Friday, 21 May 2010

May 19th, 1536: The Execution of Anne Boleyn


"A burden is shed from the soul,
Doubt swiftly disappears,
Belief returns, and so do tears,
And all is light and clear."

- Mikhail Lermontov (1814 - 1871)

When it came to it, Sir William Kingston, usually so efficient and so conscientious in the execution of his duties, found the task of telling the Queen that the guards had arrived to escort her to the scaffold, unexpectedly difficult. The good Constable began to stammer and trip over his words; the Queen, who had just finished eating a light breakfast after hearing morning Mass, calmly told him not to worry – she was ready. She seemed devoid of fear - although she kept nervously smoothing imaginary wrinkles in her outfit - and she stuck to her own quip, made in happier times, that no Christian ought to fear Death. We do not know if her childhood governess was with her on that day, as she had been for the previous few days, but if she was, it must have been a terrible thought for Mrs. Orchard to reflect that she had been with Anne Boleyn from the cradle to the grave.

The Queen, accompanied by four young women of her own household, left the apartments where she had been both crowned and condemned, and walked down the long corridor and the flight of stairs to the outside and in to the fresh May morning air. She wore a low-cut dress of black, pinched in at that famously tiny waist, with another crimson kirtle. Black, the colour of death, and crimson, the colour of martyrdom; had Anne been intending to convey a similar colour-coded message to a modern audience, she may as well have been wearing white, √° la Delaroche’s Jane Grey.

Over her shoulders was a “very beautiful” robe, trimmed with ermine – a fur reserved only for members of the Royal Family. The annulment of her marriage had been carried out on the shakiest of grounds – so shaky, in fact that the government were not even sure of the legality of stripping her of her title of queen. After her death, she would still be referred to in official documents as “the late Queen,” an honour never accorded to Katherine of Aragon or Catherine Howard. 

The doors opened to reveal a morning heavy with the promise of the most beautiful of English summers and laden with the smell of apple blossom. It would be hard to die on a day so lovely, but the Queen stepped out with confidence, to a sea of faces – perhaps about two or three thousand in number. As she appeared, some in the crowd gasped, other crossed themselves, others began to talk or whisper, but there was none of the jeering and hissing recorded in modern-day dramatisations of the execution.

Many people might have quailed at facing such a sight, but the crowd actually made matters easier for the Queen. This was the environment she had always been most comfortable in – being the “most observed of all observers.” An audience would make the whole thing easier. She knew how to handle being stared at, being critiqued, being watched. For all of her conscious life – from being prodigy, debutante, muse, obsession, first lady and queen – Anne Boleyn had been used to people looking at her. Never more so than now, their observation meant that she must deliver a knock-out performance. And just before the mortal, finite frame perished, in a hail of flashing silver and blood, the Queen was determined to make sure that an immortal work of art was perfected. History was watching her that day and she knew it.

She was still aged only twenty-eight. For the entirety of her all-too-brief life, she had existed entirely within the rarefied social milieu of the European aristocracies and she now walked confidently towards the scaffold as if she were once more processing to a court festival or ball. The dramatic weight loss of the last year now seemed to endow her with an almost ethereal quality, making her large, dark eyes stand out with even more presence than usual. Her flowing brunette hair remained as lustrous as ever, swept up into a head-dress in “the English style.” Two hundred yeoman of the King’s Guard led the Queen from her lodgings to the scaffold and as she passed by the crowd, she left – as she had always wanted to leave – a lasting impression. A Portuguese merchant, who had seen her on several occasions before, remarked: “Never had the Queen looked so beautiful.” A French bishop, also amongst the spectators, wrote: “Her face and complexion never were so beautiful.” She passed out alms to those members of the crowd who looked to be in the grips of pain or poverty and occasionally looked behind her to where her ladies were “shedding many tears,” so much so in fact that they looked “weak with anguish,” and more than one spectator was afraid they might faint.

In contrast, the Queen seemed quite calm. “Her looks were cheerful,” recorded Lord Crispin de Milherve, who was standing near the black-clad scaffold, and he, like many, were more than impressed with her bravery. A Spanish priest in the audience concluded that this kind of calm was proof that the Queen was demonically possessed, in much the same way as republicans would later conclude that Marie-Antoinette’s courage on the steps of the guillotine was the kind of serenity endowed by habitual criminality.

