Anne Boleyn’s last secret

Why was the queen executed with a sword, rather than an axe?

17 August 2013

With his wife, Anne Boleyn, in the Tower, Henry VIII considered every detail of her coming death, poring over plans for the scaffold. As he did so he made a unique decision. Anne, alone among all victims of the Tudors, was to be beheaded with a sword and not the traditional axe. The question that has, until now, remained unanswered is — why?

Historians have suggested that Henry chose the sword because Anne had spent time in France, where the nobility were executed this way, or because it offered a more dignified end. But Henry did not care about Anne’s feelings. Anne was told she was to be beheaded on the morning of 18 May, and then kept waiting until noon before being told she was to die the next day. At the root of Henry’s decision was Henry thinking not about Anne, but about himself.

When Henry VIII fell in love with Anne in 1526, he represented an ideal of chivalric kingship come to life: handsome, pious and martial. In Europe it was said ‘his great nobleness and fame’ was ‘greater than any Prince since King Arthur’. There could have been no greater compliment for Henry: Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was woven into the Tudor family myths. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, had claimed the Welsh bloodline of the Tudors made them the heirs to King Arthur. He even gave the name to his eldest son. Only when the boy died, shortly after being married to Catherine of Aragon, did Henry VII lose his enthusiasm for the Arthurian myths. Henry VIII turned to them again.

In 1516 Henry VIII had the round table which still hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, and which it was believed dated back to Camelot, painted with the figure of Arthur bearing Henry’s features under an Imperial crown. It was Henry’s belief that England was, historically, an empire, and he Arthur’s heir, that later became the basis for his claim to an imperium — command — over church as well as state. It justified the break with Rome and the Pope that allowed him to marry Anne in 1533.

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But, like Catherine of Aragon, Anne failed to give Henry the son he wanted, and when she miscarried in January 1536, he lost hope that she would. He began complaining that Anne had seduced him into marrying her — an accusation carrying suggestions of witchcraft — and he showed a growing interest in her maid of honour, Jane Seymour.

Dissolving the marriage to Anne was a complex issue for Henry, who feared it would re-confirm ‘the authority of the Pope’. But Anne was also making an enemy of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, with whom she quarrelled over the burning issue of what to do with the money raised from the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne hoped to see the money go to charitable enterprises, while Cromwell intended to pour it into the king’s pocket.

On 2 April, the chaplain in charge of Anne’s charitable giving delivered a sermon at court that suggested a comparison between Cromwell and a character from the bible called Haman, the corrupt minister of an Old Testament king. The sermon noted threateningly that Haman had died on the scaffold. Anne’s anger with Henry was also evident during these weeks. Her brother, George, had let slip that she had complained Henry had ‘neither talent nor vigour’ in bed. Some wondered if she had a lover, a view encouraged by her sometimes outrageous flirting — and it was to be this that triggered her downfall.

On Saturday 28 April, when the king’s body servant Sir Henry Norris came to her household, Anne asked him why he had not yet married the maid of honour he kept visiting. When Norris shrugged that he preferred to ‘tarry a time’, Anne joked: ‘You look for dead men’s shoes, for if ought came to the king but good, you would look to have me.’ Imagining the death of the king was a treasonous offence, and Norris replied, aghast, that ‘if he should have any such thought, he would [wish] his head were off’.

The next day a young court musician called Mark Smeaton, who had been seen moping after Anne earlier on the Saturday, was taken secretly to Cromwell’s house for questioning. Anne’s conversation with Norris gave Cromwell a means of accusing her of treason. But Norris was unlikely to confess to adultery and so make a charge of plotting the king’s murder plausible. A weaker man was required if Anne’s chastity was to be besmirched — and Smeaton was to fill that role. Before that evening Henry had learned that Smeaton had confessed to adultery with the queen. He postponed, but did not cancel, a trip he had planned to take with Anne to Calais in June. He could not be certain what else Cromwell might uncover. The next morning, May Day 1536, he attended a joust with Anne at Greenwich Palace. As the tournament ended, a message was passed to the king. Abruptly, he rose from his seat and left for Westminster by horse, taking a handful of attendants. Norris was called to join him, while an astonished Anne was left to oversee the closing of the competition.

