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Different Deaths

May 28, 2014

The period of Anne Boleyn’s life least subject to novelistic invention is undoubtedly the period between May 2 and May 19 1536, when she was imprisoned and was having her words and actions very thoroughly recorded both by Sir William Kingston and her ladies in waiting. Which is not to say that no peculiar additions have ever taken place (Jane Seymour sending a letter of condolence, for example, or Sir Nicholas Carew stopping by to make a pass at her, or Henry Percy dying dramatically hours beforehand, to name several) but since so much of Anne’s conversation was written down within hours of its happening, and the timeline is so well documented, there’s very little need to add anything substantial — indeed, trying to substitute fictional dialogue for Anne’s real and extremely vivid words would be a fool’s errand. (Could the best novelist in the world equal her remark “I have a little neck”?) Her execution, however, has received somewhat less consistent treatment, although it too is well-documented, from her politely conventional final speech to her beheading by a first-class executioner — “an expert in the use of the heavy continental executioner’s sword which could cut the head off a prisoner who was kneeling upright, in place of the clumsier English axe needing the prisoner’s chin on the block.” (Ives, 351) It seems appropriate that even Anne’s death had a certain continental flair which was denied to her less well-traveled contemporaries, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that it became routine to even show her execution directly to the reader.

Most of this was probably logistics. The vast majority of Boleyn-related writings in the earlier centuries were actually plays, and the people staging them would have faced obvious technical problems had they wanted to show her beheading on stage. Instead, in one production after another, Anne makes her final, noble speech — usually expanded versions of the one she gave in life — and glides sadly offstage to meet her end. But once Anne really began branching out into novels, readers could now experience detailed — sometimes overly detailed — accounts of what happened at the actual moment she died.

What was that? Antonia Fraser, in The Wives Of Henry VIII, summarizes the contemporary accounts of what Anne did after making her farewell speech:

Anne Boleyn now knelt down. Her ladies removed her headdress, leaving the white coif to hold up her thick black hair away from her long neck. One of her ladies put a blindfold round her eyes. She said: `To Jesu Christ, I commend my soul’ … To watchers it then seemed that `suddenly the hangman smote off her head at a stroke’ with his sword which appeared by magic, unnoticed by anyone including the kneeling woman. In fact the famous `sword of Calais’ had been concealed in the straw surrounding the block. In order to get Anne to position her head correctly, and stop her looking instinctively backwards, the hangman had called `Bring me the sword’ to someone standing on the steps nearby. Anne Boleyn turned her head. The deed was done. (257)

This is the template for virtually all the execution scenes written in the past hundred or so years; it’s an excellent scene in itself, dramatically speaking, and quoting from the different renditions of it would become monotonous. However, there are a few books which build on additional (or apocryphal) accounts to add a few extra elements to the scene.

One seldom-used detail actually derives from a contemporary account: Gilbert Burnet cites John Spelman in saying that Anne’s “eyes and lips were observed to move after her head was cut off, as Spelman writes.” (History of the Reformation, V1 Book III p. 318) He doesn’t elaborate on the statement and in itself it doesn’t sound particularly fanciful — if Anne was indeed praying when she died, there’s no reason her reflexes would have stopped at the exact moment she died. Note that he doesn’t say that she necessarily saw or said anything, merely that her eyes and lips twitched momentarily. Agnes Strickland, writing a century and a half later, had her own take on Spelman’s statement:

Spelman has noted that Anne Boleyn’s eyes and lips were observed to move when her head was held up by the executioner. It is also said, that before those beautiful eyes sunk in the dimness of death, they seemed for an instant mournfully to regard her bleeding body as it fell on the scaffold. (Strickland, Lives Of The Queens Of England,Vol. 2 pp. 153-154)

It’s a romantic, if ridiculous, image, and it’s truly surprising to find that virtually no later novelists took that imagery and ran with it; they certainly mined Strickland for other details, but for some reason that one didn’t stick. The major exception is The Autobiography of Henry VIII (1986) in which Henry’s fool, Will Somers, attends Anne’s execution (at which the swordsman still needs a block, for some reason):

The suave French swordsman strode forward and felt in the straw for the round object that was Anne’s head. It had landed some two or three feet to the left. He held it up by its long, glossy hair.
The cannon boomed, once, upon the battlements.
It still had her appearance, as in life. Her eyes moved, and seemed to be looking mournfully at the bleeding body still kneeling at the block. The lips moved. She seemed to be saying something …

The only other novel that’s come to my notice which takes account of Spelman (if not Strickland’s romanticized version of him) is Queen Anne Boleyn (1939). “From the trunk poured out a wealth of blood, while her hands clutched convulsively and her body writhed. Her features, at the same time, shuddered with agony as the severed head lay on the straw.” Straightforward (also gruesome) enough. However, this particular book had its own oddities when it came to Anne’s execution; namely, her final speech, in which she openly called out Jane Seymour.

“My fault has been my great pride, and the great crime I committed was in getting the King to leave my mistress Queen Catherine for my sake, and I pray God to pardon me for it. I say to you all that everything they have accused me of is false, and the principal reason I am to die is Jane Seymour, as I was the cause of the ill that befell my mistress.”

This seemed peculiar at first — say what you want about Queen Anne Boleyn (and I’ve said a lot) the author had certainly done his reading, where there was any reading to be done. As it turns out, he may have read a little much, since this speech is quoted virtually verbatim from The Spanish Chronicle, which, while very entertaining, is only sporadically reliable and probably wasn’t on this particular occasion.

The Autobiography of Henry VIII may have been alone in having Anne gaze upon her own corpse, but it had some company in having her mistakenly beheaded at a block (albeit not with an axe). The Queen’s Promise (2012) also has her beheaded with a combination of sword and block, and Windsor Castle (1843) In The Shadow Of Lions (2008) and Murder Most Royal (1949) all have her subjected to the axe and block. The latter book was written by Jean Plaidy, and the mistake was an unusual misstep for her; whether she ever discovered it I don’t know, because although she wrote another book about Anne in The Lady In The Tower (1986) it ends with Anne preparing to walk out to the scaffold. Honourable mentions in this department should also go to The French Executioner (2001) in which the swordsman is instructed by Anne to cut off her upraised hand as well as her head and A Lady Raised High (2006) in which Anne herself is executed correctly but the five men are all hanged — not just Mark Smeaton, but every single one of them. That one I still can’t figure out — while you’ll find the occasional source saying Smeaton was hanged, or drawn and quartered (Strickland, for one) I don’t know of a single one which says it was done to all five.

I said before that the accurately-rendered executions, since they all follow the same detailed script, have a tendency to blend together in the memory. This isn’t entirely accurate. There is one account which still sticks in my mind for its vividness, accuracy, and most of all, its refusal to concede anything to the reader; it gives us no epilogue, no alternative point of view with which to identify, no promises whatsoever. It’s from Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) and in my opinion, it’s the best fictional account of Anne’s death which I’ve read.

A stealthy rustle in the straw, an approaching footstep. Quick as a warned, defensive cat, Anne swung round to her left from whence the sound came. But only the shock-headed young assistant stood there, empty-handed, advancing close upon her in feigned action, obedient to his master’s sign. Anne’s eyes, protruding with terror, stared up into his. Her brain recorded a vivid picture of his callow, countrified face. Momentarily, her head was turned, her attention distracted.

And in that moment, mercifully, the French executioner swung his sharp sword and struck.

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From → Essays

7 Comments
  1. This may be a weird question, but I notice you cite a book called “The French Executioner.” Does anyone really know anything about the swordsman of Calais, and if not, has he become part of the Anne Boleyn mythos? I imagine a mysterious headsman, turning up to behead a famous queen and then vanish, would tickle a writer’s imagination.

    I ask because my own cursory research hasn’t turned up much on the guy, and you haven’t mentioned much about the swordsman before now. (Or is there a post I missed?)

    • sonetka permalink

      The name I’ve seen cited (and which is used in The French Executioner — which is a fun adventure novel but doesn’t really have much to do with Anne) is Jean Rombaud. I don’t know the source and have only seen modern citations so I’m not guaranteeing it 100%, however this is at least the name that has come to be associated with him. He must have been something of a celebrity among executioners, considering that he was well-known enough to be sent for by the king of England, not to mention that his fee was more than twenty pounds plus perquisites (Anne’s outer clothing). I know absolutely nothing about him and wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for information — I doubt very much that there’s even a scrap of real information left on him.

  2. Clare permalink

    Swordsman of Calais sounds romantic in a voyeuristic sort of way. Axe man of Clapham? Less so.

    • sonetka permalink

      Yeah, that. Nobody’s writing adventure novels about the guy who turned off Katherine Howard and Lady Rochford (or even Anne’s “lovers” for that matter. I have a morbid curiosity now about what the fee was like for multiple-victim jobs like that one — of course, he’d get all of their clothes as perquisites, so that was a built-in bonus).

  3. I think Weir states the executioner was in tears, after the executions of Rochford, Norris et al. Apparently they left the half-stripped bodies on the scaffold for some time although there is a legend that Norris’s head was buried at his ancestral home (we’ve heard that one before!). In Brandy Purdy’s novel, Jane Rochford cradles George’s head on her lap and has to be dragged away by the guards.

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, I should do a second post about Anne’s “lovers” and their executions (and there are actually a few variants on Thomas More’s execution out there as well. I have to say I’m looking forward to Mantel’s take on Cromwell’s death). Have you read “Sutton Place”? Lots of ghostly appearances and precognitions centered around Francis Weston’s death. Also the only book I’ve read which features both Anne Boleyn and J. Paul Getty as characters :).

  4. No, I’ve never read Sutton Place but I know Getty was its owner. I will have to hunt that one out. The chapter” Send” in Pakenham Walsh’s A Tudor Story is interesting, as he pays a visit to Sutton Place, after receiving the message Send and working out that it meant Sutton Place. I believe the Westons offered it to Henry, in return for Francis’ life but to no avail.

    I must pay Beddington Manor a visit as it was once owned by good old Nicholas Carew!

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