The Tudor Society

11 April 1554 – The Execution of Thomas Wyatt the Younger

SirThomasWyattTheYoungerOn the 11th April 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger was beheaded and then his body quartered for treason, for leading Wyatt's Rebellion against Queen Mary I.

Wyatt had already shown his opposition to Mary when he supported Lady Jane Grey’s claim to the throne after the death of Edward VI – he escaped punishment that time – but he felt compelled to act when he found out about Mary I’s plans to marry King Philip II of Spain.
The plan was to have a series of uprisings in the South, Southwest, Welsh Marches and Midlands, and then a march on London to overthrow the government, block the Spanish marriage, dethrone Mary and replace her with her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, who would marry Edward Courtenay. Unfortunately for Wyatt, other rebel leaders like the Duke of Suffolk (Lady Jane Grey’s father) and the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey (who had nothing to do with the revolt), the plan failed.

The government was alerted to the plots when Sir Peter Carew refused a summons to court and Ambassador Renard heard that a French fleet was assembling off Normandy. Courtenay was interviewed by his mentor Stephen Gardiner, and divulged everything. When the rebels learned that Mary knew of their plans, they did not give up, instead deciding to spring into action, with three out of the four planned provincial revolts going ahead. They were a failure due to the lack of organisation. However, Sir Thomas Wyatt did manage to raise a considerable “army” in Kent, but his delay in marching on London gave Mary a chance to rally her troops.

On the 1st February 1554, Mary gave a speech to the City government in the Guildhall, reminding them that she was England’s queen, that she was “wedded to the realm and the laws”, that she was the true heir to the throne, her father’s daughter, and that she loved her people. She said:

“On the word of a prince, I cannot tell how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never mother of any. But certainly, if a prince and governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects, as the mother doth the child, then assure yourselves, that I being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favour you.”

According to diarist Henry Machyn, Mary ended the speech by saying that:

“She never intended to marry out of the realm, but by her council’s consent and advice. And that she would never marry but all her true subjects shall be content.”

This rousing speech of half lies worked their magic and won over the people. When Wyatt arrived at Southwark on 3rd of February, he found it barricaded and guarded. A few days later, he tried entering the City from Kingston, and was successful. As they entered the City, the rebels split, and although they were now at a disadvantage, having split into groups, a group of them still managed to scare off the Queen’s Guards near the Holbein Gate. However, by the time Wyatt and his troops reached Ludgate, Mary’s force had gathered their wits and closed the gates. Mary’s troops far outnumbered the rebels and, with his men surrendering around him and no hope of winning, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger surrendered and was captured. Wyatt was taken to the Tower of London.

Not only did Wyatt’s Rebellion lead to his execution and the shadow of the axe hanging over Elizabeth’s neck for many months, but it sealed the fate of Lady Jane Grey who had been kept in the Tower since Mary seized the throne from her in July 1553. On 12th February 1554, Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed, a tragic end to Lady Jane’s short life and a frightening event for Elizabeth who knew she would be implicated in Wyatt’s Rebellion, and who had a very shaky relationship with her half-sister, Mary.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was tried at Westminster Hall on 15th March. He denied plotting the Queen’s death and would only admit to sending Elizabeth a letter to which she replied (though not in writing) “that she did thank him much for his good will, and she would do as she should see cause.” He did not implicate her in any other way.

Wyatt was found guilty and sentenced to death, but his execution was delayed for a time – it is thought that the Queen’s advisers hoped that Wyatt would still implicate Elizabeth in an attempt to escape execution.

On 11th April 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt was led out to the scaffold, making the following speech before being beheaded, his body quartered and his innards and genitals burned:

“And whereas it is said and whistled abroad that I should accuse my lady Elizabeth’s grace and my lord Courtenay; it is not so, good people. For I assure you neither they nor any other now in yonder hold or durance was privy of my rising or commotion before I began. As I have declared no less to the queen’s council. And this is most true.”

