Written by Shannon Birds. Edited by Emma Ward.
Imagine the scene. A small crowd swarms outside the Tower of London on a very early May morning in 1536 to witness the execution of (someone accused of being) a treasonous, incestuous concubine. A few short days before, the infamous George Boleyn and four other men were beheaded on the grounds of adultery with the queen.
When considering the fact that Henry VIII accused his wife of adultery, the speech Anne Boleyn gave on the scaffold was extraordinary.
“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…”
This is the opening statement of the speech and appears to be entirely out of character. Anne was not known to be so submissive and considering the charges she faced, her fiery temper was expected to have shone through. However, during the Tudor period, there was a set way in which executions were carried out. This article will go on to discuss to what extent Anne Boleyn followed the Tudor execution etiquette.
The aforementioned quote highlights the very first rule of execution, accepting your fate (whether Anne was guilty of such crimes is an entirely different historical issue, but historians such as Alison Weir suggest not). It is important to remember that Anne does not say that she is guilty, only that she has been found to be.
“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.”
The second rule of execution is that you must confess your sins and accept the judgement. Anne does this with ease but what is perhaps more surprising to us is that Anne speaks of Henry with what appears to be love. Could this suggest that Anne was completely innocent and that she truly loved Henry, regardless of what was to become of her? Or was it expected that one should pray for the long life of the king?
Consider also that Anne was leaving behind her young daughter, Elizabeth, and was perhaps praying for Henry’s kindness (which unfortunately was not to be, as Elizabeth was declared illegitimate on the first of July, 1536).
Furthermore, it is expected that upon your execution, you must face it with courage and dignity. Following her execution, many commented on the hardship Anne had faced during her short reign and her bravery upon the scaffold.
In a time of extreme religiosity and reform, it is expected that you profess your faith and pray. Once again, Anne followed this to the letter as she asked those watching to pray for her.
“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.”
When finally blindfolded by the somewhat ironic French executor, Anne was heard to have repeated a prayer several times. Many said that you could still see her mouth moving when she was beheaded.
“To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul.”
Although Anne’s execution met all of the criteria at the time, it is still a poignant moment in history. Anne was the first English queen to be executed and this could suggest why she still remains such a prominent figure who has been the cause of much historical debate. Anne had worked her way up from Queen Catherine of Aragon’s maid to Queen herself in twelve long years. Her fall was much quicker and much more painful.
In the words of Thomas Wyatt,
They did her conduct to a tower of stone,
Wherein she would wail and lament her alone,
And condemned be, for help there was none,
Lo! Such was her fortune.
Rest in Peace, Queen Anne Boleyn.