If Anne Boleyn is known for one thing it is being one Henry VIII’s beheaded wives. Indeed, the rhyme goes: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Her death has become so synonymous with her reputation that it’s difficult to comprehend how shocking it was when the whole tragedy unfolded in 1536.
Kings didn’t execute their queens, not even when infidelity was suspected. Certainly a queen had never been tried in a court of law, found guilty of treason and executed in English history. But for that matter, Anne was many “firsts” for the English – the first queen to oust her predecessor via divorce, the first queen whose rise was tied to religious reformation, the first queen whose sister was widely believed to have been the king’s mistress.
Was Anne a “good” queen? That’s a difficult question to answer because she was so wildly unsuccessful on so many grounds. Personally, she lost Henry’s affection and failed to deliver the son she had promised. As the mistress of his court, she maintained a coterie of followers and tried to implement enlightenment, merriment and propriety, but was hated by a significant faction of the nobility. As a figurehead for her husband’s reign she was detested by the English public as a heretic and a “whore.” Thanks to Henry’s claims during her downfall, “witch” could be added to that list.
Anne was found guilty on May 15, 1536, the culmination of a two-week dramatic downfall that had been in the making for several months. It didn’t come out of the clear blue sky for her – she had been aware that members of her household were being questioned – but given that execution was unprecedented, she had no way of knowing the extent to which her life was in danger. Perhaps she suspected she would be asked for a divorce; certainly she knew her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, had caught Henry’s attention.
The four days between Anne’s conviction and her execution were a unique form of mental torture. She vacillated between acceptance and hope, extremes made all the worse by the fact Henry denied her the opportunity to ever say goodbye, hear an explanation or plead her innocence. The last time she saw him was during the May Day festivities when they had sat beside one another as king and queen. He left abruptly and didn’t tell her why – once she realized what was happening, she had been cut off, left to wonder whether she could have saved herself if she had only been able to see him.
It’s possible he wondered the same thing, hence why he barred a visit or any written communication from reaching him. More likely, he was simply done. When Henry decided to leave his marriage and was given a pathway out of it, he followed it resolutely and didn’t look back. His main concern in the days leading up to Anne’s death was simply that it was carried out so he could move forward with marrying Jane. It was a horrifyingly cold response to a woman he had been in some sort of relationship with for a decade, not to mention the mother of one of his children.
Anne’s execution was originally scheduled for May 18, which is notable for what was scheduled for May 17 – events which presumably Henry and Thomas Cromwell wanted Anne alive to witness. She was aware of and in the Tower of London for the public executions of the five men accused alongside her: William Brereton, Richard Page, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. She was told that her marriage to Henry was officially dissolved, thus undermining further a union that would already have ended with her death. She knew that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury – a man who she had championed – had issued a dispensation for Henry’s marriage to Jane.
She would have had a taste, then, for what the world would look like after she was gone – a world in which she had been eradicated from Henry’s court and would soon be filled by Seymours thanks to a template she had created herself.
Likely, she spent most of the time worrying about her two-and-a-half year old daughter, Elizabeth. Concern that apparently brought to mind comparisons to Henry’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon, Mary – a woman who had remained resolute for nearly 10 years that she would never acknowledge Anne as queen, no matter what that meant for her personal life, her inheritance or her ability to see either of her parents. In 1536 Mary was 20 – young, but a full-fledged adult by Tudor standards. In 1526, however, she had been a child of 10, one who was wildly unprepared (and how could she have been otherwise?) to see her mother abruptly cast aside, the destruction of a religion in which she firmly believed or her father morph into something she couldn’t recognize or condone.
In her final hours Anne maintained her innocence, but the one concession she made was to plead for Mary’s forgiveness for the cruelty with which she had treated her over the years. It was an apology that wouldn’t be accepted.
As Anne prepared to die on May 18, Cromwell made the last-minute decision to postpone it for a day so as to clear out the Tower. The optics of how to kill a queen were sensitive and, again, unprecedented. It was a fine line between ridding a country of a woman they hated without making Henry look like a thug, reinforcing law and order and not letting Anne turn herself into a martyr. The final act was one that Anne was well-equipped to do – or, more accurately, to know how to do and why. Indeed, when she finally did make the walk from her residence to the scaffold, by some reports she wore a red kirtle, the color of Catholic martyrdom.
There was no value add from having a huge crowd of people gathered to watch Anne die and certainly not from having diplomats from foreign courts in the mix who could report back her final words, any hiccups or the mood of the crowd – all things Henry’s government couldn’t control. By the same token, they couldn’t be accused of executing her in secret and making it appear a glorified murder.
For her part, Anne was both exasperated and made hopeful by the delay – clearly at least some part of her believed that Henry would grant her a reprieve. While her marriage was over, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he could have let her live out her days in a convent, perhaps with access to Elizabeth, or live somewhere remote. But she also seemed to know it was a dangerous line of thinking given how far things had gone – and the deaths of the other accused. Close to a mental breakdown, she oscillated between hysterically laughing at the lunacy of the situation, fear for her loved ones, resignation as she put her affairs in order and quiet contemplation.
On the morning of May 18, when she still believed she would die that day, her almoner met her at 2 am to pray. She remained with him until Cranmer arrived to hear her last confession, which she had specifically requested – likely so that when she maintained her innocence, he would repeat that and anything else she said back to Henry. It was a smart gamble, but by then Cromwell was acting as a filter.
Anne was prepared to walk to the scaffold at 9 am that morning, but was continually made to wait in a situation akin to the pilot telling you every half hour you’ll be taking off in another half hour. After three hours she was told her death had been officially pushed until the next day.
After yet another evening of preparing to die, Anne was escorted from her room at 9 am the morning of May 19. According to some reports from eyewitnesses, Anne wore a simple back gown and a short cloak trimmed in ermine – if true, the last bit is significant, indicating she chose to emphasize her status as queen during her execution. A crowd between one and two thousand people had gathered to watch – in order to control the size, Cromwell had mandated that the gates to the Tower be left open, but the time not be announced. In the crowd was Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (Henry’s brother-in-law and one of his oldest friends); Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond (Henry’s illegitimate son via a former mistress); and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (Anne’s maternal uncle).
The scaffold was draped in black cloth and surrounded by straw to soak up the blood, which was a fairly standard set up. Less standard was that there was no block on which Anne could lay her head. This was because Henry had imported a French swordsman to carry out the execution based on the belief that it was a faster and less painful to die by sword than axe.
Anne was described as comporting herself well, with dignity and grace – so much so that she garnered begrudging compliments even from her opponents. She gave the below speech to the crowds:
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, according to 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.”
After that, her ladies removed her cloak and prepared her to die. She knelt, by some reports appearing “dazed” and by others fearful. She continued to repeat, “O Christ, receive my spirit,” as she waited. The executioner had hidden his sword underneath hay, distracted her and then swiftly decapitated her in one blow.
Her head was covered with a handkerchief and cannons fired from the Tower to signify her death. The noise could be heard throughout London and it was the sound Henry had been waiting for – the final sign that he was free.
Incredibly, burial preparations hadn’t been made and Anne’s body was left on the scaffold for hours before a simple wooden coffin was procured. Her ladies wrapped her head and body in white linens and she was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave within the Tower grounds.
Centuries later, when renovations were underway during the reign of Queen Victoria, her grave was discovered by workers and is now honored with a plaque.
Within 24 hours Henry and Jane were betrothed. Eighteen months later she would die delivering Henry his longed-for son, while in 1558, Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, would ascend the English throne and have one of the most successful reigns in European history.