by Gayle McMartin Hulme
Queen Anne Boleyn – Preparation & Postponements
In April 1536, a noble woman was admonished by her brother for loose moral behavior. The words that passed between brother and sister that day started a chain reaction that would leave an innocent woman’s body broken on the scaffold and the future Elizabeth I a motherless child of not even three years of age.
Please bear in mind that what you are about to read is my personal take on the facts and events on 18 May 1536. — GAYLE
TOWER OF LONDON
18 MAY 1536
It’s the early hours of the morning, and I cannot sleep. The banging and crashing outside is deafening, and try as I might, I am unable to hide from the thought that the carpenters are constructing one of the necessary instruments of my doom. I pray the scaffold will not be needed, but I know deep inside that my body will soon be broken and my soul released to heaven.
As I lay in my bed racked with agitation and sleeplessness, my thoughts turn back to my meeting with Archbishop Cranmer two days before…
After the anxiety of listening to the door of my apartment being unlocked and opened, my heart leapt in hope as my good and faithful servant, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer entered my chamber.
I worried at his appearance, as his usual open and friendly expression looked harrowed, and he bore lines on his face in keeping with a man twice his age. His words to me were strained and awkward, and the presence of Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London was increasing his unease.
‘Your Majesty, how fair you after the events of your trial yesterday?’ he began.
‘Your Grace is most kind to inquiry after the health of a convicted traitor,’ I said with a wry smile, which did not serve to make him any more comfortable.
Sweeping my remark aside my dearest Archbishop and servant to my family continued. ‘Your Majesty I have come offering pastoral comfort to you and to hear your last confession as you requested. However, before I proceed to your confession, I must address another crucial matter’.
‘Oh yes, well pray continue as I am certain Master Kingston has no pressing plans for me at present,’ I replied glancing Master Kingston an inquiring look.
Cranmer once again ignored my attempt at humour and carried on. ‘The King, my sovereign and yours, has instructed me to annul your marriage on the grounds that despite the dispensation granted by the Bishop of Rome, his carnal knowledge of your sister Mary precluded your legal marriage to him.’
This latest piece of treachery had me swooning and in my shock I blurted out, ‘And what of my child, the Princess Elizabeth, what is to become of her? Will her fate be that of Lady Mary’s, a bastard starved of her father’s affection? Is it not enough that my infant daughter will be become motherless? Must my infamy be inflicted on her too?’
The Archbishop attempted to quell my fears. ‘Please quiet yourself. I owe much to you and your family’s patronage, and I will do all I can to look after and protect the Princess, and perhaps given time I can appeal to the King to show you mercy, but I cannot do any of these things unless you agree to the annulment of your marriage on the grounds I have just explained.’
‘You think that there may still be hope of clemency for me? That I may go free to a nunnery?’ I said still in shock.
His Grace continued ‘Yes…perhaps, there is such little time to affect these things, but for the love I owe you above all other women, I will pray unceasingly and entreat the King on your behalf if I can.’
With a glimmer of hope in my heart, I swore before and after Archbishop Cranmer administered the Sacrament in front of Master, Lady Kingston and my aunt, Lady Boleyn that I had never sinned against the King with my body and that I had been a good true and faithful wife. Surely Christendom will not think me reckless enough to risk death with a lie on my lips and jepardise my eternal soul.
After thanking his Grace for his visit and ministrations, I bid him goodbye with at least a small flicker of hope that my life might yet be spared.
I bring my mind back to the present and remind myself that my conversation with Archbishop Cranmer was 2 days ago, and surely if his mission had been a success, he would have written to advise me.
My darkest thoughts have been confirmed. Master Kingston has informed me that the deed will be done in private within the Tower and that the King has arranged a fine swordsman from Calais to perform my dispatch. Dare I entertain the notion that if the King, my husband is granting me this mercy that some trace of our love remains and that he may still allow me to live out my years in a religious house abroad? I pray God that I will pass the King’s test and it will be so.
