Anne Boleyn’s Final Moments by Clasina Verwer
I wonder when I will wake up–surely this is all a dream. All of it has to be. The wild accusations, my senseless arrest (has it really been 17 days? it feels like 17 years), the execution of five innocent men, including my beloved brother George–even now I expect he will walk in to this room to take me away from here; to tell me this has all been a bad dream, and that I can return to court to my place as queen. I will wake up any minute, and Henry will love me again, will pardon me and Jane Seymour will once again be no more than the plainest of my ladies in waiting…The four ladies I have been permitted to keep with me help me as I dress in a trance, shivering in the chill of the early morning…I almost smile at the irony of the difference between this stay in the Tower, and the one three short years ago before my coronation. I must be going mad. I have heard the sound of the carpenters building a scaffold–my scaffold–and even now I know that a crowd is out there waiting–waiting to watch as my life comes to an end. How can a man hold the power of life and death at his command? I want to stay here forever in this wretched tower; so long as I do not have to climb those stairs, and kneel to face the crowd as they watch my head being cut from my body. The jailer appears in the doorway–it seems that a glimmer of sympathy passes fleetingly across his face, but perhaps I have imagined it because I blink and his face is the same expressionless mask it always appears to be. My time has come. In a wordless gesture he bids me follow him…when will I wake up??
The sun shining in my eyes, blinding me, and the clear blue sky, are mocking me as I emerge from the tower, with my ladies trailing behind me, shading their eyes to scan the crowd that has gathered. How can I enjoy the light spring air–and the open space that beckons me after my interminable stay in the tower, when the only reason I have been brought out is so that a French swordsman can take my head off? It is a cruel joke.
I feel dizzy–my head spinning as I reach the stairs to the scaffold. I clutch tightly to the bannister of the wretched contraption–willing my feet not to buckle under me. I hesitate, my heart pounding desperately, and I close my eyes, breathing deeply to find the courage that has failed me. Master Kingston urges me on impatiently–he has more pressing things to do than waiting on a disgraced Queen to climb the stairs to her fate. Somehow I make it to the top, where I come face to face with the black hooded executioner, waiting apathetically to carry out his duty. I search his eyes for some sign of sympathy, and it seems I see just a flicker of it before they return to their expressionless luster. It is a small mercy that Henry has granted me a swordsman to carry out the task of beheading me, rather than leaving me in the hands of a blundering executioner with a dull axe. This does little to comfort me, however.
I turn to face the crowd. An expectant hush falls as I take in each face–my eyes meeting expressions of pity, apathy, contempt. The speech I have rehearsed endlessly evades my memory. I must speak, for my appointment with death must not be delayed any longer than necessary. I open my mouth but no sound comes out. I close it, open it again, and this time the pride I had as a queen returns to me as I address the crowd, if not with confidence, at least with bravery.
“All of you, citizens of England, have gathered today to witness a death, but it is not just any death, for it is the death of your Queen. Some of you may feel triumph, that I have been overthrown, and at last have been made lower than all of you. To be raised up to the lofty position of monarch before having all titles and dignity taken from oneself, and to be kept in prison as a traitor, to be accused falsely by one’s own people, is to be brought low. But I have been brought to the lowest that any human can be brought–for what lower can one be brought than to have one’s own life taken away at the command of another human being? All of you will tell the tale of my death to your children. Yes, I have become famous for rising to power at the expense of another queen, against all odds. The King who moved heaven and earth to put me on the throne has now proven that he can dispose of me with as little regret as he disposed of his first wife. Yet the fault is not his, but mine, for it was I who failed to see that my triumph could not secure my future. And yet, how could I see? When striving for a goal, one does not look beyond the achievement of the goal. Yes, I reached my goal. But it was not the goal I expected–it was only a mirage, and in reaching my goal–for myself and my family–I have lost everything. I have lost my position, my family, my daughter, and now I will lose my own life. Because of my death, my life will be famous. The time has come for me to die, and I wish not to die as a disgraced woman, but as a Boleyn–as the woman I was before I became Queen Anne. My wish is that you would pray God to have mercy on my soul, and that you would live lives that are pleasing to the King so as not to suffer the same fate as I.”
I finish speaking, and as I gaze once more across the crowd, the tension is tangible. I feel my throat tightening, and an eternity passes as the executioner steps up to me and asks my forgiveness for what he is about to do. As woodenly as a puppet, I hand him the customary fee, and hear myself speaking to him, forgiving the man who will kill me, from far away. As in a trance, I kneel in the straw that has been strategically placed, and close my eyes, praying feverishly, for my soul and for a quick death. I hear the sound of the sword, whistling in my ear as it comes toward my neck, and then it is all over–I feel my spirit leave my body. I look down and see the swordsman holding my head–my own head! high for the crowd to see, I see my ladies in waiting wrap my body in the linen shroud, and struggle to carry me down the scaffold stairs to prepare me for burial…But death is not the end…it is only the beginning.