Thank you so much to Rose for asking the question “Did Mary I really believe that her half-sister Elizabeth was actually fathered by Mark Smeaton?” which is based on Mary I allegedly saying that Elizabeth “had the face and countenance of Mark Smeton, who was a very handsome man”.

In my latest video, I look at where this quote comes from, along with assessing whether it fits in with what we know of Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship. I also delve into another claim about Anne Boleyn and Mark Smeaton: whether Smeaton fathered the baby Anne Boleyn miscarried in 1536…


Did Mary I really believe that Elizabeth I was fathered by Mark Smeaton?
Thank you to Rose for the question “Did Mary I really believe that her half-sister Elizabeth was actually fathered by Mark Smeaton?”
In his book “A treasury of royal scandals : the shocking true stories of history’s wickedest, weirdest, most wanton kings, queens, tsars, popes, and emperors”, Michael Farquar writes that Mary I “would frequently remark that Elizabeth had ‘face and countenance of Mark Smeaton, who was a very handsome man’” and in her book “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, Alison Weir writes that “Mary Tudor herself believed that the musician was Elizabeth’s real father”. Neither Farquar or Weir give references for this, but I tracked it down to Henry Clifford’s “The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria”, a biography of Jane Dormer, who served as a lady-in-waiting to Mary I and was a close friend and confidante of the queen. Clifford, who knew Jane well, having served in her household for many years, wrote in his book, “We see how different were the mothers of these two queens, and of the latter the father might be doubted, for Queen Mary would never call her sister, nor be persuaded she was her father’s daughter. She would say she had the face and countenance of Mark Smeton, who was a very handsome man.”

The first thing I have to say is that it’s just not true that Mary never called Elizabeth her sister. In 1554, when Mary wrote to Elizabeth during Wyatt’s Rebellion summoning her to court, she addressed her as “right dear and entirely beloved sister”, and signed off “Your loving sister, Mary the Queen”, and that’s just one example.

As for Mary saying that Elizabeth looked like Smeaton, as Linda Porter points out in her biography of Mary, “the two women bore a striking resemblance to each other, with their red hair, long noses, heart-shaped faces and thin lips”, so it would have been hard to deny that Elizabeth was a Tudor. Perhaps Mary was spiteful at times, she certainly hated Anne Boleyn and saw her as someone who had usurped her mother’s place as queen, but I don’t believe that if Mary said something like that, she truly believed it.

And there’s no way that Mary, once queen, would have stayed quiet about Elizabeth being the daughter of Smeaton and Anne Boleyn. She would surely have gone public and had her removed from the succession, after all, Smeaton had been found guilty of sleeping with Anne and conspiring with her to kill Mary’s father, Henry VIII, and both he and Anne had been executed for high treason. Instead, following her successful overthrow of Queen Jane, Lady Jane Grey, Mary chose Elizabeth to ride into London with her victoriously. Not even when Elizabeth was in the Tower of London after being implicated in Wyatt’s Rebellion, did Mary disown her. And at that time, Elizabeth was living under the axe’s shadow, being interrogated about the rebellion, and there were certain members of Mary’s council who thought it would be better if Elizabeth was gone. If Mary believed that Elizabeth wasn’t a true Tudor, would she have had any qualms about getting rid of her? I don’t think so

The women had a difficult relationship from that point on, but when Mary was dying in 1558, she chose Elizabeth as her successor even though she must have known that Elizabeth would not maintain the Catholic faith in England.

So, I don’t believe that Mary ever seriously thought that Elizabeth was fathered by Mark Smeaton.

And in 1536, when Anne Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Lord Rochford, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were tried for high treason, there was no suggestion that Smeaton had fathered Elizabeth. The dates he was said to have been seduced by Anne were in 1534 and 1535, and Elizabeth was born in September 1533. In fact, none of the dates cited for any of the men were before Elizabeth’s birth. And Henry VIII in his dying days added Mary AND Elizabeth back into the line of succession, so although he viewed them as illegitimate due to the invalidity of his marriages to their mothers, he believed them both to be his daughters.

Interestingly, a few years ago I came across an article on Winchester Cathedral’s website written by Dr Brian M Collins called “The Royal Progress and Anne Boleyn’s Visit to Winchester in 1535”. In that article, Collins argued that the baby miscarried by Anne on 29th January 1536 was fathered by Mark Smeaton wile Anne was on the 1535 royal progress to the south-west. The arguments he used to back up this theory were threefold:

  1. That Anne miscarried at around 15 weeks and so, according to him, “would have conceived around the end of September 1535 and hence probably while she was in Winchester.”
  2. That Anne confessed to Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, during her imprisonnment in the Tower of London in May 1536 “that Mark Smeaton had visited her in her chamber while she was in Winchester and her ‘lodgings were above the King’s’.”
  3. That Mark Smeaton was the only one of the men arrested in May 1536 who confessed to sleeping with the queen.

