“This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, ‘Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain ‘. I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck’, and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily. I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death.”
– From a letter from Sir W. Kingston, Constable of the Tower, to Thomas Cromwell, May 19th, 1536. (spelling modernized)
This was the way in which Anne Boleyn (above), one-time Queen of England faced her death on the morning of today’s date in 1536. Anne was beheaded this day as her sentence for being convicted on charges of adultery and treason against her husband, King Henry VIII of England. But her real “crime” was not being able to produce a son and heir to the throne for her husband. And it was really for this that she died.
Henry VIII and His Wives
The King of England, Henry VIII (below) needed a son. That really was the main difficulty that plagued his reign, pretty much from beginning to end. Born in 1491, Henry had become King on the death of his father, King Henry VII in 1509. His older brother, Arthur had married
Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand V of Spain, in 1501. But Arthur died a few months later, so shortly after becoming King, Henry VIII married his brother’s widow to honor the purpose of the marriage: an alliance with Spain. At first the marriage went well. Henry, 19 at the time was taken with the wit of his 25 year old wife. But as time passed and they both grew older, Henry became bored with Queen Catherine. She had been able to produce one child, Princess Mary, but no male heir to the throne. While a female could quite legally inherit the throne, it was a male heir who would be considered strong enough to hold the throne, and thus insure the succession, and the political stability of the country. So with Queen Catherine older and apparently unable to produce the desired prince Henry began looking around until his eternally roving eye settled upon Anne Boleyn.
The Trouble With Anne
Anne, the daughter of an English nobleman, Thomas Boleyn had been a maid of honor in the court of Queen Catherine. She had a playful and vivacious spirit, and as she was only in her mid-twenties when Henry turned his attention to her in early 1526, she was young enough to please Henry’s vanity (Henry courting Anne below), and to bear him the son he wanted. It was for this reason that Henry broke England off from her
official affiliation with the Catholic Church when Pope Clement VII refused to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine. Needless to say, this separation from Rome caused huge, massive problems for Henry, his nation, and for the men around him, as well as for his successors for many decades after. He married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533. Again, the trouble with producing a son got in the way. Anne was able to produce a child, Elizabeth, later in 1533. But she was only able to mis-carry after that. We now know of course that it is the father’s chromosomes that determine the child’s gender. But back in these days it was definitely considered a woman’s matter. So if the King wanted a son, and he didn’t get one, the Queen soon became persona non grata. Such became the case with Queen Anne. By 1536, the Queen had been jailed on mostly (but not entirely) trumped-up charges of adultery with several men, and on May 2, she as arrested and sent to the Tower of London. She was tried and convicted on May 15.
Queen Anne’s Execution
For her “crimes”, Queen Anne was sentenced to death by beheading, in this case by a swordsman from France. The following account by “Claire” on the site “The Anne Boleyn Files” (location listed below) gives a touching account of Queen Anne’s final moments:
“Dressed in a robe of grey or black damask trimmed with ermine, with a crimson kirtle underneath and an English style gable hood, Anne took her final walk out of the Queen’s Lodgings, past the Great Hall, through Cole Harbour Gate, along the western side of the White Tower to the black draped scaffold. Kingston helped her up the scaffold steps and Anne stepped forward to address the crowd (which) fell silent as they gazed at their queen, who one witness described as being ‘never so beautiful’. Anne then gave her final speech:”
Mindful of the fact that she needed to accept her fate with a brave and loyal face in order to protect the safety of her daughter Elizabeth, Anne gave a suitably contrite address:
“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.”
Henry VIII would live on until 1547 with the intervening years being marked by turmoil, bloodshed, and four more wives, only the last of whom, Catherine Parr would manage to survive him. He did in fact get his son and heir from his next wife, Jane Seymour who died shortly after giving birth to the son, who would take the title of Edward VI. But poor little Edward was an unhealthy child and only lived for three years as King before his death, and was succeeded by Mary, Henry’s child with Catherine of Aragon, and ultimately to Elizabeth, his child Anne Boleyn, who would reign for 70 years of success and stabilization. Anne Boleyn was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Her skeleton was found and identified during renovations of the chapel in 1876, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Her grave is now marked in the marble floor of the chapel (pictured below).
“Kingdoms of Europe” by Gene Gurney, Crown Publishers, New York, 1982