Writer's Note: I did an in-depth research project on the amazing Anne Boleyn and wanted to share with you. I hope you find it insightful and enjoyable to read!
Anne Boleyn: Her Life, Her Death, and Myths Surrounding Her
Educated in the finest courts in Europe, her grace, beauty and intelligence caught the eye of a king. She became his queen and their marriage helped to transform the religious and political landscape of England that still exists today. She gave birth to one of the most extraordinary monarchs ever to rule England. Many things come to mind when one hears the name Anne Boleyn. Five hundred years after her death the mysteries surrounding her still pose many questions. Who was the real Anne Boleyn? Why did she really have to die? Was she a manipulating adulteress? Did her ambitions lead to her fall from grace? Why is she still such an intriguing figure five hundred years later? One cannot have these answers unless you look at the entire life of Anne, from child, to courtesan, to mistress, to queen and mother.
Anne’s Early Years
There has been speculation for years as to the exact year of Anne Boleyn’s birth, with most historians now in agreement that she was born in 1501 or 1507. The actual facts we have about the timeline of her life supports the year 1501 more so than 1507. Evidence from an early letter Anne had written to her father, Thomas, concludes that it was written while she was residing at Margaret of Austria’s summer palace in 1513 (Ives 19). Had Anne been born in 1507 she would have only been six years of age and would not have been of a suitable age to be in service abroad. The standard age for a “demoiselle d honneur” in Margaret’s court was thirteen.
There is also a question of the place of Anne’s birth. While most people who research Anne assume she was born at Hever Castle in Kent, she was in fact born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, to Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Ormond and Wiltshire, and Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, later to become the second Duke of Norfolk.
Anne also had two siblings, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, and Lady Mary Boleyn (later to become Lady Mary Carey and even later, Lady Mary Stafford). There were two boys who were also born to Thomas and Elizabeth, but they did not survive infancy. Most historians agree that Mary was the eldest of the three Boleyn children, however there is much debate as to the birth order of Anne and George. From the many biographical sources of Anne it is a logical conclusion that she was the middle child.
In 1513, Anne began an educational journey that would shape the rest of her life. She went abroad for the first time at twelve years of age to “be finished.” She was to live at the Habsburg court at Mechelen in Brabant as a maid of honor to Margaret of Austria (Ives 19). Anne’s father saw the potential in his youngest daughter at an early age, prompting his decision to educate her at the court of the archduchess. Margaret was quite taken with Anne and was delighted with her sharp mind.
Anne’s experience in Margaret of Austria’s court was to have a great influence on the choices she made about her own court once she became queen. Her well documented love of poetry, music, and fine art began with her time spent under the archduchess’ tutelage. She trained under some of the best tutors Europe had to offer. It is estimated that Anne spent about a year at the court at Mechelen before heading to France around 1514.
Although historians have yet to find evidence of an exact date of Anne’s arrival in France, she is supposed to have caught up with the entourage of Mary Tudor in Paris by November 5, 1514. Mary’s reign in France lasted a mere eighty-two days ending with the death of King Louis XII. Although Mary returned to England, it is concluded that Anne was asked to stay in France to attend the new queen, Claude. She remained with Queen Claude for nearly seven years. The young Boleyn’s time in France only further enhanced the training she received under Margaret of Austria. She had a great talent for singing and dancing and could play musical instruments with notable skill. She also acted as translator for Queen Claude and English speaking visitors.
Back To England
Towards the end of 1521, Anne Boleyn’s stay at the court of Queen Claude came to an abrupt halt and she was summoned back to England. Upon her arrival, she was to be married to James Butler in order to solve a family dispute over titles and land. Things did not go as planned because no one could come to a civil agreement about who would get what.
The first evidence we have of Anne at court is in March 1522. She participated in a pageant on Shrove Tuesday, the assault on ‘the Chateau Vert’ (Ives 37) playing Perserverance. Anne performed and danced in front of the royal visitors from Spain. She finally had a chance to show off everything she had learned during her time abroad! She was a notable success charming everyone at the English court with her famous sparkling black eyes and quick wit.
