Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

  Silence greeted her impassioned words. The peers had the grace to look chastened. She wondered if, in their hearts, they believed her guilty. It did not matter. It was Henry, clearly, who had been convinced of it, and once his will had been made plain, no one would dare contravene it. She looked at her accusers again, her gaze taking in Hales and Cromwell. “The Judge of all the world, in Whom abounds justice and truth, knows all,” she reminded them, “and through His love I beseech that He will have compassion on those who have condemned me to this death.” She paused. “I ask only for a short space of time for the unburdening of my conscience.” She could hear more than one person sobbing. Norfolk was weeping again. Even Cromwell had pity in his eyes.

  The court rose. Anne curtseyed to the peers, then Kingston came forward to escort her from the hall, with Lady Kingston following. The Gentleman Jailer walked alongside, his ceremonial ax now turned toward her, to show the waiting crowd outside that she had been condemned to death.

  She had been told that her brother’s trial was to follow, and was praying that she might catch a glimpse of him and even offer him some words of comfort, but there was no sign of him. As she left the hall, a buzz of conversation erupted behind her.

  Back in her chamber, she was relieved to learn that only Lady Kingston, Aunt Boleyn, Mrs. Orchard, and her four maids were to attend her from now on. Lady Shelton and Mrs. Coffyn had been dismissed.

  She sank down on her bed, and it was only now that she gave herself up to terror, shrinking in her mind from the heat of the flames, the scorching of her flesh, and the unimaginable agony and horror of being burned to death. She stuffed the sheet in her mouth to stop herself from screaming.


  George had been condemned too—in his case to a traitor’s death.

  “But because he is a nobleman, the King will almost certainly commute it to beheading,” Kingston said, his tone gentle. He had been treading warily around Anne since she had emerged, drained and fragile, from her bedchamber.

  “Did he deny the charges?” She was desperate to know.

  Now that judgment had been passed, the Constable seemed willing to talk.

  “He did, and he answered them so prudently and wisely that it was a marvel to hear. He never confessed to anything, but made himself clear that he had never offended. Sir Thomas More himself did not reply better.”

  Brave George! He had not played the craven and let her down.

  “It was his wife who deposed against him in regard to the incest,” Kingston told her. Jane, that little hellcat! What a vile revenge she had wreaked for George’s base use of her, and for Fisher’s death.

  “It seems that it was more out of envy and jealousy than out of love toward the King that she betrayed this accursed secret,” Kingston added.

  “Why should she be jealous?” Anne cried.

  “It seems she thought her husband loved you more, madam.”

  “That’s what she wants the world to think. No, she is for the Lady Mary. She means to destroy me and my blood.”

  “I think many agreed with your Grace,” Kingston revealed. “Some said much money would have been won, at great odds, if Lord Rochford had been acquitted.”

  “How did my brother take the sentence?” she asked.

  “Bravely. He observed that every man was a sinner and that all merited death. Then he said that, since he must die, he would no longer maintain his innocence, but confess that he had deserved to die.”

  Anne was about to protest that George would never have incriminated them both by saying such a thing, and then it dawned on her. He had not been talking about incest, but about murder.


  Mrs. Orchard, who had stayed in the hall to watch George’s trial, came to offer comfort.

  “He won’t let them kill you,” she said, holding Anne to her ample bosom, just as if she were a child again. “When it comes to it, you’ll get a reprieve, you’ll see.”

  “Yes,” Anne sobbed. “I pray you are right.”

  “Something strange happened at your brother’s trial,” Mrs. Orchard told her.

  Anne sat up. “What?”

  “They accused him of putting it about that you had told Lady Rochford something secret about the King. They wouldn’t say what it was, but wrote it down and showed it to Lord Rochford, ordering him not to repeat it. But he did. He read out that you had told Lady Rochford that the King wasn’t able to copulate with a woman, for he had neither potency nor vigor.”

