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Mark Smeaton: I Have Deserved The Death

January 30, 2013

Mark Smeaton is, along with Lady Rochford, one of the blankest faces among the significant players in Anne Boleyn’s story — virtually nothing concrete is known about him, barring some expense account items, his “confession” of adultery, and the accounts of the last three weeks of his life. In this two-part summary of his life, you can see how historians have had to rely on scraps and bits of not-necessarily infallible information, as well as a great deal of conjecture about books and musical manuscripts which may or may not have passed through his hands. So, what do we know, and what have novelists guessed?

What’s certain is that he was a commoner, a musician who by dint of his talent managed to become a groom of Henry VIII’s privy chamber in 1529, when he was quite young. Over the years, expense accounts show gifts of clothing and money being given to him (by the king — he was attached to Henry’s household, not Anne’s, though he would have seen her and played for her). He was arrested at Thomas Cromwell’s house on April 30, 1536, shortly after that famous, odd conversation with Queen Anne in which she reproved him for “moping” (in Ives’s word) in her chamber and he told her that a look from her sufficed him, and so farewell. He confessed to committing adultery with Anne, possibly after torture, and stuck to his confession on the scaffold — or rather, failed to unambiguously withdraw it. His admission to the assembled crowd was (according to eyewitness George Constantine) “Masters, I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death.” Whether he meant to say that he deserved the death for committing adultery or for lying about it is ambiguous. It’s also worth mentioning that as a commoner, Smeaton was receiving a favour by being beheaded instead of drawn and quartered. He may have worried that anything too explicit would see a last-minute reversal of that situation.

As for Smeaton’s early life, character and personality (not to mention nationality — one brief mention describes him as Flemish) the sheer lack of material is emphasized by the fact that the most detailed sources extant are portions of two poems — Thomas Wyatt’s elegy and George Cavendish’s Metrical Visions — with all of the potential pitfalls that this implies. The portions are short enough to be worth quoting in full:

George Cavendish introduces Smeaton by saying “I did hyme know / In the Cardynalles Chaple, a syngyng boy”, and continues in the voice of “Marke alias Smeton” (Edwards, p. 48):

My ffather / a Carpynter / and labored with hys hand
With the swett of his face / he purchast hys lyvyng.
Ffor small was hys rent / muche lesse was hys land
My mother in Cottage / vsed daily spynnyng /
Loo in what mysery, / was my begynnyng
Tyll that Gentill prynce / kyng of this realme
Toke me / de stercore / et erigens pauperem

And beyng but a boy / clame vppe the hyghe stage
That bred was of naught / and brought to felicyte
Knewe not myself / waxt prowd in my Corage /
Dysdayned my ffather / and wold not hyme se
Wherfore now ffortune / by hir mutabylitie
Hathe made so cruelly / hir power for to stretche,
Ffor my presumpcion / to dye lyke a wretche/.

Loo what it is / fraylle youthe to avaunce
And to sett hyme vppe / in welthy estate.
Or sad discression / had taken hym in gouernance
To bridell his lust whiche nowe comes to late.
And thoughe by great fauor / I lease but my pate.
Yet deserued haue I / cruelly to be martred.
As I ame iuged / to be hanged drawn and quartered.

In Thomas Wyatt’s elegy (quoted in Ives, 364) Smeaton alone among the executed is addressed, and implicitly dismissed, by his first name:

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 haddest 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.

The portrait is clear and unflattering, although not terribly so: a young, talented man, born of poor parents but through luck and skill raised in court surroundings. Well-situated, earning gifts and living a comparatively luxurious life, he was still a commoner — in Ives’s words, he was now “belonging nowhere” — and may have scorned his birth family out of both arrogance and insecurity. It is illuminating how the two men attack Smeaton from different angles — Cavendish for disdaining his parents, Wyatt for presuming to intrude, in death as in life, among his betters.

These are the few traces of the real Mark Smeaton. The least significant victim when he died, his importance has been increasing ever since, to the point where he sometimes gets as much if not more attention than George Boleyn and almost always more than Norris, Weston and Brereton (or all three combined). As the sole commoner among the quintet, he’s a natural object of curiosity (he even gets a brief mention as “your Musician” in Vertue Betray’d [1682]) and the possible implications of “A look sufficeth me” have by no means been overlooked. In the vast majority of novels and plays, Mark is genuinely worshipful of — if not completely besotted by — Anne Boleyn. This is understandable if predictable. What’s less understandable is why Smeaton is so often depicted as crushingly idiotic if not outright repulsive.

