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

  Dr. Geoffrey Parnell, Keeper of Tower History at the Royal Armories Museum, has established that the present Tower Green was adopted as the scaffold site in 1864 because Queen Victoria wished to mark the place where Anne Boleyn had been beheaded, and it was assumed that the green before St. Peter ad Vincula was the correct location for executions, since three mutineers had been shot there in 1743.6 This mistaken assumption was seemingly confirmed when Charles Wriothesley’s chronicle was published in 1875, with its assertion that Anne met her end on “the green” within the Tower. This was understood in the nineteenth century to refer only to the green before the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. However, “East Smithfield Green,” as it was known in the sixteenth century, extended farther east in Anne Boleyn’s time.7

  Thus, Anne’s scaffold was erected on the present parade ground north of the White Tower,8 and the grim prophecy of the Abbot of Garadon was about to be fulfilled, at least in part, for even if the Queen was not to be burned, she was to meet her doom “where the tower is white and another place green.”9 Lancelot de Carles would observe of her end: “Nothing notable has happened which has not been foretold.”

  It is unlikely that Anne would have heard the builders hammering away from the Queen’s apartments, as is traditionally supposed, although she was certainly up at two o’clock in the morning of May 18, when her almoner, John Skip, arrived to offer spiritual support in her last hours. She spent the rest of the night in prayer with him until soon after dawn, when Cranmer came again, as he had promised, to hear her final confession and to celebrate mass and give her holy communion. In these, her dying hours, she showed herself a devout Catholic with a pious devotion to the Eucharist, despite her reformist views.

  “The Queen, in expectation of her last day, took the sacrament.”10 She insisted that Kingston be present. “This morning,” he reported to Cromwell, “she sent for me that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency always to be clear.” Chapuys reported on the May 19: “She confessed herself yesterday, and communicated, expecting to be executed. She requested it of those who had charge of it, and expressed the desire to be executed. No person ever showed greater willingness to die.”11 Dr. Ortiz, basing his account (written on June 11) on information sent him by Chapuys, says “she complained that she had not been executed on Wednesday with her brother, saying that she hoped to have gone to Paradise with him.”12

  But before Anne could go to her rest, she was determined to protest her innocence in the most effective way possible; to the sixteenth-century mind, the prospect of divine judgment was a chastening reality, and the fear of eternal perdition very real. Chapuys wrote: “The lady who had charge of her”—either Lady Kingston or Lady Boleyn, who were both presumably present—“has sent to tell me in great secrecy, that the Concubine, before and after receiving the sacrament, affirmed to her, on the damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”13

  Anne’s protestations of innocence, made when she believed her execution was imminent, should surely be regarded as genuine. It is barely conceivable that she would have risked her immortal soul, on the brink of death and divine judgment as she believed herself to be, by lying, and hardly likely that she would have taken such a spiritual gamble in the interests of retrieving her earthly reputation. This was a time for confessing sins and making a final peace with God, not for bearing false witness.

  Nonetheless, the wording of her confession is interesting. It may be that she merely wished to emphasize that she had been faithful to the King, but from her insistence that “she had never offended with her body” against him, it might be inferred that she had offended in other ways, perhaps with her heart or her thoughts, and that she had perhaps secretly loved another, possibly Norris, but never went so far as to consummate that love.

  On the morning of May 18, a little before nine o’clock, the time appointed for the execution, Kingston received orders from Cromwell to “have strangers [foreigners] conveyed out of the Tower.” There seems to have been official concern that foreign ambassadors would send home sympathetic reports of Anne’s end that could reflect badly on the King. The constable duly sent Richard Gresham, the Sheriff of London (and future Lord Mayor), and one William Cooke to see that this was done. This obliged him to delay the execution until midday, and he sent to inform Anne of this; the bringer of the difficult news was probably his wife.

  It was not long before Anne summoned him, “and at my coming, she said, ‘Master Kingston, I hear say I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought then to be dead and past my pain.’ I told her it should be no pain, it was so subtle; and then she said, ‘I have heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.’ And she put her hand about it, laughing heartily.” Kingston observed to Cromwell, “I have seen many men and also women executed, and all they have been in great sorrow, but to my knowledge, this lady has much joy and pleasure in death. Sir, her almoner is continually with her, and has been since two of the clock after midnight.”14

  Both Chapuys and Kingston testified to Anne’s readiness to die, and there can be little doubt that it was genuine. She had been accused, probably falsely, of the vilest of crimes, and lost nearly everything that mattered: her husband, her brother, her power, her married status, her friends, her possessions, 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. Barely recovered from a miscarriage, she herself had suffered three weeks of unthinkable anxiety and dread, and now she faced a violent death. The husband who won her so dearly, but utterly abandoned her, had carried out his threat to lower her as much as he’d raised her. There was little left to live for, so it is small wonder that she wanted her wretched existence to end. She had only her strong will and her faith to sustain her through these terrible final hours.

