29 April 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn, a groom of the stool and a musician – The Fall of Anne Boleyn


On this day in 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn had encounters with two courtiers, her husband’s groom of the stool, Henry Norris, and court musician Mark Smeaton. The two men would soon be arrested and, of course, would be executed for treason.

Find out more about what happened on 29th April 1536, and find out about these two men, in this video.

By the way, if you’re interested in my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, you can find out more about it here.

Here’s a transcript:

On this day in 1536, 29th April, Queen Anne Boleyn had encounters with two male courtiers: a musician and her husband’s groom of the stool.
First, let me tell you a little about these men.

Mark Smeaton was a groom of the privy chamber, a court musician and a man who is described in the contemporary records as “wholly supported and clothed” by the king. He was of humble origins and was known as “Mark” at court, rather than Smeaton. This suggests that he was low in status and possibly young too. Very little else is known about him.

Sir Henry Norris was King Henry VIII’s groom of the stool and close friend. His office made him a powerful man because the groom of the stool controlled access to the king’s private chambers and was often approached by petitioners who wanted him to influence the king on their behalf. Norris’s son, also named Henry, was being educated along with Queen Anne Boleyn’s nephew and ward, Henry Carey, by the French reformist scholar Nicholas Bourbon. This suggests that Norris shared Anne’s reformed faith. Norris was also courting the Queen’s cousin and one of her ladies, Madge Shelton.

According to Mrs Stonor, one of the ladies chosen to attend Anne in her final days in the Tower, and to report back on everything she said, Anne told her that she spoke to Mark Smeaton on 29th April when she found him standing in the round window of her presence chamber. She asked him why he was so said and he replied that “it was no matter”. His sulkiness and answer appear to have annoyed the queen, for she rebuked him, reminding him of his lowly status, saying “You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man, because ye be an inferior person.” Smeaton was put in his place and replied “No, no, a look sufficeth me; and thus fare you well.”

18th century historian John Strype wonders if it was Anne’s rebuke, the way she treated him here, that led to Smeaton wanting to “take this opportunity to humble her; and revenge himself” by making a false confession. Whatever the truth of the matter, Smeaton was apprehended the next day and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s home, where he was interrogated. There, he confessed to sleeping with the queen on three separate occasions.

Anne Boleyn’s second encounter seems to have been courtly love gone wrong. Anne asked Sir Henry Norris why he was taking so long to marry her cousin and when he gave her a non-committal answer, she either rebuked him or teased him, by saying: “You look for dead men’s shoes, for if aught came to the King but good, you would look to have me”. She was suggesting that Norris was putting off marrying Madge because he wanted her instead. It was probably a reprimand or harmless teasing, after all, male courtiers were supposed to fawn over and woo the queen, she was meant to be the object of desire, the perfect woman, but Anne had mentioned the king’s death and gone too far. A horrified Norris replied that “if he [should have any such thought] he would his head were off.” Anne realised what she had said, and perhaps feared that it could be twisted by her enemies, so she ordered Norris to go to her almoner and swear an oath about her character.

Reckless words, courtly love gone too far, but certainly not evidence of an affair between Anne and Norris, or of them plotting to kill King Henry VIII. What I do find interesting is that this date and conversation are not mentioned in the indictments against Norris or Anne!

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One thought on “29 April 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn, a groom of the stool and a musician – The Fall of Anne Boleyn”
  1. Anne was definitely reckless in her encounter with Henry Norris and yes she did technically commit treason, but was that her intention? No, of course not. She was in the middle of a dangerous game of courtly love, teasing him over his courtship with his lady, Madge Sheldon, her cousin. Anne then said that Norris looked for dead men’s shoes and would want her if Henry died. Norris was naturally shocked and protested that if he entertained such a notion then his head should be removed. Anne in one of her dark humours told him this could easily be arranged. Oh dear, bad move, especially as this was probably overheard. Anne later tried to make amends and told him to go to her Almoner and tell him that she was a good woman. We don’t know if he did or not but this would only have drawn even more attention to the incident.

    Any incident like this may well have been put down to a silly row and written off with a warning but in the atmosphere created by Cromwell, it was just what he needed as an excuse to make his first move. Norris was the King’s oldest friend and he was the Groom of the Stole or Stool which doesn’t mean he wiped the Royal bottom, but he certainly attended His Majesty at this time. He had the King’s ear and was very influential. He also delegated most positions and was in charge of the King’s appointments and access to his Privy Chambers and his wardrobe. This was the most important position around Henry. Norris had full access to him. He had more access than even the Queen. Anne had put the trust of such a position in jeopardy with her stupidity. She was aware of this and tried to make things right. Norris must have felt embarrassed that evening when his duties were called for and any conversation pretty awkward. Henry would certainly have heard about it and the next day he was furious with his wife.

    The conversation with Mark Smeaton was much more innocent and only came to light during Anne’s ramblings in the Tower. She was terrified, trying to work out what had happened and why someone she hardly spoke to had been arrested as one of her alleged lovers. Anne made several hysterical and odd statements and told some detailed stories to her attendants there. These women were there to attend on her, yes, but also to act as spies for Cromwell and the King. Everything was recorded and repeated to Fitzwilliam and then on his letters to Cromwell.

    Anne merely recorded that she saw Mark around her apartments where he had obviously gone to sing for her and she noticed he looked sullen. She asked him why and he replied that it was no matter and Anne pulled his leg, asking him if he expected her, a grand person to talk to him, a person of low estate. Mark replied that he merely wanted a look from her. She was dismissive of him and yet this was taken of evidence of adultery and treason. How and why? The problem was that by the time this conversation came to light, Mark had been arrested and confessed to this whole mess, before anyone else was. He confessed to taking money and clothing from Anne as gifts, all perfectly normal for one in her service, who was a talented musician and who had performed for the King as well. He was well dressed because they appreciated him and his music. However, Cromwell turned this into treason and forced him to confess to sleeping with the Queen on at least three occasions. Then Anne’s conversation, which she had had on this fatal day, recalled in the Tower, backed up Mark’s confession in the mind of Cromwell.

    It was these two conversations which historians assume Anne and Henry were witnessed arguing about so violently the next day, at an open window, Anne with little Elizabeth in her arms. However, no arrests were made, except Mark Smeaton, who was interrogated by Cromwell at his home, before being conveyed to the Tower the next day. So maybe Henry got it out of his system and calmed down because at the May Day Joust he was in a good mood and even lent Henry Norris his own steed when his horse refused to enter the lists. It was after he received a note from Cromwell that things changed and he realised that he might have been right to have been previously outraged.

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