The Last Days of Anne Boleyn — Tribute to Alison Weir
Anne Boleyn’s downfall and death have been blamed to many things: her failure to produce a male heir to the throne of England; her temper and lack of fear towards her husband King Henry VIII; her extreme independence and power almost as equal to the King’s and even rumors of witchcraft; lies about adultery and low liaisons with courtiers. But time and history made at least some justice to the figure of Queen Anne Boleyn; even when today many people see her as a dark figure; nobody can deny that she died innocent and that all the charges against her were based upon lies and upon the great desire of the King to have a male heir… with another woman.
No matter the reasons; as human beings we always want to know the feelings and fears of others; and when you think about Anne Boleyn, it is almost imperative to want to know her feelings in the most disturbing and dark moments of her life; in her last days. It is believed that when a criminal is sentenced to death and walks towards it knowing that the punishment is deserved; the fear, the sadness and the desires to expect a miracle to be saved are not present or if they are; the power of them is minimum; but when someone is condemned to death; and that person has the knowledge of his or her own innocence, without doubts; those feelings are another element of torture; because that person knows that the punishment is not deserved and always expect a miracle that saves them. Anne Boleyn suffered not only in the last moments of her existence; she suffered longer than that; she was accused of abominable crimes; even incest with her brother; and she was innocent; her execution was delayed, increasing her agony and her fear. In this article we will explore her feelings from the moment of her arrest… towards her last minutes of life.
When Anne Boleyn returned to England to be maid of honor of Queen Catherine of Aragon; her fate was sealed. Her father, along with the patronage of her uncle, the duke of Norfolk; were determined to use Anne to their own benefit; they wanted the destruction of Cardinal Wolsey, and the total support of the King which meant more power and fortune. Anne never needed to make extreme efforts to succeed; her exotic beauty, her charm, her intelligence; and her strong spirit captured the king in a very short period of time. Anne was wise, she refused to give herself to the King and that kept the fire alive for him; slowly but surely Anne became the main goal in Henry VIII’s life. And eventually for her, what started as a scheme for wealth and power, ended in the most beautiful and passionate love story, at least on her point of view; we will never know for sure if Henry really loved her, as she learned to love him.
When her place was secure alongside Henry, Anne Boleyn was indeed, the most happy woman alive; she had everything; jewels, gowns, servants, power, wealth and distinction. But more, she had the love of the King of England; and when she finally delivered her love in body and soul to Henry; her most important goal were achieved; she was pregnant, and that meant, that the crown was totally hers.
Anne married the King, she got the crown and she was expecting his child; all was perfect; but in September 7th 1533; everything changed; Anne delivered a beautiful and healthy baby girl; a blessing of course, but not for Henry, who was extremely disappointed; Anne failed to give him the male heir she promised during the magical days of their “fairy tale romance”; this event marked a wake up call for Anne; the magic was over, and now she needed to produce the Prince she promised quickly, or she would lose the King’s love. But the hopes of the King were still alive; Anne gave him a healthy baby girl, and once again, she was pregnant in the winter of 1534; but fate was against her one more time and she lost the baby. This was the beginning of the end for the royal couple; Henry started to lose his interest in Anne, their quarrels were constant and the Queen’s paranoid mind started to act against her. Again, a ray of light sparkled again for Anne; once again, she was pregnant; all her hopes and wishes to a happy and secure life as Queen were centered in that pregnancy; even when they were sentimentally distant; the King was kind to her and there was peace among the couple. But that peace was a mask, Henry had his eyes upon another woman, Lady Jane Seymour; Anne was suspicious about it; and one afternoon, she found them lost in a tender embrace in a solitary chamber; that was a detonator for the already paranoid Anne; she cursed and exploded in rage; and at last, in that same night, Anne lost her baby; a boy. After that night, the clock was ticking against the Queen; Henry lost every last drop of affection towards her, and he wanted to get rid of her and take another wife… whatever the cost.
The Last Days
Queen Anne’s last miscarriage was the green light for Henry VIII to elaborate the master plan to get rid of her, and make room for Jane Seymour and his hopes for a male heir. With the help of his most loyal, diligent and stoic servant Thomas Cromwell, the King settled the perfect scenery for Anne’s downfall. Slowly, deliberated and with all the cruelty imaginable; the plot against Anne was developing, and she was not aware about it. Anne spent two weeks in bed, recovering from her miscarriage. She lost a huge amount of blood, and the sadness, the stress and the pain suffered; was too much to bear. She was afraid of the consequences of her miscarriage; she knew that probably would not have another chance to conquer Henry and get pregnant again; but that does not mean she was not willing to try and fight for it. Once recovered, Anne returned to her life at court, shining as always, with the same elegance but she paid more attention to her surroundings; and also to her enemies. She was also receiving a lot amount of pressure; from her father, from her mother, and her brother; when she was crying or hysterical she was scolded harshly; and forced to act as her motto commanded; The Most Happy. Of course, at that moment, that was just a phrase, and nothing more.
