Mark Smeaton – Part 1

Posted By on October 20, 2009

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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26 thoughts on “Mark Smeaton – Part 1”

  1. Melissa says:

    Hear hear! It’s about time someone took a look at poor Mark. This is the most comprehensive article I’ve ever read about him, and it’s only part 1! I had no idea where the homosexual allegations came from, not having read Retha Warnicke, so that was enlightening too. Great article, Claire.

  2. Claire says:

    You’ve made my day, Melissa! Thank you so much! I would recommend Retha Warnicke’s book – lots of sex and witchcraft! I often have Warnicke, Ives, Denny and Weir all open on my desk at the same time as they all have different views and perspectives. Anyway, I am feeling rather happy now, Melissa! 🙂

  3. rochie says:

    Lovely article. How tragic a figure this young man appears to be. And how unfortunate that certain biographers have to equate men giving each other poems as being a sign of some kind of perceived feminine or homosexual leanings. It Tudor times it was regarded as the sign of a whole man to be accomplished in things like poetry and music as much as in fighting and sports – as was Henry himself. Poems can also be used as lyrics for music – so a perfectly practical exchange of gifts between young men of this kind. (today they would be a group of rockers slinging their guitars around and working up lyrics into a track or too before rushing off to impress the grils.

  4. Claire says:

    Hi Rochie,
    I know, it’s as if giving a poem was some kind of secret code for “I’m gay, how about you?”. I’m not sure where Warnicke gets all her information from but she accuses the men of all sorts of things and also goes on about the dates of the adultery being linked to dates associated with eroticism. I think she had sex on the brain!

  5. Wonderful article! I’ve always believed that Smeaton was innocent, and there is no evidence that Smeaton and George Boleyn were lovers. Certainly Julia Fox in her book on Jane Boleyn dismisses any notion that George Boleyn was gay. I haven’t Warnecke’s book yet but I have read Joanna Denny’s which I adore as well as David Starkey’s biography the Six Wives of Henry VIII. Having watched the Tudors, I had no idea either how involved Henry was with Smeaton. I look forward to reading about the other men accused with Anne.

  6. lisaannejane says:

    Great article! I can’t believe an exchange of poetry can lead to anyone being labeled gay and you have a good point about poetry and lyrics. The part about Mark being tortured by Cromwell for information, however, seems all too real. You can get anyone to say anything under such circumstances, so I don’t think his testimony is valid. Thanks for writing about the men involved and I look forward to reading more!

  7. Marge says:

    Personally, I never bought into Retha Warnicke’s theories that all the men surrounding Anne were libertines and sexual deviants. It seems from Warnicke’s writings, George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton are doomed to being in a homosexual love affair when there is no real proof of it. I agree that Mark was on the young side. He also had developed a “crush” so to speak where Anne is concerned.Remember she chided him for it.As for George Boleyn and the others, most were known to dally with the ladies of the court.Warnicke’s writings have a very feminist bias and everything is sexual in nature with her. I am glad you are doing these wonderful articles Claire.

  8. Cynthia says:

    Goodness, George Boleyn was a busy man, boinking Mark Smeaton, his sister, and God knows whom else!

    Seriously, though, Mark Smeaton remains an enigma–it’s obvious to me that his confession came from torture, although whether physical or emotional torture is what broke him, I cannot say.

    But why, oh why, when he had the chance on the gallows to recant, did he not? I’ve never understood that. Did he feel that there might be a last moment pardon? Maybe he was truly that naive. I’ve always loved that George fought back, both in trial and at the scene of his execution.

    I’m afraid I’m not terribly sympathetic to Smeaton as I consider him to be an utter wimp. I can understand why Anne didn’t besmirch Henry at the last minute–she had Elizabeth’s future to consider–but Smeaton would’ve lost nothing to have told the truth.

  9. Claire says:

    Hi Cynthia,
    Yes, George was very busy!!
    Weir thinks that perhaps Mark Smeaton believed that if he recanted then the executioner would be ordered to hang, draw and quarter him instead but obviously nobody knows why he did not. I think he was a very scared man.

