The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

  Kingston’s letter to Cromwell was dispatched after dinner on May 16, probably in the afternoon, so the condemned men had several agonizing hours to wait to hear how they would die. At length—and it may not have been until the next morning—word came that the King had been pleased graciously to commute the dread sentences to decapitation. Despite Bishop Burnet’s later assertion that Smeaton was hanged, the contemporary Lisle Letters confirm that all five, including the lowborn musician, “suffered with the axe,” as do Wriothesley (who says they “were all beheaded”), Edward Hall, the anonymous Imperialist account,20 the Grey Friars’ Chronicle, the Histoire de la Royne Anne de Boullant, and Cavendish, who refers to the great clemency extended by the King to Smeaton:

  And though by great favour I lose but my pate,

  Yet deserved have I cruelly to be martyred,

  As I am judged to be hanged, drawn and quartered.21

  The musician was lucky. Such mercy on the part of the King whom the lowly Smeaton was said to have cuckolded was extraordinary. Pure logistics may have been a factor, for there was no gallows on Tower Hill; prisoners who were to suffer hanging were taken to Tyburn,22 but it was more convenient to have the men all executed together, near the Tower. It is also possible that Henry commuted all the sentences because he knew the men personally.23

  Yet there could have been a deeply personal reason why Henry showed mercy. If he truly believed that these men had been Anne’s lovers, he might not have wished to expose their bodies to the public gaze for castration and evisceration, perhaps feeling that might only serve to underline their shameful crimes. He seems to have been concerned all along to minimize the scandal arising from the fall of the Queen, and to maintain discretion: witness his withdrawal into seclusion, his concern to observe all due ceremony at every stage of the legal process, his granting to all the accused the most honorable form of execution, his concern that foreigners should not witness Anne’s end his permitting her to be treated as a queen throughout, and his erasing of all reminders of her afterward. Gruesome scenes on the public scaffold would only have given rise to more scandal, and had a more lasting impact; and they would have been at variance with the efforts the King and his ministers were making to deal with this scandal as discreetly as possible.

  Young Weston spent his last evening writing out a list of his debts, “as more plainly appeareth by a bill of the particulars written with his own hand.” They reveal insights into the glamorous and luxurious life that he had so recently led, and into the members of his circle and those whose company he frequented. He owed money to many people: the King—two amounts of 40s. (£700) and 50 marks (£4,050); his father; his father’s cook, Barnarde; his cousin Dingley; Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire; Browne the draper; Jennings, a page of the Privy Chamber; three “broderers” (embroiderers), the King’s own, Bradby and William, the latter being owed the substantial sum of £35 (£12,200), “whereon he has a gown, a coat, and a doublet of cloth of gold”—this alone shows how grand Weston had become through royal favor, since the sumptuary laws permitted only those of the rank of earl or above to wear embroidery, while only dukes and marquesses could wear cloth of gold. The fact that Weston owed money to Cornelius Heyss (or Hayes), the King’s goldsmith, is further evidence of the status he had enjoyed. Other creditors included Peter the hosier; Bridges “my tailor;” “a poor woman that Hannesley of the tennis play had married, [in payment] for balls, I cannot tell how much;” Harde Derman “at the gate;” Henry Seymour, a younger brother of Jane; Sir Francis Bryan; Sir Henry Parker, Lady Rochford’s brother, then a page at court; Weston’s saddler, shoemaker, and barber; “Jocelyne that was Mr. Norris’s servant;” John Norris; “Secheper that playeth at the dice;” and Temple the fletcher. Altogether the debts totaled a staggering £925.7s.2d (£323,150), enough to ruin Weston’s family.

  This list the condemned man enclosed with a farewell letter to his parents:

  Father and Mother,

  I shall humbly desire you, for the salvation of my soul, to discharge me of this bill, and to forgive me of all my offences that I have done to you, and in especial to my wife, which I desire for the love of God to forgive me and to pray for me, for I believe prayer will do me good. God’s blessing have my children and mine.

