Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir


  Kingston came within ten minutes. His face was grim, and he frowned when he saw Anne.

  “They all died very charitably,” he said. Lady Kingston was shaking her head warningly. They helped Anne back to her lodgings in silence.

  When they got there, Kingston turned to her. “It is my heavy duty, madam, to inform you that you are to die tomorrow morning.”

  All she could feel was relief. “This is joyful news to me,” she declared. “I long only to keep company with my brother and those other gentlemen in Heaven.”

  There was one thing she had to know. “Tell me, please, did any of them protest my innocence at the last?”

  “Lord Rochford said he had deserved to die shamefully, for he was a wretched sinner and had known no man so evil.” Anne closed her eyes. She was the only person who knew what he meant. “He prayed us all to take heed of his example, and exhorted us not to trust in the vanity of the world, especially in the flattery of the court. He said, if he had followed God’s word in deed, as he read it, he would not have come to this, and prayed that he might be forgiven by all whom he had injured. It was strange, madam. He admitted he deserved a heavier punishment for his other sins, but not from the King, whom he had never offended.”

  “He spoke truth,” Anne whispered. “He has proclaimed our innocence.”

  Kingston nodded almost imperceptibly. He could not, of course, openly agree with her.

  “What did Norris say?”

  “He said he did not think that any gentleman of the court owed more to the King than he did, and had been more ungrateful than he had. He also declared that, in his conscience, he thought your Grace innocent of the things laid to your charge. He declared he would die a thousand times rather than ruin an innocent person.”

  He too had vindicated her, with his last breath. Had ever woman been so blessed in the men that loved her?

  Kingston was finishing his account. “The others said little, madam. Smeaton, being of low degree, was last. He acknowledged that he was being justly punished for his misdeeds. He cried out, ‘Masters, I pray you all pray for me, for I have deserved the death.’ ”

  “Has he not then cleared me of the public infamy he has brought me to?” Anne cried. “Alas, I fear his soul now suffers for it, and that he is being punished for his false accusations, for his words will give rise to many reflections. But I doubt not but that my brother and those others are now in the presence of that great King before whom I am to be tomorrow.”

  The time could not come quickly enough.

  —

  Later that day, Kingston reappeared to tell Anne that Archbishop Cranmer had declared her marriage to the King invalid. She smiled at that. There was a certain irony in the fact that it had taken minutes to dissolve the marriage that Henry had striven and schemed for six years to make. And look where it had brought her! She had been falsely accused of the vilest of crimes, and she had lost nearly everything that had mattered to her: her husband, her child, her brother, her status, her friends, her wealth, and her reputation. Her daughter had been branded a bastard and there was nothing she could do about it. Five men had died on her account. Her father had abandoned her. Her mother’s grief was unimaginable. And now she faced a violent death. The husband who had won her so dearly had carried out his threat to lower her as much as he had raised her. There was nothing left to live for.

  She did not regret losing Henry. He had become a monster and did not deserve her love and loyalty. She felt no sadness for the ending of their wedlock. When she thought back over the three years it had lasted, she could remember only the quarrels, the dreadful insecurities that had driven her to be so cruel to Katherine and Mary, her desperation over not bearing a son, and the slow death of Henry’s love. She was glad to have all that behind her. But she wept to think that innocent young Elizabeth was now branded a bastard, and would grow up believing her mother an adulteress and a traitor. That haunted her.

  —

  That evening, Father Skip came to offer her ghostly comfort in her last hours. They prayed together deep into the night. She could not have slept anyway, for the distant hammering and sawing of wood, echoing across the deserted tournament ground and Tower Green, was a constant reminder that they were building a new scaffold on which she was to die in the morning. Not for her the public scaffold on Tower Hill. She did not want to sleep, for soon she would be asleep in Christ, enjoying eternal rest. Her remaining time on Earth could be used more profitably for the repose of her soul.

  She was still up and praying when dawn broke and Cranmer arrived, as he had promised, to hear her final confession and to celebrate Mass and give her Holy Communion. She asked Kingston to be present when she took the sacrament. She wanted him to hear her declare her innocence before God.

  She prepared to receive the good Lord with fervent devotion, knowing that she would shortly be in His blessed presence. “I desire to go to Him,” she declared. “I would that I had suffered yesterday with my brother, that we might have gone to Paradise together. But we shall be reunited today. And now I take God to be my witness that, on the damnation of my soul, I have never offended with my body against the King.” It was the truth. That she had strayed in her heart was another matter, one covered by the general confession of all her sins.

  Cranmer then administered the Holy Sacrament, and afterward she again affirmed her innocence, so that Kingston, the Archbishop, and all her attendants could see there was nothing on her conscience. Hopefully word would be carried back to Henry and Cromwell. Let them look to their own consciences.

  When Kingston left to make the final preparations for her execution, Anne sank to her knees again in prayer. Now that the hour was almost upon her, she was thinking constantly about the moment of death. It was not the dying she feared, but the means of it. It would be quick, she knew, but it would be brutal.

  Have courage! she told herself. It would be over in an instant, and then she would be lifted up out of this miserable world and know eternal joy.