By now, she had reached the steps of the scaffold and she lightly lifted her skirts to walk purposefully up to her final earthly stage. There, she came face to face with the Swordsman of Saint-Omer, an expert in the French-style of execution with a double-edged sword. She would kneel, but remain upright. There would be no block and is it perhaps too fanciful to wonder that she was pleased that, at the last, she would not be literally prostrate before her enemies? Instead, as events would transpire, they would kneel to her - one last time.

So here he was – the last man in her life. In her time, she had known men of great faith, men of towering intellect, of compassion, purpose, charm, chivalry and sangfroid; she had also known men of cruelty, of ego, ruthlessness, duplicity, hypocrisy and vice. There had been men who had loved her, men who had hated her, men who desired her, men who feared her and there had been men who had done all four. Now, at the very last, it was this complete stranger who was to participate in the final tragedy of Anne Boleyn and to give her a death that would buy for her an immortality that many other queens might envy. Looking at him, Anne saw a quiet, respectful angel of death, a man a million miles removed from the macabre, gothic fantasy of a leather-clad, mask wearing exterminator; he, for his part, saw a fragile and rather lovely young woman, who no more looked like the strumpet, the harpy or the harlot than his wife, his sister or his daughter.

It turned out that, in that moment, some form of communion must have passed between victim and killer, for the executioner was “himself distressed” as he knelt before the Queen and went through the ritual of begging her forgiveness for the act he must carry out upon her. “Madam,” he said, head bowed, “I crave Your Majesty’s pardon, for what I am ordered to do is my duty.” She answered him in French and forgave him entirely, as was expected of her. Then, she turned to the crowd and gave a short speech. It was conventional, but for the fact that she was lavishly hyperbolic in her praise of her husband - even more so than most scaffold victims. More than one historian has suspected her of being sardonic – I hope she was, but alas we cannot tell. Tone does not often come across on parchment. In any case, there were no brilliant, inflammatory pieces of oratory, such as she had given at her trial, but rather a brief and submissive speech in which she exhorted the crowd to pray for her husband, remain loyal to the monarchy and two final pleas – that the crowd would pray for her soul and that, if any of them were to think of her life and career, they might judge it kindly. She did not confess, however, or even come close to it – like her brother, she confined herself simply to saying that the law had condemned her to die and, as such, there was no choice left but do so. She could not protest her innocence, given that her mother, sister and daughter were still alive and in a vulnerable position given the King’s tyrannical whimsy. But as Thomas More had shown, silence in the 16th century could speak as loudly as words and omission was often as powerful as declaration.

Anne's ladies-in-waiting were by now practically catatonic as they removed the Queen’s fur-lined robe, necklace, earrings, rings and prayer book. They were shaking so badly that the Queen had to remove her headdress herself, to reveal that the long, glorious brunette tresses had been swept up beneath a net. She turned to say goodbye to her women, asking their forgiveness if she had ever been harsh to them; they protested, wept and promised to pray for her. Then, they stepped back and huddled at the far end of the scaffold, sobbing. “You would have thought [them] bereft of their souls, so languid and weak were they with anguish,” wrote the Bishop of Riez. The crowd too, so unusually for a Tudor execution, “could not refrain from tears,” and many were now openly crying.

For a moment, she stood upon the scaffold, waiting and, just for a moment, time seemed to stand as still as she did. All eyes were focused on the willowy brunette, who had dazzled and then divided a generation, and who had stood at the very centre of a dark fairy tale, one which even the most accomplished of ancient Greek playwrights might have hesitated to write. She had been, in her time, the goddess of grace, taste, fashion and power and, in the end, a queen of injustice and sorrows.

There, upon the scaffold, she looked utterly feminine, utterly fragile – a fragility that was to be lost for centuries within a few moments. Every sign of weakness, of believable human psychology, would be excised as the relentless legend of Anne Boleyn gathered momentum. She would be presented as impossibly strong – be it as a Protestant martyr, a feminist icon, a brilliant politician, or as a she-devil, a social-climber, a hypocrite, a liar, a shrew, a slut or a home-wrecker. Ludicrous legends of warts, extra fingers, extra fingernails were to be added to her story as it was tackled by authors who represented the very worst cultural excesses of the Counter-Reformation. To say nothing of the lurid nonsense which is commonly passed off as her story nowadays. She would be accredited with almost clairvoyant powers of psychological foresight in seducing Henry out of his marriage to the worthy Katherine of Aragon, of being driven only by her desire to further the Reformation or not having cared about it at all; she would become a villainess, whilst Katherine of Aragon would become a saint and Jane Seymour the archetype of the perfect wife. Or, she would become a gusty, unconventional heroine, whilst Katherine became a sociopathic snob and Jane, a dim-witted door-mat. In all things, the game of comparison was to serve these queens ill.

