Anne Boleyn NPGI’m not sure whether Anne Boleyn got any sleep on the night of the 18th/19th May. She was certainly up at dawn, celebrating the Mass and receiving the sacrament from her almoner John Skip. She then ate breakfast and waited for Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, to come and collect her.

At 8am, Kingston informed the waiting queen that the time of her death was near and that she should get herself ready. But Anne was ready. She had taken special care with her outfit – the ermine trim symbolised royalty and crimson, the colour of her kirtle, was associated with martyrdom. Her hood was the traditional English gable hood, rather than her usual stylish French hood.

Sir William Kingston escorted the Queen from her apartments in the royal palace past the Great Hall, through Cole Harbour Gate (Cold Harbour Gate), and along the western side of the White Tower to the black-draped scaffold. The site of the scaffold built for Anne Boleyn was not where the glass memorial stands today on Tower Green but “before the house of Ordnance”, i.e. on the parade ground between the White Tower and the present day entrance to the Crown Jewels.1 Anne climbed the scaffold steps with Kingston’s assistance and then addressed the waiting crowd:

“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.”

That speech is corroborated by Edward Hall, George Wyatt, John Foxe and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, but Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, gives a different version in his poem about her death:

“Oh my friends, friends and more than brothers,
Since with you I can no longer be,
And that the course of my years is ended,
I beg you, not to be unpleasant, /And I
would like you to pardon me from your good heart
If I have not used sweetness
Towards all of you, as I should have,
Seeing the power and means that I had:
And I pray you all that by fraternity
Of Christianity and true charity,
You give me a place in your devoted prayers
Toward Jesus, that by the marks
Of my sins I have not stained
My soul, after I am gone.
To tell you why I am here,
Would not serve you nor me either:
Which is why I am silent, but the judge of the world
In whom justice and truth abound
Knows all, that which of affection
I pray that he will have compassion
For those who judged my death,
And from here when I am dislodged.
You remember that I recommend you to
Your good King in whom I have seen such great
Humanity, and filled with all good things,
Fears God, loves his family,
And great virtue, which I observe
That is happy if God conserves it for you.
Pray then to God that he holds you a long time:
also, that it happens to me
His grace to move me away to him
And to receive my soul today.”2

People often ask me why Anne Boleyn did not take the opportunity to protest her innocence and why she spoke well of the King. Well, executions were carefully ‘choreographed’, with a set format for execution speeches. People were expected to die ‘a good death’ and accept that they were sinners deserving of death, whether or not they were guilty of the crimes they were being executed for, and to praise the monarch, who was God’s anointed sovereign. People had their surviving loved ones to think about and would not have wanted to tarnish their reputations and standing with the King by dying a dishonourable death. Anne stuck to the usual format for her execution speech. There was no way that she would risk her daughter’s safety by defying the King and proclaiming her innocence. Elizabeth’s safety and her future relationship with her father must have been paramount in Anne’s mind.

After her speech to the crowd, who were “little consoled, [Deeply] desolated to see the poor queen In this state to take in this pain”,3 Anne paid the visibly “distressed”4 executioner who asked for her forgiveness for what he was about to do. Anne’s ladies then removed Anne’s mantle and Anne lifted off her gable hood. “A young lady presented her with a linen cap, with which she covered her hair, and she knelt down, fastening her clothes about her feet, and one of the said ladies bandaged her eyes.”5 Anne knelt on the scaffold praying, “O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.” As Anne prayed, the executioner called out to his assistant to pass him his sword. As Anne moved her head to try and hear what the assistant was doing, the executioner came up unnoticed behind her and beheaded her with one stroke of his sword.

Anne’s ladies, “Who were judged to be nearly dead themselves, From languor and extreme weakness”,6 wrapped her remains in white cloth and took them to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula for burial. No casket had been provided, so a yeoman warder fetched an old elm chest which had once contained bow staves from the Tower armoury.7 Anne’s head and body were buried together in the chest in the chancel of the chapel. Cannons fired to let the people of London know that their queen had been executed and Sir Francis Bryan took news of Anne’s death to Jane Seymour.

