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


  Oh Death, rock me asleep,

  Bring on my quiet rest,

  Let pass my very guiltless ghost

  Out of my careful breast.

  Toll on thou passing bell,

  Ring out my doleful knell,

  Let thy sound my death tell,

  Death doth draw nigh,

  There is no remedy.

  My pains who can express?

  Alas, they are so strong.

  My dolour will not suffer strength

  My life for to prolong.

  Toll on thou passing bell,

  Ring out my doleful knell,

  Let thy sound my death tell,

  Death doth draw nigh,

  There is no remedy.

  Alone in prison strange,

  I wail my destiny:

  Well worth this cruel hap that

  I Should taste this misery.

  Toll on thou passing bell,

  Ring out my doleful knell,

  Let thy sound my death 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 its sound my death doth tell.

  Death doth draw nigh;

  Sound the knell dolefully, for now I die.

  The Scotsman Alexander Aless had not had occasion to leave his London house for some days, so heard nothing of the outcome of Anne’s trial, but in the small hours of May 19 he had a grim nightmare. He recounted it thus to Elizabeth I in 1559:

  I take to witness Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead, that I am about to speak the truth. On the day on which the Queen was beheaded, at sunrise, between two and three o’clock, there was revealed to me (whether I was asleep or awake I know not) the Queen’s neck, after her head had been cut off, and this so plainly that I could count the nerves, the veins, and the arteries. Terrified by this dream, or vision, I immediately arose and, crossing the River Thames, I came to Lambeth, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, and I entered the garden in which he was walking. Evidently Cranmer too had trouble sleeping and was also disturbed in his mind.

  When the Archbishop saw me, he enquired why I had come so early, for the clock had not yet struck four. I answered that I had been horrified in my sleep, and I told him the whole occurrence. He continued in silent wonder for a while.

  “Do you not know what is to happen today?” Cranmer asked. [Aless] “answered that I had remained at home since the date of the Queen’s imprisonment and knew nothing of what was going on.” The Archbishop then raised his eyes to Heaven and said, “She who has been the Queen of England upon Earth will today become a queen in Heaven.” So great was his grief that he could say nothing more, and then he burst into tears. Terrified at this announcement, I returned to London, sorrowing.

  Cranmer, of course, had heard Anne’s last confession only the morning before, and knew the truth about her innocence, so his observation is highly significant.31 He also knew that the reformist cause was about to lose its greatest patroness.

  “The execution of the Concubine took place at nine o’clock this morning in the Tower,” Chapuys reported to the Emperor on Friday, May 19.32 At seven o’clock, after hearing mass after dawn and receiving the sacrament from her almoner, Anne had eaten a little breakfast;33 an hour later, “at eight of the clock,”34 Kingston had appeared at the door.

  “When the constable came to tell her the hour approached and that she should make ready,”35 Anne was waiting for him. According to a letter dated June 10, 1536, which was written by a Portuguese observer who managed to circumvent the ban on foreigners in order to witness the execution, she was “wholly habited in a robe of black damask, made in such guise that the cape, which was white, did fall on the outer side thereof.” Elsewhere, he refers to the cape being “a short mantle furred with ermines,”36 while Lancelot de Carles has it as a “white collar.” An Imperialist observer states she was wearing a “hood, which was in the English fashion”37—in other words, a gable hood. The “Spanish Chronicle” describes the “night robe of damask with a red damask skirt,” but states that Anne wore “a netted coif over her hair.” This was presumably under the gable hood, and was exposed when she later took it off.

