< All Articles

The killer king: How many people did Henry VIII execute?

Portrait of Henry VIII of England by Hans Eworth

Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) is perhaps the most well known of all England’s monarchs, notably for the fact that he had six wives and beheaded two of them. Besides presiding over sweeping changes that brought the nation into the Protestant Reformation and changed England’s faith, the infamous monarch, ridiculed for his obesity, was also subject to raging mood swings and paranoia. It is estimated that during his 36 years of rule over England he executed up to 57,000 people, many of whom were either members of the clergy or ordinary citizens and nobles who had taken part in uprisings and protests up and down the country. 

Victims of Henry VIII’s turbulent reign, who were either executed by him or killed in his name, fell into three principal categories - Heresy, Treason and Denial of his Royal Supremacy as Head of the English Church. 

Simply broadcasting or discussing an opinion against the paranoid king could put even the most influential of citizens, including nobility in the Tower of London. Worse fates were to await those who he believed were against him; for if someone dared to be against Henry, they were also against God. Such an offence was dealt with by the relatively humane swift swing of the axe. But for those accused of heresy, witchcraft and treason a far worse fate was in store for condemned victims through the barbaric acts of being burned at the stake or hanged, drawn and quartered. It is interesting to note that members of aristocracy and gentry could not be legally tortured unlike commoners. 

The following victims of Henry’s displeasure and rage represent only a small proportion of executions which increased in volume during and after the English Reformation. Whether these unfortunates were once adored royal wives, close friends, respected advisors or simply perceived as enemies of the state, they all contribute to a tally of death that makes Henry VIII the most prolific serial killer England has known. 

The Royal Killings

Queen Anne Boleyn (1501-1536)

Anne Boleyn was King Henry’s second and possibly most infamous wife for whom the King changed England’s religion and separated from the Church of Rome to marry and sire a much longed-for male heir with. Having failed in delivering a son Anne found herself in the midst of a conspiracy concocted by Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell and accused of infidelity with five men including her own brother George Boleyn (Viscount Rochford) and sentenced to death. Anne was famously dispatched by a French swordsman while her brother and the four other accused, Sir William Brereton, musician Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris and Sir Francis Weston, were beheaded by the axe on Tower Hill on the 17 May 1536. 

Only Smeaton, being a commoner, was tortured and his false confession used to condemn the Queen. All accused were believed to have been innocent of the charges. Anne was executed in a private setting in the Tower of London on the 19th May 1536. 

George Boleyn (Viscount Rochford) (1503-1536)

Queen Anne’s younger brother, who according to his arrest along with four other accused men was accused of incestuous relations with his sister. Although it is known that George was a sexual libertine there is no evidence he had relations with Anne. 

George and Anne were close and affectionate to each other unlike the Queen’s relationship with her sister Mary (former mistress of Henry VIII) which was strained. There is evidence to suggest that George, who became Viscount Rochford and rose to a high position in the court, may have been betrayed by his wife, Jane Parker (sister-in-law to Anne) who contributed testimonies to the trial of Anne, alleging intimate indiscretions with George. 

Some historians claim that Rochford was actually homosexual or bisexual and had relations with some of the defendants such as musician Mark Smeaton. The former Viscount of Rochford and Anne’s much-loved brother was executed on Tower Hill on 17 May 1536 along with the four other accused men. Rochford’s last words mainly promoted his new Protestant faith.

Jane Boleyn (nee Parker) Viscountess Rochford (1505-1542)

If ever there was an ironic twist to the litany of victims of Henry VIII, the journey of Lady Jane Parker who may have wilfully contributed to accusations of sexual misconduct between her husband (George Boleyn) and Queen Anne Boleyn, is a potent example. 

Whether Parker had intended to harm her husband and Queen Anne is still a case of conjecture but seven years after Anne Boleyn was beheaded, Parker was herself executed for her explicit involvement in acting as ‘agent’ in arranging and assisting Queen Catherine Howard’s secret assignations with Thomas Culpepper. Parker became the third Boleyn member to lose her head. She was executed on the same day as Queen Catherine, directly after on the same scaffold. Both bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in the Tower grounds. 