  By me, a great offender to God.24

  It should be emphasized that such sentiments reflected the sixteenth-century view of the sinfulness of all human beings, and that in this context, Weston’s words did not necessarily constitute an admission that he was guilty of the crimes for which he was to die. Brereton’s wife Elizabeth certainly believed her husband to be innocent, and cherished a “bracelet of gold, the which was the last token [he] sent me,” bequeathing it to their son Thomas on her own death nine years later.25

  It must have been later on May 16 that Kingston had another conversation with Anne’s brother and again had occasion to write to Cromwell. Rochford was troubled in his conscience about a monk he had preferred, with Cromwell’s help, to be abbot of Valle Crucis Abbey; he was worried that, the abbey being suppressed, the abbot would lose the pensions awarded him, and wanted the King, whose responsibility this now was, reminded of it. He had apparently asked Kingston to solicit Cromwell’s help, and also raised the matter with the tardy Dr. Allryge, who had since arrived to offer spiritual consolation to the condemned men. That evening, Kingston went to see Rochford and:

  . … showed him the clause of your letter. He answered that he had sent you word by Dr. Allryge. Notwithstanding, he says that he made suit to you for the promotion of a white monk of the Tower Hill, and with your help he was promoted to the abbey of Valle Saint Crucis in Cheshire, and he had for his promotion £100, and at Whitsuntide next should receive £100 more, but for this the King has the obligations. He supposes the said abbey is suppressed and the Abbot undone, and his sureties also.

  Kingston was hoping that Cromwell would put his prisoner’s mind at rest, and added a postscript to his letter:

  You must help my lord of Rochford’s conscience for the monk; and also he spake unto me for the Bishop of Dublin, for he must have of the said Bishop £250.

  Kingston’s letter was probably written late on May 16, because he goes on to say that “as yet, I have heard nothing of my lord of Canterbury, and the Queen much desires to be shriven.”26 Cranmer had already visited her earlier that day and evidently promised to return to hear her last confession, but he would not come again until early in the morning of May 18. Aless states that Cranmer, “to whom [Anne] was in the habit of confessing when she went to the Lord’s table,” was the one for “whom she sent when she was in prison and knew that she should shortly die.”

  Arrangements were by now in hand for the Queen’s execution. Henry VIII had gone to the extraordinary trouble of sending for “the hangman of Calais,” Calais then being an English possession.27 Decapitation by the sword was very rare in England but widely used in Europe;28 it was a much cleaner, kinder, and more precise method of execution than death by the axe. Evidently “the sword of Calais”29 was of some renown, being an expert executioner known for his swiftness and skill in cutting off heads.

  Several authors, among them Winston Churchill, have asserted that at the end of her trial, Anne requested that, if the King would permit it, she wished to be beheaded with a sword, like the French nobility, and not, like the English nobility, with an axe. Friedmann says it is unknown why the King sent for a swordsman, but that because of Anne’s French education, she probably thought it more honorable to be beheaded by a sword. Yet there is no contemporary record of her requesting this method of execution.

  Since burning was the penalty for women who committed treason, why did Henry VIII not only opt for the method of execution reserved for male traitors of gentle or noble birth, but also decide to spare Anne the axe? George Wyatt says that “the King’s conscience no doubt moved him to appointing the more honorable death;” not only was it the death reserved for the highborn, but it was less demeaning than being burned at the
stake, for the flames, apart from inflicting sheer agony on the victim, could quickly burn away clothing and leave their nudity exposed to the public gaze, as had happened with Joan of Arc. It may be that Henry’s conscience was troubling him—George Wyatt spoke with people who had known him—but this was to be the first time ever that an English queen would be executed, so the official approach may have been that, condemned traitor though she now was, Anne was still the Queen of England, had been Henry’s consort, and was the mother of his daughter, and that therefore fitting treatment was called for, in line with her being royally lodged in the Tower, attended by ladies and servants, confessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and richly garbed and bejeweled.30 It may be that, considering Anne’s rank—and the possibility of the tide of public sympathy turning in her favor—no one wanted a horrific scene on the scaffold, so steps were taken to minimize the risk of that happening.31