  It had hardly seemed worth the effort to clear the Tower of foreigners, for “the number of strangers passed not thirty,” as Kingston informed Master Secretary, “and not many of those armed; and the ambassador of the Emperor had a servant there, and [he was] honestly put out. Sir, if we have not an hour certain [for the execution], as it may be known in London, I think here will be but few, and I think a reasonable number were best, for I suppose she will declare herself to be a good woman for all but the King at the hour of her death.”15

  It is often claimed that Cromwell and Kingston kept postponing Anne’s execution because they wished to preempt crowds gathering and the risk of demonstrations in her favor—both Chapuys and Constantine attest to the growing belief of the people that she had been unjustly condemned.16 But it is clear from Kingston’s letter that both he and Cromwell wanted a reasonable number of witnesses, so that justice could be seen to be properly done.17 Chapuys was ill at this time, but could only deplore the fact that “strangers were not to be admitted” to witness the execution,18 since he would be obliged to rely on the testimony of Englishmen for his reports. He would have been vexed to learn that the author of the “Spanish Chronicle,” who had friends living within the Tower walls, managed to get into the fortress overnight, in defiance of the authorities, and “took good note of all that passed.”

  “Expecting her end,” Anne had “desired that no one would trouble her devotions that morning.” But when noon came, there was no dread summons, for sufficient time had to be allowed for spectators to gather. The fact that at least a thousand people found out when the execution was finally to take place, and would be present, indicates that news of its deferral spread quickly, and that there was never any determined attempt at a last-minute postponement to outfox would-be spectators. Had there been, it follows that only official visitors would have been admitted to the Tower.

  But the delay was torture for Anne. “When the appointed hour passed, she was disappointed.”19 Kingston
now had to inform her that her execution would be postponed until nine o’clock the following morning. Chapuys learned from his lady spy that “when the command came to put off the execution till today, she appeared very sorry, praying the Constable of the Tower that, for the honor of God, he would beg the King that, since she was in a good state and disposed for death, she might be dispatched immediately.”20 It was “not that she desired death, but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay might weaken her resolve.”21 But Kingston was powerless to change the arrangements.

  In the hours that remained to her, Anne sought fortitude in prayer and in “consoling her ladies several times, telling them that [death] was not a thing to be regretted by Christians, and she hoped to be quit of all unhappiness, with various other good counsels.”22 She also reflected on the causes of her plight. “The woman who has charge of her,” who did “not conceal anything” from Chapuys, sent to tell him “that the said Messalina” could not imagine that anyone but Chapuys had gotten her in disgrace with the King, for “from the moment of my arrival at this court [not, obviously, in 1529, the date of his original arrival at the English court, but on the previous April 18,23 the King no longer looked upon her with the same eyes as before.”] This was surely misquoted, or an exaggeration, and there is plenty of eyewitness evidence to prove it. Chapuys was gratified that Anne held him accountable for her doom: “I was flattered by the compliment, but it is well for me she did not escape, because with her humanity, she would have cast me to the dogs!”24

  Henry, meanwhile, was preparing for his wedding to Jane Seymour. His conduct in the days leading up to Anne’s execution astonished all who witnessed it. Chapuys noted that “His Majesty has been gayer since the arrest than ever before. He is going out to dinner here, there, and everywhere with the ladies. Sometimes he returns along the river after midnight to the sound of many instruments or the voices of the singers of his chamber, who do their utmost to interpret his delight at being rid of that thin old woman.” On the evening of May 18, Henry had himself rowed to Chelsea, where he visited Jane Seymour, who was carrying herself as if she were queen already, and her family.

  Chapuys thought Jane’s discretion at this time “very commendable.”25 In contrast, Strickland, writing in Queen Victoria’s reign, thought her conduct “shameless,” asserting that her willingness to entertain Henry VIII’s courtship “was the commencement of the severe calamities that befell her mistress. Scripture points out as an especial odium the circumstances of a handmaid taking the place of her mistress. A sickening sense of horror must pervade every right-feeling mind when the proceedings of the discreet Jane Seymour are considered. She received the addresses of her mistress’s husband, she passively beheld the mortal anguish of Anne Boleyn, she saw a series of murderous accusations got up against the Queen, which finally brought her to the scaffold.” Strickland conveniently forgot that Anne, only a decade earlier, had begun scheming to supplant her royal mistress, and later tried to compass that lady’s death.

  There is no record of Jane’s feelings about the woman she had supplanted, who was awaiting death on the morrow a mile or so downriver, and whose crown she would shortly wear. In refusing the King’s advances without removing herself from his presence, and accepting her role as his wife’s replacement (which is just what Anne, in her day, had done), she behaved discreditably.26 Probably she had had little choice in the matter, with the King ardently pursuing her and her family vigorously maneuvering her into the most advantageous marriage a girl of her rank could ever make. Yet Jane was probably happy to comply: her championing of the cause of Lady Mary shows her to have been Anne’s enemy and implies that she did not accept Anne as Henry’s true wife; she did not personally compass her end, although she was willing to exploit the situation to her own advantage, even when it became clear that her marriage to the King would be achieved literally over Anne’s dead body. Her tacit—and chilling—complicity in Anne’s destruction strongly suggests that she believed her former mistress deserving of the fate that lay in store for her.