    Hi Marge,
    Warnicke does seem a bit sex obsessed and I didn’t like her book half as much as Ives which seems very normal, fair and balanced. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    Hi Lisaannejane,
    The poetry thing is funny! I think that even if he wasn’t tortured he was put under enormous pressure, you don’t have to get physical with someone to “crack” them Poor man!

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I don’t believe that George was gay either, evidence points to him being a bit of a lady’s man. My favourite Anne Boleyn book is definitely Ives, I think I may be his number one fan! I haven’t read the Julia Fox book, I let myself get put off by the reviews on Amazon – is it good?

  10. Gemma says:

    Gosh I haven’t watches the Tudors in awhile and seeing Natalie in that scene has made me want to watch it all again now!

  11. Claire says:

    That’s the next few days planned for you then Gemma! I must say that I enjoyed Seasons 1 and 2 much more than Season 3 and I think it was because it was short of strong characters like Anne Boleyn, I’m not sure. What did you think of S3?

  12. Cynthia says:

    Well, it’s true that I wouldn’t want to be drawn and quartered. Yes, he was scared. Okay, I’ll give him that.

  13. very interesting insight

    nice to see some love for Mark

  14. Tudorrose says:

    I have always been intrigued by Anne Boleyn and the five men that were innnocently condemmed and executed with her. Mark Smeaton was the first to be interrogated by Cromwell and was tortured.I find it ironic that Cromwell being in the position he was in was allowed to set sail with him all the way to his house in Stepney to interrogate him.Should he have been allowed to do this or was it going against what he should of done? As I am sure with the other four men they were interrogated at the Tower of London.There is no doubt that Thomas Cromwell had all this planned from the beggining and worked his way through each and everyone of them one by one.I feel that as theese men were not as high up as Cromwell himself was or had been so that gave him the privaledge of doing whatever he had wanted to do with them.I know Cromwell was of a lowly start just like Smeaton whilst the other men had been from well off background but it was he Cromwell who had acheived a full pertential position in the kingdom being cheif minister the kings main man who stood by his side and did all that he was ordered to do.Cromwell would have because of his position would have been seen as more of an important character over theese five men.I also feel that is probably why they were set upon because they were innocents and were gaining so much popularity with the king.With fear on Cromwells part that they may one day outrank him in the kings affection.Cromwell had used Princess Mary and the Seymours to bring down the Boleyn faction,then once this was acheived he had dropped them.I have read something on George Boleyn being gay or possibly bisexual but I have never heard anything like this said of Smeaton.I know in the show The Tudors they portrayed them both as being lovers but as to whether this is true or not is a mystery.There is no substantial eveidence to approve/dissaprove theese allegations.First you would have to read the poems that George had passed to Smeaton and once read see if they are normal poems or love poems,then thus you would have your answer.I have read Eric Ives The life and death of Anne Boleyn,it is very thouroughly written.

  15. Cynthia says:

    I think most of us agree on this: Eric Ives is the definitive resource for this period in history.

    I wonder if Mark Smeaton was a religious man–not merely a faithful man, but perhaps a man who was what is called being too “scrupulous.” (Clicking the link below will explain what I mean better than I can) :

    It occurs to me that if Smeaton had been overly scrupulous in his religion, then he might have naturally felt pride in Anne’s attention to him quickly followed by a sense of unworthiness at his rise within the Tudor court. Needless to say, had he had a moment’s fleeting amorous thought about the Queen, his benefactress, the anguish would have been enormous to someone disposed to be hyper guilt-ridden.

    Scrupulous people confess even to things they haven’t even done and tend over-compensate for their inferiority through confession–I know Smeaton’s “confession” to Cromwell was in a civil capacity, but if Smeaton was as my theory supposes, Smeaton might have taken the same view of any sort of “confession.”

    It’s just a theory, I have no true belief in this, but it might add to the debate.

  16. Claire says:

    I’m so glad that you all like this article, I enjoyed writing it. I just hope you like Part 2!