  As nine o’clock, the appointed hour, approached, she was ready—frightened, but braced for her ordeal. And then Lady Kingston arrived.

  “I am sorry, madam, but your execution has had to be postponed until noon.”

  “Oh, no!” Anne gasped. Three hours was a horribly long time to prolong this agony of waiting. “Why?”

  “My husband has just received orders to have foreigners conveyed out of the Tower, and has had to send for the Sheriff of London to see that this is done. He knows you will be upset by the delay, but he cannot help it.”

  “Indeed I am! Pray send him to me when he has a moment free.”

  Anne summoned Father Skip. She had never felt more in need of spiritual support, and she gripped his hands tightly as they kneeled and prayed in her closet, she beseeching God to sustain her courage for a little longer.

  Kingston came to her not long afterward. By then, she was becoming agitated and panicky.

  “Master Kingston,” she addressed him, “I hear that I shall not die before noon, and I am very sorry for it, for I thought then to be dead and past my pain.”

  “There should be no pain, madam,” Kingston reassured her. “It is so subtle a blow.”

  “I have heard you say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.” She put her hands around it, and laughed nervously.

  “I have seen many men and women executed,” he told her, “and they have all been in great sorrow, but I can see that your Grace has much joy and pleasure in death.”

  “There is nothing left for me in this world,” she told him. “I do long to die, but my poor flesh shrinks from it, so I am heartily glad it will be over quickly.”

  “It will be,” he said, and reached out to squeeze her hand.

  This unexpected and unorthodox kindness nearly broke her. “I should be grateful if no one would trouble me when I make my devotions this morning,” she said, blinking back tears. Kingston promised she would be left alone with her almoner, and departed.
r />   Time dragged. Throughout that dreadful morning she found herself constantly striving for calm. Noon came and went. She was now in an agony of suspense.

  Belatedly Kingston arrived. “I am so very sorry, madam. Your execution has now had to be postponed until nine o’clock tomorrow morning. We need more time to give people notice to attend.”

  “Oh, Master Kingston, I am deeply sorry to hear that,” Anne lamented, tears welling in her eyes. “I entreat you, for the honor of God, to beg the King that, since I am in a good state and disposed for death, I might be dispatched immediately. I had thought myself prepared to die, and fear that the delay might weaken my resolve.”

  Kingston looked deeply distressed. “Madam, I have my orders. I can only exhort you to pray for the strength to endure longer.”

  —

  It was her strong will and her faith that sustained her through those terrible final hours. Again she sought fortitude in prayer. The hardest times were when her ladies and maids burst into tears and she had to console them.

  “Death is not a thing to be regretted by Christians,” she reminded them. “Remember, I shall be quit of all unhappiness.”

  It seemed strange to be doing all the normal things—eating meals, or rather, picking at them, going to the stool chamber, sipping wine—when the dread and horribly final event of the morrow approached ever nearer. After dinner, as they all sat together around the table sewing, Anne finished her embroidery, the last she would ever complete, laid it down, and did her best to make cheerful conversation with her attendants. She even attempted a jest.

  “Those clever people who invent names for kings and queens will not be hard put to it to invent one for me. They will call me Queen Anne Lackhead!” She laughed nervously, and the ladies gave a weak response.

  “You know,” she told them, “I never wanted the King. It was he who pursued me all along.”

  They did not answer—it was too dangerous a subject for them.

  “There is one thing I really do regret,” she said. “I do not consider that I have been condemned by Divine Judgment, except for having caused the ill-treatment of the Lady Mary and having conspired her death. I would make my peace with her. Lady Kingston, would you carry a message for me?”

  “Yes, I can do that,” Lady Kingston agreed.

  “Then come with me into my great chamber,” Anne bade her. “I would unburden myself in private.”

  She led Lady Kingston into the next room and locked the door behind them. Her chair of estate was still there, under the canopy. Neither had been removed.

  “Please sit there.” Anne indicated the chair.

  Lady Kingston looked shocked. “Madam, it is my duty to stand, and not to sit in your presence, especially upon the Queen’s seat of estate.”

  “I am a condemned person,” Anne said, “and by law have no estate left me in this life, but for the clearing of my conscience. I pray you sit down.”

  “Well,” Lady Kingston replied, “I have often played the fool in my youth, and to fulfill your command I will do it once more in my age.” And she sat down.

  Anne knelt humbly before her and held up her hands in supplication, as the good lady looked down at her, astonished. “I beseech you, Lady Kingston, as you will answer to me before God and His angels when you appear at His judgment seat, that you will fall down in my place before the Lady Mary’s Grace and, in like manner, ask her forgiveness for the wrongs I have done her, for until that is accomplished, my conscience cannot be quiet.”

  “Be assured, madam, I will do it,” Lady Kingston promised. “Now, madam, please get up and let us join the others.”

  —

  As darkness fell, Anne sat at table, writing farewell letters to Mother and Mary, begging forgiveness from the latter.

