Saturday, May 19, 2012

The 2012 Anniversary of the Execution of Anne Boleyn

A copy of a 1534 original painting of Queen Anne Boleyn, currently on display at the Boleyn family ancestral home, Hever Castle. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Common. Image public domain.
I believe that to admire Queen Elizabeth I is to admire her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn.
I have spent a lot of time in my life researching the fascinating, powerful and ever-enigmatic Anne Boleyn. On this May 19th, the anniversary of the day of her execution in 1536, I felt it fitting to remember the woman who gave birth to Elizabeth. We know that Elizabeth sought to understand and connect to the memory of her late mother (please see my article, Death Could Not Separate Them: How Elizabeth Connected to Her Deceased Mother).

The Chequers ring. This ring was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I in 1575 and worn by her until her death in 1603. To learn why this unique piece of jewellery is one of the strongest pieces of evidence we have that prove Elizabeth I felt positively about her mother, please see my article Death Could Not Separate Them: How Elizabeth I Connected to Her Deceased Mother. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Common. Image public domain.

While historians Eric Ives and Alison Weir and David Starkey can illuminate you on the life of Anne Boleyn in print, there are some dedicated women with an online presence who I consider online authorities on Anne Boleyn, and who I encourage you to get familiar with: Claire Ridgway of the site The Anne Boleyn Files, and Natalie Grueninger of On The Tudor Trail (links below). Since they cover Anne Boleyn in depth on a daily basis, I will not try to re-invent the wheel here, but I do want to pay my respects...

Below is an excerpt from my Anne Boleyn article: A timeline of the catastrophic events leading up to Anne's execution after King Henry VIII jousting accident are as follows:

[EXCERPT BEGINS] -April 23rd, 1536 George Boleyn is under the impression he is to become a new Knight of the Garter. Upon arrival to the ceremony, he is publicly snubbed, being informed that Nicholas Carew would be taking his position.

-Bishop Gardiner, abroad in France, returns home when he is notified that King Henry is looking for a way out of his marriage. He is generally credited with suggesting the charge of adultery.

-On Monday, April 24th, On Henry’s orders, Cromwell assembles a court to investigate the matter of destroying the Boleyn faction. Henry Percy and Anne’s relationship is discussed in detail. Percy is ordered to testify that he and Anne had an understanding to marry, but Percy refuses to comply.

-On Wednesday, April 26th,Thomas Boleyn suspects something is afoot, and notifies Matthew Parker, Anne's chaplain, who in turn warns Queen Anne. Parker would later recount his grave worry for the queen to Nicholas Bacon in 1559 (Denny, 270).

-Anne hastily makes arrangements for her daughters care, obtaining promises from trusted friends to look after Elizabeth if anything should happen to her.

-On Thursday, April 27th Parliament is recalled.

-On Sunday, April 30th, Anne confronts Henry about the rumors surrounding their marriage, after he cancelled the couples trip to Calais. The reformer Alesius was present at this tragic confrontation, and later told the episode to her Queen Elizabeth:

Alas, I shall never forget the sorrow I felt when I saw the sainted Queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a baby, in her arms, and entreating the most serene King your father in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard and she brought you to him. The faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed the King was angry…

Knowing Henry Percy would not testify against Anne, and knowing Anne would never agree to a divorce, Cromwell began arresting various men who had had any acquaintance with the queen, to frame them for adultery. Mark Smeaton was the first to be arrested, and being low-born, was tortured. He is the only man to say he had illicit relations with Anne, and his claim is not to believed, given that it was extracted under torture.

Henry last saw Anne at the May Day tournament, when they sat together watching the joust. A message was passed to the king in the stands, and Henry called to his attendants, including Henry Norris, to leave with him immediately. Henry would promptly accuse Norris of an affair with his queen, and Norris would deny it, and defend the queen’s virtue, saying that he would fight any man who besmirched Anne’s honor (Denny, 273).

Several other unfortunate and innocent men were arrested, including Boleyn family friend Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt was fortunate enough to be released, and would later write a poem to honor both Queen Anne and the men accused of adultery.

