May 19th, 1536
Commend me to his Majesty and tell him that he hath ever been constant in his career of advancing me, from private gentlewoman he made me Marchioness, from Marchioness a Queen and now that hath left no higher degree of honour he gives my innocency the crown of martyrdom ~ Anne Boleyn.
The nineteenth of May, 1536, a perfect spring day. The sky blue and the weather warm, birds sing their courting songs and flowers bloom. But the sweet fragrance of budding flowers compete with another sweet but sickly smell: the smell of blood and corrupting flesh.
At long last, the carpenters have put down their tools, content with their handiwork. All night, they had laboured to build a high scaffold for a crowned Queen of England. Very soon, she will climb its steps, prepared to take her final breath.
The king’s executioner has been very busy of late. Only two days before, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Francis Weston took turns to bare their necks for him. His work not finished, he then flexed his muscles and swung his axe for George Boleyn, brother of the woman now making ready to meet her doom. Boleyn spoke his final words to the crowd come to witness his death. Some wept when they heard him say:
“Trust in God and not in the vanities of the world; for if I had so done I think I would not have found myself here before you condemned to die.”
George Boleyn died bravely. But then so did all the men convicted with the queen. Today, many in the crowd wondered if it would be likewise with Boleyn’s sister. When she first arrived at the Tower, after her arrest, her courage had deserted her. But not for long. Her bravery at her trial had impressed even those who hated her.
No one, not even the man who signed her death warrant, was ever sure of what this woman would do. Some wondered if this was indeed the crux of the matter, and if it was this uncertainty that had brought her and those others close to her to this dreadful, bloody end.
It was time. Followed closely by her attendants, Anne Boleyn, her head held high, mounted the steps to the platform. Reaching it, she turned to face the crowd, amongst them stood two dukes, one the king’s son and the other his brother-in-law. All the men here were carefully invited guests of the king. One of these guests said later that he had never seen her look so beautiful.
Anne’s attendant helped her to remove a dark-grey damask cloak. Beneath this, she wore an under-dress of deep crimson. She stroked her slender neck with trembling fingers.
Clad in black from head to toe, the expensive swordsman from Calais, (no clumsy axeman for this former bedmate of the king) knelt at her feet.
“Madame, I crave your Majesty’s pardon for I am ordered to do my duty, ” the Swordsman said in French, a language Anne Boleyn knew so well it could have been her first.
Quietly saying the customary word, “willingly,” Anne handed to him his fee, a payment meant to ensure her of a quick death. She then stepped closer towards the crowd, and cleared her throat. The speech she said to the crowd had such impact that the king later refused the right of a future ‘about to be executed’ wife to address witnesses assembled to watch a savage death. (i)
“Good Christian people – I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by law, I am judged to die, and therefore will speak nothing against it. I come hither to accuse no man, nor speak anything of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die. But I prayed God to save the King, and send him long to reign over you-for a gentler nor merciful prince there was never; and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle with 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.”
Her women wept. But they had duties to perform. One came over to Anne, passing to her a white linen cap. Before taking off her coif, covered with pearls, and replacing it with the simpler cap, Anne gave the woman her small, gold bound prayer book and scarf. The woman came behind Anne and blindfolded her. Approaching her, the executioner spoke again, “Madame, I beg you now to kneel, and say your prayers.”
Her attendant led Anne to the block. There she knelt, and straightened her shoulders, raising her hands to the sky.
“To Jesus Christ I commit my soul! O Lord, have mercy on me. To Christ I commend my soul. Jesus, receive my soul!”
Her prayer finished, Anne held onto the block to steady herself. The executioner muttered quietly to his assistant, and his sword – hidden from sight behind a straw bale – was put into his hand.
With all the skill of a sure expert, the blade sliced through the air, and sliced through Anna’s slender neck. Verily, a quick end for Anne Boleyn’s turbulent life.
Bring me on my quiet rest,
Let pass my very guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Ring out the doleful knell,
Let its sound my death tell;
For I must die,
There is no remedy,
For now I die?
Defiled is my name full sore
Through cruel spite and false report,
That I may say for evermore,
Farewell to joy, adieu comfort.
For wrongfully you judge of me
Unto my fame a mortal wound,
Say what ye list, it may not be,
Ye seek for that shall not be found.
(i) Norah Lofts, Anne Boleyn, page 178