  The Histoire de la Royne Anne de Boullant describes this outfit slightly differently, as “a beautiful night robe of heavy gray damask trimmed with fur, showing a crimson kirtle beneath, with a low neckline.” A night robe at that time would have been a loose garment that either fell in folds from the shoulders or neckline, or was high-necked; sometimes worn open in the front, and lined or trimmed with fur, it was worn as a dressing gown would be today. Such garments were often made of rich materials such as velvet or damask, and examples may be seen in several contemporary portraits by Hans Holbein, notably the full-length of Christina of Denmark painted in 1538 (now in the National Gallery, London). In 1532, the year before their marriage, Henry VIII had ordered a sumptuous night robe for Anne: it comprised thirteen yards of black satin, lined with eight yards of black taffeta, with a border of black velvet, the sleeves being lined with buckram to stiffen them.38 Clearly, this was not the same nightgown as the one of damask lined with fur that Anne wore on the scaffold, but it would have been of a similar style, and because it had a low neckline, she would not need to take it off for her beheading.

  The Histoire makes no mention of the cape. From medieval times through to the Elizabethan period, capes were usually garments such as the Portuguese described, deep collars of fur—ermine for royalty—worn over gowns or state robes. We might conjecture that Anne wore this garment to underline her royal status, and perhaps bring home to spectators the enormity of her fate.

  The red kirtle that Anne wore beneath the nightgown would also have had a low square neck. The word “kirtle” was then used to mean a fitted, sleeved jacket and wide-skirted petticoat (a full kirtle), or just a petticoat (a half kirtle). In this case it may have been the former, given that the night robe might have been open in the front. A noblewoman might wear several petticoats beneath her kirtle, depending on the weather, but the outer one would be of a rich fabric.

  In choosing her attire for her last public appearance, Anne was probably making two statements: in the wearing of ermine, as has been noted, she was emphasizing her queenly rank; and in vesting herself—like Mary, Queen of Scots, at the latter’s execution fifty years later—in a kirtle of red, the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom, she was effectively proclaiming her innocence. The significance would not have been lost on any observers, or on Kingston.

  “Acquit yourself of your charge,” Anne told him calmly, “for I have been long prepared.”39 In 1530, Chapuys had observed that Anne was “braver than a lion,” and it was never more true of her than on this last day of her life. And this when she must have been exhausted, having had very little sleep for two nights, as well as having endured the unimaginable stresses and fears of the past days.

  Kingston gave her a purse containing £20 (£7,000) “to give in alms before her death,”40 which would be her last queenly act. It was customary for a condemned person to pay the executioner his fee as well, but this seems to have been settled separately on this occasion. Chapuys says that, “when they came to lead her to the scaffold,” Anne reiterated what she had said the previous day, about her death being a divine judgment on her only on account of her ill-treatment of Lady Mary.41

  Sir Francis Bacon, in his History of Henry the Eighth, published in 1612, relates another of the probably apocryphal tales that have become part of the legend of Anne Boleyn’s final days. He says that before leaving her lodgings for that last short walk, she asked “one of [her] privy chamber, faithful and generous, as she supposed,” to take a message from her to the King, saying, “Commend me to His Majesty, and tell him that he hath been
ever constant in his career of advancing me. From a private gentlewoman, he made me a marchioness; from a marchioness to a queen; and now he hath left no higher degree of honor, he gives my innocency the crown of martyrdom as a saint in Heaven.” Unsurprisingly, the lady chosen as messenger “durst not carry this to the King;” yet, says Bacon, who believed Anne to be innocent, “tradition has truly transmitted it to posterity.”

  Several eyewitness accounts of the execution refer to Anne being attended by “four young ladies.”42 Their identity is uncertain. Several historians have assumed that all four of the ladies who had waited—and spied—on Anne from her first day in the Tower were impressed to attend her to the scaffold,43 but the Wriothesley and Harleian manuscript accounts of her trial both make it clear that only two of those ladies—Lady Kingston and Lady Boleyn—waited on her after her condemnation. Neither could be described as a “young” lady: Lady Kingston’s first husband had died in 1515, and Lady Boleyn had probably been married by 1518. Lady Shelton was over fifty, and Mrs. Coffin was probably in her mid-thirties; both had probably been dismissed four days earlier. Not by any stretch of the imagination could any of these matrons have been the “maids” referred to both by Crispin de Milherve and the anonymous Portuguese witness in their accounts of Anne’s execution.44 Moreover, Lancelot de Carles makes it clear that at her trial, Anne was attended by Lady Kingston, Lady Boleyn, “and her young ladies.”

