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

  Anne was composed when Kingston assisted her up the few wooden steps, the four ladies following.71 Although the anonymous Imperialist account states that she looked “feeble and stupefied,”72 as well she might have after a sleepless night, Lord Milherve says that “when she was brought to the place of execution, her looks were cheerful,” a word used also by Hall, while Wriothesley states that she showed to the people “a goodly smiling countenance;” the author of the “Spanish Chronicle,” whose account of the execution is detailed and clearly that of an eyewitness, asserts that she was “as gay as if she were not going to die.”

  As soon as she mounted the scaffold, Anne “looked around her on all sides to see the great number of people present,” then turned to Kingston and “begged leave to speak to the people, promising she would not speak a word that was not good.”73 She asked him “not to hasten the signal for her death till she had spoken that which she had a mind to say.” He “gave her leave” and indicated that she should proceed; whereupon, with a “loving countenance,”74 she faced the crowd and “gracefully addressed the people from the scaffold with a voice somewhat overcome by weakness, but which gathered strength as she went on.”75 There are various versions of her speech, and most of them had her acknowledging, as Dr. Ortiz learned from Chapuys, that “she died by the laws of the kingdom.”76

  In the Histoire de la Royne Anne de Boullant, Anne is recorded as saying that “she was come to die, as she was judged by the law; she would accuse none, nor say anything of the ground upon which she was judged. She prayed heartily for the King, and called him a most merciful and gentle prince, and [said] that he had been always to her a good, gentle sovereign lord, and if any would meddle with her cause, she required them to judge the best. And so she took her leave of them, and of the world, and heartily desired they would pray for her.”

  Hall gives a similar version of this speech, which suggests that it was substantially what Anne really said:

  Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defence doth not appertain to you. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me! To God I commend my soul.

  Wriothesley has Anne saying something similar: “Masters, I here humbly submit me to the law as the law hath judged me, and as for mine offenses, I here accuse no man; God knoweth them. I remit them to God, beseeching Him to have mercy on my soul, and I beseech Jesus save my sovereign and master the King, the most godly, noble, and gentle prince that is, and long to reign over you.”

  Lancelot de Carles gives another version, in which Anne “begged her hearers to forgive her if she had not used them all with becoming gentleness, and asked for their prayers. It was needless, she said, to relate why she was there, but she prayed the Judge of all the world to have compassion on those who had condemned her, and she begged them to pray for the King, in whom she had always found great kindness, fear of God, and love of his subjects.” According to Milherve, Anne also said: “Be not sorry to see me die thus, but pardon me from your hearts that I have not expressed to all about me that mildness that became me; and that I have not done that good that was in my power to do.” He adds that she prayed for those who were the procurers of her death.

  The Imperialist source wrote that “raising her eyes to Heaven, she begged God and the King to forgive her offenses, and she bade the people pray God to protect the King, for he was a good, kind, gracious, and loving prince.”77 Given that this was tantamount to an admission of guilt, he may have misheard her.

  The Portuguese bystander had Anne blaming the cruelty of the law for her fate in a speech that echoes Hall’s version:

  Good friends, I am not come here to excuse or to justify myself, forasmuch as I know full well that aught that I could say in my defence doth not appertain to you, and that I could draw no hope of life from the same. But I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if in my life I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone for the same. And I blame not my judges, nor any other manner of person, nor anything save the cruel law of the land by which I die. But be this, and my faults, as they may, I beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the Earth, and who hath always treated me so well that better could not be; wherefore I submit to death with a good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world.78

  Anthony Anthony, another eyewitness, recorded Anne’s speech as follows:

  You shall understand that I have submitted me unto the law, and so I am come hither to obey and fulfil the law. And so I can say no more, but I desire you all to be just and true unto the King, your sovereign, for he is a good, virtuous king and a goodly king, a victorious king, a bountiful king, for I have found his Grace always very good and loving unto me, and [he] has done much for me. Wherefore I pray God reward his Grace, praying you all to pray God for his life, that his Grace may reign long with you, and I pray you all for God’s sake to pray for me.

  George Wyatt’s version of Anne’s words, probably taken from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Church, echoes Hall’s. This speech, Wyatt later observed, showed that Anne’s love for the King was such that she chose “to acquit and defend him by her words at her death.” Yet, as has been stated already, it was customary for condemned traitors to refrain from criticizing the King’s justice on the scaffold, and Anne would have been aware not only that her father’s political survival and future at court depended on her, but also that her husband’s anger might be visited upon their innocent child, whose future was now painfully uncertain.79 Hence her refusal to say anything about her case, and her fulsome praise of the King—which, one would like to think, might have been delivered with just a touch of irony.

