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


  This sudden decision to cancel the Calais trip in itself strongly suggests that the evidence against the Queen had only been recently laid, and that the outcome of the investigations had thrown everything into disarray. Contrary to what has recently been claimed,18 it cannot in any way be seen as proof that Henry had known all along of Cromwell’s plot to destroy Anne.

  The “Spanish Chronicle” asserts that, when Smeaton arrived at Cromwell’s house, “two stout young fellows were called, and the secretary asked for a rope and a cudgel. The rope, which was filled with knots, was put around Mark’s head, and twisted with the cudgel until he cried, ‘Sir Secretary, no more! I will tell the truth. The Queen gave me the money.’”

  He then, according to this chronicle, made a confession, saying that after he had entered the Queen’s service (which is incorrect, because he was in the King’s service), she had singled him out for special notice, asking her ladies, “Does not the lad play well?” Then one morning she had sent for him as she lay abed, and he was ordered to play so that her ladies might dance. Watching him, she resolved to seduce him and began scheming to get him discreetly into her bed, no easy thing with all her ladies about, and with Smeaton too lowly to be expected to make the first move. So she took into her confidence an old waiting woman called Margaret, who slept every night in the antechamber of the Queen’s bedroom, the other ladies sleeping beyond, in the gallery.

  In the antechamber there was a cupboard in which were stored sweetmeats, candied fruits, and conserves. One night, when all was quiet, Margaret, acting on Anne’s instructions, hid a very nervous Mark behind the royal bed curtains; then, when her mistress called out from her bed, “Bring me a little marmalade!” Margaret took him by the hand and pulled him into view, saying—for the benefit of anyone who might be within earshot, “Here is the marmalade, my lady.”

  “Go along, go to bed,” Anne is said to have replied, and after Margaret had gone, she “went to the back of the bed and grasped the youth’s arm, who was all trembling, and made him get into bed. He soon lost his bashfulness, and remained that night and many others.” In reward for his services, Anne gave him money, which enabled him to become “smart and lavish in his clothes.” He was aware, though, that both Sir Henry Norris and William Brereton were rivals for her favors.19

  This account is probably largely apocryphal, the invention of a hostile Spaniard, and is probably based on the rumors circulating in the City of London at this time. The chronicle further asserts that Margaret was arrested and put on the rack, where she incriminated Norris and Brereton, but swore that Sir Thomas Wyatt—who was not yet in Cromwell’s sights, so far as we know—was innocent; then she is said to have been burned at the stake under cover of darkness within the Tower. There is no evidence to support these statements. The account is littered with errors, with Rochford being referred to as a duke and Weston’s name being omitted entirely, while “Margaret” cannot be identified, although it is possible that the writer confused her with either Lady Wingfield or Margery Horsman.

  Someone else thought that Smeaton was perhaps tortured, although not in the manner that the “Spanish Chronicle” describes. One of the best contemporary sources for this period is George Constantine, William Brereton’s former school fellow and long-standing friend, who was now Sir Henry Norris’s body servant and later became registrar of the bishopric of St. David’s. Constantine had long been a zealous Protestant and trafficker in forbidden books, and in 1531 narrowly escaped burning at the hands of the former Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, having saved himself only by betraying his associates and fleeing abroad. Thanks to the reforming influence of Anne Boleyn, he was able to return to London under the protection of Norris, bringing with him, for Anne, a copy of Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible into English. Given his sympathies, Constantine at first “could not believe” that the Queen was guilty.20