  According to Charles V’s sister, Mary of Hungary, who was Regent of the Netherlands, the King had sent for this headsman “that the vengeance might be executed by [one of] the Emperor’s subjects, as there were none in England skillful enough.”32 This supports the claim in the “Spanish Chronicle” that the headsman came from St. Omer, which was then in Spanish-ruled Flanders. But perhaps Henry simply wanted Anne killed as humanely as possible; the warrant for her execution states that the King, moved by pity, was unwilling to send her to the stake,33 which is substantiated by him securing the headsman’s services at the handsome sum of £23.6s.8d (£7,800), which was for his “rewards and apparel.”34

  But there was probably another, more pragmatic reason for the King’s decision. Given that Kingston was informed on May 16, only the day after Anne’s condemnation, that the headsman was on his way, and Chapuys learned on May 17 that Anne was due to be executed the next morning, there can be no doubt that this executioner had been summoned before her trial. In the Tudor period it took a fast rider four days to cover the two hundred miles from London to York, while in 1483 it had taken nearly two days for the news of Edward IV’s death to be urgently conveyed from Westminster to Calais, probably using a relay system of messengers.35 Thus, allowing for a quick Channel crossing—although that could take anything from a few hours to several days, depending on the wind and weather conditions—it would have taken a royal messenger, or relays of messengers, the best part of forty-eight hours to travel from London to Dover (a distance of seventy miles) and then make the twenty-mile boat trip to Calais; the journey would, of course, have been longer if, as tradition has long had it, the headsman actually resided at St. Omer, twenty-two miles further on. Then it would take another two or three days for him to make his slower way to England. Thus, if he was expected to arrive by May 18 (which he probably did, as there is no mention of him being delayed), he must have been sent for in advance of Anne’s trial—even as early as May 12, the day on which her coaccused were condemned, or May 13, when her household was broken up, or—allowing for the fastest journey—on May 14, at the latest. These calculations are supported by the account in the “Spanish Chronicle,” which states that the King “sent a week before to St. Omer for a headsman, and nine days after they sent, he arrived.” This suggests that, if he arrived on May 18, or even early on the next day, he had been summoned on May 9 or 10. The dates may be incorrect, but these precise calculations show that people were aware that the executioner had been summoned well before the trial.

  Thus the King had intended all along that Anne should be beheaded, and this not only preempted the verdict given at her trial, but also inflicted an added refinement of cruelty in keeping her in suspense for a whole day as to whether she would suffer the agony of burning. Since the executioner had already been sent for when Anne was sentenced to be burned or beheaded, there can be little doubt that the promise of a swifter death by the sword was used as a bargaining tool in securing her agreement to the annulment of her marriage.

  Kingston was gratified to hear about the headsman. “I am very glad of the executioner of Calais, for he can handle the matter,” he wrote to Cromwell. Indeed, he was to handle it exceptionally well, showing unexpected compassion and thoughtfulness toward his victim.

  “For the gentlemen, the sheriffs [of London] must make provision,” Kingston added, referring to an executioner; not for them the sword of Calais, but the public hangman. “As yet I hear of no writ, but they are all ready and, I trust, clean to God. They shall have warning in the morning.” As for his other prisoner, “I shall send at once for carpenters to make a scaffold of such a height that all present may see it. If you wish more to be done, let me know.”36

  The “Spanish Chronicle” states that Wyatt was told on May 16 that no proceedings would be taken against him, and that immediately after hearing this welcome news he wrote to the King to remind him that he had warned him not to marry Anne Boleyn because she was a bad woman. That a prisoner in the Tower should have written such a letter to Henry at this time is utterly incredible; given the mood of the times, it would have been taking an enormous risk. Wyatt, a diplomat and seasoned courtier, would hardly have been so rash.

