Mark Smeaton

Mark Smeaton was a musician at the court of Henry VIII who got caught up in the adultery trial of Anne Boleyn. He was the only one of Anne's accused lovers to plead guilty.

Mark was born around 1512, which means he was only in his early twenties when his life was abruptly ended by the blow of an axe. There is no record he ever married or had children.

Almost nothing is known of his life before he came to court. There are legends that he was the son of a carpenter, born in Flanders, and that he changed his name from de Smedt when he arrived in England.

Cavendish writes of him in his Metrical Visions:



My ffather / a Carpynter / and labored with hys hand
With the swett of his face / he purchast hys lyvyng
Ffor small was hys rent / muche lesse was hys land
My mother in Cottage / vsed daily spynnyng 
Loo in what mysery, / was my begynnyng
Tyll that Gentill prynce / kyng of this realme
Toke me / de stercore / et erigens pauperem

Mark began his career as a choir boy in Wolsey's chapel. He was fortunate enough to have natural musical ability which helped him retain his position even after his voice broke. He played several instruments, composed his own music, and was a skilled dancer. When Wolsey fell from grace, Mark was was transferred to the king's chapel, where his talents brought him into royal favor.

Henry's privy purse account records show regular gifts to Mark of clothing and substantial sums of money. He was eventually appointed a groom of the privy chamber, though his only duties appear to be that of a musician. Perhaps it was a ''ceremonial" post so he could get the salary but carry on in his usual occupation.

Anne Boleyn, too, was a patron of the arts, and it's likely she sent Mark gifts as well, but she does not appear to have taken much of a personal interest in him. Later, she said she had only spoken to him once. As a musician, Mark would have been part of the ''background noise" of palace life.

George Boleyn is also known to have sent Mark a gift on at least one occasion. A book of poetry belonging to George is inscribed as a gift to a ''Mark Sn." Because the poetry contains a satire about marriage, some have taken this as an indication that Mark and George were having a homosexual affair, but there is absolutely no evidence to corroborate the assertion. If there was any ''unnatural" sexual behavior on the part of those accused, it would have been mentioned in the trial, as well as the gossip of the day. It would have been considered damning evidence of their depravity. Henry threw everything but the kitchen sink at Anne and her accused lovers, including the allegation that they laughed at his poetry, but there was never a mention of homosexuality.

The sudden wealth and attention of the nobility must have been intoxicating for this young man, much like a modern kid from a poor neighborhood becoming a rock star. It seems he was extravagant and flashy with his new-found wealth. Alison Weir says Mark kept horses at court - sort of the equivalent of buying luxury sports cars - and had servants of his own that wore his livery. His arrogant behavior may have created a great deal of resentment from the other palace servants.

Despite Mark's success and favor with the nobility, he was still a commoner, and none of the nobles ever let him forget it. In all of the records, he is referred to by his first name. The significance of this may be somewhat lost on modern readers.

Those of gentle blood were almost always referred to by their family name or title, so consistently that sometimes we're not even sure of what their given name was. Only family and intimate friends could use a person's given name. (Will Somers was the only person allowed to call the king ''Henry." Even the king's wives never used that name, except possibly in their most intimate moments.)  Having everyone call him ''Mark" said that Smeaton had no stature to respect.

The notion that Mark was arrogant and behaving above his station may have some validity. The sole time he tried to speak with the queen, she had to put him in his place for his insolence.

Anne recounted the conversation during her imprisonment in the Tower.

I found him [Mark] 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.

Mark's response was very impolite at best. Instead of bowing and answering her question, as was proper, he sighed and said it wasn't important. He was hoping Anne would be curious or flirtatious enough to try to coax it out of him and he could draw her into a conversation.

Anne immediately recognized this tactic for what it was.

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.”

Anne's response wasn't as harsh as it sounds. In fact, it was far kinder than necessary. Instead of ignoring him or ordering him punished for insolence, she explained why she wasn't going to play the flirtatious game with him. As a commoner, Mark was grossly overstepping his bounds by even attempting to be so familiar with the queen. The best modern comparison is a janitor walking up to a CEO on the job, calling her ''honey," and expecting her to respond in kind.

“No, no,” said he, "a look sufficed me; and thus fare you well.”

Mark's retort was even ruder than his previous comment. Not the part about the glance being sufficient, but the fact that he dismissed the queen. A commoner could not say to a queen, "That's all. Goodbye." He was supposed to wait for her to end the interaction and dismiss him.

