Today, as we think about Anne Boleyn preparing herself for an execution that would be postponed for 24 hours, we have an article from Anne Boleyn Files follower Kathy Gallimore. Kathy wanted to share her feelings about what it would be like to be a prisoner in the Tower waiting for death.
Imprisoned in the Tower: would I cope?
The answer is “No”, and I have attempted here to express why I would not have coped and how in awe I am of the people who did. This is a personal view, and no historical quotes, sources or bibliography have been used.
I have been fascinated with Tudor history for as long as I can remember. Every book I read about the Tudors, and I have read so many over the years, piques my interest further, searching for facts which could shine new light on Tudor life. In essence, I can’t get enough of the intrigue that surrounds the main players and admit to having a morbid fascination with the Tower of London, particularly Traitors’ Gate.
I can only imagine what went through a prisoner’s mind and how they reacted when arrested and taken to the Tower following a biased trial at the hands of people who were only interested in their own advancement within the Tudor Court. “If it pleases Your Majesty, then guilty is the verdict.” Can historians really say that one person thought this and another felt that? Humans have been cruel to each other for centuries and what we believe went on in the Tower during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries is something we learn at school. We also learn that many of the accused arrived at Traitors’ Gate with life-threatening and untreated injuries. The Tower’s dark reputation lives on, and that is why millions of people visit the landmark every year.
About forty years ago, my late husband and I took a boat trip down the Thames from London to Greenwich, passing the Tower and Traitors’ Gate. I remember visualising what it must have been like to be escorted up the steps and into the confines of the Tower, knowing there was little chance of ever leaving alive. If I could honestly say that I was innocent of all charges, what would it take to convince the King and his cohorts? Would they even listen? Well, we all know the answer to that one!
The stench from the river and the heads displayed on Tower Bridge would be a stark reminder of the poor souls who had suffered in the same way that faced me. I would rather be thrown into the river and drown amongst the filth than wait for my execution. The relief I would feel knowing that the time for my death had passed, giving me hope of a pardon, would be short-lived when a guard opened the door of my cell to tell me that my execution would now take place the following day. All that apprehension and resignation would have to be tolerated once more. An unbearable thought.
Anne Boleyn, perhaps the most documented prisoner to have ever been held in the Tower, is someone I can probably relate to more than anyone else. Probably because she was a woman. Even if you are not a Tudor enthusiast, the chances are that you have heard about Henry’s second wife! The one historical fact that has never been refuted is that Anne was accused of multiple crimes and taken to the Tower to await her fate. Along with her co-accused, she pleaded her innocence, to no avail. The King’s mind was made up, and she was to suffer the consequences. How staunch she was, apparently. I could never be like her, but then again, she is reputed to have had a not-so-nice side, and maybe that strengthened her resolve. I would definitely be planning revenge on someone.
However, are we to believe everything we read in the history books? Were some of those found guilty of treason or challenging the King really that brave when told they were to be executed and tortured by the most gruesome methods? Burned or boiled alive, hanged, drawn and quartered, racked and more. How could anyone put on a brave face at such a prospect? No wonder Anne was grateful when she heard that an experienced swordsman would be imported to sever her head once it became apparent that she was definitely going to die!
To witness someone to be in favour one minute and out the next must have been a constant worry to anyone having the slightest connection with the King and his advisers. Well, even the people closest to the throne had to watch their backs (and necks). I would almost be afraid to breathe, worried I would talk in my sleep and fearful that someone might be reading my mind! What a terrible existence – to be denied what we now call freedom of speech.
Once Anne was incarcerated, was she able to sleep or eat? How could you do either with the sword hovering? According to history, she spent 17 days in the Tower. She must have lost weight and become exhausted, both physically and mentally. I most certainly would not have had an appetite or been able to find sleep. I’m not a religious person but would probably have prayed for mercy. She is recorded as being in her late twenties or early thirties when she entered the Tower. Probably too young for menopause so she may have had to contend with her monthly course. Maybe the stress of knowing she was to be executed affected her cycle. If she was still ovulating, she may have been thinking that there was still a chance she could bear a healthy son for Henry. I would have hated the lack of privacy, and I doubt if Anne would have had time to pack an overnight bag containing her personal effects! Even though it was almost summer, the cold, damp room would have made bathing in cold water unpleasant, to say the least. Was she allowed the luxury of hot water? Did she even bother to keep herself clean? We don’t know. Perhaps she became depressed and felt so wretched that she got to the point where she just didn’t care anymore.
No support was forthcoming from her family or friends, so Anne really was on her own, save for her ladies and her assigned confessor. Hardly a convivial situation for one who had been such a bright light at court and who had enjoyed the luxuries and pleasures being Queen afforded. Even if she was not liked (due to her treatment of Catherine), she commanded such authority that people feigned friendship. Suddenly, the tables were turned, and her so-called friends at court became her enemies. Did she ever consider that if she were pardoned, she would try to be more amiable? However, she had lost the King to Jane, and if she ever got out of the Tower, she would be very low in the pecking order.
We really don’t know what Anne’s thought process. If I had been in her shoes, I would have spent every waking hour planning how I could get out of this predicament. The King wouldn’t listen, she was hated at court, and it would be difficult to escape. She was stuck fast with nowhere to go, regardless of whether or not she was guilty. Everyone was lying to save their own skins so why would anyone take pity on her? Life was cheap and what did it matter if Anne died?
Life was very different back then, and we should be thankful, very thankful, that there are now no executioners lurking behind walls at the Tower. If I am to believe history, Anne was guilty as charged, but is this the absolute truth of the matter? I will never know! That’s the thing, isn’t it? Only Anne knew – should we give her the benefit of doubt?
Did Anne miss her daughter? Her maternal instincts must have kicked in, and Elizabeth’s father doesn’t appear to have been too concerned about the welfare of the young princess, having sent her away from court. I think Anne loved Elizabeth but she wasn’t a boy, and that is how Anne got into this mess in the first place. The preoccupation of men being hell bent on having a son must have made women doubt themselves. We know the reasons why a son was so important, but if I had been Queen and my first-born was a girl, followed by miscarriages or more girls, I might have been tempted to tell the King to give birth to the next one himself! Anne was a fiery woman, and none of us was privy to the private moments she shared with the King. Maybe she did tell him to get a healthy son by whatever means he could. The trumped-up charges against Anne facilitated this, and so she was eliminated, and before long Henry had sired a son.
What did Anne and her ladies do for over two weeks? They probably had books to read and had access to a Bible. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on anything, let alone snuggle down with a good book. The conversation must have centred around how Anne could prove her innocence (if she sincerely believed she was not guilty as charged). Her husband was miles away, wooing one of Anne’s ladies who served her at court. To be held in the Tower facing death and knowing my husband was flirting with someone younger than me, in the hope of siring a son, would be torture itself. I wonder if Anne ever thought about suicide or asked her maid to carry out the deed! What was really going on in Anne’s mind? It must have been like the dream (or nightmare) which has been documented: trying to run away but never getting very far.
If she had committed the crimes of which she was accused, she was probably wondering what a fool she had been and what she could have done differently to avoid being caught out. If she was not guilty and knew the King’s mind, she may have ranted and raved to such a degree that she was gasping for breath. She could have held her breath and allowed herself to become asphyxiated. She could have asked the maid to strangle her to death. Maybe she contemplated the exposed beams as a way out, hanging herself with a rope made with strips of her gown. I really don’t know if I could have taken my own life, even if it meant I would avoid a public execution, but I would have looked around the room for any possible opportunities.
How could anyone have the presence of mind to walk out to her death? According to what we read, she didn’t try and run away. Where would she run? Into the crowd gathered to enjoy the day’s entertainment? Those final steps to the block… How could you walk? I would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, pleading my innocence to anyone who would listen. Did she really chat with the executioner? Did the executioner actually tell her he was sorry for what he was about to do?
It’s a tough one, wondering whether or not Anne was guilty. We read that she was taken to the Tower because she was guilty but there is the possibility that she committed none of these crimes. Only Anne knew the truth but either way her fear of what lay ahead would have been all-encompassing. What I have trouble understanding is that Anne knew the risks, so why would she put herself in such an invidious situation. If I had been Henry’s wife and he had lost interest in me because I was unable to bear him a son, I honestly believe I would accept that he needed to conquer afresh, agree to a divorce and get on with it. Anything would be better than languishing in the Tower, and Anne knew very well what went on within its walls. If she was that clever, and we are led to believe that she was very well educated and astute, she should have changed her ways and danced to Henry’s tune. People may have actually begun to like her although it would have been a tough call after the trouble she caused Henry’s first wife.
Guilty or not, Anne must have realised how stupid she had been. Obviously, she could not be blamed for failing to bear Henry a healthy son, but the very idea that she committed adultery and worse doesn’t ring true with me. I’m sure she could have devised a plan to discredit Jane.
I lean towards the assumption that Anne was innocent and didn’t need to die by the sword. She had witnessed too many arrests and executions during her short life. To have slipped up and committed an offence worthy of execution seems strange to me. Anne was too smart to fall into that trap.
To have coped in the Tower, awaiting execution, is nothing short of a miracle. Guilty or not, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like being imprisoned in such an inhospitable place. Now, living in the 21st century, most in the Western world receive a fair trial, and if they are facing execution, they are aware that it will be carried out in a somewhat humane way. If we can call it “humane.” Waiting seventeen days to be taken to the scaffold would have been as bad as the end result. How cruel and how those who had imprisoned me would have revelled in it. I have an intense fear of rats, and there would have been plenty of those running around, arriving in their hundreds from the murky waters of the Thames.
Maybe there would have been a way to poison myself, but I would have needed to bribe someone in the kitchens to make this possible. The food I received would probably have been so bad that I wouldn’t have noticed if it had been laced with some lethal potion!
I have thought a great deal about what life would have been like in the Tower all those years ago. Definitely not on my bucket list!
My name is Kathy Gallimore. I moved to New Zealand from England just over sixty years ago and was educated down under. Consequently, I have a good Kiwi accent! I travel back to England every two years and always try to visit Henry’s haunts while I’m there. I was born in Westerham, just down the road from Hever Castle! My passions, apart from Tudor history, include animals (I worked/volunteered at the RSPCA here in Auckland for a number of years) and travelling within New Zealand and overseas. I love showing off my adopted country so if anyone is over this way, get in touch with me via Claire.