The Chancel, St Peter ad Vincula. (Photo by Paudie Kennelly)
The Chancel, St Peter ad Vincula. (Photo by Paudie Kennelly)

Also, on this day in 1536, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer issued a dispensation for Henry VIII to marry Jane Seymour “although in the third and third [Tertio et tertio affinitatis gradibus] degrees of affinity, without publication of banns.”

Notes and Sources

  1. Eric Ives pieced together Anne Boleyn’s final walk and the location of the scaffold, which was newly built especially for her, for his book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, from sources including Anthony Anthony’s notes in Lord Herbert’s 1679 edition of The Life and Raigne of Henry VIII, Lisle Letters Volume 3:698, and writes of her being “beheaded on a new scaffold ‘before the house of Ordnance’”. See notes on p423 of Ives’ book.
  2. You can read the original French poem in Poème sur la Mort d’Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carles, lines 317-326, in La Grande Bretagne devant L’Opinion Française depuis la Guerre de Cent Ans jusqu’a la Fin du XVI Siècle, George Ascoli. This translation is from “Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carle, and the Uses of Documentary Evidence”, Susan Walters Schmid, dissertation Arizona State University 2009, p170-172.
  3. Ibid., p172.
  4. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10 – January-June 1536, 919.
  5. Ibid., 911.
  6. Lancelot de Carles, Susan Walters Schmid, p174.
  7. Younghusband, George, The Tower from Within, 135.

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44 thoughts on “19 May 1536 – To Jesus Christ I commend my soul”
  1. What does “in the third and third degrees of affinity” mean? I’ve always understood “third degree of affinity” to mean first cousins, which Henry and Jane certainly were not.

    1. I’m not entirely sure, I haven’t looked into it, but perhaps it means “third and third” as in three plus three = 6. I think they were something like 5th cousins, so perhaps that’s how many degrees were between them. Not sure!

      1. I’m not sure exactly what the “third and third” means, but I can help with the genealogy. Here is the main line of relationship between Henry VIII and Jane Seymour:

        Jane Seymour was descended from Edward III. Jane’s mother Margery Wentworth was the daughter of Sir Henry Wentworth, whose mother was Lady Mary Clifford, whose mother was Lady Elizabeth Percy, whose mother was Lady Elizabeth Mortimer, whose mother was Phillipa Plantagenet Mortimer, whose father was Lionel of Antwerp, whose father was Edward III. So Jane was the 5th great-granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp and Henry VIII was the 5th great-grandson of Lionel of Antwerp. This would make them 6th cousins, so perhaps that is the relationship that Cranmer was referring to. One reason Jane was considered “fit to be queen” was her descent from Edward III.

        Of course, they would also have several other related lines since Edward III’s descendants intermarried so much. But Lionel of Antwerp was the senior Plantagenet line of descent after the deposition and death of Richard II.

        Jane Seymour also shared a great-grandmother with Anne Boleyn – Elizabeth Cheney. Elizabeth Cheney’s 1st husband was John Say, their daughter Anne Say married Sir Henry Wentworth, their daughter Margery Wentworth married Sir John Seymour, and their daughter Jane married Henry VIII. Elizabeth Cheney’s 2nd husband was Sir Frederick Tylney, their daughter Elizabeth Tylney married Thomas Howard 2nd Duke of Norfolk, their daughter Elizabeth married Sir Thomas Boleyn, and their daughter Anne married Henry VIII.

        This relation between Jane Seymour and the Howard family also means she was a 2nd cousin to Anne Boleyn AND to Henry’s 5th wife Katherine Howard. Add to that the fact that Katherine of Aragon was descended from Edward III and Katherine Parr was descended from Edward I (through the same ancestress as Anne Boleyn), and Henry VIII married 5 of his own (distant) cousins, who were all related to each other! Too bad he never had children with Anne of Cleves to introduce more outside blood to the royal line!

