Elizabeth Wood, married to Robert Wood, lived in Aylsham. In 1529 Henry VIII sent a message to Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to sort the situation out. Rumours soon began circulating about Henry's plan to divorce Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. It was reported by Cardinal Jean du Bellay in May 1529 that Catherine had the support of the majority of women living in England at the time. "If the matter were to be decided by women, he (Henry VIII) would lose the battle, for they did not fail to encourage the queen (Catherine of Aragon) at her entrance and departure by their cries, telling her to care for nothing, and other such words." (1)
George Cavendish, who was a member of Cardinal Wolsey's household later wrote that "the world began to be full of wonderful rumours not heard of before in this realm". This mainly concerned "the long hid and secret love between the king and Mistress Anne Boleyn" and this "began to break out into every man's ears". (2) The chronicler, Edward Hall, confirmed this and commented that there was growing hostility towards a "gentlewoman in the court called Anne Boleyn". (3)
At the end of 1532 Henry discovered that Anne Boleyn was pregnant. He realised he could not afford to wait for the Pope's permission. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead on 25th January, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England. Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. (4)
In an attempt to gain support for his new queen, Henry VIII insisted on Parliament passing the 1534 Treason Act. The Act specified that all those were guilty of high treason who: “do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king's most royal person, the queen's or the heirs apparent, or to deprive them of any of their dignity, title or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown." (5)
In 1536 a proclamation was issued in support of the Treason Act. It attacked "devilish and slanderous persons" who were spreading "slanderous, false, and detestable rumours, tales, and lies". It called on all loyal subjects to "apprehend all and every such person and persons that they can prove to have bruited or set forth any forged false rumours, tales, and lies". The proclamation made it clear that punishment for those found guilty of the offence would be severe: "They shall not only bring upon themselves the vengeance and indignation of God, to the peril and damnation of their souls, but also give us just cause to proceed against such rebels with our most royal power and force, to the utter destruction of them, their wives, and children." (6)
A group of people based in Norfolk were convicted on 25th May, 1537, of treason and sentenced to be hanging, drawing, beheading, and quartering. It was claimed that they were active in and around Walsingham. Their crimes included spreading rumours about Anne Boleyn. Over the next few days Nigel Mileham, the sub-prior of Walsingham Priory, John Semble, a mason, Ralph Rogerson, a farmer, William Guisborough, a merchant, George Guisborough, a yeoman peasant, Thomas Howse, a husbandman, Thomas Manne, a carpenter, Andrew Pax, a parish clerk, John Pecock, a friar, John Sellers, a tailor and Richard Henley, a plumber, were executed. (7) Richard Southwell reported to Thomas Cromwell that all the men confessed to the crime. "So lying on the hurdles, both by the way and at the place of execution, they exhorted the people, who by reason of Trinity Fair that day, were very numerous to take example by them." (8)
Southwell continued with his investigation and on 28th May he was given evidence that Elizabeth Wood was involved in this conspiracy. John Bettes and Thomas Oakes claimed that "Elizabeth Wood, the wife of Robert Wood of Aylsham" had said "certain traitorous words". They told Southwell that Wood had visited a shop owned by John Dix and had expressed support for the men found guilty of treason in Walsingham. She was, they said, "resting upon the shop windows of John Dix" when she spoke about these matters. Apparently she said "it was a pity that these Walsingham men were discovered, for we shall have never good world till we fall together by the ears, and with clubs and clouted shone/shall the deeds be done, for we had never good world since this king reigned. It is pity that he filed any clouts more than one." Wood was found guilty of treason on 26th July and executed soon afterwards. (9)
Elizabeth Wood was not one of the conspirators involved in planning what was to be a rising in Norfolk, but she was caught up in the investigation nonetheless, and she lost her life as a result of what she said about the planned rising....
According to Sir John Heydon's report, two constables from the town of Aylsham, John Bettes (a "worsted weaver") and Thomas Oakes, had presented themselves before him and Sir James Boleyn on the previous day, 28 May. The two were reporting "one Elizabeth Wood, the wife of Robert Wood of Aylesham" for publicly speaking "certain traitorous words as followeth."
According to Bettes and Oakes, John Dix and William Jeckes were responsible for the accusations against Elizabeth Wood. On 12 May, while the Walsingham conspirators were being held awaiting trial, Elizabeth Wood had spoken to Dix and Jeckes in Dix's shop. She was, they said, "resting upon the shop windows of the said John Dix" when she spoke. According to the two accusers, Elizabeth had commented that "it was pity that these Walsingham men were discovered, for we shall have never good world till we fall together by the ears, and 'with clubs and clouted shone/shall the deeds be done, for we had never good world since this king reigned. It is pity that he filed any clouts more than one."