Escorted by Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, and “four young ladies”, Anne Boleyn made the short walk from the Queen’s Lodgings at the Tower of London, skirting past the Great Hall, through Cole Harbour Gate to reach the western side of the famous White Tower where her scaffold, all draped in black, awaited her.
Anne had dressed to match, in a black (or dark grey) damask gown with the same crimson petticoat she had worn to her trial: black, the colour of death and red, the colour of martyrdom and all topped off with a mantle of ermine, a costly fur that was reserved solely for royalty. Anne was always quick to use her appearance to send a message and this one was that she died an innocent victim, but also as Queen, despite the fact that her marriage to Henry had been forcibly dissolved the previous day and she had no legal right to the title.
Anne had risen from her sleepless bed at two that morning, having been forewarned that her time was limited. She had spent the time in prayer with her chaplain until Kingston came to bid her prepare at 8am to find Anne fully dressed and waiting. Her execution had been originally scheduled the day before, but the swordsman, specially ordered, had been delayed travelling from the continent. On that day, too, there had already been delay; Anne had expected to die early in the morning, certainly by 9am, as was the custom but it was the afternoon by the time all was ready and she embarked on her final walk. She must have been exhausted, but eye-witnesses all agree on her calm and accepting demeanour. A Portuguese merchant, who had seen her on several occasions before, remarked that “never had the Queen looked so beautiful.”
The crowd assembled was a relatively small one. Perhaps Henry and Cromwell feared a characteristic outburst from this famously outspoken woman, some assertion of her innocence, a sharp diatribe on her faithless and feckless husband; after all, it was Anne’s sharp temper and tongue that had cleared the way for the events of this day. All foreigners were cleared from the Tower and access was limited. Anne could probably recognise most of those gathered to witness her final moments. Traditionally the crowd included Charles Brandon (the Duke of Suffolk), Henry Fitzroy (the Duke of Richmond, Henry’s illegitimate son) and Thomas Audley (the Lord Chancellor). And so it was to a sea of familiar faces that Anne delivered her final speech:
“Good Christian people, I have not come here to preach a sermon; I have come here to die. For according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”
Although some people project that Anne’s tone may have been faintly sarcastic as she praised her ‘merciful’ husband, she probably would not have been so bold. Like her brother, executed two days before her, Anne followed the accepted template for her scaffold speech; she had to think of her remaining family, and her infant daughter. Of course, she does captivatingly anticipate those of us in the future who will “meddle of her cause” and judge her to be innocent.
The ladies who accompanied Anne to the scaffold were described as physically distraught throughout this whole experience, and also as “young”. They were therefore not likely the four ladies that Cromwell had assigned to Anne for her time in the Tower, older women who weren’t particularly sympathetic to her and were tasked with reporting her every move and word. It’s therefore reasonable to suppose that – along with the expert swordsman – Henry’s last gift to his wife was the presence of her favoured attendants, the ladies she had reportedly asked for and been denied when she was first taken into custody, the closest thing a Queen would have had to friends.
These ladies set about removing Anne’s jewellery and her ermine mantle. Anne removed her own headdress; despite the fact that she had made the more flattering French hood popular at court, she went to her death wearing a traditional gable hood, the very picture of an English Queen. Anne’s long, dark hair fell free and she had to spend some time tucking it into the provided cap.
The swordsman who had been specially ordered from Calais in order to spare her any unnecessary pain knelt in the straw in front of her and went through the ritual of asking her forgiveness; he referred to her as his “Highness”. Anne gave her forgiveness as was expected of her, responding in perfect French and handing him his payment.
Anne knelt upright in the straw, there was no need for a block; she carefully tucked the heavy hem of her gown under her feet, perhaps worried it might ride up and display her legs when her body fell. Sir John Aleyn, the then Lord Mayor of London, was overcome by the tragedy of the scene and sank to his knees to pay his respects to this Queen that nobody had ever respected. One by one, the rest of those gathered followed suit, although tradition holds that Suffolk and Richmond remained obstinately standing. Anne never knew either way; she had already been blindfolded by one of her ladies and never witnessed this last display of esteem.
Over and over, she repeated the prayer: “O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.” Despite her earlier calmness, now Anne was twitchy, cringing slightly and trying to turn her head to better hear the approach of the swordsman and the death he was to bring her. Out of pity, the executioner – already with his sword in hand – called loudly for someone to bring him his sword. Anne must have thought she had a few seconds of life left as he decapitated her with one smooth stroke.
Although it was the custom for traitor’s head to be held aloft and for the executioner to shout “So perishes all the King’s enemies!” there is no evidence that this happened with Anne. Her ladies rushed forward and covered her head with a white handkerchief and apparently attended her body as it languished on the scaffold for hours whilst something was found to bury her in. No arrangements had been made; perhaps everyone believed that Anne was being made an example of, but she would still receive a last-minute reprieve and commuted sentence whilst she stood on the scaffold? Who could have ever imagined a Queen of England executed on Tower Green?
The cannons sounded almost immediately, announcing that the task was done. Henry would possibly have heard it from down the river; within 24 hours he had formalised and publicly announced his betrothal to the Lady Jane Seymour, erstwhile Lady in Waiting to both Queen Katherine and Queen Anne.
Thomas Wyatt, imprisoned in the nearby Bell Tower, apparently witnessed the death of his childhood friend from his window, and he lamented in verse that “these bloody days have broken [his] heart”.
The Bell Tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
Anne was interred in the Tower chapel, St Peter ad Vincula, next to the hasty grave dug for her brother two days prior. Tradition holds that she was buried in the elmwood trunk that arrows had been delivered to the Tower in, with her head between her legs. Her resting place remained unmarked until Victorian times.
Sir William Kingston retired to his study at the end of what must have been a tiring day for him. He wrote to Thomas Cromwell that “the Queen died boldly. God take her to his mercy.”
Gentle visitor pause awhile, where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life, may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies.
– Brian Catling, the Site of Execution Memorial at the Tower of London