  “I never said that!” Anne flared. “It’s not true, so why would I say it?” But she knew the answer. If Henry could not have sired her children, because of impotency, some other man must have. And there might be another, more sinister, explanation, for all the world knew that impotency was caused by witchcraft. That might explain Sir Christopher’s strange claim that harms and perils had befallen the King’s body. Were they really implying that she herself had cast an enchantment on Henry to make him incapable of siring the sons she had so desperately longed for? It defied all reason.

  “That’s what your brother told them. He said, ‘I did not say it!’ He insisted he would never arouse any suspicion that might prejudice the King’s issue.” No, he would not—but others were striving their best to do just that. Anne dared not think of what the consequences would be for Elizabeth. In fact, she dared not think of Elizabeth, for that way lay madness.


  On the day after the trial, Kingston informed Anne that he was going to Whitehall to see the King. A little hope sparked in her, especially when he told her that the condemned men were to die the next day, but no instructions had been sent, nor any date set, for her own execution.

  “Sir William, have you been told how…how I am to die?” she faltered.

  “No, madam. Today I mean to discover the King’s pleasure concerning you, in regard to your comfort and what is to be done with you.”

  “I pray he will put me out of this misery. It’s not knowing what will happen that torments me the most. If I know my fate, I can prepare myself to face it.”

  Kingston’s gray eyes were full of sympathy. She suspected he had grown to like her, and that he did not believe what they said of her. “I will do my best for you,” he promised.


  That afternoon, Archbishop Cranmer was ushered into her presence chamber. She fell to her knees weeping when she saw him, seizing the hem of his surplice and kissing it. “Oh, my dear friend! It is such a comfort to see you.”

  Cranmer knelt beside her, his heavy features contorted with emotion. “The King has appointed me your confessor,” he told her. “Oh, Anne! I am exceedingly sorry that the charges have been proved against you. I told them I could not believe it of you. I said I never had a better opinion of a woman, and that I loved you for the love you bear to God and the Gospel—but the things they told me!”

  “All lies,” she assured him. “My enemies have united to get rid of me, and they have turned the King against me. Tell me, does he really believe it all?”

  Cranmer looked miserable. “I fear he does. But I have hardly seen him. No one has. He has shut himself away, and will see only me and Cromwell. When I saw His Grace today, he was in a pensive mood. But you know him of old, Anne. It’s impossible to know what he is thinking. He spoke of the succession. He said that the Princess Elizabeth cannot stand in the way of any heirs he might have with a future wife.”

  “Then he really does mean to be rid of me,” she whispered, feeling again the rising terror she had fought so hard to control. He meant to make Jane Seymour queen. A fine queen she would be, who was sly, deceitful, and never had a word to say for herself!

  “All I can say is that he has charged me with finding cause to dissolve your marriage,” Cranmer said.

  “The marriage you found to be good and valid just three years ago!” Anne retorted bitterly. “And what will that make my daughter—a bastard?”

  “I fear so,” Cranmer admitted, wringing his hands.

  Anne stood up.
“Has anyone pointed out to Henry the absurdity of charging me with adultery if I was never lawfully his wife?” She laughed mirthlessly. “Of course, it makes little difference, for they cleverly added that charge of plotting the King’s death, which is high treason by anyone’s reckoning!”

  She regarded Cranmer. He loved her, but his admiration for her counted for little against his desire to please the King, his sense of self-preservation, and his zeal for reform. She would be a hindrance to that now, with her reputation in tatters. But she must be fair. Cranmer was in a difficult position. Her fall might well have an adverse impact on him, the man who had facilitated her marriage to the King. He needed to survive to fight for the cause another day.

  “So what is it to be?” she asked. “Consanguinity? A precontract with Harry Percy? Insanity? By the way, how is Harry Percy?”

