Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Execution of Queen Anne Boleyn

On this day in history, 19 May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife and queen consort of Henry VIII of England, was beheaded within the Tower of London for alleged sexual crimes encompassing adultery and incest, and treason against the King in supposedly plotting his death. It was the first public execution of a Queen of England – but by no means the last – and, undoubtedly, encompassed the brutal end of England’s most captivating, controversial, and ultimately celebrated queen consort in history. explored the various theories as to why Anne so shockingly, and quickly, fell from power in the early summer of 1536. It is disturbing that, being in an extremely secure position in January 1536 following Katherine of Aragon’s death and the announcement of Anne’s third pregnancy, just four months later, Henry’s second wife would be brutally decapitated for heinous crimes. As Retha Warnicke tellingly notes:

‘In January 1536... Anne could be optimistic about her future. She was pregnant again... Catherine was at long last dead... When her disgrace and downfall occurred, it was to catch Chapuys, that inveterate gossipmonger, with as much surprise and astonishment as it did the rest of Christendom’.[1]

Eric Ives seems to disagree, writing that:
‘The story of the events which led to the disgrace and death of Anne Boleyn need to begin almost a year before the tragedy itself’, referring to the royal couple’s visit at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family, in the autumn of 1535.[2]

Whatever did lead to Anne Boleyn’s rapid downfall in the early summer of 1536 – whether it was factional conspiracy led by Thomas Cromwell (Ives), the miscarriage of a deformed son (Warnicke), the discovery of the queen’s actual adulteries (G. W. Bernard), a religious plot against the ‘Protestant’ Queen (Joanna Denny) or, simply, the result of Henry VIII’s long-standing ‘hatred’ towards his wife (Scarisbrick, Wilson), the events of May 1536 moved very quickly against the six involved, leading to six brutal deaths and a horrific tragedy.

As has been noted, the Queen and the seven men (two, Sir Thomas Wyatt, celebrated Tudor poet, and Sir Richard Page, were eventually freed) had been arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London in late April and early May 1536 on scandalous charges of treason, adultery, plotting the king’s death, and, in Anne and her brother George Boleyn’s case, committing incest. All six experienced shock, horror and dread – particularly the Queen, whose moods fluctuated from hysteria to grief to joy, and the lowly Mark Smeaton, who underwent psychological – if not physical – torture to extract a confession of adultery. The four commoners accused of committing adultery with Queen Anne – Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Francis Weston, all of whom had served the queen and been close to her – were tried in Westminster Hall on May 12, 1536, and found guilty of treason through committing adultery with the queen. They were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered as traitors, although ‘mercifully’, the king decided to commute the sentences to beheading. Particularly for Smeaton, this was merciful, since a man of such lowly birth could not often expect such a quick and efficient method of execution.

Queen Anne and her brother George were tried later, on Monday 15 May. It was believed that Anne’s ladies, including the Countess of Worcester, Lady Wingfield, and her own sister-in-law Jane Lady Rochford (who would later be executed with Queen Katherine Howard), had supplied the crucial evidence against her. The Queen and her brother had been tried in the King’s Hall in the Tower of London, with their own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, presiding in his capacity as Lord Steward. The Queen was brought in first, according to Antonia Fraser: ‘she arrived in a calm frame of mind’.[3] The contemporary chronicler Charles Wriothesley opined that she gave ‘wise and discreet answers to her accusers’ when questioned ‘as though she was not actually guilty’.[4] Ives goes further, movingly claiming that ‘her sparing and effective answers quietly dominated the court’.[5] Certainly, those who were actually there – including Anne’s arch-enemy, the Imperial ambassador, who admitted that she had given plausible and convincing replies to the questions posed – support this claim. She denied committing adultery with any of the men, or incest with her brother; she had not hoped and plotted for her husband the King’s death; she had not poisoned the former Queen Katherine of Aragon or her daughter Princess Mary; but it made no difference. She was found guilty on all counts, despite, as Warnicke notes, being ‘unrattled by these lurid details’.[6] 

Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, with tears in his eyes, sentenced her to burning or beheading – but as Alison Weir notes, the method of execution – decapitation by the sword – had been agreed long in advance, and the executioner had already been sent for. Meanwhile, Henry VIII told his new love, Jane Seymour, that Anne would be condemned by 3 o’clock that afternoon. How can anyone not feel immense pity for the Queen, when discovering this brutal detail? It is little wonder that many view Jane Seymour as a sly, cold-hearted plotter who, as the Victorian historian Agnes Strickland wrote in outrage, literally stepped over her former mistress’ dead body to become Queen.

