The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir


  Master Secretary now constructed what was almost certainly a convincing case against the Queen, in which she was to be charged with adultery with five men—one her own brother, another a lowly musician—and conspiring regicide.

  The five men who over the next few days would be arrested for committing treason with the Queen were George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford; Sir Henry Norris; Sir Francis Weston; Sir William Brereton; and Mark Smeaton.

  George Boleyn was probably the youngest of the three surviving Boleyn siblings, having been no older than twenty-seven when he was preferred to the Privy Council in 1529, the year his father was created Earl of Wiltshire and he himself was given the courtesy title Viscount Rochford.6 His sister’s connection with the King had brought him royal favor, rapid preferment, lucrative offices—including Gentleman of the Privy Chamber (1528), Constable of Dover, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and Master of the Buckhounds—and a career as a leading diplomat, as well as the palace of New Hall, which Henry VIII had renamed Beaulieu, in Essex; and he was not only one of the two noblemen of the King’s Privy Chamber, but also the foremost member of Queen Anne’s court. Both before and after her marriage, she had gathered around her young people with wit, charm, and intelligence, who could be relied upon to ensure that life was never dull, and Lord Rochford was at the core of this inner circle. There was a close bond between Anne and George, who shared—among other things—a love of poetry, George having “the art in meter and verse to make pleasant ditties.”7 The poet Richard Smith wrote admiringly that “Rochford clamb the stately throne which muses hold in Helicon.”8

  Brother and sister were also fervent for religious reform—George’s views, inferred from the French literature he imported, were bordering on the heretical—and both hated and despised Lady Mary. When Katherine of Aragon died, George said “it was a pity” that she “did not keep company with her mother.”9

  George Boleyn had been at court since his early teens, if not before. He married Jane Parker, daughter of Henry, Lord Morley, late in 1524. In looks he was an Adonis,10 in character promiscuous. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s former usher, who had no love for the Boleyn faction that brought his master to ruin, wrote candidly of Rochford’s “sensual appetite”:11

  My life not chaste, my living bestial;

  I forced widows, maidens I did deflower.

  All was one to me, I spared none at all,

  My appetite was all women to devour,

  My study was both day and hour,

  My unlawful lechery, how I might it fulfil,

  Sparing no woman to have on her my will.

  This strongly implies that Rochford omitted even to stop at rape, and—there is no other interpretation that can be placed on Cavendish’s use of the word “bestial”—that he indulged in buggery too.12 Cavendish also refers to Rochford being unable to resist “this unlawful deed,” while:

  … to declare my life in every effect,

  Shame restraineth me the plains to confess,

  Lest the abomination would all the world infect:

  It is so vile, so detestable in words to express,

  For which by the law condemned I am doubtless,

  And for my desert, justly judged to be dead.

  This points at something far worse to contemporary eyes than the lechery to which Rochford, as personified in these verses, had openly confessed, or the crime of treasonable incest for which he would publicly be condemned. It may of course refer to the “lewd adultery” that Cavendish’s Rochford asks people to take example from, yet it is also likely that Cavendish is alluding to illegal sexual practices such as buggery (with women or men) and even homosexuality, then regarded as odious sins against God, with both being capital crimes.13 Rochford himself, in his dying speech, was to confess he had sinned more shamefully than could be imagined, and that he had known no man so evil.14 As he had stoutly denied charges of incest, it is likely that he was referring to other sexual practices then regarded as perversions.

  Rochford’s reputation—and possible unlawful sexual predilections—made him an easy target for Cromwell, who would have realized that any accusations of criminal congress would appear entirely credible, and who was well aware that it would take more serious charges to bring down the formidably powerful Rochford.15

  Rochford’s other notorious vice was his insufferable pride. “Hadst thou not been so proud,” the poet Wyatt would write after George Boleyn’s fall, “for thy great wit, each man would thee bemoan.”