        1. Thank you,

          Incredible information at my fingertips. And yes it would have been a rather more interesting ‘Royal Circle” with Anne of Cleves producing children, though I can’t keep it straight in my head as it is! I’m surprised with Katherine of Aragon, I thought she had Spanish roots.

          Thank you Lisa, this is just wonderful how you put the lines together like this, I hope I can wrap my head around it. 🙂

          Annette G
          Ontario, Canada.

  2. I often think about Anne’s courage at her trial: how she stood there and calmly asserted her innocence, even while knowing that it was probably useless. And before her was the terrifying prospect of being burnt! Surely that prospect would reduce most people to a terrified, quivering, incoherent mess, but Anne overcame the fear and behaved with such courage and dignity. She is a role model!

  3. I think it’s just awful that her poor women had to carry her body and the head to the chapel without any assistance from William Kingston or any of the Tower gaoIers, I know they didn’t want anyone handling her but the image in my mind of those women stumbling across the green carrying her to the chapel is so sad, it seems that no one else cared about what would happen to her, and even more shocking no coffin was ready, I can understand the executioner being upset to as he had never beheaded a woman before, whatever any of the crowd watching thought of Anne or any of the Londoners this execution must have been shocking to behold, and quite unprecedented, I’m going to light a candle today in memory of her, she is a distant cousin of mine and I think it’d be nice if everyone on this site who admires her to does the same, god bless.

    1. Christine, your description of Anne’s ladies brought me to tears. How terrible it had to be to see their beloved queen executed and then having to carry out the duty of handling her body while they were so stricken with grief. I will always hold the deepest respect for those ladies and how they took such good care of their mistress. Lighting a candle is a wonderful idea. I will do the same.

      1. I know it must have been horrendous, holding a bleeding body and head and then having to bury her, they do deserve our respect as they made sure she was treated with dignity, it’s a shame we don’t know their names we can only speculate but whoever they were they loved Anne so she must have been a good mistress to them , and I hope they found lasting peace to.

      2. The women who accompanied Anne to the scaffold were the same that had been with her during her detainment and they had been handpicked by Cromwell. None of them were meant to be sympathetic to Anne and she complained that she was surrounded by women who disliked her and not by her own women.

        It may be that by the end, they had come to believe she was innocent, that a massive miscarriage of justice was occurring, and that watching a woman’s decapitation at close range shocked and stunned them into empathy, if they had none already toward Anne.

        I think we do know the names of the women who were on the scaffold with Anne: Mary Scrope, Lady Kingston; Anne’s aunt, Elizabeth Wood Boleyn; Margaret Dymoke Coffin; and Elizabeth Stoner. They do deserve our respect, but the truth of the interpersonal relationships between those women is more complicated than simply loving mistress to adoring servants.

