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30 April 1536 – The arrest of musician Mark Smeaton

Posted By on April 30, 2017

Mark Smeaton On this day in history, court musician Mark Smeaton was arrested and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Stepney to be interrogated.

It is not known what happened to Smeaton at Cromwell’s house. The Spanish Chronicle records that he was tortured with a rope and cudgel:

“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.”1

However, there is no further evidence to back up this report and The Spanish Chronicle is not the most reliable of sources. George Constantine, one of Henry Norris’s servants, said that “the sayeing was that he was fyrst grevously racked, which I cowlde never know of a trewth”,2 but Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, wrote that Mark confessed without being tortured.3 Whatever happened, within twenty-four hours of his arrest Mark Smeaton had confessed to having sexual relations with Queen Anne Boleyn three times.

Smeaton never retracted his confession and when Anne Boleyn heard that he’d gone to his death 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!” Thomas Wyatt the Elder, in his poem about the men’s executions on 17th May 1536, described Smeaton as “A rotten twig upon so high a tree” and perhaps this was because of Smeaton’s confession.4

Also on Sunday 30th April 1536, according to Alexander Alesius, the Scottish theologian who was visiting the English court at Greenwich Palace, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had an argument. He couldn’t hear what it was about but it was clear to him that the King was angry – click here to read more.

Notes and Sources

Picture: Mark Smeaton in “The Tudors” series.

  1. Hume, Martin. Chronicle of King Henry VIII. of England, 57.
  2. George Constantine in Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 23:64.
  3. Ascoli, Georges. La Grande-Bretagne Devant L’opinion Française Depuis La Guerre De Cent Ans Jusqu’à La Fin Du XVIe Siècle.
  4. From Thomas Wyatt the Elder’s poem “In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase”.

6 thoughts on “30 April 1536 – The arrest of musician Mark Smeaton”

  1. Clare says:

    It was those deadly Christmas decorations which did it! No one can overcome the terror of tinsel.

  2. Christine says:

    Smeaton must have been absolutely terrified, he would have had no idea whatsoever what was going on and his confession to his alleged adultery has brought him little sympathy over the years, what did really go on at Cromwells house, was he tortured, there not may have been actual physical torture but verbal bullying, which could have carried the threat of torture with it, how many men would be so brave? he was just a young lad from the country and was enjoying his position as the queens musician, she favoured him because of his music and his lovely voice, he mixed with the cream of English society and Anne in gratitude for his services bestowed gifts upon him, he was the ideal scapegoat for Cromwell as he was not noble born, he had no powerful family connections, it is easy to see why he was picked on and he was doomed, in 24 hours he had confessed to illicit relations with the queen and implicated four others or did he? When a person is arrested today the police interrogate him/ her for hours and it can last for weeks, they try to catch them out and eventually people trip up and confess and implicate others, but what really happened at Henrys chief ministers house in Stepney that April day in 1536, Cromwell must have mentioned the men in her circle and promised him he would not be tortured if he confessed he had seen anything going on, he brought pressure to bear on him and said he would die for being a traitor but promised him he would suffer the noble death by axe and not the dreadful hanging drawing and quartering, he then told him he must not retract his statement or he would suffer the full horrific penalty, hence I believe the real reason he never retracted on the scaffold, the fact that this young lad brought to ruin a Queen of England and four men has made his name appear like mud, as Wyatt said in his sad ballad, ‘a rotten twig’ but we must not judge him too harshly, he was not at fault here but Cromwell, that master of circumstance, he too has suffered, he did not want to betray the queen who was his mistress, he was loyalty bound to her and knew he had brought infamy on her name and others including himself, if he was guilty of anything it was just the very human trait of terror, some people call it cowardice but there is nothing to be ashamed of in being afraid of the threat of torture, as I believe he was threatened with that. up till this moment Smeaton had probably never spoken to Cromwell and his sudden arrest would have filled him with the most dreadful shock and trauma, when Anne herself was arrested she babbled and was quite incoherent, shock can do that, it could be that Smeaton babbled to and here words can be misconstrued, perhaps he mentioned Weston Brereton and Smeaton because Anne had also given them gifts and Cromwell knew they were in Annes circle, Cromwell then pushed and pushed till in the end they were all adulterers, there must be some reason why they were singled out, Cromwell knew these men and although one of them had dealings in the north which Cromwell was not pleased with why was Norris ever mentioned, Cromwell knew he was one of the kings oldest and closest friends, his groom of the stool, both Weston and Brereton were happily married as I mentioned previously, but they were in Annes circle which made adultery easier and it mattered not to master secretary who fell with Anne as long as she fell and fast, that Spring morning in 1536 Smeaton woke up and no doubt thought it was a day like any other, at the close of it he was lying in a cell in that most formidable fortress the Tower Of London his world finished, his reputation in ruins his death imminent and he had slandered his mistress and five decent men, because of him he knew they to would suffer death, as I mentioned we must not judge him harshly, his only crime was being an easy target for Cromwells and the Kings cruel policies.

