If you know Anne Boleyn’s story, you will know that she was found guilty of treason of adultery and treason by a court of 26 noblemen and sentenced to death by burning at the stake or by being beheaded, whatever the King decided. You will also know that her life was cut short on 19th May 1536 when her head was cut off in one stroke by a French swordsman from Calais – a mercifully quick death if you compare it with the likes of Thomas Cromwell and Margaret Pole.

Beheading of Anne Boleyn
Beheading of Anne Boleyn

So, the question I pose today – a rather controversial question – is whether Henry VIII actually showed love and mercy (and possibly guilt) when he decided on beheading by sword for Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn – An Innocent Woman

Historical sources and evidence prove to us today that Anne Boleyn was an innocent woman. I’ve written about it before, about Thomas Cromwell conspiring to get rid of Anne because she was a threat to him and his plans for foreign policy, and we know that a court today would find Anne Boleyn innocent of all charges. The evidence was completely “cooked up” and flimsy at best. Just how could Anne be with the King and be in bed with another man at the same time? Plus the only man to confess was Mark Smeaton, a man we’re pretty certain was cruelly tortured.

See “Was Anne Boleyn Innocent?” and “Why was Anne Boleyn Executed?” for more discussion on this.

Henry VIII – Victim or Perpetrator?

However, it’s hard to know how involved Henry VIII was in the conspiracy. Did he order the plot? Did Cromwell share it with him? Or was it all Cromwell’s doing? Was Henry VIII a paranoid innocent bystander who was led to believe, through his paranoia, that his wife had been unfaithful to him and that she was a witch? We know that Cromwell fed lies to Henry about Anne and this, combined with the temptation of Jane Seymour being thrust at him by the Seymour/Anti-Boleyn faction, was enough to make the King doubt Anne and his marriage.

It’s hard to know where Henry fits into it BUT I cannot believe that he really thought that Anne was guilty, but perhaps Henry let events run away with him.  As Ives says, perhaps Henry “had taken a step which he could not reverse, even if the rage and suspicion which had tipped him ove rthe edge were to seem more questionable in the cold light of reflection.” Perhaps Henry found himself in an impossible position and could not be seen to back down.

A King’s Mercy

Henry VIII showed no mercy to Anne while she was imprisoned, instead he ordered the French swordsman from Calais (and this must have been even before her trial – hmmm, I smell a rat!) and got on with his romance with Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour. He seemed indifferent to Anne’s plight YET he did step in and instead of letting her be burned as a heretic, or the usual beheading of a female traitor, he chose death by sword – a death that was swift and seen to be merciful.

Eric Ives, in his biography “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” comments that:-

“The warrant for Anne’s execution actually states that the king, moved by pity, was unwilling to commit her to the flames. “

and lists his source as London Public Records Office. So, are we to believe that Henry’s mercy stretched to giving her a “merciful” death, but not actually preventing her execution?

What we do know is that Anne Boleyn’s executioner was an expert swordsman who had experience and expertise in using a heavy continental executioner’s sword to behead a prisoner kneeling upright. We also know that he charged £23 6s 8d for Anne’s execution. Anne’s death was over in seconds, her head being cut off while her lips were still moving, saying “To Christ I commend my soul!” A “mercifully” quick death when compared to others who had crossed the King.

The Not So Merciful Executions

Margaret Pole – Margaret Pole, or Lady Salisbury, was executed as a traitor on 27th May 1541 at the Tower of London. Her only sin was her claim to the throne and being the mother of Cardinal Reginald Pole. Henry VIII had always been paranoid about challenges to the throne and the Pole family were the last of the Plantagenets, who had survived the War of the Roses and had a claim to the throne of England. Her death was anything but merciful. Depending on what account you believe, she was executed by an inexperienced axeman whose first blow hit her shoulders and then either she got up and ran, being pursued by the executioner who struck her 11 times before she died, or it took 11 blows at the block to kill her. Whichever account you believe, her execution was slow, painful and terrifying.

Thomas Cromwell – Another messy execution! Cromwell finally got his “come-uppance” when Henry VIII blamed him for the Anne of Cleves marriage fiasco and council members turned against him. Cromwell was arrested, kept alive until the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves could be annulled, charged as a traitor and heretic by an Act of Attainder and then executed on 28th July 1540 at the Tower of London. He came to an awful end:-

“so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged Boocherly miser which very ungoodly perfourmed the Office” – Edward Hall, contemporary chronicler.

If you have seen “The Tudors Season 3”, you will understand that meaning and, if you haven’t, then all I will say is that the executioner was incompetent and the execution was badly botched – horrific!

Burning at the Stake – Anne Boleyn could easily have ended up being burned at the stake as a female traitor, heretic and witch, but let’s be thankful that she didn’t end up with this style of execution. Burning at the stake is a slow and painful death, and death could take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Click here to find out more about this method of execution that was meant to mimic the fires of Hell.

So, does Anne’s execution method give us a glimpse into the King’s psyche? Did Henry VIII order a skilled French swordsman out of mercy, guilt or love, or for another reason. What do you think? Afterall, Catherine Howard was executed by axe, as was Henry’s great friend Thomas More. What was different about Anne?

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