On May 10th and 11th of 1536, the Grand Juries of Middlesex and Kent had arraigned Queen Anne Boleyn on various charges. These included adultery with Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and musician Mark Smeaton. She was also charged with incest with her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. There were charges of plotting the King’s death with some of these men along with giving them gifts.
On May 15, in the King’s Hall in the Tower of London, Anne went to trial. The court was presided over by her uncle the Duke of Norfolk in his capacity as lord steward. She was formerly charged with treason, adultery, incest and plotting the king’s death to which she pleaded not guilty. After a pretense of proceedings during which Anne defended herself admirably, she was found guilty of all charges. Norfolk pronounced the sentence of death which would be carried out by being burnt at the stake on Tower Green or to have her head smitten off if it was the king’s pleasure. Anne was escorted back to her lodgings in the Tower.
On the morning of the trial, Archbishop Cranmer had visited Anne, possibly to get her to agree to have her marriage to the king dissolved. But this would have caused her daughter Elizabeth to be bastardized and disinherited. Cranmer may have promised to return but Sir William Kingston, the constable of the Tower, wrote a letter to Cromwell during the day of May 16th, stating that he had not heard from the archbishop and the Queen desired to be shriven.
Plans were commenced for the Queen’s execution. Kingston was informed that a swordsman from Calais was on his way. Carpenters were called to build a scaffold on Tower Green high enough so all those present could see.
On May 17th, the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, learned that Anne was to be executed on May 18th. In the early morning, on a scaffold on Tower Hill, George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton and musician Mark Smeaton were beheaded by axe. According to one of Anne’s ladies in attendance, Anne watched the executions either from the Bell Tower or the Byward Tower which were high enough to give a view of Tower Hill.
Anne was returned to the Queen’s lodging and Kingston came to inform her she was to die by beheading rather than burning, in the morning the next day. Anne took the news calmly. She was curious to know what the men who had just been executed had said and if they had protested her innocence. Kingston informed her that all the men except Smeaton had done so. Smeaton acknowledged that he deserved to die.
Sometime between nine and eleven in the morning, Archbishop Cranmer arranged for a court to be called into session in Lambeth Palace. The King and Anne had both been called to the court but neither of them appeared. Along with other doctors of the law, Cranmer proclaimed Henry and Anne’s marriage null and void. Elizabeth, from this point forward was a bastard and called Lady Elizabeth instead of Princess.
Later that night, the carpenters began building the scaffolding with four or five steps on Tower Green by the White Tower. The time for Anne’s execution was set for nine o’clock on May 18.
May 18 – Anne, assuming she would be executed on this day, rose at two in the morning and was joined by her almoner, John Skip, who came to offer her spiritual consolation. She spent time with him in prayer until Cranmer came to hear her final confession and administer the sacrament. She insisted that Kingston be in attendance. In her confession, she professed her innocence, saying she had never offended with her body against the King.
At nine o’clock, the appointed time for the execution, Kingston received orders from Cromwell to clear the Tower of “strangers”, meaning foreigners. Ostensibly this was to thwart any attempts by foreigners to write sympathetic descriptions of the execution which would reflect poorly of the King. Anne was informed her execution was delayed until noon. Anne sent for Kingston, complaining about the delay, saying she had hoped to be past her pain. When Kingston told her the death wouldn’t be painful, she put her hands to her throat, laughing, and remarked she heard the executioner was very good and that she had a little neck.
The executioner arrived from Calais. Due to the timing, it appears he had been summoned from the Continent by May 9 or 10, well before the trial. It is unknown if Anne requested execution by sword as opposed to axe or if Henry had a crisis of conscience and required the more humane method. Death by sword was a cleaner and more precise method of execution and Anne may have heard about death by sword when she was in France.
The evidence suggests the executioner may have been from Calais, an English possession. The Chronicle of Calais calls the executioner the “hangman of Calais”. Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands and the Spanish Chronicle state the swordsman came from St Omer in Flanders. Apparently there wasn’t anyone skillful enough for the job in England. Henry seems to not have considered burning Anne at the stake which was the customary method of execution for a female traitor. Execution by beheading was reserved for men of high birth. Henry paid the headsman £23.6s.8d, estimated to be in the range of about £7800 in today’s money.