The executioner stepped up behind her and bowed again, with perfect Gallic chivalry. “Your Majesty,” he whispered in French, the language of her childhood, “I beg you to kneel and say your prayers.” The Queen smiled and nodded, kneeling down upon a cushion that had already been left for her upon the sawdust-strewn ground of the scaffold. She was not bound or restrained in any way. Fastidious to the last, she carefully tucked the hem of her gown under her feet, worried that it might billow up indecorously after her body collapsed in its death throes. There was a temporary moment of nerves, when she glanced behind her, apparently worried that the executioner would strike before she was ready. He assured her, with great kindness, that he would tell her before the fatal blow was delivered. It was a generous and merciful lie.

A lady-in-waiting stepped forward, shaking, and tied a cloth around the Queen’s eyes, but the last sight she saw on this earth was an edifying one: moved by her bravery, Sir John Aleyn, the current Lord Mayor of London, sank to his knees. Modern historians are wrong to suggest that this was customary at Tudor executions; it is not recorded at the vast majority of them and it is not recorded en-masse at any except Anne Boleyn’s. One by one, just before the Queen was blindfolded, she saw two thousand people sink to their knees, impressed by her courage, moved by her plight or deeply respectful of the high and mighty title she still held – most likely a mixture of all three. Even Thomas Cromwell, who had helped bring her to this place, removed his cap and knelt; only the Duke of Suffolk and the King’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, remained obstinately and disrespectfully standing.

Quietly, deftly, the executioner removed his shoes and took out his sword from the pile of straw, where he had tactfully hidden it from the Queen’s view. Her weeping ladies-in-waiting sobbed at the scaffold’s edge, but steeled themselves to their pre-agreed task. They had a cloth ready, to rush forward and cover the Queen’s body and head once she had been killed; “Fearing that their mistress might be handled unworthily by inhuman men,” wrote the bishop, “they forced themselves to do this duty.” They already had one of the Queen’s priests, Father Chirlwell, standing nearby to help them bury her in the chapel next to her brother, before her head could be taken to rest atop a pike on Tower Bridge.

Denied the comfort of a priest at the end by the government’s orders, in retaliation for her refusal to confess or accept a plea-bargain, the blindfolded Queen began to pray: “Jesu, have pity on my soul. My God, have pity on my soul. To Jesus Christ, I commend my spirit.” Some said, later, that she had spoken the final words (in Latin) of Christ upon The Cross, but it is an unverifiable legend – one of many produced by that terrible day. The executioner stealthily picked up the sword and swung it around his head two or three times to pick up momentum in order to make a clean stroke at the royal head. He had already decided that he would not follow the custom of displaying the decapitated head to the crowd, nor would he utter the traditional, triumphalist cry of: “So perish all the King’s enemies!” He would let the ladies step forward, cover the head with a sheet and the body with another, whilst the priest was fetched and the great cannons fired out the news from Tower Wharf that the Queen of England was dead. Neither would he claim his executioner’s prerogative of being allowed to take the dead woman’s clothes and jewellery as his own; he would leave her to be buried in them and when Algernon Bertram Mitford oversaw the exhumation of Anne’s body in the 1870s, he was to find a few mouldering pieces of fabric which had once been the final costume of this most unlucky and celebrated royal woman.

In her life, she had been both pious and self-indulgent; in love with religion and with the gospel and the church, but also with pomp and with luxury and power; she had been brittle, highly strung, neurotic, sarcastic and volatile. But she had also been charming, gracious, vivacious, entertaining, clever, affectionate and dazzlingly charismatic. Too often people attempt to act as if her vindication can be found in the undeniable glory of her daughter's forty-five year reign, but that is to do Anne a disservice. In her own life, in her own personality, can be found her vindication. No-one can look at her final weeks and not conclude that this was not a woman of substance and courage and, as Anne herself pointed out, such things do not spring at the end unless they have been there from the beginning.

