Category Archives: May 19th, 1536 Feature

A series of posts dedicated to the month before Anne’s execution

May 18th, 1536: Anne’s Final Sunset

I’m sure that the sad and grim events that transpired today are well-known to followers of this page. Expecting to die on the 18th, Anne took the sacrament at 2 a.m., and by now all who were in contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.  She was prepared, “and no person ever showed greater willingness” to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice.  In the hours that passed between the morning of the 18th and the 19th Anne said many things that have inscribed themselves powerfully in our collective “memory” of her story.  Undoubtedly the most famous: When being assured by Kingston that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle” Anne replied, “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  This has always struck me as a strange interpretation. What do you think?


A later depiction of Anne at prayer, “the last sunset of Anne’s earthly life.”

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May 17th, 1536: In tribute to George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, and Francis Weston

Who list his wealth and ease retain,

Himself let him unknown contain.

Press not too fast in at that gate

Where the return stands by disdain,

For sure, circa Regna tonat.


The high mountains are blasted oft

When the low valley is mild and soft.

Fortune with Health stands at debate.

The fall is grievous from aloft.

And sure, circa Regna tonat.


These bloody days have broken my heart.

My lust, my youth did them depart,

And blind desire of estate.

Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.

Of truth, circa Regna tonat.


The bell tower showed me such sight

That in my head sticks day and night.

There did I learn out of a grate,

For all favour, glory, or might,

That yet circa Regna tonat.


By proof, I say, there did I learn:

Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,

Of innocency to plead or prate.

Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,

For sure, circa Regna tonat.

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May 16, 1536: Adding Agony to Injustice

Ravens at the Tower

The sentences themselves were a gross injustice.  But two “smaller” yet horrible cruelties were visited this day on Anne and the men with whom she was condemned.

On this day in 1536, Henry signed all the death warrants.  But although the men were due to die the next day, they were left in suspense as to the method of their execution, which normally was commuted for royals and nobles from hanging (to be followed by drawing and quartering) to beheading.  As late as after dinner on the 16th, Kingston was begging Cromwell to let him know how they were to die, but word didn’t come until much later, possibly the following morning.  George and the other nobles thus spent many unnecessarily agonizing hours anticipating the more excruciating, humiliating death.  In the end, all of them-even Smeaton—met death by beheading.  But Henry was apparently too occupied cavorting with Jane to spare them any torment.

Also on May 16th, Cranmer saw Anne, with something other than spiritual comfort in mind.   Cromwell had been working to find a way to annul the marriage and bastardize Elizabeth.  Two likely “impediments” to the lawfulness of the marriage were a possible precontract with Percy and the “consanguinity” of the King’s affair with Mary Boleyn.  Percy denied the precontract, so Cranmer was sent to get Anne to admit that she knew of the relationship with Mary when she married Henry.  Weir speculates—accurately, I believe—that Cranmer may have suggested to Anne that if she admitted to the impediment, the King might spare her death.  The evidence for this is that after he left, Kingston reports that Anne was “more cheerful” and told Kingston that she was “in hope of life” in a nunnery.  Instead, the only “mercy” Henry had planned was her death by a French swordsman, who was already on his way.

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May 12, 1536: The Trial of Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton

By: Natalie Sweet

Events moved rapidly in the week before May 19th. Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, heard from his agent, John Hussee that,

“Today Mr. Norrys, Weston, Bryerton, and Markes have been arraigned, and are judged to be drawn, hanged, and quartered. They shall die tomorrow or Monday. Anne the queen, and her brother, shall be arraigned in the Tower, some think tomorrow, but on Monday at furthest, and that they will suffer there immediately “for divers considerations, which are not yet known.” Mr. Payge and Mr. W[y]at are in the Tower, but it is thought without danger of life, though Mr. Payge is banished the King’s court for ever.” (Letters and Papers)

The accused men faced a prejudiced jury who was well aware of the verdict Henry wanted, and Tudor law did not aid defendants. Justice at this time was more subjective, more informal, and could not be separated from morality. Juries operated based on their own knowledge. There was no effort to keep them from gossip. In fact, questions were put to juries about their knowledge of the case, and the more they “knew,” the more fit they were considered for service.