I wrote a whole article on this topic back in 2016, so I’ll give you a link to that – click here – but I’ll go into why Collins’ theory makes no sense.

Firstly, if Anne Boleyn had the average 28-day cycle, and she lost her baby at round the 14/15 week mark, then her most fertile days would have been 27th, 28th and 29th October if her last period had started on 16th October, or 3rd, 4th and 5th November if she’d started her last period on 23rd October. According to records of the 1535 royal progress, Anne and Henry arrived back at Windsor Castle on 25th October, having visited Winchester in mid-September. So, the royal couple were back from progress when Anne conceived.

Now that’s how we date pregnancies today, and it might be that Anne simply counted back to the moment she thought she’d conceived. 14/15 weeks back from her miscarriage date takes us back to 16th-23rd October. Again, the couple were not at Winchester at this time.

Collins quotes from a letter written by Sir William Kingston to Thomas Cromwell in May 1536 “on Queen Anne’s behaviour in prison” which is damaged and undated, but includes the following which was Anne’s words being reported by Mrs Stoner, who was one of the ladies attending her in the Tower:
“Mark is the worst cherished of any man in the house, for he wears irons; she said that was because he was no gentleman. But he was never in my chamber but at Winchester, and there she sent for him to play on the virginals, for there my lodging was above the kings….”
Anne appears to be saying that Smeaton had been to her chamber, which was above that of the king, at Winchester and that she had sent for him to play the virginals for her. Collins writes:

“Anne clearly wanted to acknowledge that Mark Smeaton had been in her chamber, though only to play music. However, why did she need to say that her lodgings were above the King’s? Was it to emphasise that she was living very close to the King and therefore could not have been ‘intimate’ with Mark Smeaton? Was it to counter the later confession of Mark Smeaton that he had been ‘intimate’ with Anne? Or, more likely, was it to counter any possible revelations at her trial by the ladies of her chamber who could have witnessed Mark Smeaton entering her chamber? Unless further evidence is forthcoming we shall never know for certain. Nevertheless, Anne does acknowledge that he was in her chamber and that fact has never before been linked with her pregnancy […]”

Erm, that’s quite a leap, isn’t it? I think Anne was simply stating that Smeaton had only been in her chambers once and that was to entertain her with music, not sleep with her.

Smeaton WAS the only man to confess to sleeping with Anne, but Anne denied this, swearing twice on the holy sacrament that she had been faithful to her husband, and the majority of historians feel that Smeaton was put under pressure to confess. Smeaton was only a court musician, he wasn’t a gentleman, so he could be used as a scapegoat, pressure could be put on him, he could even be tortured without anyone getting upset about it. What I suspect happened was that Smeaton was told that he was going down for high treason however much he denied sleeping with the queen and plotting with her, but that he could save himself from the full traitor’s death of being hanged, drawn and quartered, a terrible death and one that would have been the norm for a traitor of his status, IF he confessed. A kind of plea bargain. And he was kept in irons in the Tower to remind him that he was different from the other men and what could happen to him.

Anne was stunned that Smeaton went to his death without retracting his confession, saying “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!”

Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, who was also imprisoned in the Tower in May 1536, wrote a poem about the executions of the men, lamenting their sad ends and paying tribute to them. However, when it came to Smeaton, Wyatt described him as “A rotten twig upon so high a tree”. Was this due to his false confession? I think so.

Collins concludes his article with these words:

“It is left to the reader to decide as to whether Anne Boleyn and Mark Smeaton really did commit adultery in Winchester. The evidence is circumstantial but does fit the hypothesis; let us hope that more definitive contemporary accounts are hidden in an archive waiting to be discovered and able to prove or disprove it.”

And here is my answer to that:
I don’t agree that the evidence is even circumstantial. There’s no getting around the fact that Smeaton confessed to sleeping with Anne, but Anne denied it and nobody claimed in 1536 that Smeaton was the father of Anne’s dead baby or that he’d slept with the queen on the royal progress. Dating the conception of Anne’s baby is impossible and therefore it’s impossible to suggest a location. Isn’t it more likely that the father of Anne’s baby was the king seeing as the couple were desperate to have a son? So, no, the evidence doesn’t fit the hypothesis and there are too many ifs and buts for me to take this theory seriously.