No-one would dare write a story like hers, nor ever could and still hope to make it half as interesting, or half as believable, as what really transpired. Born into a life of aristocratic privilege to a father whose love was never anything less than conditional and very often cruel, educated at the courts of the two most powerful and magnificent empires in Christendom, nurtured in the decadent world of the European aristocracies, she had been a dazzling debutante, an accomplished courtier, a talented musician and the muse of poets, songwriters and playwrights. Glamour, sophistication, charm and charisma had been hers in abundance. Then, whilst at the height of her youth and beauty, she had captured the attention of the most powerful Sovereign ever to reign in the British Isles. For her, consumed by obsession and a desire to possess, he had turned the world upside down and the continent had echoed to the sound of the roar she had created in her homeland. At long last, she had been crowned queen in unprecedented splendour, in a dress shimmering with a county’s worth of jewels and pearls. Archbishops had knelt before her, foreign rulers had showered her with gifts, evangelicals had celebrated her as God’s Chosen Nymph and for a moment, all too brief, the world had been hers. Then, with a gradient of catastrophe so unparalleled it still has the power to boggle the imagination, she was dragged from her throne and a one thousand-roomed palace, to be left here, kneeling, alone, in the sawdust, waiting for the sword to strike at a neck that had once inspired poetry and glittered with diamonds. And in the final, crowning touch to the tragedy of her life, the most gallant knight in all the land had laid down his life for love of her, rather than besmirch her honour. Neither in Sparta, Troy, Babylon, Alexandria or Camelot had there ever been a story like it; nor would there ever be again.

Anne Boleyn was neither saint nor villain; she was not even, either by the standards of her own time or the eras to come, a particularly bad person. In fact, it is my own personal assessment that her virtues overwhelmingly outweighed her vices, but her neuroses just about outweighed her talents. Today, people often see only the feud with Katherine of Aragon or with Mary Tudor, the fabricated rivalry with her sister, Mary Stafford, or the prurient, ridiculous pornography that constituted her downfall. Assessments of her character have become established as fact on no surer foundation than the virtue of repitition. Others see only a great, resolute politician – a 16th century Margaret Thatcher – a woman in a man's world, devoid of weakness, hesitation and feminine softness. We have not yet troubled to look properly at her charities, her friendships and the tidal wave of compliments that were hers in the days before notoriety drowned her. We ignore her controversial attendance at a Requiem Mass for the butchered Cardinal Fisher, her locking of herself in her oratory and bursting into tears at the news of Katherine of Aragon’s death or the commendable image of a woman horrified, repulsed and disgusted by the burning to death of heretics. And that, in the 16th century, is something surely to her credit, no matter how much we attempt to contextualise it. She was, without doubt, a mass of contradictions – much good, some bad. But that, in the end, is something we must allow to her, for it is the most quintessential fundamental of what it means to be human, to be alive, and these contradictions, the subtleties and nuances, are important - more than important, in fact - for they remind us that this extraordinary woman really lived and that this repellently fascinating story, really, really happened.

She was still praying – low, calm, fervently – when, on the third swing, the sword descended. It sliced through her neck in one clean, merciful stroke and the head that wore the crown now rolled in the dust of the scaffold. Sic gloria transit mundi... The executioner crossed himself, the ladies rushed forwards, the crowd remained silent and, high above their heads, the cannon fire roared out over London. A solicitor in the crowd wrote home: “The Queen died boldly. God take her to His rest.”

56 comments:

  1. What a beautiful post about such a tragic day, thank you for posting it. I have always felt Anne Boleyn received an unfair reputation, to say nothing of her modern-day besmirching.

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  2. Well, Sir, I can't believe you've done it --- On the anniversary of her death, I actually feel pity and a grudging admiration for an historic figure that I've always loathed!

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  3. Thanks, Elizabeth. That's very much appreciated.

    And, Tubbs, I have to say I'm quite pleased, in that case :-)

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  4. I love the in-depth look you've given to the story of Anne's fall from grace. It has been well-written and very poetic (your post a couple of days ago regarding the execution of Boleyn, Norris, Weston, Brereton, and Smeaton actually got me choked up), and you've taken the time to really look at both sides of the main players.

    I'd be very interested to know your sources, since there have been some instances that I've never heard of happening, like Anne's crying over Katherine of Aragon's death, and I'd love to learn more.

    Thank you for such a great trip through history these 20 days.

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  5. Gareth, what a magnificent piece of writing! Thank you! I am moved beyond words! Do you have plans to write a full bio of Anne someday?

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  6. Robyn, thank you - I'm so, so glad you enjoyed it and very touched the May 17th account moved you. I plan to post a full list of my sources at some point and there are 2 fairly obscure ones which mention Anne's private reaction to Katherine's death, as opposed to her public one - the main one is the letters of Jean de Dinteville, an attaché at the French embassy to London in 1536.