  Constantine was to attend his master during the latter’s imprisonment in the Tower of London, and three years later wrote a memorial of these events for Cromwell.21 According to this, “the saying was that [Smeaton] confessed, but he was first grievously racked, which I could never know of a truth.”22 It is easy to see that Constantine imagined that torture was routine in such interrogations, for, according to his own explanation of why he had betrayed his friends five years earlier, he himself had been subjected to the most dreadful torture.23 It is hardly conceivable that there was a rack at Cromwell’s house, but there was certainly one at the Tower, even though torture was officially illegal in England. Although all the sources imply that the hapless musician’s confession was obtained at Stepney, it is of course possible that he was racked soon after his arrival at the Tower on May 2; but if he was tortured thus, he must have given in before too much unbearable pressure was brought to bear, for there is no evidence that his bones were dislocated, and he was able, only days later, to stand trial and walk to his execution without anyone commenting on him being in evident pain or in any way disabled, while no observer mentions any visible injuries consistent with the rope torture, which is almost certainly a lurid fabrication. In 1546, when the heretic Anne Askew was racked, with the then Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, himself turning the wheel, people knew about it, not least because she was carried in a chair to the stake.24 Moreover, Lancelot de Carles states that, although “Mark was forced to answer the accusation against him, without being tortured, he deliberately said that the Queen had three times yielded to his passion.” So probably the tales of Smeaton being tortured were based on unfounded rumors and assumptions. The fact that he was not “well-lodged” in the Tower until ten o’clock at night on May 225 suggests that he was again interrogated, probably for several hours, but he certainly did not suffer “twenty-four hours of fierce torture,” as one historian has recently claimed.26

  The fact that he was initially questioned for at least twenty-four hours suggests that Smeaton did not willingly divulge any information. Yet in the end, racked or not, he finally admitted “that he had been three times with the Concubine”27 in the spring of 1535—a confession that (as will be seen) was at variance with Anne’s own independent recollections of her dealings with him, in which she stated she had only spoken to him twice, and then only briefly.28

  Having confessed to the adultery, Smeaton threw himself on the King’s mercy,29 but he was adamant that he was not guilty of abetting the Queen in compassing the King’s death, and desired to be tried by a jury on that charge. This reinforces the view that he was not tortured, otherwise he surely would have capitulated on all counts, the penalty being the same for violating the Queen as for plotting regicide: a traitor’s death. It does, however, raise the question of why he admitted to adultery. Did he mistakenly think it was a lesser charge? Or was he—and by implication, Anne—in fact guilty? Or was “psychological pressure”30 brought to bear on him? He was perhaps told, as Norris would be, that he could save his life by confessing; or he could have been informed that, since it was known that he had committed treason and must suffer the penalty anyway, he might be rewarded with a quicker death than usually meted out to traitors in return for his cooperation, a choice that would be offered to Anne herself; this would explain why Smeaton was allowed to die like a gentleman.

  Cavendish states that “by his confession, he did them all accuse.”31 The well-informed contemporary printer and annalist, Richard Grafton, in his extension of Edward Hall’s Chronicle, says that Smeaton was “provoked” to incriminate himself, the Queen, and others “by the [future] Lord Admiral [Sir William FitzWilliam, the King’s treasurer], that was later Earl of Southampton, who said unto him, ‘Subscribe, Mark, and see what will come of it.’” It sounds as if names were put to him, and that pressure was exerted to make him incriminate them.

  Lancelot de Carles asserts that Sir Anthony Browne—acting perhaps on information gleaned from his sister, Lady Worcester—also cited Norris, and laid evidence that Norris had promised to marry Anne after the King’s death. It may therefore ha
ve been Browne who overheard the conversation between Anne and Norris. But Browne was the half brother of Sir William FitzWilliam, who was to play an important role in Anne Boleyn’s downfall, and to whom Sir Edward Baynton had confided his suspicions about Norris, so it is also possible that Carles confused Browne with FitzWilliam.

  FitzWilliam was a loyal and dependable King’s man. He had grown up with Henry from the age of ten and was consequently one of those closest to him; he also had a long and distinguished record of service in warfare, diplomacy, and the royal household. He was a solid individual who trimmed his sails to the prevailing wind and for the most part kept aloof from the factional politics that divided the court. As will be seen, he was plainly willing to do his very best to secure the conviction of the Queen and her alleged lovers, and would become so deeply involved in building a case against them that he would later confess to having neglected all his correspondence “since these matters begun.”32

  Smeaton had not only confirmed the allegations of Lady Worcester, Lady Rochford, and others, but told “much more,” as Lady Worcester had said he would. Cromwell now had the information he needed to proceed against the Queen, and he hastened to lay it before the King.