Queen Catherine Howard (1523-1541)

Unlike Anne Boleyn, young Catherine lacked her older cousin’s prestigious education, experience and social skills. But she possessed what the ageing and obese King Henry most desired, youth, a girlish nature and disposition to submissiveness. Catherine was about 17 when she married the 49- year-old monarch days after Henry had obtained an annulment from Anne of Cleves.  

Catherine’s immaturity and desperation to become pregnant may have encouraged her to be coerced into an ongoing affair with a handsome courtier Thomas Culpepper, who was a distant cousin of both Boleyn and Howard. But it was to be her less than chaste past that caught up with the naive teenager with revelations that she had sexual relations at fifteen with an older predatory rake, Francis Dereham. During Catherine’s interrogation, it was the discovery of a ‘precontract’ of marriage to Dereham that sealed her fate as it was a treasonable offence to knowingly conceal sexual history before marriage to the King. 

Under the ‘bill of attainder’ Catherine was sentenced to death with no formal trial. It is rumoured that on being first arrested the hysterical Catherine was dragged screaming down a corridor at Hampton Court. Incarcerated at Syon Abbey in Isleworth, Middlesex during a bitterly cold winter she was later transported to the Tower down the Thames and beheaded on Tower Green, on the same spot as her unfortunate cousin Anne Boleyn. Legend has it that the tragic young teenage Queen requested the executioner’s block in her cell so she could practice her last moments of living with poise and dignity. 

Francis Dereham (1506- 1541) & Thomas Culpepper (1514-1541)

The opportunist and social-climbing Francis Dereham had not continued sexual relations with Catherine Howard while she was Queen in his role at court as Gentleman Usher of the Queen’s Chamber. However it was his confession under torture that she was having relations with his rival, Thomas Culpepper, that led to both young men being arrested and sentenced to death. 

'In Henry’s eyes, Dereham had ‘spoiled’ the ill-fated Queen'

Bizarrely and possibly reflecting Henry’s perverse egotism, the enraged King decided on bestowing a more brutal execution for Dereham. In Henry’s eyes, Dereham had ‘spoiled’ the ill-fated Queen, whom the King had believed was a virgin on their wedding night. Both accused men were executed together on the scaffold at Tyburn with Dereham suffering the cruellest and most painful fate of being hanged, disembowelled alive and his body quartered. Culpepper, who in an act of cowardly self-preservation blamed the Queen for their sexual assignations, got off lightly due to his closeness to the King with a swift blow of the axe. Both ‘traitors’ heads were put on spikes on Tower Bridge.       

King Henry’s Right Hand Men

Two of Henry's closest advisors and who died on his orders were Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, the latter ironically helping to seal the fate of More, was himself executed by Henry for treason. Both men’s fates were associated with King Henry’s matrimonial affairs that stemmed from one simple obsession – the need for a male heir.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, author, statesman and close friend and advisor to Henry VIII. His downfall from high office was due to his opposition of the annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and also his opposition to Henry's break from the Catholic Church that was headed by the Pope in Rome. 

'I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first’ 

Thomas More

More was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935 as a martyr. Having refused to attend the coronation of Henry’s new wife Anne Boleyn he was later accused of treason mainly through his association with other known ‘heretics’ such as the infamous Elizabeth Barton (the Nun of Kent) who had prophesied that the king would die if he married Anne Boleyn. More also refused to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Unlike many other victims of Henry, More was offered many opportunities to sign an Oath and save him from execution. He is alleged to have said on the scaffold 'I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first’ before he was beheaded. 

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)

The ‘upstart’ Cromwell, uncharacteristically came from a trade background unlike the most powerful men in the court who descended from nobility, was an English lawyer and chief minister to King Henry. Never short of enemies or cynics who despised his lowly background, Cromwell was instrumental in attaining the divorce King Henry needed to marry Anne Boleyn. 