        1. Anne’s ladies were chosen to watch and listen and report on her and all but one were chosen because they didn’t approve of her. However, they had spent the last nineteen days closeted with the distressed and often hysterical Queen, ate, slept and prayed with her and watched her transformation as she made peace with her doom. Her dignity and peace must have made them realize that perhaps the charges were not all they appeared to be. Anne had never wavered from saying she was not guilty of anything to do with adultery and treason and thought more about how her mother and poor brother were coping. They had seen her go through every possible emotion and they had shared her final hours and her preparation in prayer. Anne’s faith had sustained her now at the end. The four women on the scaffold cannot have failed to see the humanity of this woman about to die for crimes she didn’t commit. They could not fail to see her outer calm and be moved by her last words. They can’t have had anything but pity and compassion now at the end as Anne gave them her last few personal treasures to remember her by, her silver prayer book and her book of hours. As they removed her mantle and watched her forgive and pay the executioner, who was also moved by emotion, put her hair under the cap he provided and kneel to pray, how could these ladies not feel some empathy with the Queen at least? One covered her eyes, she made her final prayerful commendation on her knees, unbound and then as she still prayed, it was done in one stroke. The women had just witnessed a brutal beheading of the Queen of England at very close quarters; of course they were moved to tears and distressed. What a terrible thing for anyone to have to do, move a blood soaked body, plus the head in a cloth and sheet, down the steps of the scaffold, across the courtyard and into the Church of Saint Peter and then finding no shroud or coffin, have to find this arrow chest and place their late Queen inside. They would be traumatised, let alone distressed. Nobody helped them. They then had to find someone to place the chest in the freshly opened vault and lay the Queen to rest. These poor women had just witnessed something awful and yes, by now I do believe they had come to feel something for Anne, to have compassion for her and to respect her dignified end. They are reported as being hardly able to stand, so traumatised were they and they too had been up most of the last two nights and early morning with Anne. Even if they didn’t like her at the start and did the job Cromwell wanted from them, I doubt very much that any of them felt the same on the morning of her execution.

  4. God bless anne.england lost a true queen.god knows your innocence.and for your brother and those poor innocent men may they forever rip.

  5. Sad, sad, sad today. Just watched Wolf Hall’s execution scene again today. In my opinion, this scene affected me more than all the death scenes of Anne I have watched to date.

    Rest in peace, dear Queen Anne.

  6. Although Anne was thrown into a very complex situation she handled the whole thing with dignity, solace and skill. We owe her a lot of thanks actually – without her new ideas would not have been presented and she gave England a queen that saved HER from a very different history. Anne will always be a true QUEEN of England!

  7. My father used to lightly slap our leg as he simultaneously ripped off adhesive bandages that needed changing.
    It was the kindest way to do what had to be done.

    The Swordsman of Saint-Omer used the same technique of distraction with the Queen.
    The only mercy he could show her was to distract, and then be true and quick with his sword.
    It sounds like a backwards type of kindness, but it was kindness, just the same.

    I think lighting a candle is a lovely way to remember Anne Boleyn, and I’m going to do it in my local church today.
    She did, after all, “heartily desire you all pray for me.”

    1. It was indeed a kindness in many ways. Had she been subjected to the axe, she might have had to endure 3 blows (2 + sawing) as MQoS would eventually have, or 3 blows like Essex got, or that Earl, whose name escapes me at the moment, that Henry killed, took 7 blows! Indeed a kindness…at a stroke.

  8. “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.”

    I always light a candle on this day for Queen Anne. I’m sure she would be glad to know that she has been judged kindly by so many, and that she is thought of and prayed for still.

  9. I too always light a candle for Queen Anne. She was a woman of immense courage and, I believe, of more compassion than she is given credit for. It certainly took courage to be a reforming Catholic in her day (for she did die in the Catholic faith), she wanted to see the abuses of the Church curbed but for redistribution to the poor and not into rich mens coffers. No doubt it made her enemies! Had she lived, I believe she could have been influential in a positive way, even more than she managed in her short reign. Of your charity pray for the repose of the soul of Anne Queen of England, executed 19th May 1536. RIP.

  10. “Someone please tell Anne Boleyn/Chokers are back in again.” -Old Age by Courtney Love{performed by her band}- ‘Hole’
    “Ran into the henchman who severed Anne Boleyn/He did it right quickly ,a merciful man/She said 1+1 is 2,but Henry said it was 3.”-Crucify by Tori Amos
    “To confuse the issue I refer to familiar heroes from long ago…” “Suck it in,suck it in,suck it in/If your Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn/Make a desperate move or else you’ll win/And then begin”-Hook by Blues Traveler.

    1. I lit my candle. RIP QUEEN Anne Boleyn. A lot of people celebrate you and remember your ordeal today… and you are thought of often enough on a regular basis.

