The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

  Rochford’s description of his sinfulness in this reliable account of his speech went way beyond what was normally required of a last confession, and goes a long way toward confirming the theory that he had indulged in what were then regarded as unnatural sexual practices.

  There are many reported versions of Rochford’s scaffold speech, and great similarities in all of them: he acknowledged his sinful life, regretted he had not followed the teachings of the Gospel he had preached, exhorted the people to beware the flatteries of the court, and submitted to the law that had condemned him. But there are a few significant discrepancies. Milherve and Chapuys both assert that Rochford denied he had offended against the King, while the Portuguese account claims that he did acknowledge his crimes against God and his sovereign, and prayed Henry to pardon him. These discrepancies may have arisen from his words becoming garbled in the telling, or because different observers reported the passages that impressed them, while some either misheard what was said or elaborated in order to make a political or moral point.45

  Certainly Rochford spoke at some length before he submitted to the axe and died bravely as befit a gentleman, and we cannot begin to imagine the thoughts of the men who were awaiting their turn to die. Even if the axe hit home cleanly, on the nape, it was a brutal death, for it did not so much as slice neatly through the neck as hew through flesh and bone. And because beheadings were rare in England, hanging being the customary form of judicial execution, executioners were often unpracticed in the art. There was no guarantee of a swift end, and when Rochford “lay upon the ground with his head on the block, the headsman gave three strokes.”46

  According to Lancelot de Carles, when the other three gentlemen came to die, “they said nothing, as if they had commissioned Rochford to speak for them”—or maybe they were appalled at the butchery they had just witnessed. The Imperialist account also claims that the four men who followed Rochford to the block “said nothing except to pray for God’s and the King’s forgiveness, and to bid us pray for their souls.”47 None spoke at length, yet obviously they did say more than Carles and the Imperialist—who may not have been able to hear everything—would have us believe, as the gist of their words was written down by other witnesses.

  The Portuguese asserted that, after Rochford, “Norris was beheaded, then Weston and Brereton, and Mark”;48 against this is the statement in the Histoire de la Royne Anne de Boullant, which also gives the order of the executions, that Weston was next to mount the scaffold. Yet it is more likely that Norris, who was next in rank and importance after Rochford, came second. According to his man Constantine, “the others confessed [he does not say to what], all but Mr. Norris, who said almost nothing at all.” However, Burnet has him stating, “I do not think that any gentleman of the court owes more to [the King] than I do, and hath been more ungrateful and regardless of it than I have.” The crowd might well have thought this to be an admission of guilt, but then he fearlessly spoke out in Anne’s defense, and “loyally averred that in his conscience, he thought the Queen innocent of these things laid to her charge; but whether she was or not, he would not accuse her of anything, and he would die a thousand times rather than ruin an innocent person.” Constantine does not mention this brave and provocative declaration, but then his account of Rochford’s speech is greatly truncated. The “Spanish Chronicle” states that Norris “made a great long prayer” and said he had been ungrateful to the King and deserved death, but again, this source is unreliable.

  Weston followed. “I had thought to live in abomination yet this twenty or thirty years, and then to have made amends,” he said mournfully. “I thought little I would come to this.” His mention of a life of “abomination” might be understood to refer to illicit sexual acts, although there must have been those among his hearers who took it to mean his adultery with the Queen or just his general sinfulness. His last words were an exhortation to learn “by example of him.”

  Brereton was beheaded next. “I have deserved to die if it were a thousand deaths,” he declared, probably referring to his nefarious activities in Wales, “but the cause whereof I die judge ye not. But if ye judge, judge the best.” Hearing him repeat this last sentence “three or four times,” and remembering that no witnesses had testified against Brereton at his trial, Constantine clearly was inclined to judge the best. “If any of them was innocent, it was he,” he wrote, “for if he were guilty, I say therefore that he died worst of them all.” He meant by the latter that Brereton, if guilty, should have made a less ambiguous speech, confessing his crimes and calling on God’s forgiveness, for dying with a sin unconfessed would have been seen as inviting eternal damnation.49 Brereton’s admission that he deserved to die a thousand deaths seems a rather overstated confession of human frailty, and may suggest that he, like Rochford and Weston, was guilty of indulging in forbidden sexual practices.50 The “Spanish Chronicle” contradicts Constantine’s evidence, and (probably falsely) asserts that Brereton said nothing but “I have offended God and the King; pray for me.”