His head and the quarters of his body were then taken to Newgate where they were parboiled, nailed up and the head placed on a gibbet at St James’s. It is not known what happened to his head, as it disappeared from the gibbet.

Here are links for Tudor Society members interested in reading more about Wyatt's Rebellion:

(Extract from On This Day in Tudor History, Claire Ridgway)

There are 5 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    Wasn’t planning much was he? How did he even know Elizabeth would want to marry Courtney who was handsome, but some accounts say he was retarded. He was also a Catholic, so was Elizabeth going to change her religious beliefs? Then he has to just overturn the government, replace Mary with Elizabeth and hey presto utopia. The rising was poorly organised and lost support in the end. Mary was popular and masterfully appealed to her people as a mother and their lady. Notice the coronation ring and being married to her people. Elizabeth used this later as her famous I am already married speech. Just what did Wyatt intend to do with Mary? Presumably he intended to kill her. Wyatt wasn’t going to get away with this overly ambitious scheme. Mary was also remarkably merciful as the majority of people were pardoned, including a number of prominent people, initially caught up in the whole rebellion. Peter Carew, John Russell and Edward Courtney, who squealed were all pardoned. As the instigator and leader, Wyatt had to die, that’s the way it was. Mary had pardoned one bunch of rebels and traitors as she saw it, many of whom then joined this rebellion, foolishly and she wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. Mary had previously pardoned Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, Lady Jane’s father for his involvement in putting Jane on the throne but he supported the Wyatt conspiracy. Suffolk’s daughter and son in law were in the Tower, already under sentence of death. It has been speculated that because Jane had been given more freedom in the Tower that Mary was contemplating a pardon. Her father’s action, however, naturally raised alarm bells and Mary was advised to execute Guildford Dudley and Jane as well as her father. Wyatt was guilty of rebellion and treason, plotting to depose and possibly kill the rightful Queen for his own agenda, even though in his mind he had a good reason and this was normally the punishment for rebels. As the leader and instigator Wyatt was bound to be executed, but he was spared the worst of the punishment, being beheaded before he was quarted. The one thing he did do was to protect Princess Elizabeth and deny her involvement in the plot. However, Wyatt did contact Elizabeth, she may or may not have known fully what he was up to, but she was arrested and investigated and denied everything. Elizabeth was housed in the royal apartments in the Tower, which given her mother had been held here before her execution would have been nerve racking. No evidence was found and Elizabeth was released to house arrest in Woodstock palace in Oxfordshire before release to her home at Hatfield. There is of course debate over the alleged knowledge or involvement of Elizabeth, but given the circumstances when Mary was faced with this as a realistic possibility, she was perfectly justified in putting her half sister in the Tower until she was cleared.

  2. P

    Well in response to your opinion of Thomas Wyatt concerning Wyaats rebellion. He is the first in his family to become a Protestant according to records so he was not a Catholic. By the time Mary became queen England had been protestant for years at this point . King Edward was concerned of his sister Mary’s reign before he died and Queen Mary wasn’t nick named Bloody Mary without reason. She burned anyone at the stake that would not convert to the Catholic faith. She also didn’t like her sister Elizabeth much so many claim Mary used any excuse possible to in prison her.

    1. C - Post Author

      Paula, when RealTudorLady wrote “He was also a Catholic, so was Elizabeth going to change her religious beliefs?” I believe she was referring to Edward Courtenay, not Wyatt.
      Mary I did indeed burn Protestants, but don’t forget that Elizabeth executed Catholic priests and those who harboured them and supported them.

      1. P

        The impression is that Wyatt was who they were referring to as he is mentioned throughout the comment and Edward Courtney is only briefly mentioned. My comment on Mary was only to state that she wasn’t a saint any more than her father brother or sister were. The commenter makes it sound as if there was no reason for the rebellion and what did they expect Mary to do. I don’t have a positive or negative opinion of Mary either way as they all have done (Mary seemed to have a lot of anger over the years of her treatment and towards her mother and her faith which I would understand her anger) but my point is that you also have to remember when Mary became queen , England had been a Protestant nation for many years at this point so it would be natural for a rebellion.

