On this day in history, the 30th April 1536, Mark Smeaton was taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Stepney and interrogated. Within 24 hours he had confessed to making love to the Queen, Anne Boleyn, three times. It is likely that the note that Henry VIII received at the May Day joust, the next day, contained details of Smeaton’s confession.

But where does an innocent jar of marmalade come into it?

The Musician, Marmalade and Queen

There is an intriguing story about Mark Smeaton and Anne Boleyn in The Spanish Chronicle (Cronica del Rey Enrico), also known as The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England, a rather gossipy chronicle and one historical source to take with a rather large pinch of salt.

It concerns a certain musician, a cupboard, a jar of jam, a bed and a certain queen. After reporting how Anne had fallen in love with Smeaton, the Chronicle goes on to say:-

“One night, whilst all the ladies were dancing, the old woman called Mark and said to him gently, so that none should overhear, “You must come with me;” and he, as he knew it was to the Queen’s chamber he had to go, was nothing loth. So she took him to an ante-chamber, where she and another lady slept, next to the Queen’s room, and in this ante-chamber there was a closet like a store-room, where she kept sweetmeats, candied fruits, and other preserves which the Queen sometimes asked for. To conceal him more perfectly the old woman put him into this closet, and told him to stay there till she came for him, and to take great care he was not heard. Then she shut him up and returned to the great hall where they were dancing, and made signs to the Queen, who understood her, and, although it was not late, she pretended to be ill, and the dancing ceased. She then retired to her chamber with her ladies, whilst the old woman said to her, “Madam, when you are in bed and all the ladies are asleep, you can call me and ask for some preserves, which I will bring, and Mark shall come with me, for he is in the closet now.”

The Queen went to bed and ordered all her ladies to retire to their respective beds, which were in an adjoining gallery like a refectory, and when they were all gone but the old lady and the lady who slept with her, she sent them off too. When she thought they would all be asleep, she called the old woman, and said, “Margaret, bring me a little marmalade.” She called it out very loudly, so that the ladies in the gallery might hear as well as Mark, who was in the closet. The old woman went to the closet and made Mark undress, and took the marmalade to the Queen, leading Mark by the hand. The lady who was in the old woman’s bed did not see them when they went out of the closet, and the old woman left Mark behind the Queen’s bed, and said out loud, “Here is the marmalade, my lady.” Then Anne said to the old woman, “Go along; go to bed.”

As soon as the old woman had gone Anne went round to the back of the bed and grasped the youth’s arm, who was all trembling, and made him get into bed. He soon lost his bashfulness, and remained that night and many others, so that in a short time this Mark flaunted out to such an extent that there was not a gentleman at court who was so fine, and Anne never dined without having Mark serve her.”1

Now this story is quite hilarious until you stop and think and realise that this was some of the propaganda which helped to blacken her name. It is such a silly story and I cannot see that there is any truth in it and there is certainly no other evidence to back it up, unless, like Bernard, you believe that the poem by Lancelot de Carles telling of the alleged witness statement from the Countess of Worcester do in fact back it up.

The Countess of Worcester was one of Anne’s ladies and she apparently told her brother, Sir Anthony Browne, that her own offence (possible adultery) was nothing in comparison to the Queen who allowed members of the court to come into her chamber “at improper hours” and that if her brother did not believe her then he could find out more from Mark Smeaton. She then said “I must not forget to tell you what seems to me to be the worst thing, which is that often her brother has carnal knowledge of her in bed.”2 If this exchange between the Countess of Worcester (Elizabeth Browne) and her brother did take place and it was fed back to Cromwell, then we can see how this, combined with Anne’s ramblings in the Tower regarding Smeaton and Norris, could well have made Anne look guilty or have been enough ammunition and “evidence” for those conspiring against her.