Days of May
Mayday, the first day of May; was one of the English Court’s annual social highlights. It marked the beginning of the summer season. At Court, the day was traditionally celebrated with a series of afternoon jousts. Normally, the vain sovereign took great pride in being the centre of attention at such events, but this year and for the first time, King Henry VIII was not competing following a particularly dangerous fall from his horse back in January.
Sitting next to one another, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn still cut an attractive even a magnificent couple. Of course, the King was no longer the “perfect model of manly beauty”, but neither had he degenerated into the monstrous tyrant of his later years. In 1536, , the 44 year-old King looked every inch the absolute monarch. Next to him, Anne was presumably dressed in the apple green that was customary for Mayday. Queen Anne Boleyn still possessed enough youth and the good looks which had prompted the King of France to nickname her “the Brunette Venus” . Yet, she looked tired and she was thinner than usual. Still, both attractive, charismatic and immaculately dressed, they gave no sign that anything was difficult between them, and as the jousting commenced; they smiled, nodded and applauded in all the right places. They acted as the most happy royal couple.
But inside, Anne was devastated; in silence she was dealing with a lot in her mind; she felt everyone around her as enemies; her paranoid mind was creating a dark scenario when everyone was after her; in fact, she was not far from the truth; and the worst part of all, is that she was forced to hide it; with a perfect disguise. Anne was tired of her husband’s constant infidelities, his psychological cruelty, his bullying, his hypocrisy and his ability to blame everyone but himself. And to make things more stressful; the Queen’s mother, The Countess of Wiltshire and Ormond was terribly ill; so much, that Anne feared for her life. She asked Cromwell to tell the King that she wanted to visit her mother at Hever and spent some time with her, but the King’s answer, was a clear no. Anne was furious, and she blamed Cromwell for that outcome; she started to look at him as an enemy and no more as an ally.
She suspected Cromwell of corrupting the English Reformation with a too strict protestant agenda and of supporting her husband’s relationship with his latest mistress, Jane Seymour. In both cases, she was right and she arranged a tasty revenge by having one of her favorite priests, Father John Skip, preach an inflammatory sermon on the subject of the virtuous biblical queen, Esther, and the corrupt, murderous politician, Haman. Everyone knew what point the Queen was trying to make; especially Cromwell. On Saint George’s Day, the Queen’s brother was supposed to have been inducted into the Order of the Garter, but instead the King publicly humiliated Anne by handing the honor to Sir Nicholas Carew, a friend of Jane Seymour’s. Later on that same day, Anne had a strong quarrel with one of her long time friends, Sir Henry Norris; the Queen was hearing rumors everywhere about the King being displeased by her, and his anger related with her ways at court; so, what started as a nice talking, ended with the Queen accusing Sir Henry of being in love with her; she told him that he was “Looking for dead man shoes”. Sir Henry felt terrible and left; later, Anne visited one of her priests to swear that she had meant no harm in the accusation. What Anne did not know, is that somewhere; her friend and favorite musician, Mark Smeaton, was being tortured by the orders of Thomas Cromwell. After long and agonizing hours of pain Mark Smeaton confessed to being the Queen’s adulterous lover. He also pointed the finger at Sir Henry Norris, whom the Queen had accused of being in love with her earlier that weekend, and who was one of Cromwell’s main competitors for the King’s ear. Once a confession had been ripped from Smeaton the news was dispatched to Greenwich and the King left the joust, ordering Norris to come with him.
Armed with Mark Smeaton’s confession, the King halted his ride half-way to London and asked Henry Norris out-right if he was Anne’s lover. This was the second time in two days that Norris had been asked if he was in love with Anne Boleyn, only this time the accusation had progressed into having actually gone to bed with her. Furious and afraid, Norris denied ever having committed adultery with the Queen. Henry responded that they had proof that he had done; Norris again denied it. And finally was put in prison.
But before the day ended, Anne received disturbing news from one of her ladies; all the meetings with the French Ambassadors scheduled for the week were suddenly canceled, and many envoys were escorted out of London; and even more; all preparations to seek potential candidates for the hand of Princess Elizabeth were also canceled. This gave Anne a red alert that something was really wrong; she called her chaplain and ordered him to go to Hatfield and bring Elizabeth with him, because she wanted to spend some time with her.
As soon as Elizabeth arrived, she went with her to find the King. She found him; while she was holding her two and a half year old daughter they started to talk, there is no record of what happened between them; but probably she wanted an explanation for the canceled events; but this time she did it in peaceful manners, from wife to husband. One servant was looking from a window, and made a statement that later went to the hands of Queen Elizabeth I:
Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a little baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene king your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard, when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the king was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well.
