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At the Scaffold

Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn

Despite her proclaimed readiness to die, until very near the end Anne still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation.  Not only had no British queen up until then been executed, but the last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.

It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love.  The Arthurian romance, even today, has the power to move us.  And in 1536, many of the outward trappings and habits of courtly love still existed.  Henry was himself an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who at the beginning of his courtship of Anne had written seventeen letters in which he pledged himself her “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact been honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  Ironically, Anne, on her part, felt the same way. Expecting to die on the 18th, she took the sacrament at 2 a.m., having prepared her soul for many hours.  By now all who were in close contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence, whatever their politics. She had insisted that Kingston be present when she took confession, so her assertion of innocence of the charges would be public record. 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 to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “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 flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony, or the fact that at this point, she was probably becoming a bit unhinged.  At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticoat) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portugese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

Unlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensible part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it”

While I was in London, conducting interviews for this book and visiting sites of importance, I had an experience that reminded me of Lewis’s essay. Returning to my hotel from a day-long visit to the Tower, I was obediently following the crowd across a busy  intersection when I heard a voice call out “Watch Out!” and, struck on my lower back, was knocked to the ground. The impact was forceful and disorienting; I had no idea what had happened.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the red of a London bus. “I’m about to be run over by a bus!” I thought, disbelieving but sure; it seemed impossible, on my innocent little research trip, that I should die in this arbitrary, unexpected way, but that was clearly what was about to happen.  I tried to lift myself up, and realized that although I was hurt, I wasn’t about to be crushed, for I’d been hit not by the bus I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, but by an impatient bicyclist; the bus had slowed to a stop by the time I was on the ground.

I was bleeding from a bad scrape on my arm, and sharp darts of pain in my back and side accompanied every breath, in a way that I recognized from a hair-line rib fracture I’d once received in an auto accident. I suppose I ought to have gone to the hospital just to be sure everything was okay, but I didn’t.  And eventually, everything did heal.  The only injury that remained was existential: the memory of that moment when I was sure that I was about to be extinguished, just like that, without warning.  I had felt terror, yes, but then, when the fatal blow seemed inevitable, an eerie calm overcame me.  It seemed useless to struggle—a feeling that I had never before experienced, in a life devoted to making things happen, protecting myself and those I love, and constantly moving forward.  For a moment, when I thought I was about to be struck by that bus, I relaxed into the unfamiliar sense of “letting go.” It was only for an instant, and then, when I realized that the bus had stopped and escape from the traffic was still possible, the self-protective fear returned and I scrambled to my feet, and hobbled across the street to the sidewalk where my husband was standing, looking alarmed.

Dostoevsky, too, had experienced a close brush with death—by the Czar’s firing squad, a sentence from which he was reprieved at the last moment—and fictionalizes his experience through a character in The Idiot.  His account, though very different from Montaigne’s or mine, nonetheless describes a radically altered state of consciousness, not characterized by pain but a sense of the infinity of time, stretching his final moments into an extended reflection culminating in the sense of impending re-birth into the “new self” that James Hillman describes:

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may also have been filled with internal good-byes, existential confrontation with the mystery of “being” and “nothingness”, and imaginings of becoming one with nature.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that were sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

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Filed under May 19th, 1536 Feature

Why the “1000 Days’” Tower Speech Rang True in 1969—and Still Does Today

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu.

Genevieve Bujold’s performance, and a few key changes in the play, were to make quite a dramatic transformation in the Maxwell Anderson original.  Anderson’s play, despite it’s fireball Anne, was really Henry’s story, and, like Hackett’s biography, was intent on exorcising the ghost of Bluff King Hal, described in Hacket’s biography  as “the  sort of man who cuts off his wife’s heads, ha-ha, out of a big, jovial, exuberant good humor.  Off with her head!  Off with the next one’s head!  The more, the merrier.” (248) Charles Laughton, in Private Life, played precisely this kind of Henry, and with such gusto and ingenuity that many viewers (and reviewers) believed that they were seeing the “real” Henry. John Gamme, in Film Weekly, described Laughton as “drawing a full-blooded portrait of the gross, sensual monarch in whom lust and the satisfaction of vanity are the ruling passions.”[1]