It was a campaign of high risk that saw Europe’s religion turned on its head. Unfortunately for the much admired and trusted Cromwell his own head was to be the price when he displeased the King over the debacle of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. For Henry disliked Anne intensely and blamed Cromwell for the embarrassment. The once-powerful Chief Minister was arraigned under a bill of attainder, accused of treason and sentenced to death without trial. He was executed on Tower Hill in 1540 and his head placed on a spike on London Bridge.  

Killing Heretics

Being accused of conspiring with the devil through witchcraft or practising incantations was one way people found themselves in Henry's crosshairs.  The fate facing those accused of heresy was arrest and a hideous death either by being burned at the stake or through public hanging. 

Elizabeth Barton

Elizabeth Barton became famous throughout the land at the time of King Henry's reign. Yet as a self-proclaimed teller of divine revelations, she managed to escape the usual grisly fate of being burnt at the stake
As a 19-year-old domestic servant, Barton first predicted the death of a child in the household where she worked and went on to make more prophecies that appeared to come true. 

Bestowed with several monikers such as the Nun of Kent and The Mad Maid of Kent, Barton’s reputation soon reached the ears of King Henry’s court after she had become a nun. Investigated by the Catholic church to check Barton was not offending their teachings, her fame increased by the time she met Cardinal Wolsey. Through Wolsey, Barton had meetings with King Henry himself whom she impressed with her revelations that suited his own beliefs and politics. 

However, this brief moment of royal patronage changed drastically when Barton became outspoken against Henry’s intention to obtain an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When Barton prophesied that the King would die within a few months if he married Anne Boleyn events turned against the outspoken nun who found herself arrested for treason. 

Forced to confess that her revelations were fabrications Barton was found guilty of false prophecies and for being involved in a conspiracy to kill the King. Barton was 28 years of age when she was hanged at Tyburn on 20 April 1534. 

Anne Askew (1521-1546)

Askew is a woman who is remembered for taking a stand against the church's oppression and who actively fought and challenged male control. She also became the first Englishwoman to demand a divorce on spiritual grounds. Condemned as a heretic Askew was tortured in the Tower of London on the rack. Apart from Margaret Cheyne who was burned at the stake for high treason in 1537 under Henry’s reign, Askew is only the second woman on record known to have received such barbaric cruelty in the Tower. 

Today she is lauded as a martyr for the Protestant faith. 

While held in the Tower, the condemned Askew was stretched on the rack to reveal names of fellow Protestant preachers after she had been arrested for acting as a ‘gospeller’ of the new faith (Protestant) in the streets of London. Caught up in the struggle between religious traditionalists (Catholics) and reformers (Protestants) Henry had outlawed the word of evangelicals due to the possibility of an alliance with the Catholic Emperor Charles V. The search was on for high ranking Protestant preachers which Askew was believed to know. 

Asked to reveal her sources, Askew was placed on the infamous rack and tortured twice. The second time was so brutal where her body was raised five inches off the rack table that her shoulders and hips were pulled from their sockets and her elbows and knees were dislocated. Her screams could be heard outside the White Tower where she was being held. Despite the excruciating pain, which caused her to faint, she remained silent and refused to give names. 

On 16 July 1546 Askew, together with three men condemned as heretics, were taken to Smithfield in London to be burned at the stake. Due to her painful injuries and being unable to walk, Askew was carried in a chair to the stake where she was dragged to a seat and chained to the post.

Compassionate sympathisers had managed to sneak pouches of gunpowder to the prisoners to alleviate their suffering. Documents of the heinous spectacle note how the public admired Askew’s bravery as the flames leapt to her chest. An explosion of fire killed all five condemned in a matter of seconds.    

Mabel Brigge (1506-1536)

Mabel Brigge was a widow from Yorkshire who worked as a servant in a number of households. She had a habit of fasting which was often associated with spiritual and pagan rituals. But in the case of Brigge her fasts were believed to be a way to cast spells for other people. Brigge’s crime was performing a ‘black fast’ which involved avoiding milk and meat for three days as part of a pact requested by another woman, Isobel Buck, to recover some money the latter had lost. 