As the king’s party rode off, Henry asked Norris if he had committed adultery with the queen, offering to pardon him if he confessed. Norris, a fellow member of the Order of the Garter, Henry’s equivalent of the knights of the round table, found himself cast in the role of Lancelot to Anne’s Guinevere. He desperately asserted his innocence. It did him no good. He joined Smeaton in the Tower that night. Anne was taken there the following day along with her brother, accused of adultery with his sister. Two further courtiers would be convicted at trial of plotting Henry’s death with the queen.

As Henry’s sexual inadequacies were paraded during the trials, he responded by advertising his virility, staying out all hours, banqueting with beautiful girls. In private, however, he comforted himself in a different way, obsessing over the details of Anne’s coming death. In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Guinevere was sentenced to death by burning. Henry decided Anne would be beheaded with a sword — the symbol of Camelot, of a rightful king, and of masculinity. Historians argue over whether Anne was really guilty of adultery, and whether Henry or Cromwell was more responsible for her destruction. But the choice of a sword to kill Anne reflects one certain fact: Henry’s overweening vanity and self-righteousness.

‘I heard say the executioner was very good and I have but a little neck,’ Anne said the day before her execution, and laughing, she put her hands round her throat. It was, at least, to be a quick death: her head fell with one blow, her eyes and lips still moving as it landed on the straw.

Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story (1437-1603) is out on 29 August.

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Show comments
  • therealguyfaux

    And there was I, thinking we were finally going to find out whether she was really doing King Henry dirty with her brother Lord Rochford! And whether Princess Bess was really Georgie Boy’s child!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Henry was desperate for a son, so perhaps Anne was just trying to get with the programme. A tradition among the royals I venture to suggest.

      • therealguyfaux

        Mind, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, was a “swordsman” in his own right and probably had nailed all the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting too. (You know what they say, vice is nice, but incest is best, try it out, put Sis to the test.) Possibly another reason she got the sword in place of the axe– she was getting the pork version of it from her little brother! Fat Henry would seem apparently not without some sardonic humour, however dark it may have been.

        • Michael William Stone

          Iirc Lady Rochford, who brought the incest allegation, was later implicated in the Katherine Howard business, and confessed on the scaffold that she had perjured herself at the earlier trial. So we probably have to clear the Queen of that charge at least.

          • therealguyfaux

            IIRC Mrs George Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was not playing with a full pack of cards and might have said anything. It is thought that George’s preference for the company of his sister to that of his wife, advantageous though it was court-politics-wise and probably a sincere affection as well, did cause tongues to wag, and Lady R may have been prevailed upon to say out loud what many thought. Her in-laws may have prevailed upon her to exonerate Anne and George (whatever the truth of the matter) when her time came for the chop, seeing as how she was by then known as a notorious intriguer. (Was Tom Culpeper nailing Lady R too? We must be told!)

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            A most relevant piece of information.

          • mumble

            Testimony was customarily acquired by extraordinary rendition, so everything is in doubt.

        • Liana De Laurent

          dude….she was innocent….she couldn’t produce an heir..and she was jealous….Henry got fed up and got rid of her……if a King wants something to be taken out, it will happen…evidence? the only evidence there was back in a day are the people who saw things or people who “confessed under torture” and who wouldn’t confess under torture..did u see what they were doing to them? Other witnesses as well as judges..and council Cromwell took care of…to help henry ease his conciseness and find Anne “guilty” so Henry could move on to the next ladty and get her pregnant….just to find out that thats a fail too.. just like he got rid of Katherine….his only goal in life was to his Reign.

          • Liana De Laurent

            by the way this is a simple example of destiny…..and fact that everything happens for a reason…………reason Henry sons kept dying or not begin produced is because it was not in destiny for England to be ruled by a man at that time…..it was Elizabeths specific….plan…and look what she did….became one of the greatest Queens on land. if only Henry knew that when he was alive, but im sure he knows better now…its just a shame that in order for him to get it it took a lot of lives lost or beheaded….lol

          • mumble

            Or his potency was compromised by disease.

          • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

            Wow, I am Anne Boleyn’s researcher. This is a matter of life or death. It was meant to happen, but if you knew….. The reason his sons’ didn’t survive is because he beat her…. She took a massive blow to a pregnant belly…

          • Liana De Laurent

            yeah plus it was not just about not being able to give him a son..there was a question of legitimacy..and no one wanted for Elizabeth to become an heir..no one recognized her…and therefore Henry’s political relationships were failing. because they wanted for Mary to be the heir since she was a lawful daughter….now if henry allowed that Anne would have thrown a scandal over Elizabeth’s legitimacy……Henry probably did not care which “DAUGHTER” will be more legitimate ….cuz it was a daughter..so he probably just did not want to deal with more issues with Anne, the people and other countries…….since Anne was the only obstacle to legitimizing Mary, also gave him a reason to be rid of her….as at this point he is putting England first above any wife…and always have..except for that time when his d””’k was hard for Anne and desperate to sleep with her….and marry her of course lmao

            I however still not sure whether it was cromwell who wanted Anne out so he poisined Henry’s mind against her and “found ” all these alligations which made him hate her…or was it Henry who told Cromwell to get rid of her? anyone can u enlighten me?
            Poor woman…

          • Nadia Olsen

            Liana- are you 14 years old perchance?

          • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

            I know she doesn’t know anything about Anne.

          • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

            actually there were no “witnesses” if a king wanted something done, it down-right happened!

  • ArchiePonsonby

    Ah, those were the days!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    If I subscribe from just £1, will you keep deleting my contributions, Specie?

  • foxoles

    The point about Henry VII’s son being called Arthur because of his paternal Welsh connection is often made – but let’s not forget there were already Arthurs in both Yorkist and Lancastrian ancestry via the Plantagenets (eg Arthur Duke of Brittany, Henry II’s son, and Edward IV’s illegitimate son Arthur Plantagenet, who would have been Henry VII’s wife’s half-brother).

    The slightly unusual naming could therefore also have been a shrewd move to emphasise the reconciling of the houses of York and Lancaster.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Henry Tudor was a little more hands on than Chuck Windsor, but essentially the result was the same. But surely they could have done better than an arrow box for a coffin; when all is said and done Anne was a former queen of England.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    How can you refer to Henry VIII as a monster? Keep in mind Henry did commute Anne`s sentence from burning at the stake to beheading.

    • marie mcintosh

      Burning would have reflected down on him. It was not about her but History.

    • Jenny

      King Henry was a monster . Burning or beheading .Evil man. He was a lovely bloke weren’t he lol…

  • Trojan

    Sadly, it is possible that Anne did try to have a child with Rochford.
    She needed a son to save herself and it had to be with someone she could
    trust utterly. A son would have saved all of the Boleyn’s bacon – so it was in
    their interest to get one.

    I always find all this modern mewling sympathy and fascination
    with Anne amazing. She was an arriviste who was, probably, already mixed up
    in the attempted murder of Fisher and would have had Katherine and Mary
    killed, given a chance.

  • Sophie

    The incest was made up, he’d had enough of anne and got rid. Doesn’t take a genius to work it out, he wanted a son and she couldn’t give him one. He went for an upgrade .. To say she was bonking her brother is ludicrous. A lie made up by a truly disgusting king

    • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

      As I said, all lies from a misraised, spoiled, bratty king!

  • Sophie

    Incest… Utter lies from a fat king who got all he wanted from every woman he met. A user, who wanted an heir. How anyone can defend a blatant lie so obvious to anyone who isn’t a sexist in the modern world is beyond me. Actually find it disgusting that anyone is even mentioning it as truth. I guess ignorance is bliss!!!

    • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

      True, as a researcher on Anne Boleyn, I know she found him because she blatantly loved him. He used her for a son. When he found she couldn’t produce the son he wanted, he blamed unnecessarily on an innocent woman, who didn’t deserve it. Her speech was beautiful though… Well thought out and sincere. So yes, I guess “Ignorance is bliss!”

  • Sharon Hall

    We all now know that on the dates supplied Anne was either elsewhere or recovering from childbirth so she was innocent of all charges. The truth is Henry wanted rid of her so he could try to get the coveted son from someone else. He couldn’t divorce Anne as he had divorced Katherine so she had to die. The sword was so he looked merciful instead of burning her to death. What is funny is that it is Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who was the better monarch than either of her siblings and her father.

    • faith

      Elizabeth lasted longer, but was not better. She was skillfull propagandist.

