Mark Smeaton

Mark Smeaton was born in about 1512. Alison Weir, has argued that it almost certain that he was not born into the "higher-classes". (1) Smeaton originally joined the choir of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. However, in 1529 he joined the King's Privy Chamber. He was a talented musician and a "deft dancer". It is also claimed that he was "a very handsome man." (2)

It was claimed by one witness that in April 1536, Smeaton had an intimate conversation with Anne Boleyn in the Throne Room. Anne was supposed to have said: "Why are you so sad? He replied, "It was no matter". Then he told her that he was in love with her. She told him off: "You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a nobleman, because you be an inferior person." (3)

Mark Smeaton & Anne Boleyn

It was at this time that Henry VIII approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne. He suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. Philippa Jones has pointed out: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession." (4)

Mark Smeaton was arrested and interrogated at the house of Cromwell. He eventually broke down and confessed to having a sexual relationship with Anne Boleyn. David Loades has suggested that the story was "certainly fictitious, and probably a fantasy produced by psychological pressure". (5) Peter Ackroyd, the author of Tudors (2012) believes that Smeaton was tortured on the rack. (6) This is based on the evidence provided by George Constantyne he was "greviously racked for almost four hours". (7) Cromwell now had the evidence he needed. Another courtier, Henry Norris, was arrested on 1st May. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber. (8)

Thomas Cromwell took this opportunity to destroy George Boleyn. He had always been close to his sister and in the circumstances it was not difficult to suggest to Henry that an incestuous relationship had existed. George was arrested on 2nd May, 1536, and taken to the Tower of London. It has been argued: "Both self control and a sense of proportion seem to have been completely abandoned, and for the time being Henry would believe any evil that he was told, however farfetched." (9)

Trial and Execution

On 12th May, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, as High Steward of England, presided over the trial of Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton at Westminster Hall. (10) Except for Smeaton they all pleaded not guilty to all charges. Thomas Cromwell made sure that a reliable jury was empanelled, consisting almost entirely of known enemies of the Boleyns. "These were not difficult to find, and they were all substantial men, with much to gain or lose by their behaviour in such a conspicuous theatre". (11)

Few details survive of the proceedings. Witnesses were called and several spoke of Anne Boleyn's alleged sexual activity. One witness said that there was "never such a whore in the realm". At the end of the trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the four men were condemned by Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley to be drawn, hanged, castrated and quartered. Eustace Chapuys claimed that Brereton was "condemned on a presumption, not by proof or valid confession, and without any witnesses." (12)

George and Anne Boleyn were tried two days later in the Great Hall of the Tower. In Anne's case the verdict already pronounced against her accomplices made the outcome inevitable. She was charged, not only with a whole list of adulterous relationships going back to the autumn of 1533, but also with poisoning Catherine of Aragon, "afflicting Henry with actual bodily harm, and conspiring his death." (13)

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George Boleyn was charged with having sexual relations with his sister at Westminster on 5th November 1535. However, records show she was with Henry on that day in Windsor Castle. Boleyn was also accused of being the father of the deformed child born in late January or early February, 1536. (14) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne. (15)

George and Anne Boleyn were both found guilty of all charges. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who presided over the trial left it to the King to decide whether Anne should be beheaded or burned alive. Between sentence and execution, neither admitted guilt. Anne declared herself ready to die because she had unwittingly incurred the King's displeasure, but grieved, as Eustace Chapuys reported, for the innocent men who were also to die on her account." (16)

On 17th May, 1536, Mark Smeaton and the other four condemned men were executed on Tower Hill, their sentences commuted from being hung, drawn and quartered. George Boleyn exercised the condemned man's privilege of addressing the large crowd which always gathered for public executions. "Masters all, I am come hither not to preach and make a sermon but to die, as the law hath found me, and to the law I submit me." (17)

Primary Sources

(1) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992)

Mark Smeaton, the musician and "deft dancer" in the King's chamber, was lured away from the court at Greenwich and arrested on Sunday 30 April. Possibly he was tortured. This was no nobleman, to be treated with circumspection, but a young man of humble origins (perhaps Flemish - his name may have been originally de Smet or de Smedt). Smeaton had nothing to support him except his musical talent - the royal accounts show payments for his shirts, hose and shoes, and `bonnets' since 1529 - that, and the fact that by a general agreement he was "a very handsome man".

(2) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

The most remarkable inclusion in the list of Anne's supposed lovers was the musician, Mark Smeaton, whose name excited the most comment when the charges were made public. Anne's contemporaries wondered how she could ever have stooped so low. Hence we may conclude that Smeaton was not of gentle birth and had risen so far only on account of his musical talent. Of all the men accused, he would be the only one to admit his guilt, almost certainly under duress: it is possible, but not provable, that he suffered torture. Catholic writers would later make much of Anne's supposed intrigue with Smeaton, and Mary Tudor herself believed that the musician was Elizabeth's real father.

Anne certainly knew all these men except Smeaton well. Yet before April 1536, there is nothing in the records to suggest that her relations with them were anything other than circumspect. She knew her movements were watched, and she was no fool; it is inconceivable that she would have risked her crown and her life for the sake of casual sex with any man who took her fancy.

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(1) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 312

(2) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 242

(3) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 565

(4) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 25

(5) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 80

(6) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 94

(7) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 569

(8) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 227

(9) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 81

(10) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 324

(11) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(12) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 324

(13) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(14) Eric William Ives, Anne Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 227

(16) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(17) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 253