30 April 1536 – A musician is arrested and Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have an argument – The Fall of Anne Boleyn

On 30th April 1536, court musician Mark Smeaton was arrested and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s home to be interrogated. During his interrogation, which lasted 24 hours, Smeaton confessed to sleeping with Queen Anne Boleyn.

On the same day that Smeaton was arrested, Alexander Alesius witnessed an argument between King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Find out more about these two events in this video…

On this day in 1536, court musician Mark Smeaton, a man I introduced in yesterday’s video, was arrested and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Stepney to be interrogated.

We don’t know what happened to him there, but he ended up confessing to sleeping with Anne on three different occasions.

Was he tortured? According to George Constantine, one of Henry Norris’s servants, there were rumours that Smeaton had been racked, and the Spanish Chronicle, which is not the most accurate of contemporary sources and often has to be taken with a rather large pinch of salt, records that Smeaton was tortured with a rope and cudgel. It states:
“Then he [Cromwell] called two stout young fellows of his, and asked for a rope and a cudgel, and ordered them to put the rope, which was full of knots, round Mark’s head, and twisted it with the cudgel until Mark cried out, “Sir Secretary, no more, I will tell the truth,” and then he said, “The Queen gave me the money.” “Ah, Mark, ” said Cromwell, “I know the Queen gave you a hundred nobles, but what you have bought has cost over a thousand, and that is a great gift even for a Queen to a servant of low degree such as you. If you do not tell me all the truth I swear by the life of the King I will torture you till you do.” Mark replied, “Sir, I tell you truly that she gave it to me.” Then Cromwell ordered him a few more twists of the cord, and poor Mark, overcome by the torment, cried out, “No more, Sir, I will tell you everything that has happened.” And then he confessed all, and told everything as we have related it, and how it came to pass.”

However, there is no mention of Smeaton having any visible injuries at his execution on 17th May 1536. Of course, he could have been put under immense psychological pressure or even offered a deal – “you’re being executed one way or another, but if you confess then we’ll commute your sentence to beheading”. That certainly would have been preferable to the long and painful full traitor’s death. We just don’t know what happened and never will.

Smeaton was the only one of the five men charged in May 1536 to plead guilty at his trial and he never retracted his confession, something that Anne Boleyn was shocked by. When she heard that he’d died without retracting it, she said “Has he not then cleared me of the public infamy he has brought me to? Alas, I fear his soul suffers for it, and that he is now punished for his false accusations!”

His contemporary, another courtier and member of the circle around the king and queen, poet and diplomat Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, wrote a poem about the men’s executions on 17th May 1536. He was sympathetic about Norris, Weston, Brereton and Rochford, but described Smeaton as “A rotten twig upon so high a tree”. Was this because of his false confession?

Also on 30th April 1536, King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn were recording as having an argument. Scottish theologian Alexander Alesius, who was visiting the royal court at Greenwich at the time, gave an account of what he saw on that day to the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, when she was queen. He wrote:
“Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene king your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard, when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the king was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well. Yet from the protracted conference of the council (for whom the crowd was waiting until it was quite dark, expecting that they would return to London), it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed.”

Alesius did not hear what the royal couple were arguing about. Perhaps Anne was trying to get to the bottom of what was going on at court or perhaps she was trying to explain to her husband about her encounter with his friend and groom of the stool, Sir Henry Norris, before someone else told him. Whatever the argument was about, later that night Anne and Henry’s forthcoming visit to Calais was cancelled and it was arranged that the king would travel there alone a week later, something that, of course, did not happen.

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2 thoughts on “30 April 1536 – A musician is arrested and Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have an argument – The Fall of Anne Boleyn”
  1. Poor Mark Smeaton his name in court circles really was mud amongst Anne’s friends, his confession of adultery with her three times must have been greeted with shock and horror, but we can see looking back at the situation how little choice this young man had against the brutal Tudor system of justice at the time, the Spanish Chronicle and how would they know what had really happened at Cromwells house? Gave us a step by step account of the terror he endured, but there is no proof of it and I believe what happened to young Smeaton at master secretary’s house is shrouded in mystery, what we do know is that Smeaton was no Anne Askew, he was not made of the stuff of martyrs and unlike poor Askew who had been greviously wracked, and had to be carried in a chair to the scaffold, he was able to walk with no problem and stand perfectly fine at his trial, and later at his execution, this means that some kind of mental pressure had been put on him he was just a poor boy frightened out of his life, maybe no torture was needed but the threat of torture was enough to send shivers down his spine, he could not have believed what was happening to him, no doubt the day had started well enough then the poor lad was hauled before Cromwell and was subject to vicious and relentless questioning, but at the end of the day when he left it was in chains and he was rowed to the Tower, certainly some kind of deal must have been struck between Smeaton and Cromwell, it probably did happen as Claire surmised and which many other historians have also, he did not suffer the full horror of the traitors death which due to his lowly birth, would have been his sorry lot, but he was beheaded like a gentleman the same as Weston Norris Brereton and Boleyn the queens brother, he alone confessed though Norris was somehow coerced or trapped into admitting something but later retracted, all of them went to the scaffold protesting their innocence and the queens, Anne herself could not believe her musicians confession and she found it very hard to understand that he never retracted on the scaffold, yet she would have understood that mental pressure had been put on him by her enemy Cromwell, and that he was the unfortunate scapegoat that was used to bring her and her faction down, that same day there were tensions at court as Anne walked in the gardens with her little daughter Elizabeth, maybe she was perturbed by Smeaton’s sudden disappearance but Alexander Alesuis witnessed some king of argument going on between the king and the queen, Henry was inside and talking to her through the upstairs window, sadly we have no account of what was said, as the contents would have been of such importance to historians and us eager history buffs, so like as what happened to Smeaton at Cromwells house, this argument is pure speculation, Alesuis relayed the story to Queen Elizabeth years later which must have saddened her even more on the fate of her tragic mother, Anne previously had been flirting with Norris the handsome fiancée of her cousin Madge or Mary Shelton, she foolishly gabbled about Norris marrying her if the king were dead, said in all innocence they might be, but such talk was treasonous and Anne was agitated and immediately told Norris to go to his confessor and say she was a good woman, but this chatter was overheard and got back to the ears of the king, maybe also the king had heard the foolish chatter Lady Worcester had made about the shenanigans that occurred in the queens apartments, because he was certainly angry about something and Anne it seemed was trying to placate him, Anne and Henry rowed often, Chapyus described their relationship as sunshine and storm, it had been very passionate in the early days, and Henry was noted as being more merry with Anne than with any of his other wives, but his feelings towards her like the candle flame once shone so brightly, had flickered and died, now Anne knew he was seriously angry with her, and in her stress possibly inflamed him more by denying this and that, we do not know, but we can see the tensions that must have been electrifying in that pleasant sun lit garden nearly five hundred years ago, Anne must have known she was doomed, she had had an urgent discussion with her chaplain about Elizabeth’s welfare only recently and she knew Henry had been closeted with his council lately, she had suspected maybe he was trying to end their marriage and she had not seen much of him, although outwardly he was still supporting her, however it proved to be a sham as very soon her world was to come crashing down around her, what she was totally unprepared for was what horrifying form it would take.

  2. The scene described by Alexander Alesius of Anne holding Elizabeth in her arms pleading with Henry is so evocative. Although this was written many years later, its a touching testimony about this tragic and passionate encounter, a father angered by what he has heard about the mother of his child, his wife and his friend, a frightened and desperate mother pleading her innocence and love for her husband, all to no avail. One last plea, the beautiful child they had made together, their beautiful little daughter, for her sake let them try again and that they can overcome everything. However, Henry would not be moved, not even by the sight of his child in her mother’s arms. Their marriage was over.

    The other thing which happened on this day was that Mark Smeaton, the musician was invited to the house of Thomas Cromwell and there arrested and interrogated. There are different accounts about the possibility of torture, although it wasn’t official as no warrant was issued by the King and most horror stories of routine torture under the Tudors are myths. George Constantine believed he was but he had only heard the rumours and there is no evidence that Mark was transferred to the Tower for questioning. It was the nonsense of the Spanish Chronicle which spoke of him being restrained by ropes around his forehead but there was no physical evidence on him afterwards. He was, however, questioned for a long time and no doubt a couple of ruffians stood by, just in case. As a commoner, someone of low status, Mark was an obvious target and he would normally suffer the full traitors death if convicted. The promise of beheading was enough to make certain he stuck to his story and perhaps he fantasized about sleeping with the Queen. Cromwell may well have fabricated a confession and forced him to sign it. Whatever the truth, Mark was terrified into a fatal confession, a confession which he didn’t retract even on the scaffold. It was most likely this confession Henry received inside the message he got the next day at the tournament.

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