Anne Boleyn, the unfortunate second wife of English King Henry VIII (most of them were rather unfortunate--the last, Katherine Parr, was the only one to survive him), was among many other things the first English Queen to be executed.

She had this to say on the occasion:

"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 all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul."

~Recorded by Edward Hall

Kind words indeed, seeing as how it was her "merciful prince" Henry that sent her to the Tower of London for her most likely fictional crime of adultery.

Anne was executed in 1536 by a specially imported French executioner, who decapitated Anne in the traditional way of her ancestry, ie. the (hopefully) single stroke of a two-handed sword.

The act was considered quite a favor, as most executions at the time were done with an axe, and not done particularly well.

The story of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne, has always been of particular interest to me. Her story is a fascinating one, although not nearly as interesting as that of her daughter Elizabeth.

Youth

It is believed that Anne Boleyn was born in 1507, although this date is not definite. There are also scholars who believe she was born in 1501, 1502, or even as late as 1509. It is generally agreed upon that she was born at Blickling (Norfolk), and that she was born in late May or early June. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, a member of the Privy Council and an important diplomat to the King. It was his travels to France that earned Anne, as well as her older sister Mary, a place at French court. Anne spent most of that time attending Queen Mary, who was Henry VIII's sister, and later after Louis XII died, she attended the new French Queen, Claude. During her years in France she learned to speak French and developed a taste for French clothes, poetry and music.

Legendary descriptions of Anne Boleyn often mention her having a sixth finger and a large mole on her neck. However, It seems a bit peculiar that such a woman could later captivate a king. Many feel the large mole was more of a beauty mark and that the sixth finger was not present at all. Anne was considered to be moderately pretty, although she was not the pale, blonde, blue eyed image of 16th century beauty. Anne was the contrary, olive skinned with dark brown hair. Her feature most often singled out in accounts seems to be her very dark brown eyes, which often appeared black. As to her body structure, Anne was of average height, and had a long, elegant neck.

Anne returned to England around 1521 where the details for her marriage were being worked out. She was to marry James Butler. This marriage never came to be though partly due to Anne's relationship with Henry Percy. It is also speculated that during this time she had some sort of romance with Sir Thomas Wyatt. Meanwhile, she spent her time at court attending Queen Catherine. Her first recorded appearance at Court was March 1, 1522 at a masque.

Queen or Nothing

Exactly when and where Henry VIII first noticed Anne is not known. It is likely that Henry sought to make Anne his mistress, as he had her sister Mary years before. At first, the Court probably thought that Anne would just end up as another one of Henry's mistresses. Anne did not give in to Henry though, and soon adopted a stance of "Queen or Nothing", a dangerous game she played very well. Anne held Henry's attention fully, and he seemed almost obsessed with her. During this time Henry wrote Anne love letters even though it was well known that he hated to write. Henry also bought Anne many expensive gifts, including jewelry and clothes.

During this time with Henry's attentions Anne began to emerge at Court, and in 1527 Henry began to seek an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Henry began to face trouble all around. Rome was not cooperative, and Anne was not popular with the people of England. Many at court were furious over Henry's desire to divorce Catherine. They were also enraged that Anne was often given precedence over the Duchesses of Norfolk and Suffolk, the latter of which was the King's own sister, Mary. Despite her lack of popularity Anne's position continued to rise. In September 1532, she was created Marquess of Pembroke, and by October she held a place of honor at meetings between Henry and the French King in Calais.

Sometime near the end of 1532, Anne finally gave way. By December she had played her final card and won the game, she was pregnant. To avoid any questions of the legitimacy of the child she carried, Henry was forced into action. This unborn child tipped the balance and Rome lost the battle with Henry's conscience. Sometime near the end of January 1533, Anne and Henry were secretly married. Although the King's marriage to Catherine was not dissolved, in Henry's mind it never existed. Henry quickly finalized the break with Rome and created a new independent Church of England, which would grant him the annulment. On May 23, the Archbishop officially proclaimed that the marriage of Henry and Catherine was invalid.

On the first of June Anne was coronated in a lavish ceremony in Westminster Abbey, led by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. By August, preparations were being made for the birth of Anne's child, which she swore was a boy. Names were being chosen, with Edward and Henry the top choices. The proclamation of the child's birth had already been written with 'prince' used to refer to the child.

The fall of a queen

On September 7, 1533, the Princess Elizabeth was born. Henry was disappointed, and Anne now knew that it was imperative that she produce a son. By January, she was pregnant again, but the child, reportedly a boy, was stillborn. In 1535, she was pregnant once again but miscarried early in the pregnancy. By this time Henry was tiring of Anne and his attention had turned to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

Henry set to work devising a plot to rid himself of Anne so he could be free to marry yet again. With the assistance of Thomas Cromwell an investigation was begun that Henry hoped would produce evidence of treason. Anne would eventually be charged with adultery, including an incestuous relationship with her brother George. It was also rumored that Anne was a witch and had tricked Henry into marrying her. While known to be somewhat of a flirt, Anne was executed for the simple fact that Henry wanted to marry Seymour in hopes that she would produce a son. Anne's failure to produce a living male heir was her undoing. On May 2, 1536 the Queen herself was arrested at Greenwich and was informed of the charges against her. She was taken that day to the Tower of London to await her trial. Her trial took place on September 15 in the Great Hall of the Tower of London. It is estimated that over 2000 people attended the trial. Anne conducted herself in a calm and dignified manner, denying all the charges against her. Despite her testimony and the scant evidenceagainst her, she was found guilty. Her sentence was read by her uncle, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, she was to either be burnt at the stake or beheaded, at the discretion of the King.

Anne knew that she had finally lost and that her death would soon come. She became hysterical, her behavior swinging from great levity to uncontrolled sobbing. She received news that an expert swordsman from Calais had been summoned, who would deliver a cleaner blow with a sharp sword than the traditional axe. After this Anne seemed to calm and even wrote some poetry.

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.1

Her fears now seemed to lie in that people would believe the false accusations against her, and that she would be infamous for it. She also worried about the fate of her young daughter, Elizabeth. These thoughts apparently plagued her more than her imminent death.

Anne's execution

They came for Anne on the morning of May 19 to take her to the Tower Green, where she was to be afforded the dignity of a private execution. She wore a red petticoat under a loose, dark grey gown of damask trimmed in fur. She made a short speech before kneeling at the block. Her words towards the King were kind and she even referred to him as "gentle" and "merciful". Her ladies then removed her headdress and tied a blindfold over her eyes. The sword itself had been hidden under the straw. The swordsman cut off her head with one swift stroke, making her the first English Queen to be executed. Anne's body and head were left out for several hours and eventually placed into an arrow chest. She was then buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula which adjoined the Tower Green. Her body was one that was identified in renovations of the chapel under the reign of Queen Victoria, so Anne's final resting place is now marked in the marble floor. It is rumored that Anne's ghost still haunts Hever Castle where Henry courted her,it is rumored she appears as a white, almost transparent phantom drifting across the lawn. She is also said to haunt a certain Salle Church.

As to Henry's reaction, Anne's execution was followed by an eleven day feast. Soon after this feast he was married to Jane Seymour. Despite his apparent joy, Henry was often plagued with guilt and never mentioned Anne's name again.

Lastly, as to Anne's only living child, the young Princess Elizabeth. Despite her mother's execution and many ups and downs in her early life, Elizabeth went on to become the greatest Queen in the history of England.


Notes

1Lofts, Anne Boleyn, 142.

References

Kay, Susan. Legacy.New York: Crown Publishers, 1985.
Lofts, Norah. Anne Boleyn. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1979.

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