Possibly the stupidest Smeaton alive graces the pages of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826). Madly adoring of the chaste, charitable, thoroughly Protestant Anne, he tells his twin sister Magdalene (the only family member of his I’ve yet met in fiction) that Anne is “the mingled consummation / Of beauty, gentleness and goodness,” but alas, his pure adoration is twisted by the imaginary and anachronistic Jesuit, Father Angelo Caraffa, who intends to bring Anne down via Smeaton and so cunningly warns Smeaton against getting too ambitious with Anne, thereby putting the idea in his head. Smeaton never actually acts inappropriately, but when Anne is arrested after dropping her handkerchief to Norris at the May Day joust, Caraffa manages to con Smeaton into spontaneously confessing to adultery in order to save Anne’s life, on the grounds that by definitely establishing adultery, Henry will have firm grounds to divorce her instead of killing her. Which is better, Angelo asks, “Her spotless name be tainted, or her body / Writhe on a scaffold, with her soul in flames?” Mark grasps the logic of this somehow, and, further tempted by the prospect of a living Anne so debased that no decent man would have her, declares that “I’ll save her if I die, on earth, forever!”

Not quite as aggressively stupid is the Mark Smeaton of Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), but he’s still pretty bad, and furthermore has had a generous helping of spite and vanity added to him. He’s a young, vain chorister whom Cromwell overhears speaking (in Flemish) to a compatriot about deserting Wolsey before their fortunes all sink with his. So far, so good, but he then goes on to participate (very unhistorically) in the masque of “Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell” and when Cromwell finally arrests him, he dances around the question of torture and then orders his servants to lock Smeaton in a closet for the night — a closet which contains Christmas costumes which include prop angel wings. Smeaton screams all night and in the morning confesses to everything that’s asked of him and more, at one point “accusing her of adultery with her own husband.” The reason? He felt the wings brushing against him and was convinced that they were evil spirits, and all Cromwell has to do is threaten to put him “back in with the ghost” to get all the information he wants. In this way it’s ensured that Cromwell doesn’t have to look bad to the reader, and Smeaton is hung out to dry.

Sliding over from stupid to disturbing is the Smeaton of The Concubine (1963), who adores Anne a little too wholeheartedly — he hates the fact that his goddess has slept with Henry (or anyone, really) and builds his extensive fantasy life around her, as Cromwell discovers once he starts in with the knotted rope:

Once [Smeaton] had started it came easily enough, because it was really all part of his dream and therefore had a truth of its own. For almost four years, ever since she had submitted to Henry, he had dreamed of possessing her. He was able to bring out a dozen small corroborative details, the gleanings of watchfulness and of a vivid imagination. She had a mole on her neck, always hidden by a necklace or collar; her breasts were so small that the hand could cup them; at the moment of climax, she … . On and on it went until even Cromwell, who had lain on his sickbed and devised this approach to the final solution of the problem, was slightly shaken. Was it possible that, fumbling round in the dark, he had hit on a hidden truth?

The Smeaton of The Uncommon Marriage (1960) kicks the creepiness up a notch by becoming physically violent — he’s shown as a Boleyn family cowhand whom Anne brings to court herself, and who has a longstanding, hopeless crush on her (our first glimpse of him depicts him stroking dead animals while thinking of Anne). The industrious Cromwell, spotting his barely-concealed lust for the Queen, drops a love potion in his drink one day which causes Smeaton to assault Anne — “You’d have let me kiss you earlier, had I been born a gentleman!” at which point Cromwell steers the king into the room to behold Anne’s faithlessness in real time. Another creeper is the Smeaton of Anne Boleyn (1967) who gets wasted and gropes Anne’s friend when he first meets her. Superlatively creepy is the Smeaton of Anne Boleyn (1932) who’s more like the embodiment of the god Pan than anything living in Tudor England: “unlike a gentleman, carrying his grinning half-sinister face with him, no more sense of manhood or womanhood than a tree-spirit released from bondage in an oak to buffet on a gale.” Smeaton here is not so much a person as the living embodiment of Anne’s worst qualities (just as Thomas Wyatt is the embodiment of her best ones).

But there’s a more appealing side to Smeaton in fiction, albeit one that we usually only get to see in a few swift glances. “He was exceptionally beautiful … and he adored Anne quite openly,” we are told of Smeaton in Blood Royal (1988) and the Smeatons of Murder Most Royal (1949), The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) and To Die For (2011) — among others — follow suit; they are, briefly, the beautiful and the doomed, and they get very few lines. Even the Smeaton of The Queen of Subtleties (2004) is a simple soul at bottom, a rather naive young man — very naive, considering that his age is twenty-seven in this book — who belies Wyatt’s and Cavendish’s accounts by exploring the kitchens and confiding in one of the servants. He describes court romances: “That’s exactly how it is, for all the men here: a game; nice young girls, one after the other. But you know, Lucy, not for me … I’m not like that, not now.” Lucy imagines that he’s interested in her, but it turns out that he’s actually in love with the unattainable Queen Anne. Lucy swallows her pride and encourages him to tell her — not because she’ll reciprocate, but because once he’s turned down, “Perhaps he’ll realize then, what love is or can be, and where it’s been, all along.” Once more too dim to realize he’s being used, Smeaton proceeds to his doom.

