May 17 may seem to many of us as just another day; but if you lived in Henry VIII’s England, it was a date that on which you had to watch your head. During Henry’s infamous reign, there were many politically-driven executions: perhaps, most famously Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. However on May 17, 1521 and May 17, 1536 a total of six courtiers were beheaded at the King’s request – a dangerous day indeed.
The Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, was one of the most powerful figures in court early in Henry’s rule. Buckingham had come to prominence during the reign of Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII. He also had Plantagenet blood, the old Royal house. Henry VIII also had Plantagenet blood, but who had more? That was the question! The young Henry did not trust Stafford and, therefore, looked for ways to get rid of the troublesome and popular duke. In 1521, Henry began to suspect Buckingham of treasonous activity and launched an investigation. This inquest found that the duke had, indeed, been planning an attempt on the throne. This was all Henry needed and the jury in the trial found Stafford guilty. He was beheaded on May 17, 1521.
Fifteen years later, in 1536, Henry’s headsman was once again busy – very busy. Henry VIII had grown tired of his second wife, the famous Anne Boleyn, upon “her” failure to produce a son. Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s most influential advisors, devised a plot for his king to rid himself of his wife (in favor of the young Jane Seymour) and some troublesome courtiers at the same time. Anne was accused of adultery and incest. Sexual indiscretions with the queen were akin to treason. The five men who were accused in this plot were the Viscount Rochford, George Boleyn (Anne’s brother – thus the incest charge), Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, and Mark Smeaton. All five men were tortured and only Smeaton, the commoner, confessed. A jury, including Thomas Boleyn, George and Anne’s father, found th3 five men guilty. They were all beheaded on May 17, 1536.