  3. Banditqueen says:

    Mark Smeaton was an easy target for Thomas Cromwell. He sang for the Queen, although employed by the King, was given presents for his services to both, jewellery and clothing and unlike the other men, he was something of an outsider, below them in rank. Not a lot was known about his origins, but if he was foreign, then maybe this also made him a target for Cromwell. Many foreigners came to court and were employed, but like today that doesn’t mean they were universally welcomed. It was normal to pay royal service with gifts of clothing, money, jewellery and even land, depending on how much favour they received. There was no reason Anne wouldn’t give Smeaton money for fine clothing. He had to be clothed richly to fit in at court and as his station advanced. Cromwell picked his target well, young, an outsider and a servant, totally depending on patronage.

    When Cromwell invited the young man to dinner he must have thought his fortunes were even better than before. Cromwell may have noticed him and could advance his cause with Anne or Henry. Anne, however, had rebuked Smeaton for looking all moo eyed after her and sad, for he was sighing about her and lounging about the place. She said she could not speak to him as he was a lowly person and he said he desired a look only. We don’t know but this conversation could have been relayed to Cromwell, who was looking for any means to get evidence to help Henry end his marriage.

    Even if Mark was not officially tortured, and such things needed a warrant from the King, there is nothing to stop unofficial methods of restraint for interrogation being used. As above we can see it’s unclear if he was tortured, but he certainly was questioned for more than 24 hours, possibly without food or rest and but a little water. This would cause confusion, make him weak and open to suggestions, have hallucinations, suffer sensory deprivation and believe anything. His brain would be in turmoil. It is possible that he was promised his life or a lighter quicker death than hanging drawing and questioning and he accepted he had committed adultery. He also named Sir Henry Norris, ironically, who had been involved in the dead man’s shoes incident the day before. This conversation was not used in evidence against Henry Norris or Anne, but taken together with being named here, you can see why it may lead to his arrest after the tournament the next day.

    It is often wondered why Mark Smeaton didn’t recant his confession but I simply believe that he was so terrified that he believed what he had said and he believed he would face a worst fate if he recanted. Even though on the scaffold nobody could change the sentence of beheading back but the King as only he could commute the sentence in the first place, Mark appeared to be under the control of Cromwell and probably was. Maybe he also felt so ashamed and guilty he couldn’t go back having already crossed the line and betrayed everyone he owed his career to. Without more information we can only guess, but personally I still feel sorry for him after what he may have been through.

    1. Christine says:

      Yes he was said to be mooning after Anne because she said to him ‘you must not look me to speak to you as you are a lowly person’ sounds very snobbish in this day and age, and he said ‘no no madam a look sufficeth’, but she was just reminding him of his position, he was her servant and she the queen, yes quite possibly Norris was brought into it because of that conversation with Anne it did sound suspicious but as we believe, it was just Anne being reckless, the fact that Norris was shocked by her choice of words proclaims his innocence and Henry pulled him aside and promised him a pardon if he confessed to adultery with her, but Norris was a man of honour and he was shocked by what Henry said to him, Henrys reaction is strange as he seems to actually want Norris to confess, he then gave orders for him to be arrested and he to ended up in the Tower, a friend of many years standing and someone who had held the exalted position of groom of the stool, did Henry have any qualms about that I wonder, he knew Norris and must have known deep down he must be telling the truth, did he really believe Anne had betrayed him and was shocked and horrified when Cromwell presented him with the so called evidence? Or did he congratulate him when now he knew he had good reason to discard her and no one could blame him? I believe it was a bit of both, he had fallen violently in love with Anne years before and he had to fend of another suitor Wyatt, there was young Percy who had wanted to marry her and he knew she had had her fair share of admirers, she could hold a crowd easily because of her wit and she also had which we call today ‘presence’, and she also loved flirting, there was also Jane Seymour and Henry knew she was jealous of her, therefore maybe just maybe he did think she had deceived him, he did not love her anymore and found her tiresome, yet in humans there is a peculiar quirk in our character that we do not want anyone else to have a discarded ex, however that aside Henry was King and he had elevated her to the exalted position of being queen, she had caused the kingdom to be turned upside down and many people had suffered because of her, now she had not only shown she did not deserve that high office by her very nature yet she had also betrayed him and risked the succession, she had insulted the King most grievously and made him look a complete fool, it was highly embarrassing for Henry and therefore I do believe he did think she was guilty and he had his daughter Mary and Richmond bought to him and he was sobbing when he told them that accursed whore had tried to poison them both, however once he had got over the shock he could let Cromwell deal with this unfortunate business and he could carry on making plans with Jane Seymour his next intended, as the Boleyns star fell so did the Seymour’s star rise, there was fear at court and the Londoners were grumbling, any initial sympathy Henry had gathered soon crumbled by his behaviour, he seemed almost cheerful and was seen out wining and dining, meanwhile Jane was kept out of sight but a ballad was written which mocked them both and Henry vowed he would catch the perpetrator and make them pay, however he never did, as Ives wrote, ‘ there is satisfaction that they were never caught’, we all know how the dreadful events unfolded in the coming weeks and can feel for these poor people none of whom were justly condemned but simply murdered.

  4. Mary the Quene says:

    Mark Smeaton lived far above his given station in life. He had not the internal resources to remain steadfast; he was in way over his head and the waters were not healing waters. They were savage, brutal, stormy seas.

  5. Suzanne says:

    …clearly, Mr.Smeaton was both gay, and innocent of these spurious charges…who KNOWS what anyone would ‘confess’to, had they been tortured so…smdh…these English were/are both at once so restrained/emotionally constipated ,and also SO perverse, all at once…!

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