Today (May 19) in London History – the Execution of a Queen

Queen Anne Boleyn was executed on May 19, 1836. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Any number of show-stopper moments in this story. But the one that always does for me – the one I can’t stop thinking about – is that elegant neck. The owner of that neck was known for it. It was what you noticed first.

It’s what you can’t take your eyes off – even 500 years later. It’s what makes you shudder in anticipation. Anticipation of that young woman’s final moments.

Oh there was also her magnificent black hair and her expressive eyes. 

And my god no question but we’re aware of them as well at that moment on this day in London history.

(For the record, not too many of the other boxes get ticked. She was no conventional beauty. A friend described her – talk about damning with faint praise – as “good looking enough.” She had sallow skin. She had a long face – which her famous daughter inherited.)

Ok, let’s get some credits on the screen. It’s May 19th, 1536. We’re at Tower Green. Dreading what’s coming. Frightened to look. And frightened not to look. 

A terrified young woman – ok, she’s not a girl, she’s in the prime of life, about 35 years old – is about to be beheaded. She’s got a little daughter who’s just a toddler, not yet three years old.

That terrified young woman – who amongst us wouldn’t be terrified – that terrified young woman is Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England, Henry VIII’s second wife. She of the elegant neck.

She’ll be the last person in England executed by sword.

“Where’s the sword?” somebody’s whispered.

I can’t stop thinking about the choreography of that scene. 

Did Anne know that the executioner was French? Brought over specially from Calais. Brought over because he was the best in the world at what he was about to do. Brought over by Henry as a “mercy” – because it was a kinder way to have your head cut off, than the traditional English way, have it taken off by an axe. 

That’s a fact, not a supposition. 

Margaret Pole, the elderly Countess of Salisbury was butchered. It took ten thuds of the axe to kill her. It took three axe blows to separate Mary Queen of Scots from her head.

For the Frenchman’s troubles – his moment’s work – he’d be paid 100 French crowns. Maybe about £15,000 in today’s money. One of the uncomfortably small, queasy-making ironies of what happened that day was Anne’s being fluent in French and in some quarters that was resented. Some people felt she put on airs.

But let’s picture the scene. There’s the green. There’s the White Tower. Nearly four and a half centuries old, it’s still a grim, stern, imposing, unforgiving building. There’s a pile of straw in one corner of scaffolding, a pile of straw which no one much notices.

Hard to take your eyes off the executioner, standing just to the side there. He’s clad all in black. A tight-fitting black suit. And that hat. It’s high. It’s horn-shaped. He’s wearing a half-mask that covers the upper part of his face. 

A church bell’s just striking 11. There’s Ann. Being brought out to the green. To the scaffold. Anne walking past that evil looking black raven. Something primal’s about to happen here. Seeing that raven, was that a crystallisation moment? Did it cruelly, mockingly, momentarily put Anne in mind of her badge, a crowned white falcon alighting on a dead tree which then burst into Tudor roses. Those primary colours. The black raven. The white falcon. The Tudor rose – white and red. That white neck bursting into red. 

And what Wolsey said about her. Did that ever get back to her?

His calling her ‘the nyght Crowe’, always in a position to caw into the king’s private ear. 

It’s a fine spring day. She looks weary, she looks resigned.  She is weary. She’s been up all night praying.

How her thoughts must be racing. Is there any chance of a last-minute reprieve? Will it hurt? Is there an afterlife? Where am I going? How can it have come to this?

What about my little girl?

Asking over and over. How? Why? Who did this? So out of the blue. Only a month ago her husband, the king, had made a major effort to force Charles V, the Habsburg emperor and Mary’s cousin, to recognize Anne as queen. That’s Mary, Henry VIII’s first child, who loathed Anne, called her “that other woman.”

That was then, just a month ago. This is now. Anne, the mother of Henry’s second child, Anne, the Queen who is about to die, is here now. Right in front of us. She’s untying that grey damask cloak, just the way she unties it when she gets home. And then the shock of seeing her red underskirt. 

And there – for a moment, a last moment – that famous head of black hair. Released when they took off her black cap and replaced it with a white one. Being careful to tuck the hair up under the cap.

It mustn’t be on her neck, you understand. 

She’s praying. Good god, she’s declaring her loyalty to the King. Her husband. The man who’s having this done to her. She calls him a gentle and sovereign lord.

Aside here: Anne’s comments on Henry VIII’s sexual inadequacy have survived. Would that she had aired that out here, rather than honouring and obeying her murderer, professing loyalty to him – the man who planned her execution down to the last detail.

And now they’re blindfolding her. Blindfolding her with a white linen handkerchief. Red, white, black, green. Primary colours. And now the choreography comes to a head. There’s no block. She kneels. As she does so, the colours we’d momentarily forgotten about – the gold of the straw, the silver of the sword. Did you see that? As she was kneeling – blindfolded – the man in black, the executioner reached into the straw and drew out the sword. He’d hidden it there. She never saw it. She’ll barely feel it.

He’s gesturing. He’s nodding. To his assistant. That’s the signal for the assistant – who’s slightly off to the side – to walk toward. She can’t see. She can hear. She hears his footsteps on the scaffolding. Turns toward the sound. The choreography. As she turns the man in black whips the sword down and across. Slices Anne’s head from her body. Witnesses said her eyes and lips were moving compulsively. Other witnesses spoke of her insteps drumming against the scaffolding. There’s an expression in English: running around like a headless chicken. That happens to headless chickens. I know. I saw it on a farm when I was a little kid. 

Six final points.

1. How did it come to this? Court intrigues, that’s how. There were people who were better at that deadly game than Anne. One of them was Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. He had been Anne’s ally but turned against her. Decided he needed to get rid of her. Mounted a whispering campaign. A successful whispering campaign. Flat out lies that she was committing adultery and incest. Whispers that Anne never heard, couldn’t defend herself against until it was too late. 

2. Two days before Anne’s execution Archbishop Cranmer declared her marriage with Henry null and void—a ruling which, ironically, made nonsense of the accusations of adultery.

3. Seconds after her death the cannons on Tower Wharf were fired. Fired to let Henry VIII – and the world – know that the deed had been done. Where was Henry on the day? There’s a legend, probably apocryphal, that he was in Richmond Park. 

4. Within hours of her death, Anne’s remains – her head and the rest of her – were buried under the altar of the Chapel Royal of Peter ad Vincula just there, yards from where she’d died. She was buried in an arrow chest. 

5. Ten days after Anne’s execution Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. Jane Seymour was one of Anne’s ladies in waiting. Ten days. Lady in waiting Jane Seymour didn’t have long to wait. 

The time would come when 

Henry would warn Jane Seymour to keep her nose out of official business, would remind her that the last Queen had died in consequence of meddling too much in state affairs’.

6. Shortly after Anne’s death the Constable of the Tower wrote to Thomas Cromwell – the court intriguer who’d pulled the strings that led to the execution of that innocent wife and mother – wrote to Cromwell and said, “in the morning she told me, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.’

Anne Boleyn’s neck. Always her neck. 

Ok, so much for Today in London history. How about Today in London?

Today’s tip – well, it has to be next year in London. It’s to go to the National Portrait Gallery and come face to face with some of these Tudor men and women. Including the woman with that elegant neck, that little neck.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company based on the common-sense premise: it all comes down to the guiding. 

And what follows from that is, with London Walks, uniquely, you’ll be guided by genuine experts – well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City

of London professionally qualified guides. Several of them come trailing the big one, MVP honours  – winners of the coveted Guide of the Year Award. 

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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