"So we'll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too- who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out- and take upon's the mystery of things as if we were God's spies."
- From William Shakespeare's "King Lear," Act V, Scene III
On Friday, May 12th, 1536, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, escorted Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton into Westminster Hall where, three years earlier, Anne Boleyn had been honoured with a lavish Coronation banquet at the height of her triumph.
Built during the reign of King William Rufus, who had ruled England from 1087 until 1100, the Hall would now play witness to one of the most extraordinary and shameful trials in British history. Thomas Howard, 63 year-old Duke of Norfolk, sat as presiding judge and the King's representative over the four men accused of having committed treasonous adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn. According to the indictment created by the Grand Jury of Middlesex who along with the Grand Jury of Kent had jurisdiction over the trials (they were the closest two to London and thus the easiest to control and organise from the Crown’s perspective), the men had been partners in the Queen’s “frail and carnal appetites” and insultingly referred to them as “her adulterers and concubines”. Grim-faced and self-righteous, the Duke ordered the trial of the four men who had dishonoured their king to begin.
Sir Henry Norris, one of the King's closest friends, was charged with having been the first man the Queen committed adultery with, becoming Anne's lover within the first year of her marriage. According to the Crown, Queen and knight had gone to bed with each other twice in the course of one week in October 1533 at the Palace of Westminster, and that two years later, the Queen had decided to marry Norris if and when her husband predeceased her.
There were problems, however, with the alleged dates of this adultery and treason – namely that in October 1533, when their affair had allegedly started, the Queen had still been in seclusion following the birth of her daughter Elizabeth. She was not churched until forty days after the princess’s birth, which meant the Queen did not resume regular contact with men, even in a social context, until October 17th by the earliest and both her adulteries with Henry Norris were alleged to have occurred before that date. Moreover, the Court had not actually been in residence in Westminster at the time of this alleged fornication, but at Greenwich – half a dozen miles away.
It is uncertain what age Henry Norris was at the time he faced these catalogue of charges; Alison Weir puts his birth in 1482, making him nine years older than the King he served and about twenty-five years older than Anne Boleyn. Professor E.W. Ives argues more persuasively for Norris having been born in about 1491 or 1492, making him almost exactly of an age with Henry VIII – meaning that he would have been about 44 or 43 at the time he was arrested. “A discreet, level-headed man of proven integrity,” Norris had been in the King’s service for almost three decades and he was the “best-beloved of the King” before the events of 1536. A widower since his wife’s death six years earlier and the father of three young children, at the time of his arrest Norris was on an annual income of about £150,000 (2010 prices), and considering that his travel expenses, homes, clothes and food were all paid for by the Court, he was certainly a wealthy man. He was also a powerful one, with great influence over the King. As well as having official roles in Parliament, the Tower of London and the port of Southampton, Norris was also High Steward of the University of Oxford, Keeper of the King’s Privy Purse, Master of the Hart Hounds and Hawks and Chamberlain of North Wales. He had also been a competitor for Thomas Cromwell's influence over the King for half-a-decade, so there can be no doubt that aside from his long-standing friendship with the Queen, this was one of the chief reasons why he was targeted in 1536.
However, as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, it is my belief that there were people at Court believed that Norris had been in love with the Queen for some time - that certainly seems to be the most logical interpretation of the jibe made by Francis Weston to her a year earlier. Whether this was true or not, it certainly makes Norris’s chivalrous heroism to throw down his life for the Queen’s honour one of the most touching moments of that awful summer in 1536. At his trial, he defended both himself and his queen admirably. He pleaded not guilty and declared that the true traitors were his accusers, not he.
Norris's co-accused, the middle-aged Sir William Brereton, must have quailed at seeing some of his political opponents sitting opposite him as his judges and jury. For instance, the foreman of the jury, Edward Willoughby, owed Brereton a small fortune and, of course, if Brereton was condemned death that debt would be cancelled. Perhaps that is being unduly cynical on my part, but certainly not much else about the events of those weeks invites one to err on the side of charity when assessing the motives of the government and its supporters. He too pleaded 'not guilty.'
Strangely, this gruff politician was accused of having gone to the Queen’s bed more often than the handsome Sir Henry Norris, for it was alleged by the Secretary of State that William Brereton and the Queen had had sex with one another four times during the winter of 1533, only a few months after her love affair with Norris had allegedly begun. Evidently, Anne Boleyn had acquired a taste for adultery once she started. The government claimed that at the end of November, there had been two incidents of adultery between them at Greenwich Palace eleven days apart from each other, again at the Palace of Westminster on December 3rd of the same year and five days later at Hampton Court on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. (For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 1533, the Queen had been in residence at Greenwich, not Hampton Court.) The implication that either Norris or Brereton had been the biological father of the child Anne miscarried the following summer was never made explicitly by their prosecutors, but it certainly occurred to some people - as, indeed, it was intended to.