  Sir Henry Norris was the second son of Sir Edward Norris by Frideswide, daughter of Francis, Viscount Lovell, a close friend of Richard III, the last Yorkist king. Sir Henry, a discreet, level-headed man of proven integrity, was Groom of the Stool to the King, and had held this office since before 1529. In this capacity, he was not only the Chief Gentleman of Henry’s Privy Chamber, which was the King’s private household, but its most trusted member and the “best-beloved of the King,”16 whom he had served faithfully for twenty years.17

  There were just twelve Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, and there was rampant competition for places, for these men were closer to the monarch than any other. They had the right of entry to his private chambers, attended on him in shifts, and provided him with daily companionship. They were in a highly privileged and powerful position, able to advise and influence the King, control access to his presence, and exercise patronage. Some were in office simply because Henry liked them, some because of their usefulness, but all were expected to be loyal and trustworthy. Norris’s office of Groom of the Stool obliged him to be present when the King performed his basic natural functions, so he was unavoidably more intimate with his master than most. Yet there was more to his role than that, for any who wished to present a petition to the King had to lay their request before Norris, rather than Cromwell, something that Cromwell may have resented.

  Norris’s other posts reflected Henry’s confidence in his abilities. The King “extended his benignity with wealth, worship, and huge abundance”;18 in 1531 he had made Norris Chamberlain of North Wales, and since then, thanks to the favor of Henry and Anne, Norris had been appointed Keeper of the King’s Privy Purse, Master of the Hart Hounds and of the Hawks, Black Rod in the Parliament House, “graver” of the Tower of London, collector of subsidy in the City of London, weigher of goods in the port of Southampton, High Steward of the University of Oxford, and keeper or steward of many castles, manors, and parks. His modest annual Privy Chamber income of £33. 6s. 8d (£11,650) was boosted by fees and annuities of £400 (£139,700) from other offices, and rents from lands he had been granted or leased.19

  Norris was not only “a man in very great favor with the King,”20 but had also been a supporter of the Boleyn faction since at least 1530. So trustworthy was he considered that he had been one of the few witnesses to the secret marriage of the King and Anne Boleyn in 1533.21

  Norris’s first wife, Mary Fiennes, the daughter of Lord Dacre, died before 1530, leaving behind three young children, and he had recently become betrothed to the Queen’s cousin, Madge Shelton, who had briefly been the King’s mistress in 1535. Norris owned a house at Greenwich, which Henry VIII generously maintained.

  That Anne should have betrayed the King with someone so close to him would have appeared shocking in the extreme. Cavendish believed that ambition blinded Norris and drove him to commit a grave “misdemeanor” against the master whose bounty had been so generous:

  My chance was such I had all thing at will,

  And in my wealth I was to him unkind,

  That thus to me did all my mind fulfil,

  All his benevolence was clean out of mind:

  Oh, alas, alas, in my heart how could I find

  Against my sovereign so secretly to conspire,

  That so gently gave me all that I desire?22

  Cavendish is here referring to the treasonable crimes of which Norris would shortly be accused.

  Sir Francis Weston was twenty-five, and also—since 1532—a Gentleman of the
Privy Chamber; he had served Henry VIII there as a page since at least 1525. The son of Sir Richard Weston, former Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer, by Anne Sandys, one of Queen Katherine’s gentlewomen, he came from an old and honorable family whose seat was Sutton Place, a beautiful Tudor house near Guildford in Surrey; it had been granted to Sir Richard by Henry VIII in 1521.

  Francis was a talented lute player and a first-class athlete—“in active things, who might with thee compare?”23—who was described by the poet Wyatt as a “pleasant” young man, and “well-esteemed.” He had been “daintily nourished under the King’s wing,”24 and over the years had received a number of grants and pensions.25 In 1533, at Anne Boleyn’s coronation, he was dubbed a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath. He was much liked by the King (“who highly favored me and loved me so well”),26 the Queen, and Lord Rochford; he played cards with them all, beating the King at nearly every game, and partnered Henry at tennis and bowls.27 At night the King often chose him as one of those gentlemen who would sleep in his bedchamber and be on call to attend to his needs.28

  When Weston married Anne, the daughter and heiress of Sir Christopher Pickering, in May 1530,29 Henry presented him with ten marks (£1,200) and wished him better fortune than he himself had found in marriage. A fine oak marriage cupboard, bearing the carved portraits of Francis and Anne in relief, is now in the museum at Saffron Walden, Essex. A sixteenth-century portrait at Parham Park in Sussex, of one “Weston Esq. of Sutton [Place], Surrey,” may be a likeness of Francis. He and his wife now had an infant son, Henry, born in 1535.