  Sleep eluded Anne on her last night. She spent the hours of darkness on her knees in prayer, or in conversation with her attendants. Chapuys was told that “the night before she was beheaded, she talked and jested, saying, among other things, that those bragging, clever people who had invented an unheard-of name for the good Queen who would not be hard put to it to invent one for her, for they would call her “la Royne Anne Sans Tête” [Queen Anne Lackhead]. And then she laughed heartily, knowing she must die the next day.”27 In a more sober moment, on “the day before she was executed, she said she did not consider that she was condemned by Divine Judgment, except for having caused the ill-treatment of the princess, and for having conspired her death.”28

  The cartographer and historian John Speed, who was born about sixteen years after these events, and whose book The History of Great Britain was published in 1611, recounts how, at the last, Anne tried to make her peace with Lady Mary. He claimed that his story was “a nobleman’s relation,” but omitted to name the nobleman concerned. Speed states that Anne:

  …. took the Lady Kingston into her presence chamber, and there, locking the door upon them, willed her to sit down in the chair of estate. Lady Kingston answered that it was her duty to stand, and not to sit at all in her presence, much less upon the seat of state of her, the Queen.

  Ah, Madam,” replied Anne, “that title is gone [sic]. I am a condemned person, and by law have no estate left me in this life, but for clearing of my conscience. I pray you sit down.”

  “Well,” said Lady Kingston, “I have often played the fool in my youth, and to fulfil your command I will do it once more in mine age.” And thereupon [she] sat down under the cloth of estate on the throne. Then the Queen most humbly fell on her knees before her and, holding up her hands, with tearful eyes beseeched her, as in the presence of God and His angels, and as she would answer to her before them when all should appear to judgement, that she would so fall down before the Lady Mary’s Grace and in like manner ask her forgiveness for the wrongs she had done her; for, till that was accomplished, she said, her conscience could not be quiet.

  Speed was highly respected as a historian in his day, and was elected a member of the Society of Antiquaries of London. By this means he became acquainted with the greatest scholars of the time, including William Camden, Elizabeth I’s first biographer, Camden being one of several historians who contributed to Speed’s great work. Speed had access to sources now lost to us; he himself says he consulted “many manuscripts, notes, and records” and that he had free access to the vast library of Sir Robert Cotton. His credentials are seemingly impeccable, and on the surface it sounds plausible that Anne, facing eternity, wished to make amends to the stepdaughter she had treated so unkindly, and perhaps hoped that Mary, in return, would look sympathetically on Anne’s motherless daughter.

  Apart from Anne’s statement that her title was gone, the details sound authentic, and Lady Kingston is known to have visited Mary at Hunsdon on or before May 26, a week after Anne’s death; her visit is recorded in a letter of that date from Mary to Cromwell. It is surprising, though, that Chapuys—who, on May 20, reported Anne’s observation that her execution was a divine judgment on her for her treatment of Mary—did not get to hear anything about Lady Kingston repeating Anne’s words to Mary. We know he had an informant among Anne’s ladies, and it may not have been Lady Kingston herself; yet if the latter had been charged by Anne with this mission, then surely she or Mary would have told Chapuys about it. For this reason, and the fact that it comes from such a vague source, most historians dismiss Speed’s story as apocryphal. It appears that the chief purpose of Lady Kingston’s visit was to advise Mary on how best to approach her father with a view to a reconciliation between them. She would also have been able to give Mary a firsthand account of Anne’s last days and execution. But Chapuys states only that, in her final hours, Anne was adamant that her condemnation was a judgment of Go
d. Full of remorse for her cruel treatment of Mary, and for plotting her death, she spoke often of her, her guilt clearly weighing heavily upon her conscience.29

  Tradition once had it that Anne Boleyn composed two poems shortly before her execution.30 Both express poignantly the kind of thoughts that must have been in her head at this time. Her authorship of them was attested to by Sir John Hawkins (1719-89): in his five-volume work A History of Music, a repository of valuable scholarly information, he states that these verses were communicated to him by “a very judicious antiquary, lately deceased.” However, one of the poems, “Queen Anne’s Lament,” was probably written by the composer Robert Johnson (ca. 1583-1633); it is a polemic protesting her innocence:

  Defiled is my name full sore,

  Through cruel spite and false report,

  That I may say for ever more,

  Farewell my joy, adieu comfort.

  For wrongfully ye judge of me,

  Unto my fame a mortal wound.

  Seek what ye list, it will not be;

  Ye seek for that can not be found.

  The other poem, which is to be found in Additional MS. XV, f.117 in the British Library, is earlier in date, and was set to music by Robert Jordan, a former chaplain to Anne Boleyn. It is therefore possible that it was composed by Anne herself, for the lyrics reveal how its author welcomes and embraces death, and the style is in keeping with Anne’s letters and mode of speech.

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