Yet the Queen was noted for her bravery, as even her enemy Cromwell – who many think plotted the whole conspiracy – admitted following her death, praising her courage. All Anne admitted to was: ‘I do not say that I have always borne towards the king the humility which I owed him... I admit, too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him... But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong’. When one considers that Anne swore before eternal damnation that she had never committed the crimes alleged against her, one is convinced of her innocence. As Weir concludes in her study: ‘the historian cannot but conclude that Anne Boleyn was the victim of a dreadful miscarriage of justice’. Following Anne’s trial, her brother George was tried after her, and despite his bravery – something which clearly ran in the Boleyn family – was also sentenced to death.

Two days later, the five men condemned for committing high treason through adultery with the Queen and plotting the King’s death were beheaded on Tower Hill, outside the Tower of London. George Boleyn, as the highest in rank went first, stating that: ‘I was born under the law, I am judged under the law and I must die under the law, for the law has condemned me’. The other men admitted their sins and the fact that they deserved to die; but this does not necessarily mean that they were admitting that they were guilty of the crimes alleged against them. In the Tudor period, everyone was believed to be universally sinful – these men were alluding to their own sins. Smeaton, the last to be executed since he was the lowliest in rank, continued to maintain his guilt, causing the Queen notable distress when she heard.

That day, Anne’s marriage to the King was annulled and her daughter, Elizabeth, bastardised. It was likely on the grounds of Henry’s previous sexual relationship with Anne’s sister – thus creating affinity between them – although Warnicke suspects it was annulled because Anne, believed to be a witch, had bewitched Henry into marrying her. Anne’s own execution, in her mind, was believed to take place the next day, but the day came and went with no summons for the scaffold, leading to Anne’s increasing concern. The Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, eventually told her that it was postponed to the following day, Friday 19 May 1536.

The execution was held within the grounds of the Tower, before a small audience, at nine o’clock in the morning. The Queen emerged from the Tower accompanied by four ladies, and probably would not have been pleased to see her enemies Thomas Audley, the lord chancellor, Charles Brandon duke of Suffolk, Henry Fitzroy, the bastard son of Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell himself prominent among the spectators. Anne was dressed in a mantle of ermine (emphasising her queenly rank) over a grey damask gown lined with fur with a crimson petticoat, accompanied with an English gable hood (somewhat surprisingly for her, as she usually preferred the considerably more fashionable French hood). Those who were present remarked that ‘The Queen had never looked so beautiful’, while a Spanish commentator wrote that she looked ‘as gay as if she was not going to die’.[7] Anne’s speech was given by Edward Hall, Henry VIII’s court chronicler, as follows:

‘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’.[8]

This is probably very close to Anne’s real speech, and in no way shows Anne admitting any guilt. Whether she did truly love Henry VIII, as she suggests, is impossible to know. Natalie Dormer, in the Showtime TV series The Tudors (despite its inaccuracies), gives a very moving portrayal of Anne’s execution, in which this speech is replicated:

Numerous versions of Anne’s scaffold speech were given by different writers present on that day. According to Wriothesley, Anne stated:

‘Masters, I here humbly submit me to the law as the law hath judged me, and as for mine offences, I here accuse no man. God knoweth them; I remit them to God, beseeching Him to have mercy on my soul. I ask Jesus Christ to save my sovereign and master the King, the most godly, noble and gentle Prince that is, and long to reign over you’.[9]

Despite their glaring inaccuracies (in The Other Boleyn Girl, it is implied that Anne might be given a reprieve before falling into hysterical tears, two things which never occurred; and in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, where Anne is executed indoors before a block, two huge inaccuracies) this is the speech given by Natalie Portman and Dorothy Tutin.

The Queen’s head was removed with a single stroke – mercifully – and she was buried that day in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula near Tower Green; where she would be joined less than six years later by her cousin and fellow queen, Katherine Howard, and her own sister-in-law, Jane Rochford, who may have supplied evidence against her. It was the end of the incredible career of Anne Boleyn. Her exact age is unknown but she was probably 34 or 35. She had been Queen for just under 3 years, but she had captivated the King and held his love for closer to 10 years, before being brutally eliminated in a murderous conspiracy – probably masterminded by her own husband – which also saw the deaths of 5 people close to her, including her own brother. One can only pity the Boleyn family, who saw two of their relatives bloodily removed in the space of a few short weeks.