  Finally it came to Smeaton’s turn; being of low degree, he was obliged to wait until last. By now the block and the scaffold would have been awash with blood and piled with butchered bodies, so it is hardly surprising that he faltered when making his speech, which was brief and damning, and in which he declared “he was justly punished for his misdeeds.”51 “Masters,” he cried, “I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death.”52 Possibly he feared, even at this late stage, that he might be made to suffer the full horrors of a traitor’s end if he protested his innocence, for the privilege of dying by the axe was not normally accorded to a “varlet”53 such as he. Milherve says that his confession of guilt gave rise to “many reflections.” Maybe some wondered if he felt he deserved death for betraying Anne, rather than for having betrayed the King.54

  The Imperialist commentator, who was certainly watching, reported that “Brereton and Mark were afterward quartered,”55 and on June 2, Jean Hannaert of Lyons was to inform the Empress how “the bodies were quartered.”56 Yet it is possible that this eyewitness left immediately after the beheadings and merely assumed that the bodies were quartered, for no other witness makes any mention of quartering, and it was usually done so the quarters could be displayed on spikes as a warning to would-be traitors. In this case, there is ample evidence that the “bodies” and heads of all the men were buried that same day.

  The executions sparked much comment. The conventional references to sinfulness in the scaffold speeches were clearly seen by some as confessions of guilt, thus further tarnishing Anne’s reputation. George Constantine wrote that to begin with, he himself and all true friends of the Gospel—that is, the reformists whom Anne had championed over the years—had found it impossible to credit what they had heard of the Queen. “Now because she was a favorer of God’s Word, at the leastwise so taken, I tell you few men would believe that she was so abominable. As I may be saved, before God, I could not believe it.” That was “afore I heard them speak at their death. But on the scaffold, in a manner all confessed except Mr Norris,” and Constantine found himself convinced that all were guilty as charged.

  Milherve, more sympathetic, was of the opinion that all the men “suffered a death which they had no way deserved.” Even the executioner “shed tears, but the bloody corpses were allowed to lie on the scaffold for hours, half dressed,”57 after he and the Tower officials stripped them of the clothing that was their perquisite. When Wyatt wrote, “The axe is home, your heads be in the street” (in a poem he composed during or soon after his captivity), he was not referring to the heads being displayed on pikes above London Bridge, as was customary after traitors had been beheaded, for both Chapuys and Wriothesley make it clear that the condemned men’s “bodies, with their heads, were buried in the Tower of London”;58 instead, Wyatt’s words may be taken to mean that the heads had been lifted or rolled off the scaffold as each new victim mounted it, and then left on the ground before being finally laden on to
the cart that would trundle the remains of the five men back into the Tower.

  Because he had been a nobleman, “the lord of Rochford’s body and head” were interred before the high altar59 in the royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower, which had been founded in the twelfth century and largely rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1532, after a disastrous fire in 1512; the rest were laid to rest in the adjacent churchyard, with “Mr. Weston and Mr. Norris in one grave” and “Mr. Brereton and Mark in another.”60 Wriothesley states that “the bodies with the heads” were placed in the graves, but Norris’s family are said to have obtained permission to claim his head, which they later buried in the private chapel of Ockwells Manor, their house near Maidenhead, Berkshire.61 That house still stands, but only parts of the chapel survive, with no clue as to where the head—if it was ever there at all—might rest.

  The churchyard of St. Peter ad Vincula surrounded the chapel, and in those days extended into the area now covered by the Waterloo Block and the Jewel House. In 1841, when the foundations of the Waterloo Block were being dug, and during further excavation in 1964, many coffins and bones were found; these were buried in the crypt of the chapel.62 We have no means of knowing if the remains of Anne Boleyn’s alleged lovers were among them.

  At court, people were still expecting “many more” of the Queen’s rumored army of lovers to be arrested and beheaded,63 while Trahitur et sitspensus was written in the margin of the official record of the dead men’s trials and convictions, to show that the sentence had been carried out.

  “The Concubine will certainly be beheaded tomorrow, or on Friday at the latest,” Chapuys wrote on May 17, “and I think the King feels the time long that it is not done already.”64 Whatever Chapuys had heard, it was not from Henry himself, but he would not have written this without some information on which to base it, and we might glean from his words some sense of Henry wanting everything all over and done with. It was customary for condemned prisoners to be executed with the minimum delay, but this was his queen and the mother of his child, whatever he believed she had done. Did he fear he might waver? Was this the reason for the frightening speed with which Anne had been arrested and condemned? It may be that Henry was “persuaded to destroy her before he could change his mind.”65

  Anne, meanwhile, had been escorted back to the Queen’s lodgings, no doubt grievously shaken and distressed at witnessing the bloody deaths of her brother and her friends. It had been an all-too-brutal reminder of what she herself must face not many hours hence, for these executions would have left her in no doubt that she would imminently share the men’s fate, and that hints about her being sent abroad to a convent had been merely a cruel ploy to gain her consent to the annulment. And she was right, for Kingston, having returned from discharging his grim duty on Tower Hill, now came to inform her that she was to die the following morning.

  Kingston was surely relieved to be able to tell Anne that she was not to suffer the agony and horror of the flames but the kinder death by beheading, and that the King’s mercy had extended to arranging for her to be dispatched by the sword. Whatever her sense of betrayal, Anne received the news calmly. When “the day of her death was announced to her, she was more joyful than before.”66 Her mind was apparently more exercised about what the men had said about her on the scaffold. She “asked about the endurance of her brother and the others”67 and wanted to know if any of them had protested her innocence, and when Kingston told “how her brother and the other gentlemen had suffered and had sealed her innocence with their own blood, but that Mark had confessed he deserved to die, her face changed somewhat and she broke out into some passion, saying, ‘Has he not then cleared me of the public infamy he has brought me to? Alas, I fear his soul suffers for it, and that he is now punished for his false accusations! But for my brother and those others, I doubt not but they are now in the presence of that great King before whom I am to be tomorrow.’” She was well aware that Smeaton’s confession would give rise to “many reflections.”68

  Between nine and eleven in the morning of May 1769 “having only God before his eyes,” Archbishop Cranmer convened “a solemn court” in “a certain low chapel” (or crypt, perhaps the undercroft) at Lambeth Palace, where “the doctors of the law” gathered for the purpose of annulling Anne’s marriage.70 Neither she nor Henry was present, despite both having received the summons to appear; they were represented by proctors. Strickland, followed by other writers, asserted that Anne was conveyed in privacy to Lambeth Palace, and that she attended the hearing, but there is no contemporary evidence for this.

  The Queen was represented in court by her proctors, John Barbour and a rising diplomat, Dr. Nicholas Wotton, both of whom had perhaps visited her at the Tower and obtained her formal consent to the dissolution of her marriage, although there is no evidence for their having done so; certainly they did not contest the annulment on her behalf.71 Dr. Richard Sampson, who would be rewarded with the bishopric of Chich ester the following month, represented the King, alongside Thomas Bedyll, a royal chaplain and clerk to the Privy Council, and John Tregonwell, a lawyer, judge, and privy councillor.

  Also present were Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor, the Duke of Suffolk, the earls of Oxford and Sussex, and other members of the King’s Council,72 while the formal witnesses were Richard Gwent, another royal chaplain who was Archdeacon of London; Edmund Bonner, Archdeacon of Leicester, who would in time become Bishop of London and gain notoriety as the “Bloody Bonner” of the Marian persecutions of the 1550s; and Thomas Legh, a lawyer and diplomat. In the afternoon,73 these persons heard Cranmer pronounce that “on the basis of some true, just, and legitimate causes recently brought to our attention,” the marriage that Henry VIII had schemed for six years to make was “null and void, and had always been so,” which made Anne’s daughter—henceforth to be known as Lady Elizabeth—a bastard. “And so she was discharged, and was never lawful Queen of England, and there it was approved,” Wriothesley observed, not understanding Anne’s true legal position with regard to her title.74

  Cranmer’s grounds for annulling the marriage were not cited in his decree of nullity,75 but it took Chapuys only two days to discover the grounds for the annulment: reliable informants told him that the Archbishop had pronounced Henry and Anne’s marriage invalid “on account of the King having had connection with her sister, and that, as both parties knew of this, the good faith of the parents cannot make the bastard [Elizabeth] legitimate [sic].”76 Such a judgment would only have been possible after Anne was safely condemned, because, given that she was aware of the impediment to her marriage, she could not technically have been guilty of adultery.77

  On May 19, Cranmer was to issue a dispensation for the King to marry Jane Seymour without prior publication of banns, even though both parties were within “the third and third degrees of affinity.”78 No such blood relationship existed between Henry and Jane Seymour, who were far more distant cousins, and Jane was not third cousin to either of his previous wives, so it is possible that Henry had at one time been involved in an unrecorded sexual affair with someone who was related within those degrees to Jane, or that Jane herself had been the mistress of a kinsman of the King; or Henry was perhaps a godparent to the child of one of Jane’s cousins, which would have created compaternity with the relevant parent and been as effective a barrier to marriage within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity as a blood relationship. Whatever the technicalities of the matter, the King was now a free man.


  For Now I Die

  On the night of May 17–18 carpenters were set to work to build a “new scaffold”1 “of such a height that all may see it,”2 “having four or five steps.”3 Wriothesley states that this was erected on “the green within the Tower of London, by the White Tower,” while the Lisle Letters and Anthony Anthony describe it as being put up “before the house of Ordnance,” a long, crumbling building (soon to be replaced) that stood on the north side of the Inner Ward, facing the White Tower; t
oday, the Waterloo Barracks occupy the site of the House of Ordnance.4

  In 2000 the Royal Armories acquired a hitherto unknown contemporary manuscript account of the execution of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in 1601, possibly written as an official report for the Privy Council and perhaps even for Elizabeth I herself. According to this document, Essex’s scaffold was “placed in the high court above Caesar’s Tower;” in those days, people believed that Julius Caesar had built the White Tower. Thus it was almost certainly on the same site as Anne Boleyn’s scaffold had stood, and probably all the other scaffolds erected for private executions in the Tudor period. This “high court” was the largest open space in the Tower precincts, where tournaments had once been held, and it could accommodate large crowds of spectators.5 The author of the “Spanish Chronicle” corroborates this location, stating that “they erected the scaffold in the great courtyard of the Tower.”

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