  “Mortally ill, I fear,” Cranmer said, rising to his feet. “Madam, I cannot argue that the King’s union with the Princess Dowager was lawful after all. We’d all be a laughingstock. And Percy has again denied that there ever was a precontract. That leaves the impediment raised by the King’s relations with your sister. Now I know that the Bishop of Rome issued a dispensation covering that, but the recent Dispensations Act provides that it cannot be held as valid because it is contrary to Holy Scripture and the laws of God. Thus your marriage may be deemed null and void. I have come to summon you and the King to appear before my court at Lambeth Palace to hear my judgment. I advise you not to contest it.”

  All she could think of was that she would see Henry. She would have this one last chance of convincing him she had never betrayed him, and of telling him she would make no fuss if he divorced her, but would go abroad and disappear into a nunnery. Anything would be better than facing the flames.

  “The King will be there?” she asked eagerly.

  “Neither of you will be there,” Cranmer said. “You will both be represented by proctors.” It was crushing to hear that, but then hope sprang again. If Henry meant to have her executed, why go to the bother of annulling their marriage? Sadly, the answer was plain. He must ensure an undisputed succession.

  “My daughter was born before the Dispensations Act was passed, when the King and I believed we had entered into marriage in good faith. Surely she must be deemed legitimate?”

  “Anne, this is no time for legal niceties,” Cranmer warned her. “I am come to obtain your admission of the impediment to your marriage, and your consent to its dissolution, which will mean the disinheriting of your child. In return for that, I am authorized to tell you that the King promises you the kinder death. Already, out of pity, he has sent to Calais for an expert swordsman to do the deed swiftly. Madam, I urge you to consider well and accept the offer. If you do, I am hopeful that you might be spared the extreme penalty altogether.”

  There could be no contest. The prospect of a reprieve was too compelling. Even if Henry did not pardon her, it would be easier for Elizabeth to grow up in the knowledge that her mother had died by the sword rather than by fire. The child was sharp, with her wits about her, and had it in her to fend for herself. Henry loved her, there was no doubt of it; he would protect her. As his bastard, she would be safer than if she was a contender for the succession. Look at the misery that had befallen the Lady Mary. Anne thanked God now that, for all Mary’s treason, Henry had never carried out any of his threats. His fatherly love went too deep, and Anne trusted that Elizabeth too would be safe from his anger against her mother. Anyway, who would take up the cudgels on Elizabeth’s behalf now?

  “I accept,” she said. “Thomas, will you hear my last confession?”

  Cranmer hesitated. Naturally, he did not want to carry the burden of her innocence. But he surprised her. “Of course,” he said. “I will return.”


  At supper, she felt more cheerful than she had in days. She had wondered all along if Henry would actually send her to her death, and now she was becoming convinced that he would not.

  “I believe I will go to a nunnery,” she said. “I am hoping that my life will be spared.”

  They were all looking at her with pity in their eyes.

  “The gentlemen are to die tomorrow, madam,” Kingston said gently.

  She realized she had been cruelly deceived. Henry had meant all along for her to die. There would be no reprieve. She had been tricked, by the lure of a mercifully quick end, into sanctioning the disinheriting of her child. She kept her composure, although her stomach was churning at the thought of what lay ahead of her days, hours perhaps, hence. “I do hope that those poor gentlemen will not suffer traitors’ deaths,” she said.

  “I have just had word, madam. The King has been pleased graciously to commute the sentences to decapitation.”

  “Thank God!” she breathed.

  “That is a great clemency to Smeaton,” Lady Kingston observed. “He is a lucky fellow. Only persons of rank get their sentences commuted.”

  “Maybe it is because he confessed to something they knew he had not done,” Anne said, remembering how Cranmer had bargained with her.

  “Master Kingston, I desire very much to be shriven of my sins,” she said. “His Grace of Canterbury promised to return to hear my last confession.”

  “I will send for him,” Kingston said, “when the time comes.”

  “He told me that a French swordsman had been summoned.”

  “Not French, madam. It is one of the Emperor’s subjects, from Saint-Omer.”

  She managed a smile. “That will please Messire Chapuys.”