Hacket and Anderson, however, considered this kind of portrait to be a caricature.  Their respective Henrys are not piggy old souls, but tortured monarchs.   Hackett’s was a “man of open manner and gracious fellowship” who, due to an inability to imagine himself and his personal needs as anything other than orchestrated by God, had  “managed to plunge himself and his country in the thick of an inextricable jungle.” Anderson’s Henry is an even more tragic figure than Hackett’s. He truly loves Anne, but gets caught in the net of his own obsession with an heir, masculine pride, and self-indulgence.  Ultimately, he comes to see that he has paid an enormous price, but that “nothing can ever be put back the way it was.”  In the final speech of the play, Henry muses on the magnitude of what has changed for his country (“the limb that was cut from Rome won’t graft to that trunk again”) and, with Anne’s ghost hovering in the background, begins to realize that “all other women will be shadows” and that he will seek Anne “forever down the long corridors of air, finding them empty, hearing only echoes.”  “It would have been easier,” he now recognizes, “to forget you living than to forget you dead.”

In Anderson’s play, it’s Henry, then, who has the final word, who makes the final pronouncements about history, whose torments we are left to imagine. The film, however, ends very differently.  The screenplay, adapted from the play by Brigid Boland, John Hale, and Richard Sokolove, has Henry, in our last glimpse of him, listening for the signal sounding Anne’s death, then galloping off to see Jane Seymour with nary a second thought.  In place of his sober, sad reflections at the end of the play, in the film we see little Elizabeth, a sprig of flowers in her hand, toddling down the path towards greatness (actually in the gardens of Penshurst Castle) while her mother’s voice in the background predicts her daughter’s glorious future.  The voice-over is a repeat of part of an earlier speech, one that has viewers cheering for Anne to this day.  As in the play, Henry visits Anne in the Tower, and as in the play, she lies to him about her fidelity to him.  In the movie, however, she embellishes her lie with more detail–“I was untrue to half your court.  With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stablehands.  Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn’t find him a better man than you!”–and Henry, rattled and enraged, shouts, “You whore!”  Anne, who knows she has hit the mark of his manhood but has even sharper arrows in her quiver, goes on:

“Yes. But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she’s yours. She’s a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can – and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”

Yes, it’s overblown.  And it’s utterly without historical foundation.  Henry never visited Anne in her room in the Tower, and Anne never delivered a speech like this; indeed, at this point, Anne knew the chances of Elizabeth ever becoming queen were extremely slim.  Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared null and void by Henry’s lawyers, and Elizabeth bastardized.  In the movie, she is given a choice that the real Anne never had: to live, if she will willingly end the marriage, freeing Henry to marry Jane Seymour and making Elizabeth illegitimate in the bargain.  Or to die, with Elizabeth still a rightful heir.  She turns Henry down flat.

It was all invention, but of a particularly potent and timely sort for 1969. This was a period of convention-smashing in film: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Easy Rider.  But with the exception of Bonnie Parker and Mrs. Robinson (but strikingly not her daughter Elaine), the female characters in the New American Cinema played by the rules.  It was the men who challenged the “status quo,” and the men who paid heroically for it.[2]  Hale and Boland’s Anne, long before Thelma and Louise, is the first female heroine to ride off the cliff, in full consciousness of what she is doing, to preserve her own integrity (and in this case, the future of her daughter and of England).

It struck a chord, even with me. In 1969, I was a pretty cynical movie-goer.  The anti-sentimentalist Pauline Kael, who did movie reviews for The New Yorker,  was my idol, and I hated anything that smacked of pretention or high-mindedness.  I was not a feminist in anything but the most inchoate sense of the word.  While friends of mine were joining consciousness-raising groups and attending demonstrations, I scorned and was made anxious by what I thought of as “groupthink.”  My own personal rebellion was to drop out of school, have a lot of mindless sex, marry someone I didn’t love, and then suffer a nervous breakdown which made me unable to leave him.  But I did manage to make it to the movies—and Anne of the Thousand Days was one of them. It was my first introduction, since the boring, sexless Tudor history I’d read in high school, to the story of Henry and Anne.  I had no idea what was invented and what was historically documented, but it made no difference. I loved fiery, rebellious Anne.  I loved the way she bossed Richard Burton’s Henry around like a surly, 20th-century teenager.  I loved the fact that Genevieve Bujold’s hair was messy as she delivered that speech to Henry, loved her intensity, loved her less-than-perfectly symmetrical beauty, loved the fact that someone that small could pack such a wallop.