    Elena Maria, thank you so, so much. Coming from you that is high praise indeed and I'm thrilled you were moved! I do actually have plans to write a full bio of Anne, which I think will probably take the next 4 - 5 years or so, because writing "Popular" and its sequels will obviously take up so much of my time, but in my spare time I want to keep researching the Anne bio. I'm pleased with the title and the first chapter - on her family, childhood and a potted bio of her mother - is finished and I'm quite pleased with it. Hopefully I'll be able to do the story proud! If that's possible.

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  7. This was just beautiful. You've also pointed out what I find most fascinating about history: the realness of it all, the complexity of people from the past because, really, when it comes down to their emotions and personalities, they were just like us: human. Thanks for this amazing chronicle of Anne's last days! You are a wonderful writer.

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  8. As history is written by the victors and Henry VIII knew he was in the wrong he did a great job of tarnishing his ex-love's reputation, lasting all the way down the centuries. It's great to read her vindication so visually recreated. I gasped at the part where spectators drop to their knees, that would look great cinematographically (easy for me to say!). Brilliant storytelling.

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  9. Hi Gareth,

    As the author of perhaps the two most sympathetic portrayals of Anne in the historical fiction genre (SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN and MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN) I was deeply moved by your insightful and beautifully written series on the last days of this most extraordinary woman's life. I do hope you write her biography.

    Respectfully,
    Robin Maxwell

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  10. I'm extraordinarily moved by this riveting account of one of history's most horrific downfalls; Anne had many qualities, some not quite as admirable as others, but her innocence of the charges against her is unquestionable and she did not deserve this terrifying end. That she left behind a three-year old child is equally tragic; regardless of Elizabeth's later trajectory, her mother's demise scarred her for life.

    Thank you for bringing to life the pathos and humanity of the brave, the indomitable, the unforgettable Anne Boleyn on this 474th anniversary of her death. You have done her great honor.

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  11. How incredibly powerful and moving. Words fail me...

    It is comforting to know that after the humiliations of the previous days, she was, at least, treated with respect in this final ordeal.

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  12. Extraordinary writing, truly. I confess I have not read all of your Anne posts. Yet. I started at the beginning and am allowing myself a couple a day to eke them out and make them last. I am so enjoying reading your account of Anne's last days. I almost hesitated to describe my reading with the word "enjoying" as the subject matter is so sad and at times, horrific. But the writing is so well done, so riveting, well ... there is no other adjective. Today I skipped ahead to May 19th because I just felt the need to read about the execution day. Now ... I will go back to May 7th and resume reading where I left off till once again, I come to ... the end.

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  13. Dear Gareth
    Your tribute to Anne is beautiful, thank you for giving those of us who wish to think of her at the time of her death something beautiful to read and to think about. I'd been reading since May 1 when I was linked to your blog through an Anne Boleyn facebook page and since the first entry I was hooked. I was deeply moved by much of what you wrote, as an Anne Boleyn enthusiast I was pleased to learn something new about the situation - I found what you wrote about George Boleyn particularly fascinating and was happy to learn something of Henry Fitzroy, someone who I've found is spoken of very little. I look forward to reading your biography of Anne, and anything else you write for that matter.
    Thanks again, and bravo!

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  14. Renee Woolsey Smeaton -Burgess22 May 2010 at 19:49

    Dear Mr.Gareth Russell,
    Thank you for your well written thesis on A brave ,beautiful, inteligent Queen that was just a patsy for the King's mind set on a son to rule the kingdom. Thru the years I have heard rumors . My Mom a Woolsey, My father a Smeaton and I married a Burgess , who is now deceased, would understand,just how far royalty will go, not only because of religious beliefs, but how one must follow the rules.

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  15. Just finished up with exams today so I can finally catch up on these posts. They are truly superb! Good luck with your study; I certainly will be looking out for it!

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  16. You have written the most honest, beautiful, and meaningful version of Anne Boleyn's end that I have ever read in my 40 years of fascination with her. Thank you.

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  17. Thank you, Gareth for showing due respect to a much maligned lady whose misfortune was to be born into an aristocratic family at a cruel and turbulent time in history and who came to be the sad and innocent victim of ambition, on her family's side, lust and ruthlessness on Henry's side, and personal advancement as far as Thomas Cromwell was concerned. The trumped up evidence brought against her, extracted by torture, represents one of the worst travesties of justice in English history, pandering to the whim of a Monarch who stopped at nothing to attain his own desires.

