Mark SmeatonYes, that is the question that I find myself answering today. I’ve never actually had someone ask me that or even argue about it with me, but while I was researching Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s 1535 royal progress I came across an article that put forward the theory that Mark Smeaton fathered the baby that Anne Boleyn miscarried on 29th January 1536.

You can read the article yourself online – click here – but I’ll outline the key points that its author, Dr Brian M. Collins, makes in it and then share with you why I disagree with his theory.

In his article, Dr Collins explains that he bases his theory on three “surviving facts”:

  1. That Anne Boleyn miscarried a male foetus of about 15 weeks on 29th January 1536 and so “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 when she was imprisoned 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 that confessed to sleeping with the queen.

So, the theory boils down to the conception date, the fact that Smeaton visited her chamber around that date and the fact that Smeaton confessed. Hmmm…

Let me take each of these “facts” in turn:

The dating of Anne Boleyn’s 1536 pregnancy

We know that Queen Anne Boleyn suffered a miscarriage on 29th January 1536, the same day that Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough Abbey. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded that Anne lost “a male child which she had not borne 3½ months” and chronicler Charles Wriothesley corroborated this, writing: “Queene Anne was brought a bedd and delivered of a man chield, as it was said, afore her tyme, for she said that she had reckoned herself at that tyme but fiftene weekes gonne with chield […]” So, the primary sources tell us that Anne miscarried a baby at the 14/15 week mark.

But what did this mean back then?

Today, we date pregnancies from the first day of the woman’s last period. If Anne was 15 weeks pregnant when she lost her baby then by today’s standards, her last period would have started on 16th October. If we go with Chapuys saying 3½ months (14 weeks) then her last period would have started around 23rd October. If a woman’s average menstrual cycle is around 28 days in length, then she would, on average, ovulate around day 14. The fertile window is said to be 6 days leading up to and including the day of ovulation, but according to “The three days leading up to and including ovulation are the most fertile” and it goes on to explain that “depending on your cycle length the most fertile days in the cycle varies: If you have 28 days between periods ovulation typically happens on day 14, and the most fertile days are days 12, 13, and 14.”

Let’s assume that Anne was an average woman with a 28-day cycle. 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.

However, that’s all based on how we date pregnancies today. Were things different in Tudor times?

I asked historians Toni Mount and Amy Licence about it. Toni told me that there was no real understanding of gestation at this time and that a measurement of pregnancy “would only be certain from the first movement of the baby (i.e. when noticed by the mother)” or by signs that the woman would recognise, like morning sickness, for example. Amy Licence noted that Anne “was watching every month in hope” at this point and so may have “been counting the days after when she was due” her period, whereas another woman would have calculated it from the quickening of the baby. Amy also suggested that Anne might have been counting retrospectively, in that she’d missed a period or two, and then would be “thinking back to when they slept together and assuming 1 week or 2 weeks already.” As Amy also explained, they thought women should know the moment of conception by various physical reactions, so if she had an org*sm she’d have chosen that occasion. If not, she’d pick the time that she thought she’d felt the seed!”

Anne Boleyn NPGThis makes the 3½ months/15 weeks dating of Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy very speculative. Did Anne count 15 weeks from the time that she thought she’d conceived? Did she date it from the first symptoms of pregnancy or even from feeling the baby move for the first time? It’s impossible to say.

If it was a case of Anne simply counting back to the moment she thought she’d conceived, that would take us back to around 16th-23rd October (14-15 weeks back from 29th January). Anne and Henry arrived at the Vyne in Hampshire on 15th October and then on 19th October moved on to Basing House, and on 21st to Bramshill and on 22nd to Easthampstead, before making their way back to Windsor Castle. They were not in Winchester at this time.

If Anne had counted from the quickening of her baby, which can happen as early as 13-16 weeks, then she would actually have been around 28 weeks pregnant when she miscarried, meaning that the baby was conceived at the end of July or beginning of August when the couple were in Gloucestershire. If Anne counted from a sign like morning sickness, which tends to start around the sixth week of pregnancy, then she would have been about 20/21 weeks pregnant when she miscarried, dating conception to around mid-September when the royal couple were in Winchester and Bishops Waltham.

Confused yet?

Does the fact that Chapuys and Wriothesley mention the baby being a boy give us any clue?

Well, no, not really. If Anne suffered an early miscarriage, say before 11 weeks, then the genital area would have looked very similar in both sexes, and a girl may well have been mistaken for a boy due to the genital “bud” at this stage.

Although Dr Collins writes “if we assume that medieval women counted their pregnancy to have started from the day they missed their menstruation, then to calculate the date of conception, two weeks should be added to the 15 weeks stated by Anne when she miscarried on 29 January 1536. Thus conception would have occurred in a two week period either side of 2 October 1535”, we cannot actually assume that at all. In her book Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Woman’s Lives 1540-1714, Dr Sara Read quotes from 17th-century midwife Jane Sharp:

“Young women especially of their first child are so ignorant commonly that they cannot tell whether they have conceived or not, and not one of twenty almost keeps a just account, else they would be better provided against the time of their lying-in, and not so suddenly be surprised as many of them are.”