The span of time between 1522 and 1527 is a bit unclear due to lack of sources of evidence on Anne Boleyn. We do have a few facts which tell us a bit about her as a new courtier in the Tudor court. She was first involved with and thought to be briefly engaged to Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland. King Henry VIII ordered Cardinal Wolsey to interfere and prevent the marriage providing the excuse that he had another match for Anne. Both she and Percy beseeched the Cardinal to speak with the king on their behalf. It was to no avail. Percy was married off to a daughter of the earl of Shrewsbury and Anne held a grudge against Wolsey which was said to help to bring about his later demise.
Anne was also said to be involved with the poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. There is great debate as to whether or not she actually shared his bed, and we will never know for certain, but we do know Anne made quite an impression on Thomas and was the subject of at least four of his poems. When one looks at all the evidence we have of Anne and Thomas, it suggests that it was a mere courtly dalliance, a flirtation. There is no real proof of them having slept together.
She was also at court in attendance on Queen Katherine of Aragon as a maid of honor, a position she was well familiar with by this time. Many historians agree that is was this close proximity to Henry VIII which allowed Anne to catch his eye.
A King’s Interest
The first clear evidence we have of Henry’s interest in Anne is in August 1527 when the king applied to the pope for dispensation to allow him to marry again. Anne is not specifically identified in the dispensation; however, there is mention that it also covered a woman who was related to the king in the ‘first degree of affinity… from … forbidden wedlock (Ives 84).’ There is also proof of Henry’s efforts to woo Anne in the seventeen love letters which he wrote to her. Although she was frequently labeled a whore, there is much evidence that suggests Anne did not sleep with Henry right away. Among the seventeen letters he wrote to her, you can see the growing urgency that keeping the king at arm’s length is creating. His pleading does not do much to sway Anne from her ultimate goal.
Here is where we start to come to the real questions concerning her first intentions towards the English Monarch. Did Anne really fall in love with Henry? Was she following instructions from her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and her father, Thomas Boleyn to become close to the king in order to bring down Cardinal Wolsey? What would lead her to believe that if she held out she could achieve the crown? Unfortunately, we will never know for sure what her true intentions were at the time that Henry started courting her. We must once again look at the facts from which we can draw conclusions.
When we look at the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, it is apparent to most that there was indeed a very strong connection between the two of them, at the very least a strong, consuming infatuation if not love. We can plainly see Henry’s feelings in the love letters he wrote to her. The king very much hated to write, so the fact that he wrote to Anne at all is a testament of his feelings towards her. So what were Anne’s feelings? There are many factors at play here. Anne was indeed ambitious. She had very high hopes for an advantageous marriage as shown when she had planned to marry Henry Percy. She had also seen how Henry had carelessly discarded her sister, Mary after an affair with her. Anne had no intentions of going the way of Henry’s other mistresses. Her future would be ruined. The king was nothing if not a persuasive and persistent man.
Henry VIII was still very attractive and considered a great catch for a woman at that time. The problem was that the king already had a queen. Anne nevertheless insisted that she would not sleep with Henry unless marriage was in the future. It is obvious by Henry’s response to Anne keeping him at arm’s length using this tactic that he was only growing more and more infatuated with her. There is evidence of Anne beginning to soften towards the king, staying at court more often.
It had to be a very heady thing for a young woman in Tudor times to have a king madly in love with you. There had to be a large sense of power in it, but also there is a belief that Anne couldn’t help but be swept off her feet in some way. She was notoriously jealous of Katherine of Aragon. This was partially due to her fear of losing her position with Henry, but it was also an emotional attachment that motivated her. When the king offered marriage, Anne most likely began to believe that Henry was really serious about her.