  “Meanwhile, the [other] prisoners prepared to die, and took the sacrament.”37


  Apprised only a short time beforehand of the time set for their executions, the condemned men were “led out of the Tower, all closely guarded,”38 and beheaded early in the morning of Wednesday, May 17, on a high scaffold “at the Tower Hill,”39 before large crowds, with a number of courtiers standing prominently to the front.

  Chapuys, who got his information from one of the ladies in attendance on Anne, says that “the Concubine saw them executed, from the Tower, to aggravate her grief.”40 It sounds as if she was made to do so. Wyatt was also a witness. According to the “Spanish Chronicle,” he was watching “from a window in the Tower, and all the people thought that he also was to be brought out and executed.” The window was in the Bell Tower, as Wyatt makes clear in a poem about “these bloody days” written probably later that summer:

  The Bell Tower showed me such sight

  That in my head sticks day and night;

  There did I lean out of a grate …41

  It is unlikely that Anne was allowed to watch with Wyatt, so she may have been looking out from another room in the Bell Tower, or from high up in the Byward Tower, which also afforded a view of Tower Hill.

  According to John Husee, the men all “died very charitably.”42 In the sixteenth century, great store was set by the way one met one’s death. Redemption could be implicit in confession, repentance, and resignation. There was also a code of etiquette to be observed on the scaffold, and it was customary for those about to die to make a pious farewell speech for the edification of those watching, in which they confessed their fault, acknowledged the justness of their fate, and made their final peace with God before making a Christian end. Their words were meant to serve as a warning to others. This was not the place to deny one’s guilt, or to criticize the King’s justice; to do so might have led to a severer penalty being imposed, or could have rebounded on the often destitute relatives who were left behind, while those rash enough to plead innocence, such as the fourth Duke of Norfolk in 1572, would find the sheriff intervening to stop them.43

  On this day, George Constantine was in the crowd, within earshot of the condemned men, and would tell Cromwell that he watched them die and “heard them, and wrote every word they spake.” He added that “in a manner” every one of them confessed, although clearly it was not necessarily to the crimes they were to suffer for. All admitted that they had deserved to die for having led sinful lives, but none alluded to the specific offenses for which they had been condemned. They could have been acknowledging only the general sins of a lifetime.

  Rochford, as the highest in rank, mounted the scaffold first and “with a loud voice”44 made a long and pious speech, of which several versions survive. Crispin de Milherve says that Rochford “exhorted those who suffered with him to die without fear; and [he] sai
d to those that were about him that he came to die since it was the King’s pleasure that it should be so. He exhorted all persons not to trust to courts, states, and kings, but in God only” and prayed that he “might be forgiven by all whom he had injured.” He admitted “he deserved a heavier punishment for his other sins, but not from the King, whom he had never offended. Yet he prayed God to give him a long and good life.” If these were truly his words, then this was as close to sniping at the King as a prisoner on a scaffold dared get, but Rochford would have realized that Henry could hardly take vengeance on his widow, since it was her evidence that had secured his death. In affirming that he had never offended the King, Rochford was, with his dying breath, proclaiming himself innocent of the charge of incest.

  Another, similar version of this speech is in the Chronicle of Calais, which has Rochford stating:

  Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved to die if I had twenty lives, more shamefully than can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully. I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly, it were no pleasure to you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all. Therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, the which I have been among, take heed by me and beware of such a fall, and I pray to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, that my death may be an example unto you all. And beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court. And I cry God mercy, and ask all the world forgiveness, as willingly as I would have forgiveness of God. And if I have offended any man that is not here now, either in thought, word, or deed, and if ye here any such, I pray you heartily in my behalf, pray them to forgive me for God’s sake. And yet, my masters all, I have one thing for to say to you: men do common and say that I have been a setter forth of the Word of God, and one that have favoured the Gospel of Christ; and because I would not that God’s word should be slandered by me, I say unto you all, that if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this. I did read the Gospel of Christ, but I did not follow it. If I had, I had been a liv[ing] man among you. Therefore I pray you, masters all, for God’s sake stick to the truth and follow it, for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knoweth.

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