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  18. I am not even sure where to begin. I more or less stumbled upon this specific article, as Anne Boleyn has always (and will forever be) a favorite of mine. This was very well written. So much so, that I found myself very close to tears during certain parts (such as, the people kneeling, the mercy of the executioner and the final moments of Anne's life). There is something to be said about a woman who will, inevitably, out live all of us even though she has already passed. The story of Anne Boleyn will never be forgotten.

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    1. Yes me too I am curtain she was innocent and it was the wicked evil Cromwell who orcastrated all this along with king henry

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  19. Thank you so much for this series!

    I happened upon your blog while trying to filter the abundance of information on Anne Boleyn, mostly very contradictory and this truly touched my usually not-so-emotional northern heart.
    I've always been in love with history since no fantasy can ever offer what the real stories do but my official education in history has consisted of dry facts and dates and such is the way they teach history here. Thus I'm studying to become a history teacher, you could say I'm on a mission here :P But the more I make sense of the dry basis of knowledge I do have and build the stories around them, the more I'm drawn to discover more and tempted to follow the path of research instead.

    In any case I'm obviously prone to swaying offtopic in a rather epic way so as a conclusion I wanted to thank you and express my excitement over finding people who share the history bug and now please excuse me while I go and start reading your blog from the very beginning :)

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  20. Thank you, Iris. I'm so glad you liked it, and welcome!

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  21. Hi Gareth,

    Like you I have a life long fascination with Anne. This is beautifully written but I am interested to know your source for the numbers at the execution. Having been to the Tower of London many times over the years I find it hard to imagine that so many people would fit into such a small space. Also the house where Anne was kept is only a very short distance away. How would there be space for 200 men in the procession. My understanding was that very few people were present as that is how Henry wanted it, to be rather precipitous and unremarked upon so that he could marry Jane Seymour asap. Interested to hear your response.

    Kind Regards,

    Sue

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  22. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments! In terms of Anne's "audience" at her death, she was not executed in the space where people in the Tower are often guided to today (i.e. in front of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula's), but on the parade ground, quite a bit further away. The confusion arose in Victorian times, when Queen Victoria wanted to see where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey were beheaded and historians quickly tried to guess the closest approximation of the scaffold. Sources confirming the crowd ran to about one - two thousand can be found from the Spanish embassy and the Scottish evangelical, Alexander Ales, who was in London at the time of the queen's death and kept Archbishop Cranmer company on the day of the execution. The French account of the bishop of Riez, who it seems likely was in attendance, mentions the two hundred guard escort, although that may have been a confusion in translation - there may have been two hundred guards stationed around the entire execution, to guard against excess displays of sympathy or unrest at the queen's beheading.

    Thanks so much for the comment and glad you enjoyed it!

    Gareth

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    1. Thankyou sir excellent account of such a sad end

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    2. Well done, and fair. More can be learned from Eric Ives' fine biography of Anne.

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  23. Excellent account, Gareth. It is meticulous with every single detail, felt as if I were there.

    I still believe though that Anne was 34 or 35 on that momentous May day.

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  24. Great series of posts, I enjoyed them all. Thank you.
    Like Conor, I believe the Queen was 34 or 35, not 28. But that's a relatively small point in the description that you've done so well.

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  25. i have always loved anne boleyn for her bravery and believed that she was falsely accused but i have never plucked up enough courage to watch her execution so this was very helpful thank you so much for posting it

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  26. Gareth, your account is a credit to you. A published book surely ought to follow. I would dearly like to see a posthumous pardon for the much-maligned Anne Boleyn. I am going to contact various parliamentarians to ascertain whether or not this is achievable.

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  27. What a moving account, I have always felt that she was ill treated to say the least by Henry, a man who I've always regarded as a murderous megalomaniac who's only saving grace was that he sired Elizabeth, our greatest sovereign of all

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  28. I've read so many books about Anne Boleyn but this is by far the most eloquent and moving account of her execution that I've ever read. I cannot wait to read the biography that you mentioned that you are working on. I've always thought that the reason she praised the king the way she did in her last speech was because she was likely terrified of what could happen to her daughter.

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  29. Hi Gareth, thanks for your interesting and well-written blog.

    I wanted to query your source for when you mention that Anne Boleyn's head was placed on a pike on Tower Bridge, as I've never heard that before.