        1. R

          Hi Paul, yes, I was referring to Edward Courtney, not Wyatt and believe that is clear but if it isn’t thanks for pointing that out.

          I was being sarcastic when I said, he wasn’t planning much was he?

          His rebellion was because he was a Protestant, that is true, but it had more to do with the Queen marrying Philip of Spain, because they were concerned about how he would rule in England. It wasn’t a necessary rebellion in hindsight because Mary ensured Philip didn’t have much impact, although if she became pregnant he would have to step in. The situations were far more complex because England had never had a Queen before. Jane was only Queen for 13 days but we were now several months into the reign of Mary I. Most of her subjects were actually Catholic and supported her religious policies. I am not condoning the burning of people at the stake, but it has to be put into context and you are correct, her father and sister were far worse. I wouldn’t call Elizabeth “Bloody Elizabeth” so yes, I do believe Mary is unfairly called BM as she was far more merciful to traitors than any other Tudor . She pardoned those who tried to keep her from the throne and most of those in this rebellion as well, which collapsed when it reached the capital as Mary had rallied her people behind her.

          The country wasn’t Protestant and had never been Protestant, despite the enforcement of reform under Edward and the Lord Protector. It hadn’t even been Reformed for “many years” . The First Prayer Book was 1549, the second 1552 and the majority of people didn’t want them, which is why waves of ordinary people rebelled against them and thousands of people were slaughtered under Northumberland and others in the West Country, Kent, East Anglia and other parts of the South. Mary was welcomed to the throne and in fact she introduced education and preaching first before her laws were enforced. Again nobody said Mary was a saint, nobody condoned brutal executions, but one has to be more balanced when analysing history.

          King Philip was the best choice available at the time because Spain offered an alliance against France. If Mary had been a man nobody would have told her whom she should marry and much of it had to do with fears about a woman ruling as well as religious and political concerns.

          There is no evidence that Mary would have gone to any lengths to get rid of Elizabeth who remained the legal heir until Mary had a child. As Mary had every hope of a child in 1554, there is nothing to say that she should change that. Mary had treated Elizabeth well and it was her sister’s own behaviour which was suspicious. Her council wanted Elizabeth executed, Mary actually said no and imprisoned her for the time being. From her point of view Elizabeth was involved in a plot to kill her and they were half siblings not full. She agonized over what to do with her, what to believe. Yes, she didn’t reply to her letter, so what? Which monarch replied to letters from those who were suspected of treason. Edward iv had his brother killed for treason, nobody ever condemned him, but it’s always poor Elizabeth. She was suspected of treason by her brother’s Council and questioned for days. She wasn’t put in the Tower, but she could have been. What if it was the other way around? Nobody really knows if Elizabeth was innocent or not, even though Wyatt cleared her. Elizabeth would go on to execute her cousins, to execute several hundreds in 1572 after the Northern Rebellion, to persecute Catholics and to cause wars with Spain and Ireland. She is only given a better press because she lived longer and ruled for longer and carved out a legacy. Elizabeth would never have become Queen had Mary not given the gender neutral status of the monarchy respect and dignity.

          Yes, I am aware of why Jane was chosen by Edward, because he set both of his sisters aside, not just Mary, one for her faith, both as legally illegitimate. However, they were both lawfully in the line of succession. He over looked Jane’s mother and chose first of all Jane’s male heirs but he was dying, so he changed the Device to Jane and any male heirs. The Judges agreed as did the reluctant Council. However, Parliament didn’t meet until September so it wasn’t ratified. When Edward died his Device was put into practice but Mary had the support as the true heir, the daughter of King Henry. Eric Ives makes a good case for Jane but the English Law Society make the legal case for Mary. She was the natural heir and in fact she tried not to execute Jane. This rebellion which involved her father, after he had been pardoned once, sealed her fate.


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11 April 1554 – The Execution of Thomas Wyatt the Younger