With all of these factors evident, we are able to conclude that Anne may not have had feelings for Henry at first, but eventually, he wore her down. She softened towards him once he offered the advantageous marriage she so desperately wanted. Ambition surely played a part which is evident by the fact that she held out so long, but she at least had a genuine affection for the king. Fans of this tragic romance would love to believe that Anne was madly in love with Henry, but it’s more likely that they were infatuated with each other.
When pondering the question of Anne’s involvement with Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall, there are many sides to look at and many political factors. We can safely assume Anne’s initial intent for getting involved with Henry was to help her father and uncle bring the powerful cardinal down. Her family was very ambitious and Anne’s father did not hesitate to use his daughters to further his agendas. Anne was much more intelligent than her sister Mary, and knew how to play Henry in just the correct manner to get the results she wanted. She was said to have held a grudge against the cardinal for not coming to her and Henry Percy’s aid when they wanted to marry. Her own personal feelings could have played a large part in assisting his downfall as well as the pressure from her family. In short, although she may have been enticing the king to a degree to elevate her family and get rid of Wolsey, there is evidence that it was not the only reason Anne stayed with Henry.
What would lead Anne Boleyn to believe that she could be married to King Henry and be crowned the Queen of England? Part of what fueled her ambition is very simple. She had formed an emotional connection to Henry. She also knew that Katherine of Aragon could not provide Henry with a son. Anne was Henry’s match in many ways, not the least was her intelligence. She had Henry convinced that she would give him the long hoped for son and heir to the throne. She knew Henry would want a legitimate heir, and therefore would have to be married to the mother of his son. She was not only an infatuation for Henry, but his friend and partner. For seven years, they were united as allies against all who opposed them and she held tight to that connection with Henry. She really believed she could help him rule and help to reform religion in England.
A Long Engagement
In order to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII first had to divorce his wife, Katherine of Aragon. It was not an easy task. This divorce would change the entire face of religion and politics in England forever. Anne is an important factor in all of this for many reasons.
While she was not the sole reason Henry had decided to divorce, she did spur his determination to see it through. Many times, Anne stood between the King and “a total loss of nerve” (Ives 98). The support in favor of Katherine was overwhelming and it was taking its toll on Henry. In order to stiffen the monarch’s resolve, Anne insisted on moving back to court. It becomes an awkward triangle with the king, the queen and Anne living under the same roof.
“The king’s great matter” also proved to help bring down Cardinal Wolsey. Anne had been able to convince Henry that the cardinal was not doing his best to get the king what he had long desired. The grasping cardinal was also found to be “in the pocket” of King Francois I’s mother, Louise of Savoy and therefore not serving England’s best interests (Ives 122). Wolsey sealed his fate when he acted against Anne, seeking a “rapprochement with Katherine, Charles V, and Rome (Ives 131). Anne was furious, threatening to leave Henry unless he moved against Wolsey. On November 4th, the cardinal was arrested and was made to go to London where he would await trial. He died of natural causes on November 29th, at Leicester Abbey before he could be tried.
There are many who would like to give full credit to Anne Boleyn for Henry’s decision to break with the Roman Catholic Church, however, that would not be accurate. Henry’s thoughts on reform had begun at least a decade before he met her. Many of the facets of becoming the “Supreme Head of the Church of England” had already been forming in Henry’s mind before Anne intervened. In the face of adversity, the ideas began to take shape and fuse together.
In 1528, Anne acquired a copy of “The Obedience of the Christian Man and How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern,” by William Tyndale. She read the book and had marked passages to show to Henry. Anne gave the king the book, pointed out the passages and suggested that he would find them worth reading (Ives 132). The book’s main idea is to show ‘the king is the person of God and his law in God’s law’ (Ives 133). This means that the ruler is accountable to God alone and the obedience of the subject is an obedience mandated by God. It was exactly the sort of validation Henry had been seeking. It resonated deeply with him. While it is true that Anne fed the king with many ideas, it is also true that they were ideas which confirmed his instincts.
