Wolf Hall explained – Why no defence lawyers?

I have watched the final episode of Wolf Hall twice now and both times it has moved me to tears. I am familiar with numerous instances of executions ordered by Henry VIII to the extent that I had become matter of fact about them, feeling little emotion. Peter Kosminsky changed that with his powerful depiction of the interrogations, trials and executions that humanized this stories for me.

The episode also raised several questions for me that I wanted to explore and explain. In this first post looking at Anne’s fall, I want to ask whey there were no defence lawyers in sight?

Today, we are used to see trials where the accused is supported by a team of legal professionals who specialize in defence. In contrast, Anne and George Boleyn appeared in court alone and defended themselves. Was this just a decision made for dramatic impact?

Sadly, no. They were on trial accused of high treason. In the sixteenth century, men and women accused of treason would be questioned by privy councillors (in this case Thomas Cromwell is shown taking the lead, supported by Thomas Audley) and then, if they decided they should be tried for treason, it would proceed to trial. The prosecutor would present the crown’s case in front of a jury and the justices, and the accused would be able to defend themselves. The crown could produce witnesses although, in the case of Anne and George, they did not. The accused was not permitted to present witnesses or to have a lawyer.

The trial process was therefore heavily weighted against the accused and the message was clear, if there was a treason trial, then the privy council and the King wanted a guilty verdict. It must have taken considerable bravery to stand up and defend yourself knowing that it was unlikely to make any difference. George Boleyn in particular was praised for his defence which was wise and measured and admitted no guilt with some men reported to be placing 10 to 1 wagers that he would be acquitted. Even Eustace Chapuys, no lover of the Boleyns, said he spoke well but he did show contempt to the court by reading out his alleged comment about the King’s inability to copulate despite a warning not to.

In the end it made no difference: he and his sister were undoubtedly condemned before their trials began. The only ‘mercy’ shown to them was Henry VIII commuting their sentences so that, instead of the men being hung, drawn and quartered Anne being drawn and burnt, they were beheaded. Anne received the further mercy of beheading by sword, believed to be quicker and cleaner.

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