Anne’s speech in the Tower might have seemed melodramatic if it had been played by a young Bette Davis—or, heaven forfend, an Elizabeth Taylor!  But Bujold’s fire, issuing from her petite frame and elfin face, her hair disheveled, her dark eyes glittering with pride, desperation, hurt, and vengeance, transformed the potentially hokey into an indelible, iconic moment. Even at a recent festival of Burton’s films, held by the British Film Institute, the audience was stirred, crying out “Go, Anne, go, you tell him!”[3] “After watching this,” writes one contemporary Tudorphile,  “you come away with the feeling that if that ain’t the way it really happened then it should’ve. I love the pride she displays even after Henry slaps her. She’s right, he’s wrong and they both know it. As she goes on talking down to him you can see him shriveling little by little and he nevermore was the man he’d once been. Seems she got the last laugh in more ways than one.”

Bujold also did something with Anne’s famous—and famously ambiguous—comments in the Tower that no other actress before or since has done, and that contributed to the believability of that final speech.   Anne’s behavior in the Tower, as she awaited her sentencing and then her death, provides some of  the most intriguing clues to her personality.  Unfortunately, it was recorded by Constable Kingston, a man who seems to have been tone-deaf to her sense of irony.  When Anne delivered her best-known line—“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”—then put her hands around her neck and “laughed heartily” (as Kingston described it), he took her to be showing “much joy and pleasure in death.” The actresses who have played Anne have been too smart to accept that interpretation, but then have been left with the task of figuring out just what was going on.  Merle Oberon and Dorothy Tutin, who played Anne in the 1971 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, eliminate the laughter entirely, and have Anne say the line wistfully, as if in resigned acceptance (and in the case of Oberon, with a touch of narcissism) over the reality of the coming confrontation between steel and flesh.  Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtime’s The Tudors, plays the “little neck” speech as a moment when the unimaginable stress that Anne is enduring breaks through her composure, and both the absurdity and the terror of her situation erupt in a crazy joke and then, hysterical laughter—an interpretation that fits well with the evidence that Anne’s  behavior in the tower was frequently unhinged.  But Bujold chooses to emphasize Anne’s intelligence and pride rather than her emotional instability, and plays the line as a sardonic response to Kingston’s lame reasurrances that the blow would be so “subtle” there would be no pain. Her Anne recognizes cowardly, self-serving bull when it’s thrown at her, and will have none of it.

In another iconic moment, Anne had said to Kingston, upon arrival at the Tower and being told that she would be housed in the apartment she stayed in before her coronation, that it was “too good for her.”  Kingston reports that she then “kneeled down weeping, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing.” One can interpret the weeping as relief and the laughter as hysterical, but Anne also laughed—in the same conversation with Kingston–when he told her that “even the King’s poorest subject hath justice.” It’s hard to read that laughter as anything other than mocking Kingston’s naivete about the King’s “justice,” and Bujold, emphasizing this mockery, which stems from Anne’s uncompromising realism, makes the “it is too good for me” comment drip with sarcasm rather than relief.  For a queen, of course the apartments would hardly be “too good.” By saying the line “It is too good for me” with bitter irony rather than tearful gratitude, Bujold’s Anne is actually pointing out to the clueless, uncomfortable Kingston that she is still, after all, the Queen of England.  Her Anne was, and probably always will be, the proudest of the Annes.

…..Bujold’s own history had prepared her well to play a young woman breaking through the confinements of convention.  She had grown up in a devout French-Canadian Catholic household, and spent her first twelve school years in a convent; in an online biography, she is quoted as saying that at the time she felt “as if I were in a long, dark tunnel, trying to convince myself that if I could ever get out, there was light ahead.” But something about her religious training made its way into her attitude toward acting.  When asked in 2007 how she prepared for her roles, she answered, “You pray for grace.  If you’ve done your homework and, most of all, are open to receive, you go forward…Preparation for me is sacred.”  But going forward with her own life required rebellion as well as grace; she finally “got out’ of the tunnel by being caught reading a forbidden book.  Liberated to pursue her own designs for her life, she enrolled in Montreal’s free Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique.”  While on tour in Paris with the company, she was discovered by director Alain Resnais, who cast her with Yves Montand in the acclaimed La Guerre est Finie.