Noon came and went. It was necessary to supply a sufficient number of witnesses for the spectacle so the execution was deferred until the next morning. Kingston informed Anne who was clearly disappointed. She begged for the execution to go ahead but Kingston could not change his orders. Anne spent her time praying and consoling her ladies. She did not sleep that night.
May 19 – Anne heard mass and took the sacrament at dawn and ate breakfast. At eight o’clock, Kingston knocked on her door to tell her the hour was near. Anne was ready and told him she was prepared. Kingston gave her £20 (£7000 in today’s money) to give as alms. It was customary for the condemned to pay the executioner but arrangements had already been made by the King.
When Anne appeared, she had clearly given a lot of thought to her apparel and appearance. She is described as wearing a robe of black or possibly grey damask with a red damask skirt. She was also wearing a mantle furred with the royal ermine. On her head, she wore a gabled hood over a netted coif. The robe had a low neckline so she wouldn’t have to remove it for the executioner to discharge his duty.
Assisted by Kingston, Anne emerged from her lodgings, accompanied by four ladies, whose identities we do not know. They met up with two hundred Yeoman of the Guard and there was a procession to the scaffolding where the executioner and his assistant were waiting, dressed no differently than the others. The sword was hidden in the straw on the floor.
A crowd of one thousand was waiting. Included were the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, other earls, nobles and lords, the Mayor of London with alderman and sheriffs, along with representatives of the guilds. Important spectators included the chancellor Audley, Thomas Cromwell and his son Gregory, and other members of the king’s council. Henry’s illegitimate son the Duke of Richmond was there with his friend the Earl of Surrey.
There was a buzz in the crowd when Anne appeared and witnesses described her as looking beautiful. As Anne passed the crowd she distributed the alms. Kingston helped her up the steps of the scaffold and they were followed by her ladies. Anne looked around at the crowd and then asked Kingston for permission to speak which he granted.
Edward Hall, in “The Triumphant Reign of King Henry the Eighth” (London, 1547) gives this version of her speech:
“Good 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.”
Anne turned and asked which man was the executioner. She was told he would be there presently. Her women took off her mantle and Anne removed her gabled hood. One of the women gave her a linen cap which she put on and collected her hair under so her neck was exposed. Anne expressed her gratitude to her ladies and asked them to pray for her.
The executioner stepped forward and asked her forgiveness which she gave willingly. He told her to kneel and pray. There was no block as it was not needed with execution by sword. She asked for time to pray. She kept looking around her and was worried her coif was in the way, putting her left hand up to her head. The executioner told her to have no fear, he would wait until she was ready and she didn’t need to remove the coif.
One of her ladies came forward to bind her eyes. She kept praying then signaled she was ready. As she was waiting for the blow, the crowd knelt, except for the Dukes Suffolk and Richmond. Events moved swiftly. The headsman turned toward the scaffold steps, asking his assistant to bring him the sword. Anne turned her head toward the steps, her hand still on her coif. The executioner took the sword and approached. He had taken off his shoes so Anne did not hear him. He grabbed the sword with both hands, circled it around his head for momentum and brought it down, instantly severing her head from her neck. The head fell into the straw on the scaffold. One of the ladies threw a white handkerchief over it. The cannons along Tower Wharf were fired as a signal that the Queen was dead.
One lady took the covered head while the other three wrapped the body in a white covering and carrying it, placed it in a chest which had once held bow staves. The chest was taken inside the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula on the Tower grounds. A priest gave a blessing and Anne was buried beneath the chancel pavement that very afternoon.
On the day of Anne’s execution, Archbishop Cranmer issued a dispensation for Henry to marry Jane Seymour without publication of banns beforehand. On May 30, Henry married Jane in a small chapel at Whitehall.
Further reading: “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Alison Weir, “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: The Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII” by Karen Lindsey, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” by Lady Antonia Fraser, “On This Day in Tudor History” by Claire Ridgway