The trial itself would have been very speedy – any crime, from petty theft to grand larceny to murder, would only take thirty minutes at the most. Most important in any Tudor trial was the assessment of character – if a person was found to be acting outside of their proper place, they were considered to be gravely in the wrong. There was no such thing as a defense lawyer – the “victim” was both the defense and collector of evidence. At any time when a king or queen had a vested interest in a case, they would be favored. This was true even in cases where there was just an ordinary judge and jury – judges were always appointed by the monarch and they could be fired at will. In other words, they were agents of the monarch. Challenges to this approach to law would not occur until the early Stuart period, when Edward Coke called for judicial review.

Three of the men – Norris, Brereton, and Weston – pleaded “not guilty.” Smeaton, likely under torture, “pleaded guilty of violation and carnal knowledge of the Queen, and put himself in the King’s mercy” (Letters and Papers). The result: “the jury return a verdict of Guilty, and that they have no lands, goods, or chattels”  and that the said men were to be executed (Letters and Papers).

Anne’s anguish at hearing this verdict must have been great. She could not know if Henry would spare her life, but she knew how drastically the verdict would affect the families of these men, who would not only lose their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, but their livelihood as well. Finally, she knew she stood judged as an adulteress – the only question that remained was what punishment would be handed down to her.

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A Humourous 1936 Novel About Anne

For a bit of comic relief as we count down to the anniversary of Anne’s execution, we are posting this cover of a 1936 novel about Anne.  Check out the back cover copy, and the price of the paperback!

Do you have any humorous Anne-related items to share?  If so, please post them.  I’m sure that Anne, who had a wicked sense of humor until the end, would appreciate it!

1936 Book, Queen Anne Boleyn

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May 6, 1536: News of Anne’s Arrest Spreads Throughout Europe

By May 6, news of Anne’s arrest was beginning to spread throughout Europe. In a May 26th letter to the Signory in Venice, the Venetian Ambassador at Rome, Lorenzo Bragadino, wrote,

“On the 21st, by way of Lyons, the merchants received letters announcing that the King of England had caused the Queen Anne, with her father and brother, to be arrested on suspicion of adultery. This intelligence was not credited, but has since been confirmed and a prelate who at the time of the divorce suit was the proctor of the true Queen of England, the Emperor’s aunt, lately deceased assured me that he yesterday received letters from Queen Maria the Emperor’s sister, Governess of the Low Countries, dated the 6th instant, acquainting him with this.”

The Emperor in this letter refers to Charles II, and his aunt was Catherine of Aragon. From this, we can infer that news of Anne’s arrest had reached the continent by today, May 6th. From there, it reached Rome 20 days later.

Maria, Charles II’s sister, and Governess of the Low Countries

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May 5, 1536: Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page arrested (both later to be released)

Anne, searching her mind for the reasons for her arrest and clearly feeling tremendous anxiety, begins to think out loud about the conversations she has had with the arrested men which might have been misconstrued. (See Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower, pp. 166-171, for a full account of Anne’s ramblings.)  Weir’s conclusion: “It was becoming clear, through her own revelations, that she had not kept a proper regal distance between herself and her courtiers, and thus had made herself and them vulnerable to accusations of impropriety.”  Do you agree with Weir, or is this a version of “blaming the victim”?

Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, 1535-1537

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May 3, 1536: Poor Cranmer–No Match for Cromwell

Cranmer, who has been Anne’s champion since before the marriage (which he was instrumental in making happen) is in emotional turmoil, on hearing of Anne’s arrest.  He writes to Henry, his soul clearly in struggle, wanting to defend Anne but fearing for his own safety: “I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable.  I am most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent.  Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy.” At some point his letter-writing is interrupted, as he had apparently been called to the Star Chamber by Cromwell and his cronies; they report where matters stand, and when he returns to his desk, Cranmer concludes his letter: “I am sorry such faults can be proved against the Queen as they report.”