In conclusion, I don’t believe that Smeaton ever slept with Anne Boleyn, never mind fathered Elizabeth or the baby Anne lost in 1536, and I don’t believe that Mary ever truly doubted Elizabeth’s paternity.
What do you think? I’d love to know.

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3 thoughts on “Did Mark Smeaton father Elizabeth I?”
  1. claire, thank you so very much to give us again such revealing comments on Anes life as I m a devoted Anne Boleyn fan from Antwerp, Belgium.

  2. I believe Queen Mary when she was feeling annoyed with Elizabeth one day maybe a bit hormonal to, mentioned that she was Smeaton’s child, we all say things in anger but really the fact she left her realm to her proves to me she knew Elizabeth was their fathers daughter, Elizabeth may have facially resembled Anne with her oval face and dark eyes, but she had the distinctive Tudor hair and white skin, and Henry’s long hooked nose, Linda Porter comments that both sisters had the same heart shaped faces and long noses, but in face Mary’s nose was much shorter with an upward tilt like her mothers and this resemblance can be plainly seen if one studies the portraits of Katherine of Aragon, throughout her life people commented on Elizabeth’s likeness to her father she had his magnetism and easy going nature which the king had had in his youth, this familiarity with his subjects drew people to him and Elizabeth possessed the same ease of manner, however when riled watch out! There are no strong arguments merely for her being Smeatons child as she was conceived around the time her parents were in Calais and why Anne would ever entertain sleeping with a mere servant a boy when she was hopeful of giving the king a son is a ludicrous idea, Smeaton was not in the picture than and so we can see the dates don’t tally with her conception and birth, in fact Smeaton was in Henry V111’s employ possibly in England in court at the time only becoming Anne’s musician after she became queen, and legally acknowledged as such, but the argument for him fathering her dead baby in 1536 becomes stronger after she had had a miscarriage as there are records she was pregnant with a ‘goodly belly’ only for us to hear no more on the subject, therefore we can assume Anne’s child must have died in her, also her alleged concern over the kings potency to Jane Rochford, did Anne believe she would never conceive by the king again and she had his first wives history as a warning, it was an age when women were blamed for a childless marriage or a sick child, but Anne was not like other women and in that Tudor world of superstition she was ahead of her time, did she believe that it was maybe Henry’s fault that Katherine had miscarriages and her babies that were born died after? We will never know but really I don’t think she would have risked her position by being unfaithful to the king, she had not had a smooth ride to the throne and knew her enemies were ready to pounce, one indiscretion and her world would come tumbling down if she were discovered, but desperation makes one throw caution to the winds even so, she would have had to make sure that those who were in her secret were of the utmost faithfulness, and Smeaton would have sworn to secrecy on pain of death, it is something we can only speculate on but her sworn oath on the testament alone in the Tower, just hours from death makes me dismiss this theory, she would not let her immortal soul burn in purgatory, the Winchester argument she attested to at her trial again is proof that there was no proof of adultery either, there never was any proof of wrongdoing by the queen as it was all hearsay, yes she confessed Smeaton had been in her chambers but they were directly above the kings, as Norah Lofts said ‘Henry would have heard the music stop playing’, as they went hand in hand to her bed what if the king had decided to pay a visit to his queen, as in fact is what happened with his fifth queen and her so called lover had had to bid a hasty retreat? In Anne Boleyn’s tragic story there is one name that does stink – that of Mark Smeaton the poor but talented dashing young musician who was sacrificed to rid the king of an unwanted wife, Wyatt called him a rotten twig but I feel he has been judged too harshly, his confession must have been given under much duress and it had taken a good deal of time nearly a day for him to confess, hardly a person whom one would denounce as a coward, Cromwell must have bullied him so he was finally and utterly brow beaten, the traitors death was terrible, Anne must have realised something had happened to make him betray her, she despised Cromwell and knew him to be a royal toady and ruthless, I agree I believe a merciful death was offered to this poor lad and thus Cromwell had the queen where he wanted her, rather than blame this boy, blame Cromwell and his royal master, Smeaton was at the end of the day, a mere scapegoat.

  3. Excellent video, Claire! I don’t think there was any way Smeaton could have been Elizabeth’s father. As you said, there was too striking a resemblance not just between Elizabeth and Mary, but between Elizabeth and Henry. As others have said in the comments, he was merely a scapegoat.

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