    Thanks!

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  30. Dear Gareth,

    Thanks for your refreshing and well-written blogs on the one & only AB.

    I had never heard before that her head was put on a pike on top of Tower Bridge - could you please tell me your source for this detail?

    Thanks so much, really interested to know!

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  31. Hi. I'm sorry; I mustn't have written it clearly. Anne's head was not taken to Tower Bridge. I wrote, "They already had one of the Queen’s priests, Father Chirlwell, standing nearby to help them bury her in the chapel next to her brother, before her head could be taken to rest atop a pike on Tower Bridge." I meant that they wanted to prevent the possibility of that occurring. Some ambassadorial reports mention that it was considered, or that there were rumours her head would be displayed. But the dead queen's head definitely wasn't put atop a pike. Sorry for the confusion!

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  32. Re-reading the sentences I should have written it much more clearly! Many apologies again.

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  33. Hello Gareth
    I am preparing to dramatise Anne's execution as part of my teaching. Having read your piece, I am intrigued to see how my 9 year-olds cope with the whole event. The detail you have provided has been invaluable and thanks again.
    Alan

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  34. Fantastic blog. Just one tiny correction, if there was ever any danger of Anne's head being set atop a pike, it would have been on the southern gatehouse of London Bridge, as the only river gateway into London at the time (not Tower Bridge built in the 19th century) where the heads of traitors (including Thomas Cromwell's in 1540) were traditionally displayed.

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  35. Thanks for your answer, Gareth, much appreciated!

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  36. Beautifully written piece and will possibly, hopefully go some way toward negating any negative views of such a worthy, intelligent and courageous lady

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  37. Hi Gareth,

    Can you let me know your scources on this, especially the part where Anne is giving out 'alms'?

    Thanks and well written.

    Ken

    ReplyDelete
  38. Gday mate.
    Are you sure she was 28, if so can you please give me your reference for that.
    thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello,

      No, I'm not sure she was 28 - I'm afraid no-one is sure what age Anne Boleyn was when she died and there is a great debate over whether she was born in about 1500 or 1507. I favour 1507 and I explained my reasons in an article on this blog, called "The Age of Anne Boleyn".

      For other arguments favouring her birth in 1507, you can find them in R. M. Warnicke's book "The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII" (Cambridge University Press, 1989), in her article "Anne Boleyn's Childhood and Adolescence", published in the Historical Journal (1985), and James Gairdner's "Mary and Anne Boleyn", published in the English Historical Review (1985).

      For the arguments favouring the early date of birth, try E. W. Ives's "The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn" (Oxford, 2004), Hugh Paget's "The Youth of Anne Boleyn" in the British Institute of Historical Research (1981) and Lady Antonia Fraser's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (London, 1992).

      Hope this helps, and thanks!

      Delete
  39. I loved this article about Anne Boleyn, who is one of my favorite historical figures. I just finished watching 'Wolf Hall' and had to look up the execution of Anne Boleyn and came upon your beautifully written post.

    I have often wondered what would have become of Anne had she been allowed to live. I also never knew that thousands had attended her execution and the description of people kneeling en masse was very moving. It must have helped give her courage in the end. She certainly didn't die alone.

    Please consider writing a historical novel. It would be appreciated.



    ReplyDelete
  40. Very brave, the Execution scene in Wolf Hall is chillingly accurate and real, must have been an horrific scene!

    ReplyDelete
  41. Hello Garreth,

    While I understand this piece (along with the rest of the A.B. series) was written almost 5 years ago, I would like you to know it's still being discovered and very much enjoyed to this very day.

    I just returned from London, visited the Tower, the Tower Bridge and all and came back with a new found interest in the Tudor period, most especially with Anne Boleyn.

    Your writing is superb and your re-telling oh history, just brilliant. I know more now than I ever did.

    Thank you so much,

    ML
    @20YS
    Canada

    ReplyDelete
  42. This was exquisite. By far the most moving and tasteful recollection of Anne's execution. I am thoroughly blown away!

    ReplyDelete
  43. Anne was born in 1501, she was 36 years old. Not 28 years. And you've put more fiction in this account, in several areas but I won;t address it all. Claiming she wasn't nervous or didn't act that way is fiction. Actual observers said she seemed in a daze. Anyone would be.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do not believe she was born in 1501. It is a matter of debate, not of fact, as you seem to imply. There is an article online elsewhere, "The Age of Anne Boleyn", in which I argue she was born in 1507, as William Camden and the Duchess of Feria believed.