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke, 1545

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Anne’s Final Days: Facts and Fictions – Anne’s Letter from the Tower: Authentic or Not?

In the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the words and behavior attributed to Anne during her final weeks. We begin with the letter that some believe she wrote to Henry while she was imprisoned in the Tower…


For Anne, the arrest was sudden and inexplicable. On April 30th, Anne had no idea that Cromwell and Henry, that very day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” that Anne had engaged in multiple adulteries and acts of treason. That evening, while court musician Mark Smeaton was being interrogated (and probably tortured), there was even a ball at court at which “the King treated Anne as normal.” He may have been awaiting Smeaton’s confession, which didn’t come for 24 hours, to feel fully justified in abandoning the show of dutiful husband.  Although we don’t know for sure what message was given to Henry during the May Day tournaments, it was probably just that, for he immediately got up and left. Anne, who had been sitting at his side, would never see him again; the very next day, as her dinner was being served to her, she was arrested and conducted to the Tower.


Anne’s first reaction was disbelief:  “Master Kingston,” she asked the constable of the Tower, “do you know wherefore I am here?” Just a few months before, she had been pregnant, and Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower. She searched her memory for words or indiscretions that might lay behind the charges—conversations with Smeaton, Norris, and Weston that could be taken (and ultimately were taken) in a compromising light—and reeled back and forth between the conviction that she was doomed and the hope that the King was just testing her. Until very near the end, she still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. As we know, Henry had no such plans in mind.


After his death, among Cromwell’s possessions was found an (undelivered) letter that some claim Anne wrote to Henry during her imprisonment. Historians have questioned its authenticity, claiming the neither the handwriting nor the style are Anne’s.  What do you think?  Did Anne write this letter?


Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me such a one, whom you know to me mine ancient professed enemy (Cromwell); I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth indeed my procure my safety I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.

But let not Your Grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and Your Grace’s pleasure had so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received Queenship, but I always looked for sucher alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than Your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient, I knew, to draw that fancy to some other subject.

You have chosen me from a low estate to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honor, good Your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good Grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant Princess, your daughter, Elizabeth.

Try me, Good King, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignonimy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatever God and you may determine of, Your Grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party (Anne new of Henry’s affection for Jane Seymour), Mistress Seymour, for whose sake I am now as I am; whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.

But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that He will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at His general judgement-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgement, I doubt not; whatsoever the world think of me; mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.

My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of Your Grace’s displeasur, and that it may not touch the innocent sould of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.

If ever I have found favour in your site – if ever the name of Anne Boleyn have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble Your Grace no further; with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have Your Grace in His good keeping and to direct you in all your actions.

From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.

Anne Boleyn


Anne’s Letter from the Tower: Authentic or Not?
Our first sample of Anne’s handwriting: “Le temps viendre” and Anne’s signature, from her prayer book.
Our second sample of Anne’s handwriting: a letter to Cromwell, 1535.
Our third sample of Anne’s handwriting: letter to her father from Belgium, in 1513, when she was around 12, so probably not her mature writing.

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April 28th-29th, 1536

Nicholas Carew

Nicholas Carew

April 28th-29th: Chapuys is clearly (and gleefully) aware that plots are being hatched against Anne. He writes to Charles that Nicholas Carew is “daily conspiring” against Anne, “trying to convince Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the King’s chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed, the King being so tired of the said concubine that he could not bear her any longer.”

It’s also clear from Chapuys’ dispatch of April 29th that there is much covert discussion, at court, as to whether or not “the King could or could not abandon the said concubine.” He reports that the bishop of London, John Stokesley, was asked his opinion on this (by an unnamed courtier), and demured, “knowing well the King’s fickleness” and fearful that should Anne be restored to favor, he would be in danger. Chapuys is sure, however, that his true opinion is that the King “would certainly desert his concubine.”

The king, however–more dissembling for public consumption?–is still planning to take Anne with him to Calais on May 4th, after the May Day jousts, and is still pressing Charles to acknowledge the validity of his marriage to Anne. What, in your opinion, is Henry thinking at this time?

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