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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50 thoughts on “19 May 1536 – The Execution of Anne Boleyn”
  1. I feel intensely sorrowful today when thinking of what happened in 1536,that Anne was being beheaded.

    I tried to imagine the scene of her execution, according to the detail described above, but that made me feel worse.

    It was also a difficult thing for one to embrace death, but Anne did that with great courage.

    Perhaps to Anne, the execution was a way to relieve, from the death of her brother and other innocent men.

    Rest in peace, Anne.

    And I hope your story could be last, to let your life be extended in people’s memories.

    1. Hi Layla,
      Our Anne embraced death not only with courage but also with dignity. Cromwell and his gang must be expecting her to bleat like a goat but here too Anne put them to shame and perhaps had the last laugh.
      Rest in Peace Queen Anne.

  2. Bouquet of thanks to Claire for hand-holding us thru her ‘Countdown’. Book a treasure. V grateful & inspired. Especially useful “Who was Responsible”. Can’t help wondering, en passant, if the story of Henry II and Thos-a-Becket lends a not–so-subtle kingly lesson in how to motivate men to do by whatever means what you want done? Adieu!

  3. What a tragic day. Anne Boleyn, a lovely and exquisite young lady, was put to death so unfairly and so needlessly. Bless her: Always. R.I.P. to the beautiful and sweet Anne Boleyn.

  4. Hi Clare, nice of you to be visiting the Tower to pay your respect to our Anne. I wish I too could and join you in paying the respect to Anne but being in New Delhi, alas! But, please do it on my behalf, on our behalf (here we have huge following of Anne). Please………..Ashok

  5. Each year I think of Anne’s last walk to the scaffold and how hard it must have been to maintain calmness and dignity; that she did so speaks so highly of her strength and character as most people would have surrendered to crying and lamenting their fate. I cannot imagine the feelings she had as she stepped in front of the block, knowing she would never take another step and that her breathes were numbered in the dozens rather than endless thousands of years to come. Kneeling she had to think of her young daughter and felt an overwhelming desire to be with her; to watch her grow into womanhood and Anne must have had many worries of Elizabeth’s care and well being once she was dead. If Henry could behead his wife; what would he be capable of doing to their daughter if she were to anger him? Thousands of thoughts and emotions would have been rushing through her mind until the moment of the blow – and even perhaps for several seconds after the sword struck her head off. I often wondered what her last thought was, maybe “Oh, Henry, what happened to us?”

  6. You, Claire, are a person who has meddled in Anne’s cause, and have judged the best. I think she would be happy that you have worked so hard on her behalf.

    Hope your visit to the Tower goes well. I would just love to be there.

  7. God rest your soul sweet Queen Anne. Your noble sacrifice and blood has indeed been well spent. And the world will always remember……

  8. It is so sad to see that no preparations had been made afterwards for a burial, looks like it was left for the public to decide on what should happen next as for the King and Cromwell would have left her there for all to see as well as watch over for how ever long.

  9. God Rest Queen Anne. I spent this morning watching Season 2 Episode 10 of The Tudors and Anne of a Thousand Days. I wish I could visit the Tower but I live in the States. Anne has touched so many lives and her memory will live on.

  10. Thinking of her today, will never forget her bravery. Wish I could come up to London right now to pay my respects too, hopefully I will another year. She was an extraordinary woman who will never be forgotten. Rest In Peace.

  11. This is so sad 🙁 such a sad day was yesterday, while thinking of poor nan bullen 🙁 (a name used for her sometimes) i thought about how she was truely not just a great queen but also a great woman and someone who has changed the way we live today. A devoted loving mother and a excellent loving trustworthy wife, wrong accused x

    1. I did not know that she was also called “Nan Bullen” sometimes. Thanks Torii for the information.

  12. Such overwhelming sadness overcomes me on this day and the days before. My tears are genuine and my grief for this woman who gave up so much and ended up in a grave just to marry the man she loved. No honors were given and people did not grieve for Anne. She was there one day and gone the next. All because the tyrant of the land could only believe the worst of Anne as she fell from the heights of the pedestal that Henry had created and put her on. Henry created a legend and a martyr. Henry’s own mental illness and paranoia destroyed Anne. In the end maybe she was better off dead than living with a King who as man was not who was not the man who she became involved with.