  The author of the “Spanish Chronicle,” while initially fairly accurate in his version of Anne’s speech, seems, as usual, to have embellished it, claiming that she said, “Do not think, good people, that I am sorry to die, or that I have done anything to deserve this death. My fault has been my great pride, and the great crime I committed in getting the King to leave my mistress, Queen Katherine, for my sake, and I pray God to pardon me for it. I say to you all that everything they have accused me of is false, and the principal reason I am to die is Jane Seymour, as I was the cause of the ill that befell my mistress.” At this, supposedly, the gentlemen standing by “would not let her say any more.”80

  John Husee aptly summed up Anne’s dying speech, and those of the men executed two days earlier, in a letter sent to Lady Lisle on May 24: “As to the confession of the Queen and others, they said little or nothing, but what was said was wondrously discreetly spoken.”81 Anne’s words were certainly moving, for “the spectators could not refrain from tears.”82 Her failure to admit her guilt would surely have been glaring—this was what Husee meant when he said that the Queen died “boldly”83—and it certainly gave rise to much speculation.

  Anne must have realized by now that there was no hope of a reprieve and that she had only minutes left to her. The “Spanish Chronicle” states that she asked which gentleman was the headsman, and was told—by whom, it is not clear—“that he would come presently, but that in the meanwhile it would be better for her
to confess the truth and not be so obstinate, for she could not hope for pardon.” Anne replied, “I know I shall have no pardon, but they shall know no more from me.”

  “With the aid of her maids, she undressed her neck with great courage,”84 standing there as they “stripped [her] of her short mantle furred with ermines. She herself took off her headdress,” and “a young lady presented her with a linen cap, into which she gathered her long hair,”85 “so that the blow might not be impeded.”86 According to the Portuguese account, which may have been embroidered somewhat, Anne was now heard to whisper, “Alas, poor head. In a very brief space, thou wilt roll in the dust on the scaffold; and as in life you did not merit the crown of a queen, so in death you deserve not better doom than this.”87 However, these words have something of a ring of truth, since the hurriedly built scaffold may well have been dusted with sawdust.

  As the Queen prepared for death, she was “saying to her ladies that she asked them to pray for her.”88 The Portuguese witness says she expressed her gratitude to them, declaring, “And ye, my maids, who, whilst I lived, ever showed yourselves so diligent in my service, and who are now to be present at my last hour and mortal agony; as in good fortune ye were faithful to me, so even at this, my miserable death, ye do not forsake me. And as I cannot reward you for your true service to me, I pray you take comfort for my loss.” She told them not to be sorry to see her die, and begged their pardon for any harshness she had shown toward them. “Howbeit, forget me not, and be always faithful to the King’s Grace and to her whom with happier fortune ye may look to have as your queen and mistress. And esteem your honor far beyond your life, and in your prayers to the Lord Jesu, forget not to pray for my soul.”89

  The end was very near. Seeing that Anne was not going to confess and that it was time to perform his office, the executioner came forward and knelt before her, saying, “Madam, I crave Your Majesty’s pardon, for I am ordered to do this duty.” She gave it “willingly.”

  “I beg you to kneel and say your prayers,” he told her.90

  This was the moment. She had perhaps been warned that she must remain very still if she wanted to avoid being horrifically injured by the sword.91 Again, “she appeared dazed” as she kneeled down, upright on both knees in the straw,92 “fastening her clothes about her feet,”93 a detail noted decades later by George Wyatt, who says she “prepared to receive the stroke of death with resolution, so sedately as to cover her feet with her nether garments.” “She asked that time for prayer should be granted her,”94 repeating, “several times, ‘O Christ, receive my spirit,’”95 but her fear was evident. “The poor lady kept looking about her. The headsman, being still in front of her, said in French, ‘Madam, do not fear. I will wait till you tell me.’” Anne seemed fearful that her coif would be in the way of the blow, and told him, “You will have to take this coif off,” pointing to it with her left hand.96 Although he declined, presumably indicating that he did not need to, she kept her hand on the coif.

  Eyewitness accounts of the execution differ; presumably some spectators were closer than others, or had a less restricted view. The “Spanish Chronicle” asserts that Anne refused to have her eyes bandaged, and that her gaze disturbed the executioner, but three other witnesses state that one of her ladies, weeping, “came forward to do the last office” and blindfolded her with “a linen cloth.”97 Aless, whose landlord related the details, says that Anne herself “covered her eyes.” She was repeatedly saying “with a fervent spirit,”98 over and over, “Jesu, have pity on my soul! My God, have pity on my soul.”99 “To Jesus Christ I commend my soul.”100 “The four ladies knelt in silent prayer”;101 the Portuguese says “they withdrew themselves some little space, and knelt down over against the scaffold, bewailing bitterly and shedding many tears.” According to Aless, Anne now “commanded the executioner to strike.”

