Anne Boleyn’s Execution – Is there an Explanation for her Scaffold Courage?

Anne Boleyn's resting place
Anne Boleyn's memorial tile, 19th May 2010

Dr Sarah Morris, who is writing a novel on Anne Boleyn, has written a guest post for the On the Tudor Trail website arguing that Anne Boleyn’s “incredible courage and profound serenity in the face of her imminent oblivion” could be the result of a phenomenon which Steve Taylor, a transpersonal psychologist, calls Suffering Induced Transformational Experiences, or SITEs. Morris explains:-

Clearly, when an individual faces imminent death, as Anne did, this fear-based response becomes heightened to the extreme. When we face our demise, we are forced to confront the loss of our dreams, hopes, status, family, and friends etc; all of our attachments are ripped away. This can lead to a ‘psychotic breakdown’ (or nervous breakdown) of the type that was recorded in the case of Lady Rochford who went mad in the face of her own pending execution in 1542. Or, perhaps more unusually, a person may experience a “break up”; as the ego disintegrates, a new sense of self emerges to fill the vacuum; a sense of self which is fearless and profoundly peaceful. Facing her demise, Anne’s whole identity would have been swept away and as Taylor states, “at this point of devastation and desolation you are, paradoxically, close to a state of liberation”. In modern parlance, we call this enlightenment”

and argues that Anne Boleyn’s fearlessness, the contemporary descriptions of her beauty, “peaceful countenance” and state of mind could be used as evidence of Anne having undergone this phenomenon.

Now, while I think that this is a very interesting argument, and I have always admired Anne Boleyn’s demeanour in her final days and hours, I don’t think that SITEs is the answer to her peace and “enlightenment”. I don’t think that this argument takes into account the following:-

  • Execution etiquette
  • Anne Boleyn’s faith

Execution Etiquette or Choreography

In Tudor times, execution victims were expected to make a good end and executions were carefully choreographed. Although victims were not given a plan to follow, a pamphlet of “Instructions for Your Execution”, in a time when executions were public events attended from childhood everyone knew what was expected of them.

Here is a Tudor execution checklist:-

Accept your fate tick
Face your fate with courage and dignity tick
Make a short speech confessing your sin, accepting the law and judgement tick
Pay the executioner tick
Forgive the executioner tick
Prepare yourself to die, removing clothing and baring the neck tick
Pray tick
Stay still and try to die with just one stroke tick

Anne Boleyn followed this format, this checklist, to the letter. People are often surprised that the usually hot-tempered and outspoken Anne did not take the opportunity to protest her innocence and rant and rave, but Anne did what was expected of her, she behaved and followed the usual execution etiquette so that people would talk of her making a good end and so that her family and daughter would not be tainted by her death.

Anne Boleyn’s behaviour on the scaffold was far from unusual and so I don’t see it as being a case of SITEs, unless we also argue that the likes of Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, George Boleyn and the other men who died on the 17th May, Sir Thomas More etc etc. also exhibited this phenomenon. Catherine Howard was so determined to make a good end that she asked for the block so that she could practise with it!

But what about Anne Boleyn’s hysteria in the Tower, you may ask, how could she go from hysteria to such peace? I think this can be explained by the fact that when Anne was first taken to the Tower of London she had no idea what was going on. She became hysterical, racking her brain as to why she had been taken there, speaking the thoughts that were flying through her head. Isn’t that natural? Once she became aware of the charges against her she calmed down, she understood what was going on and what she was being accused of. I think she also understood that there was no getting out of it, she knew Cromwell, she knew her husband and she knew she was going to die. She accepted her fate and made herself ready for it.

Anne Boleyn’s Faith

Whatever our own religious beliefs, there is no denying that Anne Boleyn had a true and strong faith. Here was a woman who risked her life by owning forbidden literature (heretical works), who promoted the appointment of bishops with reformed views, who encouraged her ladies to read the Bible in English and whose brother prepared her, and dedicated to her, transcripts of works containing Lutheran ideology – her faith was important to her.

When people with a strong and personal faith are faced with challenges, with life-threatening situations and ultimately with death, it is often their faith that sustains them. Anne Boleyn was alone in the Tower. She may have had her ladies with her but they were ladies who had been appointed to spy on her, they were not friends of Anne’s. She could not seek comfort from them, she was not surrounded by loved ones in her time of need. I think it is natural, therefore, that Anne sought solace in her faith, comfort from God through prayer.

I think her peace at the end, her acceptance of her death, was down to her faith and the knowledge that she was going to a better place. Anne Boleyn believed in Christ, she knew the story of his life and death, his end and the ultimate sacrifice he made. She believed that Christ had died for her sins and that she would be with him in Heaven after her death. When Christ was on the cross one of the criminals who was on a cross next to him said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and Christ replied “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That was the promise of salvation and eternal life that I believe sustained Anne Boleyn in those final hours.


No-one can say what Anne Boleyn was really thinking in her final days and what was going through her mind, and this theory regarding SITEs is a very interesting one and does fit with Anne’s behaviour, but I just don’t agree with it. Anne Boleyn’s behaviour was the expected behaviour and it is Lady Rochford, who displayed signs of madness during her imprisonment, or George Boleyn, who took the opportunity to preach at the crowd, who are outside of the norm.

Whatever the explanation for Anne Boleyn’s courage and dignity (and do we have to explain it away anyway?), she is to be admired, as are the others who were innocent and yet accepted such a brutal fate with such bravery. Amazing!


Further Reading

Related Post