The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day -19

On 30th April 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn had just 19 days to live and everything was moving quickly.

On 30th April 1536, court musician Mark Smeaton was arrested and taken to the home of the king’s master secretary and right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell. What happened to the lowly Smeaton in those next hours, we don’t know for sure, but he ended up making a confession.

And also on this day in 1536, a theologian reported witnessing an argument between King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn. Find out more about these two events on this day in history, in the lead-up to Anne Boleyn’s execution, in this video:

There are lots and lots of Tudor history videos on my Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society YouTube channel, so please do consider subscribing – click here. I add new content on a daily basis. If you prefer audio, then my talks are also available as podcasts on Podbean or your usual podcast app. And, if you prefer reading, then this website has thousands of articles, including one on 30th April 1536.

And today’s normal “on this day” video is on Thomas Audley, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, who played a part in Anne Boleyn’s fall:

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10 thoughts on “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day -19”
  1. I don’t think it was mere coincidence that Mark Smeaton was arrested first. He is the only one of the five men whom Cromwell could have extracted a ‘confession’ from or have gotten the ‘truth’ from due to his lowly standing and position. I have said previously I don’t know if Smeaton was tortured or not but the option of beheading if he cooperated or a full traitor’s death if he didn’t would have been very persuasive so torture may not have been needed.

  2. “Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene king your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard, when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the king was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well. Yet from the protracted conference of the council (for whom the crowd was waiting until it was quite dark, expecting that they would return to London), it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed.”

    These words of Alexander Alesius are so moving, they sum up the terrible anger and desperation and the fear of these last days and the witness he provided is intimate and shows the close relationship that Anne and Henry had with their daughter. I am always very moved by this scene between Anne, with her only child, her little daughter in her arms, appealing to Henry, who also loved Elizabeth, despite his feelings now of hatred towards her mother, to see reason and to listen to her. As the article points out, however, Alesius didn’t hear what was said but angry and passionate words were exchanged between Anne and Henry, most probably Henry Norris was the subject of their arguments and Anne was hoping to placate her angry husband. Maybe she hoped the sight of Elizabeth would calm him down, soften his heart, but it was apparently hopeless and according to Alesius Henry remained in a rare public rage.

    Alesius is the only source for Elizabeth being at Court and many historians doubt his testimony which was written many years later to Elizabeth who was a reformer and theologian but he also refers to staying in London and the Council being constantly in session until later that night, which it was because of this crisis. However, he was most certainly in London on 19th May when he visited Archbishop Cranmer and he must have known himself when he was in London and his information sums up events one would expect as a result of the events of the previous day. A row with one’s spouse or partner is the normal fallout from an act of indiscretion or something being taken out of context concerning a potential act of infidelity or an accusation of the same. Henry’s reaction is as perfectly understandable as the “injured” party who has heard his wife and one of his closest friends have exchanged words that may suggest they have had an intimate relationship and are plotting his death as Anne’s desperate reaction was as the ” accused ” party trying to explain what really happened to an outraged husband. We must not forget that these are two passionate human beings, a man and a woman who had explosive rows and then made up passionately. Ives described their relationship as “Summer and storms” . We cannot judge Henry as being unreasonable here, either, not even with hindsight. How would we feel if someone told us that our husband or wife the day before had been talking openly about marriage if we were out of the way? I know this is speculation but given how angry Henry was that’s how he heard about Norris and Anne. We know it was said in jest, Anne was probably trying to tell him it was a love game gone wrong and it meant nothing, Norris had also probably tried to do the same, but Henry wasn’t in any mood to listen and Anne was forced to give up. It must have been heart breaking, the sight of Anne the mother, her child, who was probably crying with these raised voices, in her arms, desperately pleading with her angry husband through an open window, only to be disappointed and dismissed and left with her future and marriage in tatters. Of course Alesies was writing the truth, the sad and terrible truth. Yes, he might not have heard their words, but their reactions and motions and expressions said it all, loud and clear.

    1. First off it’s nice to see your avatar again.
      You’re much more forgiving than I am. You come at this as an argument between a hurt man and a woman who accidentally hurt him.
      I’m a lot more jaded. I see this as Henry being terribly annoyed by the woman he’s in the process of getting rid of and wants her to leave him alone. I think everything Henry did during the next 20 days was for show to make him appear the injured party. I think he was well aware that the exchange between Anne and Norris was innocent and meant nothing but also how the accusation could help him so he went along with it. He had known Anne for over a decade and was well aware that she would not have been unfaithful to him. Ever. The situation with Norris May 1st was a set-up by Henry to reenforce the false accusations against Norris and Anne to help Henry achieve his goal. I don’t think Henry knew everything would lead to executions but neither do I think he cared bad long as he was free of ‘that woman’. When Henry married Jane so soon after Anne’s murder I think that was Henry no longer being able to pretend.