      As regards to the claim she wasn't nervous, that is not a fiction. There is only one source which claims she seemed in a daze and that is a translated one. All the others, many of which are mentioned here by name, comment on presence and composure. Please do not bandy around words like "fiction" or hide behind a phrase like "I won't address it all", when you have failed to understand the difference between a theory and fact (as with Anne's age) or failed to perform sufficient research to justify your confidence.

      Delete
  44. Hi Gareth,
    I read through some of the comments on your great piece of work. I would swear you were actually writing from a personal account. I basically fell into your article looking for information on Anne Boleyns' life and death as I have been looking into the reasons King Henry VIII may have changed, as it seems emotionally, logically, and health. Not that Anne Boleyn had an any affect on that. But since she was part of his life I thought it would be a good idea to read about all of the players in his life. I being involved with jousting as he was at one time seemed to think he had issues after a major hit. But, this is not about him. I have over time definitely found Anne Boleyn a pioneer in many things you wrote about. I plan to head back to Tower of London in May on her death date and remember her for what she was. Thanks again for your great article from which I will ponder and even read on that day. Keep up the good work. I really need to know if you had finished or soon to finish your work on Anne Boleyn.

    Sincerely,
    Greg Norton

    ReplyDelete
  45. Hi Gareth,
    I read through some of the comments on your great piece of work. I would swear you were actually writing from a personal account. I basically fell into your article looking for information on Anne Boleyns' life and death as I have been looking into the reasons King Henry VIII may have changed, as it seems emotionally, logically, and health. Not that Anne Boleyn had an any affect on that. But since she was part of his life I thought it would be a good idea to read about all of the players in his life. I being involved with jousting as he was at one time seemed to think he had issues after a major hit. But, this is not about him. I have over time definitely found Anne Boleyn a pioneer in many things you wrote about. I plan to head back to Tower of London in May on her death date and remember her for what she was. Thanks again for your great article from which I will ponder and even read on that day. Keep up the good work. I really need to know if you had finished or soon to finish your work on Anne Boleyn.

    Sincerely,
    Greg Norton

    ReplyDelete
  46. Hi Gareth,
    I read through some of the comments on your great piece of work. I would swear you were actually writing from a personal account. I basically fell into your article looking for information on Anne Boleyns' life and death as I have been looking into the reasons King Henry VIII may have changed, as it seems emotionally, logically, and health. Not that Anne Boleyn had an any affect on that. But since she was part of his life I thought it would be a good idea to read about all of the players in his life. I being involved with jousting as he was at one time seemed to think he had issues after a major hit. But, this is not about him. I have over time definitely found Anne Boleyn a pioneer in many things you wrote about. I plan to head back to Tower of London in May on her death date and remember her for what she was. Thanks again for your great article from which I will ponder and even read on that day. Keep up the good work. I really need to know if you had finished or soon to finish your work on Anne Boleyn.

    Sincerely,
    Greg Norton

    ReplyDelete
  47. Leslie Napolitano21 March 2016 at 12:38

    This is definitely not the first time I have read your account of Anne Boleyn's execution. It is so compelling. To think that this young woman and mother could be so composed and gracious in such circumstances only proves the cowardice of the powerful men around her.
    Has the actual identity of her executioner ever been discovered? In spite of his profession, I feel he must have been very compassionate.
    Thank you for your most moving account.

    ReplyDelete
  48. A beautiful, moving and sympathetic look at Queen Anne Boleyn. Thank-you so much.

    ReplyDelete
  49. Thank you for this exceptionally well written piece on Anne Boleyn. I have also completed changed my opinion on Anne, not only her guilt in the charges that were leveled against her, (in what could only be described as the original "kangaroo court") but in her overall culpability in all the turmoil Henry's court and England as a whole were going through during her rise and fall. She was really no different than the rest of us, in that she was human-wonderfully flawed, good and bad. The only real difference is that, Anne was expected to be a pawn in the political power games of the men around her-her father, her uncle, even Cromwell, to some extent. None of us will ever have to understand that type of pressure. When you try to look at Anne's life objectively, rather than buying into the myths and legends, she's just as much Henry's victim, and a victim of her time period as anyone.

    ReplyDelete
  50. Excellent writing! Tells a very "human" story to which the modern person could relate.

    Did the Tower Bridge exist then, or was it London Bridge - referred to as Tower Bridge?

    ReplyDelete

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