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

After the cardinal’s fall from favor in 1529, the youth transferred to the Chapel Royal, a preferment that would not have come his way unless he had an outstanding voice. “Being but a boy, [he] clamb up the high stage, that bred was of nought, and brought to felicity.”63 Yet not everyone was full of praise for his talents. The French reformist scholar and poet, Nicholas Bourbon, who admired Anne Boleyn and spent two years at the English court, “granted” that Mark wrote good songs, but complained that he rendered them tedious by “so assiduously singing them; anything overdone is unwelcome. Even honey, if taken too much, becomes bitter.”

  Despite Smeaton’s promotion to the Privy Chamber, where his duties would have included entertaining the King, he was still low down in the court pecking order, which is apparent from people addressing him only as “Mark.” But Henry VIII obviously thought highly of him: his privy purse expenses show that he supported Smeaton financially, gave him special rewards each Easter and Christmas, and, from 1529, provided him with shirts, hose, shoes, and bonnets, so he could present himself smartly. “Young Master Weston,” described as a lutenist, was given festive gifts along with Smeaton,64 which reveals that Francis Weston was one of his colleagues and played music with him in the Privy Chamber, all members of which were expected to turn their hands, when required by the King, to music-making, singing, dancing, or acting.

  It was not long before the musician was befriended by Lord Rochford, who drew him further into the Boleyn circle. Rochford owned a manuscript of two poems, “Les Lamentations de Matheolus” and “Le Livre de Leesce” (or “Le Résolu en Mariage”), by the fifteenth-century French writer Jean Lefèvre. It is inscribed above the text in his own hand, This book is mine. George Boleyn 1526, but Smeaton’s signature, A moy, M. Marc S. à moi meaning literally “to me,” but effectively “mine”)—appears at the bottom. The emphatic inscription suggests that Rochford had given the manuscript to Smeaton.65 It has recently been suggested by Retha Warnicke that Smeaton was one of Rochford’s homosexual lovers. In fact, Warnicke suggests that all the men accused with Anne had indulged in illegal sexual practices and were thus easily framed, but the evidence is purely inferential, and her theory has been dismissed by most historians.66 However, she may have had a point where Rochford was concerned, as has been discussed.

  A choir book now in the collection of the Royal College of Music in London was probably once owned by Anne Boleyn, and it has been suggested that it was perhaps compiled by Smeaton.67 This theory rests on the grounds that the handwriting on it is similar to his signature on the Lefèvre manuscript. This book contains a collection of motets and chansons, and bears an initial letter illustrating what is supposed to be a falcon, Anne’s armorial badge, attacking a pomegranate, the badge of Katherine of Aragon; however, the badge in the picture is very unlike Anne’s. Nevertheless, the music book does carry the motto of her father, Thomas Boleyn, and her name, “Mres. A. Bolleyne,” but the use of the title “Mistress” dates the book to the period prior to Thomas Boleyn being created Earl of Wiltshire in 1529 (after which Anne used the courtesy title Lady Anne Rochford)—too early for it to have had any connection with Smeaton.68

  Despite Smeaton’s “poor degree,”69 he appears to have enjoyed enviable status, to have kept horses at court and had servants who wore his livery. He had also become very grand—“I knew not myself, waxed proud in my courage, disdained my father, and would not him see,”70 which may have prompted him to discourage the use of his surname, for he is frequently referred to in the sources as Mark, Marc, or Marks.71 A contemporary life of Henry VIII known as the “Spanish Chronicle”—not always a reliable source—speaks of his overbearing manner and his insolence to his fellow courtiers. His comfortable financial status is attested to in a list of prisoners in the Tower of London in May 1536, detailing the charges of their maintenance, which shows that all, including Smeaton—the only one who was not of gentle birth—“had lands and goods sufficient of their own”72 to pay for their keep.

