the links to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 of the series “A fatal love triangle: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour
I’m deliberately posting the last part of the series today, on the day when the betrothal of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour was announced.
After Anne Boleyn’s trial and her condemnation, events were happening at a breakneck speed.
On the 16h of May 1536, Archbishop Cranmer visited Anne in the Tower. Following his visit, she was in an elated mood and had hope for life, thinking that she might have been allowed to retire to a nunnery. But it was not meant to be as the king wanted Anne dead, and her marriage to Henry was annulled. Anne’s alleged paramours, including George Boleyn, were executed on Tower Hill on the 17th of May.
Anne was executed on the 19th of May within the Tower, on Tower Green. The city of London figuratively and literally froze in anticipation of the first execution of an anointed queen in the history of England.
Care was taken to remove all foreigners who could witness the execution. The special device of not announcing the time beforehand and postponing it beyond the usual hour was an outstanding method for effective crowd-control, which might have been Thomas Cromwell’s idea.
Meanwhile, inside the Tower of London, Anne was preparing for her death since 2 o’clock in the morning. Knowing that executions normally happened first thing in the morning, she spent almost the whole night in prayers with her Almoner. She was resigned to death and felt relieved that the long, agonizing weeks of waiting for the end of her mental torture would be over soon.
However, nobody came to Anne, and by mid-morning she summoned Kingston. She told him:
“Mr Kingston, I hear say I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought then to be dead and past my pain.”
The Constable ignored the queen’s complaint about the uncalled-for delay. Nevertheless, he was gracious enough to try to console her in some way, by saying:
“It should be no pain. It was so subtle.”
Anne was full of anxiety and trepidation, although she did try hard to keep her emotions at bay. Her response to Kingston’s attempt to console her was an unorthodox one.
Anne put her hand around her neck and burst out laughing, saying:
“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”
Later the Constable wrote about the queen in her last days:
“I have seen many men and also women executed, and . . . they have been in great sorrow, but to my knowledge this lady hath much joy and pleasure in death.”
Soon Kingston again came to Anne. The queen was escorted to the scaffold by the Constable and was attended by the four women who had been with her throughout the weeks of her imprisonment in the Tower.
From contemporary sources, we know that Anne seemed quite tired and amazed, as if she hadn’t herself realized that death was close until that very moment. Observers said that she often looked behind, perhaps waiting for someone from the king to arrive and stop the execution. Maybe Anne still hoped that she would be pardoned, but we will never know the truth.
According to various accounts, on the day of her execution Anne Boleyn was dressed in a gray or black gown, over which she wore a mantle of ermine, and a Gable hood.
The Spanish Chronicle adds the detail that Anne wore a red damask skirt and a netted coif over her hair, though there is another account that one of Anne’s ladies handed her a linen cap, into which she bundled her hair after she removed her hood.
Alison Weir writes about Anne’s execution attire:
“She [Anne] wore a robe of dark grey or black damask, trimmed with fur, with a low square neck and a crimson kirtle; from her shoulders flowed a long white cape.”
Eric Ives describes Anne’s appearance as well:
“Over a grey damask gown lined with fur she [Anne] wore an ermine mantle with an English gable hood”.
Every part of Anne Boleyn’s gown had a special meaning and served a certain purpose.
Anne Boleyn is known as a woman who introduced a French hood in English fashion, but on the day of her execution she chose an English hood. In her lifetime, she was often described as a Frenchwoman rather than an Englishwoman, so it was her way to proclaim that she was wholly English and still queen despite her well-known preferences for French fashion.
Anne’s gown was trimmed with ermine that was reserved only for royals. Even though her marriage to Henry had been annulled before her execution, she wished to emphasize the fact that she was dying as Queen of England, not Lady Anne Boleyn. She deliberately chose a crimson kirtle: it was equivalent to proclaiming her innocence because crimson was associated with Christian martyrs. The message was that Anne was innocent!
Of course, nobody stopped the execution, and Anne Boleyn climbed the scaffold and was given a permission to make her last speech. David Starkey writes about Anne’s execution speech:
“She [Anne] sought and received permission to make a final speech. She chose her words carefully, so that they were neither the strident protestation of her innocence that Kingston feared, nor the confession of guilt that he would have hoped for. Instead, she cried ‘mercy to God and to the King’. And she begged the people to pray for the King, ‘for he was a good, gentle, gracious and amiable prince.’”