As Suzannah Lipscomb notes in 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII:

“It was not for a commoner to disregard [Anne’s] question in this way, nor then dismiss himself from her presence. Anne’s tart reminder to him of the nature of hierarchy is a reaction to this and contrasts greatly with her kindly opening question…It is he who behaved familiarly with Anne, and the abrupt, inappropriate and slightly disturbing nature of his remarks (a look sufficed me) suggests the sort of imaginative fantasy one currently associates with celebrity stalkers.”

 If Mark behaved with this much arrogance and insolence to the queen, how was he behaving with the other servants? It's no wonder that resentment grew.

The Spanish Chronicle illustrates this in one version of Mark's fall. Keep in mind this source should be taken with a very large grain of salt because of its factual errors and biases, but it's an example of the stories that were going around court at the time.


There was much jealousy of him [Mark], and many murmured to see him so smart and lavish. One of the Queen's household had some words with him, and Mark threatened him, which offended the gentleman very much; and Mark, being always suspicious of him, conveyed his suspicions to the Queen, who sent for the gentleman and said to him, "Thomas Percy, [brother of Henry Percy]" for that was his name, "I desire that there shall be no quarrelling with Mark, and if any annoyance is caused him I shall be very angry."
Percy answered, "Madam, you are aware that I have served you for many years, and I will not be ill-used by one who only came yesterday."
But the Queen ordered them to be good friends, and Percy could easily see that she bore great love for Mark; so he must needs go to Secretary Cromwell, and said to him, "I wish to speak to you."
"Say what thou wishest, Percy," answered the Secretary, and then Percy said, "Your worship will know that it is hardly three months since Mark came to Court, and that he only has one hundred pounds salary from the King, of which he has only received a third, and he has just bought three horses that have cost him over five hundred ducats, as well as very rich arms and fine liveries for his servants for the day of the ridings, such as no gentleman at Court has been able to do, and many are wondering where he has got the money. I can tell you more, for I know that on many occasions he has been in the Queen's chamber, and your worship should look to it."
Cromwell answered him, "Hold thy tongue, Percy, and keep this secret; when the King comes back I shall learn the truth; meanwhile keep your eyes open and see if you note any signs, and who speaks to Mark."

It seems Mark's flashy lifestyle and his arrogance were what brought him to Cromwell's attention and made him decide to peg Mark as one of Anne's accused lovers. The choice was very calculated, as much so as the charge of incest. By charging Mark, Cromwell was saying, ''Look how depraved this woman is! She'll even sleep with commoners!"

Cromwell's tactics were successful. Rumors began to swirl regarding the queen's depraved conduct. Among Catholic religious conservatives, Anne Boleyn already had a bad reputation, and was sometimes referred to as ''the Great Whore." In their minds, it was no stretch to believe she would use peasants - and even her brother - to satisfy her monstrous lusts.

The Emperor, Charles V, wrote to Chapuys and related the story that he'd been told,


Hannaert has written to Granvelle on the 9th that he had just heard that the king of England's concubine had been surprised in bed with the King's organist.


Mark was the only one of Anne's accused lovers who confessed and plead guilty. Coincidentally, as a commoner, he was the only one who could legally be tortured to extract a confession.

The records are silent as to what compelled Mark to confess. George Constantine later wrote that he'd heard that Mark was ''grievously racked" though he did not know for certain if it was true. The Spanish Chronicle gives a narrative version of this story:


THE night before they held the jousts the King came to Greenwich, and all the gentlemen were very gay, particularly Master Norris and Master Brereton. On the day of the jousts, which was the 1st of May, Cromwell was going to London and sent for Mark, and said, "Mark, come and dine with me, and after dinner we will return together."
Mark, suspecting nothing, accepted the invitation; and when they arrived at Cromwell's house in London, before dinner, he took Mark by the hand and led him into his chamber, where there were six gentlemen of his, and as soon as he had got him in the chamber he said, "Mark, I have wanted to speak to you for some days, and I have had no opportunity till now. Not only I, but many other gentlemen, have noticed that you are ruffling it very
bravely of late. We know that four months ago you had nothing, for your father has hardly bread to eat, and now you are buying horses and arms, and have made showy devices and liveries such as no lord of rank can excel. Suspicion has arisen either that you have stolen the money or that someone had given it to you, although it is a great deal for anyone to give unless it were the King or Queen, and the King has been away for a fortnight. I give you notice now that you will have to tell me the truth before you leave here, either by force or good-will."
Mark, understanding as soon as Cromwell began to speak that the affair was no joke, did not know what to say, and became confused. "You had better tell the truth willingly," said Cromwell; and then Mark said that the money had been lent to him; to which Cromwell answered, "How can that be, that the merchants lend so much money, unless on plate, gold, or revenue, and at heavy interest, whilst you have nothing to pledge except that chain you wear. I am sorry you will not tell what you know with a good grace."
Then he 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.
When the Secretary heard it he was terror-stricken, and asked Mark if he knew of anyone else besides himself who had relations with the Queen. Mark, to escape further torture, told all he had seen of Master Norris and Brereton, and swore that he knew no more. Then Cromwell wrote a letter to the King, and sent Mark to the Tower.

