What it must have been like for Anne this morning I do not think we can ever imagine. We do not know how she spent her last night upon this earth but if it was anything like the previous night which Anne believed to be her last, we can assume that she spent much of the time in prayer. As the first golden rays of dawn crept over the Tower of London, spilling into the Queen’s chambers, Anne took Mass for the very last time. Once more she confessed upon the Sacrament that she was innocent and that she had not committed the horrendous crimes brought against her. After this at approximately 7am she ate a light breakfast with her ladies in waiting and prepared herself for her final few hours upon this earth.
For her last day, perhaps her greatest day, Anne chose to wear a dress of gray damask which had a crimson kirtle underneath and a mantle that was trimmed with ermine. She wore an English hood, a necklace and earrings. One might gloss over Anne’s choice of dress for her final moments but I think it is extremely important to stop for a moment and look at this gown Anne had chosen to wear. Anne was an extremely clever woman and she did not simply choose this outfit on a whim, no there was a strong reason behind it. Crimson or red was the colour of martyrdom and this was the third time since her arrest that Anne had chosen to wear this colour. Twice before, each time on extremely important moments Anne had worn crimson. If one remembers the day that Anne was arrested she returned to her chambers and dressed in a beautiful dress of gold and crimson. As she was taken by barge down the river Thames to the Tower of London it is said that the sun shone off her jewels and dress. Anyone that looked upon her would have seen the crimson of her dress. At her trial Anne wore a gown of black with a crimson petticoat, the second time she was to display the colour of martyrdom. Hundreds upon hundreds of eyes stared at Anne during her trial, unconsciously taking in the silent message she was trying to convey through her choice of clothing. And now once more, in her final hours, when again hundreds of eyes would be watching her, Anne chose carefully. Without having to say a word, through her gown Anne was showing her martyrdom, proclaiming her innocence. Such a strong important message all without having to speak a word – Anne was no fool, instead she was amazingly clever.
At 8am Sir Kingston came to tell Anne that her hour was approaching and that she should prepare herself, but Anne was already prepared. She told Sir Kingston: ‘Acquit yourself of your charge for I have long been prepared’ (Weir 2009, pg. 261). I think Anne’s words have never been more true. It seems as though in these final hours Anne held more grace, poise and strength than she had ever done in her whole life. It seems as though after all the stress, lack of sleep, humiliation and fear that she had endured for almost three weeks Anne was prepared to die. She knew in her heart and soul she would never have the happiness or love that she once held. Things would never be the same; there was no one to save her, to rescue her from this fate which lay before her. Henry whom had once been her strong loving suitor, whom had lavished her with presents and promises, whom had changed an entire countries religious basis to make her his Queen was no longer there. Anne was alone, her brother gone; her father abandoning her, her daughter barely three years old… there was no one to help her. Anne had made her peace with herself and the world and she was ready to face her fate.
At 9am, or perhaps a little before, Anne was to leave her chambers in the Queen’s lodgings for the last time. Three years ago she had stayed in the very same lodgings on the night before her coronation, the night before she was to be raised above all others to become Queen of England. Now she left the same chambers to face her death. As she left the Queen’s lodgings Anne was accompanied by four ladies in waiting. It has been suggested that these four women were not those same ladies in waiting whom Anne detested that had been attending to her during her imprisonment. Instead it has been proposed that they were four of Anne’s ladies in waiting that had attended her during her marriage to Henry VIII. If this is true or not one cannot be sure, but it would be some comfort to know that in her final hours Anne had four women whom she held close with her.
Leaving her chambers Anne walked down the stairs from the Queen’s lodgings to the courtyard between the Jewel House and the King’s Hall. Two hundred Yeomen were there to lead Anne, her ladies in waiting, Sir Kingston and several others to the scaffold that had been erected. She walked through the courtyard and then through the twin towers of the Coldharbour Gate (which no longer stands) to the scaffold that awaited her. It has been reported that approximately a thousand people surrounded the scaffold upon Tower Green to watch the execution of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Of course several of those watching were the men whom had fought so viciously to bring these charges upon Anne including Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Richmond (Anne’s step son) and the Duke of Suffolk.
Despite thousands of eyes staring at her Anne is said to have looked composed and dignified. One report states that Anne ‘has never looked more beautiful’ (Fraser 2002, pg. 315). It is great credit to the type of woman that Anne Boleyn was, that in her final moments knowing she was about to die, that she could hold herself with such composure and beauty. Perhaps she was being stubborn? Not wanting to show any sign of weakness or perhaps she was just glad that soon it would all be over.
The scaffold was draped in black cloth and had straw scattered across it. Upon the scaffold waited the French executioner whom was dressed like all the other men to conceal his identity. His sword was hidden under the straw to save Anne seeing the tool that would soon end her life. Slowly Anne took the four steps that lead up to the scaffold and took her place in the centre. She turned and ‘begged leave to speak to the people, promising she would not speak a word that was not good’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266). She then asked Kingston ‘not to hasten the signal for her death till she had spoken that which she had mind to say’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266). It appears that Anne was determined to say her final words before her death.
Turning back to the crowd that was staring so intently at Anne, she took a deep breath and with a voice that wavered at first but grew stronger as she continued Anne spoke…
‘Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, according to the law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defence doth not appertain to you. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me! To God I commend my soul’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266 – 267).