Francis Weston, a 25 year-old Knight of the Order of the Bath, stood accused of having had a more long-term liaison with the Queen – beginning in the late spring of 1534 at Westminster, when the Queen was heavily pregnant, and continuing later in the summer at Greenwich. (All the adulteries were alleged to have taken place at either Greenwich, Hampton Court or Westminster since that was the area the two grand juries had jurisdiction over.) Again, in Weston’s case, there were inconsistencies with the dates and the locations – the Queen had been staying at Richmond Palace on one of the occasions when she and Weston were supposed to have slept together at Westminster and she had been at Hampton Court when they were alleged to have been having sex together at Greenwich.
Like Norris, Weston defended himself with considerable bravery and contempt for his judges. The Weston family had been trying desperately to have their son freed from captivity for the last ten days and Sir Francis’s wife had come to London with their infant son and her mother-in-law, offering every penny the Westons had as ransom for Francis's life. A gutsy, fun-loving, outrageous character who shone in the field of athletics, as well as wild living, Weston had “wantonly lived without fear or dread,” and he was, in short, the archetypal loveable rogue. The court of Henry VIII would be a duller place without him; his family’s lives, it would transpire, would be utterly miserable.
Alone of the four accused, it was only Mark Smeaton who entered a plea of guilty when asked if he had been the Queen’s partner in vice. They had been lovers, so he claimed, on three separate occasions - she had suggested with “base conversations and kisses, touching and gifts” that he become her lover at Westminster in the spring of 1534, two weeks before she allegedly began her affair with Sir Francis Weston. This had culminated with intercourse between the pair at Greenwich Palace a month later, with the Queen inviting him back for a return performance six days after that. Not long after that, Anne had gone back to the bed of Sir Francis Weston and the last time the queen and her servant had slept together, so the indictment claimed, was in London on April 26th, one year before the trial.
A “very handsome” musician, Mark Smeaton had begun his career with an exceptional singing voice in the service of Cardinal Wolsey and had then been transferred to the Chapel Royal, to sing for the King, once the Cardinal was dismissed from office. Like Wolsey, Smeaton had lower-class origins – his father was a carpenter, who “laboured with his hand, with the sweat of his face purchased his living.” Unpleasantly, Smeaton was embarrassed of his working-class birth – he dropped the use of his surname and preferred to be referred to simply as ‘Mark.’ The King, who always appreciated great musical talent, showered Smeaton with a large salary and royal favour. At the age of eighteen, he had received a Christmas present worth about £750 in modern currency; whilst, in preparation for a state visit to Calais in the winter of 1532, he received a bonus of £1,250 for having organised much of the musical entertainment and by 1536, he was on a salary eighteen or nineteen times higher than that of the average court musician. He dressed well and had his own horses and a few servants; he soon adopted the mannerisms of an aristocrat, which opened him to criticism and mocking within the insular world of the royal court. The Countess of Worcester and Lord Thomas Percy both thought he had ideas above his station, Nicolas Bourbon, a French émigré and scholar who was the tutor to the Queen’s nephew, thought Smeaton was insufferably pretentious and in his poetry, Sir Thomas Wyatt characterised him as a shameless social climber.
Despite the friendship between Smeaton and her brother – which the historian R.M. Warnicke believes was a sexual affair at some point – the Queen was not close to Smeaton and according to her they had only spoken at length to one another on three occasions. Dr. David Starkey is correct in characterising her interactions with him as “proper, if rather snobbish”. Smeaton was the only one of Anne’s “lovers” who was chained in irons during his time in the Tower and when Anne heard this terrible news about him, she callously shrugged. Clearly, even if Smeaton had been quick to forget his social origins, Anne had not; nor was she ever able to forget that he had betrayed her honour, unlike the heroic Sir Henry Norris, who died defending it.
