On 2 May 1536, Anne Boleyn was arrested at Greenwich Palace and conveyed by barge to the Tower of London. Arriving at the Court Gate in the Byward Tower – not Traitors’ Gate – she was in a fragile state. Falling to her knees, she beseeched God to help her, protesting that she was not guilty of the crimes for which she had been convicted. She would have been aware that it was rare for anyone accused of treason to escape condemnation and death.
The lords who had brought her committed her to the custody of Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, who conducted her to her lodging. “I was received with greater ceremony the last time I entered here,” she observed, recalling how she had come to the Tower in triumph before her crowning in 1533. “Mr Kingston, do I go into a dungeon?”
“No, Madam, you shall go into your lodging that you lay in at your coronation,” the Constable told her. He was referring to the Queen’s apartments in the royal palace.
“It is too good for me!” Anne cried. “Jesu, have mercy on me!”
Anne Boleyn’s story is one of the most dramatic in English history. Well-born but not conventionally beautiful, at 21 she arrived at the English court after spending seven years in France, and her French manners, her stylish dress and her wit and charm made her an immediate success.
By 1526, Henry VIII had fallen passionately in love with her, and the following year he resolved to set aside his chaste and devoted wife, Katherine of Aragon, who had failed to give him a male heir, and marry Anne. There followed six long years of frustration, in which the Pope prevaricated over granting an annulment.
In the end, a disillusioned Henry broke with Rome, declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, and, in 1533, had his union with Katherine declared invalid, and his secret marriage to Anne proclaimed lawful.
But the child with which she was then pregnant, meant to be the long-awaited prince, turned out to be a girl, Elizabeth. This was a cataclysmic disappointment, for it had not yet been proved that a woman could rule successfully, as Elizabeth later did as queen of England, and it was seen as against natural and divine law for a woman to wield dominion over men.
During the three years she was queen, Anne remained influential, but her continued failure to bear a male heir undermined her power. In January 1536, after two failed pregnancies, she miscarried of a son, to the King’s crushing disappointment. It laid her open to the machinations of her enemies, who were legion, not only at court, but throughout the country, where she was widely regarded as the “goggle-eyed whore” who had displaced the good Queen Katherine. The stage was set for her fall, which caused a sensation in its time.
The fall of Anne Boleyn has long been seen by many as the direct result of a marital breakdown, but that is too simplistic an interpretation. Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that it was the King’s principal secretary, Thomas Cromwell, rather than Henry VIII, who was the prime mover in the matter.
Flirting with danger
In April 1536, it appeared to Cromwell that the Queen, his deadly enemy, had recovered her ascendancy over the
King at a time when he himself had incurred Henry’s displeasure. She had also made it publicly clear, through a sermon preached by her almoner on Passion Sunday, that “wicked ministers” should be executed. It would be his neck, or hers.
Immediately, Cromwell left court and devised her ruin. In June 1536, he was to tell the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, that “he had thought up and plotted the affair of the Concubine, in which he had taken a great deal of trouble”, building his case on the
King’s obsessive fear of treason and the Queen’s flirtatious nature. It has been called one of the most audacious plots in English history.
Anne enjoyed the admiration of the men in her circle. Her reputation in the country at large, and in Catholic Europe, was notorious. The state papers are littered with reports of slanders against her, and thus Cromwell had good reason to believe that charges of immorality would stick because people would find them credible.
He apparently met no difficulty in gathering evidence. Women in her household were willing to testify against her. When Henry VIII was shown the first proofs, he was sceptical and instructed Cromwell to investigate further. Cromwell soon produced evidence of adultery and worse that Henry could not ignore.
Two indictments were drawn up against the Queen, charging her with adultery with five men: three were eminent courtiers and intimates of the King, one was a relatively lowly musician, and the other was her own brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. The evidence against Rochford had been laid by his wife. Anne was also accused of plotting the King’s assassination. These crimes were high treason, punishable by death.
The Last Days of Anne Boleyn © Getty Images
A king’s mercy
The guns on the Tower Wharf announced Anne’s committal to the fortress. She was held in the Tower palace, a favoured royal residence for centuries. It had become outdated by the Tudor period, and Anne had only stayed there once, before her crowning. Cromwell, on Henry’s orders, had spent the equivalent of £1.3 million on refurbishments, so that she might be accommodated in suitable splendour. The walls and ceilings were decorated in the “antick” Renaissance style, and the luxurious apartments comprised a great chamber, a closet, a dining chamber embellished with a “mantel of wainscot with antick”, and a bedchamber with a privy.
The Queen of England remained staunch in her protestations of innocence, as did the gentlemen accused with her; only the musician pleaded guilty. Another retracted his confession. But on 12 May, the four commoners were tried in Westminster Hall and condemned to death.
