Mark Smeaton – Anne Boleyn Week 2024 – Day 1

May13,2024 #Mark Smeaton #Mark Smeton

Welcome to Anne Boleyn week!

Today, I’m exploring the life, career and downfall of court musician Mark Smeaton…

Fancy finding out more about Anne Boleyn?

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Transcript of Mark Smeaton video:

Over the next few days, I’m going to be introducing you to each of the people who lost their lives in the fall of Anne Boleyn in May 1536.
I’m going to start with the lowliest member of the group, and the first to be arrested: Mark Smeaton.

Male courtiers were usually known by their surnames or titles, but Mark Smeaton was known as “Mark” at court, a familiar address which points at him being of lowly origins and probably also younger than the other men who suffered in May 1536.

Very little is known about Mark, but it is thought that his family were Flemish and that his father was a carpenter.

Mark was a musician. He could play the portable organ, virginals and lute, and he could also sing. It was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who first spotted Mark’s talents, employing him in his choir. When his patron fell from power in 1529, Mark didn’t suffer and instead was able to join the choir of the Chapel Royal and he was also appointed to King Henry VIII’s privy chamber.

The editor of the king’s Privy Purse expenses states that Mark was, and I quote, “wholly supported and clothed” by the king, noting the frequent mentions of the name Mark in the expenses from late 1529 with lots of payments for shirts and hosen. Mark was also given money. In December 1530, he received 20 shillings, and his rise in favour is clear when we compare that with a payment in October 1532 of £3 6 shillings and 8 pence.

Mark was clearly part of a circle of men who included the queen’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, and the poet and diplomat Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, for they shared a book. The book was a copy of Jean Lefèvre’s translation of a 13th century satirical poem, which was widely circulated by scholars at the time, a trendy book. An inscription in the book shows that it belonged to George, but it was also inscribed by Wyatt and Mark, so was passed around and shared, and probably discussed, just as we share books we’ve enjoyed with friends today.

Anne Boleyn welcomed both men and women in her chambers, something that had been common on the Continent when she had been there, and one of the men who obviously spent time there, probably entertaining the queen with his music, was Mark Smeaton.

On 29th April 1536, the queen noticed Mark standing in the round window of her presence chamber. According to Anne herself, talking later to the ladies serving her during her imprisonment, she asked him why he was looking so sad. Mark replied that “it was no matter”, which sounds a bit like a sulky teenager shrugging their shoulders and saying “nothing”. Anne was not impressed with this reply. She reprimanded him, saying “You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do a nobleman, because ye be an inferior person.” It sounds like Mark was sulking because she wasn’t giving him any attention, doesn’t it? And Anne certainly put him in his place. An embarrassed Mark replied, “No, no, a look sufficeth me, and thus fare you well.”

Although the 18th century historian John Strype ponders if Anne’s reaction to Mark on that day made him want to “take this opportunity to humble her, and revenge himself” by making up lies about her, I don’t believe that for one minute. I believe that Thomas Cromwell, a man who always had his ear to the ground, heard about this encounter and, as he was already intent on bringing the queen down, thought that he could use this young man. Mark wasn’t a nobleman, he didn’t have a powerful family or allies at court who’d be upset if Cromwell put a bit of pressure on him, he was a nobody really. Who better to arrest, interrogate and manipulate? Mark could be very useful.

The next day, 30th April, Mark was apprehended. He wasn’t taken straight to the Tower of London, instead he was taken to Cromwell’s house in Stepney. I suspect he was quietly spirited away so that there’d be no gossip. There, he was interrogated.

Now, we don’t know exactly what happened to Mark during the 24 hours he spent at Stepney. In Hilary Mantel’s novel “Bring Up the Bodies”, Mark is lured to Cromwell’s house expecting to provide musical entertainment but instead is asked for help by Cromwell, who wants to know why the queen is unhappy. Mark boasts that it is because she is in love with him. He is then questioned and gets himself into rather a pickle. He wants to take back his boast, but he’s threatened with the rack if he doesn’t name names. He’s then told he is to stay the night there and he is “locked in with Christmas”, and I’ve never been sure what that was, but it included a star with sharp points and peacock wings. It certainly frightened him and he was willing to say anything.

That’s not based on any primary sources though.

According to the 16th century Spanish Chronicle, Mark was tortured by having a rope with knots put around his head. It was twisted tighter and tighter with a cudgel until he could bear it no more. There is no other evidence to back up this report and the chronicle is not a very reliable source, being wrong on so many occasions.

According to George Constantine, a servant of Sir Henry Norris, one of the other men arrested and executed in May 1536, there were rumours that Mark was “fyrst grevously racked” but Constantine states that he didn’t know whether that was true. Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, wrote that Mark confessed without being tortured.

After 24 hours at Stepney, Mark confessed to sleeping with the queen on three separate occasions. So what DID happen at Stepney. My own theory is that he was offered a plea bargain. He was told that he was going to die a traitor, that there was no way out of that, but that he had a choice about how he was going to die. He could die a full traitor’s death and be hanged, drawn and quartered, a truly awful way to die, or he could help Cromwell and have a more merciful and much quicker death by beheading. All he had to do was say what Cromwell wanted him to say.

Mark was taken to the Tower of London and put in irons, the only one of the men to be kept like that. I think those irons were a reminder to stick to the story. At the men’s trial, Mark was the only one to plead guilty and he went to his death without retracting his confession. Anne Boleyn was horrified when he learnt that he’d died without retracting it and Wyatt, in his poem about the executions paid tribute to the other men but referred to Mark as a rotten twig. Harsh.

But I’m not sure how much choice Mark had. I think he was well aware that if he tried at any point to retract his confession, even on the scaffold, that he would be hanged, drawn and quartered instead. He was, after all, a commoner and that was the punishment for treason committed by men of his rank. The king was being merciful and letting him be beheaded instead. There was a deal and he had to stick to it.
He also knew that during his imprisonment that he could be racked at any time. Nobody would have complained about a musician being racked for information.

I don’t for one minute think that he DID sleep with the queen. I don’t believe that any of the men could have. Anne was never alone, she had no privacy. But I can’t blame Mark for what he did. I can’t be as harsh as Wyatt. I think he was a terrified young man who was manipulated and had terrible pressure put on him. I don’t think many people could have stood up to that.

So that’s Mark Smeaton, court musician, and a man who was executed on Tower Hill on 17th May 1536 after being found guilty of high treason for sleeping with the queen and plotting with her to kill King Henry VIII. Oh, and by the way, his lowly status meant that he was the last to be executed. He had to watch four other men being beheaded and put his neck on a block soaked with blood. Awful, just awful Poor, poor Mark.

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