I didn’t want to do it, kill her I mean. Sometimes it’s not so bad when it’s a robber or a murderer, especially if they killed a woman or a child. Then it sort of feels justified, they took a life and so they pay with their own. It’s the natural way of things, an eye for an eye. But this, this feels wrong. It’s not that I haven’t executed a woman before, I have. Even women with children. It takes a strong stomach to be me, to watch so many people die. To kill so many people.
In the minutes before death you see the true make up of a person. I’ve seen the burliest, meanest men sobbing and begging God for forgiveness right up until my sword slices through their neck. Some don’t make a sound. They slip out of this world in silence, as if making a sound will impede their soul’s passage to heaven. Those people make me nervous: I tend to swing my sword quickly when the silent ones are on the scaffold. But not her. No crying, no begging, no silence; just a quiet whispering to Jesus Christ to accept her soul. I was so intent on watching and listening to her, so fascinated that I almost forgot why I was there. A clearing of the Tower Constable’s throat brought me back to reality and the task at hand. An ache welled up in my chest and I felt my face turning red with shame under my black mask. It wasn’t shame that I had forgotten my place; I was mortified by what I had to do.
She had come walking out of her prison so proudly, her red kirtle like a portent telling of the blood about to be spilled. She was a bright flash of color against the grey dresses of her ladies. I wondered at the fact that she still held her head high as she walked to her death. This woman was no shamefaced, disgraced, sinful whore, as she was reputed to be, no, the tiny woman approaching me exuded an air of dignity equal to that of his majesty le roi, Francois I. I had seen him only twice, once as a young man visiting Paris my father had taken me to see the court dining and later, when he had come to Calais on the occasion of this Queen’s visit only three years before. Calais may belong to the English but in my heart I was a citizen of France. I had grown up in the south where it was warm and beautiful and had only moved to Calais as a young man trying to learn a trade. I was apprenticed to a sword maker, which is where I met the previous city executioner and we became friendly. Suffice it to say that I was not always honest in my youth and after being caught stealing several times I was sentenced to suffer the fate of a thief and lose my hand to the sword. I was being hauled out into the prison yard on the morning of my punishment when the old executioner happened through. When I think him old I almost laugh, he was probably 45 at most, older than I am now, but not so old as I thought him at the time. The man asked what the charges against me were and said the he would stand for me as he knew me to be a good lad. The men assigned to sever my hand knew and respected the man seeing as how he did the job no one else wanted to do and they gladly handed me over. This made him responsible for me and so I moved in with him and his wife. They had no children of their own and so when he died I inherited his undesirable post. He had become a second father to me and had turned me into an honest and in his eyes anyway, upstanding young man. Though he always tried to appear calm and unperturbed in front of me I had seen him wiping tears away as he sat in front of the fire and had heard him crying at night in bed with his wife. Many nights several cups of wine accompanied him into sleep. I knew that my future career would not be a pleasant one and I dreaded it with each coming dawn. The old man told me that the most important thing was not to miss and to give the damned a good death, a death with dignity. I spent a lot of time wondering exactly what that meant.
In order to make sure that I was well trained beforehand the old man made me practice in the stable yard of the prison for hours, endlessly swinging at bunches of straw, each time having to imagine that instead of the top of the bundle the part that I chopped off was the head of a criminal. By the age of 19 I thought myself ready to do my job and asked the old man if I could fill in for him one afternoon. He was hesitant and back then, I thought he did not have confidence in me, that he thought I would botch the job. Now I know that he was wary about how such a grisly task would affect me. When he finally relented, I took the sword angrily and made my way to town square where the executions were held. The man scheduled to die was named John Grouse and he had killed a man in a tavern brawl. When I mounted the scaffold that first time I had no idea what to expect. I thought I knew what would happen, but I was so very wrong. The prisoner was dragged to the place of his death and forced to kneel in front of me. He was a huge man who appeared to have been in many tavern brawls over the years judging from the scars that remained on his face and arms. The man was weeping, as prisoners expecting death often are. I had seen this all before and thought myself ready and able to ignore all of the man’s tears and prayers and to end his life in one blow. But when the man was actually there, kneeling in front of me, sobbing out his regrets I felt nothing but fear and pity. How could I do this? How could I take the life of this man who was sniveling and groveling at my feet? I stared him for a moment, wondering how in the world I would get through this, wanting nothing so much as to run away. Then, when he looked a bit to the side, I closed my eyes and swung my sword. I heard a horrible squelching sound, the sound of metal entering flesh followed by a thump. Terrified I opened my eyes and saw the man’s headless corpse sprawled on the boards where I stood. Shaking, I dropped the blade that I held and it clanged down beside the dead man. I made the mistake of looking up at the crowd gathered to be entertained by the death of another and saw, standing only inches from the scaffold, a woman. She must have been the dead man’s wife. She was trembling as much as I was but not crying. Her face wore an expression of absolute shock and horror. She reached towards the man’s head, as if to touch his face one last time then realized that the face now belonged to a head without a body and she snatched her hand back. She looked up at me with eyes that held nothing but sadness and terror and disbelief. I held her gaze for a moment, not believing what I had done myself and then I ran. I forgot about the sword lying in front of me, I forgot about my duty to stand tall and look impassive, immune to killing other people. I ran down the stairs of the scaffold and back into an alley where I vomited. I heard the guards clattering after me, assigned to make sure I was not murdered by the townspeople or the family of the criminal but in my mind all I could hear was the sound of the death blow I had just struck and see the horrified eyes of the woman standing in front of me. When I looked up from the gutter I was retching into I saw my foster father standing quietly, waiting for me to speak. What passed between us when our eyes met was unspoken, but powerful. I suddenly understood why the old man cried at night, he too saw the eyes of those left behind when he closed his own.
