Tuesday, 18 May 2010

May 18th, 1536: The Threshold of Eternity

"She does not confess anything, and does not resist strongly, almost wanting to be delivered from living here, to go and live in Heaven, and hope is surmounting so much in her that she no longer cares about dying."
- Lancelot de Carles, Bishop of Riez (d. 1570)

The last sunset of Anne Boleyn's earthly life on May 18th, 1536 was a glorious one, promising a long, hot summer's day ahead, a day that she would have little experience of. On that evening, the Queen of England (for she still bore that title) sat in her apartments waiting, almost impatiently, for the sun to set and dawn to come. 

At times, Anne seemed anxious lest anyone interpret her eagerness as a sign that she despised God's gift of life and she rather piously informed some of her ladies that this was not so, simply that she had every confidence that God would give her the courage to die bravely. Had she had any possibility of living with honour, she would undoubtedly have taken it. After all, she was still relatively young and she had a mother and a daughter whose lives were about to be destroyed by the events of the morrow. Yet, after what had happened the day before, it is not difficult to see why Anne Boleyn might finally have looked upon death with something akin to affection. Seeing her in this mindset, her gaoler wrote admiringly: "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."

Curiously, given the circumstances, the final full day of Anne Boleyn's life was perhaps one of the happiest she had experienced since the day before her arrest. With the sham of the trial behind her, she was at last allowed access to her own priests and, almost certainly, four of her own former ladies-in-waiting. The Queen was also relieved to once again have the company of her almoner, Father John Skip, and she had been closeted with him in prayer since two o'clock in the morning. At dawn - the earliest possible moment permissible for Mass to be celebrated - the Queen joyfully dispatched invitations to her gaolers to join her at the first true church service she had enjoyed in over sixteen days.

The Queen's final Mass was an emotive, haunting scene, remembered vividly by Kingston, who was kneeling next to her during it. Both before and after receiving the Sacrament, Anne swore on her innocence, something which, more than anything else (even if there had not been the sheer weight of circumstantial evidence on her side) would have sealed the matter in her favour in the eyes of many of her equally religious contemporaries. Anne, like most of the people she knew, believed fervently in Transubstantiation and so, in effect, she had just sworn upon the Body of Our Lord that she was innocent.

After Mass, there had been some distress when the Queen realised she had incorrectly assumed she was to be executed later in the day. She began by asking Sir William why she was still alive, when she had hoped to be dead and past her pain by noon. Kingston, who was still trying to pin-down an exact time for the Queen's execution with the King and Cromwell, was flustered and naturally embarrassed by the confusion. He lamely attempted to comfort the Queen by informing her that there would be no pain, since the executioner from France was a skilled expert in the art of dying by the sword. The Queen looked upon the ruffled Constable with amusement: "Yes, I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck." With that, she put her hands around the tiny, swan-like neck that had once upon a time inspired the poetry of Thomas Wyatt and laughed, whether it was hysterical, sad or soft, we have no way of knowing. Kingston records only that she laughed.

The rest of the day passed quietly enough, although the Queen remained unhappy at not knowing precisely when she was to die. Having expected to go that day, her adrenaline levels would have been extremely high, only for her to have been brought crashing back to another day of purgatorial limbo in her apartments, waiting for the inevitable. At least now she had some friendly faces around her, although her gaoler's wife, Lady Kingston, was still there. Later in the afternoon, the Queen asked to speak to her privately.

Anne knew that Lady Kingston was on friendly terms with the King's eldest daughter, Mary. As a favour, Anne asked her if, out of charity, she would convey a private message from her to Mary, asking her stepdaughter's forgiveness for any acts of cruelty or unkindness she had inflicted upon her in days gone-by. Lady Kingston was discomfitted by this and perhaps knew that the apology was not much use, since there is no sign that Mary ever accepted it. Indeed, quite the contrary. Three recent scholars, G.W. Bernard (a biographer of Anne's) and David Loades and Linda Porter (biographers of Mary), have both insisted that the oft-told stories of Anne "persecuting" Mary are more or less nonsense; Bernard argues that any mishandling of Mary from 1532 - 1536 was ordered by the King, not the Queen, whilst both Loades and the usually-sympathetic Porter argue either that Mary exaggerated the whole thing under the malign, hyperbolic influence of her confidante and mentor, Eustace Chapuys, the ferociously anti-Boleyn Spanish ambassador. Or, as Porter claims, she basically gave as good as she got.