  There has long been a tradition that Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee, sister of the poet Wyatt, attended Anne to the scaffold. In the eighteenth century, Thomas Gray copied a life of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder from one of the unpublished Harleian manuscripts;45 in this, it was asserted that Margaret Wyatt46 attended Anne at her execution. Margaret Wyatt perhaps knew Anne fairly well, for the Boleyns were neighbors in Kent, and Anne was certainly on familiar terms with Margaret’s brother Thomas. Margaret was the wife of Sir Anthony Lee of Borston, Buckinghamshire. Her portrait by Holbein, depicting her at the age of thirty-four, is said to have been painted around 1540, and shows a middle-aged woman, too old to be referred to as a young lady or a maid.

  It was Agnes Strickland who claimed in the nineteenth century that Anne was assigned two ladies who were sympathetic to her to serve her in her last hours. In fact, there were four of them, but there is no evidence in any contemporary source to support the claim that Margaret Wyatt was one of them and accompanied Anne to the scaffold. There was also a strong Wyatt family tradition that Anne gave Lady Lee a prayer book just before she was beheaded, but this dates only from the eighteenth century and is unlikely to have been based on fact (see note 89).

  For more than a century a tale has circulated that one of the “young ladies” was Katherine Carey, the twelve-year-old daughter of Anne’s sister Mary by her first husband, William Carey.47 Katherine grew up to marry Sir Francis Knollys, and became a great favorite with Elizabeth I, Anne’s daughter. There is, however, no contemporary evidence for Katherine Carey attending on Anne in the Tower—she would perhaps have been considered too young—and she is first recorded as a maid-of-honor in 1540, when she served Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

  Anne would thank the four young ladies who attended her to the scaffold for their diligent, faithful, and true service;48 at her end, they were “weeping” and “bewailing bitterly, shedding many tears,” and appeared “weak with anguish”49 when they were performing the last offices for her. Yet none of the four ladies who waited on her in the Tower had been kind to, or approving of, Anne, and not one seems to have been sympathetic, so it is therefore unlikely that they would have shown themselves so grieved at her passing. Although the Queen’s household had been disbanded six days before, we can be almost certain that four of her former maids-of-honor had been summoned to attend her at her trial and in her last days and were a great support to her at this time. It seems the King had been moved by pity not only to grant Anne the more humane method of execution, but also to extend to her this last kindness.

  “The unhappy Queen, assisted by the Captain [Constable] of the Tower, came forth,”50 with those “four young ladies” following,51 down the stairs that led from the Queen’s lodgings and out into the courtyard that lay between the Jewel House and the King’s Hall. A grim procession was waiting there, ready to conduct the prisoner to her execution. It set off immediately, led by a contingent of two hundred Yeomen of the King’s Guard. Later tales erroneously had the executioner following next, traditionally garbed in a tight-fitting black doublet and hose, with the upper part of his face masked and a high, horn-shaped cap on his head,52 but he and his assistant were actually waiting on the scaffold, and were dressed quite differently. Behind the Yeomen of the Guard came the officers of the Tower, and after them, Anne, Kingston, and possibly John Skip, Anne’s almoner, bringing up the rear, although the presence of a priest at the execution is not recorded; it has been claimed—without any contemporary source being cited—that Anne was not allowed a priest on the scaffold since she had not confessed her guilt,53 but that may not have been the case.

  Anne was escorted across the palace courtyard and through the massive twin towers of the Coldharbor Gate, which stood to the west of the White Tower and led to the Inner Ward of the fortress.54 Ahead was the scaffold. The Queen “went to her execution with an untroubled countenance,”55 although the hostile author of the “Spanish Chronicle” interpreted this as “a devilish spirit.”