Upon reading this one might be aghast at Anne’s words. Henry Tudor, King of England, Anne’s once husband had condemned her to death for trumped up charges of adultery, incest and treason – which have little to no evidence, and yet Anne asks that the people listening to pray for Henry whom treated her so well? It sounds shocking and quite contradictory and yet it was not. What MUST be remembered and we can see so clearly in Anne’s speech is that there was a format that one must follow if they were to make a speech upon their execution. Guidelines if one wishes of what has to be said. Now days I can only imagine that if a person was sent to their death on false charges they would want to rally and speak out against what was happening to them, but in the Tudor times such a thing was not done. The King was the law, the supreme ruler and he dictated how a person was to live their lives. One must thank and praise him for all he had done, even if it was to condemn them to death.
But I think there was something more to Anne’s speech than simply following a format. By now Anne knew there was no reprise, there was no one to save her, she was going to die and what she did in her final moments would affect her daughter for the rest of Elizabeth’s life. She had to protect her daughter and by biting back against the King and soiling his name would not have helped Elizabeth’s already uncertain future. From now on every time Henry looked upon his daughter he would be forced to think about her mother and what she had supposedly done. I think Anne wanted to protect Elizabeth as much as was possible at the time and her speech reflects this.
Yet despite this we can see in her speech that Anne never admits to being guilty of the charges she was condemned for. She admits that she has been found guilty and because of that she will die willingly. She also states that there is no point trying to argue her case because that will not change anything now. She asks people to judge the best of her and then asks for them to pray for her. I think this speech, even following a format and protecting her daughter, shows how clever Anne Boleyn was. In a subtle way, like her choice of clothing, Anne never admits her guilt which, without directly saying so, says everything that needs to be said.
After her speech Anne’s ladies helped her remove her mantle, earrings, necklace and take off her hood. It is said that her long dark hair tumbled out and that her ladies helped her tuck it under a white cap to keep it out of the swords way. After this Anne is said to have thanked her ladies for their help and begged them for forgiveness for any harshness she may have showed them. She also asked her ladies not to be sorry for her but instead to pray for her.
Knowing that the Queen’s end was drawing to a close the executioner stepped forward and asked that Anne forgive him for what he was about to do. She willingly forgave him and then he asked her to kneel and say her prayers. Anne knelt and tucked her dress underneath her so that it would not fly about her legs. How she managed to have the strength and courage to kneel on her own in what she knew would be her last few minutes is far beyond me. Some accounts from those who watched the execution say that one of Anne’s ladies in waiting stepped forward to cover her eyes while other reports state that Anne refused to have her eyes covered. Whichever was the case no one can know for sure.
As she knelt upon the straw those around her knelt also showing their respect for what was about to happen, all those except the Dukes of Richmond and Suffolk. As a thousand pairs of eyes looked at her Anne repeated over and over the prayer: ‘Jesu, have pity on my soul! My God, have pity on my soul, To Jesus Christ I commend my soul…’ (Weir 2009, pg. 270). It was only now, in the last few minutes of her life that Anne’s resolve began to falter. It is said that nervously she kept looking over her shoulder waiting for the executioners blow to come. The executioner seeing this turned to his assistant and called ‘bring me the sword’ (Weir 2009, pg. 271). Anne turned her head to look at the steps where the assistant presumably was. In this moment the executioner pulled out his sword from beneath the straw. Lifting it high above his head he swung it several times to built up momentum and then with one swift blow he brought it down severing Anne Boleyn’s neck, her lips still moving in prayer.
And so it was done, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, was dead. Anne’s head fell onto the scaffold, her body tumbling after. It has been recorded that after a person’s head is decapitated from their body that the person lives on for a few more seconds registering what has just happened to them. If this was the case for Anne I dare not even try to imagine what was going through her mind as she died. It is a horrible thought to imagine Anne living on for a few more seconds as her head tumbled to the scaffold, one that sends shivers down my spine.
What I do think about is what Anne thought in those final moments of her life as she knelt upon the scaffold whispering her last words. Was she thinking of Henry, of the love they once had, or the fate he had condemned her to? Of her life that had been? Of the past happiness and joys she had once so treasured? Of her beautiful daughter whose fate would be unknown? Of the probable fear that was coursing through her veins? Or was she simply praying, giving her soul to God? Sadly no one will ever know, only Anne knew what her last thoughts were about.
A few moments after her death the great guns of the Tower were fired to signal that the Queen of England had been executed. After this one of Anne’s ladies in waiting stepped forward and covered Anne’s head with a white cloth before picking it up. The three others lifted up the still bleeding body of Anne and carried it away from the scaffold. Anne’s bloodied clothes were removed in one last humiliation as they were now the property of the King. There was no coffin for Anne, no formal place to rest her body instead she was placed in a chest which used to contain bow-staves. It is said to have been too small for her and thus her decapitated head had to be tucked under her arm. The chest was taken to the church in the Tower – the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula where the paving stones were lifted up and a shallow grave was dug. The chest containing Anne’s body was placed into the ground and buried. No marker was placed over the grave.
For his part after hearing of Anne’s death, Henry VIII rode to Hampton Court where Jane Seymour was staying. The next morning, May 20th he proposed marriage to Jane and the couple were married on May 30th - only eleven days after Anne’s execution. It seems as though Henry was not grieved by his late wife’s passing.
Upon hearing of Anne death it has been said that Archbishop Cranmer stated ‘She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in Heaven’ (Ridgway 2010). For some reason this quote puts a smile upon my face. Despite her flaws, her punishment, her execution Anne Boleyn was finally at peace. Her life may have ended but her legend was just beginning.
The outside of the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula where Anne Boleyn was buried. (Photo by Matt Hucke at www.graveyards.com)
The seal which was placed over where Anne Boleyn’s body is believed to have been buried inside of the royal chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Notice how the seal refers to Anne as Queen. (Photo by Donald Greyfield at www.graveyards.com)