Resnais taught her an acting lesson that “still is in me, will always be with me. ‘Always go to the end of your movement,’ he told me”–don’t short-circuit the emotion, the bodily expression, the commitments of the personality you are playing, allow them to fully unfold. That’s something that Genevieve saw in Anne as well. “You can’t put something into a character,” she said, “that you haven’t got within you. Every little thing in life is fed into the character…A word, a thought.  I had read something on Anne Boleyn that Hal gave me and I could look at her with joy and energy; Anne brought a smile to my face.” I asked her what elicited that smile. “Independence. A healthy sense of justice. And she knew herself and was well with herself.  She obviously had such profound integrity in that respect.  She was willing to lose her head to go to the end of her movement.”  That’s what we see, too, in her portrayal of Anne, especially in that final speech, and it’s why “My Elizabeth shall be queen!” still has audiences cheering for her, unconcerned with the historical liberties.

Most movies of the late nine-sixties have not worn exceptionally well, particularly with today’s generation of viewers, for whom many of the lifestyle protests of the times seem dated and silly.   My students snoozed through Easy Rider.  With Anne of the Thousand Days, the passing years and changing culture have had the opposite effect; my students adored it, and especially an Anne that seems to become “truer” as the generations have become less patient with passive heroines and perhaps a bit tired by the cutesy, man-focused femininity of many current female stars.: “Everything I imagine Anne really was”; “How I always picture Anne—as a strong woman not a sniveling girl”; “The gold standard of Annes”; “When I imagine Anne, it is her that I see”; “One of the best Annes ever — all fire and grace.” “The definitive Anne Boleyn for me”; “Pitch-perfect”; “So powerful that she turned a big, touch guy like myself into a wimpering fool”; “A remarkable actress.  I will never forget the scene where she and Henry go riding from Hever…Purely from her body language, she radiates suppressed hatred towards Henry—just by sitting on a horse!  And who can forget her in the blue gown, with jewels in her hair, looking devastatingly beautiful and in total command of herself and the situation.” [4]

Before I said good-by to Genevieve in our interview, I asked her who she would pick to play Anne today.  She admitted that she hadn’t seen either Natalie Portman or Natalie Dormer; she lives a fairly reclusive life in Malibu, and rarely sees movies or watches television.  “But is there anyone who you think would do the part justice?”  She was silent for awhile, then asked me if she could be honest.  Of course, I said.  “Maybe it’s selfish, but…the way I feel….” Genevieve had been so warm and generous throughout the interview, praising all her mentors and influences in her life, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable with what she wanted to say.  So, I pressed a bit more, and she responded, with an intensity that recalled her performance and made me smile with delight.

“No-one,” she replied, “Anne is mine.”


[1] Laughton himself maintained, incredibly, that the film, whose liberties with history run rampant (and rollicking) was true to historical fact.  When the film was lambasted by some of the British press for presenting a “disrespectful” view of imperial history, Laughton insisted on its authenticity: “Most of the dialogue was copied straight from contemporary records of Henry’s actual words,” he claimed, a bald faced lie that mattered little to viewers or most critics, most of whom were swept away not by the film’s accuracy, but the entertaining life it breathed into Henry as a personality.

[2] Although nowadays, pop culture tends to call the shots on “reality,” it used to be that it took awhile for movies to catch up with events in the real world. In 1969, Women’s Liberation groups were forming all over the country.  But it would be another five years or so before films like Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore and Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman would bow, gently, in the direction of a “new woman.”  It wouldn’t be until Thelma and Louise (1991) that the deepest gender conventions would be challenged.  In Alice and Unmarried Woman, the heroines’ (Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh) independence is tempered by the presence of two gorgeous, really nice guys (Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, each at the height of his appeal) who, it is implied, will remain in the women’s lives, providing support and great sex while the heroines pursue their careers.  In Thelma and Louise, in contrast, even the nicest of the male characters are impotent; despite every attempt,  they cannot alter the tragic course of events.  The women have chosen, and they—like the rebel-males of the 1968-9 films—will have to pay the price.