  As she knelt there and “awaited the blow,”102 most of those present followed the example of the Lord Mayor, Sir John Aleyn, and sank to their knees, out of respect for the passing of a soul; only the Dukes of Suffolk and Richmond remained resolutely standing.103 Anne was still praying aloud, “making no confession of her fault, but saying, ‘O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Christ I commend my soul!’”104 Strickland cites an unnamed source that gives her last words as “In manuas tuas”—Into Thy hands.

  What happened next happened “suddenly”:105 “immediately, the executioner did his office.”106 “The Queen was beheaded according to the manner and custom of Paris, that is to say, with a sword,”107 which was probably of the finest Flemish steel,108 and had been “hidden under a heap of straw.”109 It would have been blunt-tipped, around three or four feet in length, with a two-inch-wide double-edged blade and a leather-bound handle long enough to be gripped by both hands. A groove or “fuller” was normally scored the whole length of the blade on either side of an execution sword, its purpose being to channel the blood away from the razor-sharp edge of the blade and so prevent it being blunted.110

  The intention plainly was to distract Anne at the final moment. The executioner’s English assistant had been “told beforehand what to do,” and as the headsman turned to the scaffold steps and called to the assistant, “Bring me the sword,” Anne blindly moved her head “toward the steps, still with her hand on her coif, and the headsman made a sign with his right hand for them to give him the sword.”111 She was aware neither of him taking it, nor of his approach, for he had removed his shoes and come up stealthily behind her.112 With his hand trembling,113 for he was “himself distressed,”114 he raised the sharp, heavy sword aloft, grasping it with both hands, and swung it in a circling motion around his head once or twice to gain the necessary momentum,115 then “without being noticed by the lady.”116 who was expecting the blow to descend from the other direction and “not so much as shrinking at it,”117 he brought it down and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow,”118 that “fair neck” that the poet Wyatt had once praised in his admiring verse. Smitten “off at a stroke,”119 her head was struck straight into the straw.120

  “He did his office very well, before you could say a paternoster,” reported Sir John Spelman, who was among the watching crowd. He added that as the Queen’s head “fell to the ground,” he and other horrified onlookers witnessed “her lips moving and her eyes moving,” while Gregorio Leti, writing in the late seventeenth century, rather dramatically claims that those eyes seemed mournfully to look down on the broken body on the scaffold before glazing over in death, although his account presupposes that the executioner held up the head in the customary manner and cried, “So perish all the King’s enemies!” There is no record of that happening at Anne Boleyn’s execution.

  It may be that some sentient feeling briefly remained, although the movements Spelman witnessed could possibly have been a convulsive response of the body’s reflexes to the shock of decapitation, rather than the last flickerings of consciousness, and they have been observed in various other victims of beheading down the centuries, particularly during the Terror in the French Revolution. Research undertaken in the late nineteenth century suggested that most die within two seconds, while a more modern estimate would be an average of thirteen seconds. Severing the spinal cord causes death, but not until the brain has been completely deprived, through massive hemorrhaging, of the oxygen in the blood that nourishes it. While that is happening, neurons are firing off in a vain attempt to counteract the blow that has precipitated the adrenaline rush and repair the damage done to the body, and the brain uses the oxygen that remains in the head.

  In 1905 a French doctor observed that a decapitated criminal’s eyelids and lips worked for five seconds before the face relaxed and the eyes rolled back, at which point he called out the man’s name, only to see the eyes fixing themselves on him and the pupils focusing before the lids fell and the pupils glazed over. The whole process had taken twenty-five to thirty seconds. In 1989 the face of a man decapitated in a car accident registered shock, then terror, then grief, as the
living eyes looked directly at the witness before dimming. In 1956 two French doctors concluded: “Death is not instantaneous: every element survives decapitation. It is a savage vivisection.” In 1983 another medical study found that “no matter how efficient the method of execution, at least two to three seconds of intense pain cannot be avoided.” However, once the spine is severed, the perception of pain recedes. Some victims have not responded at all to stimuli, so it must therefore be concluded that they were knocked unconscious by the impact of the blow, or fainted due to the dramatic loss in blood pressure, and felt virtually nothing, while others—including perhaps Anne Boleyn—did experience a few dreadful moments of awareness of what was happening.

  “When the head fell, a white handkerchief was thrown over it” by one of the Queen’s ladies.121 The body lay slumped beside it. At a given signal, the cannon along Tower Wharf were fired, announcing Anne’s death to the world.

  The Queen was dead. Justice had to all intents and purposes been done. “It is said that, although the bodies and heads of those executed the day before yesterday have been buried, her head will be put upon the bridge [London Bridge], at least for some time,” Chapuys wrote later that day,122 but Anne was to be spared that final indignity. Immediately, “at the moment the poor lady expired,” her women made haste decently to dispose of her remains,123 refusing to allow any man to touch her.124 An oft-repeated popular tale has old women rushing forward from the crowd to catch drops of Anne’s blood for their charms and potions, the blood of the condemned being regarded as especially potent,125 but again, there is no mention of this in contemporary sources.

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