    Hi Tudorrose,
    Yes, there is quite a bit of talk about George Boleyn being bisexual or gay but I’m not sure that there is any solid evidence to support this – rumour more than anything.
    I googled the poems and found that Les Lamentations is a first person treatise against marriage written by a cleric who had married a widow. It apparently said that it was better to marry than take a mistress but that a man could be trapped by feminine beauty and live to regret his passion and the marriage when the woman turned into a nagging wife! The second poem, Le Livre de Leesce (Book of Happiness) was a poem in praise of women to atone for the first poem. The fact that they were about women and marriage does not suggest in any way that Mark and George were lovers.
    Yes, Cromwell played a real game with the different groups or factions at court didn’t he? He just used people like Chapuys and Mary and their supporters to bring Anne and the Boleyn faction down and then double crossed them – lots of dirty dealing!

    Hi Cynthia,
    That’s very interesting, the idea of Mark being overly scrupulous. Perhaps I’ll have to write a Mark Smeaton Part 3 about that theory!!

  17. Claire, Julia Fox tends to go a bit overboard while defending Jane, but it’s worth a read to get a different perspective on Anne and George’s life. I haven’t read Ives yet although he’s on my list of books on Anne to read.

  18. Allison says:

    Great site and great article about Mark.

    Did you know that Mark and his family are mentioned in CJ Sansoms book Dark Fire.

    If you haven’t already read them the books Dissolution and Dark Fire by Sansom are great stories set around Cromwell and depict life during the Tudors. Detective Novels giving a different angle on life in Tudor England.

  19. Anne's fan says:

    Let’s give Mark a break.

    Walk a mile in his shoes – then judge. Who amongst us, wouldn’t have been terrified. Especially, considering how people of lower class were executed

  20. Renee says
    I will certainly read both books recommended by Allison (Dissolurion and Dark Fire ) by C.J. Sanson
    Great job ! All of you certainly are the fact finders. Thank you

  21. Claire says:

    Hi Renee,
    The C J Sansom books – Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign and Revelation – are a serious of fiction books about a lawyer called Shardlake who gets roped into investigating things for Cromwell. Although they are fiction, Sansom has a BA and a PhD in history so he’s great at depicting the time and the Tudor characters. I would heartily recommend them.

  22. Rachel says:

    Bit late to the party on this one, Claire, but I was really pleased to see this article. I ADORE Mark, and get very annoyed that he seems to cop a kicking in fiction and non-fiction because of the confession. I’ve always viewed the targeting of Mark Smeaton as one of the nastiest elements of this whole grubby, vile saga. The poor guy never did anyone any harm, it was almost as if Cromwell needed someone he could bully with impunity and decided “he’ll do.” I am not an historian, just an obsessive amateur, so my theories might be totally off base, but this is how I see things.

    I respectfully don’t buy Weir’s conclusion as to his age, because I think it’s based on a bit of confusion – she has him both in the Chapel Royal AND a groom of the chamber at the same time in 1529, which IMO doesn’t sound right. Warnicke, and IIRC, Ives both suggest that it wasn’t till some time around 1532 that he was appointed to the latter position; my inexpert theory, is that if he was still young enough to enter the Chapel Royal choir after Wolsey’s fall, he was probably not in his teens yet. One logical inference is that he left the Chapel Royal after his voice broke, which would put him at anywhere between 13-16 in 1531/2. Hence Ives’ calculations make the most sense to me. As you say though, which ever way you look at it, he was still very young, and indeed the youngest of those condemned with Anne.