The eventual submission of the clergy revolutionized Anne’s position. She had many friends and relatives filling the vital positions within the royal household and the government. Those who had fallen out of favor with her were immediately seeking to regain it. There was a noticeable shift in things, as the amount of money which Henry spent on Anne increased greatly. There were preparations being made for a wedding and coronation.
Anne was bestowed with the title of marquis of Pembroke in her own right on September 1st, 1532 at Windsor Castle. This was an unprecedented move for a few reasons. First, Anne Boleyn was the only woman who had ever been bestowed with that title. Second, the last person to hold that title was Henry’s great-uncle, Jasper Tudor, so gave the title strong royal connections. Finally, the title made Anne the most prestigious non-royal woman in the realm.
Ambitions Realized–A Pregnancy and a Coronation
By the Easter season of 1533, Anne was now recognized as the king’s “most entirely beloved and dear wife, Queen Anne.” There is evidence to show Henry married her in a private ceremony on January 29, 1533, but no one knew of this until much later. She was crowned in a grand celebration on Whit Sunday, June 1st, 1533. The coronation took place over a period of four days. Anne had been given the ‘fullest possible inauguration as queen’ (Ives 181). The event which had been seven years in the making was finally taking place. Anne was finally Henry’s Queen Consort.
At the time of her coronation, Anne was nearly six months pregnant. After the festivities ended, preparations were made for her confinement. The advanced stages of pregnancy were difficult for Anne, with Henry at his wits’ end, fearful he would lose both the baby and his queen. Once Anne began her confinement, Henry eased his worries by planning a grand joust for the arrival of the “prince.” Unfortunately for the excited parents, a prince was not delivered, but a princess. This was a crushing blow to Henry, who had risked his entire kingdom to marry Anne and ensure that he would have a son and heir. Although the grand jousts were canceled, the king’s predominant emotion was relief that the child and mother were healthy.
Elizabeth Tudor was christened on September 10th, 1533 in a magnificent ceremony in the Chapel of Observant Friars. She was brought back from the ceremony that afternoon, ‘escorted by over 500 lighted torches’ (Ives 185). It is believed she was given her name as a means to deliberately identify her with the royal dynasty, especially the king’s mother. Although she was not the long hoped for son, Elizabeth certainly proved later in her life that she could rule England just as well if not better than any man.
Anne the Queen
In addition to trying mightily to give the king a son and heir, what did Anne contribute during her reign as queen? One of the greatest things Anne contributed was not the son and heir that Henry had hoped for, but their daughter, Elizabeth. Although her sex was very much lamented at the time, Elizabeth was a compliment to both parents. As is well known, Elizabeth went on to reign for forty years and it is often referred to as the “Golden Age of England.” Although Anne never lived to see her daughter become queen, Elizabeth lived up to her mother’s ambitions and dreams for her and far exceeded any of Henry’s expectations.
Another of Anne’s contributions to the realm was that she was a very serious advocate of religious reform and was the catalyst for England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. While Henry may have considered the idea on his own, it wasn’t until Anne showed him William Tyndale’s book that progress started to be made. She gave the king the answers he had been seeking and he wasted no time in putting them to good use to get his way. Her contributions to religious reform did not stop there. Her influence within the church can be proved by her appointment of evangelical bishops such as Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Shaxton, and Thomas Goodrich. These men were all reformers with links to Anne Boleyn (Ives).
Anne also contributed by her careful choice of reformist scholars, her habit of studying the Bible and providing an English version for her ladies. She strongly felt that everyone should be able to read the bible in their own language. Anne protected the reformist literature and the illegal trade of Bibles and was known to help rescue religious refugees. All of these facts point to a woman who was very involved in religious reform for England and used her power to change things she felt were unjust within the church.