The 18th century historian, John Strype, who saw the full account of Anne’s imprisonment before it was damaged by fire in 1731, concluded that from various remarks made by both the Queen, her entourage and Sir William Kingston, Mark Smeaton was so self-important and arrogant that in the days before his arrest, he deeply resented Anne Boleyn’s apparent indifference towards him. After all, if her brother considered him a friend, why shouldn’t the Queen? And according to Strype, it was this determination to weasel his way into her social circle that led to Smeaton haunting the Queen’s Apartments, bringing matters to a head when the Queen was forced to remind him that it would inappropriate for her to socialise with someone so far beneath her in rank.
Smeaton’s persistence in attempting to gain the Queen’s attention was apparently noticed by those who had been placed to spy on her in the weeks leading up to her arrest. The musician was invited to Thomas Cromwell’s house at Stepney and the story that Smeaton was “grievously racked” into confessing to be the Queen’s lover is referred to in a letter in Cromwell’s collection, which makes the charge of torture almost beyond doubt. The story that ropes were tied around his eyes and tightened by two of Cromwell’s henchmen is long-standing and very probable, but by no means as certain as the rack. Worse still, there is some circumstantial evidence which suggests very strongly that he was promised his life if he would provide the government with the necessary evidence to detain the Queen and Sir Henry Norris. Thus, after enduring twenty-hours of brutal torture and psychological pressure, Smeaton admitted to having had sex with the Queen on three separate occasions during the previous summer.
Why he clung to the plea of guilty is anybody’s guess. It certainly confused and infuriated the Queen, who found it almost impossible to extend Christian charity to him when she discovered that he had failed to recant. She complained – rightly – that if he didn’t, people were apt to wonder whether or not it was actually true and it was then that she made her appallingly callous shrug about the state of his imprisonment. Likely, she was unaware of what he had faced in the course of his imprisonment and it had certainly been kept from her that he had been tortured into his confession.
There are three reasons as to why Mark Smeaton persisted in pleading guilty at both his trial on May 12th and his execution five days later. The first is because it was the truth – he and Anne had been lovers, on-and-off for two years. But this explanation leaves out the fact that during the first spell of their alleged affair in 1534, Anne had been heavily pregnant with her second child and to have risked sex when doctors at the time taught it increased the chance of miscarriage would have been a suicidal move on the part of a queen who, everybody knew and knows, depended more than most on producing a healthy prince. It also leaves out the fact that despite Smeaton’s claim that he had visited the Queen’s bed at Greenwich during that spring, she was actually at Richmond. What need was there to invent a lie if the charge itself was actually true?
The second explanation is that Smeaton still mistakenly clung to the belief that he would be offered his life or freedom if the Queen was convicted on the strength of his confession. Yet if that is true, why then did Smeaton fail to recant his false testimony on the scaffold? (To be fair, he may have. All he said before the axe sliced through his neckwas that he truly deserved his death, which may have been because of what he had done to the Queen’s reputation. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing.) Finally, it should be noted that in the end, Smeaton was beheaded, despite the fact that he was not only of non-aristocratic birth but actually of lower-class origins and, as such, he should have faced the full horrors of death by hanging, drawing and quartering. So, as with so much of the fall of Anne Boleyn, the most likely explanation is therefore also the most horrible – Smeaton clung to his false confession because the best he could now hope for was the promise of a swift, clean death by the axe.
Coupled with the individual charges of adultery, all four men stood accused as a collective of having met with the Queen and her brother Lord Rochford at the Palace of Westminster on November 2nd and November 5th of the previous year and at Greenwich on January 8th of the current year, to discuss the King’s death – an act of treason in itself, even if violating the queen had not already been one.
In the end, the trial of Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton was a formality, not a procedure. The verdict, like death and taxes, was an inevitability. The Attorney General received the sentence he had asked for and the Duke of Norfolk sentenced all four men to death for “using fornication with Queen Anne, and also for conspiracy of the King’s death”. The death sentence was read out by the Lord Chancellor, who announced that all four were to be hanged, dismembered and castrated with their genitals burnt before their eyes, before being decapitated. It was a ghastly sentence, handed down to offer the King the opportunity to remit it to decapitation, thus appearing benign, Christian and merciful. The Bishop of Riez, in London at the time, witnessed the reaction to the death sentences amongst Henry VIII’s courtiers, who discovered later in the day what had happened, although they can scarcely have been surprised. “Everyone was moved at their misfortune,” the bishop wrote, “especially at the case of Weston.”
As the four men returned to their prison, now under sentence of death, the Queen was preparing to stand trial three days later. Even more so than before, she could not possibly have hoped to emerge from it alive, because how could she be innocent of adultery and treason if her lovers had already been found guilty? Adultery, after all, is of necessity a game for doubles.
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