Mark Smeaton

Mark Smeaton
Born c. 1512
Died 17 May 1536 (aged 2324)
Tower Hill, London
Cause of death Decapitation
Resting place Tower of London, London, United Kingdom
51°30′31″N 0°04′37″W / 51.508611°N 0.076944°W / 51.508611; -0.076944
Occupation Court musician to Henry VIII

Mark Smeaton (c. 1512 – 17 May 1536) was a musician at the court of Henry VIII of England, in the household of Queen Anne Boleyn. Smeaton, the Queen's brother George Boleyn (Viscount Rochford), Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton were executed for alleged treason and adultery with Queen Anne.

Smeaton's background

Smeaton was a handsome musician and dancer in the King's household and later transferred into the Queen's, and was famed for his talents as a singer. He could play the lute, viol, virginals and the organ. His exact date of birth is not known, but he was probably around 23 when he died. Possibly of Flemish-French Flemish origin, the name Smeaton could be derived from the surnames de Smet or de Smedt. Smeaton originally joined the choir of Henry VIII's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey. However, after his voice broke and Wolsey fell from grace, he was transferred from the Cardinal's household to Henry's Chapel Royal, where his musical ability came to the notice of Henry's wife, Anne Boleyn, who was a great patron of the arts, and he was transferred to her household. Smeaton was possibly, as tradition has it, the son of a carpenter and a seamstress. Established as a court musician, he was named a Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1532.

Because of his lowly social origin, he was never part of the Queen's intimate circle of companions, which included her favourite ladies-in-waiting and courtiers. Anne herself once reprimanded him for assuming she would speak to him in the same way she would speak to an aristocrat. A poem by the courtier Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder made reference to his apparent social-climbing.

His arrest

His unhappiness was said to have caught Anne's attention one day in her chamber at Winchester, when she sent for him to play the virginals. As Anne later confessed, "[On] Saturday before May Day… I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence. And I asked him why he was so sad, and he answered and said it was no matter." Smeaton's reply was non-committal. Anne replied, "You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a nobleman, because you are an inferior person." Knowing the truth of her words, Smeaton miserably replied, "No, no, Madam. A look sufficeth, thus fare you well."

Unfortunately for Smeaton, his conversation with the Queen was quickly reported to Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's advisors, who was looking for evidence of Anne's committing treason and adultery. It is generally accepted that Anne was accused of adultery in order to free her husband, Henry VIII, to marry a new wife, Jane Seymour, to whom he was betrothed the day after her execution. Smeaton was arrested on 30 April. No one at first noticed Smeaton's absence. Cromwell took Smeaton to his house in Stepney and supposedly tortured him. The usually unreliable Spanish Chronicle detailed that Smeaton was tortured with a knotted cord around his eyes. Anne is not thought to have noticed his disappearance or been informed of his arrest.[1]

At 6 pm on May Day, he was sent to the Tower of London. Allegedly upon the rack, Smeaton cracked and "confessed" to being Anne's lover. However, this confession did not match up to the facts. Smeaton could not possibly have had sex with Anne on 13 May 1535 at Greenwich as he had confessed, because the Queen was at Richmond then. He is also thought to have supplied the names of certain of Anne's circle, who were also arrested. Afterwards he was put in a cell in the Tower of London. Other accusations alleged that the Queen had committed adultery with Sir Francis Weston, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and with her own brother, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford. However, besides Smeaton, all the other "lovers" maintained their innocence, with Smeaton the only one to admit his "guilt", as well as the only one who was tortured. Out of all the supposed "lovers," Smeaton's arrest caused the greatest scandal. People were shocked that the Queen would stoop to have an affair with a person of low degree.[2] Before Smeaton was arrested, he spent lavishly on horses and liveries, which was strange, as Smeaton earned only £100 a year. The implication was that Smeaton received the money from the queen in exchange for "services" as her lover.[1]

A different version of the events surrounding Smeaton's guilty plea is told by Agnes Strickland. Smeaton was lured into signing the incriminating deposition by the subtlety of Sir William Fitzwilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton. The latter noticed Smeaton's terror and replied, "Subscribe, Mark, and you will see what will come of it," as Fitzwilliam tried to make Smeaton feel dishonourable enough to confess. Whether Smeaton was tortured or coaxed into guilt, "it was generally said that he had his life promised him, but it was not fit to let him live to tell tales."

Trial and execution

The evidence against him rested on his expenditure and the one reported conversation. Smeaton's trial took place at Westminster Hall, but it was generally believed there was no question of his guilt. Smeaton was condemned to death on 12 May 1536, as were the four other men accused of being the Queen's lovers. Anne herself was condemned on the 15th. It was alleged by one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, thought to be Elizabeth Browne, countess of Worcester, "admitted some of her court to come into her chamber at undue hours".[3] On news that Smeaton was now clapped in irons, she replied dismissively, "he was a person of mean birth and the others were all gentlemen". When she heard that Smeaton had failed to withdraw his "confession" in fully explicit terms, Anne was said to have been angry.

As Smeaton was led to his execution, he stumbled back from the bloody scaffold. Collecting himself, he said despairingly, "Masters, I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death". Smeaton was granted the "mercy" of a beheading, rather than the usual brutal quartering assigned to commoners. This is thought to have been due to his co-operation with Anne's enemies. The other four men were also beheaded.

Smeaton's body was buried in a common grave with another accused adulterer with the queen, William Brereton. Years after Smeaton's death, Queen Mary convinced herself that her sister Elizabeth, whom she considered a rival for her throne, was illegitimate.[2] She repeated several times that she thought Elizabeth had the "face and countenance" of the doomed young Smeaton.[4] However, Elizabeth's resemblance to Henry VIII was so extreme that Mary had little luck in swaying anyone else to her way of thinking.

Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder allegedly wrote a poem about the five executed men, with this verse dedicated to the doomed Smeaton:

Ah! Mark, what moan should I for thee make more,
Since that thy death thou hast deserved best,
Save only that mine eye is forced sore
With piteous plaint to moan thee with the rest?
A time thou hadst above thy poor degree,
The fall whereof thy friends may well bemoan:
A rotten twig upon so high a tree
Hath slipped thy hold, and thou art dead and gone.

Smeaton was portrayed by Gary Bond in the 1969 costume film Anne of the Thousand Days. The film depicts him being tortured by Cromwell's henchmen. In 1971, Michael Osborne portrayed Smeaton in the second episode of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. One scene shows the knotted rope being twisted onto his eyes. Smeaton appeared in the second season of Showtime's The Tudors. He was played by David Alpay. In the series, he is depicted as having a sexual relationship with Anne's brother, George Boleyn. This may have been based on the theories of Retha Warnicke, who argued that Smeaton and George Boleyn may have had a sexual relationship.[5] One source speculates that he may have been homosexual.[6]

He is fleshed out as a character in the books "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel (both of which won Booker Prizes) and consequently in "Wolf Hall", a TV series based on those books. The story is told from the point of view of Cromwell, hence actual torture is not suggested, instead intimidation and clever manipulation by innuendo are combined to obtain his confession, and damning testimony against those who became his co-accused. The book portrays the executions as the culmination of a careful vendetta against the five men by Cromwell, in revenge for their production of a mocking dramatisation of the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey shortly after his death.

Smeaton appears in Gaetano Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena, in which the character is a trouser role assigned to a contralto.



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