A sketch by Holbein of Boleyn family friend and poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Anne was arrested and brought to the Tower of London by boat, entering through the Traitors Gate. Later, her daughter Elizabeth would have this same horrible experience, but thankfully with a very different outcome. According to her jailer, Anne declared “My God, bear witness there is no truth in these charges. I am as clear from the company of man as from sin.” Indeed, there was not, and it is only after Anne was in custody that Cromwell began fabricating the case against her (Denny, 277). All the men accused, save for Smeaton, denied any affair and regularly professed to their inquisitors Queen Anne’s impeccable virtue.

The Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London; both mother and daughter would share the same terrifying experience of being imprisoned in the Tower. One would survive; the other would not. While Elizabeth might have entered through the Traitor's Gate, her mother probably entered through the more distinguished Court Gate. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
The English people were in shock-while they had always know their king was capable of great cruelty, they were stunned that he had turned on his wife so quickly, and that he had arrested 4 noblemen well known to be upstanding citizens. In addition to Smeaton, Anne was accused of adultery with Sir Henry Norris, the king’s good friend and her cousins intended, William Brereton, an evangelical who had given her her beloved greyhound, Urian, and Sir Francis Weston. Most shocking of all, Queen Anne was charged with sleeping with her own brother, due to the jealous, vindictive testimony of his wife, Jane Parker. While recent research has tried to vindicate Jane, she had a long history of petty behavior before this point, and I cannot be sympathetic to her. Later, she would be executed for aiding Anne’s cousin and Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard secret rendezvous with various lovers. While Anne was innocent, Katherine Howard (and Jane) were not.

A sketch by Holbein, generally thought to be of Jane Parker, Lady Rochford. Jane was the wife of George Boleyn, and thus the sister-in-law of Queen Anne. Jane Parker was one of the key informants who provided (false) evidence against her. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Boleyn family friend, Archbishop Cranmer, hurried back to London, and wrote a very long and letter on Anne’s behalf to the king, saying “I am in such perplexity, that my mind is clearly amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman, than I had in her; which maketh me to think, that she not be culpable..” (Denny, 279)

A detail from a portrait of Thomas Cranmer. Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Feeling that the end was near, Anne wrote one last letter to the king, to appeal for the mercy of the men that were taking the fall with her, and also for herself. The letter was written on May 6th, but never reached the king. It was found hidden away in Cromwell’s papers, years later. To read the entirety of this poised letter, which is a true testament to Anne’s intelligence, strength and bravery, read Denny’s chapter “Conspiracy”, pages 282-284.

 John Spelman, a judge in the court that tried the accused, later declared that the entire spectacle was ridiculous, and that ‘all the evidence was bawdry and lechery’. The court case and all its presented ‘evidence’ are detailed in full by Ives and Denny, and I would encourage my readers to investigate it, because it is so outlandish it is laughable.

After Smeaton, Norris, Brereton, and Weston were tried, George Boleyn stood before the court. George put up such a fight that his argument ‘crumbled the royal case to dust’. (Denny, 296) Still, the jury was rigged, and he was sentenced to die.

Anne was the last to stand trial, and also made a speech on May 15th, but hers was much more regal than her brother’s. Her powerful address moved the hall to silence, and some fought back tears. The Mayor of London declared “I can only observe one thing in this trial-the fixed resolution to get rid of the Queen at any price”. (Denny, 300) King Henry VIII cruelly had Henry Percy of Northumberland sit on the jury to pass sentence on the woman he loved.  Queen Anne was sentenced to death, by burning or beheading, at the kings pleasure. Mercifully, Anne was not to be burned. Percy was so overcome with emotions that he fainted, and had to be carried out. He would die a year later, almost bankrupt and leaving behind no children. While many have surmised that King Henry’s commissioning of a swordsman from France to do the dirty deed of beheading , instead of a traditional axeman, was a final act of charity, this is pure fantasy, as “…Henry must have requested that he set out for his journey long before thew jury had even given their verdict…”(Denny, 302)

