Posted By Claire on May 18, 2015
On the night of 17th/18th May 1536, while the carpenters built her scaffold within the grounds of the Tower of London, Anne Boleyn prepared herself for her execution, which was scheduled for 9am on the 18th. At 2am, her almoner, John Skip (some say her confessor Father Thirwell1), arrived to pray with her. She was still in prayer when Archbishop Cranmer arrived just after dawn to hear her final confession and to celebrate the Mass.
Anne Boleyn thought she would be dying in just a few hours, so she wanted the Sacrament. She asked for Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, to be present and he agreed. As Anne took the sacrament she swore on it twice, before and after receiving the body of Christ. She solemnly swore that she had not been unfaithful to the King, as Chapuys reported in a letter to Charles V:
“The lady who had charge of her has sent to tell me in great secresy that the Concubine, before and after receiving the sacrament, affirmed to her, on the damnation of her soul, that she had never been unfaithful to the King.”2
Anne obviously wanted Kingston to pass this information on to Thomas Cromwell and he did:
“for this mornynge she sent for me that I myght be with hyr at [such time] as she reysayved the gud Lord, to the intent I shuld here hy[r] s[peak as] towchyng hyr innosensy alway to be clere.”3
It changed nothing. Anne could have sworn her innocence until she was blue in the face but the swordsman of Calais was on his way, the scaffold was being erected and her marriage had been annulled. Anne had been abandoned by Henry VIII and she was to suffer death.
Anne then made arrangements for the customary distribution of alms using the £20 given to her by the King for this purpose, and then she waited for 9am, the moment she thought she would take her final walk. She went back to her prayers.
When nothing happened at 9am, Anne sent for Kingston. She had heard that her execution had been postponed until noon:
“Mr. Kyngston, I h[ear say I shall] not dy affore none, and I am very sory therfore, for I thowt[h to] be dede [by this time], and past my payne.”
Kingston knew full well that Anne was not being executed that day as he had received orders from Cromwell to clear the Tower of foreigners first, perhaps so that foreign diplomats could not send home sympathetic reports of Anne execution. Kingston kept Anne in the dark for a while longer and tried to comfort her by explaining that her execution would not be painful and that the blow was “so subtle”. To this, Anne replied with characteristic black humour, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”, after which she put her hands around her throat and laughed heartily.4 Kingston was impressed with Anne Boleyn’s composure, commenting to Cromwell that “thys lady hasse mech joy and plesure in dethe”5 and writing of how her almoner was with her continually.
Anne’s black humour in those dark hours showed through as she joked with her ladies that the people would be able to give her the nickname “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”6 or Queen Anne Lackhead, and then she laughed. Regardless, those hours of waiting and not knowing what was going on must have been pure hell for Anne, who had prepared herself to die that day.
She was finally put out of her misery when noon passed and Kingston informed her that her execution had been postponed until the next day, the 19th. According to Chapuys, “when the command came to put off the execution till today [19th], Anne appeared very sorry, praying the Captain of the Tower that for the honor of God he would beg the King that, since she was in good state and disposed for death, she might be dispatched immediately”.7 Lanceleot de Carles has her adding that it was “not that she desired death, but thought herself prepared to die and feared that delay would weaken her”. De Carles writes of how she then “consoled her ladies several times, telling them that was not a thing to be regretted by Christians, and she hoped to be quit of all unhappiness, with various other good counsels.”8
There was nothing that Sir William Kingston could do to ease Anne’s suffering; all Anne could do was return to prayer and wait.
Elsewhere on 18th May 1536, it was reported to Cromwell by a Frenchman that the wax tapers set around Catherine of Aragon’s tomb in Peterborough Abbey “had been lighted of their own accord”.9
Notes and Sources
Extract taken from my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown.
- Younghusband, The Tower from Within, 131.
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10 – January-June 1536, 908.
- Ibid., 910.
- Sergeant, Anne Boleyn: A Study, 269.
- LP. x. 908.
- Ibid., 1036.
- BL Cotton MS Vitellius B Xiv, Fol. 220B.