On 19th May, 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, was beheaded for treason, having been accused of adultery with five men, one her own brother, and with plotting the death of the King. It was probably in order to avoid a bungled decapitation, and a horrific scene on the scaffold, that the executioner of Calais, an expert swordsman, was sent for to despatch her in the continental manner.
This was a much cleaner, kinder and more precise method of execution than death by the axe. The axe hewed; the sword sliced cleanly. Persons being beheaded by the sword were instructed to kneel upright and keep very still if they wanted to avoid being horrifically injured.
After making the traditional speech from the scaffold, Anne appeared dazed as she fell to her knees in the straw, ‘fastening her clothes about her feet’ to preserve her modesty. Her fear was evident. ‘The poor lady kept looking about her. The headsman, being still in front of her, said in French, “Madam, do not fear. I will wait till you tell me.”’
One of her ladies, weeping, came forward to blindfold her with ‘a linen cloth’. The Queen was praying fervently, over and over, ‘To Jesus Christ I commend my soul.’ And then she commanded the executioner to strike.
As she knelt there awaiting the blow, the crowd of a thousand spectators sank to their knees, out of respect for the passing of a soul. Anne was still praying aloud, ‘making no confession of her fault, but saying, “O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Christ I commend my soul!”’
What happened next happened ‘suddenly’. The sword, which was probably of the finest Flemish steel, had been ‘hidden under a heap of straw’. It would have been blunt-tipped, around three or four feet in length, with a two-inch-wide double-edged blade and a leather-bound handle long enough to be gripped by both hands. A groove was normally scored the whole length of the blade on either side, its purpose being to channel the blood away from the razor-sharp edge of the blade and so prevent it being blunted.
Distracted on purpose by the executioner’s English assistant, Anne turned her blindfolded head towards the scaffold steps, and the headsman made a sign with his right hand for them to give him the sword. She was aware neither of him taking it nor of his approach for he had removed his shoes and come up stealthily behind her. Then he raised the sharp, heavy sword aloft, grasping it with both hands, and swung it in a circling motion around his head once or twice to gain the necessary momentum, brought it down and swiftly struck off Anne’s head ‘before you could say a Paternoster’. One judge reported that, as the head fell to the ground, he and other horrified onlookers witnessed ‘her lips and her eyes moving’.
‘When the head fell, a white handkerchief was thrown over it’ by one of the Queen’s ladies. The body lay slumped beside it. Then, at a given signal, the cannon along Tower Wharf were fired, announcing Anne’s death to the world. And ever since then, people have been asking, was she guilty?
Alison Weir’s ANNE BOLEYN: A KING’S OBSESSION is available now