The Independent on Sunday, in reviewing Eric Ives’ monumental – and to date, the best – biography of the Queen, termed Anne Boleyn ‘the most controversial woman ever to have been queen consort of England’. While this is undoubtedly true – just witness the numerous books, films, plays, and stories produced about her monthly – she was, as Ives rightly notes, the most important queen consort in English history. It is almost certain that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the crimes alleged against her. She was outspoken, highly intelligent, shrewd, calculating, at times vindictive, arrogant, and even spiteful; but at the same time she was deeply religious, kind, loyal to family and friends, charismatic, intelligent, attractive, highly talented, energetic, opinionated and bold. These qualities had commended her to a King because they so emphatically showed that she was not the typical sixteenth-century submissive ideal of a woman which Jane Seymour embodied.

Thomas Wyatt, Anne’s close friend – who had been imprisoned in the Tower as one of her accomplices – movingly wrote following these six deaths: ‘These bloody days have broken my heart’. While the Queen was by no means universally mourned – Catholic Europe openly rejoiced at her death and congratulated Henry VIII, while many English people, who hated Anne, saw it as divine retribution – a growing sense of pity emerged for Anne and the men killed with her; while others began to become increasingly suspicious towards the King. Jane Seymour was by no means universally popular, as scurrilous ballads circulated about her affair with the King. As one contemporary wrote:

‘It was thought strange by some, that in the same month which saw the Queen flourishing, accused, condemned and executed, another was assumed into her place’.

As Agnes Strickland, a Victorian historian writing in an era of high moral values, openly vilified the new Queen:

‘Jane saw murderous accusations got up against the queen, which finally brought her to the scaffold, yet she gave her hand to the regal ruffian before his wife’s corpse was cold. Yes; four-and-twenty hours had not elapsed since the sword was reddened with the blood of her mistress, when Jane Seymour became the bride of Henry VIII... The picture is repulsive enough, but it becomes tenfold more abhorrent when the woman who caused the whole tragedy is loaded with panegyric’.

Anne remains romanticised in today’s society, largely because of her brutal fate, an innocent Queen. She was far from perfect, but she deserved better than how she has been treated in recent fiction and film – whether that is Helena Bonham Carter’s shrewish and middle-aged Queen; Natalie Portman’s scheming and hysterical homewrecker; or the calculating and vindictive Anne of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. To conclude, the last words should belong to Anne’s chief biographer, as they are very moving and aptly epitomise this blogger’s position:

‘She had been a remarkable woman... There were few others who rose from such beginnings to a crown, and none contributed to a revolution as far-reaching as the English Reformation... What Anne really was, as distinct from what Anne did, comes over very much less clearly. To us she appears inconsistent – religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician... Yet what does come across to us across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early twenty-first century. A woman in her own right – taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex... taking a court and a king by storm.’ She was vindicated, 22 years later, when her daughter Elizabeth acceded to the throne.[10]

I agree. Anne Boleyn, an unbelievably complex person, was an incredible woman. In my research into English queens, there is none to compare with her. Her story continues to fascinate, entrance and captivate people across the world to an extent which few other historical personages are able to do. Innocent of the crimes she died for, Anne Boleyn was England’s most important queen consort – and perhaps the greatest.

[1]  Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 189-90.
[2] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2004), p. 291.
[3] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Phoenix, 1992), p. 308.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ives, Anne, p. 340.
[6] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 228.
[7] Fraser, Six Wives, p. 315.
[8] Ives, Anne, pp. 357-8.
[9] Fraser, Six Wives, pp. 315-16.
[10] Ives, Anne, p. 359.

1 comment:

  1. For those of you who might have an interest in a modern version of the Anne Boleyn/HenryVIII relationship, I wanted to let you know about an online/radio play that is currently in the works. It is called “In the Real World”. It’s a mystery – as much a “To whom was it done ?” as a “Who done it?” Just to make things interesting Harry Houdini also puts in an appearance. I’ll let you know when the play is available.

    Roy Schreiber