1512 – 1536
What is it about rock stars and excess? It all starts out so promising – a few good tunes, a smattering of fans, the odd knockout gig and next thing you know you’re all over the ballad sheets, welcomed at all the trendiest joints and dating supermodels. You get yourself a set of fancy togs and get booked by royalty. But you never reckoned on having a shelf-life. Before you know it, the media’s bored with you and you’re being evicted from some celebrity knockout show.
Mark Smeaton had it all. He was great looking, he could play multiple instruments like a Tudor rock-god, and he had a voice like an angel. Greenwich girls hung around street corners hoping he’d sing a ballad just for them. Spotty Greenwich youths played air-lute in their bedrooms, wishing they too could be like Mark Smeaton.
He had the cash. He had the fame. He had the girls. He had the clobber. And he had a mighty chip on his shoulder.
He also had the eye of the Queen. Queen Anne Boleyn, that is. She’d noticed him sometime earlier and now asked him to play the virginals for her…
Trouble was, he was really just a peasant. A peasant who’d charmed Cardinal Wolsey as a boy chorister, but fallen out of favour when his voice broke. The outdated child-star got a second chance playing at the Greenwich court, but even as now, he was never allowed to forget that he was the hired help. The king just called him “Mark” and was so disgusted by his filthy clothes that he bought him a new set (Blimey – filthy clothes in Tudor times – they must have been really rank…)
No matter. Suddenly he was a star again. The Mark Smeaton Comeback-Gig was near-complete.
It all went a bit to his head. He started getting very arrogant, strutting around in his new kit and showing off to the locals. He ‘dysdayned’ his old mum and dad – a carpenter and seamstress – and started chucking his money around – which wagging tongues pointed out was a bit odd, since he only made £100 a year. Just where was he getting the cash from? Gossips in that hothouse that was the Tudor Court started to snigger at the way he was gallivanting around town with minor celebs instead of making music. And those minor celebs were just that – Z-list, not the real toffs. Smeaton began to get that chip on his heavily-padded satin shoulder. His ratings were sinking.
At this point the Queen got him to come and play virginals for him (though my New Best Friend the Rev. L’Estrange, writing in 1886, reckons that he was a dodgy character and merely ‘loitering’ at her bow-window in a seedy fashion). Anne noticed he was a bit down in the dumps and asked him what was up. The grumpy Gallagher-alike just muttered “It is no matter.” The Queen, whose new found status had, frankly, gone to her head told him
“You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a nobleman, because you are an inferior person.”
I guess there wasn’t much of a riposte to that, especially for a peacock like Smeaton. All he could manage was
“No, no, Madam. A look sufficeth,” which under the circumstances was more tactful than I’d have been. The Rev L’Estrange reckons this was said with ‘some craftiness,’ though I don’t buy it myself. He even implies that Smeaton was ‘suborned to entrap the Queen,’
If he was, it backfired badly.
All in all, it was pretty innocent stuff, really. But it’s amazing how the press can twist what you say (in this case ‘press’ being of the torture-instrument variety.)
One of the Queen’s (by that point many) enemies took a note of it and passed it onto The Spin-Meister General, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was looking for reasons to get rid of Anne and Smeaton seemed as good as any. The poor sod was arrested and hauled off to the Tower.
His ‘confession’ was almost certainly obtained through torture – most people agree that the alleged torrid affair in Greenwich couldn’t have happened since Anne was in Richmond at the time. No one really believed it, though plenty of people enjoyed acting shocked at the idea of the Queen with a mere musician (let’s not even consider any modern parallels with Lib-Dem MPs and girly singers…)
It’s likely that he was offered his life in return for names of more plausible lovers, but if he was, the promise was reneged upon. The names spilled, but so did Smeaton’s head. He was beheaded (he at least escaped hanging, drawing and quartering) on 17th May 1536, a pathetic creature, who even managed to stumble up the scaffold in his fear. I suspect I’d have been similarly terrified.
Was he set-up from the start? Who can tell. He was certainly susceptible to flattery and had ideas above his station in the class-conscious Tudor age. And until he realised that he might lose his head for it, he probably rather liked the idea that his name was being linked with the Queen’s.
I feel sorry for Mark Smeaton – his is the classic story of the fallen hero – the star who can’t handle their fame and gets thrown to the publicist lions. No paparazzi in those days – but plenty of balladeers ready to twist the knife:
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 hadst 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