It's possible no one laid a hand on Mark and the threat of torture was enough to make him crack and to confess to whatever they wanted. As a commoner, Mark's execution for treason would have been hideously painful. He would have been hanged by the neck to strangle until he was almost dead, then cut down, and laid on his back to watch his stomach be slit open and his entrails tossed on a bed of coals before being beheaded. He may have been offered the faster, painless death of beheading in exchange for his confession.

Whether from Mark's testimony or from another servant's perjury, an elaborate tale was concocted in which Anne had an ''old woman" hide Mark in a cupboard until she had emptied the bedroom of her servants. She would call for marmalade jelly as a code word for Mark to be brought to her bed. The utter unfeasibility of such a scenario makes it unworthy of further comment, and it should have been likewise dismissed out of hand by her judges, who were aware of its wild improbability.

Some scholars believe that Mark actually felt guilty. The Bible states that a man who looks upon a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his heart already. Maybe this verse was used against Mark in his interrogation.

Whether it was torture, religious manipulation, or fear of an agonizing death, we'll never know what made Mark break unless more records of the era are discovered.

Chapuys wrote to the Emperor:

Only the groom confessed that he had been three times with the said putain and Concubine. The others were condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession.

As with the other charges in the indictment, the dates on which Mark was accused of sleeping with the queen do not match up with reality. On one occasion, she was heavily pregnant with Princess Elizabeth, and would not have risked sexual activity which was believed to bring on miscarriage. On another occasion, she was in a different palace, miles away from the supposed location, in full view of a thousand people.

Mark plead guilty at trial and threw himself upon the mercy of the king. All of Anne's accused lovers were convicted, and sentenced to the full horrors of a traitor's death. The king got to appear magnanimous by commuting it to simple beheading.

On May 17, Mark went to the scaffold with George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, and William Brereton. The lowest in rank, he was the last man to die. The scaffold must have been soaked with blood when he stepped up to the block, standing most likely in a puddle of blood, as he said his final words. One version of the execution has Mark stating, ''Masters, I pray you all to pray for me, for I have deserved the death," before laying his head on the block.

There have been various interpretations of that last statement, speculating on why Mark felt guilty, or whether his words were intended to ensure he wouldn't be condemned to the more gruesome execution at the last minute.

However, we can't be certain it's an exact quote. Other accounts of the execution - such as the Vienna Archives - report differently:

After him Norris was beheaded, then Weston and Brereton, and Marc, the player on the spinnet, who said scarcely anything except to cry mercy of God and the King, and beg people to pray for their souls.

Assuming the quote is exact and he did say he ''deserved the death," the significance of these words hangs on that article, ''the." By saying he deserved the death - the death of an adulterous traitor - Mark was seemingly confirming his guilt. If Mark merely said he deserved death, his words would be no different from the final words of any other executed prisoner. Everyone was expected to say they were a sinner who deserved to die. We also have to take into account that English was not Mark's first language, and he might have accidentally inserted a word where none was needed.

Anne was grieved when she heard that Mark had not recanted on the scaffold. As much as it would defy convention, Anne had expected it. Otherwise, Mark was dying with the stain of sin on his soul.

Has he [Mark] 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! 

Mark's body was conveyed with the others back to the Tower. The commoners were buried outside, behind the chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula. The men were put into two graves, Henry Norris and William Brereton in one, and Francis Weston sharing his final resting place with Mark. As a man of noble blood, George Boleyn was taken into the chapel and buried near the altar, where his sister would be interred a few days later.

The site of the men's graves is now occupied by the Jewel House. During its construction, the bones they uncovered were gathered and placed in the crypt of the chapel. Mark's remains, if they survived, may be buried there.

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