As my thoughts waver and terror threatens to take grip of my senses, I am gladden for the announcement at around 2:00 am that my Almoner, John Skip has arrived. Perhaps as we pray together, I shall be touched by the Lord’s grace and I will recover my strength. The Lord’s presence I fear is the cloak between the dignity I know I must find and lingering thoughts of my final chilling ordeal in a few short hours.
With my soul prepared, there is nothing left but to wait, and so I closet myself with my almoner, fall to my knees and pray. It is a comfort to know that not only will I soon be in the presence of my Saviour, Jesus Christ, but that I will also be reunited with my dearest brother and the innocent gentlemen who suffered so cruelly by the axe yesterday.
As my mind hesitantly touches the events of yesterday, I recall the information from one of my women that brave Norris said before he met his end ‘he thought the Queen innocent of these things laid to her charge’, which I heartily give thanks for. However Mark did not clear me of the public infamy to which his alleged confession has brought me. Alas, I fear his soul suffers for it, and that he is now punished for his false accusations.
Kneeling at the altar in my chambers, I see Lady Kingston and Lady Boleyn out of the corner of my eye. How great an unkindness it is of the King to set about me such that I never loved. On my arrival here at The Tower and during my imprisonment, they and those other two poisonous vipers, Lady Stonor and Mrs Coffin reveled in my distress, scurrying back and forward to Master Secretary Cromwell, their tongues wagging all the while with any tip bit I blurted out in my blind panic. How I would have preferred to have those from my own chamber who I favor most.
At least now, after my trial, I am spared the misery of Lady Stonor and Mrs Coffin’s attendance.
I owe praise indeed to God that my two dearest companions Meg Wyatt, Lady Lee and my cousin, Lady Madge Shelton have now arrived and are to wait on me in my darkest hours.
When the time came for them to join me and when I had dismissed the others I was able to forget my dignity as Queen of England, and ran to Meg as a frightened child runs towards it’s mother. Even though Meg is 5 years my junior, I flung my arms around her neck and wept with joy at the sight of a familiar and sympathetic face.
I spoke to Meg through my sobs. ‘Oh Meg, Madge, I am so relieved to see you both. I cannot tell you the strain it has been these last weeks with no one who cares for me here and only spies to record my every word and deed.’
With kindness in her voice, Meg tells me, ‘I am pleased to come and serve you. The only news we have had of you is that of the false accusations made against you and of course the fate of your brother and the other gentlemen. The King has all but disappeared and…’ She hesitates.
‘Come on, Meg tell me the rest,’ I encourage her.
Meg stares at the floor like a misbehaving child. ‘The rumor is that your Maid of Honor Jane Seymour has been given lodgings in Chelsea and that the King is often there with her and her family until very late in the evening,’ she reluctantly continues.
Heaven help me, it is true. I have been right all along, and even when I was abed and miscarrying my son, my husband was wenching with Mistress Seymour. Jane Seymour, huh pretending piety and virtue, while happily standing by in order to be the benefactor of my misery.
I am so wrapped up in my own emotions, it had completely slipped my reeling mind that Meg’s own kin is also embroiled in this tragedy. Thomas Wyatt, Meg’s brother and one of His Majesty The King’s Privy Counselors, has been imprisoned here in the Tower with me since 5 May. I do not know where he is lodged, but my spirit sinks when I consider what might await him.
I cannot hide my agitation as I contemplate what Thomas’ friendship with me has brought him to. ‘Darling Meg, I am so sorry that poor Thomas has been dragged into my mess. Have you any news of the circumstances of his arrest or if he has been charged and condemned like the others?” I notice my shortness of breath and anxiety as I speak of Thomas’ predicament.
Meg put both her hands in mine and reassured me. ‘No, Anne do not vex yourself, my father received a comfortable letter from Master Secretary Cromwell advising him that he would continue to be as good a friend to Thomas as he ever was. My father replied on 11 May pleading that although Thomas is not free from vice, he hath offended more to God than to the King.’
The relief I feel in my breast for Meg and her family is profound. I know that Master Secretary is no friend to me, but I do beseech God that he will remain a true and good friend to the Wyatts.
The hours are slowly passing. I have broken my fast, silently dressed with the help of Meg and Madge, but still no word from Master Kingston on when or how I should acquit myself for the dreaded proceedings. I find my ears are constantly on alert for the crowds of spectators that will surely flock to the Tower this day, but no throng of people can be heard. I look for shadows under the door and listen for the sound of footsteps on the other side of the door. This delay must be some new cruel torture to which Cromwell and his henchmen have devised for me.
I summon Meg. Master Kingston has not arrived and there’s not a sound outside…’
Meg stops me half way, anticipating my train of thought ‘Madam, do not do this to yourself.”
I continue regardless of her pleas ‘Could it be that the King has remembered himself and relented, or perhaps Archbishop Cranmer has persuaded the King to spare me? Maybe at this moment Master Secretary Cromwell is issuing Master Kingston the order for my release?’
Madge has become aware of our conversation and is scurrying over to the table a look of contained but still obvious excitement on her face.
‘Have you news Madam? Has the King in his mercy pardoned you?’ she gabbles out.
I see Meg shoot Madge a look that would have killed the bravest stag in the forest stone dead. With an authority she seldom exercises, Meg barks at Madge. ‘God’s blood! Please Lady Shelton content yourself with your duties and do not eavesdrop on what is not after all your affair’.
Duly scolded and obviously hurt by Meg’s words, Madge goes back to the mending she has been occupying herself with.
Meg beckons me to a window embrasure, smooths down her dress, recovers her composure and addresses me with soothing tones. ‘Madam, no one wants what you are thinking to be true more than me. If it is the King’s pleasure that you should go free from this place, then you will know soon enough. I beg of you, until such times please do not torment yourself with the thought of it.’
I cannot contain myself and hastily blurt out, “But Meg, maybe, maybe the King has uncovered these wicked lies Cromwell has fabricated. Perhaps by some chance my Bishops have spoken for me and put records straight. I know the people will be praying for me in remembrance of my many good deeds over the years. What if the King fears to carry out the sentence lest the people take against the King for my sake? Through your own eyes you have witnessed the love the King bore me, the way he set the country in a roar to have me – a love that burnt so brightly could certainly never be completely extinguished. How could such a prince as His Majesty, sign my death warrant?’
Even though Meg sees me begin to weep, she takes me strongly by the shoulders. ‘Anne! Anne! Gather yourself, this is too much’ I recognise the timber of her voice and know what she is about to say. ‘You have prepared yourself with such grace and dignity, please trust in God and hold your nerve a little longer.’
I fall back into the seat by the window, clutching my chest as I resign my hopeful thoughts and once again contemplate the reality of my situation. No reprieve is being issued, no merciful pardon and justice will take its violent course. Meg and I have known each other for so long, since before the King turned his attention to Sir Thomas and Lady Boleyn’s other attractive and eligible daughter. We understand each other so well that no further words are necessary. Meg sits with me and we weep our silent, bitter tears together.
Meg is a good woman, and she knows her duty here is to see me supported and comforted through my final journey. She will ensure I make a dignified and Christian death. To that end, she wipes her eyes with her sleeves, does the same for me and bustles off to get me a cup of ale. As I watch her go, the thought occurs that up until this moment I have had no inclination of the emotional price she is paying to accompany and assist her Mistress and friend in this task.
When Meg returns with the ale, I tell her that I am continuing with my devotions in the hope that it will help me to recover my weakening resolve. I instruct Meg that I will suffer no interruptions while I wait for Master Kingston’s summons. Not that I desire death, but as we talk briefly I console her ‘all good Christian people have no cause to regret death, as it permits us to leave our earthly unhappiness and find peace with the Lord our creator.’
The hour being past 9 o’clock, I send for Master Kingston as I have overhead mention that my time will not come before noon. Master Kingston confirmed my suspicions. ‘ I am sorry Madam, but I have received instructions and yes what you say is true.’
I try to take in the information and reply.‘I am very sorry to hear it. I thought the deed would be accomplished by midday, and I would be past my pain.’