Unfortunately, Anne’s last attempt to touch the heart of her husband, failed.
Queen Anne’s Arrest
On the morning of the second day of May, Queen Anne woke up as usual, and started the morning with her routine. Even when she knew that nothing was in the normal course; she acted like if everything were fine. She left her room with her ladies and watched a tennis match; then suddenly, a servant approached her and told her that by orders of the King; she was summoned to present herself before the Privy Council. In other time she probably would refuse and make a scene but considering the dangerous atmosphere; she went peacefully. Entering the Chamber, she perhaps expected to see either her husband or the entire Council there. Instead, only three of the King’s advisers were present: Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, the King’s Master Treasurer, Sir William Fitzwilliam, and Sir William Paulet. The duke informed her that the King had granted the Council powers to investigate her “evil behavior.” As a result of these investigations, the Queen now stood accused of adultery with the courtier Sir Henry Norris, the musician Mark Smeaton and a mysterious third lover, whose identity they refused to reveal at this stage. The Queen, understandably, was both furious and terrified at her uncle’s accusations and she denied them, stating that the King was the only man who had ever touched her.
There was no reaction of the three men towards her words; and from that moment, the Queen knew she was on her own. Thanks to her Royal Rank, she was allowed to return to her chambers to have her lunch and to change her clothes. In her chambers, all was silence and tears; her ladies in waiting and her servants were sobbing, but they continue with their chores the best they could. Queen Anne remained in silence for a long time, until she stood up and order her ladies to follow her; she was ready to prepare herself for what she was going to face outside her room. Anne Boleyn acted like a queen in every step of the way; she chose a deliberately majestic outfit of crimson velvet, with a cloth of gold kirtle. However, trying to keep any form of secret at the Tudor Court was always a next-to impossible task and by the time Anne entered her chamber for lunch and took her usual place beneath a canopy of estate, the news that she had been accused of adultery had spread round the entire palace; a hundred soldiers had already been seen sailing up the Thames to apprehend her.
At two o’clock, the Council entered the Queen’s Apartments. The three original accusers now came accompanied by some of their colleagues on the Council; including the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Oxford, Lord Sandys and Thomas Cromwell. The Queen rose from her chair and simply said: “My Lords… why have you come?” Afterwards, Norfolk produced a warrant for her arrest, signed by the King, she was formally accused of High Treason, by committing adultery. She was commanded to come with them at once; she was to be lodged in the Tower of London. There was no time for her to pack any of her clothes or jewels and she was forbidden to bring any of her own ladies with her, or to contact any of her friends or relatives. Faced with a warrant and soldiers, Anne had no choice but to surrender with the best grace possible under the circumstances: “If it be His Majesty’s pleasure, I am ready to obey.”
Stepping out into the May sunshine, the councilors escorted Queen Anne to a waiting barge, which pushed off from the red-brick palace where Anne had enjoyed so many of her successes and given birth to her daughter three years earlier. Anne sat upright, staring ahead with a face frozen, as her jewels and silks shimmered in the afternoon sun. She did not give any sign of hearing the jeers of various Londoners out on the river, nor did she dared to react to the Duke of Norfolk’s insufferable scolding, which continued every time she looked at him. The tide was against them and so the journey from Greenwich to the Tower was an agonizingly long one, meaning that Anne had to put up with this kind of torture for over two hours.
As she sailed into captivity, the cannons of the Tower fired out a salvo to announce the incarceration of a great personage within its walls and it was this sound, coupled with seeing the imposing walls of the Tower rise up around her, which finally shattered Anne’s almost supernatural calm. She was indeed terrified; she knew the tragic tales of those who enter the Tower, and never emerge again; she knew about the pain, suffering and desperation of those who once entered only to find death outside. Finally, the full, hideous reality of her situation seemed to hit her and her legs gave way beneath her. Falling onto the steps, the Queen began to pray. The councilors, having deposited her into her prison, returned to the barge without speaking a word to her. After she had finished her prayers, Anne was helped to her feet by the Constable of the Tower; Sir William Kingston, a middle-aged knight. Sober and imposing, Kingston was a true Tudor loyalist and was a deeply supporter of the position that Queen Anne was guilty as charged, but throughout her imprisonment, he treated her with courtesy and he later went to great lengths to praise her courage. He took no pleasure in her misery and he would always maintain that of the many prisoners he had guarded over the years, Anne Boleyn was one of the bravest.
