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(1507?-1536)

 

On the morning of May 2, 1536, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, was watching a game of tennis at Greenwich when she received a message to present herself before the Privy Council. She was formally charged with the commission of adultery against the king and escorted back to her apartments under guard. At this point, stunned though calm, she feared nothing worse than divorce followed by either imprisonment or exile. She sat down to dinner and was interrupted by the presentation of the warrant for her arrest by her uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Thomas Cromwell. Immediately she was removed to the Tower of London by barge.

Arriving at the Court Gate, Anne sank to her knees on the cobblestones and queried of Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, “Mr. Kingston, do I go into a dungeon??Upon hearing that she would be taken to the same apartments she had been in for her coronation, she fell into fits of alternate weeping and laughing and frenzied chatter, protesting her innocence and asking for news of the men accused with her, and of her family. Her mood veered wildly from black despair to buoyant confidence to outright panic as she learned more.

The indictment against the queen was brought on May 10, with her trial commencing on May 15. Anne betrayed little emotion, listening calmly to the charges against her and refuting each one, arguing her case with such clarity and sense that many were convinced of her innocence. Nevertheless, all twenty-six peers, including her uncle and her former boyfriend, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, pronounced her guilty as charged. Northumberland fainted, and Norfolk wept as he read her sentence, “that thou should be burnt here within the tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same?

Thomas Cranmer, using Henry’s liason with Mary Boleyn as grounds, drew up the necessary paperwork annulling Anne and Henry’s marriage. It is thought that he gained Anne’s consent to this by implying there was a possibility she would be sent into exile instead of executed, for after his visit the following day Anne was cheerful and told her ladies she was to be “banished? Her mood soon departed as she was taken to the Bell Tower overlooking Tower Hill to witness the executions of the men condemned with her, her brother among them. Later that day Kingston had the sorry task of informing her that her own demise would take place on the next morning, and that a French swordsman was en route to do the deed.

Workmen continued throughout the night in erecting the scaffold on which she was to die shortly. She spent the night in prayer with her chaplain; shortly after dawn Cranmer arrived to hear her last confession and administer Holy Communion; Anne swore to him that she had never been unfaithful to Henry. A few more hours of life were granted to her when the headsman was delayed en route from Dover, pushing the execution back to noon. “I thought to be dead before this time, and past my pain,?Anne lamented to Kingston; then she placed her hands around her neck, laughing, and added, “I have heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.?When noon came and the headsman had still not arrived, it was postponed entirely until nine o’clock of the next morning, May 19. Anne was shaken by this delay, having been prepared, and expressed the hope that her resolve would not weaken in the coming hours, which she spent in conversation with her ladies, joking that perhaps she would be known in history as Queen Anne Lackhead.

Promptly at nine Kingston arrived, giving Anne a purse of twenty pounds with which to pay the headsman for his services, and with the Yeoman of the Guard escorted her out into the bright spring sunshine. On her approach to the scaffold she kept glancing behind herself, as if half-expecting a king’s messenger to hustle in with a reprieve. Looking tired but composed, Anne mounted the steps and smiled at the assemblage below her, delivering in a firm voice a last speech in which she proclaimed her innocence and requested their prayers. She then took leave of her ladies, pressing her prayer book into Margaret Lee’s hands. After kneeling with a priest for a final prayer, she rose and removed her French hood, revealing that her long dark hair had been swept up on her head so as not to impede the path of the sword. The headsman knelt to ask her forgiveness and receive his fee. Unclasping her necklace, she knelt before the block and was blindfolded. As she recited a litany of “Jesu, receive my soul! O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Christ I commend my soul!? the Frenchman wielded a smooth stroke of his blade and cleanly decapitated her. As he held her head aloft for the crowd to view, a collective gasp was heard as Anne’s lips and eyes were seen to still be moving, a reflex nervous system action which appeared to them to be a supernatural phenomenon.

No coffin had been provided for the cast-off queen; Anne’s ladies reverently placed her remains in an arrow chest which was carried to the Tower’s Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula for interment.

  

 Go here to read the full text of Anne's speech from the scaffold.