  That Smeaton’s career had advanced steadily is obvious from the fact that at Christmas 1530 he received 40s (£750) from the King, yet on October 6, 1532, he got £3. 6s. 8d (£1,250).73 He may have been in Henry’s suite for the state visit to Calais that began five days later. Sadly, the King’s privy purse accounts for the years 1533-36 are lost, so we have few means of charting Smeaton’s later career.74

  Of all the men who would be accused with Anne, Smeaton would be the only one to persist in his admission of guilt, which proved to some appalled contemporaries that he was no gentleman. Cavendish, of course, thought him guilty, and that he died “like a wretch” for his “presumption”:

  Lo, what it is, frail youth to advance

  And to set him up in wealthy estate,

  Ere sad discretion had him in governance

  To bridle his lust, which now comes too late.75

  Other Catholic writers would make much of Anne’s supposed intrigues with Smeaton, which proved to be rich fodder for the scandalmongers of Europe.


  If Cromwell contrived this plot against the Queen—and on his own admission he did—why did he select these particular men to be her partners in crime? One obvious answer is that he had good reason to believe they were guilty of treasonable misconduct with Anne because they had been identified by witnesses as men who were suspiciously close to her.76 Yet the surviving evidence, both documentary and circumstantial, does not generally support that contention.

  Certainly he chose them for shock value. Just one accomplice should have been enough to make a charge of adultery stick,77 but Cromwell wanted Anne’s reputation irrevocably ruined, and for this and other reasons he chose to accuse her of criminal intercourse with five lovers.

  Rochford was Anne’s brother, and incest was probably as great a taboo then as it is now, although it was not illegal in Tudor times and did not become a misdemeanor until 1908, when the Incest Act was passed. Nevertheless, Strickland, writing before then, called it “a crime of the most revolting nature,” which was probably how most people viewed it in the sixteenth century. Norris, Brereton, and Weston were long-standing intimates of the King, so to betray him with them rendered Anne’s infidelity all the more heinous. Smeaton was of humble birth: that the Queen of England could have brought herself to stoop so low to satisfy her lusts only served further to blacken her reputation.

  It is almost certain that Professor Eric Ives’s theory that these men were “victims of a faction battle” at court is correct.78 Certainly, Anne, with Rochford and Norris, by virtue of their influential positions in the Privy Chamber, “made a formidable trio.”79 The “Spanish Chronicle” has Anne declaring that her brother’s fall was plotted alongside hers “so that none should be left to take my part,” and although these words are probably apocryphal, they are apposite, for Rochford was a very powerful man. Norris also had the King’s ear, and could be counted upon to defend her. Brereton and Weston, being close to Henry, enjoyed considerable influence too.

  Retha Warnicke at one time shared Professor Ives’s view on the faction battle,80 but later developed the theory that all the men were closet sodomites and homosexuals and therefore obvious and vulnerable targets, homosexuality being a capital offense. The evidence for this is purely inferential. All we can say for certain is that these men were known to be promiscuous—they themselves admitted to leading sinful lives—so people would have found it credible that they could rashly commit criminal intercourse with the Queen.

  Certainly, if Anne were to be removed, influential members of her faction would have to perish with her, to eliminate all opposition. The powerful Rochford was her staunch supporter. Norris and Weston were known to be close to her, and when Cromwell uncovered useful, if insubstantial, evidence that could be used to link them to her criminally, he did not shrink from sacrificing them. He also wanted his own man in Norris’s prominent place in the Privy Chamber, in order to extend his influence into the inner sanctum of power. The removal of Brereton, another of the Queen??
?s affinity group, would excise a long-chafing thorn in Master Secretary’s side. It is possible that Sir Anthony Browne, who was active behind the scenes in destroying Anne, also found it convenient to have Brereton removed, for Brereton held in receivership lands belonging to Browne.81 As Cavendish later observed, Brereton was brought down “shamefully, only of old rancor.” Smeaton was of little account and expendable anyway.

  Others, like Bryan and Carew, who had once supported Anne, were not targeted because they had become disaffected and worked to bring about her fall. Her father, Wiltshire, was spared: he was now fifty-nine, an old man in Tudor terms, who was probably expected to be sufficiently intimidated by the proceedings against his children to connive at their fate, which is just what he did. The purge would be extensive and terrifying enough to deter anyone else from speaking out for the Queen.

