What I loved about Alison Weir’s latest book “The Lady in the Tower” is the fact that she gives quite a lot of detail on the five men who were convicted and executed for treason and adultery with Anne Boleyn. Often, these men, who were also innocent victims of this brutal coup against Anne, are ignored and all we know is their names and the fact that they were most likely innocent of all charges.

So, today I start the first in a series of posts looking at the men involved in Cromwell’s plot to bring down Anne and the whole Boleyn faction. My writing will be based on not only Alison Weir’s work but also Ives and Warnicke, and other sources.

Who better to start with than Mark Smeaton (or Smeton), the only man who confessed and the “misfit” of the gang. Today, I will write about who Mark was and how he came to be part of Anne’s circle of friends and the “fatal catalyst”, as Ives calls him, of Anne’s fall.

From Humble Beginnings to Court Life

Mark Smeaton was a misfit in that he had not been part of the Boleyn faction or Anne’s circle of friends for very long and, unlike the other men, he was from a humble background, being the son of a carpenter. Weir writes of how Lodovico Guicciardini, a sixteenth century chronicler referred to Mark Smeaton as “Mark the Fleming, her [Anne] keyboard player”, but Weir points out that Mark was actually employed by the King. He probably changed his name to Smeaton from de Smedt or de Smet when he arrived in England.

Mark was a talented musician and it was through this talent that he got a position at Henry VIII’s court. His talents included dancing, singing and playing instruments like the portable organ, lute and virginals. His beautiful voice was noticed by Cardinal Wolsey, who recruited him for his choir, and on Wolsey’s fall Mark managed to move to the Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal and get promoted to the position of Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1529. Everyone called him “Mark”, rather than Smeaton, and this familiar address shows that although Mark was a member of the Privy Chamber he was still rather “lowly”. Ives writes of how it is possible that Mark was around 20 years of age at Anne’s fall in 1536, but Weir dismisses this, concluding that he must have been older to have been made Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1529. He must, however, have been a young man, whoever you believe!

What I didn’t realise, until I read about it in Weir’s books, was how involved Henry was with Mark and how highly he thought of him. Weir writes of how there are records of him giving Mark special financial rewards and providing him with pieces of clothing, Henry definitely raised Mark and helped him at court. Mark enjoyed privileges such as being able to keep horses at court and having his own servants, a good life for someone with such a humble background. The advancement of his career at court can be clearly seen when we compare the 40s (£750) that he received from Henry at Christmas 1530 to the £3.6s.8d (£1,250) that he received in October 1532. It is obvious that he was a favourite with the King, so how betrayed Henry must have felt if he did believe the allegations against Anne and the men, and how clever Cromwell was at using Mark in this way!

Mark and the Boleyn Faction

Weir writes of how it was George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, who befriended Mark and made him part of his and Anne’s circle of friends. There is evidence of a friendship between the two on a manuscript of poems which bears the inscriptions:

“This book is mine. George Boleyn 1526”

and then

“A moy [moi], M. Marc Sn”

which suggests that George gave Mark the poems, “Les Lamentations de Matheolus” and “Le Livre de Leesce” by Jean Lefevre. If we are to believe Retha Warnicke, this would be a sign that the two men were more than friends and that they were actually lovers, particularly as the manuscript was expensive and because its content was an attack on marriage. If you have read Warnicke’s book “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn”, you will know that Warnicke theorises that all five men were “libertines”, who were well known for their “licentious behaviour” and homosexual practices, and that Mark’s love of music and his musical talents would have led to many of his contemporaries seeing him as a member “of the devil’s party” and that this could be why Cromwell picked on him to interrogate first. I obviously have not done as much research as Retha Warnicke, but I can’t find any evidence to support this theory and I was glad that Weir dismissed it.

From what I’ve read on Anne and George, they were both patrons of the Arts and loved poetry, singing, music and dancing. Anne probably noticed and enjoyed Mark’s singing in the choir, and may well have decided to help him or encourage him in his musical “career”. Mark would have fitted in rather nicely to the Boleyn circle of friends with the likes of George and Thomas Wyatt, and I can just picture them enjoying poetry reading and music together. He was a talented young man and his gifts would have been well appreciated by this group of intellectuals and lovers of the arts and entertainment. However, due to his humble backgrounds, I think he would always have been on the fringes of this circle.

So, how did this lowly musician turn into the “fatal catalyst” and cause five executions including a Queen of England, four noblemen and himself? Find out tomorrow!

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