[3] Bujold admits that she was also “telling off” Elizabeth Taylor when she filmed that scene.  After hearing rumors about Burton’s interest in Bujold, Liz had unexpectedly shown up on the set that day.  “It was all rubbish,” Burton told his biographer Michael Nunn, but it was a “problem for Gin, because she had Elizabeth training her sights on her.”  When Taylor showed up on the set, Bujold, as Wallis relates in his autobiography, “was fighting mad,” and “flung herself into the scene with a display of acting skill I have seldom seen equaled in my career.  Then she stormed off the set.”

[4] Comments from readers of my FB page.

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Filed under Anne Through the Ages, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

Reflections on Anne’s Remarks at her Trial by Susan Bordo

The following post originally appeared on “On the Tudor Trail,” a website you should definitely check out if you haven’t already!

Full references available upon request from: Bordo@uky.edu. Please do not quote or cite without author’s permission.

Reflections on Anne’s Remarks at her Trial by Susan Bordo

At her trial, Anne Boleyn insisted that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge.” But she went on: “I do not say I have always shown [the King] the humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way.” Anne’s recognition that she had not shown the King enough humility, in this context, shows remarkable insight into the gender politics of her day. She stood accused of adultery and treason. Yet she did not simply refute those charges; she admitted to a different “crime”: not remaining in her proper “place.” In juxtaposing these two, Anne seems to be suggesting that not only did she recognize that she had transgressed against the norms of wifely behavior, but that this transgression was somehow related to the grim situation she now found herself in.

The idea that Anne was aware that she had fatally defied the rules governing wifely (and Queenly) behavior may seem, at first, like the “p.c.” thinking of a 21st century woman who sees would-be feminists lurking in the shadows of every historical period. But actually, educated women of Anne’s time were very much aware of the various debates concerning the “querelles des femmes” (in English-speaking countries, known as “the woman question”) which was first introduced by Christine De Pizan in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and which had a particular resonance in Britain, where the issue of whether or not women were suitable to rule became more than just theoretical under Henry VIII’s reign. Pizan is most famous for her Book of the City of Ladies (1404-5), which gathers heroines from history and Pizan’s own time to refute ancient views of female inferiority. It was published in Britain in 1521, around the same time that Anne was about to return from France.

Historians of women have made a strong argument that Pizan’s book became part of an ongoing debate in England, beginning with Juan Luis Vives’ Instruction of a Christian Woman (1523), written expressly for Princess Mary, and insisting, against Pizan’s arguments, on the necessarily subordinate role of women. Vives’ book purports to offer instruction for all women, but was clearly written with Catherine’s strict Catholicism as its model. Young girls were forbidden to read anything other than scripture or philosophers of high moral worth, advised to leave their homes as rarely as possible, to use no artifice of any sort in the “vainglorious” pursuit of physical beauty, and most especially to avoid the kind of conversation cultivated in court: “The custom to give praise to a woman for her ability to converse wittily and eloquently with men for hours on end is something that is welcomed and prescribed by ordinances of hell, in my opinion, “ Vives writes. Heterosexual conversation is so much the devil’s tool that Vives advises, “it is not to be permitted that a young woman and a man should converse alone anywhere for any length of time, not even if they are brother and sister.” Indeed, it is “best to have as little contact with men as possible.” Once married, a woman should leave the home as little as possible, speak “only when it would be harmful to be silent,” and at home “administer everything according to the will and command of her husband.”

Vives was not the last word on the subject, however. The debate about woman’s place (which was largely conducted by men) continues in 1540 and 1542 with Sir Thomas Elyot’s refutation of Vives, Defence of Good Women and Agrippa of Nettesheim’s Of the Nobilitie and Excellence of Womankynde, which historian Constance Jordan describes as “the most explicitly feminist text to be published in England in the first half of the century.” In its original Latin form, published in 1509, it was dedicated to Margaret of Austria, who was to be Anne’s first model of queenly behavior. Anticipating later enlightenment thinkers, Agripa argued that the differences between men and women were only bodily, and that “the woman hathe that same mynd that a man hath, the same reason and speche, she gothe to the same ende of blysfulnes (spirituality], where shall be noo exception of kynde.” Why then are they everywhere subordinate to men? Because they are not permitted to make the laws or write history, and therefore “cannot contribute to or criticize the intellectual bases on which they are categorized as inferior.” (Jordan, 123)