  What is surprising is that no woman was arrested for aiding and abetting the Queen in her alleged crimes.82 When Katherine Howard was accused of adultery in 1541, Lady Rochford was arrested for acting as go-between, and lost her head for it. Yet, as the Katherine Howard affair would prove, it would have been impossible for Anne to conduct a succession of liaisons with courtiers without the collusion of at the very least one trusted female attendant; perhaps significantly, however, none were targeted, which might in itself argue that the case against her was spurious. On the other hand, they may simply have turned King’s evidence.83

  It has often been argued, in Anne’s favor, that there is very little evidence of her being especially close to any of these men, apart from her brother Rochford; that there is hardly anything to connect her with Brereton, in particular. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on that lack of evidence as proof of her innocence, because there is so little surviving information about what went on in her chamber, and in the court, on a daily basis.

  Anne was certainly close to her brother, and she knew all the other men, with the exception of Mark Smeaton, very well, yet prior to April 1536, there is no evidence to suggest that she knew them too well. Nor is there any evidence to support the assertion that, in order to win Henry back after her miscarriage, she began “flaunting her sexuality”;84 significantly, in this respect, none of the charges that would be brought relate to 1536.

  For Cromwell, speed and surprise were now requisite. The Boleyn faction was not to be permitted any chance of regrouping and fighting back. In less than three weeks it would be utterly annihilated.

  The evidence against Lord Rochford was said to have been laid solely by his wife of twelve years, Jane Parker; she is described by Henry VIII’s seventeenth-century biographer, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, as the “particular instrument” in the ruin of her husband and his sister;85 Cherbury based his account on the lost journal of Anthony Anthony, a witness at the trials of George and Anne Boleyn.

  Jane was the daughter of the erudite humanist scholar Henry Parker, Lord Morley; her mother, Alice St. John, was a distant cousin of the King through his Beaufort connections. Jane had been “brought up in the court” from a “young age,”86 accompanied it to the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 as one of Queen Katherine’s gentlewomen,87 and had become one of its youthful stars by 1522 when—inappropriately, as it proved—she danced the role of “Constancy” in a pageant with Anne Boleyn and others.88 She was for years a prominent member of Anne’s circle, and had served her as a lady-in-waiting from 1533. At Anne’s coronation, Jane was assigned a prominent place in the proceedings, in the company of the Countess of Worcester and other great ladies.89

  George Cavendish, who knew Jane personally90 but had no love for the Boleyns and wrote with the benefit of hindsight, had no great opinion of her character. She was reared, he asserted, speaking as Jane:

  Withouten bridle of honest measure,

  Following my lust and filthy pleasure,

  Without respect of any wifely truth,

  Dreadless of God, from grace also exempt,

  Viciously consuming the time of this my youth.91

  We know that Lady Rochford had a talent for intrigue, for she was complicit in Katherine Howard’s adulterous affairs in 1541, acting as facilitator and lookout. She was not new to the game. Chapuys reported, in October 1534, that Anne Boleyn had involved her in “a conspiracy” to get one of the King’s mistresses replaced by Madge Shelton, the Queen’s cousin. But Henry found out, and Jane was dismissed from her post of lady-in-waiting and banished from court. We do not know when she returned.

  In October 1535, while the King and Queen were away on a progress, the Bishop of Tarbes (who had just returned to France) reported to the Bailly of Troyes that, when Lady Mary had lately removed from Greenwich, “a vast crowd of women, wives of citizens and others, unknown to their husbands, presented themselves before her, weeping and crying that she was princess, notwithstanding all that had been done. Some of them, the chiefest, were placed in the Tower, constantly persisting in their opinion.”92 In the margin by that sentence, the words “Millor de Rochesfort and milord de Guillaume” (Lord Rochford and Lord William Howard) appear, and from this it has been credibly inferred that their wives, Lady Rochford, and her aunt-by-marriage, Lady William Howard (the former Margaret Gamage, who had only recently married Lord William), were among the demonstrators who ended up in the Tower.93 Both these ladies would be arrested with Lord William Howard some years hence, in November 1541, for abetting and concealing the adultery of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, and the Howards were found guilty of misprision of treason, while Jane Rochford was convicted of treason. Their later collusion suggests that Lady Rochford and Lady William Howard might have intrigued together on that earlier occasion.