  11. RIP queen Anne. A remarkable woman. A testament really considering Henry went to great lengths to destroy all trace of you, you have become one of the most celebrated women in English history.
    I hope you know how many people do pray for you, just as you requested.

  12. One year ago today, I was sitting in the chapel where Queen Ann is buried with my 12 year old granddaughter. The chaplain explained to us the bodies of Queen Ann, Queen Katherine and Queen Jane were moved and they were all buried at the alter. He explained that during the excavation done by queen Victoria, they successfully identified the body of Queen Ann by the clithing she was wearing and her stature. This may sound strange but I felt their spirits, especially that of Queen Ann. Rest in peace Queen Ann and all who lost their lives and are buried in the chapel. Henry indeed got his wish to be remembered in history. But his 2nd wife is the one who stands revered by many for her terrible plight.

  13. Lovely and moving article. Her resting place is lovely and peaceful. Rest in peace, Queen Anne Boleyn and those who died with you on lie at rest near you. Amen

  14. I went to the Tower today to pay my respects. Someone had left a bunch of flowers on the memorial with a note saying “There are those who meddle in your cause, and we judge the best”. 🙂

  15. The mind boggles at the extreme perversion of justice on that day. Henry failed, completely and utterly, as King, as husband, as father and as a human being.

    He failed as King, because he was SUPPOSED to be the maker and enforcer of just laws for ALL of his subjects, even members of his own family.

    He failed as a husband, pursuing a woman not his wife, treating his first wife abominably, and in essence, driving her to despair and death. He executed her successor on obviously trumped up charges, which also connects to his Kingship.

    He failed as a father, not because he didn’t sire legitimate sons, but because he was so cruel to both Mary and Elizabeth, not thinking of them as separate people from their mothers. Katharine was defiant, refusing to deny the validity of her marriage to Henry, ergo, Mary was just as guilty of that defiance, in refusing to recognize that she was now, supposedly, a bastard. Elizabeth’s name was dragged through the mud, too, just as much as Anne’s, when it was questioned at some point who her actual father was. Both Princesses suffered greatly, albeit in different ways, when their father just saw them as their mothers’ failures.

    He failed as a human being because he had no compassion, no warmth, no pity and no love for the people in his life. Bishop John Fisher, Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Katharine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Kathryn Howard, amongst many, many others – they were close to Henry, it could be argued that they loved him to whatever degree, and Henry betrayed every last one of them unto death, because it was time to get rid of them, since their usefulness to him had come to an end.

    1. All of the people in Henry VIII’s life, especially those close to him, had much to fear, though while in his favor it seems, none of them recognized it. His ‘cast of characters’ changed, with only his needs and selfishness @ play, as it seems that we often forget, even Henry VIIIth was only a man with all the weaknesses human beings have, only larger than life for his part as King. He, especially, was the greatest believer in his own advertising, never really believing himself to be just mortal. People who do harm ( and harm is putting it mildly) do not usually limit it just to strangers – and in Henry’s case, it seems the closer you were to him the more likely you’d be to suffer most gravely once, for any reason, you fell out of his favor, for whatever Henry considered a betrayal, history tells us that Henry often and hastily meited out revenge by punishment, frequently capital punishment. When we look at his circle of courtiers, confidants and
      people he ‘loved’ over the decades of his reign, it’s astonishing how many of them met their end on a scaffold, heads on the block perhaps wondering for the briefest moment in their fear, “where did it go wrong?”. It makes me think sometimes, was Anne, intelligent, worldly & likely wise to human nature, not ‘playing’ hard-to-get’, but rather just not wanting to be gotten (at least in the early years of hers & Henry’s courtship) because of all she knew of the world & what she saw Henry capable of doing both to ‘his people’, but even more fiercely, to his loved ones? For all we do not know about Anne, we DO know she was a smart woman, cautious & even calculating for her own sake. As bravely as she faced her death, I hardly believed she wanted such an end! To her great credit I believe She did as best as anyone in her situation could’ve ~ and in that time she had the King’s love, I think She did much more than care for her own wishes. Anne is much admired for the changes she helped bring about in England, and will always be remembered. There will always be a candle burning for her and the peace she wished to those who continue to be her champions, forever and Always, Queen Anne, may You Rest in Peace!