    Another point I’d like to make is about the confession and the reality of torture. I am convinced he was tortured – I think it’s significant that at least two contemporary accounts suggest he was, even though there’s no direct evidence of it. That being the case, there have been numerous academic studies in recent times in relation to adults and children from refugee backgrounds as to the psychological sequelae of torture, and to state the bleeding obvious, the effects are extremely damaging and often chronic (as a lawyer who used to act for asylum seekers and now prosecutes sex offences, I have witness the effects for myself). I strongly doubt the composition of the human brain has changed overmuch in 500 years, so one could reasonably conclude that survivors of torture in Tudor times suffered similar post-traumatic effects, without the access that today’s victims have to support services. So we have a young man in his late teens or early twenties, subjected to hours of relentless interrogation designed to achieve one objective, much of which was most likely accompanied by physical and mental torture. Seventeen days in prison clapped in irons, in an era where prisoners’ rights weren’t exactly in vogue – it doesn’t take much to imagine the conditions in which he was held. Maybe it’s just me, but I frankly think that would do *anyone’s* head in. Poor kid – he probably would have confessed to sex with his grandparents, the murders of the Princes in the Tower, being the real father of Edward III and an Al-Qa’ida terrorist by the time they finished with him. Even in contemporary Western societies, with laws in place to protect suspects against police impropriety or misconduct, there are numerous instances of young people making admissions to crimes they did not commit under the pressure of interrogation. As for pleading guilty – perhaps he, quite simply, had given up. There are plenty of instances of accused persons, who had a reasonable defence, pleading up just to get the process over with; I have seen it happen in my own practice. Another example – Ives notes that after Henry Dudley, the Earl of Warwick,saw his co-accused father John, Duke of Northumberland, and William Parr, Marquis of Northampton, condemned for treason in 1553 for their support of Lady Jane Grey, pleaded guilty to treason (despite the fact that it was “retrospective” treason) because there was no point even bothering to defend the charge.

    This is getting a bit tl;dr, but just to finish off: what I love about him is that he *worked* to get where he did. He reached a prime position in royal favour not due to accident of birth, but to his intellectual and musical gifts. He was clearly smart (obviously he could read and write French as well as English, at least), and lively and charming enough to attract the King and the Boleyns to him. Henry and Anne were not known for surrounding themselves with idiots or social misfits. I have often wondered how much of the negative descriptions of him from contemporaries such as other courtiers (Cavendish, Wyatt, Nicolas de Bourbon, Thomas Percy etc) have stemmed from aristocratic noses being a bit out of joint at a young man of lower class origins receiving so much royal favour in so short a time – an early version of what we Aussies call Tall Poppy Syndrome – rather than being an accurate reflection of his personality. If he were as obnoxious as some sources imply, it is hard to imagine the King putting up with it. (The incident Weir describes about his fight with Percy where he seems to have given as good as he got, and Percy was made to make peace with him just adds to his awesomeness, in my view – good on him for sticking up for himself.) Plus, by general agreement he was hot 🙂 Poor Mark – a brilliant, talented young man with his whole life ahead of him, and so much potential.

  23. Lilly says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve always been really interested in Mark, and how this young man got caught up in such a tragic story, but there’s not much information out there about him.

  24. Sway says:

    When I think about Mark, this image always pops into my head:

    I really feel that’s the way they were… happy, young, friends.. I think he adored Anne, and she – him, but they never crossed the line. I know Henry loved Mark and his music, too. What a tragic end to all of these relationships. What a huge lost of youth and talent for his generation.

  25. Alison says:

    I have a soft spot for Mark, i like artistic types and Henry obviously loved him hence he did so well in court but maybe he got jealous of such a handsome man in Anne’s presence and Mark was said to be handsome with a beautiful voice. I imagine he’d have been attractive to Anne with her love of music and dancing. Torture can be emotional as well as physical and also there are ways to cause terrible pain physically without leaving a mark ( wrong word maybe, mark) depriving of sleep, solitary confinement and the fact that he’d have known exactly what went on in hanging drawing and quartering would have terrified him, also lack of sleep can cause hallucinations and all manner of Pyshcological torment to the point he may well have even thought he’d done something like slept with Anne. Poor mark, I guess even at the last moment he thought he could be dragged away for hanging and drawing and quartering.

  26. Maryann Pitman says:

    Henry was musically talented and he appreciated and promoted others who were musical. It is likely one of the reasons he was attracted to Anne. That he gave preference to Mark Smeaton is therefore not surprising at all.

    Mark, unlike the others, was subject to the full penalty, and Cromwell would have used this to obtain the confession, and to hold him to it. It is possible Mark had seen a full penalty execution in the last few years. Cromwell may have threatened to torture him as well. We can’t be sure, but Cromwell knew how to get what he wanted. He may have said that others had or would confess, that Anne had preferred other men to him, any number of things.

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