  Despite this apparent marital felicity, the biased Cavendish refers to “Weston the wanton … that wantonly lived without fear or dread … following his fantasy and his wanton lust;” he castigates Weston for his “unkindness against my sovereign lord,” he who, thanks to Henry’s favor, had his “will and lust in every thing.” In this young man, Cavendish avers, willfulness and “hot lust kindled the fire of filthy concupiscence,” and, “having no regard to princely disdain,” finally that “lust presumed to the Queen.”30 Yet Weston seems to have been generally popular prior to that, for he “was young, and of old lineage and high accomplishments.”31

  Sir William Brereton (or Bryerton) of Aldford, who came from a leading Cheshire family, was clearly another member of Anne Boleyn’s inner circle, and, like Norris and Weston, a Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber, who had been promoted from groom, a position he held since at least 1521.32 In 1531 there is a record of him delivering jewels to Anne Boleyn.33 Brereton, like Norris, was so trusted and liked by Henry and the Boleyn faction, whose staunch adherent he became, that he had been invited to witness Henry’s secret wedding to Anne in January 1533.34 That same year, he was involved in some dealings with Lord Rochford.35

  Despite being a noted seducer of women,36 Brereton was married to the King’s cousin, Elizabeth Somerset, sister of the Earl of Worcester, and was thus highly placed at court and “flourishing in favor.”37 He had given Anne her beloved greyhound, Urian, who was named after Brereton’s brother, a groom of the Privy Chamber. William often accompanied the King and Anne on hunting expeditions, and enjoyed the patronage both of Henry’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, whose steward he was in the Welsh Marches,38 and of Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.39

  Thanks to royal grants of extensive estates and Crown offices worth £1,200 (£401,850) a year,40 and the backing of Richmond, Norfolk, and Queen Anne, Brereton exercised virtually autonomous territorial power in Cheshire and North Wales, where he served as Richmond’s deputy, becoming notorious as an overmighty subject “both in town and field, readily furnished with horse, spear, and shield.”41 Cromwell seems to have viewed Brereton’s power in the marches as a threat to his planned administrative reforms, through which he intended to replace feudal control in Wales by the establishment of English-style shires; these plans were well-advanced by March 1536.42 The elimination of Brereton, and the breaking of his alliance with Richmond and Norfolk, would certainly remove significant barriers to these reforms.43

  At nearly fifty, Brereton could hardly be cast in the guise of court gallant,44 but his reputation was such that people would not find it difficult to believe him a villain. He was a constant irritant to the Privy Council.45 George Cavendish paints a picture of him as a persecutor of the innocent, an administrator whose justice was rigorous and driven by personal animosity. He refers to the shameful hanging in 1534 of a Flintshire gentleman, John ap Griffith Eyton, whose death Brereton had contrived through sheer malice, “by color of justice,” and in defiance of Cromwell’s attempts to save the man. Brereton believed that Eyton had killed one of his own retainers, and it made no difference to him that Eyton had already been acquitted of that by a court in London.46 The contemporary Welsh chronicler, Ellis Gruffydd, states that Anne Boleyn helped Brereton to secure Eyton’s rearrest, which would not be surprising, given the growing rift between Anne and Cromwell, and it may have been one of the things that caused them to fall out. Later, Cavendish has Brereton lamenting his own ruin, reflecting that he “who striketh with the sword, the sword will overthrow,” and seeing his fall as divine punishment for his multitude of crimes and sins:

  Lo, here is the end of murder and tyranny!

  Lo, here is the end of envious affection!