That famous bravery, however, was not on display in the first hour after she entered her prison. While she walked under the guard of Kingston; Anne started to behave erratically; she started to make comments about the time when she was crowned; the joy of those around her, and she even reminded Kingston of his elegant bow when she entered the Tower for the first time prior her coronation ceremony. Kingston remained in silence; and that silence brought Anne back to reality; the happy memories turned in pleas and declarations about her innocence and loyalty to her husband, the King. Finally, when they arrived to the Tower’s main entrance she asked Kingston: “Master Kingston, do I go into a dungeon?” “No, Madam,” he replied soothingly, “you shall go into your lodging that you lay in at your coronation.” Hearing that she was to be kept in the very rooms which had been decorated for her three years earlier, Anne collapsed once again and said: “Oh My God; Please, May Jesus have mercy on me”. Kneeling there on the cobbles of the Tower of London, in a dress of gold and crimson; the colors of wealth and blood; Anne Boleyn, Queen of England began “weeping a great pace, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing, and she hath done many times since”.
End of Part I
May 7th 1536: First Sunday in Prison.
The first Sunday of Anne Boleyn in the Tower was as hard as the previous days; she spent the first days of captivity in the company of ladies she did not trust and displeasing servants. Her temper was extremely erratic; she went from anger towards sadness in very short periods of time. She even dared to say that it would not rain in England again until she was released. Kingston avoided visiting her and she was terribly alone with her thoughts and fears.
Anne wanted to have the Sacraments in the Oratory on her room, but Cromwell refused. He knew that if that were given to Anne, she would be start to appear as a matyr and a heroine by those around her, and his plan was to keep Anne as the unrepentant harlot. But later, her insistence won, and she was allowed to have the Oratory in her room, with all the elements needed. Of course, this caused some government issues.
When Kingston finally decided to visit her; they sat by the fireplace and started to talk “shaking her head three or four times,” she thought back on the dark events of the last few days: “I to be a Queen and as cruelly handled as was never seen!” She again repeated her shock that she had never been formally questioned or allowed to plead her innocence before the Privy Council. They could not prove anything against her, she explained, because “they can bring no witnesses,” “since is evident truth that one cannot bring witnesses for something that did not occur”.
Evidently deciding that she was being treated unjustly, the Queen brightened up and began to talk of pleasanter things, but it was a temporary. In the end, her mind wandered back to religion. “I think the most part of England prays for me,” she said; and that was probably an exaggeration, even when she was certainly popular in parts of London and the south, there were other parts of the country where she was profoundly hated. Still, she drew great comfort from their prayers, real or imagined. She told Kingston if she were to die, she would not be afraid. “I shall be in Heaven, for I have done many good deeds in my days.”
May 15th 1536; The Trial.
On May 15th 1536, twenty-six peers of the realm congregated in the King’s Hall of the Tower of London to serve as judges in the trial of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Presiding, in his role as Lord High Steward, was the Duke of Norfolk, representing the King, who had chosen to absent himself. In the centre of the Hall, a chair had been placed on a raised platform before a bar. Nearby, glistening in the light was the Queen’s crown; probably the one made of gold and decorated with sapphires, rubies and pearls with crosses and fleurs-de-lis around the rim, which the Queen had ordered for her coronation three years earlier. In the specially constructed stands placed all around the Hall, two thousand of the citizenry of London had gathered to watch. Finally, the Duke of Norfolk announced, “Gentleman Galore of the Tower, bring in your prisoner.”
The Queen entered the room, accompanied by the ladies she was forced to have and the Yeoman Galore of the Tower, carrying his axe, with its blade turned away from her face to signify that she had not yet been condemned. Dressed elegantly in a gown of black velvet with a crimson damask petticoat, and small cap with black and white feathers, the Queen bore all the hallmarks of her education; elegant, imperious and very grand. The French Bishop of Riez, was impressed by the Queen’s behavior: “She walked forth in fearful beauty,” he wrote later, “and seemed unmoved. She came not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honor.”
The official charges against her were incest, adultery and High Treason. Contrary to popular belief, witchcraft was never included in the indictments, nor was it implied that Lord Rochford had been the biological father of the prince his royal sister had miscarried earlier that year. Neither was the allegation that the Queen had poisoned the King’s first wife and attempted to poison his two children, Lady Mary and the Duke of Richmond, although both were widely reported by the Queen’s enemies at the time, after three years of rumor-mongering by the Spanish ambassador on the subject. The expected charges of adultery with Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page had been dropped, very possibly due to Thomas Cromwell’s friendships with the two men.
Throughout the reading of the indictment, in all its explicit and excruciating detail, the Queen did not “exhibit any token of impatience, or grief, or cowardice,” according to another eyewitness. As each separate charge was put to her, she entered a plea of not guilty. Denied a defense counsel since she was accused of treason, the Queen then had a chance at rebuttal. Her answers were generally short, sober and, according to the Spanish ambassador, “plausible.”
