“Burned alive or beheaded, at the King’s pleasure”
The last person to be executed by the sword in England was also responsible for the formation of the Church of England. King Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon, his late brother’s fiancée, when he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, having already had an affair with her sister Mary.
Henry tried to persuade Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine but the pope refused and rather than abiding by the papal ruling, Henry split from Rome. Henry’s project to divorce Catherine was known as “the king’s great matter”. Henry secretly married Anne, who was pregnant, on 25 January 1533 (although historian David Starkey reports the couple first married on 14 November 1532). On 10 April Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine void and in July Henry was excommunicated. On 7 September 1533 Anne gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry tired of Anne when she was unable to provide him with a male heir. To rid himself of Anne, she was condemned on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason.
Tower Hill, London, England
11am Friday 19 May 1536
Anne was sentenced “to be burned alive or beheaded, at the King’s pleasure”. The king chose beheading but, as Anne had suffered a morbid fear of the axe since childhood, she begged to die by the sword — a request Henry granted. A highly skilled French executioner was bought over from Calais. He was paid 100 French crowns (about 23), which included payment for a tight fitting black suit and a high horn shaped hat attached to a half mask, which covered the upper part of his face. Just after 11am, Anne arrived at the straw-laden scaffold and removed her grey damask cloak to reveal a red underskirt. Her famous long black hair was held in place by a black cap, which was removed and replaced by a white one. She prayed, declared her loyalty to Henry and was then blindfolded with a linen handkerchief.
She knelt and, as she did so, the executioner silently drew the sword from where he had hidden it from her view under the straw. He signalled to his assistant to approach Anne who, hearing the footsteps, turned towards the sound. As she turned the sword swept down and with one clean stroke severed her head. With blood gushing everywhere the executioner held the head high and witnesses saw that Anne’s eyes and lips were still moving convulsively. Her remains were placed in an old arrow chest and buried under the altar of the Chapel Royal of Peter ad Vincula within the Tower walls.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
If Henry’s charges of adultery had failed, Anne would still have lost her head. Henry planned to use the fact that she had six fingers on one hand and a third nipple as proof she was a witch.