“Does it get better?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“I ran” I said, my voice quavering.
“Of course you did,” he replied. “Next time don’t look down at the crowd, it’s easier if you don’t see them. You gave him a good death, don’t fault yourself. He didn’t see you run.”
Now, almost 15 years after my first time taking a life I again found myself feeling nervous, wondering how exactly I was going to do what I had been hired to do.
The English Queen had reached the stairs of the scaffold while I was lost in my thoughts. The steps of the raised wooden platform are where many lose their wits, where they begin to cry or try to run but not this woman. She fairly marched up the steps, her ladies in tow, with a look of pure determination on her face. She reached the top of the steps and hesitated, as if unsure and then walked to the front to address the crowd gathered to watch her die. It was not so many people as it might have been as the tower had barred all foreigners and many others from entering, fearing a riot started by the Queen’s supporters.
She stepped forward, drew a deep breath and, squaring her shoulders began to speak. “Good Christian people, I have come here to die…” Her voice was strong, unwavering, and she had a slight French accent, a left over from a childhood spent in Francois’s court. I liked this about her. We shared a childhood in a beautiful place, a country where the wine was wonderful and in my memories the sun always shone. I watched her as she spoke; marveling that some had thought to call her sallow and ugly. The woman standing in front of me that day was quite pretty and her black eyes drew the gaze of everyone in the crowd with their intensity. The only sign of nervousness she showed was a clenching and unclenching of her fists. When she was done speaking she stepped back and her ladies removed her cloak and the gabled hood from her head. Locks of dark hair gleamed in the sunlight. It was quickly covered under a simple white cap and she fitfully tucked the stray pieces away, as if anxious to get on with the morning’s events. Her hands fluttered like excited birds around her face and hair, ensuring that all was in order and then she turned to me. Her eyes, there was something about them that made a person unable to look away. We stared at each other for a few seconds before I dropped down to my knees to ask for her pardon. She gave it quietly and thrust a pouch of money in my direction. I was not supposed to look up, she was after all a queen, but I couldn’t help it. Again we stared at each other, me bewitched by her dark eyes, she biting her bottom lip in apprehension. Then she drew herself up and nodded at me, obviously dismissing me. It was time then. Her ladies approached her with a blindfold, which she refused. She knelt in the straw and began to whisper, calmly asking God to receive her. She looked at me again, waiting for the blow to come, anticipating it. Her eyes showed so many things, sadness, acceptance, terror, I couldn’t do it; I could not deal the death blow until she looked away. She continued to whisper and I continued to stare, frozen to the spot. When I heard the constable clearing his throat I forced myself to move. I yelled “Boy, bring me my sword!” There was no boy; my sword was behind me in the straw. She turned from me, finally releasing me from her gaze and I closed my eyes and swung. I heard the thump of her head in the straw, and thought it a sound and occurrence beneath someone who approached death with such bravery and bearing. I could not look, I was afraid she would still be looking at me, and I was terrified of the thought of those eyes looking at me from a head now severed from its body. I turned my back and bowed my head in shame. I did not believe her guilty of the charges leveled against her and she denied them on pain of the damnation of her soul in her final words to the world.
Later, as I was leaving the tower grounds I stopped to say goodbye to William Kingston, the constable who had accompanied the queen to her death. I thanked him for his hospitality the night before when I arrived and then told him “I never dreamed that I would execute a queen, I still cannot believe…” and my voice trailed off, unable to completely form the words that I wanted to say.
“Anne Boleyn is not to be referred to as the Queen, but only as Lady Boleyn. The king has decreed it so and has declared that they were never in fact married therefore she does not hold the title of Queen,” Kingston said, an unspoken warning in his voice.
I shrugged it off, I was in no danger. I leveled my eyes with his, hoping I looked half as brave as the woman I executed did in the moments before her death. “His majesty may say she was not a queen, but today, today she was a queen in every way.” He looked at me for a moment, then nodded once in agreement and looked away.
“Her eyes haunt me,” Kingston admitted.
“They will haunt me as well,” I said. “If God is just they will also haunt King Henry.” A small smile played over Kingston’s lips and I turned and left that dreadful tower and its ghosts behind me.