Chapter 18 : Trial and Execution
Juries were summoned, and Northampton was appointed High Steward (that is, presiding judge). Twenty-two lords, as well as the council were appointed as commissioners to try the case – Shrewsbury declined, protesting ill-health. In anticipation of a guilty verdict, Somerset was stripped of the Order of the Garter.
Before dawn on 1st December, Somerset was taken by barge to Westminster Hall. The trial began at 8am and lasted until 3pm. A whole litany of charges were brought, including the aforementioned intention to take possession of the Tower, and the Great Seal. It was also charged that Somerset had incited the Londoners to rebel against the king.
At a Tudor trial, defendants did not have counsel, nor did they know the evidence that was to be brought in advance. Nor could they bring witnesses of their own. Somerset apparently performed well. He pointed out the flaws in the evidence, and questioned all the witnesses. Unsurprisingly, he attacked the probity of Palmer. Northumberland, wreathed in false modesty, protested that no action of Somerset against himself should be considered.
The result was not a foregone conclusion – there was considerable discussion as to whether anything that had been alleged amounted to treason. Meanwhile, the commissioners could hear the shouts of the populace – ‘God save the duke’, they cried. Either mindful of their duty to administer justice properly, or fearful of the public reaction, Somerset was found not guilty of treason. He was, however, convicted of felony. After the sentence, the duke’s guard emerged with the axe turned down. The crowd took this as acquittal, and the news raced through a delighted London population.
The crowds had, however, rejoiced too soon. Felony, too, carried the death penalty. It is difficult to know whether Somerset was guilty – some of the charges were patently ludicrous and he certainly would not have posed any threat to Edward himself. Nevertheless, there is certainly evidence to support the notion that he intended to take back power if he could. Later, Northumberland expressed some sorrow over the matter, but since at the time he was pleading for his own life, the sincerity of his feelings might be questioned.
Generally, convicted criminals were dispatched quickly. However, the reaction of the populace had given Northumberland pause for thought. He visited Somerset in the Tower, but nothing is known of what was said. There was unrest in the City, and the military force that had been raised in April, to some objections by the council as constituting a private army, marched about St James’s Park, to the king’s delight. Somerset remained in the Tower, and rumours began to spread that he would be released.
However, with Parliament having been summoned for 23rd January, Northumberland decided that Somerset must die, lest the conviction be overturned. The French ambassador, who had been working with Northumberland on the plan for the marriage of Edward and Elisabeth, apparently encouraged the king, who was reluctant, to agree that there was no alternative to Somerset’s execution.
Whether this affected Edward, or whether he were convinced of Somerset’s guilt, or even whether he believed he must let the law take its course, he wrote to Somerset on 21st January, informing him that the sentence of hanging would be commuted to beheading. The king then signed the death warrant and at 8am the following day, Somerset was taken to Tower Hill. He prayed for a short while, then addressed the crowd. Unusually, he protested his innocence, saying he was ‘a true and faithful man as any was unto the king’s majesty and the realm…’ but in time-honoured fashion, he then accepted that as he had been condemned by the law, he was glad to show himself obedient to it.
Before he could kneel down, there was a sudden loud noise – the crowd, at first terrified, then began to cheer, thinking that it was a gun from the Tower, fired to signal that the king had pardoned his uncle. Once the commotion died down, it became apparent that no pardon was forthcoming.
Somerset spoke again, bidding everyone be quiet, and for all to pray for the king. He then knelt, and the executioner did his work. The body was taken to be buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, near those of Anne Boleyn, Katheryn Howard and Jane, Lady Rochford.
Edward wrote briefly in his journal that ‘the Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning’. How he felt about his uncle’s death is a mystery – this terse sentence has been taken as a sign of indifference, even coldness, but one source suggests that Edward hid his feelings as unbecoming to majesty, and that later, he would be sad at the mention of his uncle, and say that he had been led astray in agreeing to the execution.