    Claire put a rose on Anne’s grave for all of us here who have tried with your leadership to actually understand and uncover the woman that Anne Boleyn truly was. An amazing woman with the dignity and courage to face her own death never understanding the reasons why.

  13. Tell Me All Things False Our True,Bitter Sweet, That Fool Are Wise,I See Death Drawing,From My Eyes. Good Night Sweet Queen Anne Boleyn . R.I P. Baroness

  14. Dignified at the end. And the Sword of Calais, unnerved though he was by her courage, kept his wits enough to temper the blow with a quick distraction for her comfort. Just. . . wow.

  15. Hi, Claire. I just wanted to thank you so much for all the work you put into this site. You have honored Anne’s memory beautifully, especially today. I was moved reading the excerpt from your book…and once again amazed at Anne’s courage in the face of death. She is truly a heroine.

  16. My favourite depiction of Anne’s execution in historical fiction is in 1949’s Brief Gaudy Hour (the whole book is on line through Google Books). “But to die on a May morning, while one was yet comparatively young….” (p.374 on). Time is almost suspended for Anne and each second seems measured and heart-felt. Unlike other authors, Barnes ends the story in a restrained way – at the exact moment of her death. “The French executioner, mercifully, swung his sharp sword and struck.” I fiirst read that passage almost forty years ago. It has never left me. Rest in peace Anne Boleyn. You have never left us.

  17. Rip queen Anne do not think even if Henry tried would not get another like you . I think the king disliked Anne towards the end and was in a hurry to be rid of her . But to not to even have a coffin for her so disrespectful for the dead . It makes me think he had no morals at all by this time and had completely lost the plot all together.

  18. Thinking about Anne a lot today. Such a bloody week. I’m glad it was quick for her. She was such a strong intelligent woman. God Bless you my Queen

    1. Actually, the human brain remains functional for up to 5 seconds. Therefore, she got a solid view of the executioners toes before she died.

      Get fucking wrecked, Stacey.

  19. My heart aches for Queen Anne, the bravery of her and deep inside the hurt and sadness she may have felt being betrayed by the man she loved and uncertain of her daughters future. I have lit a candle today in remembrance of my most favorite Queen in History. I feel she is with our father in heaven, smiling so proud because she knows the world didn’t believe she was guilty and the love we still have for our queen.

  20. I feel a great connection to this courageous deeply influential history making Queen, today and for ever.

  21. A sad day indeed. The dignity Anne showed before her life ended is incredible. Rest in peace, Queen Anne.

  22. by chance, and having forgotten yesterday, about May 19 1536 – I was rereading Paul Friedmann’s book about Anne. His book is discursive, and his brief comments on Anne, are not favourable except, he admits she was intelligent and courageous. He didn’t have anything good to say about Henry nor Henry’s daughter, Mary. Friedmann seemed to be pro-Spanish, and the book focuses on Queen Katherine of Arragon’s nephew, Charles, the Emperor. Friedmann’s book he admits, doesn’t fill the gaps in Anne’s story; it describes the milieu she lived in.

  23. Henry wore white at Anne Boleyn’s execution in opposed to black for Catherine of Aragon and black for Jane Seymour. Also Anne was watching a game of Tennis supposedly when they came for her arrest on may 2nd. It makes me wonder what he wore during the execution of Catherine Howard as no records state. White again perhaps…?!

  24. Like everyone else here, I find Anne’s story endlessly fascinating, and often wonder what she would have thought had she known that her daughter would become one of England’s most fabulous monarchs, and certainly its most fabulous queen to reign in her own right. At least that is how I see her. Considering when she reigned, it is a miracle that Elizabeth was even able to hang onto her throne at all, let alone for such a long time, and with so many successes to boot.

