Anne Boleyn Beheaded
Anne Boleyn ’s fate was determined by her failure to provide a male heir, and by Henry’s new infatuation with Jane Seymour. It became a matter of how and when, not if, she would be removed from the scene.
Though Anne had given birth to Elizabeth , it was a son that Henry craved. It must be remembered that the Tudor dynasty was only established by Henry VII in what was the violent culmination of the Wars of the Roses , at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This was a period of great turmoil, with religious conflict in Europe that could spread to England. Henry VIII had enemies at home and abroad. A son would reduce the threat he faced by providing the promise of continued stability for his supporters.
Thus when another pregnancy for Anne ended in January 1536 with the miscarriage at around four months of a male child, Henry’s mind was made up. She had already had at least one other stillbirth, perhaps more. The King declared that his marriage was the product of witchcraft. He had already favoured Seymour’s brother with membership of the order of the garter, when Anne’s brother had desired the honour. The shift of power was plain to see.
Acting swiftly, Thomas Cromwell had a handsome Flemish musician, Mark Smeaton, arrested and tortured into confessing an affair with Anne. Others were also arrested: Sir Henry Norris, and old friend of king and queen alike; Sir Francis Weston, a prominent courtier and friend of the queen; William Brereton, a minor official in the royal household; and most scandalously of all, Anne’s brother George, Lord Rochford.
Anne herself was arrested on May 2, and taken by barge along the Thames to the Tower of London. In a hastily arranged trial on May 12 of Anne’s supposed lovers – excluding her brother - they were inevitably found guilty – not only would Henry have punished anyone going against him, but the accused were not allowed to defend themselves as one of the charges was treason.
Anne and her brother faced the court in the great hall at the Tower of London on May 15, the verdict being just as inevitable. Anne spoke in her defence, trying to show at once her abhorrence of the charges and obedience and respect for the king, but in vain.
George Boleyn was executed at Tower Hill, his sentence commuted to beheading rather than burning at the stake, as was the normal punishment for incest. Norris, Smeaton, Brereton and Weston were all likewise beheaded with him on May 17 rather than as had been expected hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
Anne was beheaded by a French swordsman in a private execution within the tower. This was a nobler end, fit for a queen, and also likely to require one swift stroke (as indeed it did) rather than the repeated hacking that so often occurred with axe executions. Was this an act of mercy by Henry, or had an agreement been reached by which all the deaths would be made easier in return for Anne making a dignified speech before her end?
In her speech she stated: “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.”
Dressed in a dark grey gown edged with fur, with a red petticoat beneath it, Anne knelt upright to await the blow. The Calais swordsman was experienced and capable. His sword had been hidden from her view in some straw on the gallows. As she knelt, baring the “little neck” she had joked about when learning the details of her end, the executioner exclaimed: “Where is my sword?” to keep her from knowing it was about to strike.
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