Mooning Over Anne

When Mrs Stonor, one of the ladies chosen to attend Anne Boleyn in the Tower, spoke to Anne about Smeaton being held in the Tower and having to wear “irons”, Anne was quick to comment “that is because he is no gentleman”3 and she went on to tell of Mark mooning over her:-
“I never spake with him since but upon Saturday before May Day [29th April], and then I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence; and I asked why he was so sad, and he answered and said it was no matter. And then I said, “You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man because you be an inferior person.” “No, no,” said he, ” a look sufficed me ; and thus fare you well.””4

Mark Smeaton’s Confession

Those of us who believe that Anne Boleyn was 100% innocent of all the charges laid against her struggle to understand why Mark Smeaton confessed to sleeping with the Queen.

  • Was his confession tortured out of him?
  • Did he confess in an attempt to save himself? Was he promised a pardon if he confessed?
  • Was Mark promised a swifter and more merciful death if he complied and confessed?
  • Was he living in some kind of fantasy land? Did he actually believe that Anne loved him and that they had a relationship?
  • Was it revenge for her rejecting him and humiliating him?
  • Was he “scrupulous”? Did he see sin where there was none and see himself as guilty of adultery for fantasizing about Anne?

Was Smeaton Tortured?

Unfortunately, we just don’t know whether Mark Smeaton was tortured. He was taken to Cromwell’s house in Stepney for interrogation and although I cannot see Cromwell having a racking room there, Smeaton could have been tortured psychologically or in the way The Spanish Chronicle describes:-

“Then he [Cromwell] called two stout young fellows of his, and asked for a rope and a cudgel, and ordered them to put the rope, which was full of knots, round Mark’s head, and twisted it with the cudgel until Mark cried out, “Sir Secretary, no more, I will tell the truth, ” and then he said, “The Queen gave me the money. ” “Ah, Mark, ” said Cromwell, “I know the Queen gave you a hundred nobles, but what you have bought has cost over a thousand, and that is a great gift even for a Queen to a servant of low degree such as you. If you do not tell me all the truth I swear by the life of the King I will torture you till you do. ” Mark replied, “Sir, I tell you truly that she gave it to me.” Then Cromwell ordered him a few more twists of the cord, and poor Mark, overcome by the torment, cried out, “No more, Sir, I will tell you everything that has happened.” And then he confessed all, and told everything as we have related it, and how it came to pass.”5

Although this is what is recorded in The Spanish Chronicle, we have no other primary source evidence to back this up and George Constantine, one of Henry Norris’s servants, said that “the saying was that he was first grievously racked, which I never could know of a truth”6 and Lancelot de Carles wrote that “Mark was forced to answer the accusation against him, without being tortured, he deliberately said that the Queen had three times yielded to his passion.”7 Whatever the truth regarding his alleged torture, Mark Smeaton was interrogated for around 24 hours, which suggests that he didn’t willingly confess and that some pressure was put on him. This pressure could have been physical, psychological or it could have been some kind of deal.

Mark Smeaton was a lowly court musician and perhaps he was seen as expendable or perhaps Cromwell and his men could get away with torturing him, something that they could not risk to do with someone like Sir Henry Norris. Lancelot de Carles writes of how, when Henry VIII rode back from the May Day joust with Henry Norris, he accused him of committing adultery with Anne and then offered “to spare [Norris’s] life and goods, although he was guilty, if he would tell him the truth.” Did Cromwell try to strike some similar deal with Mark Smeaton and then break that deal after Mark confessed? Perhaps so.

I doubt that we will ever know what caused Mark Smeaton to confess to sleeping with the Queen and why he didn’t later retract his confession, but this young musician’s life was cut short on the 17th May 1536 when he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

More on Mark Smeaton

You can find out more about Mark Smeaton in the following articles:-

  • Mark Smeaton Part 1 – Covers how Mark rose from humble beginnings to being a member of Anne Boleyn’s inner circle.
  • Mark Smeaton Part 2 – Mark Smeaton’s role in Anne Boleyn’s fall and the Boleyn faction, and how his life ended.
  • Mark Smeaton the Scrupulous? – A look at Mark Smeaton’s confession and whether he was scrupulous and saw sin where there was none. Did he consider lustful thoughts as adultery and that’s why he confessed?

Notes and Sources

1 – The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England – ed. Hume, p57 – available online
2 – Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, G W Bernard, p153
3 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p169
4 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p169
5 – The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England – ed. Hume, p61 – available online
6 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p124
7 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p125

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