      1. I have always been of the opinion that Anne did not start off playing “Hard to get” like you,I believe that she simply did not want to be got! How do you refuse a king like Henry and keep your honour and dignity? I think Anne came up with the best excuse she could, and it was only when she realised that Henry was in earnest about putting Katherine aside that the game changed. The only flaw in my argument is Mary Boleyn. If she really was Henry´s mistress, Anne could have pleaded consanguinity, the very law Henry used to annull his marriage to Katherine. If Katherine sleeping with Arthur meant that she and Henry were too closely tied, his relationship with Mary Boleyn would havé nullified one between him and Anne. This was never used, even in the trial, although a possible precontract between Anne and a gentleman was. Maybe Mary was never his mistress in the full sense of the term, as we now believe? Henry was hardly gentlemantly when it came to being discreet about his ladies, we all know about Bessie Blount, he even acknowledged their son. Then there are the rest, Madge Shelton,whom he must have been seeing whilst Anne ws pregnant, or even around the time of the miscarriage. 3 of his wives could have been classed as mistresses before they became Queens. Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard, and of course Anne herself. Never mind the list of other suspects, including his daughter in law,the wife of his son by Bessie. So why was the relationship with Mary never mentioned by anyone? I have always found that odd.

    2. That was and is King Henry VIII in a nutshell. Why we still find him fascinating to this day or why he has made his mark in history up to now is mind boggling. Maybe it is from the heartless and reckless ways he treated the ones closest to him. What had changed a charismatic young 18 year young man into a heartless prude I wonder?

      Annette G.

  16. Anne was a brilliant queen and was unjustly punished. I admire her for the way she stood up to Henry. R.I.P Anne.

  17. RIP Queen Anne…I find it so moving to read about her final days and wonder how her mother and father must have been feeling to lose two of their children in such terrible ways..Her mother, I read somewhere, died of a broken heart and it is really not surprising..The Duke of Norfolk was her mother’s brother and how must he have felt passing sentence on his sisters children… In all reality it must have been heartbreaking as a family for them all to deal with…

  18. If Henry had known that in removing his second wife so brutally he would actually make her immortal, not to mention admired by millions he would have imploded with rage…

  19. Ok. I’ll admit it. I got hooked on Tudor History, fact versus fiction, through the televised show: The Tudors. I loved your book Claire Ridgeway. I’ve read fact and fiction about all of the Tudor’s by Starkey, Weir, Mantel ,Barnhill, Anderson, Bordo, Higgenbotham, Garrett, Fox, Gregory, Whitelock, Skidmore, Byrd, Fremantel, GJ. Meyer. All wonderful authors! ( I’m cross eyed by now. LOL.) After all these books, I especially loved Brandy Purdy’s ” Boyleyn Bride,” even though it’s sheer FICTION because. . . well. . . this is the ‘Anne’ I can imagine, as told by her less than motherly, mother. It’s the Anne I can swallow best. The Anne that seems most real. . .to ME. As far as Henry goes? I STILL can’t wrap my brain around the fact that he changed history for this one woman, waited for her for 6 yrs, made her Queen, and then MURDERED her three yrs. later! He was incapable of loving ANYONE– other than himself. Henry was a Monster. Why in God’s name didn’t his minions (many highly intelligent) realize this and get the HELL outta Dodge! What frustrates me most is there are not enough facts; that we’ll never know what really went on inside Anne’s head. Was saying he was a ‘kind and gentle king’ to her before her execution a, carefully veiled, sardonic snipe? I certainly hope so.

  20. PS. Claire, Just wanted to add I read and loved
    your first book, and am about to order book II!

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