A fatal love triangle untangled: Execution of Anne Boleyn, the 19th of May 1536

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

After Anne’s trial and her condemnation, events were happening at a breakneck speed.

         Anne Boleyn and Archbishop Cranmer in ‘The Tudors’

On the 16th of May 1536, Archbishop Cranmer visited the condemned 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 happen because the King of England and a multitude of her foes craved Anne’s blood spilled.  A thrill of hope must have tingled through her spine at the thought that her beloved daughter, Elizabeth, may remain legitimate in accordance with the English law, even if the Catholic nations of Europe considered her a bastard.

However, the monarch’s will shattered the last vestiges of the disgraced woman’s brightest hope of not having her marriage annulled, as if a mere nothing.  At Lambeth, on the 17th of May 1536, Archbishop Cranmer declared the union between King Henry VIII and Lady Anne Boleyn null and void.  There were several witnesses of this event: Sir Thomas Audley, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, as well as John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, and a few other nobles.

We don’t know for a certainty the grounds for the annulment.  Of course, it automatically rendered Elizabeth Tudor illegitimate, which must have broken the hapless prisoner’s heart into countless smithereens.  What fate would her little Lizzy have as a bastard, unwanted and forgotten by the king?  The Archbishop of Canterbury simply told Anne about the nullification:

“It was in consequence of certain just and lawful impediments which, it was said, were unknown at the time of the union, but had lately been confessed to the Archbishop by the lady herself.” 

Charles Wriothesley, Garter Principal King of Arms John Writhe, claimed that this meant Anne’s confession to having a pre-contract with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.  However, many others and the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys inferred that consanguinity must be the ground for the annulment.  Before she and Henry entered into matrimony, the monarch had entertained carnally with her elder sister, Mary Boleyn.  This affair, which Henry and Anne were both well aware about, made their union incestuous, and the “good faith” clause could not have been applied in their case because of their knowledge about this impediment.

           Édouard Cibot’s ‘Anne Boleyn in the Tower’ (c 1835)
             Tower of London

Two days ago, the former queen’s alleged paramours, including her brother George Boleyn, had all been beheaded by axe on Tower Hill.  The thought of the world’s unfairness must have tickled in the back of Anne’s mind: a fair world is not possible, for self-interest and self-preservation, especially for those navigating through the waters of royal courts, warp people’s hearts irreparably.  However, Anne was not a person to view herself as a victim for long, promoting a sense of powerlessness.  Yes, Anne was helpless, but she could die with the utmost dignity and by doing so, prove to Henry and the whole world her strength and courage.

At first, Anne was scheduled to die at 9am on the 18th of May on Tower  Green.  She was prepared for the execution both spiritually and psychically, having spent most of the night praying fervently with her almoner.  As the first streaks of dawn touched the dim sky, she took communion together with her almoner and Constable Kingston.  According to the Constable, the prisoner swore twice on the holy sacrament, both before and after taking the communion, that Anne had never betrayed the monarch with any other men.

As usual, Constable Kingston reported the case to the royal chief minister:

“This morning she sent for me, that Imight be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear.”

Having given Kingston £20 (provided for her by the king in his show of “great” mercy) to be distributed in alms to the people, Anne was fully prepared and waited.  Her thoughts must have been tinged with the most opaque colors, acute heartache spearing through her in waves and twisting her insides like a cloth being rung out.  Her romance with her “Harry” had long ended, perhaps on the day when she had disappointed him by giving birth to a daughter, not his son.  Her dear brother George and the other unjustly condemned men were all dead, and Anne must have prayed for their souls to find peace in heaven.  Her daughter was now a bastard who would perhaps be deprived of her father’s love.

The whole city of London literally froze in anticipation of the first execution of an anointed queen in the history of England.

    Anne’s shock at the news of the delay of her execution in ‘The Tudors’

Nonetheless, the Constable returned to the queen’s apartments with grievous news – Anne’s execution was to be postponed until noon.  Kingston explained to her that the executioner from Calais had been delayed.  In those moments, Anne must have been torn between her nascent hope that Henry could change his mind and spare her, and the tormenting sensations caused by her former husband’s cruelty, which were battering her bleeding soul.  Could Henry deliberately make Anne wait for her death and, by doing so, inflict more pain upon her?

Anne supposedly said to Kingston before laughing:

“Master Kingston, I hear say that I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry there for, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain. I have heard say the executioner was very good and I have a little neck.”

The Constable of the Tower was gracious enough to attempt to console her in a way, by saying something like:

“It should be no pain.  It was so subtle.”

Anne Boleyn was full of fright, anxiety, and trepidation, although she worked hard to keep her emotions at bay.  However, the tiredness of waiting and her extremely frazzled nerves moved her to a point of losing her composure for a moment.  Her response to Kingston was an unorthodox one: she wrapped her hand around her neck and burst out laughing, presumably saying:

“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”

      Anne laughing at her own joke about her ‘little neck’ in ‘The Tudors’

Later, the Constable of the Tower wrote of the queen in her last days to Cromwell:

“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.”