Archbishop Cranmer made one final visit to his queen in the Tower,  but “the suggestion that he had come to hear her last confession and grant her absolution is an error made by Catholic writers, for evangelicals…do not believe in this ritual. As a believer, Anne would have made her own peace with God through the indwelling Holy Spirit." (Denny, 302)

Cranmer undoubtedly brought great comfort to Anne, but he also was forced to do the kings business. Killing Anne was not enough to make way for Jane; the king needed to disinherit Elizabeth with one swift move. Tragically, Anne was led to believe that if she signed the document that Cranmer had brought her, declaring Elizabeth illegitimate, that she would be allowed to leave the country peacefully with her daughter, and live out her days in a Protestant country. Anne, desperate and alone, felt great hope at the prospect of making a life for herself abroad, and raising her daughter to become a great and learned lady. She signed. After Cranmer’s visit, Anne was heard saying she would like to take Elizabeth to Antwerp (Denny, 306). This would never happen, but Elizabeth would, indeed, become a very great and learned queen.       

         After the executions of the innocent men and her brother, Anne was preparing to die. She had been informed that she would be dispatched from this world to the next at 9 in the morning, on May 18th. She dressed herself, said her prayers, and was ready to meet her fate, when she was then told that her execution was postponed. Any lesser woman would have been overcome with anxiety at the delay, but we know from those who were with her that she kept her cool, and even made a few jokes to lighten the mood.

When Anne finally mounted the scaffold on the 19th, there was no booing, or taunting from the crowd. Instead, there was a silence, signifying the shock and awe those in attendance felt at the execution of an innocent woman, their queen.  There was unrest in the city outside of the Tower green, and the queen’s jailer, Master Kingston even voiced fear to Cromwell of a rebellion (Denny, 313).

A detail from a portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Anne made a short speech, careful never to criticize the king, for “ This was no time to protest her innocence, she knew it was far too late for recriminations which could only endanger her daughter Elizabeth. In her last moments Anne’s sole concern was to depart this life with grace and forgiveness for those who had wronged her…” (Denny, 315) [EXCERPT ENDS]

The scaffold speech given by Queen Anne right before the French swordsman severed her "little neck", taking her head from her body and thus ending her most impressive life, was recorded by Tudor chronicler Edward Hall (c.1498-1547). His account of Anne's last words are the closest we will ever get to hearing them for ourselves:

"Good Christian people,
I am come hither 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 anything 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 to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me; to God I commend my soul."

Anne handed her Book of Hours to Margaret Wyatt before placing her neck on the block. In the cover, Anne had written, “Remember me when you do pray, that hope doth lead from day to day.” Anne was then blindfolded and led to the block; before the swordsman took his swing, she repeated several times, "To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul."  

A portrait of Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee c. 1540. By Hans Holbein. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
The axe fell on her head and she was gone. There were no cheers, but there were cannons that announced to King Henry, far away and in the company of Jane Seymour, that he was free to wed, yet again. He would do so quickly, since he had made all his living children into bastards.

A portrait by Holbein of Anne Boleyn's short-lived successor, Queen Jane Seymour. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 The execution of Anne Boleyn was unprecedented; it was the first time a Queen of England had been disposed of in such a way; unfortunately, it would not be the last.

A plaque to commemorate the most notable executions that took place on the green in the Tower of London. Queen Anne Boleyn is listed first, and her equally unlucky cousin, Katherine Howard, is the third down on the list.

Anne had been sentenced to die for being found guilty of adultery, even though her marriage was annulled prior to her death; this meant that she was going to the block for violating her marriage vows, even though now legally she had never even been a wife. How did a woman found guilty of such frustrating trumped-up charges embody such grace and courage in her defeat? And how many of us can say that we would be able to remain so calm and collected if we were faced with the same situation (God forbid) ?

Rest in Peace, Queen Anne Boleyn. You are not forgotten.

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England 1533-1536.

For more on Anne Boleyn online, please visit:
The Anne Boleyn Files: