These bloody days...
On the morning of Wednesday, 17th May 1536 George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were led out of the Tower under close guard and beheaded on a high scaffold on Tower Hill. Large crowds had gathered to see the bloody end of these once great men- among the onlookers stood a number of courtiers.
Anne Boleyn and Thomas Wyatt were witnesses to these gruesome acts from the window of their prison cells within the Tower. It seems likely that Wyatt watched from his prison in the Bell Tower as described in a poem he wrote later that year:
"The Bell Tower showed me such a sight
That in my head sticks day and night;
There did I learn out of a grate..."
Anne Boleyn may have been looking from another room in the Bell Tower or possibly from a room in the Byward Tower. But what is certain is that watching her beloved brother being butchered must have been a torture- especially when he was almost certainly innocent of the crimes for which he was condemned. The injustice and futility of these murders must have made it all the more tormenting to witness.
It was reported that all five men died in a dignified manner and observed scaffold etiquette by confessing their faults and confirming the justness of their punishments in their farewell speeches. What they did not allude to though were the specific crimes that brought them to this terrible fate.
The highest ranking, being George Boleyn, faced the axe first but only after he had delivered a very long speech, of which several versions survive. Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton soon followed him.
It is difficult to imagine what these men must have been thinking and feeling w hilst awaiting their brutal deaths. One can be sure that they would have been overcome by mounting fear as the axe claimed more victims and the scaffold became littered with mutilated corpses. To make matters all the more terrifying, the axe was never a kind bringer of death. It was observed that George Boleyn had endured three strokes of the axe to completely sever his head from his body.
Smeaton was the last to die. The sight that lay before him must have been horrendous. The block floating in a sea of red surrounded by bloodied bodies and butchered heads. Yet still he managed to find the courage to utter a few words and then lay his head on the block.
There their mutilated corpses remained until Tower officials stripped them of their clothes and piled them onto a cart that would transport them to their final resting places; the Chapel Royal of St. Peter Ad Vincula for Lord Rochford and the adjacent churchyard for Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton.
I sincerely hope that these men are now resting in peace a long way away from their brutal Earthly departure.
Source: Weir, Alison. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 2009.