The queen also contributed smaller things. She brought a new world of fashion, fine art, and music to the court. Anne also made smocks, shirts and flannel garments for the poor, she washed the feet of the poor, and presented each with a purse of money thereafter (Fraser 214). During Anne’s years of ascendancy, not a single heretic had been burned (Weir 15).
The birth of a girl unraveled much of what Anne had so carefully put into place for herself. She once represented the hope of a son, heir, and ruler to England and to Henry. Her pregnancy represented a promise fulfilled (Ives 186). Instead of the long anticipated boy, Anne gave birth to a girl. With a princess born instead of a prince, the new queen was not in an enviable position. The coronation achieved the recognition as Henry’s consort, but the birth of Elizabeth set her back to having to once again establish her claim to the throne. Had she borne a son, her position would have been cemented. The pressure for Anne to have a son was now even greater.
While we can view Elizabeth’s birth as the start to her fall from grace, that would not be entirely accurate. Henry had every reason to believe at the time of the princess’s birth that Anne would become pregnant again and bear him a son. In essence, Anne made a promise to Henry and he expected her to follow through. Although she did become pregnant three times, only one child lived. Her final miscarriage in 1536 was said to be a boy, which could have only served to crush the king’s hopes. It has been often quoted that Anne had “miscarried of her savior.” Unfortunately, the quote rings true. Had she borne Henry a son, her position would have never been in question again and she would have remained queen. In Henry’s mind, Anne had broken that vital promise. It was to be a key factor in spurring the king to be rid of her.
There were other factors, which also contributed to her eventual fall out of power and consequently her death. There is the evidence that Henry grew very tired of Anne. She knew how to be charming, witty, intelligent, and outspoken. While it served her well as Henry’s mistress, she soon found that he did not appreciate these qualities in his queen. Henry grew weary of the constant arguments and emotional outbursts from Anne. Evidence shows that with his later wives, the king did not tolerate arguing or outspokenness of any kind. Jane Seymour was smart enough to acknowledge this and use it to her advantage when she became queen.
The English subjects’ growing animosity toward their new queen proved to be a factor in the queen’s demise. It reached a climax upon the death of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More. Although many would like to blame Anne fully for their deaths, it would not be accurate when we look at other elements. More and Fisher held tightly to their faith and refused to acknowledge Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. No one would have ever been able to steer them from that particular course. Henry felt betrayed by More’s refusal to acknowledge him and his new queen. He set out to make an example of More and Fisher. After refusing to swear their allegiance to the Act of Succession, an act which would establish a new line of succession through King Henry and Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher were executed for treason two weeks apart in the summer of 1535. While Anne did help to spark the reformation and had Henry’s ear, it is safe to say the deaths of More and Fisher are more the work of the mercurial king than his queen. One simply did not cross the king when he wanted something.
Two very important people who had a great deal to do with Anne’s fall if not directly ensuring it were Thomas Cromwell and Jane Seymour. Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn had started out as allies, only to become bitter enemies. He led the investigation against the queen and “found evidence” to support claims that she had committed incest and adultery. Many historians believe that in Cromwell’s point of view it could have been a case of “her head or mine.” There is evidence that Anne and Cromwell had a falling out because they had differing ideas about the religious reform and where to properly distribute the revenue from the dissolution of the monasteries in England. There is also evidence that the queen had threatened Cromwell with a beheading; a threat he took very seriously. He quickly changed his allegiance and aided Jane Seymour and her family to supplant the queen.
Jane Seymour’s family was slowly rising within the Tudor court. Her brother, Edward, was gaining more favor after his help with the meeting with Francis I in Calais in 1532. The Seymours were growing more ambitious by the year. Anne herself had shown others in court that to gain the king’s favor you had to be quite close to him. She had created a clear path for others of equal or more ambition to who wanted to become close to Henry. The Seymours used this information to their advantage and to the queen’s destruction. The Seymour faction came together with supporters of Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, Mary to bring Anne and her family down.
