19th May 1536
For her last day, perhaps her greatest day, Anne chose to wear a dress of gray damask which had a crimson kirtle underneath and a mantle that was trimmed with ermine. She wore an English hood, a necklace and earrings. One might gloss over Anne’s choice of dress for her final moments but I think it is extremely important to stop for a moment and look at this gown Anne had chosen to wear. Anne was an extremely clever woman and she did not simply choose this outfit on a whim, no there was a strong reason behind it. Crimson or red was the colour of martyrdom and this was the third time since her arrest that Anne had chosen to wear this colour. Twice before, each time on extremely important moments Anne had worn crimson. If one remembers the day that Anne was arrested she returned to her chambers and dressed in a beautiful dress of gold and crimson. As she was taken by barge down the river Thames to the Tower of London it is said that the sun shone off her jewels and dress. Anyone that looked upon her would have seen the crimson of her dress. At her trial Anne wore a gown of black with a crimson petticoat, the second time she was to display the colour of martyrdom. Hundreds upon hundreds of eyes stared at Anne during her trial, unconsciously taking in the silent message she was trying to convey through her choice of clothing. And now once more, in her final hours, when again hundreds of eyes would be watching her, Anne chose carefully. Without having to say a word, through her gown Anne was showing her martyrdom, proclaiming her innocence.
At 8am Sir Kingston came to tell Anne that her hour was approaching and that she should prepare herself, but Anne was already prepared. She told Sir Kingston: ‘Acquit yourself of your charge for I have long been prepared’ (Weir 2009, pg. 261).
At 9am, or perhaps a little before, Anne was to leave her chambers in the Queen’s lodgings for the last time. Three years ago she had stayed in the very same lodgings on the night before her coronation, the night before she was to be raised above all others to become Queen of England. Now she left the same chambers to face her death. As she left the Queen’s lodgings Anne was accompanied by four ladies in waiting. It has been suggested that these four women were not those same ladies in waiting whom Anne detested that had been attending to her during her imprisonment. Instead it has been proposed that they were four of Anne’s ladies in waiting that had attended her during her marriage to Henry VIII.
Leaving her chambers Anne walked down the stairs from the Queen’s lodgings to the courtyard between the Jewel House and the King’s Hall. Two hundred Yeomen were there to lead Anne, her ladies in waiting, Sir Kingston and several others to the scaffold that had been erected. She walked through the courtyard and then through the twin towers of the Coldharbour Gate (which no longer stands) to the scaffold that awaited her. It has been reported that approximately a thousand people surrounded the scaffold upon Tower Green to watch the execution of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Of course several of those watching were the men whom had fought so viciously to bring these charges upon Anne including Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Richmond (Anne’s step son) and the Duke of Suffolk.
Despite thousands of eyes staring at her Anne is said to have looked composed and dignified. One report states that Anne ‘has never looked more beautiful’ (Fraser 2002, pg. 315). It is great credit to the type of woman that Anne Boleyn was, that in her final moments knowing she was about to die, that she could hold herself with such composure and beauty.
The scaffold was draped in black cloth and had straw scattered across it. Upon the scaffold waited the French executioner. His sword was hidden under the straw to save Anne seeing the tool that would soon end her life. Slowly Anne took the steps that lead up to the scaffold and took her place in the centre. She turned and ‘begged leave to speak to the people, promising she would not speak a word that was not good’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266). She then asked Kingston ‘not to hasten the signal for her death till she had spoken that which she had mind to say’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266).
‘Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, according to the 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’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266 – 267).
After her speech Anne’s ladies helped her remove her mantle, earrings, necklace and take off her hood. It is said that her long dark hair tumbled out and that her ladies helped her tuck it under a white cap to keep it out of the swords way. After this Anne is said to have thanked her ladies for their help and begged them for forgiveness for any harshness she may have showed them. She also asked her ladies not to be sorry for her but instead to pray for her.
Knowing that the Queen’s end was drawing to a close the executioner stepped forward and asked that Anne forgive him for what he was about to do. She willingly forgave him and then he asked her to kneel and say her prayers. Anne knelt and tucked her dress underneath her so that it would not fly about her legs. Some accounts from those who watched the execution say that one of Anne’s ladies in waiting stepped forward to cover her eyes while other reports state that Anne refused to have her eyes covered.
As she knelt upon the straw Anne repeated over and over the prayer: ‘Jesu, have pity on my soul! My God, have pity on my soul, To Jesus Christ I commend my soul…’ (Weir 2009, pg. 270). It was only now, in the last few minutes of her life that Anne’s resolve began to falter. It is said that nervously she kept looking over her shoulder waiting for the executioners blow to come. The executioner seeing this turned to his assistant and called ‘bring me the sword’ (Weir 2009, pg. 271). Anne turned her head to look at the steps where the assistant presumably was. In this moment the executioner pulled out his sword from beneath the straw. Lifting it high above his head he swung it several times to build up momentum and then with one swift blow he brought it down severing Anne Boleyn’s neck, her lips still moving in prayer.
And so it was done, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, was dead. A few moments after her death the great guns of the Tower were fired to signal that the Queen of England had been executed. After this one of Anne’s ladies in waiting stepped forward and covered Anne’s head with a white cloth before picking it up. The three others lifted up the still bleeding body of Anne and carried it away from the scaffold. Anne’s bloodied clothes were removed in one last humiliation as they were now the property of the King. There was no coffin for Anne, no formal place to rest her body instead she was placed in a chest which used to contain bow-staves. It is said to have been too small for her and thus her decapitated head had to be tucked under her arm. The chest was taken to the church in the Tower – the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula where the paving stones were lifted up and a shallow grave was dug. The chest containing Anne’s body was placed into the ground and buried. No marker was placed over the grave.
For his part after hearing of Anne’s death, Henry VIII rode to Hampton Court where Jane Seymour was staying. The next morning, May 20th he proposed marriage to Jane and the couple were married on May 30th – only eleven days after Anne’s execution. It seems as though Henry was not grieved by his late wife’s passing.
Upon hearing of Anne death it has been said that Archbishop Cranmer stated ‘She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in Heaven’.
(Image from Wikipedia)
Anne Boleyn Letters Henry VIII Hever Castle 2009, Kay Jay Print Ltd, West Yorkshire.
Dolman, B, Holmes, S, Impey, E & Spooner, J 2009, Experience the Tower of London, Historical Royal Palaces, Surrey.
Fraser, A 2002, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Phoenix Press, London.
Ives, E 2005, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Australia.
Weir, A 1991, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Grove Press, New York.
Weir, A 2009, The Lady in The Tower The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Jonathan Cape, London.