29 April 1536 – Anne Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton

Posted By on April 29, 2016

Anne Boleyn With Rose On Saturday 29th April 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn had two separate encounters with two courtiers who would end up being accused of sleeping with her and of plotting the King’s death with her.

The first encounter was with Mark Smeaton, a groom of the privy chamber, a court musician and a man who had been “wholly supported and clothed” by the King.1 He was of humble origins and was known as “Mark” at court, rather than Smeaton, showing his lowly status and possibly his youth.

We know about Anne’s encounter with Mark from an account given by Mrs Stonor, one of the ladies chosen to attend Anne Boleyn during her imprisonment in the Tower. The ladies appointed to serve Anne at this time were to report back everything the Queen said or did to Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, who sent daily reports to Thomas Cromwell. According to Mrs Stonor, Anne said of the encounter:

“I never spake with him since, but upon Saturday before May-day [29th April], and then I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence; and I asked why he was so sad? And he answered and said it was no matter. And then I said, You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man, because ye be an inferior person. No, no, said he, a look sufficeth me; and thus fare you well.”2

As I’ve said in previous articles on this, Anne’s account suggests that Mark had a bit of a crush on her, but that the Queen put him in his place by pointing out his “inferior” status. Mark was arrested the next day and taken to Cromwell’s home for interrogation. There, he confessed to sleeping with the Queen on three separate occasions. He was the only one of the five men tried for treason in May 1536 who pleaded guilty, and he never retracted his confession. When Anne was given an account of his execution, she said “Did he not exonerate me […] before he died, of the public infamy he laid on me? Alas! I fear his soul will suffer for it.”3

Why did Mark Smeaton confess to sleeping with the Queen when the other men all denied it, and the charges against them appear impossible? Well, we just don’t know. According to the Spanish Chronicle, he was tortured, although this is not corroborated by any other contemporary source, and other theories include that he lived in a fantasy world, that he was offered a deal if he confessed (a more merciful death perhaps?), that he was scrupulous (seeing sin when there was none) or perhaps, as John Strype, the 18th century historian, ponders, it was Anne’s reaction to him on 29th April that made him want to “take this opportunity to humble her; and revenge himself”.4 It is impossible to say.

Queen Anne Boleyn’s second encounter was with Sir Henry Norris, Henry VIII’s groom of the stool and close friend. His office made him a powerful man in that he controlled access to the King’s private chambers and he was often approached by petitioners who wanted him to influence the King on their behalf. His son was being educated by the French reformist scholar Nicholas Bourbon in the company of Anne Boleyn’s nephew and ward, Henry Carey. This fact shows that Norris shared the Queen’s reformist sympathies and that he was close to the Queen. He was also courting the Queen’s cousin, Margaret (Madge) Shelton.

On 29th April, it is reported that Anne argued with Norris. Anne had asked him why he was taking so long in marrying her cousin, and when he replied that he “would tarry a time” she rebuked him, saying, “You look for dead men’s shoes, for if aught came to the King but good, you would look to have me”, thus accusing Norris of delaying his marriage to Madge because he fancied her. A horrified Norris replied that “if he [should have any such thought] he would his head were off.”5 It had started off as a game of courtly love, where a knight was meant to woo his queen and be a little in love with her, but ended up with Anne speaking recklessly of the King’s death, something which could be construed as treason. This is why Norris was horrified by her words and also why Anne then ordered him to go to her almoner and swear an oath about her character. I think Anne knew that there was a plot against her and realised that she had just handed her enemy some ammunition. However, it is clear from her words that Anne was reprimanding the courtier for looking to replace the King, not plotting with him to kill the King.

You can find out more about courtly love in the following articles:

Notes and Sources

  1. Nicholas, Nicholas Harris (1827) The privy purse expenses of King Henry the Eighth, from November 1529, to December 1532: with introductory remarks and illustrative notes, William Pickering, London, Introductory Remarks, XXXI
  2. Cavendish, George (1825) The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume 2, Samuel Weller Singer, p.37.
  3. Letters & Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X, 1036.
  4. Strype, John (1816) Ecclesiastical Memorials Relating Chiefly to Religion, and the Reformation of It, and the Emergencies of the Church of England, Under King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, and Queen Mary I, Volume I, 436.
  5. L&P X, 793.

9 thoughts on “29 April 1536 – Anne Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton”

  1. Brenda says:

    It seems to me that it could be possible that the reason for Mark’s sadness in the first place was because he already knew there was something afoot against Anne. That’s why he said to her ” thus fare thee well”.

    1. bruno says:

      Hi Brenda, your assumption is very interesting.
      But I don’t really understand the words “thus fare thee well”. Ancient form ?
      Do you mean it was a way for Smeaton to take his queen’s adieus ?
      Or just to wish her the best ? Or was he only in need to show his own sorrows, not to be given a closer access to her ?

      1. Brenda says:

        Hmmm, Bruno all three seem possible, but also I took it to mean “Fare ” thee well , as in “be careful? ” I mean that’s just how it spoke to me when I read it.

        1. Brenda says:

          I meant “thus fare you well” . In my mind in today’s language, she asks him why he appears sad, he says “no matter” refusing to acknowledge the reason, (probably because he’s sad knowing what may be to come for her) but she thinks he’s sad because she’s ignored him or something so she makes a sort of excuse and lightly jokes about why she can’t speak to him like she does more noble courtiers, just basically being polite and concerned, and then he says “no, no, ( as if saying, no no , that’s not the reason I’m sad) then he says “Thus fare you well, as if he’s warning her to be careful. Of course I could be way off base. But in my opinion anything is possible.