Three days later, at a show trial in the great hall of the Tower, attended by 3,000 people, Anne herself was tried by 27 peers, among them her own father. Despite her putting up a spirited defence, she was found guilty. Weeping, her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, pronounced sentence:
“Because thou hast offended against our sovereign the King’s Grace in committing treason against his person, the law of the realm is this, that thou hast deserved death, and thy judgement is this: that thou shalt be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten
off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known.”
Anne maintained her composure. According to an account written in 1536, “Her face did not change, but she appealed to God whether the sentence was deserved; then, turning to the judges, she said she believed there was some other reason for which she was condemned than the cause alleged, of which her conscience acquitted her, as she had always been faithful to the King. But she did not say this to preserve her life, for she was quite prepared to die.” She was taken back to the Queen`s Lodgings, where she spent her final days. The condemnation of her brother, Lord Rochford, followed, and two days later, on 17 May, all five men were beheaded on Tower Hill. Chapuys wrote that Anne saw them executed from the Tower, “to aggravate her grief”. That same day, her marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, and her daughter Elizabeth was declared a bastard.
The King, claiming to be moved by pity, vouchsafed his wife the kinder death. Even before her trial, he had ordered that the executioner of Calais, an expert swordsman, be sent for, pre-empting the verdict given at her trial. The promise of a swifter death by the sword was probably used as a bargaining tool in securing her agreement to the annulment of her marriage and the disinheriting of her daughter.
Anne’s execution was set for 9am on 18 May, but it was twice postponed to ensure that a reasonable number of witnesses were present; throughout the whole legal process against the Queen, the government took pains to ensure that justice was seen to be done. But the delay was torture for her.
“Master Kingston,” she said to the Constable, “I hear say I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought then to be dead and past my pain.” Kingston told her “it should be no pain, it was so subtle” and then she said, “I have heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.” And then she put her hands around it, laughing as she did so. Kingston observed to Cromwell, “I have seen many men and also women executed and all they have been in great sorrow, but to my knowledge, this lady has much joy and pleasure in death.”
That morning, thinking it would be her last, the Queen had taken the sacrament. Kingston reported to Cromwell, “She sent for me that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency always to be clear.” Chapuys reported: “She expressed the desire to be executed. No person ever showed greater willingness to die.”
One of the ladies in attendance on Anne had secretly sent to Chapuys to tell him that the Queen, “before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to her, on the damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.” Anne’s protestations of innocence should surely be regarded as genuine. It is barely conceivable that, on the brink of death and divine judgement, she would have risked her immortal soul by lying.
Come to die
At 8am on the morning of 19 May 1536, attended by four young ladies, the Queen was escorted by Kingston to a newly built scaffold that stood before the house of ordnance, facing the White Tower – not on the supposed execution site on Tower Green that is shown to visitors today, but on the parade ground (then the tournament ground) before the Waterloo Barracks.
A thousand spectators awaited the Queen. She approached them seemingly untroubled, wearing a red kirtle, a low-necked gown of grey damask, a short white cape, and an English gable hood. She looked calm, even cheerful. Addressing the crowd, one contemporary source reported that she said “she was come to die, as she was judged by the law; she would accuse none, nor say anything of the ground upon which she was judged. She prayed heartily for the King, and said that he had been always to her a good, gentle sovereign lord: and if any would meddle with her cause, she required them to judge the best. And so she took her leave of them, and of the world, and heartily desired they would pray for her.”
Anne knelt in the straw, arranging her clothes about her feet to preserve her modesty, looking around nervously. The headsman said in French, “Madam, do not fear. I will wait till you tell me.” One maid, weeping, came forward to blindfold her with a linen cloth. Those watching sank to their knees, in respect for the passing of a soul. Anne was fervently praying aloud, making no confession, but saying, “O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Jesus Christ I commend my soul!”
Distracted on purpose by the executioner’s assistant, Anne turned her blindfolded head towards the scaffold steps, and the headsman, having removed his shoes, came up stealthily behind her, grasping the sword with both hands, and swinging it to gain the necessary momentum. One judge reported that, as the Queen of England’s head fell to the ground, her lips and eyes were still moving.
Anne Boleyn left behind her an enduring mystery. Had she been guilty, or had she died an innocent woman? “If any will meddle with my cause,” she had said on the scaffold, “I require them to judge the best.” Many since have done just that, and a good case can be made for her innocence. But the enigmas remain, and it is hard to get beyond that brave and tragic figure on the scaffold to the woman who had been the scandal of Christendom and the catalyst for the English Reformation.