Monday, May 19, 2014

May 19, 1536: The Execution of Anne Boleyn

A statue of Anne Boleyn at the scaffold by artist George S. Stuart, from his Gallery of Historical Figures. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this day in Tudor history, May 19th, in 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed. She had been Queen of England for just three years. Below, we have included an excerpt from our feature-length article about her life, "Anne Boleyn, Mother of the Virgin Queen". The article itself details Anne's upbringing, relationships with her family members, her romance with Henry VIII, her active role in religious reform in England, her accomplishments as queen consort, her relationship with her daughter Elizabeth, and her downfall, trial, imprisonment and death.

The excerpt below specifically concerns her final night in the Tower of London and her execution:

While many have interpreted King Henry’s commissioning of a swordsman from France to behead the Queen , instead of a traditional axeman, as a final act of charity, this is pure fantasy, as “…Henry must have requested that he set out for his journey long before the jury had even given their verdict…”(Denny, 302). Weir corroborates this, detailing the time it would take to get word to the swordsman, and then the additional time it would take for him to travel and arrive in England.
Archbishop Cranmer made one final visit to his Queen in the Tower. Denny claims that the “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)  
Religion at this time is convoluted, and different historians have argued one way or another that Anne died a Catholic, or a Lutheran. In death, as in life, Anne was a reformer of the Catholic Church in England, not a Lutheran, and though she held some Lutheran beliefs, she appears to have died in the Catholic faith. 

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). Master Kingston recorded that “this day at dinner, the Queen said she should go to a nunnery, and is in hope of life”. Weir points out that if Anne entered a religious house, her marriage would be declared null and void by default. “It might be concluded, therefore, that she had agreed to the annulment without undue process.” (Weir, 245).  In the end, “there would be no question of Anne being banished to a nunnery, which would have had to be abroad anyway, since those in England were scheduled for dissolution.” (Weir, 245)
Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London. By Edouard Cibot, 1835. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Despite the annulment of Anne and Henry’s marriage before her execution, Elizabeth Tudor’s legitimacy should have never been in question. The Act of 1534 rendered both the papal dispensation of 1528 and the marriage invalid; therefore, the legitimacy of the Princess Elizabeth, who had been born before that date, from a marriage entered into in good faith, should have never been affected. Yet her own father, the King, Cromwell, and Cranmer, were not concerned with the legality of the issue (Weir, 245).
After the executions of Henry Noriss, William Brereton, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton and George, Lord Rochford, Anne was preparing to die. She had been informed that she was to 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 had been postponed until noon. Any lesser woman would have been overcome with anxiety at the delay, but we know from those who were with her that she kept calm, and even made a few jokes to lighten the mood. When Anne finally mounted the scaffold, there was no booing, or taunting from the crowd. Instead, there was silence, signifying the shock and awe those in attendance. Even those English subjects who loathed Anne were shocked at this unprecedented event; never before had an English Queen been executed. There was unrest in the city outside of the Tower green, and Master Kingston even voiced fear to Cromwell of a rebellion (Denny, 313). 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). According to tradition, Anne handed her Book of Hours to one of her only remaining friends, Margaret Wyatt, before placing her neck on the block.  The Wyatt family has backed this story since the 18th century. In the cover, Anne had written, “Remember me when you do pray, that hope doth lead from day to day”. Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee was the wife of Sir Anthony Lee and the sister of Sir Thomas Wyatt. She probably was friendly with Anne, but we do not know for sure whether she was in Anne’s service. Her portrait by Holbein was painted around 1540, when she was about 34, too old, Weir thinks, to have been referred to as a young lady or a maid in the Queen’s service. There were four ladies who attended Anne before her death and accompanied her to the scaffold, but their identities are contested.
A portrait by Holbein of Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee, circa 1540. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 There is also a tradition that Anne kept a small trinket of great significance on her person until her final moments. The trinket was a small gold pendant in the shape of a pistol; the barrel held a miniature whistle and a toothpick. Anne reportedly it to a Captain Gwyn, who helped her along to the scaffold, telling him that it had been “the first token the King had given her,” adding “that a serpent formed part of the device, and a serpent the giver had proved to her.” Captain Gwyn did, in fact, exist, and held extensive property in Swansea during the reign of Henry VIII. Though the trinket, made around 1520 and currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is contemporary, there is no way to prove the story (Weir, 279-80).

The trinket said to be Henry VIII's first love token to Anne Boleyn, which she gave to Captain Gwyn before mounting the scaffold. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Picture acquired through Flickr courtesy of That Boleyn Girl.

After Anne commended her spirit to God, the axe fell on her head and she was gone. There were no cheers at the conclusion of this bloodbath, 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; he had to, in order to beget an heir, since he had made all of his living children bastards. Anne was gone, but never forgotten. Immediately after her death, poems and ballads were written and circulated to honor the fallen Queen. There were also treasonous pamphlets criticizing the King’s behavior being printed, in England and abroad. People talked openly of the conspiracy that brought down the Queen, yet no one had been willing to risk their own lives to defend the Queen and the 5 accused men in their hour of need. Abroad, Nicholas Bourbon (whom Anne had helped rescue), Margaret of Hungary and Entienne Dolet remarked on the tragedy, among many other notable figures of the day.
Gone, but not forgotten: on the anniversary of Anne Boleyn's death, an anonymous party places long stem roses on her memorial in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. Picture acquired through Flickr, courtesy of That Boleyn Girl.
Perhaps Queen Anne's greatest legacy is the daughter she left behind, Elizabeth, who became one of the most celebrated and recognizable English monarchs of all time. Despite Elizabeth being less than three years of age when her mother was killed, there are many ways that she connected to her mother beyond the grave. 
Anne Boleyn Says a Final Farewell to Her Daughter, Princess Elizabeth. By Gustaf Wappers, 1838. Picture acquired via Tumblr from auroravong.

Using a surprising amount of contemporary evidence and a little bit of conjecture based on fact,  I am excited to share with my readers how Queen Elizabeth I really felt about her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn in my article, “Death Could Not Separate Them: How Elizabeth I Connected to Her Deceased Mother”. 

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