Anne Boleyn 1501 – 19th May 1536
Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the tower green on May 19 1536, 475 years ago today.
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.” (Anne Boleyn’s speech at her execution)
On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. In the Tower, she collapsed, demanding to know the location of her father and “swete broder”, as well as the charges against her. Four of the accused men were tried in Westminster on 12 May 1536. Weston, Brereton, and Norris publicly maintained their innocence and only the tortured Smeaton supported the Crown by pleading guilty. Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London. She was accused of adultery, incest, and high treason. By the Treason Act of Edward III adultery on the part of a queen was a form of treason (presumably because of the implications for the succession to the throne) for which the penalty was hanging, drawing and quartering for a man and burning alive for a woman, but the accusations, and especially that of incestuous adultery, were also designed to impugn her moral character. The other form of treason alleged against her was that of plotting the king’s death, with her “lovers”, so that she might later marry Henry Norris.
On 14 May, Cranmer declared Anne’s marriage to Henry dissolved.
Although the evidence against them was unconvincing, the accused were found guilty under the law and condemned to death by a jury of their peers. George Boleyn and the other accused men were executed on 17 May 1536. Anthony Kingston, the keeper of the Tower, reported Anne seemed very happy and ready to be done with life. The King commuted Anne’s sentence from burning to beheading and employed a swordsman from St Omer for the execution, rather than having a queen beheaded with the common axe. They came for Anne on the morning of 19 May to take her to the Tower Green. Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, wrote:
This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, ‘Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.’ I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,’ and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily. I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death. Sir, her almoner is continually with her, and had been since two o’clock after midnight.
However, her impending death may have caused her great sorrow for some time during her imprisonment. The poem “Oh Death Rock Me Asleep” is generally believed to have been authored by Anne and reveals that she may have hoped death would end her suffering.
Shortly before dawn, she called Kingston to hear mass with her, and swore in his presence, on the eternal salvation of her soul, upon the Holy Sacraments, that she had never been unfaithful to the king. She ritually repeated this oath both immediately before and after receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist.
On the morning of Friday 19 May, Anne Boleyn was judicially executed, not upon Tower Green, but rather, a scaffold erected on the north side of the White Tower, in front of what is now the Waterloo Barracks. She wore a red petticoat under a loose, dark grey gown of damask trimmed in fur and a mantle of ermine. Accompanied by two female attendants, Anne made her final walk from the Queen’s House to the scaffold and she showed a “devilish spirit”and looked “as gay as if she was not going to die”. Anne climbed the scaffold and made a short speech to the crowd:
Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.
This is one version of her speech, written by Lancelot de Carles in Paris, a few weeks following her death; he had been in London, but did not witness either trial or execution. All the accounts are similar, and undoubtedly correct to varying degrees. It is thought that she avoided criticizing Henry to save Elizabeth and her family from further consequences, but even under such extreme pressure Anne did not confess guilt, in fact subtly implying her innocence, in her appeal to historians who “will meddle of my cause”
She then knelt upright, in the French style of executions. Her final prayer consisted of her repeating continually, “To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul.” Her ladies removed her headdress and necklaces, and then tied a blindfold over her eyes. Anne Boleyn was executed by French expert swordsman Jean Rombaud. According to Eric W. Ives, Rombaud was so taken by Anne that he was shaken. Rombaud found it so difficult to proceed with the execution that in order to distract her and for her to position her head correctly, he may have shouted, “Where is my sword?” just before killing her.
The execution was mercifully humane and consisted of a single stroke.It was witnessed by Thomas Cromwell, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, the King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, the Lord Mayor of London, as well as aldermen, sheriffs, and representatives of the various craft guilds. Most of the King’s Council were also present. Cranmer, who was at Lambeth Palace, was reported to have broken down in tears after telling Alexander Ales: “She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in heaven.” When the charges were first brought against Anne, Cranmer had expressed his astonishment to Henry and his belief that “she should not be culpable.” Still, Cranmer felt vulnerable because of his closeness to the queen. On the night before the execution, he had declared Henry’s marriage to Anne to have been void, like Catherine’s before her. He made no serious attempt to save Anne’s life, although some sources record that he had prepared her for death by hearing her last private confession of sins, in which she had stated her innocence before God. However, on the day of her death a Scottish friend found Cranmer weeping uncontrollably in his London gardens, saying that he was sure that Anne had now gone to Heaven.
Despite the effort put into Anne’s execution, Henry failed to have organized any kind of funeral or even provide a proper coffin for her.Her body lay on the scaffold for some time before a man (believed to be working inside the Tower) found an empty arrow chest and placed her head and body inside. She was then buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Her skeleton was identified during renovations of the chapel in the reign of Queen Victoria and Anne’s resting place is now marked in the marble floor.