Anne Boleyn is probably best remembered as the most controversial Queen in British history, which is perhaps not entirely deserved. Even though much is said about her, there are a lot things we don’t know, such as her birthday. Unfortunately for women of that time period, it was not uncommon for her birth date not to be recorded. Eric Ives settles on 1501 in his magnificent biography on Anne, called The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn.
Anne was never meant to be a Queen, as she was simply the daughter of an ambassador, though she could boast descent from Edward I. Her father secured her a place in Margaret of Austria’s household in Mechelen, where she lived for a year. She was then secured a place in the household of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who was to marry the aging French King Louis XII of France. When he died and Mary returned to England, Anne joined the new French Queen’s household. It has been suggested that she returned to England to marry an Irish cousin to settle a dispute over the earldom of Ormonde, however the marriage never took place and Anne caught the eye of Henry VIII.
Henry took the extraordinary step of breaking with the Catholic Church to marry Anne and set aside his long-serving wife, Catherine of Aragon. He and Catherine had a single surviving daughter, Mary, who would later become England’s first Queen regnant. Henry, however, was not happy with not having legitimate male offspring. After breaking with Rome, he and Anne finally married in early 1533, with Anne already pregnant with his child. The future Elizabeth I was born on 7 September 1533. Anne had at least two more pregnancies that ended in miscarriages, meaning no legitimate male heir was born.
Anne last saw Henry when he suddenly left her to preside over the May Day joust on 1 May 1536. She was arrested and taken to the Tower of London the very next day. Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne’s brother, George, were arrested as well on charges of treason. George was also arrested for incest. Mark Smeaton was the only one who confessed, though he was probably tortured. By 12 May all the men, except for Sir Thomas Wyatt and George, were convicted and condemned to die. Anne and George were convicted three days later. Only Sir Thomas Wyatt escaped with his life. All the men were executed on Tower Hill on 17 May 1536, but the execution of a Queen took a bit more preparation.
Adultery by a Queen was a danger to the succession and it was considered treason. The punishment for this was burning alive. Henry was merciful in this sense. Anne’s sentence was commuted to a beheading and a special executioner was sent for from France. Anne was be decapitated with a sword, rather than an axe. Anne and Henry’s marriage was declared null and void and their daughter Elizabeth was recognised as illegitimate.
Anne spent the night of 17 May with her almoner. She expected to die the next morning. Anne received the sacrament upon which she swore her innocence, before and after receiving the body of Christ. She distributed alms and then there was nothing left to do but wait. She received the news that she was not to be executed until after noon with the famous ‘little neck’ remark. She would not face her executioner until the next morning.
On the morning of 19 May 1536 Anne was escorted by Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, and four women to the scaffold inside the Tower of London. A glass memorial stands near the entrance of the Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula, however the execution site was probably more towards the entrance of the Waterloo Barracks, which didn’t exist at the time.
She is recorded as wearing a grey damask gown lined with fur and an ermine mantle with an English gable hood. Her speech is recorded.
Good Christian people, I am come hither 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 anything 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.
The scaffold was not the place to fight one’s execution or plead one’s innocence, and Anne had a most dear purpose in not defying Henry and risking the safety of her daughter Elizabeth. After the speech her mantle and hood were removed, and her hair was tucked into a cap.
She repeated the words, ‘Jesus receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul. To Christ I command my soul’ as she kneeled. Lastly, a blindfold covered her eyes and suddenly the sword removed her head from her body.
The women who had escorted Anne to the scaffold covered her head with a cloth and her body with a sheet and they carried her in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Her clothes were removed and her body was placed in elm chest. It was over. The Queen of England was dead.
Anne’s story continues to fascinate us. She comes alive in Wolf Hall, The Tudors and biographies are still being written about her, discussing whether or not she was truly guilty of the crimes for which she was condemned to die.
The truth is we’ll probably never know for sure, so decide for yourself. Anne, the adulterer or Anne, the innocent Queen?
Photo credits: Anneboleyn2 via Wikimedia Commons & Moniek Bloks ©