Jane was more intelligent than some historians would like to give her credit for and played her part well. It was clear that she, as Anne had before her, would not accept anything less than marriage to the king. She used her virtue as bait. Jane also took great care in being the exact opposite of Anne in many ways. She was meek, mild, agreeable and never argued with Henry. His will was her will. This alone made her a valuable asset to the king.
Once Cromwell had suitable allies in place, he set about plotting a coup for Anne Boleyn’s downfall. Unfortunately, it took a mere month to bring down England’s most controversial queen consort.
The day of Anne’s arrest started out like any other. She spent part of her morning on May 2, 1536 watching a game of tennis. Her champion won the match. A gentleman messenger appeared at her side and told her, “by order of the king,” she must present herself before the Privy Council at once (Weir 136). Anne Boleyn was a notably intelligent woman, and it is likely she knew something was gravely amiss. The tension at court had been building for weeks and Henry’s abrupt departure at a May Day joust the day before was a large indicator that something was terribly wrong. Not knowing what exactly would happen and having few allies left, it must have been a frightening situation for the queen.
Upon her arrival in the council chamber, Anne was informed without preamble that she was accused of “evil behavior,” and was formally charged with committing adultery with Sir Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton and one other they would not name. They also informed her that Norris and Smeaton had already admitted to their guilt. Later, she would discover that Sir Thomas Wyatt, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, and her brother, George Boleyn, Earl of Rochford were also arrested. Anne quickly defended herself and proclaimed her innocence but to no avail.
After being charged, she was escorted back to her apartments where she was served dinner. At two o’clock her uncle, Duke of Norfolk, along with Thomas Cromwell, and several other lords of the council entered her apartments. The Duke of Norfolk read from a scroll informing her that “they came by the King’s command to conduct her to the Tower, there to abide during his Highness’s pleasure” (Weir 137). Anne calmly replied, “If it be His Majesty’s pleasure, I am ready to obey.”
Investigations by historians show that after nearly five hundred years, three quarters of the allegations against Anne Boleyn can be disproved (Ives 344). Unfortunately the past actions of Henry VIII show how quickly he could be rid of someone that was no longer of use to him. Anne HAD broken her promise, after all. The take-down of England’s most controversial queen consort was “one of the most astonishing and brutal coups in English history” (Weir 5).
A Tragic End
Anne Boleyn made the journey to the Tower of London in “full daylight” by barge under guard accompanied by several men, among them Cromwell and Norfolk. Once she arrived at the Tower, she quickly lost her composure. The reality of the situation had set in. There is much evidence to show how this reality affected her as she went frequently from inconsolable, to laughing to quietly dignified. Anne was escorted to the Queen’s apartments in the Tower, which she proclaimed to be “too good for her,” and awaited her trial (Weir 141).
At Anne’s trial, there were many inconsistencies and her intelligence once again reigned supreme. However, it was not enough. Although she had defended herself quite well, the verdict was never in question. Guilty. It was a unanimous vote. The once entirely beloved wife and queen of King Henry VIII was sentenced to death either by burning or beheading. She was forced to give up her crown in a most humiliating display for everyone to see. She was quickly escorted back to the Tower to await her fate. But was she really guilty of adultery? Was she guilty of plotting Henry’s death? Did Anne really have to die?
The evidence is clear that Anne was not guilty of adultery. Many of the documents that were drawn up to include times and places of the alleged infidelities were inaccurate. Many times, Norris and Smeaton had been confirmed to be in another location altogether when the alleged activities occurred.
She is also not guilty of plotting Henry’s death. The king was the only thing standing between Anne and a long list of people who wanted to replace her. The Lady Mary had a growing number of supporters by the day that were willing to help her regain her rightful place in the succession. Anne was living in constant fear of being supplanted, and it grew more intense with the knowledge of the king’s amorous affections for Jane Seymour. If anything happened to Henry, she would be quickly overthrown and could have met death at the hands of those who opposed her. She would have never wanted that for her daughter, Elizabeth.