    Perhaps Anne had the last laugh after all. Henry and his obsession with a male heir…but his great success in the heir department turning out, in the end, to be Elizabeth…Anne’s Elizabeth.

    I also always remember the anniversary of Anne’s execution because it also happens to be my father’s birthday.

  25. Remembered Anne Boleyn the other morning as on holiday: rest in peace, but sorry, not sad as it happened 500 years ago! Good to remember, but to mourn someone from 500 years ago is ridiculous. Anne was a fascinating woman and her life has interested me for many years. Although I recalled her death, I did for a moment, and then got on with my day: it was 500 years ago!

  26. Requiescat in Pace, dear Anne. Riposa in pace e nel nostro buon ricordo. We love you. Mariella

  27. On this day over five hundred years ago, a beautiful young lady, our queen of England Anne Boleyn climbed those wooden stairs to her death, its so sad that she was put to death for her CRIME….. A crime that her enemies had falsified in order to get rid of her,so that the king could remarry again…… Annes only crime if indeed it was a crime was not providing Henry with a living heir….. I will pray for you sweet Anne and I send you Love and Light….. Run free sweet girl through the meadows of heaven. run free with the Angels upon high………RUN FREE….

  28. I think things may have been different for Anne and Henry had it not been for his head injuries in 2 jousting accidents, particularly the one early in 1536. Having known people with brain injuries there can be personality changes and when you combine that with Henry’s position of absolute power, it is a terrifying combination. I think it explains a lot about the sudden way Henry turned on Anne and at the time there would have been little understanding of what was happening apart from it being seen as the King being seized by a capricious whim.

  29. I think Anne was unjustly executed. Why didn’t Henry VIII send her away from England. Young Elizabeth had already been declared a Bastard. The child grew up without a Mother.

    She had 4 step – mothers. Catherine Howard, she was too young to be a step – mother
    to Elizabeth, Mary, or Edward.

    Anne was set up. Anne had to sign papers while she was in the Tower of London.

  30. I’ll never forget Natalie Dormer’s scene of Anne’s execution. Later in an interview she said “She’s with me, she’s with me….”
    She was the best Anne I’d ever seen on screen.

  31. I think Henry VIII was a wimp. He could have stopped Anne’s Execution, and sent into
    exile or to France. Instead he had her killed as if he would have done it himself. I think
    Anne’s death was unjust. Her daughter, Elizabeth had to grow up without a Mother.

    Poor Child had four Step – Mothers. Katherine Howard didn’t know how to be a Mother
    to Elizabeth or Edward. Shamefully Henry VIII might as well killed her too. He was a
    murderer. If you got in his way or didn’t please him, he would have you killed.

    The Duke of Norfolk and Anne’s Father were wimps. They used Mary and Anne,
    Sadly Katherine Howard was executed. The worst of if was Jane Parker was killed too.

    In all I wouldn’t have wanted to be married to Henry VIII or have been part of his court.
    The wimp would have you beheaded or burnt alive. He acted like he was in the place of
    being God. He could do as he pleased and was expected everyone to have a blind eye.

  32. ” 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. ”

    I’ve been looking for a source on this for a while from all the primary source accounts on her execution. Gareth Russell also mentions it.

    I might have missed it while reading, but was wondering if anyone knew what source it is that this particular part of the account comes from?

  33. I’m very sorry for Anne. Elizabeth grew up without her Mother. Old
    Henry got a son by Jane Seymour, but she died after giving birth.

    Jane’s son’s reign was short. Elizabeth’s life was in constant
    Danger. Katherine Parr Couldn’t keep Thomas Seymour off of
    Elizabeth. The poor girl was sent to the tower later by Mary.

    She could have died on the block. Anne wasn’t there to protect

    Old Henry was always looking at the ladies at court. Anne would
    Have been better off if she had never been one of Catherine’s
    Maids of Honor.

  34. Anne was executed on my father’s birthday. Every year on that day I do a little movie marathon for myself. I usually include these excellent films.
    Anne of the Thousand Days
    A Man for All Seasons
    The Lion in Winter

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