19 May 1536 – The Execution of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn Execution woodcutTo commemorate Anne Boleyn’s execution, which took place on this day in 1536, I’m going to share the preface of my book on Anne’s fall…

Dressed in an ermine-trimmed, grey damask robe, with an English style gable hood and a crimson kirtle underneath, the slight, dark-haired woman took her final walk. She went out of the Queen’s Lodgings, past the Great Hall, through Cole Harbour Gate, and along the western side of the White Tower to the black-draped scaffold. The Constable of the Tower of London, Sir William Kingston, helped her up the scaffold steps and she stepped forward to address the waiting crowd. Her coal-black eyes flitted over the crowd. As her gaze met those of her enemies – Thomas Cromwell, Charles Brandon, Henry Fitzroy and Thomas Audley – she didn’t so much as flinch. The people fell silent as they gazed at their queen, Anne Boleyn, who one witness described as being “never so beautiful”. The Queen took a deep breath and spoke:

“Good Christian people, I have not come here to preach a sermon; I have come here 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 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.”

Her ladies stepped forward to remove Anne’s mantle and Anne doffed her hood, loosening those famous lustrous dark locks before tucking them into a cloth cap to keep them off her neck – that “little neck”. As her ladies sobbed silently, Anne paid the executioner, the famous Sword of Calais, who begged her forgiveness for the deed he was about to commit. Even he was moved by the dignity of the woman who stood before him. She showed no fear. Then the eyes that Anne had always used so powerfully were hidden by a blindfold and she knelt, in the straw, praying all the while: “O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.”

One by one, the crowd too sank to their knees out of respect for this woman whose courage and dignity spoke of her innocence. The Dukes of Suffolk and Richmond, stunned, watched the reaction of the crowd and refused to follow suit. Anne deserved this, in their opinion.

The silence was deafening as the crowd waited for the executioner to strike. The only sound was Anne whispering her prayers. The executioner, visibly shaken by the atmosphere and by Anne’s courage, noticed that the Queen kept turning her head slightly, anticipating the blow, so he called out to his assistant to pass him his sword. As Anne moved her head to follow what the assistant was doing, the executioner came up behind her unnoticed and beheaded her with one stroke. Her ordeal was over. Her head may have been in the straw, her blood flowing freely across the scaffold, but Anne’s soul was with her Father in Heaven.

Anne Boleyn was denied a proper burial with Christian service. Instead, her sobbing ladies gathered up her head and body, wrapped them in white cloth and took them to the Tower chapel, St Peter ad Vincula. Here, the Star of the Court was placed inside an old elm chest which had once contained bow staves. Anne Boleyn, the mother of the future Elizabeth I, was then laid to rest in an unmarked grave, buried as a traitor to the Crown.

It was the 19th May 1536 and a Queen of England had been executed.

(From The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway)

Sir William Kingston was paid £100 by the Crown for Anne Boleyn’s “jewels and apparel” and that was that. One queen was dead and another was about to take her place. Sir Francis Bryan took the news of Anne’s death to her replacement, Jane Seymour; who knows what she thought of the bloody events of the past few days?

Scottish theologian Alexander Alesius had woken up in the early hours of 19th May from a nightmare about the Queen’s severed neck in which he “could count the nerves, the veins, and the arteries”. He went to visit his friend Archbishop Cranmer in his garden at Lambeth. Alesius was unaware of Anne’s imminent execution, having remained at home since the day of Anne’s imprisonment, but as he told the Archbishop of his dream, Cranmer “raised his eyes to heaven and said, ‘She who has been the Queen of England upon earth will to-day become a Queen in heaven.’ So great was his grief that he could say nothing more, and then he burst into tears.” The Archbishop who owed his rise to the patronage of the Queen and her family was a broken man, and perhaps he felt some guilt for his part in recent events. It is hard to imagine how he would have felt on hearing the cannons ring out over London, announcing the Queen’s death.

I will be at the Tower of London today, paying my respects and also seeing the play “Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn”. I will report back when I get home and back to work.

Also on this day in 1536…

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer issued a dispensation for Henry VIII to marry Jane Seymour, because they were fifth cousins.

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