Monday 17 May 2010

May 16th, 1536: Preparations

"I saw a royal throne where justice should have sit,
But in her stead was one of moody, cruel wit.
Absorbed with righteousness as of the raging flood;
Satan in his excess sucked up the guiltless blood."

- Anne Askew, Protestant martyr (1521 - 1546)

On the morning of May 16th 1536, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, arrived at the Palace of Whitehall for an audience with the King. Being one of the few people allowed into the King's presence during the period of his wife's imprisonment, the Constable made his way through the opulent and recently re-furbished corridors of the palace which had once belonged to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Anne Boleyn. If ever there needed to be a more potent reminder of the turning of Fortune's wheel, then it lay in the gilt and marble corridors of Whitehall.

As Kingston was escorted towards the Royal Apartments, he must have noticed that the palace was quieter than usual for a Tuesday morning. There were two reasons for this eerie quiet - the first was that with the disbanding of the Queen's Household three days earlier, her two hundred or so servants were now "at liberty to seek service" elsewhere. Secondly, upon hearing news of the Queen's condemnation on the previous day, the rest of the courtiers knew that there was absolutely no chance of her being restored to favour and dozens were now journeying to Chelsea to pay their respects to Jane Seymour and her family. Crowds of spectators had also been travelling to wait at the gates of the former London home of Sir Thomas More, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the woman who everyone expected would soon be their new queen. One of the courtiers also brought a gift and a letter to Jane from her royal lover, informing her that Cromwell had still not apprehended the pamphleteers mocking their impending marriage. If anything, the Queen's extraordinary performance at her trial the day before had only made matters worse: -

"My dear friend and mistress,

The bearer of these few lines from thy entirely devoted servant will deliver into thy fair hands a token of my true affection for thee, hoping you will keep it for ever in your sincere love for me. Advertising you that there is a ballad made lately of great derision against us, which, if it go abroad and is seen by you, I pray you pay no manner of regard to it. I am not present informed who is the setter forth of this malignant writing, but if he is found out, he shall be straitly punished for it. For things ye lacked, I have minded my lord to supply them to you as soon as he could buy them. Thus, hoping shortly to receive you into these arms, I end for the present, your own loving servant and sovereign,


Kingston was ushered into the King's presence and swept a low bow. The King had just signed the death warrants for all six of those who were to be executed - beginning with the Queen's five co-accused, who were sentenced to die publicly on Tower Hill the following day. The King confirmed this  news to Kingston, but still failed to give him a date for the Queen's execution. The lack of information distressed the Constable, for the Queen wanted to know every detail of what was to happen to her over the next few days, so that she could be adequately prepared. On the subject of the Queen finally being allowed to receive access to a priest and the Sacrament, the King confirmed that the former was to be granted to her in no less a personage than His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Kingston was to meet him later in the day at the Tower and escort him to the Queen's rooms, where the Archbishop would take her last Confession.

After being dismissed from the King's apartments, Kingston was then taken to see Thomas Cromwell, where Kingston confirmed that a priest called Dr. Argyll had been arranged to come to the Tower to give the Last Rites and take the final confessions of Lord Rochford, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton. In this conversation, Kingston was much more forward than he had been with the King on the subject of Her Majesty: "I shall desire you further to know the King's pleasure touching the Queen, as well as for her comfort as for the preparation of scaffolds and other necessities concerning. The King's Grace showed me that my lord of Canterbury should be her confessor".

Returning to the Tower with Cromwell promising to keep him informed the moment a proper time was set for the Queen's death, Kingston greeted Dr. Argyll and took the cleric to see the five men sentenced to die the following day. Lord Rochford was temporarily distressed that a more protestant cleric had not been sent to him, but he had not yet rejected the efficacy of the Last Rites as future Protestant-Christians would and he spent some time closeted with Dr. Argyll in his comfortable suite in the Martin Tower. The priest  then moved on to visit the other four condemned men, beginning with Norris in the Beauchamp Tower and ending with Smeaton in chains in the dungeons.

In the early evening, the Archbishop arrived as promised and was brought to the Queen, who was finally allowed to dismiss her hated companions in order to be alone with him. It must have been a tense meeting - the last time they had been in each other's company, the Queen had angrily ordered Cranmer from her sight with accusations of cowardice and duplicity ringing in his ears. He had insultingly implied that he agreed with the government's case against her, even going so far as to try and read out Mark Smeaton's perjured confession in her presence. The Queen had been furious; especially when she considered that without her family's patronage, Cranmer would still be an insignificant Cambridge don with an interest in radical theology. Tonight, she was determined to extract revenge for his weakness on her behalf and she knew exactly the way to achieve it - by targeting the Archbishop's soft spot: his conscience.

As I shall discuss tomorrow, I believe the current consensus that the meeting between the Queen and the Archbishop was to facilitate the annulment of her marriage to the King, is wrong. It is not my belief that it was even discussed or, if it was, I do not think the Queen agreed to co-operate by helpfully providing a confession of either a pre-contract or pre-marital sexual activities with another man which would have rendered her marriage to Henry Tudor invalid. The government had been trying, for days, to get her former beau, the Earl of Northumberland, to admit that either in 1522 or 1523 he and the young Anne Boleyn had not only been in love, but been lovers and fully intended to marry now that they had consummated their relationship. On the damnation of his soul, the earl swore that was not so and to the government's frustration, he continued to do so. Anne Boleyn had been untouched, he insisted, and he wrote to Cromwell and the Archbishop in evident frustration: "By the said oath and Blessed Body," he said, "which I afore received, and hereafter intended to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me." It is thus clear, I think, from an overlooked passage of documents from the following day, that the Queen did not provide evidence to helpfully assist the government in stripping her of her title - either in exchange for a quicker death or in exchange for a pardon and safe passage abroad.

Instead, she now twisted the knife into Cranmer's conscience with relentless eloquence as she proceeded to enumerate her many sins - of pride, of anger, etc. - all the many venial sins that any Christian was bound to commit in the course of their existence. But treason? No. Adultery? No. Incest? No. In her Confession, the Queen thus proclaimed both her guilt and her innocence and her words never really left the Archbishop who had half-convinced himself over the last two weeks that his beloved royal master could not possibly be the murderous sociopath the pamphleteers and foreign governments were painting him as. Now, at the end of her life, the Queen had deliberately robbed him of that comforting delusion. On the day of the Queen's execution, he took himself off into his gardens at Lambeth, hoping to be alone and away from witnesses. A friend found him weeping and the Archbishop answered: "She who has been the Queen of England upon Earth will today become a queen in Heaven." Then, he burst into tears again and sobbed before his horrified friend as the cannons rang out over London to announce the murder of the Queen.

As the evening progressed, the men who were to die on the morrow passed their last night on Earth in different ways. William Brereton sent gifts of jewellery and remembrances home to his grief-stricken wife, Weston made a list of his debts and wrote a last letter to his family, asking them to pray for his soul, pardon his wild living and to look after his wife and child, whilst Norris, alone in the Beauchamp Tower, carved into the stone the heraldic crest of Queen Anne Boleyn - an imperial falcon, clutching the sceptre and perched upon a tree trunk. He omitted the customary crown, which neither Anne nor her mythic falcon would ever wear again. Lord Rochford was visited by Sir William Kingston, who seems to have developed a great fondness to him: "I have told my lord of Rochford that he is to be in readiness tomorrow to suffer execution, and so he accepts it very well, and will do his best to be ready". Rochford asked Kingston to find some way to get a message to the Abbot of the Valle Crucis Abbey, a friend of the Boleyns who now stood in great risk of losing his vocation if his monastery was destroyed, and he also asked for £250 (about £87,000 in 2010 prices) to be sent to the new Archbishop of Dublin, George Browne, who, according to all reliable evidence that we have, was probably the cleric who officiated at the King's first Nuptial Mass to Anne Boleyn - at Dover Castle on November 14th, 1532.

As day turned into night and officials at the French embassy hastily burned two months worth of their correspondence, lest it show just how close to the Boleyns they had been, the two men who had escaped the net - Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page - waited with dread for the hideous sights they would be able to see from their prison windows on the following morning.


  1. I'm finding these posts to be compelling, even suspenseful reading--even though I know the outcome. Great work!

  2. Hideous, indeed...

    BTW, might the controversy over Henry's and Anne's wedding date be a topic for a future article?

  3. I find your Anne Boleyn series both harrowing in what its reveals of Henry and totally compelling. Beautifully researched too.
    I will link to it, though my blog is more C18, but the Renaissance has a way of creeping into my posts and life lately...

  4. Catherine, thank you very much. I'm a big fan of your blog and so glad you're enjoying this one. The story of Anne Boleyn is a perpetually fascinating one and I've loved researching it over the years.

    Susan, thank you. It's a great compliment to hear someone say I've managed to make a story like Anne Boleyn's suspenseful in a small way, even though we all know the horrible end.

    And Matterhorn, yes, indeed, at some point I do indeed plan to blog about the controversy surrounding Henry and Anne's wedding/s!


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