      • Chris Whiteside

        Don’t be ridiculous, of course she was a vastly better monarch than Henry VIII, Edward VI, or Mary Tudor – that merely required her not to be a mass murdering religious bigot or a sick child on behalf of whom the country was run by scheming courtiers.
        I do agree that Elizabeth probably ran the most successful propaganda operation of any government in English or British history. And of course she wasn’t perfect. But when you look at her achievements, and especially compared to the three previous reigns or the Stuarts who succeeded her, she was probably less tyrannical than any of her predecessors or most of the following dynasty and left the country in a far better state than she found it.

        • faith

          Don’t you be ridiculous, Elizabeth was every bit as evil as her betters before her. Everything she achieved including slavery has blood on her hands.

          • Chris Whiteside

            Have you spent more than five minutes studying the period? Even reputable catholic sources such as the Catholic Herald now accept that during Mary’s five year reign about 300 people were sentenced to death just for being protestants – not for taking part in rebellion like Wyatt or trying to usurp the throne, just for being protestants. Some died in prison but most were burnt alive.
            There were nothing like that number executed for religious dissent – or for any other reason – in the whole of Elizabeth’s much longer reign. Elizabeth said that she “did not want to make windows into men’s souls” and by the standards of the time – granted that isn’t saying much by our lights – she was relatively merciful.
            Most of the people who were executed under Elizabeth died not for being catholics but for treason, having been accused of trying to overthrow or assassinate her, and most (I wouldn’t claim all) appear to have had a case to answer on those charges.
            She wasn’t a modern liberal but she didn’t kill nearly as many people for having a different religion or otherwise on blatantly trumped-up charges as her sister or her father.
            And compared to her father or grandfather, Elizabeth was much less prone to the arbitrary execution of blatantly innocent people for having too much royal blood, like the young Earl of Warwick, or the elderly Countess of Salisbury.
            Was she a plaster saint? Of course not, you could not hold power in those days if you were.
            Was she a bloodstained killer on the same scale as her sister or father? I don’t believe anyone who spends half an hour looking comparing the number of people executed in those three reigns and how many of them there appears to have been genuine evidence against can make a serious argument that she was.

          • faith

            Actually I have, but refuse to debate over a pointless topic. She has slave blood on her hands and though it may seem unimportant to you, it is important to me.

          • Chris Whiteside

            For someone who refuses to debate a topic you seem remarkably willing to keep coming back (which is not a criticism, by the way).
            Slavery is a ghastly evil and absolutely wrong whoever is doing it to whom. Prior to about 1807 just about every race and nation in the world had been both victim and perpetrators of this vile practice, including Elizabethan England.
            Which is a valid criticism of Elizabeth but does not IMHO terminate all debate about her.

  • Spengler47

    Ann requested a French executioner who used a sword. In France (and Germany) executions were usually carried out by beheading with the sword and the executioners were very proficient at decapitating their victims with a single blow. In England, beheadings were carried out by the common hangman, who was less proficient with the axe. Also, the English axe was not well balanced, so English beheadings sometimes required multiple strokes. The illustration above is incorrect. A chopping block was used with decapitations with the axe, but not when a sword was used.

  • Keith Smith

    Do you know if there is a record of AB’s last meal?

    • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

      Not sure. Check Wikipedia, it probably knows more than this site. This site is more on her death/execution than last meals, birth place, death place, or death date.

  • Ronda Astardly

    In this related video, science-fiction media-personality Leo DiCaprio preaches a fearful narrative from the altar of man-made global warming: http://youtu.be/VdioqIraSlk?t=10s

  • LibertyTreeBud

    I’ve heard that a decapitated head can still see for up to 20 seconds after the chop.

  • http://media-monitors.blogspot.com/ Public Takeover

    L’uomo e criminale.

  • Elia

    “Eyes and lips still moving…”, but Anne was wearing a cover over her eyes. That was how they kept her from knowing exactly when the executioner was going to strike, a sort of “kindness” to her. He said something like “hand me my sword” but he already had it ready.

  • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

    King Henry VIII was a monster, 6 wives, no love intended. They were all just for a royal son.

  • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan

    I need to point something out… “Mask over eyes so she couldn’t see when they were going to strike,” Then, “Eyes and mouth still moving after the blow.” Well they couldn’t see her face, so how could they know if her eyes were moving or not?

  • Anne Boleyn’s Biggest Fan


  • http://www.nutshellbooks.net Bill McCann

    I thought that it has long been well established that Anne herself requested the sword rather than the Axe, and that Henry granted this last wish.
    Where is Leanda de Lisle’s evidence to the contrary?

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