Smeaton doesn’t play much of a role in Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) but it is notable for being one of the few books to age him appropriately — when Anne first sees him, in the early 1520s, he’s an older child whom she spots playing in a Hampton Court garden. Later on, she remembers him — “He was the lad who loved lavender.” A few recent Smeatons have shared that taste for lavender in another sense: the Smeaton of The Boleyn Wife (2007), described as “Anne’s pet musician” has semi-consensual sex with the omnivorous George Boleyn (“I told him to take off his clothes and get into bed, and he did!” says George) and falls for him in the process. “Smeaton thought George was his friend; that was his first mistake. Thinking that what they did in bed actually meant something was his second.” And the Smeaton of At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) is introduced in this conversation between Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour:

“See how he gazes so adoringly at the queen. He sees much to love in our esteemed sovereign. Perhaps you could learn to love her too,” said Madge.

“You are truly without insight, Pretty Madge, as I’ve heard you called. Smeaton’s gaze is filled with ardor but not for the queen,” said Lady Jane.

“What mean you, milady?” said Madge.

“I mean that if the priests of old could have their way, dear Mark would burn like a faggot of wood,” said Lady Jane.

If you’re wondering, yes, Jane Seymour is always like this, and Smeaton himself is no more subtly drawn. Madge asks him if he likes court, to which he responds:

“Oh, lady, there is no place on earth I would rather be! I love to sing for the king! I love the food and the pretty people, the rich tapestries, the gold plate as it glitters — all these things have I grown to cherish. The king himself has given me fine clothes and he gave me this,” said Master Smeaton as he held up his hand to show a small garnet ring. He kissed the stone and looked lovingly at the king. “‘Tis my most prized possession.”

Give him points for consistency, at least, as it turns out that Smeaton in love with the king is just as suicidally stupid as Smeaton in love with the queen. And in love with the queen he is, virtually always (with the notable exceptions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies). Only once that I can remember, in Anne Boleyn (1957) is it even hinted that he enjoys flirting for its own sake and for possible enrichment, but even there he quickly develops a real crush on Anne. It has the peculiar effect of both exalting and infantilizing him — he sounds like a fourteen-year-old, a lot of the time, but at least he’s cleared of any mercenary or social-climbing motives if he’s presented as genuinely caring for Anne in some way. On the whole, unfortunately, infantilizing seems to have won out — all too often, Smeaton is either childishly stupid or childishly violent as a result of uncontrollable emotion. And while the real Smeaton may well have had elements of either, or both, he couldn’t have lived in Wolsey’s and Henry’s households for so long without learning a bit more about court behavioral standards than that.

As much attention as he’s received, I think there’s room for more interpretations of his character — imagine, for example the untapped potential back story of one line: “Dysdayned my ffather / and wold not hyme se.” A novel centering around Smeaton could be fascinating, especially considering that his story has a quality of Wolsey’s rise and fall, only re-enacted in miniature. But for now, this look sufficeth me, and so, Mark Smeaton, farewell.

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From → Brief Lives

4 Comments
  1. I wonder if Mark came from the French-speaking Walloon area – it would explain his signature of Marc S which is scribbled on the manuscript which was passed around George Boleyn’s circle.

    If Mark was a part of that circle, I can never work out why Anne struggled to remember him in the Tower, although perhaps she was so stressed out, she could not recall him clearly.

    • sonetka permalink

      Is that definitely his signature, though? There may well have been more than one French/Flemish Marc in the household. Though even if “A moy Marc S” is Mark Smeaton, perhaps he was better known to George than to Anne — Smeaton belonged to the King’s household, after all, and may have had a lot of chances to see or entertain George there.

  2. It is telling that Wyatt scribbled the piece about the ass trying to jump the ditch – as Ives points out, it’s an apt comment to make about Smeaton.

    I cannot count the number of novels that have Smeaton attached to Anne’s household rather than Henry’s – it’s a common mistake.

    • sonetka permalink

      I don’t even count it as an error because it happens so much. That, or the king and queen both belong to one household and have all of their servants in common. I do feel bad for Smeaton, though — he may not have been terribly likeable in life, but his own death and his afterlife as the Designated Moron of so many stories is far too harsh a punishment.

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