by George’s. The trials were arranged very cleverly- George was guilty because Anne was guilty, and Anne was guilty because the first four men were guilty. It would have been impossible to find either George or Anne not guilty without reprieving the people before them. Sir Richard Page and Thomas Wyatt were cleared of the charges against them.
After his conviction Francis’ family petitioned the king, offering him money for Francis’ reprieve. Francis, because his father was still alive, did not have a lot to leave for the crown by way of land or money; people convicted of treason had all their possessions forfeited to the crown, and Francis had nothing worth forfeiting. The king refused the family’s request. In his last days in the Tower, Francis wrote a letter of apology to his parents.
George, Henry, William, Francis and Mark all met their end on May 17th, 1536 at Tower Hill. The beheadings were completed without any major trauma, and the men were taken for burial at the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Anne went to her scaffold two days later. Mark Smeaton never took back his confession, which many people, contemporaries included, believed to be false. Francis Weston departed with words of warning to the crowd at Tower Hill, saying “for I had thought to have lived in abomination yet these twenty or thirty years and then to have made amends“. William Brereton’s last words are recorded as to have been “the cause whereof I die, judge not. But if you judge, judge the best.” William’s wife Elizabeth seemed sure of his innocence. In her will, 9 years later, she left her son “one bracelet of gold, which was the last token his father sent me.”
One of the memorial plates at Tower Hill execution site. None of the men who fell in May 1536 are remembered by name here (image my own)
So what do I think? I think it woud have been extremely difficult for Anne, as queen, to take one lover, never mind five. I don’t believe for a moment that she committed adultery or incest. I do think, however, that she was not without fault, and that perhaps her manner worked against her. Did Henry believe she was guilty? Perhaps he did. I don’t like to put thoughts into people’s heads, but then I can’t imagine anyone beheading all those people on a whim. May they all rest in peace.
“The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives, second edition, 2005
“Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions” by G. W. Bernard, 2011
“The Boleyns: The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Family” by David Loades, 2011
“1536- The Year That Changed Henry VIII” by Suzannah Lipscomb, 2009
“Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII” by Dr David Starkey, 2004
“Cromwell to Cromwell: Reformation to Civil War” by Dr John Schofield, 2011
“House of Treason: The Rise and Fall of the Howard Family in Tudor England” by Robert Hutchinson, 2009
“The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown” by Claire Ridgway, kindle edition, 2012