The evidence is also clear that in order for Henry to have the son that he so desperately needed, Anne had to die. There was no other way out for him. The king showed himself to be that of an angry, humiliated, and hurt husband, but there were also actions he had taken that shows that he in no uncertain terms wanted to be rid of Anne once and for all. He had to have a clear path to marry Jane, have legitimate son and heir, and to once again be on good terms with the Holy Roman Emperor. Katherine of Aragon had passed away and the threat of war with Spain was no longer imminent. Henry had almost sacrificed his entire kingdom for Anne and had been bitterly disappointed. He felt duped and felt validated in charging her for treason. He wanted a new start; a clean slate.
When it came down to making a final choice, Henry VIII chose a swordsman from Calais to behead her in the French fashion. There are many bittersweet questions we are left with in reference to this one choice. Was Henry paying a final tribute to his former queen? Was he showing mercy? Did he agree to a personal request Anne had made of him? The facts were that Anne was the first English queen ever to be executed at that time, she was the mother of his daughter, she had been his consort, and he may have felt she still deserved a somewhat honorable death. The traditional burning at the stake for a woman found guilty of treason was a very demeaning way to die; it was slow and agonizing. Perhaps it helped to assuage the guilt he may have been feeling towards the end.
Sadly, there is a more logical explanation. There is evidence among letters between Master Kingston of the Tower of London to Thomas Cromwell regarding the execution of Anne. The timeline shows us that in order for the swordsman from Calais to arrive when he did to perform the execution; Henry had to have ordered it at least a week before her trial. He had intended for Anne to be beheaded all along, cruelly letting her suffer while she awaited her fate (Weir).
There are many stories surrounding Anne’s final moments. She made her confessions, sought solace in prayer, and prepared herself to die. There were several delays which proved to be torture for her. She pleaded, ‘Master Kingston, I hear say I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought then to be dead and past my pain.’ Master Kingston told her, ‘there shall be no pain, it was so subtle;’ and then she said, ‘I have heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.’ Those immortal words have been repeated in most portrayals of Anne Boleyn in the media for years. It shows the small thread of fragility which she was hanging by while in the Tower.
The execution of Anne Boleyn took place on May 19, 1536, at nine o’clock in the morning. After weeks of humiliation, emotional strain, loss of family, and friends, it would soon be over. There are many accounts of her dignity and bravery on this day as she walked to the scaffold and addressed the crowd as regally as if she had never been stripped of her crown. It is a testament to her sheer strength, as she must have been exhausted, that she kept herself so well composed to the very end. She is said to have made the following speech before her execution:
“Christian people, I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defense doth not appertain to you. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me! To God I commend my soul” (Weir 289).
The executioner begged the fallen queen’s pardon for what he was about to do. She quickly pardoned him. He asked her to kneel and to say her prayers. Many knelt in silent prayer as she prayed, waiting for the blow. The executioner struck suddenly as she was distracted and not expecting it. Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a single stroke. The cannon along the Tower Wharf were fired signaling her death to the world (Weir 286).
Anne Boleyn, “the Most Happy,” marquis of Pembroke, Queen Consort of England, mother of Elizabeth I, was gone. She was buried at the royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vinicula at the Tower of London.
Devastated by her death, Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote a poem about his lost love. It expressed poignantly the horror of the tragedy of the late queen:
Freely wooed, so dearly bought,
So soon a queen, so soon low brought,
Hath not been seen, could not be thought.
O! What is Fortune?
As slipper as ice, as fading as snow,
Like unto dice that a man doth throw,
Until it arises he shall not know
She was England’s most controversial Queen Consort. She gave birth to one of the longest reigning monarchs in England’s history. She was a catalyst for religious reform in England. Anne Boleyn has left a legacy of mystery and scandal that still intrigues people five hundred years after her death and will for many more years to come.