18 May 1536 – Anne Boleyn prepares for death

Posted By on May 18, 2015

Anne Boleyn in the TowerOn 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.

  1. Younghusband, The Tower from Within, 131.
  2. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10 – January-June 1536, 908.
  3. Ibid., 910.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sergeant, Anne Boleyn: A Study, 269.
  7. LP. x. 908.
  8. Ibid., 1036.
  9. BL Cotton MS Vitellius B Xiv, Fol. 220B.

17 thoughts on “18 May 1536 – Anne Boleyn prepares for death”

  1. Kate says:

    Do we know who the ladies were that attended Anne in the Tower?

    1. Claire says:

      Yes. The ladies chosen to serve Anne in the Tower were:

      • Mrs Mary Orchard – Anne’s former nurse and the only one who would have been sympathetic to Anne’s plight and shown her love.
      • Mrs Stonor (Margaret or Anne Foliot) – Wife of Sir Walter Stonor, the King’s sergeant-at-arms.
      • Elizabeth Wood, Lady Boleyn – Wife of Thomas Boleyn’s younger brother, Sir James Boleyn of Blickling Hall, and therefore Anne’s aunt. Although Sir James Boleyn had served Anne as her chancellor, he was a supporter of the Lady Mary.
      • Lady Anne Shelton – Thomas Boleyn’s sister and the mother of Madge Shelton. In her book on Anne Boleyn’s fall, Alison Weir puts forward the argument that Lady Shelton may have turned against Anne after her daughter was used by Anne to keep the King happy (as his mistress). Anne had also forced Lady Shelton to treat the Lady Mary cruelly.
      • Mrs Margaret Coffin (Margaret Dymoke, also referred to as Mrs Cosyns) – Wife of William Coffin, the Queen’s Master of the Horse, and a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. The Coffins were related by marriage to the Boleyns, but Mrs Coffin had been appointed to spy on Anne in the Tower. She was the lady chosen, along with Lady Boleyn, to sleep “on the Quenes palet”.
      • Mary Scrope, Lady Kingston – Sir William Kingston’s wife. She had served Catherine of Aragon and was friends with the Lady Mary.
      1. Esther says:

        I read in Alison Weir’s “Six Wives of Henry VIII” that Anne got a different set of ladies to attend her after she was convicted — ones that she liked. Is this true? (In this book, Ms. Weir also states that one of those ladies was Catherine Carey — then age seven, so I am not sure of her accuracy)

      2. Valerie says:

        It does seem rather cruel that she couldn’t surround herself with true friends in her last days – but I guess the last thing they wanted was any good “PR” coming out about her and gathering any sympathy. I read that her ladies cried when she was killed and they collected her body from the scaffold- but did anyone generally show her any compassion? or were they just sitting around spying on her whilst they read & sewed and if they spoke to her – were they just trying to get her to drop herself deeper in the mire ? I was wondering – did any of her ladies write any sort of memoir about their time in the tower with Anne?

  2. Banditqueen says:

    Poor Anne, her suffering must have been terrible but to have it increased by delays, withheld information, being allowed to dress and be led out to death before being informed of a delay when Kingston knew of the postponement seems particularly cruel. The fact that she swore to her innocence on the reception of the Blessed Sacrament in the presence of witnesses, plus gave Kingston and Cranmer leave to repeat her declaration of innocence to the world is extraordinary. She was putting her immortal soul at risk; this was seen clearly at the time and remarked about. Even Chapyus says he does not believe the charges and this is evidence that she was innocent. Cromwell may not have cared as his own religions beliefs may not have agreed with this world view, but Henry should have. As a King with God on speed dial, a devoted Catholic King, with modifications from the break from Rome, a pious king, this declaration of innocence on the Sacrament should have struck a cord. It’s horrible that it did not, clear evidence that Henry cold heartily wanted Anne out of the way, dead. The whole thing is heart breaking, sickening, cruel, and poor Anne was being thrown to the wolves. Her final hours were hard enough without Anne being put through all this game playing. Her only true comfort at this time was prayer.

    1. Linda Saether says:

      As her daughter later said “The past cannot be cured,” it is tragic, and so sad to think about. Nothing can change Anne Boleyn’s story. It was horrible then, and 500 years later, it still is.

  3. Mickey says:

    While what was happening to Anne and the men days before her was a travesty, my thoughts go to Henry. Were the people around him not realizing the psychotic nature of what he was doing? Im surprised people weren’t fleeing from court. While the execution of Anne was a coup of sorts, it opens a flood gate. Katherine died, albeit in forced exile and ignominy. But this is killing a queen openly. If this can happen to Anne, it could happen to anyone. Henry was a narcissistic psychopath, not a leader.

