When Master Kingston came to my lodgings that morning, I knew very well that it was time for me to die. It was finally time – after the two delays that I had already endured; I was now going to the scaffold – there to be beheaded by a French swordsman.
I was flanked by my few ladies, and I clutched my prayer book tightly as I walked out into the blinding sunlight. There were many people there – far more than I had expected, all watching me intensely. I straightened up and held my head high, fanning out my grey damask cloak as I began walking through the crowd to the scaffold.
I must protect Elizabeth, I thought. I will not speak the words Cromwell delivered to me, but no matter what I say I must protect her. As I slowly processed behind Kingston I thought back to only a few days before, when a messenger had delivered a folded piece of parchment, containing the speech Cromwell had written for me. It would be proper to speak highly of the King and to ask the people to pray for his reign, but I could not bring myself to speak the words my enemy had given me. No, I could not give him that satisfaction. The only thing I cared about was my precious daughter. The last words I would say in my life had to be truthful, but they also had to protect her. I would not allow people to think I died a guilty woman – I would confess my innocence until my head was smote off my body.
I felt hands on me – touching the fur or sleeves of my cloak and muttering either blessings or curses. I did not care either way and I barely heard them – my mind was only on my daughter and the unpredictable future that lay before her. No longer a Princess, my Elizabeth would not live the life I had hoped, and I doubted she would have the love of her father the King anymore. How could he love her, now that her mother was being executed for adultery and incest?
I climbed the scaffold steps, lifting my gown and keeping my eyes on the crowd who watched intently. I could see Cromwell in the mass of people – no doubt delighted that he had succeeded in bringing me down, causing me to pay the ultimate price.
Are you happy now? You’ve won, I thought.
The Duke of Suffolk was also there, as was the Duke of Richmond – my husband’s bastard son by one of his mistresses before our marriage. It pained me that my enemies and those who hated me most would watch me die. This was a triumph for them, I knew.
I looked at Kingston and he nodded – my cue to make my speech before the Frenchman would perform his office, which I prayed would be quick and painless. I held my head higher and looked at the crowd, praying for God to give me the right words.
“Good Christians,” I began in a loud, clear voice. “I come before you an innocent woman.”
I looked at Cromwell’s face then, which had changed from a satisfied smirk to a suddenly confused frown.
“I have been falsely accused of heinous crimes, and by those accusations I have been condemned to die here before you all. If there is one thing that I may request from you all, with the few words I have left on this earth, I beseech you to pray for my daughter, the rightful and true Princess Elizabeth. Through my daughter, my memory shall live on.”
I paused for a moment and scanned the crowd. Cromwell was frowning furiously, but I felt at that moment that I was triumphing over him. Of course, in only a few minutes I would be dead, but at least my last glimpse of him would show his discomfort and confusion in my lack of obedience to him. Perhaps that was also fear in his eyes – for who knew what the King would do once he heard what my last words at the scaffold were?
“It grieves me that the King has so easily been swayed in his opinion of me, and that his love for me has so swiftly vanished as the result of the persuasions of cruel men – for never was there a woman so devoted and loving to her husband as I was to mine. And although I find it difficult to praise the King whilst standing beside my executioner, I shall say this. The King has been steadfast in advancing me. For when I met him I was a humble gentlewoman, whom he saw fit to create a Marchioness. From a Marchioness I became a Queen. And now, since there is no higher honor on earth to give, he has given me the crown of martyrdom as a saint in Heaven.”
I looked out at the crowd in silence, seeing a few people wipe tears from their cheeks. At least there were some in the crowd who had pity on me, and I prayed they had pity on my daughter as well. I avoided looking at Cromwell again, or any of my other enemies who were in attendance. I turned to the executioner and gave him my blessing, as well as the sack of coins he was to receive as payment for my death.
My ladies removed my gable hood, revealing the white covering over my pulled-up hair, so as not to impede the sword. They removed my jewelry and my cloak and stepped back, sniffling and wiping their own eyes. I looked out at the crowd once more, knowing these would truly be my last words.
“And now I take my leave of the world, seeking a reprieve from the harshness and cruelty which I have received. I heartily desire you all to pray for my daughter.”
I knelt then, in the straw which had been laid out on the scaffold to collect my head and blood. As I smoothed out my skirts and stared straight ahead, I muttered quiet prayers for my own soul.
“Oh God, have pity on my poor soul. Jesus receive my soul…”
I heard the Frenchman ask for his sword and I turned my head slightly, whispering a last prayer for my daughter.
And then there was nothing. The last image I saw before the blackness was Elizabeth’s face.
***NOTE: I wanted to use the “Gentlewoman Marchioness Queen Saint” quote from Anne Boleyn because I think it is such a heart-wrenching and powerful thing that she said. Although I know she didn’t use it in her actual speech, I think it works PERFECTLY for some of her last words.
I also used Alison Weir’s “The Lady in the Tower” for some background reading before writing this entry.