        2. bruno says:

          Thank you Brenda, for I have some difficulties to translate from English.
          And when the form is rather ancient, I am even more lost.
          Yes, it is most interesting because, if Mark Smeaton had been aware of charges against his queen, it can bring a different light even on the reports of the ladies in attendance, (just an assumption), but I am not subtle enough (or my english is not good enough, rather) to make a clear point on that.
          Anything is possible, you are right, even a young hot-tempered man, playing dangerous game and showing a sadness he indeed feels for being rebuffed by his “mistress”

  2. bruno says:

    Claire, thank you for telling us about these “final encounters” for I was not at all aware that the ladies in attendance had reported so much about them .
    I (and please forgive the poor referrings of mine) remember the serial “the Six Wives of Henry VIII”, when Mark Smeaton was being tortured with a rope, whose knots were set around his eyes – but it makes me wonder : if the “Spanish Chronicle” spread such rumors, doesn’t it kind of indicate that even Spaniards would not believe a word in Smeaton’s confessions ?
    Anyway, “Wolf Hall” seems more accurate than another serial “The Tudors” (showing this man as a gay partner of George Boleyn; a witch’s brother could well be a sodomite, I guess).
    It however shows Mark as a mere dreamer, suffering from an inferiority complex (well, feeling that at any rate, he was more worthy than the gentlemen surrounding “his” queen), in a way it could match with John Strype’s version as well. (but I confess that Anne’s character in this serial is much disappointing in my opinion, she seems stiff and gaunt, shallow and temperamental, not charming at all)
    Those feelings are very common among men being given the chance of an access to their “idol” (a beautiful lady of first rank),people now known as erotomaniac or obsessional personalties and proving dangerous when opposed firm refusal.
    Both cases (Mark and Norris) remind me of Pierre de Bocsozel de Châtelard, grandson to the knight of Bayard, who entered Mary Stuart’s Chamber (and in due course was beheaded for his audacity; a first alert was not enough for the fool, grown bold instead at the queen’s lenient reaction to his first attempt).
    All that – and overall with Norris’ case – has to do with courtly love indeed.
    Some men did not know how to master the thing.
    Henry Norris, not an humble commoner but a high-rank courtier, was more conscious of these limits, it seems.
    I still find terrible that before the 29th of april, no sturdy charges could be raised against the queen – her joke about a “dead man’s shoes” was well matching with what we know about her temper, but for Cromwell, nothing was harmless in order to get rid of a dangerous rival

  3. Esther Sorkin says:

    I think it likely that Smeaton was threatened with torture … and with hanging, drawing and quartering instead of beheading. After all, low born Frances Dereham was hung, drawn and quartered for his relationship with Katherine Howard, when that occurred prior to her marriage to Henry but higher born Culpepper got beheaded, when he was closeted alone with Katherine after her marriage.

    1. bruno says:

      Hi Esther Sorkin,
      These tortures are so horrible that such a threat was enough to bring anyone’s confession indeed.
      And you are fully right in that we know that Cromwell and his men would not have been shy in using their “right” to torture commoners in order to have high-born persons beheaded.
      On the other hand, Culpepper’s word (accusing his queen and cousin of having been harrassing him) was enough to show him sort of a cad – and a coward even if I was not at his place of course – but not to save his own head.
      I still feel like the words exchanged between Anne and the two men did matter – and it might be why they have been reported by the ladies in attendance, when questioned .
      It seems to me that, before these encounters, nothing could lead to the queen’s execution.
      Henry Norris, about 20 years older than the queen, was at first rate, not an ideal suspect.
      But I kind of guess, that Mark, much younger and rash, could very well attract any accusator’s attention .
      His obvious infatuation, his unthinking temper could cast some suspicion.
      And being so close to a much admired lady, he could very well have been imagining immoderate things, boasting about fancied prowess.
      Anyway, I know it is hard to admit that these harmless exchanges would kill the protagonists

  4. BanditQueen says:

    While Anne’s comments to Mark Smeaton can be seen as flirting, in fact in less dangerous and tense times it would have been merely part of the courtly love thing. But, these are not normal times and everything is already against Anne so this innocent conversation is used by her enemies against her as evidence of nonsense. Smeaton probably was tortored; although not on warrant, so not officially, by Cromwell while in his home or at the Tower, the sources are not in agreement and are not clear on this point, but torture was sometimes authorized to get more information and names. Status could protect against torture, but Mark was not a gentleman and was an easy target. Cromwell could be persuasive in any event and even the threat of torture may have resulted in a confession.

    The remarks that Anne made to Henry Norris, however, were dangerous and foolish, which Anne clearly understood and were treason under the new treason laws, which were ironically introduced to protect the Queen from slander and false accusations and Henry’s marriage to her. Anne knew she had made a mistake and took her foolish words back, sending Norris to her almoner to swear she was a good woman. An almoner was some kind of clergy so he would have been able to help Anne and give testimony to her being honest and chaste. Anne may have started out joking, but she did not always think before she spoke and her tongue in prison would get her and Norris into trouble. Words alone may not be enough to convict her, but enough words from enough people certainly would.

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