  She laid down her pen and thought back over all she had achieved in her time. What would posterity say about her? Future generations should say that she had influenced monumental change, and for the better. She had helped to free England from the chains and corruption of Rome, and to make the Bible available to ordinary Englishmen in their own tongue—no mean achievement, that. Without her, none of it might ever have happened.

  But few would acknowledge that debt to her now. All her achievements had been eclipsed by her disgrace, and no doubt she would be remembered more for that, and a bloody scene on a scaffold. Her daughter would grow up living with that horror, thinking ill of her.

  She shuddered. In a few short hours…

  To take her mind off her fate, she set herself to composing a poem. It helped to get her thoughts down on paper. The words flowed.

  O Death, rock me asleep,

  Bring me to quiet rest,

  Let pass my weary, guiltless ghost

  Out of my woeful breast.

  Toll on, thou passing bell,

  Ring out my doleful knell,

  For the sound my death doth tell.

  Death doth draw nigh,

  There is no remedy.

  Farewell, my pleasures past,

  Welcome, my present pain,

  I feel my torments so increase

  That life cannot remain.

  Cease now, thou passing bell,

  Rung is my doleful knell,

  For the sound my death doth tell.

  Death doth draw nigh;

  Sound the knell dolefully,

  For now I die.

  —

  That night, sleep was impossible, so she got up, tiptoed through the dark chambers to her closet, and tried to focus on God and the hereafter. “Give me strength to bear my ordeal!” she beseeched Him.

  The first golden streaks of a May dawn were lightening the sky when she rose and returned to her bedchamber. She sat down on the bed and waited. God had been merciful. She was calm and composed, her courage high. She was ready.

  FRIDAY 19, MAY 1536

  Her maids dressed her in a beautiful night robe of gray damask. Beneath it was the low-necked red kirtle she had worn on the night before her arrest. Then Aunt Boleyn placed a short white ermine cape around her shoulders.

  “In case it is chilly outside,” she said. A change had come over Aunt Boleyn since Anne’s condemnation. She had become kinder, more respectful, and now she looked quite emotional.

  “Lady Kingston and I will not be attending you,” she said. “The young ladies are to have that honor.” They looked terrified.

  She bound up Anne’s hair, piling the plaits high above her neck, and placed a gable hood on her head. Then she handed a white linen coif to Nan Saville. “Put it in your pocket,” she said. “You know what it is for.”

  “Do I look presentable?” Anne asked. “I am told that the people are being allowed in to watch.”

  “You look every inch the Queen!” Aunt Boleyn told her.

  Father Skip came soon afterward to celebrate Mass. After receiving the sacrament, Anne toyed with her breakfast, nibbling on a piece of manchet bread to please her ladies, but she had no appetite. She kept having to visit the stool chamber. Nerves had made her bowels run to water. She felt light-headed after having had so little sleep.

  At eight o’clock, Kingston appeared at the door.

  “Madam, the hour approaches,” he said, his voice hoarse with emotion. “You should make ready.”

  “Acquit yourself of your charge,” she told him, “for I have long been prepared.”

  He gave her a purse. “It contains twenty pounds for you to give in alms.” It would be her last queenly act.

  He cleared his throat. “Madam, a word of advice. When you are asked to kneel, you must stay upright and not move at all, for your own sake. Do you understand me? The executioner is skilled, but if you move, the stroke may go awry.”

  “I will stay still,” she vowed, trying desperately not to think about it.

  “We must go now,” he said.

  Lady Boleyn hugged her tightly. “God be with you,” she said fervently.

  Lady Kingston patted her arm as she passed. She was so obviously trying
not to cry. As Anne descended the stairs, she could hear the four young ladies behind her weeping and bewailing bitterly her fate.

  In the inmost ward, two hundred Yeomen of the King’s Guard were waiting to conduct her to her execution. She had not expected such ceremony. As soon as she appeared, they began their slow march toward the Coldharbour Gate, followed by the officers of the Tower. Kingston walked with Anne behind them, and the maids of honor and Father Skip brought up the rear.

  As she passed between the massive twin towers of the Coldharbour Gate, Anne could see the waiting crowds around the scaffold ahead of her, which stood on the Green before the House of Ordnance. It had been built high, and it was draped in black material.

  A great murmur rose from the crowd when they saw her walking slowly toward them. Although her instinct was to run, she took care to carry herself in a queenly fashion. It suddenly occurred to her that, even now, Henry might grant her a reprieve. This whole macabre charade might have been staged for the purpose of allowing him to make a grand gesture of mercy and so win credit with his people.

  As she distributed the alms she had been given to the poorest-looking spectators, she could hear her maids still weeping in her wake, and turned round several times to hush them. Her ears remained alert for the sound of a royal messenger galloping into the Tower with a pardon. But there was nothing. She knew in her heart there would be no reprieve.

  There must have been a thousand people waiting on the tournament ground. Nearing the front, she saw Lord Chancellor Audley and Master Secretary Cromwell standing with Henry’s bastard, the Duke of Richmond—come to report back to his father, no doubt. Well, Henry should hear only of her courage. She would not criticize him or his justice—she had made her peace with God, and she wanted no retribution to fall upon her family.

 
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