      1. I believe we can see it in the wider context as well, he wanted to get rid of Anne and he didn’t want to know when she bothered him, but I don’t believe he expected Henry Norris to get mixed up in this and was hurt by his alleged exchanges with Anne and by the allegations. I am not sure if he believed it was an innocent exchange, although he does apparently calm down so maybe he did, but I really think he was shocked at the allegations concerning Norris. The rest I don’t think he actually cared too much, he put on a show for the camera, if you know what I mean. I doubt Henry’s emotions were quite as turned off as we think and we are looking through a glass darkly but also through a 500 year-old lens.

        Yes, I have managed to play about and get my Avatars back up. I think they went when I changed my email address. I don’t know why they changed on everything but that’s technology, odd.

  3. Mark Smeaton was an up and coming young man at the Court of King Henry Viii, but we know very little about him and he was maybe still in his early twenties and he was a talented musician who received many gifts as his payments. Although officially in Henry’s employment Anne took him under her wing and he no doubt as did a number of young courtiers developed a crush on the Queen. Courtly love was an old tradition going back to the troubadours and Anne was very flirtatious. It was natural to love ones Queen in her service but Mark had developed a more personal crush, if still an innocent one. Anne too had rewarded him with beautiful things and he would have noticed much of went on in her chambers, the various parties she had and played for her and her ladies. However, his status would have kept him strictly at arms length and he would have had to follow strict protocols and Anne herself told him off for mooning around her apartments and daring to speak to her. His response about needing a loving look was considered impertinent. Anne’s description of this incident was after the fact, while in the Tower but it was evidence enough for Cromwell and the Grand Juries.

    It was 24 terrible hours that sealed the fate of Mark, a Queen and four gentlemen. Just what he thought when he was invited to dine with Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell is only a guess but I am sure he felt proud and excited. Did Cromwell want to discuss his career, to hire him? I can just imagine how pleased he must have felt at such an honour when he arrived at the house. However, it all turned into a nightmare. 24 hours of constant questions about the Queen, the clothes he wore, how fine they were, the gifts he had received, all very normal, but Cromwell had a case to make. Smeaton was definitely chosen as a convenient fall guy, his lower status and knowledge and access to Anne meant he was the perfect target to frame others. We don’t know if he was tortured but it is possible that some form of physical and psychological pressure was brought to bear on him to terrorize him into a confession and to get him to name others. George Constantine was a man servant to Henry Norris and heard Smeaton was tortured and the News of the World or Spanish Chronicle, which is extremely unreliable, said he had knots tied around his eyes and tightened. The rack was mentioned but that is highly unlikely. One needed a warrant from the King and none was issued unless it was used illegally and that was not the M.O of Cromwell. It is more likely that sleep deprivation, walking torture, stress interrogation was used and just good old-fashioned terror. I can imagine 24 hours with Cromwell was enough to get any confession. That Smeaton didn’t recant during the trial or at his last moments also indicated that he had been told it didn’t matter what he said, he was going to die anyway and if he “confessed” and stuck to his fake confession that he would be granted mercy. The Kings mercy in cases of treason meant being granted the normally swifter death of the axe by decapitation rather than the full horror of hanging, drawing and quartering. For a woman the terrible punishment for treason was death by fire, as it was for murder and mercy meant beheading. Anne was outraged when she learned that Smeaton had not exonerated her even on the scaffold and Thomas Wyatt blamed him for the deaths of the other men. History has condemned him for his betrayal and apparent cowardice. It does so too harshly.

    Poor Norris was back in the frame because of this confession and the other man named was most likely George Boleyn given that he was the other man arrested, but the news of his arrest was kept from his sister, who really didn’t know what was going on for several days. Norris was named as was Smeaton apparently under pressure by another victim, Lady Worcester whose gossip had brought the Queens behaviour to light, but that was during an angry exchange with her brother, Sir Anthony Browne. Browne informed Cromwell, who informed the King and somehow his own brother by law, William Brereton became embroiled in this whole mess, partly because Cromwell had found him to be a nuisance and a rival and to stand in his way politically in Wales and he was also arrested. The dead mans shoes incident was not part of the indictments but Cromwell put two and two together and came up with five and now him being named by Smeaton confirmed the rising suspicions against him. It was little wonder Henry was doing his nut and confronted a man he really should have known better and believed when he swore he was innocent.

    As for Mark Smeaton, he really can’t be held to account. This young man has been judged far too harshly and he must have been absolutely terrified. Unlike his co accused he couldn’t rely on the royal prerogative to commute the terrible sentences to beheading. He was the one who was put under the full pressure of the law and he feared something far worse if he didn’t cooperate. Perhaps he romanticized about being the Queens lover but I really believe he was just terrified out of his mind. I hope he found pardon in the next world as he begged “Masters pray for me”. Maybe he did feel he deserved to die for his false confession, his perjury, but I personally can’t help but feel compassion for him.

    1. I can’t imagine that under such terrible coercion he put his soul in danger. He wasn’t a coward. He was an absolutely terrified young man. I agree that history has been too harsh on him. How would any of us respond if the only options we had were to have your head cut off or to cut you open while you’re alive and pull your innards out. I would choose beheading.