  Anne and Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’ (miniseries)

Some historians believe that her execution had been postponed because a throng of Anne’s supporters assembled near the Tower.  Indeed, from Kingston’s reports to Cromwell, we deduce there many Londoners were disconcerted with the idea of an anointed queen’s execution, so Anne had at least some supporters, contrary to the stories of Catholics that she was hated fiercely by everyone.  Kingston appears to have been alarmed with the population’s furious moods and the growing unrest.  The historian Joanna Denny believed that Thomas Cromwell could have delayed Anne’s execution on purpose, in the hope that her supporters would disperse, but this cannot be confirmed for a certainty.

Eventually, Anne was disappointed and chagrined even more when Kingston informed her that her execution would happen tomorrow at 9am.  The official reason was that the swordsman from Calais had not arrived yet, and given the poor state of roads between seaports and London, this version of events seems plausible.  The prisoner’s mood must have swerved between intense anger, immense despair, and extreme self-pity.  Death would be freedom for Anne – complete liberty from the mundane constraints of life and from the afflictions that befell her in May.

The next morning, the French executioner finally arrived from Calais.  Constable Kingston seems to have recommended private execution within the Tower for Anne.  Nevertheless, extreme care was taken to remove all foreigners who could witness the event.  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 must have been Thomas Cromwell’s idea.

Anne preparing on her last night in ‘The Tudors’

Meanwhile, in the Tower, Anne was once more preparing for death for the whole night.  She must have gone through the same ritual with her almoner: hours of prayers, confessions, and communion.  By this time, Anne was completely resigned to her death and hoped that her agonizing ordeal would be over soon.  She must have been terrified that another postponement could have weakened her resolve to die and hurt her more.

At 8am, Constable Kingston came to the prisoner, informing her that the hour of her death was near, but Anne was already ready.  Escorted to the scaffold by Kingston and guards, the former queen left the Queen’s Lodgings together with the four women, who had served her throughout her imprisonment in the Tower, most of them Cromwell’s spies.  Anne took her final walk through Cole Harbor Gate, along the western side of the White Tower, to Tower Green, where the black draped scaffold waited for her arrival.  In these moments, relief must have flooded Anne.

According to some sources, Anne seemed to be quite tired and amazed.  Observers said that she often looked behind, as if waiting for someone from His Majesty to come and stop the execution.  Maybe Anne still hoped that a royal page would arrive and declare her pardoned, but we shall never know the truth.  But can we trust these sources knowing that Anne was eager to die?

               Anne Boleyn on the scaffold in ‘Wolf Hall’ (miniseries)

Huge crowds gathered on Tower Green to watch the sensational event.  Despite the annulment of her marriage to the monarch, Anne was anointed as queen with holy oil, and this could not be taken away from her.  Different motives drove the people to attend the event.  There was a large buzz and then silence in the throng when Anne appeared, and witnesses described her as looking beautiful and even radiant.

           Anne Boleyn on the way to the scaffold in ‘The Tudors’
Anne’s execution gown from ‘The Tudors’

Anne undoubtedly recognized her bitterest enemies – Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and the king’s best friend, and even young Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset (the monarch’s only illegitimate son).  Of course, the royal chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who was the chief architect of Anne’s downfall, was there.  Some could have come there out of pure curiosity, and some even to mourn for this woman.  There were also other earls, nobles and lords, as well as the Mayor of London with alderman and sheriffs.

Anne passed the assemblage and distributed the alms.  On her last day, she was dressed in a gray or black gown, over which she wore a mantle of ermine, and an English Gable hood.  The Spanish Chronicle adds the detail that Anne wore a red damask skirt and a netted coif over her hair, although there is another account that one of her ladies handed her a linen cap, into which she bundled her hair after removing her hood.  Her clothes had a special meaning.

Eric Ives describes Anne’s appearance on the day of her execution:

“Over a grey damask gown lined with fur she [Anne] wore an ermine mantle with an English gable hood”.

Anne Boleyn was known as an alluring woman who favored French fashions over English ones.  However, on the day of her execution she chose an English hood.  In her lifetime, Anne was frequently described as a Frenchwoman, so it was her way to proclaim that she was wholly English and still queen despite everything.  Anne’s plain gown was trimmed with ermine reserved only for royals.  Although her union with King Henry had been annulled, she wished to emphasize that she was dying as Queen of England.  Anne intentionally selected a crimson kirtle: it was equivalent to proclaiming her innocence, for the color crimson was associated with Christian martyrs.

               Anne Boleyn on the scaffold in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’

Of course, the execution proceeded, and Anne mounted the scaffold.  Then she was given a permission to make her last speech.  David Starkey writes of Anne’s execution speech:

“She [Anne] 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.’”