The Constable, kind Knight that he is went on to reassure me. ‘No Madam, there will be no pain the blow is so very subtle.’ Reassurance indeed, and I begin to laugh and say, ‘I am sure that the talented Executioner of Calais will have no trouble as I have such a little neck.’ Reflecting on this statement makes me laugh more heartily, which I fear totally bewilders Master Kingston.
I return to my prayers and once again ask God to fortify me through this latest tribulation. However it seems God for his own purpose has more to ask of me. Master Kingston is announced before noon in a great state of sorrow. He comes to inform me that once again my execution has been postponed. This time ’till the next day. Feeling my blood begin to pound in my head and my dark eyes flashing with fury, I speak sharply. ‘Thank you Master Kingston. You are excused.’
Only when the door is closed and with only Meg and Madge in attendance does the wall of my outer clam break and the tension of the preparation and postponement burst forth.
“I knew it, this is that devil Cromwell’s doing! I scream. ‘How he hates me and wants me to suffer more than I already am. How could I suffer more? I am utterly abandoned. My marriage to the King has been annulled by my own admission. My darling daughter Elizabeth has been deemed a bastard. My dearest brother’s butchered body lies cold in the ground, and my mother will surely die for the shame of it all.’
I am pacing like a baited bear and my words I know are incoherent. Although I’m exhausted, rage is exploding from every inch of me. ’The only comfort left to me are the gospels my faith and that I will be released from this miserable life to Christ’s salvation. For all my accusers’ talk of a quick and merciful death by the sword, Cromwell’s scheming has still found a way to prolong my agony. I doubt there is a weapon within the Tower walls he could use so nimbly to intensify my pain’.
Meg and Madge are well used to my storms of temper, and so they wait it out until the tide eventually turns and the inevitable weeping begins. In a heartbeat, they are both by my side to catch me before I collapse. I notice the looks passing between them, and we all know the unspoken truth. This storm is unlike any of the storms we have weathered before.
Although I give thanks for the love that both these remarkable women bear me, I dismiss them both and take up a place by the window again.
With my bible in my hands, I turn to the pages on our Savior’s crucifixion. I can think of no better example of how to bear my trial. I cherish the words as I could never cherish any earthly crown or chattel. Even as Jesus’ accusers pinned him to the cross, he still urged his Father to forgive them. It mattered not to him that he was put to death with criminals who harangued him, as he suffered. In his mercy and humility he still offered them a place in his Father’s house.
I must take my lead from these words. It is of no account whether you are King, Queen, Prince or peasant on earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is where we shall find our greatest reward and happiness. The passages bring an inexplicable calm to me. I know now that each step I take on the morrow will bring me one step closer to the peace that my soul is so sorely craving. Surely Jesus will take every pace with me and receive my soul.
In truth we are all sinners and owe thanks that Jesus in his goodness intercedes for us. I have no doubt sinned in my life, especially against my former Mistress Queen Katherine and her daughter Lady Mary. I have been haughty, proud, vindictive and spiteful, in particular to the girl. I even encouraged others to humiliate and degrade her in my absence.
As I consider my own child Elizabeth’s status now as the base born daughter of a convicted traitor and adulteress, I cannot avoid the thought of the desolation the girl must have felt for the loss of her mother, her father, the King and her status in the world. Surely by now she would have made a glittering marriage and had many children, which are a woman’s greatest consolation in this world. If it is God’s divine judgment that I am punished now for the malice I inflicted on her, then I am ready to accept his will.
With a sense of quiet that I have not felt for many months, I recall Meg back to my side. She hurries with a look of concern on her face. ‘Fear not Darling Meg, everything is well. I am sorry our friendship has placed you here with me instead of with your husband. Your ordeal will soon be over. Let us sit a while and talk of happier times….’
About the Author
Gayle lives in Glasgow in the UK with her husband Paul and son Jamie.
While not indulging her passion for all things 16th century and Queen Anne Boleyn in particular, she is busy running her group fitness business, or following her favorite football (soccer) team. Go Rangers FC!