    1. jerry jones says:

      agreed. and what a horrible legacy all for pride and ego. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment. and what of the the next woman – what was she thinking??

    2. Banditqueen says:

      I agree, you would think that is the response but people are fickle and merely switch from Anne to Jane and are fawning over the King, maybe too afraid to do otherwise or just going with the flow.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        P.S One historian has done a study of leaders and rulers of history and had them analysed by leading psychiatrists to see how they score for psychotic behaviour and duel personality disorder. It may come as no surprise that the older Henry Viii scored particularly high for being a psychopath. This does not make him insane, many people can score high but don’t have any dangerous personality traits. Henry may have had both. He was not like this his entire life although he could have hidden personality traits that were repressed and only came to the fore after his accident or during this tragic set of events with Anne. Her former supporters gravitated to Jane and seemed quite happy to celebrate Anne’s downfall, to sympathize with Henry, and Anne was abandoned in a callous disregard for the terror that she faced alone.

    3. judithRex says:

      Take it up with Tyndale who said Henry was supreme head of the church beholden only to god and all people should follow him in all things. Then take it up with Anne who used this concept as a device to become queen. Then take it up with all the other greedy for power who bowed to the idea. THEN you can blame Henry for being human enough to like the idea of absolute power and being pope of England. All those greedy people created Henry and the only people to say “no” went to the block way before Anne went to the sword.

      Anne played a high stakes game and she knew ll the risks of associated with it including death by fire. It is still a distressing end for anyone to suffer including all the innocent people who refused to swear to Henry’s new power – the power you are discussing now.

      1. judithRex says:

        the above was directed to Mickey. Thank you.

        1. nadia says:

          Well said Judith!That is what I said! By all accounts Henry was a different person before he met Anne and learned of those teachings.Even Queen Catherine said he treated her so kindly and lovingly. Henry’s descent into narcissim was a result of him buying into the idea that he had to answer to no one…..tell a man that he can do whatever he wants, without reproach and he’ll do just that. They ALL showed him just how easy and justifiable it was to dispatch with an unwanted wife. Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr got off easy! I really am sorry for Anne though, she and Cromwell had no idea how badly things would turn out….

      2. Vermillion says:

        I find it hard to understand how Anne would have known that by involving herself with Henry in the late 1520s, she was putting herself at risk of death by fire(!), there being no precedent of executing women for political reasons before this time. I don’t think the sheer height of the stakes was clear to Anne or any others (Cromwell, Cranmer, the Seymours, etc) at the time, or certainly not until the mid-1530s.

        It’s easy in hindsight to see how dangerous being involved in politics was in Tudor times, but I really don’t think it would have seemed such at the time – no one knew quite how things would unfold – otherwise you’d have to wonder about the wisdom of so many people risking their lives in a game where only Henry had full control over the proceedings. It may be that it became more dangerous over time as Henry’s paranoia and fear over the succession increased.

        Is that the fault of those who assisted Henry in following this course or Henry himself? Has to be Henry surely – fortune wasn’t kind to him in terms of lack of heirs, which was clearly a major worry for much of his reign, but his reaction to that was entirely within his power to control and direct, which he did in a pretty vicious way to many on both sides of the break with Rome who’d shown him ‘loyalty’.

        1. Clare says:

          Well said!

      3. Banditqueen says:

        So by your arguments JudithRex Anne knew the risks of marrying Henry, so what follows is her own fault?

        Anne took a risk yes, but that does not mean that she deserved to die. She could just as well have been a success. The only person responsible for the actions of Henry Viii is Henry. He was not made or told he was supreme head of the church by Tyndale, he read his work which confirmed that kings are answerable to God alone. Henry made the decision to break from Rome in order to achieve his divorce but it was done in several steps, by a number of acts in Parliament and over five years. Tyndale also disapproved of the divorce from Katherine of Aragorn. Henry did not display these traits until after the accident which brought them to the fore. Even then it was Henry who made all of these violently devastating decisions, NOT anyone else.

        Anne was a victim of Henry and Cromwell and his desire to be out of his marriage at all costs. Just as Henry had married her at all costs he now stopped at nothing to put her from him. It’s not Anne’s fault that Henry treated her with contempt and hatred and a complete lack of mercy and justice.

  4. Valerie says:

    It’s very sad reading the daily countdown – I can’t begin to imagine how horrific it must have been for Anne and the others . I suppose if you believe in karma there was some retribution in the end -Jane lost her life in childbirth – Thomas got the chop, Henry suffered ill health and became the opposite of the strong, active healthy vigorous man he’s been in his youth, and to top it all , Queen Elizabeth showed them all how it should be done..

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