  It is naive to claim that speaking out in favor of Mary would be uncharacteristic of Jane, and that she knew her destiny lay with the Boleyns.94 As we have seen, quite a few movers and shakers attached to their party—Bryan, Carew, Norfolk, and, most notably, Cromwell—had become disaffected, alienated by Anne’s overbearing influence; and if—as the evidence strongly suggests—Jane was jealous of her husband’s closeness to his sister the Queen, then her defection is explicable. If you were not for the Boleyns, then you had to be against them, batting for the opposition—Lady Mary.

  Sir Francis Bryan’s visit to Jane’s father, Lord Morley, at the time when he and his allies were working to destroy Anne Boleyn, and his employment of Morley’s kinsman, has already been noted. Bryan’s private visit to Morley may have had a dual purpose, for by then the investigations against the Queen were well advanced, and the well-informed “Vicar of Hell” may have gone to inform Morley of his daughter’s allegations against her husband and the Queen, and in the hope of enlisting the support of the outraged father on behalf of Lady Mary and Jane Seymour. In fact, Bryan probably already knew or suspected that Morley’s sympathies lay with Mary.

  It may be significant that Morley, despite his overriding loyalty to the King, his friendly relations with Cromwell, and his avoidance of embroilment in political matters (which was probably the reason why Bryan had visited him at home), had by Whitsunday, June 4, 1536, become on close and friendly terms with Lady Mary. With his wife and one of his two daughters—possibly Lady Rochford herself—he was to visit her at Hunsdon on that date, when they discussed only “things touching to virtue.”95 It is significant that Morley’s family visited the princess with Anne, Lady Hussey, the partisan wife of Mary’s chamberlain; Lady Hussey had managed to smuggle several gifts with coded messages to Mary during the years in which the latter was out of favor, and the fact that Lord Morley came in her company suggests that he shared her devotion and faithfulness.

  Morley was to praise Mary most chivalrously in various manuscripts he gave her in the two decades that followed. After her accession in 1553, he spoke of “the love and truth that I have borne to Your Highness from your childhood.”96 This proves that his loyalty to Mary long predated that visit in June 1536.

  Maybe Jane Rochford had in some way been influenced by her father’s sympathetic attitude toward
the princess. It has been convincingly argued that she was in fact Mary’s friend and hoped to see her restored to the succession.97 Having been brought up at court in the household of Katherine of Aragon, she would have known the princess well. According to one of the manuscripts Morley gave to Mary, he had held up Mary as a model of virtue and learning to his family.98 It is easy to see how Jane Parker could have grown up revering Mary Tudor.

  There is a credible reason why Jane Rochford switched her allegiance to Mary Tudor in 1535.99 Her father had spent some years in the household of Mary’s great-grandmother, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had acted as regent for her seventeen-year-old grandson, Henry VIII, for a short time after his accession in 1509, until he attained his majority. On June 22, 1535, Lady Margaret’s great friend, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was publicly beheaded for refusing to acknowledge either the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England or his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas More suffered a similar fate early in July, but apart from the outrage that these executions provoked, Morley and his family had special reason to be grieved, for Fisher had been Lady Margaret’s confessor, and Morley was present in 1509 when she died during a mass celebrated by the bishop. Public opinion laid the blame for Fisher’s execution firmly at the door of the Boleyn faction, and it is likely that Lord Morley and his family did too. Morley was to tell Mary Tudor that he had been with Fisher—“so good a man and so divine a clerk”—shortly before the old man went to the block.100 It seems that the Parkers, like so many who had been of the Queen’s party, became disaffected and decided to distance themselves from Anne and place their hopes for the future in Lady Mary.

  Julia Fox, Jane Parker’s recent apologist, is almost certainly overstating her case when she claims that the Rochfords’ marriage was successful and that there is no reason to suppose it anything but happy; romantically, she imagines George and Jane “snuggling up” in bed together. The traditional—and sounder—view is that the marriage was an unhappy one; it may be significant that it produced no children—George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield in Elizabeth I’s reign, is more likely to have been Rochford’s bastard than his son by Jane. But, sadly for romantics, the surviving evidence convincingly shows that Jane did testify to her husband having committed incest with his sister, and that she also confided to her interrogators some highly sensitive—and probably false—information.101

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