Of all the men found guilty of treason and adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, ascending the scaffold and placing his head on the block on 17 May 1536, stood out.


A court musician in Anne’s household, Mark was insignificant compared to his co-accused – all prominent members of Henry VIII’s Privy Chamber. Sensationally, they included Anne’s own brother, George Boleyn.

Yet it was Mark Smeaton’s explosive confession that set in motion the dramatic events that resulted in the executions of Anne Boleyn, her brother George, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Smeaton himself.

Smeaton’s life is almost completely unknown to us, a blank canvas which lends itself so well to those who would weave their fiction of his life. His character has appeared in a number of movies, TV series, and novels, from The Tudors to Wolf Hall.

Now Smeaton’s story features in the turbulent political Tudor tapestry of Disney+ period drama Shardlake, based on the series of historical mystery novels of the same name by the late CJ Sansom.

His tragic life and execution embellish the broader political machinations of Thomas Cromwell. In this sense, Shardlake is not too far off the mark.

Who was Mark Smeaton?

Mark Smeaton must have been a talented musician with a handsome disposition to be at court, but we are left with rumours, assumptions, and legends with which to flesh out his story, as only his death is a true record for posterity.

He was a young man when he died, about 24 years old, as we believe he was born around 1512.

There are fleeting records of Smeaton in the service of the powerful and influential Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, so we can assume his singing voice was mellifluous indeed, for he survived Wolsey’s downfall in 1529, and was transferred to Chapel Royal to serve King Henry VIII.

Here Smeaton must have excelled, as Henry VIII rewarded his musical talents with a generous salary. Mark became a permanent fixture in the royal households of both Henry and Anne and enjoyed the benefits of royal favour, from generous Christmas gifts to extra payments.

At the height of his short-lived career, records show that Mark was one of the highest paid musicians at court and that Anne also further financed his lifestyle, a real sign of royal favour.

With a degree of disposable income, Mark invested in smart attire, horses, and servants. If contemporary accounts are accurate, Mark adopted the comportment of a man far above his own station, which in the profoundly hierarchical world of the Tudor court could be a dangerous move.

But perhaps the most perilous act of all was to ingratiate himself into Anne Boleyn’s personal sphere – on one occasion he was scolded by the Queen for daring to converse with her as if they were equals. It was a public and ill-fated exchange that was to turn the Tudor court on its head.

What was Mark Smeaton accused of?

The fall of Anne Boleyn began with Mark Smeaton. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister and henchman, was informed of the exchange between Anne and Mark Smeaton – which could be construed to suggest that this was a romantic tiff between Anne and her musician.

On 30 April 1536, Smeaton was brought to Cromwell’s house in Stepney for questioning.

Cromwell was on a mission and wanted answers. Whether getting them involved physical torture, we may never know, but the interrogation would have been brutal, involving threats and coercion at the very least. Some accounts describe a knotted rope was used around Mark’s head and eyes.

Was Smeaton put on the rack, that most medieval of torture devices? This is certainly a popular depiction in period dramas that deal with Anne Boleyn’s downfall. There is an account, found in a letter in Cromwell’s collection, which states that Smeaton was “grievously racked” into a confession. It is a questionable assertion as Smeaton walked to the scaffold, something he could not have done had he been racked.

A prisoner is tortured on the rack, with his arms pull in one direction and his legs in another
A prisoner is tortured on the rack, with his arms pull in one direction and his legs in another (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Whatever the case may be, we know that he endured 20 hours of gruelling interrogation which resulted in Mark Smeaton confessing to having had intercourse with Anne on three occasions.

He not only implicated himself, but named other men, who were quickly rounded up and arrested, with Anne herself the last to be brought to the Tower of London.

Mark Smeaton’s trial and execution

On 12 May, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, Francis Weston, and Henry Norris were tried on charges of High Treason separately from Anne and her brother George, in Westminster Hall, on a special commission of 'Oyer and Terminer' – meaning to “hear and determine” presided over by a judge and jury.

The trial of the four men would have been brief, for the jury knew well the outcome Henry VIII expected.

Three of the men – Norris, Brereton, and Weston – pleaded not guilty. But Smeaton, pleaded “guilty of violation and carnal knowledge of the Queen”, and put himself at the King’s mercy.

Smeaton was declared guilty, as were three other men. Stripped of their titles, lands, goods and chattel, all were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, in keeping with the gravity of the charge. However, Henry afforded the men a small mercy – their sentences were commuted to beheading.

On 17 May 1536, Norris, Weston, Smeaton, Brereton and George Boleyn were taken from the Tower of London to Tower Hill, where a scaffold awaited them.

As the highest in rank, Anne Boleyn’s brother George Boleyn – Lord Rochford – was the first to be executed, sparing him the ordeal of watching his friends die. Mark was the last to kneel on the scaffold, laying his neck on the blood-sodden block, now slick with gore.

Was Mark Smeaton guilty?

Of the men accused of having been intimate with the Queen, only Smeaton entered a plea of guilty. But then only Smeaton had been a guest at Cromwell’s house for questioning.

It was there that he admitted that he and Anne had been lovers, which she had instigated through “base conversations and kisses, touchings, gifts”.

But was Smeaton truly guilty? Was Anne guilty or were her gestures misunderstood?

Smeaton never recanted his confession, even on the scaffold, which infuriated Anne. According to her gaoler, William Kingston, she seemed genuinely perplexed that he would make such statements.

Could there more to Smeaton’s confession? The full account of Anne Boleyn’s imprisonment was damaged in a fire at Ashburnham House in Westminster in 1731, but it was viewed in its entirety by the 18th-century historian John Strype. He noted that based on a number of remarks made by Anne in the Tower, it seemed that Smeaton was obsessed with Anne, and tried endlessly to ingratiate himself into her inner circle.

Perhaps Anne had no choice but to address his actions with a public rebuke. We can only wonder if this sparked a degree of resentment in Smeaton, leading him to make claims of intimacy. Or perhaps he was boasting, attempting to place himself in her sphere.

Smeaton might have even been promised a reprieve if he named other lovers of the Queen who were more politically important. By pleading guilty, he might have hoped to win the King’s mercy – certainly the thought of the agonisingly slow traitor’s death at Tyburn was an incentive to please Henry.

Smeaton was buried in the churchyard of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, though his grave no longer exists. It is perhaps a fitting end for a man as elusive in death as he was in life.

Who was Mark Smeaton’s father and did he have a sister?

We know nothing of whether Mark Smeaton had any family, who is father was or whether he had brothers and sisters.

It is widely believed that Smeaton was Flemish, the son of a carpenter, who changed his name from “De Smedt” upon arrival in England.


However, Smeaton is also an English and Scottish name. There is even a place in Scotland called Smeaton, so he may not have had European roots at all.


Lauren MackayHistorian

Lauren Mackay is a historian specialising in Tudor England and the author of Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn (IB Tauris, 2018)