  Waiting for her was a vast crowd of “a thousand people,”56 all come to watch her die. Dr. Ortiz, who again got his information from Chapuys, wrote that “La Ana was beheaded before many people.”57 There is no record of any stands being erected for the onlookers at the execution, as has been claimed.58 “There were present the chancellor [Audley] and Master Cromwell [accompanied by his son Gregory] and many other of the King’s Council, and quite a large number of other subjects.”59 Also present was Henry VIII’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond,60 doubtless there at his father’s command,61 as his representative, and who may have wanted to watch because he believed that Anne had tried to poison him; he came with his friend, the Earl of Surrey.62 According to a later account, “a malign smile seemed to pass over the features of the young duke” at some point during the proceedings.63

  Wiltshire was not present to see his daughter die, but the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk were there, along with “earls, lords, and nobles of this realm, the Mayor of London with the aldermen and sheriffs, and certain of the best crafts [guilds] of London.”64 “Some of the nobility and company of the city [were] admitted rather to be witnesses than spectators of [Anne’s] death.”65 It is unlikely that Wyatt was watching from a window, as he had done two days earlier. The poem he wrote mentions only the men who were executed, not the Queen, and he could not have seen their executions on Tower Hill, and Anne’s on Tower Green, from the same window. Mercifully, the crowds around the scaffold probably obscured Anne’s view of the newly dug graves in the burial ground of St. Peter ad Vincula behind it.

  The Imperialist observer66 reveals that, despite Kingston’s restrictions on foreigners, the gates of the Tower had been left open. Presumably there were guards posted to control admittance, but no one could say that the execution had been conducted in secrecy. Aless, a Scot, who would have been denied entry, seems to have been relieved: “Although my lodging was not far distant from the place of execution, yet I could not become a witness of the butchery of such an illustrious lady.” Although interested, he evidently could not have borne to watch Anne’s end, or those of “the exalted personages” whom he mistakenly believed were to be “beheaded along with her.” However, his landlord, “who was a servant of Cromwell’s,” was among the witnesses, and after he returned home at noon, he was able to impart to Aless the information that the latter later imparted to Elizabeth I, much of which the landlord had picked up from other spectators.

  A great murmur rose from the crowd as Anne appeared. “Never had the Queen looked so beautiful,” reported the Portuguese witness.67 “Her
face and complexion never were so beautiful,” echoed Lancelot de Carles. She walked slowly toward the scaffold, “looking frequently behind her at her ladies,”68 or as if she perhaps expected at any moment to see a royal messenger come galloping into the Tower with a reprieve bearing the King’s seal. As she walked past the crowd, Anne would have distributed the alms she had been given to the poorest-looking spectators. There is no record of her progress to the scaffold being accompanied by drum rolls, as is so often portrayed in modern films.

  In the nineteenth century, Agnes Strickland recorded a tradition handed down in the family of an officer of a guard supposedly on duty that day, escorting Anne to the scaffold. His name was Captain Gwyn, and she is said, in acknowledgment of his “respectful conduct” to her, to have given him a small gold pendant in the form of a pistol chased with scrolls of foliage, the barrel being a miniature whistle and containing a set of toothpicks.69 She told him it had been “the first token the King gave her,” and added “that a serpent formed part of the device, and a serpent the giver had proved to her.” Strickland discovered that a Captain Gwyn did hold extensive property in Swansea in the reign of Henry VIII. The Gwyn family still had the trinket in their possession in the 1840s, but the tale does not ring true, for Anne’s words are not in keeping with those she was shortly to utter on the scaffold, and it would have been sheer folly for a condemned traitor publicly to have denigrated the King in this way. The pendant is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is thought to have been made around 1520.

  The scaffold, “no more than four or five feet high,”70 was draped with black cloth and strewn with straw. On it, according to the “Spanish Chronicle,” waited “many gentlemen, amongst them the headsman, who was dressed like the rest, and not as executioner,” and his assistant. New clothes had been provided for the headsman, paid for by the constable, who would be reimbursed in due course by the King. It seems that a conscious effort had been made to spare the Queen the starker aspects of execution, with the headsman unidentifiable and his sword concealed. There was no block: prisoners being decapitated with a sword were required to kneel upright.

 
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