  Lo, here is the end of false conspiracy!

  Lo, here is the end of false detection

  Done to the innocent by cruel correction!

  Although in office I thought myself strong,

  Yet here is mine end for ministering wrong.47

  Brereton’s disregard for the niceties of the law had become apparent as far back as 1518, when Cardinal Wolsey and other councillors had examined him in the Star Chamber court about “maintaining and comforting” the murderers of a Master Swettenham, whose brains had been spilled while playing bowls. Brereton and two other men had been accused of preventing Swettenham’s family from obtaining justice and helping the killers—one of whom was Brereton’s relative, another his servant—to escape arrest. For this, Brereton got off relatively lightly with a fine of 500 marks (£52,150), and suffered no loss of office or influence, which might explain why he was still disturbing the peace in Cheshire in the 1530s.48

  In 1534, Brereton was supposed to be investigating bribery and corruption at Valle Crucis Abbey, near Llangollen in North Wales, but was himself probably as compromisingly involved as the abbot.49 The next year, Cromwell’s agent in the area, Rowland Lee, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, alluding to Brereton’s dubious activities as Richmond’s steward, disapprovingly remarked that it was not to the young duke’s honor to have his badge and livery “worn upon strong thieves’ backs.” Again, Brereton was suspected of protecting murderers from trial and execution, this time, somewhat audaciously, in Richmond’s name.50 In May 1536, only days before his arrest, and evidently blithely unaware of Cromwell’s hostility, Brereton was pressing Master Secretary to grant him the spoils of dissolved abbeys in Cheshire.51 There were therefore several good reasons why Cromwell should have plotted his elimination. Even so, Brereton clearly had no idea what was imminently in store for him.

  Brereton’s wife happened to be sister-in-law to the Countess of Worcester, the first person allegedly to lay evidence against the Queen, and there has been speculation that the relationship between these ladies was too close for coincidence,52 and that the countess may have got her information from Lady Brereton. However, that is unlikely, for, as will become clear, there can be no doubt that Elizabeth Somerset believed in her husband’s innocence.

  These four gentlemen—Rochford, Norris, Weston, and Brereton—had all been members of the powerful Boleyn faction for some years. Yet the humble Mark Smeaton, the most remarkable inclusion among those accused of criminal association with the Queen, was to be the subject of greater scandal and comment than all the rest put together, for few were able to comprehend how Anne could so far have forgotten herself as to take this lowly musician to her bed.

/>   Mark, a “very handsome” young man,53 and “one of the prettiest monochord players,”54 had been appointed a Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1529,55 so the suggestion that he was perhaps little older than twenty in 1536 cannot be correct.56 He was not of gentle birth, for his father was a carpenter:

  … and laboured with his hand,

  With the sweat of his face he purchased his living,

  For small was his rent, much less his land;

  My mother in a cottage used daily spinning.

  Lo, in what misery was my beginning.57

  A sixteenth-century Italian chronicler, Lodovico Guicciardini, who spent many years in the Low Countries and wrote a history of Europe covering the period 1529 to 1560, referred to Smeaton, when writing about Anne Boleyn’s fall, as “Mark the Fleming, her keyboard player.”58 But Smeaton was not Anne’s keyboard player; he was employed by the King. His Flemish surname may have been de Smet or de Smedt, and he probably changed it to Smeaton (or Smeton) when he came to England;59 this would explain how he knew French. It is possible that he was talent-spotted by, and came to England under, the auspices of Philip van Wilder, the celebrated Dutch lutenist, who was in charge of all the musicians of the Privy Chamber.60 It was perhaps Wilder who brought him to the attention of Cardinal Wolsey.

  Mark owed his position at court to his musical talent, for he was skilled at playing the lute, the virginals, and the portable organ, as well as being a gifted singer and “the deftest dancer in the land”61—abilities that were all rated highly at Henry’s court, and which were admired by Cardinal Wolsey, himself of lowly parentage, who recruited the young Smeaton for his choir. Cavendish knew him in those days as “a singing boy.”62

 
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