Brigge’s employers John and Agnes Lokkar reported Brigge to the authorities after she had revealed she had carried out a similar fast to kill a man who was found dead with a broken neck. The Lokkars believed Brigge was practising witchcraft and using the black fast to kill both Henry VIII and his right-hand advisor the Duke of Norfolk. Brigge and Buck were arrested and tried at York and both found guilty resulting in Brigge being executed on 7 April, 1538. 

Executions for Refusing the Oath of Supremacy

Carthusian Monks

During the Reformation, there were some monks who refused to comply with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy and executed for maintaining their allegiance to the Pope. The Houses of the Carthusian monks was such an order and which paid a heavy price for all ten of their monasteries in the British Isles. The Order founded in 1054 by St Bruno was systematically persecuted and banned. Many of its monks (also known as hermits) who refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy (accepting Henry as the Head of the English Church) were tortured, burned at the stake and left to starve to death in cells. 

One of the most barbaric examples of annihilation was at the London Charterhouse (today in Charterhouse Square) where most members of the house were arrested, interrogated and when found guilty left to face agonising deaths. Monks were disembowelled while still alive, beheaded and quartered with the body being hacked into four pieces. Arrests and executions took place in four main stages targeting Charterhouses between 1535 -37.

Hanged in chains

On 14 May 1535 three leading Carthusians; Doms John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster from the houses of Beavale and Axholme were executed together with fifteen other monks. The merciless authorities then turned to monks at the London house who, after their arrest and interrogation, were painfully held hanging from chains in prison for thirteen days before being hanged at Tyburn. 

Other condemned monks from Charterhouse of St Michael in Hull, Yorkshire, were found guilty on trumped-up charges of treason and were hanged in chains on York’s battlements until dead. One monk, Sebastian Newdigate, was a friend of the King who visited the monk twice in prison to try and persuade him to renounce his faith and accept the Oath, but all in vain. The remaining twenty hermits and lay brothers at London Charterhouse were arrested and taken to Newgate prison in May 1535. Chained standing to posts they were left to starve to death.  

John Fisher

Fisher, a Catholic Bishop and cardinal who was arrested and condemned for treason, is a reminder of how even the most high ranking of clergy in the country was fair game in Henry’s merciless quest to silence dissenters. The theologian who later became Bishop of Rochester and served as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge was possibly targeted by Henry, not just because Fisher refused to accept the King as the Supreme Head of the English Church, but also because the Yorkshire born cleric had passionately supported Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon during the King’s attempt to attain an annulment. Fisher controversially declared during court proceedings at the time that he was prepared to die in his defence of the ‘indissolubility of marriage’. Henry had a long memory. 

A staunch supporter of the Pope and the Catholic Church when Fisher and other bishops appealed to the Holy See after encroachments on the Catholic Church, Henry had them arrested on the basis that such appeals were forbidden. A brief imprisonment was followed by Fisher’s re-arrest for treason for refusing to accept Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Fisher was tried by a court of seventeen which included Henry’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, and Anne Boleyn’s father Thomas Boleyn. Because Fisher was deprived of his status as Bishop of Rochester he was tried as a commoner and feared the worst kind of execution.  Public outcry resulted in the original sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering to a more humane beheading on the scaffold. At Tower Hill on 22 June 1535 Fisher faced his execution with impressive calm and dignity although his headless body was stripped and left naked on the scaffold before being thrown into a rough grave. His head was placed on a pole on London Bridge.   

The Pilgrimage of Grace executions

Led by London lawyer Robert Aske the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ uprising which began in Yorkshire and spread to Cumberland, Northumberland and Lancashire was the most serious of rebellions during Henry’s reign. It was a spontaneous mass protest and rebellion against the policies of the Crown associated with Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. 