  At the May Day tournament at Greenwich, Anne was disconcerted when Henry got up and left without a word to her, yet she can have had no idea that she would never see him again.

  Lancelot de Carles says that during the jousts, Henry loaned Norris his own horse, knowing “that he could not keep it long,” and that he showed kindness to Norris, Weston, and Brereton, “concealing their forthcoming ruin,” but it is unlikely that the King had been made aware before the tournament of the results of Smeaton’s interrogation. His abrupt departure was prompted by a message he was given, which was almost certainly to inform him that Smeaton had confessed to adultery with the Queen and incriminated Rochford, Norris, and Brereton, and perhaps Weston also, confirming what the King and his ministers already suspected about Rochford and Norris. The “Spanish Chronicle” asserts that Cromwell sent his nephew Richard Williams (who adopted the surname Cromwell) to the King with Smeaton’s actual confession, as well as the forged confessions of Anne and Rochford—which is patently untrue; and that when Henry had read them all, “his meat did not at all agree with him.” When learning that Smeaton had confessed to having violated Anne, he cried, enraged, “Hang him up, then! Hang him up!” The tale is probably apocryphal.

  Lancelot de Carles, who may have been repeating the official line that was fed in secret to the French ambassador, claims the councillors told Henry that “when you retire at night, she has her darlings already lined up. Her brother is by no means last in the queue. Norris and Mark would not deny that they have spent many nights with her without having to persuade her, for she herself urged them on, and invited them with presents and caresses.” It sounds suspiciously like the wording of the indictments that would soon be drawn up against the Queen.

  The historian S. T. Bindoff, writing about Anne Boleyn’s fall, asserted, “Where a Borgia would have used poison, a Tudor used the law.” It is worth noting that it was only after being informed of Smeaton’s confession that Henry resolved upon proceeding against Anne and her alleged lovers. He had no choice, for he could not afford to ignore such evidence. He had known for a week that there was cause for suspicion, yet did not act precipitately; instead, he waited to see if there was any further evidence to support his councillors’ allegations. He was to show a similar restraint five years later when similar unsubstantiated claims were made against his fifth wife, Katherine Howard. His immediate response would be to reject them out of hand as being malicious accusations—which suggests he was by then well aware of how Anne Boleyn had been brought to grief33—and order an investigation, and it was only when incontrovertible evidence was laid before him that he ordered any arrests. On that latter occasion, he wept in council, his grief warring with a surge of anger so bitter that it had him crying out for a sword with which to slay Katherine.

  Since being informed of his councillors’ suspicions concerning Anne Boleyn’s conduct, his mood—on the available evidence—was angry rather than grieved, but his relations with Anne had been deteriorating for some time, whereas when Katherine Howard’s misconduct was disclosed to him, he had just publicly given thanks for the happy life he was leading with her, his “rose without a thorn.” Yet there can be little doubt that some vestiges of his grand passion for Anne remained—witness his keeping her company on St. Matthias’s Day, his insistence that Chapuys pay court to her, and his remarks about her bearing him a prince in the near future—and when he was confronted with what looked like convincing evidence of her treachery, he must have been plunged into a turmoil of emotions. It does seem that he was greatly shaken and shocked by the reports brought to him, and his sudden departure from the jousts must be viewed in this context. He may well have felt that he could not bear to set eyes on Anne again, or he might not have trusted himself to refrain from violence.