During her final speech, Anne did not protest her innocence.  She did not preach to the gathering, unlike her brother.  As in Tudor England executions had special procedures and norms, Anne selected a formal format for her speech.  In her last moments, she must have thought of her daughter, the future Queen Bess, and she could not have said anything that could have exasperated Henry.  So, Anne simply did what was expected of her, but her final speech was brilliant, packed with a lot of different emotions and perhaps containing some hidden sense.

                       Anne Boleyn’s execution speech in ‘The Tudors’

Eric Ives in his biography of Anne Boleyn quoted her execution speech:

“Good Christian people, I have not come here to preach a sermon; I have come here 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 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.” 

Historians Elizabeth Norton and David Loades give the same speech in their biographies of Anne.  Alison Weir quotes a slightly different speech, but I shall not examine it here.

        Anne Boleyn’s look after her execution speech in ‘The Tudors’
Anne forgiving her executioner from Calais in ‘The Tudors’

To me, it looks like there was a significant amount of sarcasm concealed in Anne’s last speech.  The comparison of Henry to ‘a good, gentle, and merciful prince’ created a stark and apparent contrast between the monarch’s real personality and her words, and most people must have comprehended that. Definitely, Anne could not accuse the king of murdering her: he was still her sovereign, and she did not want to enrage Henry so as to avoid him redirecting his intense anger at Elizabeth.

The executioner stepped forward and asked Anne’s forgiveness, which she granted gladly.  There was no block needed for the beheading with sword.  Bravely, Anne knelt and, for decency’s sake, tucked her dress tight about her feet.  For some time, she kept praying and then signaled one of her ladies to approach. Anne was blindfolded, and her ladies dissolved into tears.  Whether the women were truly sad, it was a tragic historical moment.  As she awaited the blow, the most of the crowd knelt, save the Dukes of Suffolk and Richmond.  Before Anne could understand anything, the executioner swung his sword, and her head was severed with one clean strike.

One of the ladies threw a white handkerchief over Anne’s head that lay on the scaffold.   The cannons were fired, heralding the death of the former queen.  At the same time, the three other women wrapped the body in a white covering and carried it until they placed the remains into a chest that had once held bow staves.  No coffin was provided for the “adulteress” by her one beloved Harry!  The chest was taken to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula located on the Tower grounds.  A priest gave a blessing, and Anne was buried beneath the chancel pavement.

 Anne’s Memorial Tile inside the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula

After receiving the tidbits about Anne’s decapitation, King Henry boarded a barge and sailed to Chelsea to visit Lady Jane Seymour.  We don’t know how Jane reacted to the news of Anne’s demise, but she is likely to have behaved with feigned humility, hiding her exhilaration under a mask of obedience and meekness.  Perhaps Jane believed that Anne had really committed crimes against His Majesty, being undereducated and naïve.  Maybe she suspected that her rival had been killed.  Anyway, Anne’s departure from the world of the living was unlikely to have saddened Jane considerably: on the contrary, she must have been thrilled that now the path to the throne was free, imagining the crown upon her head.

Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.  A dark-haired, olive-skinned, superbly educated, witty, and passionate seductress against a fair, blue-eyed, undereducated, simple-minded, and “virtuous” English rose.  These women might be viewed as the contrast between darkness and light, fierceness and meekness, mystery and simplicity, wantonness and innocence.  However, there is little truth in such radical comparisons of these two women, and there are some undisputable facts.  Anne did not step over rivers of innocent blood spilled to make it possible for her to grab the crown, while Jane simply stepped into her new role mere days after her rival’s murder.

Execution: Anne as Natali Dormer in ‘The Tudors’ and Anne as Geneviève Bujold in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’

On the 19th May 1536, Archbishop Cranmer issued a dispensation permitting His Majesty to marry Jane Seymour, which was a work of supererogation, since the parties could not be related within the forbidden degree.  Jane and Henry were fifth cousins, for she was a descendant of King Edward III’s son Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, through her maternal grandfather.  Next day, Henry and Jane became officially betrothed at 9am at Palace of Whitehall, according to Chapuys, and ‘earlier secretly at Chelsea’, according to the chronicler Wriothesley.

Eustace Chapuys commented on the monarch’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.”

        Jane Seymour and Henry VIII’s happiness in ‘The Tudors’

A fatal love triangle of Anne, Henry, and Jane was finally untangled by the judicial, cold-blooded murder of the queen.  Anne had no chance to survive because the king and her enemies wanted her dead, whether Henry believed in her innocence or not (my opinion is that he was aware of her innocence).  The ultimate reason of Anne’s downfall is the Tudor ruler’s wickedness, his narcissism, his fickleness, as well as his tyrannical and sociopathic tendencies.  The murdered Queen Anne became ‘a Queen in Heaven’, as Archbishop Cranmer called her fondly.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x