The rebellion was initiated after a poor harvest in 1535 led to high food prices. Due to King Henry’s Reformation which saw many monasteries dissolved, the poor were unable to turn to them for food and shelter. The rebellion also involved a religious and political angle in that many people who had loved Queen Catherine were appalled by the King’s divorce and his marriage to Anne Boleyn while also seeing their Catholic faith betrayed by new Protestant doctrines.  

Aske’s rebellion was viewed as a serious threat to the Crown as the barrister assembled between 30-40,000 people and occupied York. The Duke of Norfolk was assigned the task to quell both the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion and a new rising called Bigod’s Rebellion led by one Sir Francis Bigod. 

Despite pardons from Norfolk being reneged by Henry the Duke was able to put down the rebellions leading to the arrests of Aske and Bigod. Two hundred and sixteen rebels were executed which included lords, knights and abbots. Bigod was hanged at Tyburn while Aske suffered the crueller fate of being hanged in chains at Clifford’s Tower in York. In one case the rebel Sir Nicholas Tempest was hanged, drawn, and quartered while his wife Margaret Stafford suffered being burnt at the stake.

Margaret Pole, Countess of Surrey (1473 – 1541)

Beatified as a martyr for the Catholic Church, Margaret Pole’s treatment by Henry VIII was particularly cruel, particularly in light of the Countess of Surrey’s advancing age. A peeress in her own right she had been left a little land by her husband and raised five surviving children. Margaret became a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Later she devoted her third son Reginald Pole to the Church where he became the Archbishop of Canterbury. By 1538 the Countess had become one of the richest women in the country due to her handling of her lands. 

Despite Margaret’s high standing at court, she fell out of favour with King Henry when he married Anne Boleyn. After Henry declared his first daughter Lady Mary a bastard, Margaret, a supporter of Mary refused to hand over the young lady’s jewels and gold plate. She was only allowed to return to court after Boleyn had been executed. 

Responsibility for the Countess's downfall lay with her sons Reginald and Geoffrey. Reginald Pole had been suggested as a future husband for Lady Mary by the King's enemies and he was linked to the Pilgrimage of Grace rebels who planned to move on London and install a Catholic government. Reginald’s brother Geoffrey Pole was arrested in association with plots against the King which led to the Countess herself being imprisoned, as it was assumed she supported her sons’ treasonable activities. The Countess was incarcerated in the Tower of London for two years but in what could be considered salubrious surroundings compared to most prisoners cells. 

On the 27 May 1541 the now 67-year-old Countess was told she was to be executed within the hour. In what has become as one of the most infamous of executions of a noblewoman, the baffled Margaret was led to a corner of the Tower where, instead of a scaffold, the executioner’s wooden block, raised a few inches from the ground awaited the terrified woman. Refusing to lay her head on the block she is alleged to have challenged the executioner to ‘take it as he could’.

As described in Burke’s Peerage, the killing was carried out by a 'blundering youth' rather than a skilled executioner who hacked at the Countess’ head and shoulders to pieces while she had tried to escape. One account which may be apocryphal described the axeman chasing the distraught Countess before striking her. Buried in the chapel of St Peter and Vincula within the Tower, Margaret Pole was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 29 December 1886. 

The Last Execution by King Henry

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517 – 1547)

The nobleman, soldier and founder of English Renaissance poetry was a first cousin of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard and followed them in their tragic footsteps to the block. The son of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk who was also the queen's uncle, young Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was also known to be quarrelsome and possessing of a violent temper.  

Surrey’s reckless behaviour including illegally quartering the royal arms,  -- altering his coat of arms without the King's permissions - and encouraging his own sister Mary to seduce the aged King Henry to become his mistress. It was speculated  that Surrey was plotting to the take the crown from the King’s own son, the future Edward VI

Together with Surrey, the enraged king also had his father the Duke of Norfolk arrested and imprisoned on charges of treason. 
On 19 January 1547 the Earl of Surrey was beheaded on Tower Hill days before the planned execution of his father the once trusted right-hand man to Henry who was spared death due to the king own death.

By Richard Bevan

Friday, July 27, 2018

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to History UK channel. Represented by MMB Creative agency.