Jean’s pillows had been arranged so he could stare out the window at the clouds hovering above the Strait of Dover. The rain was coming down in sheets on this morning that would be his last. Marie, his dutiful wife, stared at him from across the room; her lack of sleep has made her eager for Jean’s death to come. It has been a hideous few months as she has watched her once strong husband decline into the pile of bones before her.
She interrupted the peaceful sound of the falling rain by sternly repeating her request one last time, “May I call for the priest now, husband?” Jean shook his head again letting her know that he did not intend to cling to the Church now. He had reminded her throughout their marriage that he had done things in his past that could not be forgiven. Marie drew to his side ready to lecture him again about the need for the priest, but she saw the resolve in his expression and could not disrespect his wish.
Marie knew his concerns were valid because she had not married this man unaware of his profession. He was a celebrated executioner, after all. He was famous; King Henry VIII himself called for Jean to travel to London when Queen Anne was to be put to death. Kings knew Jean was skilled with the sword, and that made him an in-demand professional. Although Marie was uneasy about loving a man who could kill for a living, she found herself quite attracted to his celebrity. Also, his money did not hurt his chances of winning her heart, and his generosity during their courtship helped her to forget the gifts were purchased with blood money.
As she leaned over Jean in these final minutes, it was hard to recognize that star of yesteryear. A tear dropped down her cheek and onto his forehead. This man who had been the hooded deliverer of death for so many now was facing his own death. He was enduring excruciating pain but stoically never gave any indication to his wife. Although Marie was beside him, he was as alone in his own mind at his death as he had felt since he returned from London.
Being bedridden with incurable illness gave Jean time to weigh the events in London. He knew that had been the most important event of his life because he was forever changed after that execution. His work had been a source of pride for him until London. He previously saw himself as an agent of good every time his trusty sword lopped off the heads of evil people. He had always felt his bloody deeds made God smile. After London, he felt as if he had cut his own connection to God when his sword hit Queen Anne’s neck. He suffered silently the rest of his life and never understood how he lost himself when he murdered the lovely woman on that platform in London.
He remembered on those long nights when the pain was unbearable that Anne had faced her pain as strong as anybody he had ever serviced. She had the grit of one hundred men as she appeared that warm day in May to face her punishment. Watching through the eye holes in his hood, he knew the spectacle was unjust; everything about that fateful day had the rancid stench of corruption. Frenchmen were well aware of the treachery of the English rulers, and he had heard the rumors about Henry’s new love interest. Anne had become an inconvenience for Henry, and those who wished her ill had poisoned his mind with ludicrous accusations. However, it was apparent that this lady would not allow herself to become a victim to Henry or her accusers. She had committed herself to keeping her composure. Jean studied her actions on the day they met and liked her spirit; her accusers could take her life but not her dignity. It was as if she was determined not to give her accusers the added pleasure of seeing her crumble.
The sight of Anne’s eyes as she granted him forgiveness replayed in Jean’s dreams throughout his post-London life, but the vision intensified during his illness. The dreams began with those piercing, resolute eyes and ended with the vision of her head with her lovely dark hair covered by a linen cap sitting in position waiting for him to act. He would sit straight up in his bed terrified knowing that he was going back to that point when he could have made the right decision. As she was lying there so many years ago, he should have refused to do the deed. He could have pretended to be ill. He could have run. Instead, he followed through knowing he was killing an innocent person, a mother. He raised the sword above a queen who was calling upon her Savior to receive her soul. Jean severed both of their lives that day, and the two of them would forever have that bond.
Jean had never been able to reconcile his deeds in London with the man he thought he was. How could a good man have beheaded Anne? He took the lousy fee for his services and fulfilled his obligation complete with holding her head up for all to see. Knowing he was soiled forever by these events, he tried to squash the thoughts about Anne throughout his life, but on his deathbed, there had been no escape. She was always there.
Marie kept stroking Jean’s head until he made a loud choking sound and entered eternity. She jumped away from him momentarily then saw he was gone. His widow tenderly closed his eyes. Her tomorrows would be filled with sorrow. She had no one now, and the chill in the bedroom intensified this sudden and scary feeling of aloneness.
She was weary after walking on this long journey with Jean; tending to the responsibilities of his death would need to wait until she could compose herself. The longing that she had for her husband was overwhelming. She desired to be close to the husband she knew in her youth and not the pathetic corpse in front of her. Aching to feel, smell, and experience the man she used to know, she walked to his wardrobe to find one of his dashing outfits from his glory days in order to wrap herself in who he was. She chose an older cloak that she did not recognize, but it would serve as a suitable source of comfort. The dust on the garment made her sneeze, and she giggled girlishly because the sound startled her. Holding the garment and spinning around the room in a giddy dance, she journeyed back to the glory days but then realized her inappropriateness with Jean dead before her. Like a little girl hugging his cloak like a security blanket, she laid on the bed next to her husband. As she turned to face him and give him a kiss on his cheek, a very old linen cap fell out of the pocket. She knew it belonged to the other woman who had always held her husband’s heart.
1. Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII
2. Retha Warnicke’s The Rise and Fall of Ann Boleyn
3. Karen Lindsey’s Divorced, Beheaded Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII