"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, á 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.”