Tuesday, May 19, 2015

May 19th, 1536 - Anne Boleyn's Execution

Depiction of the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn, from Anne of the Thousand Days.
"She who has been the Queen of England on Earth will today become a Queen in heaven."-Thomas Cranmer on Queen Anne Boleyn and her execution, 5/19/1536

At 8 o'clock in the morning on May 18th, 1536, three years after she had become Queen of England, Anne Boleyn mounted the scaffold within the walls of the Tower of London for her execution. She was to be beheaded at the King's pleasure, having been found guilty of adultery and treason. It doesn't take even a careful examination of the evidence to determine that the charges against Anne were fanciful at best. For example, she was not even in the same location as half of her alleged lovers on the nights their alleged trysts were supposed to have taken place. But, it didn't matter if there were holes in the "evidence", because everyone knew that King Henry VIII wanted his wife to die, so that he would be free to marry another, specifically Jane Seymour, and if anyone sitting in judgement on Anne's trial were to stand in the way of that, they would likely loose their head, as well. Still, just to make sure everything looked official, Anne and her alleged lovers, which included her own brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were given trials that had the appearance of due process.

The majority of historians and legal experts today have arrived at the conclusion that Anne and the men accused as her accomplices were innocent of their alleged crimes. The downfall of Anne Boleyn and her faction was one of the swiftest and most shocking coups in history. While the idea was undoubtedly Henry VIII's, Thomas Cromwell helped him achieve his desired result as quickly as possible.

Anne was graceful and poised in the hour of her death; the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall records her execution speech as follows:

"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 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 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. Oh Lord, have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul!"

Anne was then blindfolded, as was customary, and upon kneeling she was reported to have said several times, "To Jesus Christ I commend my soul, Lord Jesu receive my soul."

Often people wonder why Anne did not speak ill of Henry in her execution speech - they ask me, if she was going to die anyway, why didn't she just say all the things she must have really been feeling? There are a few reasons. Firstly, and simply put, it was not customary to do so. While each execution speech from the Tudor period is unique to the individual, they all follow the same basic format. Decorum and tradition were very important, even at one's death. Secondly, and most importantly, was Anne's daughter Elizabeth. Anne knew that her daughter Elizabeth was being left behind with the unforgiving Henry VIII, and knowing Henry's character intimately as she did, she would not have wanted to say anything to upset him and jeopardize the saftey of her daughter. And lastly, saying anything against Henry or his regime might mean a more traumatic execution for Anne -Anne no doubt wanted as quick a decapitation by the swordsman with as little heckling from those in attendance as possible.

An artistic representation of the beheading of Queen Anne Boleyn. Image via Google image search/reformation.org

While we remember Anne on this day for her untimely death, she should always be celebrated as a strong, capable, intelligent and alluring woman of the 16th century who was a political as well as an emotional being. She also gave birth to the most remarkable monarch England has ever known; Henry VIII may have done away with Anne Boleyn in his search for a son, but Queen Elizabeth I was her last laugh.

Natalie Dormer as Queen Anne Boleyn holding her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the Showtime series, The Tudors. Image via Elizabethanhistory.tumblr