The Attorney General then rose to make the case for the prosecution. No witnesses were brought against her, nor were she permitted to call any in her own defense. After a relatively short period, the aristocratic judges were asked to reach a decision. To a man, they returned a verdict of guilty on all charges and with the verdict returned, the process of sentencing could begin. Firstly, she was stripped of all her titles; barring that of queen and she was asked to relinquish the crown into the hands of her judges, which she did so with apparent calm. With or without the actual crown, Anne’s boast a few days earlier that nothing and no-one could stop her dying a queen was to be fulfilled. Then, it fell upon the Duke of Norfolk to pass the death penalty upon her and she was sentenced to be burned or beheaded, depending on the King’s pleasure. The Queen heard this ruling without any sign of distress, but this was not a reaction echoed in the rest of the courtroom. Norfolk himself had been unexpectedly weeping as he delivered the sentence and from the gallery the Queen’s childhood governess, Mrs. Orchard, “shrieked out dreadfully” and became hysterical; one of the judges, the Earl of Northumberland, collapsed and had to be carried from the hall. Some of the jury was unhappy at the sentence being handed down in the disjunctive and the Lord Mayor of London broke rank by subsequently asserting that the whole thing had been a charade to “get rid of the Queen at any price.” In all this scandal, the Queen rose from her chair once more, she looked at the judges with pride and serenity, and said:
“My lords, I do not say that my opinion ought to be preferred to your judgment; but if you have reasons to justify it, they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am wholly innocent of all matters of which I have been accused, so that I cannot call upon God to pardon me.
I have always been faithful to the King my lord; but perhaps I have not always shown to him such a perfect humility and reverence as his graciousness and courtesy deserved, and the honor he hath done me required. I confess that I have often had jealous fantasies against him which I had not wisdom or strength to repress. But God knows that I have not otherwise trespassed against him.
Do not think I say this in the hope of prolonging my life, for He who saveth from death has taught me how to die, and will strengthen my faith.
Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in mind that I do not care to vindicate my innocence. I knew that it would avail me little to defend it at the last moment if I had not maintained it all my life long, as much as ever Queen did. Still the last words out of my mouth shall justify my honor.
As for my brother and the other gentlemen who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly die to save them; but as that is not the King’s pleasure, I shall accompany them in death. And then Afterwards, I shall live in eternal peace and joy without end, where I shall pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.
The judge of the entire world, in whom abounds justice and truth knows all, and through His love I beseech that He will have compassion on those who have condemned me to this death.”
With that, she left the room, accompanied by the same delegation with which she had entered. This time, the Yeoman’s axe was turned towards her.
May 17th 1536:
These Bloody Days……
The queen was already aware of her fate; a fate that she knew was unfair, cruel and undeserved. But in the morning of May 17th, she was not ready to endure the fate of her beloved brother and of those who will die unjustly.
For some years, there has been confusion about whether or not Anne did actually witness the executions as the legend states but the Spanish ambassador was quite insistent that she saw the five men die. What is certainly false in the points of that legend is the idea that the Queen was forced to witness the butchery of her brother and her friends. To have force her across the Tower from her rooms to the Byward or the Bell Tower would have required significant strength and she would had created a scene that neither Cromwell nor Kingston wanted. Therefore seems clear that Anne wanted to watch or, perhaps more accurately, felt that she should watch. Nothing in her life had prepared her for what she was about to witness.
Executed in order of rank, it was the Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, George Boleyn addressed crowd in a loud, clear, confident voice that carried across the crowd for the duration of his fairly lengthy speech:
“Christian men,” he began, “I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Men do common say that I have been a setter forth of the Word of God, and one that have favored the Gospel of Christ; and because I would not that God’s word should be slandered by me, I say unto you all, that if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this. I did read the Gospel of Christ, but I did not follow it. If I had, I had been a live man among you. Therefore, I pray you; masters all, for God’s sake stick to the Truth and follow it, for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knoweth.”
Then kneeling down by the block, he positioned himself and prepared to die. The axe-man, seemed nervous at the moment, he failed in the task of give a quick death and it took three strokes of the axe to severe Lord Rochford’s head from his shoulders. The Queen, his friends and those waiting to come after him on the scaffold saw it all. Can you imagine the pain in the Queen’s heart? For sure her heart was breaking in pieces; Anne Boleyn was no longer the proud Queen of England; she was a sister who just witnessed the brutal death of her beloved brother; without being executed yet, Anne Boleyn was already dying.
There are no reports of how Anne spent the rest of that dreadful day; but it is reported by her ladies, that during the night; she was in a deep spiritual meditation, praying and silently weeping; now; her hours were counted, and all that was left for her, was to wait.
May 18th 1536: Execution Delayed
Anne woke up almost at 3:00 a.m. on May 18th 1536; totally sure that this was her last day on earth. Her ladies, who at first did not show compassion for her; now were really close and understanding to her, they watched her during all her days in prison; and they learned more about a Queen who was suffering, than all they already know thanks to rumors and of course, the “facts” that were placed upon her. They started to saw the woman, more than the proud queen; and that woman was showing true pain, true sadness, a very stoic spirituality, closer to a martyr; too closer to entire innocence.
At times, Anne seemed anxious to die and those around her saw that as a sign that she despised God’s gift of life and she rather piously informed some of her ladies that this was not so, simply that she had every confidence that God would give her the courage to die bravely. Had she had any possibility of living with honor, she would undoubtedly have taken it. After all, she was still young and she had a mother and a daughter whose lives were about to be destroyed by the events of her death. Seeing her in this mindset, her galore wrote admiringly: “I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death.”
There had been some distress when the Queen realized she had incorrectly assumed she was to be executed later in the day. She began by asking Sir William why she was still alive, when she had hoped to be dead and past her pain by noon. He attempted to comfort the Queen by informing her that there would be no pain, since the executioner from France was a skilled expert in the art of execution by the sword. The Queen looked upon the ruffled Constable with amusement: “Yes, I heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.” With that, she put her hands around the tiny, swan-like neck and laughed. Her emotions were erratic, but in the rest of the day she was calmed; she had no more to expect, only wait for the inevitable.
Even when Anne and one of her ladies in the Tower; The constable’s wife, Lady Kingston were not close at all; the Queen knew the woman was on very friendly terms with the Lady Mary; before mass she asked Lady Kingston to come to her and talk privately. She asked Lady Kingston to go to the Lady Mary, and asked her if, out of charity, she would convey a private message from her to Mary, asking her stepdaughter’s forgiveness for any acts of cruelty or unkindness she had inflicted upon her in days gone-by. Lady Kingston was surprised by this and perhaps knew that the apology was not much use, since there is no sign that Mary ever accepted it. Indeed, quite the contrary. Three recent scholars, G.W. Bernard (a biographer of Anne’s) and David Loades and Linda Porter (biographers of Mary), have both insisted that the oft-told stories of Anne “persecuting” Mary are more or less nonsense; Bernard argues that any mishandling of Mary from 1532 – 1536 was ordered by the King, not the Queen, whilst both Loades and the usually-sympathetic Porter argue either that Mary exaggerated the whole thing under the malign, hyperbolic influence of her confidante and mentor, Eustace Chapuys, the ferociously anti-Boleyn Spanish ambassador.
The Queen’s final Mass was an emotive scene, after receiving the Sacrament, Anne swore on her innocence, repeating in all fervor that she never acted against the King, and that she was always faithful and clean in her marriage. something which, more than anything else would have sealed the matter in her favor in the eyes of many of her equally religious contemporaries. Anne, like most of the people she knew, believed fervently in Transubstantiation and so, in effect, she had just sworn upon the Body of Our Lord that she was innocent.
As the warm summer night drew in, the Queen spent the time in prayer and carefully re-selecting the outfit she had chosen to die in. The time of the execution was at last brought to her and doubly confirmed: nine o’clock the following morning and it would be within the walls of the fortress, not outside it, as had been the case for her brother and friends. She thanked Kingston for bringing her this news and weakly smile to him. Now there was no turn back, or hopes of be pardoned; her fate was sealed.
May 19th 1536: The Last Day of the Queen.
The dawn was near; and the Queen was awake even before that; she rose in the early hours of the morning to say her prayers; the sky was still full of summer starts, and the breeze and gentle and warmth outside. All was quiet, like if time itself were mourning already for the imminent death of Anne Boleyn.
When it came to it, Sir William Kingston, usually so efficient and so conscientious in the execution of his duties, found the task of telling the Queen that the guards had arrived to escort her to the scaffold, unexpectedly difficult. The good Constable began to arrange over his words; the Queen, who had just finished eating a light breakfast after hearing morning Mass, calmly told him not to worry; because she was ready. She seemed far from fear, although she kept nervously smoothing imaginary wrinkles in her outfit.
The Queen, accompanied by four young women of her own household, left the apartments where she had been both crowned and condemned, and walked down the long corridor and the flight of stairs to the outside and in to the fresh May morning air. She wore a low-cut dress of black, pinched in at that famously tiny waist, with another crimson kirtle. Black, the color of death, and crimson, the color of martyrdom; Over her shoulders was a very beautiful robe, trimmed with ermine a fur reserved only for members of the Royal Family. The annulment of her marriage had been carried out on the shakiest of grounds – so shaky, in fact that the government was not even sure of the legality of stripping her of her title of queen. After her death, she would still be referred to in official documents as “the late Queen,” an honor never accorded to Katherine of Aragon or Catherine Howard.
The doors opened to reveal a glorious morning with the promise of the most beautiful of English summers. It would be hard to die on a day so lovely, but the Queen stepped out with confidence, to a sea of faces perhaps about two or three thousand in number. As she appeared, some in the crowd gasped, other crossed themselves, others began to talk or whisper, but there was none of the jeering and hissing recorded in modern-day dramatizations of the execution.
Many people might have take advantage at facing such a sight, since in those moments they were free to yell and have fun with the royal misery; but the crowd actually made matters easier for the Queen. This was the environment she had always been most comfortable. She knew how to handle being stared at, being critiqued, being watched. Never more so than now, the crowd observations meant that she must deliver a magnificent performance. And the Queen was determined to make sure that her last act in life was perfect.
She was still young, but the dramatic weight loss of the last year now seemed to endow her with an almost ethereal quality, making her large, dark eyes stand out with even more presence than usual. Her flowing brunette hair remained as lustrous as ever, swept up into a head-dress in “the English style.” Two hundred yeoman of the King’s Guard led the Queen from her lodgings to the scaffold and as she passed by the crowd, she left a lasting impression. A Portuguese merchant, who had seen her on several occasions before, remarked: “Never had the Queen looked so beautiful.” A French bishop, also amongst the spectators, wrote: “Her face and complexion never were so beautiful.” She occasionally looked behind her to where her ladies were “shedding many tears,” so much so in fact that they looked “weak with anguish,” and more than one spectator was afraid they might faint. In contrast, the Queen seemed quite calm. “Her looks were cheerful,” recorded Lord Crispin de Milherve, who was standing near the black-clad scaffold, and he, like many, were more than impressed with her bravery.
By now, she had reached the first steps of the scaffold and she lightly lifted her skirts to walk up properly to her final earthly stage. There, she came face to face with the Swordsman, an expert in the French-style of execution with a double-edged sword. She would kneel, but remain upright. The Queen was finally in the presence of the last man in her life. Now, at the very last, it was this complete stranger who was going to give her a death that would buy for her an immortality that many other queens would envy. Looking at him, Anne saw a quiet, respectful angel of death. It turned out that, in that moment, some form of sacred communion must have passed between victim and killer, for the executioner was “himself distressed” as he knelt before the Queen and went through the ritual of begging her forgiveness for the act he must carry out upon her. “Madam,” he said, head bowed, “I crave Your Majesty’s pardon, for what I am ordered to do is my duty.” She answered him in French and forgave him entirely, as was expected of her. Then, she turned to the crowd and gave a short speech:
Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.
Anne’s ladies in waiting were by now practically in shock as they removed the Queen’s fur-lined robe, necklace, earrings, rings and prayer book. They were shaking so badly that the Queen had to remove her headdress herself, to reveal that the long, glorious brunette tresses had been swept up beneath a net. She turned to say goodbye to her women, asking their forgiveness if she had ever been harsh to them; they protested, wept and promised to pray for her. Then, they stepped back and huddled at the far end of the scaffold, sobbing. The crowd too, so unusually for a Tudor execution, “could not refrain from tears,” and many were now openly crying.
For just a moment, that for many of the watchers that morning seemed a long time; Anne Boleyn remained in silence, looking at the crowd; like waiting or maybe saying good bye to life, people and the world in absolute privacy. She looked around, for brief seconds; and everyone joined her in that tense and dramatic silence that took over the surroundings, until the sound of one of the Tower Bells broke it.
The executioner stepped up behind her and bowed again, with perfect Gallic chivalry. “Your Majesty,” he whispered in French, the language of her childhood, “I beg you to kneel and say your prayers.” The Queen smiled and nodded, kneeling down upon a cushion that had already been left for her upon the sawdust-strewn ground of the scaffold. She was not bound or restrained in any way. Fastidious to the last, she carefully tucked the hem of her gown under her feet, worried that it might billow up indecorously after her body collapsed in its death throes. There was a temporary moment of nerves, when she glanced behind her, apparently worried that the executioner would strike before she was ready. He assured her, with great kindness, that he would tell her before the fatal blow was delivered. It was a generous and merciful lie. While she was getting ready to say her final prayers, she looked once again to the crowd, and what she saw, was indeed a balm that made her misery less bitter; she saw two thousand people sink to their knees, impressed by her courage, moved by her plight or deeply respectful of the high and mighty title she still held; most likely a mixture of all three. Even Thomas Cromwell, who had helped bring her to this place, removed his cap and knelt; only the Duke of Suffolk and the King’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, remained obstinately and disrespectfully standing.
Quietly, deftly, the executioner removed his shoes and took out his sword from the pile of straw, where he had tactfully hidden it from the Queen’s view. Her weeping ladies in waiting sobbed at the scaffold’s edge, but steeled themselves to their pre-agreed task. They had a cloth ready, to rush forward and cover the Queen’s body and head once she had been killed; “Fearing that their mistress might be handled unworthily by inhuman men,” A Bishop wrote: “they forced themselves to do this duty.”
Denied the comfort of a priest at the end by the government’s orders, in retaliation for her refusal to confess or accept the charges against her; the Queen started to say her prayers: “Jesu, have pity on my soul. My God, have pity on my soul. To Jesus Christ, I commend my spirit.” Anne kept looking over her shoulder, she was near the end and it was harder to keep composure even when she was forcing herself to remain calmed; sometimes she looked at the executioner, only to find him in his place, with his hands empty; that confused her but at the same time made her feel sure that the man would keep his word.
The executioner and Kingston exchanged looks for a few seconds, and finally, the order was given. The executioner kept his plan of being kind with his victim and shouted to a young man in the front steps of the scaffold “Boy, fetch my sword!” Anne immediately looked forward, and stopped looking behind her; it was like a dark fairytale moment, when some kind of magic made her free from all nervous stress and reconciles her with death. The executioner stealthily picked up the sword and swung it around his head two or three times to pick up momentum in order to make a clean stroke at the royal head. He had already decided that he would not follow the custom of displaying the decapitated head to the crowd, nor would he utter the traditional, triumphalism cry of: “So perish all the King’s enemies!” He would let the ladies step forward, cover the head with a sheet and the body with another, whilst the priest was fetched and the great cannons fired out the news from Tower Wharf that the Queen of England was dead. Neither would he claim his executioner’s prerogative of being allowed to take the dead woman’s clothes and jewelry as his own; he would leave her to be buried in them and when Algernon Bertram Mitford oversaw the exhumation of Anne’s body in the 1870s, he was to find a few moldering pieces of fabric which had once been the final costume of this most unlucky and celebrated royal woman.
Finally, on a last swing, the sword descended. It sliced through her neck in one clean, merciful stroke and the head that wore the crown now rolled in the dust of the scaffold. Sic gloria transit mundi… The executioner crossed himself, the ladies rushed forwards, the crowd remained silent and, high above their heads, the cannon fire roared out over London. A solicitor in the crowd wrote: “The Queen died boldly. God take her to His rest.”
But even when the Queen received a merciful death; it was not over. The King never settle the acquisition of a proper coffin for her remains, and her body was left on the scaffold for almost an hour, under the guard of her ladies, a priest and one of the Tower guards, until someone on the chapel could find a coffin. Finally, an arrow chest was found, and there were no more options available. Feeling devastated and of course disturbed; Anne’s ladies had the hard task of carry her body and head towards the Chapel, while the priest prepared himself to pray for her inside. Finally, after a long, dramatic and tired walk, the ladies enter the chapel carrying Anne’s body and head; they were stained in her blood also; and for sure that was a moment that would haunt them forever. With some effort, her ladies placed her body in the small arrow chest, and since there was no space to place her head when it should be; it had to be placed near her arm.
The dark spectacle was finally over, and inside the Chapel St Peter ad Vincula; all was silence, tears and prayers for the death Queen. Her body was covered in the narrow chest; traces of blood were staining the sheets. And while only 4 ladies and a priest were praying for the soul of Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII were having breakfast and elaborating plans for his engagements with Jane Seymour. That attitude was so abominable and cruel, that even some courtiers started to see Jane with evil eyes; many at court considered disgusting that the King had a wedding almost ready when the blood of his late wife was still soaking the dark wood of the scaffold. Just eleven days after Anne’s brutal and undeserved death (murder); the King married the pale, thin and ordinary Jane Seymour.
A few miles away, the household of Princess Elizabeth was disbanded; the poor little girl was left behind, without a mother, without a father; with absolutely no explanation of what happened, or why. With only two and a half years of age, Elizabeth was pushed in a cruel environment, with a father that murdered her mother; and with no idea of what her future would be.
Anne Boleyn left a legacy that marked the history of England forever; her life was intense and her death was unjust. But she, in time, showed the world that her power, her spirit and presence would live on; because her beloved daughter took over the throne; she became the greatest monarch England ever had; Anne’s Virgin Queen, with her Golden Age of Prosperity and Wealth; gave Anne Boleyn, her peaceful rest.
Sources for this Article:
http://garethrussellcidevant.blogspot.com/ ( By Garreth Russel. Is a magnificent blog, certainly my inspiration for this artice; some of its components are based on his great job.)
www.youtube.com. Days that Shocked the World ( May 19th 1536)
www.youtube.com/EricIves ( Eric Ives)