The same might be said of the slant on Anne that is presented in most of the historical documents from her own time—which have, unfortunately, provided the basis for most historical accounts written later. Natalie Dormer, who played Anne on Showtime’s The Tudors, was emphatic on this point:

“History was written by men. And even now, in our post-feminist era we still have women struggle in public positions of power. When you read a history book, both the commentary and the first hand primary evidence, all the natural gender prejudices during the period will certainly be there.”

Natalie goes on: “Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise, because she was a challenging personality, and wouldn’t be quiet and shut up. So all the reasons that attracted [Henry] to her, and made her queen and a mother, were all the things that then undermined her position. What she had that was so unique for a woman at that time was also her undoing.”[1]

Where did Anne develop her “uniqueness”? The first term in what Eric Ives calls Anne’s “European Education” began in 1513, when she was just twelve, sent to the court of the politically powerful and independent-minded Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was serving as regent for her 13 year-old nephew Charles of Burgundy. After that, Anne spent six years at the French court, where many historians surmise that she became acquainted, and possibly friends, with Francis’ sister Marguerite de Navarre. De Navarre, who historian Patricia Cholakian describes as “the mother of the Renaissance,” was largely responsible for the reputation that the Valois court had as a center of intellectual and artistic brilliance. Pious and retiring Queen Claude had the babies, but as the “king’s respected counselor and confidante” since he took the throne in 1515, Marguerite filled the court with poets, philosophers, and the most provocative reformist intellectuals of the time. They debated all the hot humanist topics of the day, from the “Bible Question” (Did people needs priests to interpret scripture for them, or should vernacular versions be widely available?) to “The Woman Question.” (Could a woman be virtuous? If so, what kind of virtue was distinctively hers? Was her intelligence lesser than man’s? Was she even of the same species as man?) De Navarre’s own collection of some seventy stories, The Heptameron, did not appear in print until after both she and Anne were dead, but their content gives some indication of the radical ideas circulating among her “salon,” and the potential links between criticism of the church and the assertion of female equality. Many of the stories deal with the sexual abuses of men—almost always libidinous monks and friars, ravaging the countryside—and the overlooked worth of women.

Marguerite’s influence on Anne is speculation on my part, of course, in that none of it is documented. However, with only twelve ladies-in-waiting serving at Claude’s court, it’s not a stretch to imagine frequent contact between them. (In 1535, Anne sent a message to Marguerite saying that her “greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again.”) If so, it’s possible that Marguerite taught Anne, by example, that “woman’s place” extended beyond her husband’s bed, and that this, ironically, was part of Anne’s appeal for Henry. For traditionalists at court, the mere fact of Anne having any say in Henry’s political affairs would have been outrageously presumptuous, particularly since Anne was not of royal blood. Henry, however, has been educated alongside his two sisters and was extremely close to his mother; there’s no evidence that he regarded women as naturally inferior to men, or that he saw Anne’s early “interference”, so long as it supported his own aims, as anything other than proof of her queenly potential. In fact, in the six-year-long battle for the divorce, they seem much more like co-conspirators than manipulating female and hapless swain.

Henry would later become less open to the political participation of his wives, warning Jane, for example, not to meddle, and holding the example of her predecessor ominously over her head (so to speak.) But there’s no evidence that during the six years he pursued Anne he had any objection to her counsel. It has to be remembered that these were six years in which Henry spent far less time mooning about Anne than he did arguing, gathering forces, reviewing texts, his ego and his authority more on the line every year that passed. Initially, Henry had every expectation that the Pope would quickly reverse the dispensation he had granted for the marriage to Katherine. But for complexly tangled political reasons, the Pope was not about to give Henry the easy divorce he imagined, and Henry was drawn into battle with the papacy itself. It was long, fierce, and bloody, fracturing British loyalties, sending devoted papists like Thomas More to the scaffold, and ultimately resulting in a new Church of England with Henry as its head. Anyone who follows it closely can see that the autonomy and authority of kings ultimately became more at issue for Henry than the divorce itself.

