The fairy tale love affair of King Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn has enchanted many of us for a lifetime. One of the most powerful kings England had ever known, Henry set aside Katherine of Aragon, his Spanish queen, severed ties with the Catholic Church and married Anne for love. This was unheard of in 1500s Europe, when dynasties and family alliances were time-honored European royal traditions.
What begins as a distraction becomes his obsession. Anne’s elusive behavior toward the King’s advances merely serve to stroke his ardor. The faster she runs from him, the stronger Henry seeks her heart, writing letters to her personally–something he loathed doing.
Henry VIII fell truly in love. For seven years he pursued, courted and finally won his longed for prize. He created the Church of England in order to marry Anne. She recklessly allowed Henry to remove everyone who resisted their union.
But, to quote Socrates…
“The hottest love has the coldest end.”
As Queen, Anne gave birth to a daughter, which history would know as Elizabeth I, yet her failure to to give the King his longed for heir in the form of a male child leads to his lack of interest in her and eventually her destruction. Anne made enemies on her way to the top, and these were the very people who were more than receptive to witness her fall from grace. Geoffrey of Monmouth had recorded in The Prophecies of Merlin and again in History of the Kings of Britain that a Queen of England would be burned at the stake. Rumors swirled as Anne had not one but two miscarriages, the final being a male fetus. Folkloric tales from the mists of ancient Britain abounded, told in codes and interpretations of portents. Anne’s days were numbered. Whispers of Lady Jane Seymour filled Anne’s ears until the two final came to blows when Anne caught Jane in Henry lap one April afternoon. It was to be Anne’s undoing.
Queen Anne was at a tennis match on May 2, 1536 when she was beckoned by a messenger to appear before the King’s Privy Council. By evening she was in the Tower of London. She was not told of the charges brought against her. But, by May 19, 1536 she she executed by a swordsman on charges of adultery, incest and treason. We can only imagine her pain and despair as she died, leaving the young Princess Elizabeth, who was not yet three years of age. Anne Boleyn is the only Queen of England to die by the sword. Henry VIII did everything possible to erase her from the historical records. But, history has a way of becoming captivated by an enigma and Anne remains forever in our collective memory as the young girl who captivated a king and changed history.
My novella PHOENIX RISING, imagines the last hour of Anne Boleyn’s life…
Court intrigue, revenge and all the secrets of the last hour are revealed as one queen falls and another rises to take her place on destiny’s stage.
A young Anne Boleyn arrives at the court of King Henry VIII. She is to be presented at the Shrovetide pageant, le Château Vert. The young and ambitious Anne has no idea that a chance encounter before the pageant will lead to her capturing the heart of the king. What begins as a distraction becomes his obsession and leads to her destruction.
Love, hate, loyalty and betrayal come together in a single dramatic moment…the execution of a queen.
Excerpt from PHOENIX RISING as told from the swordsman’s point of view
I’m not sure when I drifted off to sleep, but Master Kingston awakens me at seven in the morning in order to give me time to pray for forgiveness and break my fast. I prepare myself for my task. I am surprised to learn that I will not be wearing the traditional executioner’s outfit, which is generally supplied for me. There will be no black doublet and hose, no part of my face will be hidden, and there will be no hornlike cap placed upon my head. Instead, I will be wearing no ordinary clothing for an execution. I am to appear in gentlemen’s clothing so as not to frighten the Queen. The clothing is brought to me by Constable Kingston and paid for, I assume, by the King.
As my assistant and I wait on the scaffold, I become aware that a procession is forming by one of the gates. The King’s Guard approach the scaffold, followed by what appears to be the Officers of the Tower. It is then I see her, Queen Anne Boleyn. She is near Kingston and surrounded by her four ladies. I had forgotten how beautiful she is – actually, she looks even more beautiful than she had when I saw her in Calais a mere three years and some few months ago. It is disconcerting to see how calm she appears. Every step toward the scaffold is a step toward her death, yet she is regal and every inch a queen as she walks to her eternal reward.
I have witnessed the death of countless men, and they are either terrified, or in compete shock and denial. But this Queen Anne nears the scaffold with a peaceful face, revealing nothing to me or the throng of people who have assembled today. I notice that the four ladies attending the Queen are crying. She is consoling them, such is this lady’s dignity and grace.
It is then I think, The Queen does not know who I am when she sees me. A sense of relief washes over me. I am, as I have mentioned, dressed in the clothing of a gentleman. The Sword of Calais is hidden carefully underneath straw placed over the scaffold, so as to spare the Queen the distress of seeing the instrument of her demise. As Queen Anne mounts the scaffold, she looks around, and our eyes briefly meet. I wonder how I am going to be able to kill such a beautiful creature. She whispers something to Master Kingston, who nods his head. The Queen takes a step forward and begins to speak to the crowd. While not confessing guilt, she acknowledges that she is dying according to the laws of the Kingdom of England. She requests that the crowd pray for the life of the good and gracious King. The entire crowd, thousands of them, save for two gentlemen, bow before her. Such is this woman’s grace and strength.
When her speech ends, her ladies-in-waiting assist her by removing the short ermine caplet that she wears around her neck and shoulders. Kingston motions that it is time for her to bow on the scaffold and prepare herself. She elegantly moves to her knees. Queen Anne then removes her own hood, replacing it with a plain white linen cap given to her by one of the ladies. She meticulously tucks her long black hair strands beneath the cap. When she removes her hood, it is apparent that her hair is as dark as it had been when she had initially captivated the King a few short years earlier. Once her cap is in place, covering her hair and her eyes, she nods, which beckons one of the maids, who promptly places an additional blindfold across the Queen’s eyes. Pausing for just a moment to place her hands lovingly on the beautiful Queen’s shoulders, the maid moves to rejoin the other ladies, now openly weeping on the corner of the scaffold.
It is at this point that I can no longer hide my true identity from the crowd. I kneel beside the Queen, begging her forgiveness for the swordsman, which she graciously gives. She reaches into a pocket within her gown and removes a bag of gold coins, handing it to me. She says something in French, when I understand that she is asking me to give the coins to the swordsman. It is then I know that she does not comprehend that I am the swordsman. Due to my clothing, she doesn’t know that I was on the scaffold when she ascended the stairs. Since she speaks the French of Kings, she may not understand my more provincial French Flemish speaking manner. In English words, I promise that no one is to strike until she gives a signal, to which the Queen agrees. She then begins praying aloud, “O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Christ, I commend my soul!”
Earlier, I had arranged with my assistant that we would distract the Queen when the final moment came, and now it is fast approaching. I can feel myself trembling. I slip off my shoes, so as not to make noise on the wooden scaffold, and I grab the sword from beneath the straw. I swing the sword twice for the momentum aids in removing the head. Then, I nod to my assistant, who is standing on the opposite side of the scaffold from myself and the sword. My assistant calls out, “Hand me the sword!” The Queen instinctively turns her head towards my assistant. The third time the sword swings, I strike. The body slumps and the beautiful head falls beside it. The Queen of England is dead. My job is done. I will return to Dover today and cross the channel to return to Calais on this night. By tomorrow, I will be back on my farm in Dunkirk, surrounded by my family who only know I am occasionally asked to visit Calais on business.
The task is completed at King Henry’s request, on the morning of 19 May 1536.
Letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Vatican Library online.
Secretaries of God: Women Prophets in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, Diane Watt. Boydell & Brewer, 1997.
Engraving is labeled as licensed for reuse, circa 1627.