  Had Henry VIII been instrumental in bringing about Anne’s ruin, he would surely not have been so obviously angry. Yet it is hard to explain why he accepted at face value evidence that many people, including even Chapuys, Anne’s enemy, were to regard as flimsy. Maybe it was all too easy to believe such things of a wife of whom he had tired, the marrying of whom, he now apparently believed, had incurred God’s displeasure. Possibly the very fact that his councillors had dared to lay such damning evidence against her was enough to convince him that it was all true, and, having been publicly humiliated by these sordid revelations, he was too angered and hurt by her betrayal of him, both as a man and as the King, to give her, or the men accused with her, the benefit of any doubt. Cromwell was no fool—what he had laid before his master would have to be pretty watertight, or the consequences for Master Secretary could have been horrific. It should also be remembered that Chapuys’s view of the evidence, although clearly shared by other observers, was not that professed by the majority of his contemporaries, who—until Anne’s daughter ascended the throne—behaved as if they accepted the Queen’s guilt without question.

  “Immediately after the tourney,” when “the jousts were over and they were disarming,” “archers were ordered to arrest Norris, and were much astonished and grieved, considering his virtue and intimacy with the King, that he should have committed disloyalty.”34 “The Captain of the Guard came and called Master Norris and Master Brereton, and said to them, ‘Sirs, the King calls you.’”35

  It would appear that Norris was arrested on the King’s orders, while Brereton was detained for questioning; he would not be arrested for another three days. “Before [Norris] went to prison, the King desired to speak to him.”36 Constantine says that Henry “rode suddenly to Westminster, and all the way, as I heard say, had Norris in examination,” accusing him of committing adultery with Anne as far back as 1533. It was almost unheard of for the King himself to question a suspected traitor; as an anointed sovereign, he would always distance himself from those accused of treason, and indeed would never have anything to do with anyone tainted even by the suspicion of it, so it is probably correct to say that Henry’s interrogation of Norris was “the action of a man taken by surprise.”37 He had been very close to Norris, and was evidently outraged at what he believed was the betrayal of a friend whom he had thought utterly loyal. It is hard to believe that Henry would have been a party to sacrificing the faithful Norris, knowing him to be innocent, merely as a means of ridding himself of Anne.

  Norris was aghast to hear that he was accused of criminal intercourse with the Queen. But Henry “promised him his pardon [if] he would utter the truth.”38 Cavendish, who believed Norris guilty, imagined him looking back with bitter regret on this interview:

  His [Henry’s] most noble heart lamented so my chance,

  That of his clemency he granted me my life,

  In case I would, without dissimulance,

  The truth declare of his unchaste wife,

  The spotted Q
ueen, causer of all his strife;

  But I most obstinate, with heart as hard as stone,

  Denied his grace—good cause therefore to moan.39

  Carles also states that the King offered “to spare [Norris’s] life and goods, although he was guilty, if he would tell him the truth.” Maybe this offer was meant genuinely and Henry was indeed prepared to be lenient with Norris, although that is by no means certain. But Constantine says, “Mr. Norris would confess nothing to the King.” “Being told the accusation, [he] offered to maintain the contrary with his body in any place”40—that is, submit to trial by combat. Far from being reassured by this, Henry appeared determined to believe the worst, and he “authorized and commissioned” Cromwell “to prosecute and bring to an end the Concubine’s trial,” as Master Secretary was to inform Chapuys.41 Norris’s determination to maintain his innocence in the face of the King’s offer of pardon suggests either that he believed that to be an empty promise, or that he was innocent.

  On arriving at York Place, Norris was placed in the custody of Sir William FitzWilliam,42 who was among the councillors who examined him at York Place later on May 1, at a special meeting of the Privy Council summoned by the King “to treat of matters relating to the surety of his person, his honor, and the tranquillity of the realm.”43 Norris’s chaplain told George Constantine that, during this interrogation, Norris did confess to something, although he did not say what, and Norris would later declare that he had been deceived into making his confession by FitzWilliam’s trickery. This is the second independent account of FitzWilliam coercing the Queen’s alleged lovers into making confessions. Chapuys later informed Dr. Ortiz, the Imperial ambassador in Rome, that “two of the five [who would be arrested] confessed their guilt.”44 Contrary to what is often stated, it may not have been the case that Smeaton alone confessed.

 
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