As a dedicated reformist whose criticisms of the church were probably fueled (if not formed) by the powerful intellect of Marguerite and her circle, Anne was perfectly in synch with Henry’s growing hostility toward the papacy. She more than supported Henry’s efforts, supplying the reformist texts and arguments that gave Henry the justification he needed to enlarge his role as the spiritual leader of the nation. In fact, James Carley, the curator of the books of Henry and his wives, notes that all the anti-papal literature that Henry collected supporting his break with Rome dates from after he began to pursue Anne. Although she may not have supplied all the actual readings herself, the couple was almost certainly discussing the issues and theological arguments involved, as both were avid readers of the Bible. Most famously, Anne introduced Henry to Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, which must have prickled Henry’s sense of manliness as well as supporting his resistance to the church—and suggesting it could be very profitable as well. Tyndale complained that the monarchs of Christendom had become mere shadows, “having nothing to do in the world but when our holy father needeth help” and encouraged them to take back “every farthing”, “all manner of treasure”, and “all the lands which they have gotten with their false prayer.” It did not require feminine brainwashing, as Chapuys and others charged, to convince Henry that such ideas were on his side. As early as 1515, the youthful Henry, pronouncing on a dispute about the relative powers of ecclesiastical and state courts, declared that the king of England has no “superior but God only” and upheld the authority of “temporal jurisdiction” over church decrees. This point of view, growing sharper every year that followed, was the cutting edge that ultimately cost Thomas More his head, not Henry’s marriage to Anne.

Although a few historians are still insistent that Anne’s contribution to “The King’s Reformation” (as G.W. Bernard titles his book) was exaggerated by later protestant “rehabilitators” of Anne’s image, by now most historians agree that Anne was not just the face that launched the English reformation, but an active participant herself. Multiple corroborating sources from her own time remember Anne as “a patron of rising evangelicals, a protector of those who were harassed” both “a model and champion” of reformers, “in England and abroad.” (Freeman, 819) As queen, she secured the appointment of several evangelical bishops and deans when Henry created the newly independent Church of England. She attempted to intervene on behalf of reformists imprisoned for their religious beliefs. She was also an avid reader of the radical religious works of the day (many of them banned from England and smuggled in for her), both in French and in England. Her surviving library of books includes a large selection of early French evangelical works, including Marguerite de Navarre’s first published poem, Miroir de l’ame pechersse”, (1531), which was later to be translated into English (as “Mirror of the Soul”) in 1544 by none other than Anne’s 11 year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Anne’s library also included Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples’ French translation of the bible, published by the same man (Martin Lempereur) responsible for publishing Tyndale’s New Testament, and numerous other French evangelical tracts.

The promotion and protection of the cause of reform was an especially dangerous business for Anne to engage in, because it was such a divisive issue (to put it mildly) and men’s careers (and sometimes heads) would hang or fall depending on which side was winning. And the religious “culture wars” provided fertile soil for the anti-Anne propaganda that circulated around court and through Europe. Much of this came from the tongues (and pens) of those for whom to be anti-papal was to be pro-devil. “Lutheran” women (an incorrect appellation for Anne, who did not subscribe to Lutheran doctrine) were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” (K and S, p. 188) took barely a breath. The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame. And although Anne was not charged with witchcraft, the atmospherics that allowed her to be eliminated so ruthlessly certainly contributed to the extremity of her downfall. When Henry claimed she had bewitched him, he may have half (or even wholly) believed it.

Protestants, of course, could be no less zealous than papists in their diatribes against women who presumed to interfere in men’s business. Often they were more vehement, as they had a religious doctrine within which the Father, whether God, King, or husband, was the model of all authority. Rather, depending on which side you stood—Catholic or Protestant—determined which presumptuous women were most offensive to you. When Mary Tudor became queen of England in 1553, her Catholicism added fuel to the fire that was already burning in Protestant reformer John Knox, who argued, in his famously titled The First Blast of Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, that any woman who presumed “to sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge, or to reign above a man” was “a monster in nature.” And then the old familiar charges came pouring out again: “Nature…doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” (Jansen, 1) No wonder that when Elizabeth took the throne, she was insistent that she had “the heart and stomach of a King”!

