|Anne Boleyn: probably a copy of a painting made in 1534|
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.