Tuesday, 19 May 2015

'The Queen suffered with sword this day... and died boldly'


'The Queen suffered with sword this day... and died boldly.'
(from a letter by John Husee, London, May 19, 1536)
 
 
The Execution of Anne Boleyn, by Jan Luyken (c. 1664-1712)
 
 
 Today, May 19, marks the anniversary of the passing of Anne Boleyn.
 
 Her death was remarkable in two ways. Firstly, Anne was the first Queen of England to be executed, and secondly, she was accorded the privilege of a sword. The common English practice was the use of an axe and a block, but in this case, a French swordsman had to be sent from Calais to do the deed.
 
 Anne Boleyn's execution was also significant in the very way she died. John Husee, a London merchant, who may have been present at the Tower of London that fateful morning as an eyewitness, commented on how Anne 'died boldly'.1 Her alleged lovers, on the other hand, were described by Husee  as going to their deaths 'very charitably' (that is, in a forgiving and generous state of mind, as good Christians ought to).
 
 Such conduct was expected, but how did Anne's differ? What exactly did Husee mean by her 'bold' behaviour?
 
 The procedure on Tower Green that day was conventional. The Queen mounted the scaffold, addressed the crowd, was blindfolded, and knelt for the fatal blow.2 But perhaps her speech may provide clues. In it, Anne submitted herself to the law as the law had judged her, and she prayed for the well being of the King. It was seemingly nondescript. However, it was not what she said on the scaffold that really mattered, but what she didn't say. Anne never acknowledged her fault and that she was deserving to die, as she was supposed to. When Queen Katheryn Howard and Lady Rochford went to the block in 1542, both ladies declared they were 'justly condemned' and asked the spectators to regard their 'worthy and just punishment'.3 Anne Boleyn expressed no such guilt or remorse.
 
 As well, there was something in her demeanour. The Queen's jailer Sir William Kingston had written to Thomas Cromwell that while he had seen many men and women in great sorrow before their impending executions, the Queen on the contrary, 'has much joy and pleasure in death'.4
 
 Even upon the scaffold, Anne was in the same frame of mind. Unlike some recent tv and film recreations which have her being nervous or terrified (Wolf Hall and The Other Boleyn Girl come to mind), Anne was calm and dignified in her last moments. When she addressed the crowd who came to see her die, she even did so 'with a goodly smiling countenance.' 
 
 Anne Boleyn's death was a tragedy in that she was almost certainly innocent of the crimes she was accused. In response to such injustice, she did not die merely bravely, but 'boldly' in defiance.
 
 We would not have expected less from this extraordinary woman.
 
 
 
-------------------
 
NOTES
 
1 'Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII', Volume 10, January-June 1536, no. 919. See also no. 920.
 
2 The story that Anne Boleyn was tricked into turning her head by the executioner is suspect as it comes from a later source, and a questionable one at that. See: 'Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England', trans. by M.A.S. Hume, 1889, p. 71.
 
3 'Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII', Volume 17, 1542, no. 106.
 
4 'Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII', Volume 10, January-June 1536, no. 910.
 
5 'A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559,' by Charles Wriothesley, pg. 42.
 
 
 

No comments:

Post a Comment