      1. I agree with you Michael, we must not judge Smeaton too harshly, Cromwell must have put undue pressure on him to get him to confess three times to sleeping with the queen, the poor lad was just an innocent court musician and he was caught up in the harsh Tudor politics of the day, both Cromwell and the king wanted to be rid of Anne and he was the innocent tool used to bring her down, he must have been threatened with the awful sentence of hanging drawing and quartering, nothing else would have made him confess, the sentence for treason for common people was just that, but noblemen had it much easier they had the axe, The Spanish Chronicle is probably nearer to the truth than we realise, Cromwell probably did have some henchmen at his home, torture or the threat of torture has been used for centuries to extricate confessions and it’s highly likely this was used on Smeaton, in Plaidy’s novel ‘Murder Most Royal’ she has Cromwell inviting Smeaton to dine at his home and he goes all unsuspecting, only to walk into a trap, she describes him being tortured by the ropes and cudgel until wretchedly he says what Cromwell wants to hear, and thus implicates Weston Norris and Brereton, Jane Rochford babbles out to a listening crowd that Anne and George we’re lovers and that is where the incest charge came from, in fact we know this outrageous charge was merely the idea of Cromwell I fail to see how it could be anyone else, and he somehow coerced the king into believing it, or the king just conveniently chose to believe it, the rumours at court were that Smeaton had been tortured and they were probably right, it was a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, Cromwell told him he was going to die but he could have the easier sentence if he were to confess and name others, maybe he did implicate the others as Miss.Plaidy puts it in her novel, but there were the flammatory words Anne had said to Norris and I feel when Cromwell heard about that he lept on that chance, he must have reported back to the king about that conversation, and that was the topic Anne and the king were having a heated argument about, in ‘TheTudors’ which we all know did digress from the truth a bit, it did show that same argument with Anne holding Elizabeth entreating after Henry, though I don’t think the subject was about Norris, they were in the gardens and Anne was running after Henry, she implored him with all the love that had been between them, Anne herself might have said similar words but her passionate entreaty did her no good, Alexander Ales the theologian was a witness to that scene yet maddeningly he was not near enough to hear their words, the scene did move him and he told Elizabeth many years later, he was another champion of the queen so he would have extolled her virtues to Elizabeth which would have given her comfort, I believe the argument was about Anne’s dead men’s shoes remark, she must have tried to explain it away as just foolish talk but the atmosphere between them now was highly charged, as Bq says it was tense and fraught, the next day was May 2nd and Anne was getting ever nearer to her doom.

        1. I’m not convinced Henry actually believed any of the charges against the six accused but was more than willing to go along with them if it would get him out of his marriage to Anne. I don’t know if Cromwell actually kept Henry informed as to what he was doing or if Henry simply told him that he needed an ‘out’ from Anne and just let Cromwell do his thing. I feel this way because Henry could be very cruel and vindictive and Cromwell was a brilliant and devious schemer.

        2. Hi Christine, the use of such a thing as a rope and cudgel is entirely possible because its easy enough to put around a forehead even unsuspecting and then tighten and loosen. It would be extremely painful and I doubt it would need to be used many times before a confession was given. Unlike the rack, Little Ease or any of the main instruments of restrictions or torture, the Scavengers Daughter, and so on or even water torment, it would still leave the victim able to walk. The marks could also be hidden. I don’t think Cromwell would authorise it for putting out of eyes, although there are tales of such things, but he might threaten it. Tightening it around a forehead would be excruciating. I am perfectly content that we can say a good deal of unauthorised torture happened in history and still happens now. For example we still torture terror suspects. Stress positions and water boarding are forms of torture. Interrogation techniques includes freezing people in cold rooms or turning the heat up too high, sleep deprivation, a lack of food and drink, putting a bag over the head and psychological torture. The last is probably even worse as the body will go beyond pain at some point, the mind now that is different and we can be manipulated into believing we are being tortured. Today we don’t officially torture people here or in the U.S although in many countries its still used. Instead we usd special measures or extreme measures or special interrogation techniques or the police bully people, mentally and physically. These are all euphemisms for torture. The difference, well one is legal the other isn’t. It would not be beyond Cromwell or anyone gathering information on behalf of the state, names of other suspects, to use some form of physical bullying as well as psychological torture and his methods would be advanced and terrifying. Had he been racked we would know for certain. It’s my guess that he didn’t need to be, it wasn’t used more than 80 times in 120 years, the evidence is there for anyone to look at and there isn’t anything but rumours to support it. Cromwell was taking a risk using any kind of unofficial torture but they did have similar phrases to indicate its use and interrogation methods. They used phrases like extreme pressure, which might mean torture. In the case of Francis Dereham this is often used. Many historians believe he was tortured during his second interrogation to get names from him, the only justification for using it. Smeaton named two others, Norris and an unknown conspirator. I certainly wouldn’t rule out some kind of physical persuasion, even without official torture.

  4. I just want to go on the record as agreeing entirely with all Michael Wright has posted on this.

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