  “The King is paying the headsman handsomely to ensure you are dispatched humanely,” Kingston told her. “This ‘Sword of Calais’ is of some renown for his swiftness and skill.”

  How could the severing of someone’s head be humane? “That is one mercy,” she said aloud, feeling the panic rising again. “At least it will be quick. But it is a pity he could not get here in time to dispatch my brother and the others.”

  “It is, alas. But they are all ready and, I trust, at peace with God. They shall have good warning in the morning.”

  She shuddered. She could not bear to think of George and Norris dying for her sake. This time tomorrow, she would be the only one left, and then it could only be a matter of hours…


  In the morning, Mrs. Orchard woke her early.

  “Madam, Lady Kingston is here. Orders have come. You are to witness the executions.”

  Anne was instantly awake. “No! I cannot!”

  “My dear lamb, you have to. It is the King’s wish.”

  Oh, that Henry would go to Hell and be eternally damned! Had he not done enough to her? This was purely vindictive.

  She suffered them to dress her in the black gown she had worn at her trial, and emerged to face the waiting Kingston.

  “I am very sorry for this, madam,” he apologized, “but I have my orders.”

  “I understand,” she said shakily.

  He led her, with Lady Kingston following, across the inmost ward, through the Coldharbour Gate and back to Water Lane, which they followed some way around the outer ward to one of the ancient towers. He unlocked the door and they mounted the stone stairs to an empty and very dusty round chamber.

  “Your Grace will be able to see from that window,” Kingston said. “I regret I cannot remain with you, but I must attend the prisoners to the scaffold.” He bowed and hastened away.

  It was a small window, set in the thickness of the wall. Although Anne shrank from looking out, her attention was drawn by the vast crowds on Tower Hill, beyond the walls of the fortress. They were being contained by soldiers ranked around a high scaffold, and in the front she recognized many courtiers she knew. After a few minutes, the crowd quietened, and every head was turned in the direction of the entrance to the Tower. The ranks of people parted and Anne could see George, surrounded by guards, then Norris, followed by Weston, Brereton, and Smeaton. All appeared calm except the musician. Even from here he looked terrified.
  At the sight of her brother and the man she loved, Anne started weeping uncontrollably, and Lady Kingston put a motherly arm around her. Beneath her stolid, taciturn exterior, she had a kindly heart.

  “I pray they make good ends,” she said. “It is a pity we cannot hear their farewell speeches, but no doubt my husband will tell us what they said.”

  Anne cried out as George mounted the scaffold. She sobbed as she watched him, cool and confident as ever, speaking to the crowd for a long space in a loud voice, which she could just hear. It tore her apart to think it was for the last time. In minutes that loved voice would be stilled forever.

  She watched as he knelt before the block and lay down. She saw the public executioner raise his ax.

  “No!” she screamed, and buried her face in her hands.

  “It is over, it is over,” Lady Kingston soothed. “Nothing can hurt him now.”

  “Oh, my God, have mercy on his soul!” she wept. “Is it safe to look?”

  “Wait…Yes, they have taken him away.”

  Anne opened her eyes. She was trembling violently, bowed by grief. She peered through the window to see the block, and the executioner’s assistant chucking water from a bucket over the scaffold. It was dripping pink with blood—George’s blood. She felt sick at the sight. Soon, her own blood would be flooding a scaffold.

  Through the blur of tears she saw Norris addressing the people. He was brief, so she had little chance to gaze for the last time upon those loved features. When he knelt, she sank to the floor, howling, not caring what Lady Kingston made of it.

  She stayed there, keening and sobbing, mourning for the only two men who had loved her genuinely and unconditionally. She did not want to live in a world without them. Her only comfort lay in knowing that she would not be far behind them. Somehow she would get through the hours until she could join them.

  She did not see the other men die. Lady Kingston did not press her. When it was all over, she helped Anne to her feet, turned her away from the window, put an arm around her, and supported her down the stairs, for she was shaking so much that she could not have stood alone.

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