All that may very well be true. Certainly the standard presentation of Anne and Mary's relationship leaves out Anne's numerous attempts at rapprochement and casts Anne more in the guise of a Wicked Stepmother from the pages of the Brothers Grimm, rather than a queen from the pages of English history. Yet when all is said and done, Anne had not always treated Mary kindly. She had not once attempted to understand why Mary should hate her and rebuff her so rudely (and so theatrically); she had persistently failed to make any attempt to soften the King's wrath against his eldest daughter, either wishing to protect her own daughter's supremacy instead of Mary or out of pique at Mary refusing to fall as yet another victim to Anne Boleyn's famous charm offensive. And so, if she had not exactly persecuted Mary Tudor with the fervour of a malignant harpy, as some modern historians would like us to believe, Anne had nonetheless behaved less than compassionately and she knew it. Now she wanted to make amends whilst she still could and she wanted Lady Kingston to be the conduit of this wish. Mary, for her part - if she ever even heard of Anne's final apology - did not find the spirit of Christian forgiveness. She loathed Anne Boleyn with an ever-increasing ferocity as the years progressed, death and time notwithstanding. It was neither lovely nor logical on Mary's part, but surely it was understandable.

As the balmy summer night drew in, the Queen spent the time in prayer or carefully re-selecting the outfit she had chosen to die in. The time of the execution was at last brought to her and doubly confirmed - nine o'clock the following morning - and it would be within the walls of the fortress, not outside it, as had been the case for her brother and friends. She thanked Kingston for bringing her this news and gave him a purse of £20, asking that he distribute it in alms to the poor in remembrance of her soul, once she was dead and gone tomorrow.

So, as London slumbered and the summer stars twinkled over the head of the vast metropolis where so many of her family's triumphs had once been celebrated, the remarkable life of Anne Boleyn was drawing quietly to a close. All that was left were the events of the morrow, which would ensure that as her life ended, her legend began and the story of Anne Boleyn would thus commence its long, powerful course through British culture, history and national myth, carrying with it potent, intoxicating images of love, betrayal, lust, drama, religion, obsession, death, hope, deceit, power, wealth, tragedy and the final blood-soaked finale on the Tower Green.


  1. I have enjoyed and looked forward to this series each day. The immediacy of the way you are telling Anne's story makes me feel like I'm there watching it all unfold, and it makes the tragedy and injustice of it all the more powerful.

  2. Can you imagine what it must take to sit and wait for your own Death? And knowing the form it will take...

    Have I missed any of your description of her? Some think She was a great beauty some not! Of course no one denies that She was elegant.

  3. I too have been completely absorbed, reading the May posts in the last two days. Again, for me it is the immediacy that you bring to storytelling that makes Queen Anne's final days so compelling and shorten the gap of centuries into reporting events that could be unfolding just down the river. Before reading the posts my vague impression of Anne Boleyn was that she may have been manipulative in becoming Queen and was accused of witchcraft and having five fingers on one hand. She now feels like a living and breathing woman navigating her way through unprecedented circumstances. Big Thanks!

  4. I enjoy this blog, but just wanted to point this out to you. As Anne had been convicted of treason, it would have been impossible for her to either send or receive messages. No one would dare carry any messages from her, and Mary, as a member of the royal family, would refuse to receive any messages. It was not a matter of forgiveness, it was a matter of personal safety.

    BTW -- although Mary and Anne had an unfortunate and hostile relationship, Mary had a relatively good relationship with Elizabeth (at least while Elizabeth was a young girl) There are numerous notations in Mary's personal accounts of presents she gave to Elizabeth.

  5. Anonymous, I'm glad you enjoy this blog. Thank you. However, it is not true that Anne was unable to pass messages on. The request from Anne to Mary via Lady Kingston is chronicled in William Camden's Annals, John Speed's 1611 "History of Great Britain," and the Calendar of Spanish State Papers. Whether or not Lady Kingston passed the message on directly to Mary is, as I said, a matter of debate, as you so rightly point out.

    On the subject of Mary and Elizabeth's relationship, you are right - for a time, they did get on very well. But the correspondence of the ambassador Renard, in Mary's reign, makes it clear that much of Mary's hostility towards Elizabeth in 1550s was animated by the fact that she thought that, more and more, Elizabeth was coming to resemble her late mother.

    Sarah, I'm so glad you enjoy this blog and that it's given you a fresh perspective on Anne Boleyn. It's fantastic that you and AnneMarie feel it's living, breathing and believable for, in many ways, it's a haunting (but unbelievable!) story! It's very humbling and flattering to hear you're enjoying it so much - thank you.

  6. Marilyn, there is a physical description of her on the May 1st post. I think Europeans found her a great beauty, the English preferred more curvaceous blondes!


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