And Sharp was writing over a hundred years after Anne Boleyn’s lifetime. Sharp goes on to describe the “common rules” physicians have laid down “whereby to know when a woman has conceived with child”:

  • “First, if when the seed is cast into the womb she feel the womb shut close and a shivering or trembling to run through every part of her body, that is by reason of the heat that draws inward to keep the conception and so leaves the outward parts cold and chill.”
  • Secondly, the pleasure she takes at that time is extraordinary, and the man’s seed comes not forth again, for the womb closely embraces it and will shut as fast as possibly may be.
  • Her belly becomes flatter because the “the womb sinks down to cherish the seed.
  • She feels pain in her lower belly and around her navel.
  • She suffers “with belchings”, goes off meat and feels weak in the stomach.
  • Her periods stop unexpectedly.
  • She has cravings for something that is not fit to eat or drink, “as some women with child have longed to bite off a piece of their husband’s buttocks.” (Anyone else had that happen?)
  • Swollen, hard and tender breasts.
  • Decrease in libido and sudden changes in emotions.
  • Lack of interest in food and a tendency to vomit.
  • Reddened nipples and enlarged veins in the breasts.
  • The veins in her eyes become more obvious.
  • Pain when having a bowel movement.
  • Feeling weaker and a change in face colour.

And then a woman can also perform a 16th century pregnancy test to check, i.e. leave her urine to stand for three days before straining it through fine linen to see live worms in it (if she’s pregnant) or putting a needle in her urine for 24 hours to see if it goes black or dark coloured (not pregnant) or whether it has red spots (pregnant).

So, if Anne missed her period and had some of these signs, she might simply have counted back to the time she last had an org*sm with Henry VIII.

With all the uncertainty regarding how Anne would have dated her pregnancy, and even where Chapuys and Wriothesley got their information from, I do not believe that it is possible to give a date, or therefore a location, for the conception of Anne Boleyn’s baby.

Mark Smeaton visited Anne Boleyn’s chamber

Dr Collins quotes from Sir William Kingston’s letter to Thomas Cromwell “on Queen Anne’s behaviour in prison” which is damaged and undated. The ladies attending Anne in the Tower of London fed back everything the queen said to Kingston, who was the Constable of the Tower and whose job it was to report back to Cromwell. Here is the bit about Smeaton and Winchester, with the bracketed parts having been filled in by Samuel Weller Singer, the 19th-century editor of George Cavendish’s The Life of Wolsey, in whose appendices the letters appear. Singer explains that the parts he filled in are authentic as they are based on John Strype’s work and Strype saw the original letters before they were damaged in the fire of 1731:

“And then sayd [Mrs. Stoner, Marke] ys the worst cheryssht of heny m[an in the howse, for he] wayres yernes, she sayd that was [because he was no] gentleman. Bot he wase never in m[y chambr but at Winchestr, and] ther she sent for hym to ple[y on the virginals, for there my] logyng 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 […]”

Isn’t it quite a leap to suggest that Smeaton being in Anne’s chamber at Winchester to play the virginals was a cover for Anne and Smeaton to sleep together? Yes, I believe so, particularly when we know that a queen never slept alone and that one of her ladies would have slept on a pallet in her room.

Even the indictments drawn up by the grand juries in May 1536 do not accuse Anne of sleeping with Mark in Winchester in September 1535. The dates and locations they give are 12th and 19th May 1534 at Greenwich and 26th April 1535 at Westminster.

Wolvesey Castle, Winchester
Wolvesey Castle, Winchester

Mark Smeaton was the only man to confess to sleeping with Anne

Dr Collins backs up his theory regarding Smeaton and Anne sleeping together at Winchester (at the Old Bishop’s Palace of Wolvesey Castle) with “confessions and allegations”. He points out that Smeaton was the only man to confess to sleeping with Queen Anne and this is true. Sir Edward Baynton, Anne Boleyn’s vice-chamberlain, wrote to Sir William Fitzwilliam, treasurer of the household, informing him that “noman will confesse any thynge agaynst her, but allonly Marke of any actuell thynge”. However, Anne Boleyn denied sleeping with the musician, she swore twice on the sacrament that she had been faithful to her husband, and the majority of historians believe her.

There are various theories regarding why Smeaton would make a false confession, including the claim that he was tortured or the idea that he was offered a more merciful death if he did. Anne Boleyn was shocked to hear that Smeaton had not taken the opportunity to retract his confession at his execution on 17th May 1536, 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!” In his poem about the executions of the men, Thomas Wyatt, who knew Smeaton, described him as “A rotten twig upon so high a tree”, was this due to his false confession? It’s impossible to say.

The allegations Dr Collins writes about are accounts, such as letters from ambassadors at the court of Henry VIII, regarding news of Smeaton’s confession and the charges laid against the queen. None of these accounts, in my opinion, constitute evidence of an affair, they are simply reports of what was going on in May 1536, what was being said about Anne.

Dr Collins concludes his article with the following:

“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.”

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.

I would, however, like to applaud Dr Collins on his research. Putting his claim about Smeaton and Anne Boleyn to one side, the rest of his article is excellent because he has pieced together the real itinerary of the 1535 progress – it changed from the proposed one outlined in Letters & Papers – and even gives details of the daily expenditure and how many miles the royal court travelled each day. Collins also list all his sources. The article is a wonderful resource on the progress, I just cannot agree with his hypothesis.

Please do have a read of Dr Collins’ article and then share your thoughts. Perhaps you disagree with me or you want to raise a point that I have missed, or perhaps you know more about pregnancy in the Tudor period. Please do share.

Notes and Sources

Pictures: Mark Smeaton, played by David Alplay, in “The Tudors” series, Showtime. Portrait of Anne Boleyn, unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery. Photo of Wolvesey Castle “Looking across the ruins of the East Hall, towards Wymond’s Tower” © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence,


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