Thursday, 9 May 2013

Anne Boleyn's Execution

Anne Boleyn: probably a copy of a painting made in 1534
Few events in the history of the English monarchy have excited as much interest as the execution of Queen Anne, second wife to Henry VIII. To truly appreciate how this death must have electrified both the English court and that of other European monarchs, you have to realise that the execution of a queen was quite extraordinary and unprecedented, and many noblemen must have been left terrified and bewildered by its ramifications.

One moment, these English nobles were kneeling before their reigning queen in obedient duty and - for Anne Boleyn was by all accounts beautiful, witty and charming - in admiration. The next, they were forced to witness her head being struck ignominiously from her shoulders, while their king celebrated his imminent nuptials elsewhere with a new lady.

The doomed queen left her lodgings at the Tower of London some time before 8 o'clock on the morning of May 19th 1536, surrounded not by her own beloved ladies but by women appointed to her care by her enemies. Clad in dark grey, with an ermine mantle and sober hood, Anne made the short walk to the scaffold, which stood draped respectfully in black for her execution.

Among the crowd would have been some who wished her ill and rejoiced to see her brought to this end. Others must surely have wept - at least secretly - at the cruelty and injustice of this officially sanctioned murder of a queen. Those watching included Sir Thomas Cromwell, the senior courtier who many believe had almost single-handedly orchestrated her accusation and trial, plus noble dignitaries such as the Duke of Suffolk, the King's illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, who was Duke of Richmond, and Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor.

Silence fell in the crowd. Perhaps surprisingly, after tales of her hysterical laughter and erratic behaviour in the days leading up to her execution, Queen Anne's demeanour on the morning itself was apparently calm, untroubled. She gave a speech which neither admitted her guilt nor blamed the king, carefully avoiding any comment which might cause her baby daughter Elizabeth to be treated poorly after her death.

Her women removed her cloak, hood and mantle, following which the slender-necked Anne hid her beautiful hair under a plain cap, a sight which must have been quite heartrending in its pathos. She forgave her executioner - a time-honoured tradition on the scaffold - and possibly also paid him.

The executioner was a Frenchman, hired for his skill with a sword, for Anne was not to be executed in the common way with a rough block and axe, but decapitated with a sword, kneeling in the European style. The legend goes that the executioner was much moved by her beauty, and so found his task doubly difficult.

Blindfolded, Queen Anne was helped to kneel before the crowd. In her last moments, she called out in prayer, most likely: 'O Lord, have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.'

Again, legend steps in at this moment to have the executioner call loudly for his sword, though he had it to hand. This feint might have been employed to ease the queen's passing, by making her unaware that death was imminent. While she was waiting for the sword to arrive, he struck off her head with one clean blow.

Cannon were fired to announce her death. No doubt a message would also have been borne swiftly to King Henry, to let him know he was free to remarry. The queen's body, together with her head, were swiftly buried in St Peter ad Vincula, the ancient chapel within the confines of the Tower of London, where many high-ranking traitors also found their final resting-place.

A few years later, the unfortunate young Katherine Howard, also Queen of England, joined her there, accused of similar crimes of adultery and treason.

The execution of Anne Boleyn features in my forthcoming Tudor novel, WOLF BRIDE, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in August 2013. Now available for pre-order.


  1. I recently watched the movie The Other Boleyn Girl. Not sure how accurate the movie is to the actual facts, but it was definitely a winner as a movie. Will have to watch for your book, as this is a fascinating subject.

  2. It is, especially in terms of its political ramifications. The English monarch as supreme leader and tyrant, giver of life and death, was at its absolute zenith in Henry VIII. And he executed his rights to that power, literally. And its significance for women, even Queens, was also extreme. This execution meant no woman was safe from the tyrannical abuse of a husband's power. Not even the highest woman in the land, whose physical person - under law - was sacrosanct as Queen.

    1. Yes, that would be a real concern for women. I didn't think about that.

  3. I have been watching the repeats of the series The Tudors. It is just coming up to the execution of Anne Boleyn.I find this period of history fascinating. I don't know how historically accurate the TV series is, but it is compelling viewing. I look forward to your book about the subject. Sounds wonderful.

  4. Brilliant, thanks, Deb. The TV series of The Tudors wasn't always accurate in terms of detail, but not too far wrong in its broad scope. People who loved the Tudors will probably enjoy WOLF BRIDE too.

    Elizabeth x