Chronicler Edward Hall gives the contemporary account of Anne’s execution:
“[…] the Quene was with a sworde beheaded within the Tower. And these folowyng were the woordes that she spake the day of her death whiche was the xix. day of May, 1536.
Good Christen people, I am come hether to dye, for accordyng to the lawe and by the lawe I am iudged to dye, and therefore I wyll speake nothyng against it. I am come hether to accuse no man, nor to speake any thing of that wherof I am accused and condempned to dye, but I pray God saue the king and send him long to reigne ouer you, for a gentler nor a more mercyfull prince was there neuer: and to me he was euer a good, a gentle, & soueraigne lorde. And if any persone will medle of my cause, I require them to iudge the best. And thus I take my leue of the worlde and of you all, and I heartely desyre you all to pray for me. O lorde haue mercy on me, to God I comende my soule And then she kneled doune saying: To Christ I commende my soule, lesu receiue my soule, diuers tymes, till that her head was stryken of with the sworde. And on the Assencion day folowyng, the kyng ware whyte for mournyng.”
There was a huge amount of sarcasm packed in Anne’s last speech. The comparison of Henry to ‘a good, gentle, gracious, and amiable prince’ created a stark and obvious contrast between the king’s real personality and her words, and most people knew that it was not true.
Of course, Anne couldn’t speak anything bad about the king because he was still her sovereign, and she didn’t want to enrage Henry to avoid the possibility that the king would redirect his anger at Elizabeth.
Behaving bravely and fearlessly, Anne knelt and, for decency’s sake, tucked her dress tight about her feet. Then one of her women blindfolded the queen, and her ladies dissolved in tears. Whether the women felt for Anne, it was a tragic historical moment for everyone in England.
Immediately, before Anne had time to understand what was happening, the executioner swung his sword and her head was off. Her body was wrapped in a cloth and buried in the adjacent Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
After getting the news about Anne’s decapitation, Henry boarded a barge and sailed to Chelsea to pay a visit to Jane Seymour. We don’t know how Jane reacted to the news of Anne’s death, but I think that she behaved with feigned humility, hiding her exhilaration under a mask of obedience and meekness. The news of Anne’s death didn’t sadden Jane – it gave her a sweet thrill of excitement as now the path to the throne was free and she could imagine the crown of England adorning her head.
Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. A dark-haired, olive-skinned, and passionate seductress and a fair, blue-eyed, and virtuous English rose. These women often come across as darkness and light, fierceness and meekness, mystery and simplicity, wantonness and innocence.
There is some truth in such radical comparisons of Anne and Jane, but there are certain facts that cannot be disputed. Anne didn’t step over rivers of innocent blood to take the crown while Jane showed no qualms of conscience in stepping in her new role just two days after her rival’s murder.
On the 19th May 1536, Archbishop Cranmer issued a dispensation permitting Henry VIII to marry Jane Seymour, which was rather a work of supererogation, since the parties could not be related within the forbidden degree. Next day, Henry and Jane became officially betrothed at 9 a.m. at York Place, according to Chapuys, and ‘secretly at Chelsea’, according to the chronicler Wriothesley.
Eustace Chapuys commented on the king’s betrothal to Jane Seymour:
“Has just been informed, the bearer of this having already mounted, that Mrs. Semel [Seymour] came secretly by river this morning to the King’s lodging, and that the promise and betrothal (desponsacion) was made at 9 o’clock. The King means it to be kept secret till Whitsuntide; but everybody begins already to murmur by suspicion, and several affirm that long before the death of the other there was some arrangement which sounds ill in the ears of the people; who will certainly be displeased at what has been told me, if it be true, viz., that yesterday the King, immediately on receiving news of the decapitation of the putain entered his barge and went to the said Semel, whom he has lodged a mile from him, in a house by the river.”
A fatal love triangle of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and Jane Seymour was untangled by the judicial murder of Queen Anne.
Anne had no chances to survive as the King of England wanted her dead, whether he believed in her innocence or not. The ultimate reason of Anne’s downfall is King Henry’s wickedness, his narcissism, and his sociopathic tendencies. Anne was murdered by her homicidal husband and became ‘a Queen in Heaven’, as Cranmer called her fondly.