Sunday 30th April 1536 was a key day in the fall of Anne Boleyn as it appears to be the day when the talking and meetings turned into action.
Scottish theologian Alexander Alesius, in a letter written to Anne and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, during her reign told of an argument between the King and Queen on that Sunday:
“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.”1
Alesius did not hear what was being discussed but could it be that Anne was worried about her run-in with Sir Henry Norris, the King’s great friend and Groom of the Stool? Could she have been trying to explain herself? Or perhaps Anne had an inkling of what was going on and was confronting her husband. We will never know. However, “the protracted conference of the council” sounds ominous and at 11pm that same day the King and Queen’s upcoming visit to Calais was cancelled and arrangements made for the King to journey alone a week later:
“I wrote by Collins that the King would have been at Rochester tonight, but he has changed his mind, which was not known till Sunday at 11 o’clock, and will go to Dover next week.”2
The most ominous event, though, was the arrest of Mark Smeaton, the court musician who had been mooning over Anne the previous day. Smeaton was taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Stepney and interrogated there. Within 24 hours, he had confessed to sleeping with the Queen three times. Although The Tudors series showed Smeaton being tortured, the only evidence for this is the ‘tabloid’ Spanish Chronicle, which tells of Smeaton being tortured by a rope being gradually tightened around his head.3 No other source backs this story up, although there must have been gossip that Smeaton was tortured because Sir Henry Norris’s servant, George Constantine, wrote “the sayeing was that he was fyrst grevously racked, which I cowlde never know of a trewth.”4 There is no report of Smeaton having to be helped to the scaffold at his execution so it is unlikely that he was racked.
Why would Smeaton confess to sleeping with the Queen?
Possible reasons include:
- The fact that he did – The majority of historians believe that Anne was innocent and that she was framed. When Anne heard of his execution and how he had not retracted his confession, she was shocked: “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.”5
- That his confession was coerced – Even if he was not tortured physically, he must have been under immense psychological pressure.
- He was offered some kind of deal – We know that the King offered Norris a pardon if he confessed, so perhaps Smeaton was offered a pardon or a more merciful death by axe rather than the usual horrific traitor’s death.
- Revenge – Did he confess as revenge for the Queen’s treatment of him? She had put him in his place the previous day by humiliating him and calling him “an inferior person”.
- Was he living in a fantasy world? Did he believe that he and the Queen were actually having some kind of relationship?
There is no way of us ever knowing. My own opinion is that Smeaton was terrified and so simply said what was expected of him, his reward being a more merciful death. What do you think?
Notes and Sources
- Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth, Volume 1 – 1558-1559, note 1303.
- LP x.789
- Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England: Being a Contemporary Record of Some of the Principal Events of the Reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, written in Spanish by an Unknown Hand (The Spanish Chronicle), Translated, with Notes and Introduction by Martin A. Sharp Hume (1889), p57
- Constantine, George Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 23:64
- LP x.1036