Anne Boleyn’s problem, though, as far as public relations went, was the pro-Katherine, papist faction. It was they who saw her as a vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal. It was they who wrote that her coronation dress was covered with tongues pierced with nails, and who later spread rumors that she bore physical marks of the devil on her body. It was they who were most terrified of her insidious influence on the King’s politics. Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, in particular, was a constant source of anti-Anne propaganda. Chapuys, a great champion of Katherine’s and the papal cause, despised Anne with a passion that he didn’t even try to disguise, disgustedly referring to her in his official communications as “the concubine” and “that whore”—or, with polite disdain, “The Lady.” (Accordingly, Elizabeth was “the little bastard.”) He accused Anne of plotting to murder Catherine and Mary—without a shred of proof beyond a few reported outbursts of Anne’s—and was the first to advance the argument that she was responsible for Henry’s “corruption.” (“It is this Anne,” Chapuys wrote, “who has put Henry in this perverse and wicked temper.”)

My belief is that Chapuys was enraged, not only by Anne’s religious politics or supplanting of Katherine and Mary, but of her refusal, as Natalie Dormer put it in my interview with her, “to be quiet and shut up.” Anne was a religious radical, yes, but probably would have been seen as less of a monstrosity had she been a less vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman. As such, her actual contribution to the scourge of Lutheranism, far from being minimized as it later was to be by later historians, was inflated to unbelievable proportions. In one letter to Charles, Chapuys went so far as to blame “the heretical doctrines and practices of the concubine” as “the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.” (April 1, 1536)

Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should, however, spread and resonated way beyond pro-papist circles. While her unwillingness to occupy her “proper place” was not in itself the cause of Cromwell’s turn against her, it certainly contributed to their stand-off and unleashed his ruthlessness in planning her downfall, as well as striking at Henry’s manly pride and vulnerability to believing the charges of adultery and treason laid against her. Anne’s confidence and insistence on holding her ground also helps account for the general failure of anyone to serve as her protector when she needed it. Jane Seymour was no less the “other woman” than Anne was (and probably more deserving of the charge of using her virginity as bait than Anne was), but her apparent docility miraculously spared her, when she became queen, from the antipathy that Anne inspired. While Austria and France, where Anne was “finished,” had become accustomed to a strong female presence, the English court was still very much a boy’s club, in which men like Henry delighted in surprising a wife like Katherine by showing up in her bedroom, as he did one morning early in their marriage, with 12 of his hyper-active companions, dressed like Robin Hood and his Merry Men. “The queen,” Hall reports, “the ladies and all other there were abashed, as well for the strange sight, as also for their sudden coming.” Blushing bride, boisterous husband; it was just the way it was supposed to be. But Anne was not a blusher.

To describe Anne Boleyn as a feminist would be an anachronism—and not nearly as appropriate an anachronism in her case as in that of Marguerite de Navarre and others who openly championed for female equality. Marguerite did not have the word, but she was conscious of a female “cause.” There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly. But she had learned to value both her body and her ideas, seems to have realized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, and perhaps also understood that this played a role in her downfall. “I do not say I have always shown him humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed. Anne wasn’t a feminist. But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men (and most women) of her era, and for all the rage that inspired, she may as well have been one.
[1] From an interview with Susan Bordo, June 2010
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Filed under Anne and Gender, Anne Through the Ages, Life in 16th century England

At the Scaffold

The following entry should not be sited, reproduced, or quoted without attribution to me and my book:  Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

At the Scaffold.

Despite her proclaimed readiness to die, until very near the end Anne still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation.  Not only had no British queen up until then been executed, but the last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.

It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love.  The Arthurian romance, even today, has the power to move us.  And in 1536, many of the outward trappings and habits of courtly love still existed.  Henry was himself an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who at the beginning of his courtship of Anne had written seventeen letters in which he pledged himself her “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  Ironically, Anne, on her part, felt the same way. Expecting to die on the 18th, she took the sacrament at 2 a.m., having prepared her soul for many hours.  By now all who were in close contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence, whatever their politics. She had insisted that Kingston be present when she took confession, so her assertion of innocence of the charges would be public record. 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 to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “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 flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony, or the fact that at this point, she was probably becoming a bit unhinged.  At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticote) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portugese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

Unlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, “is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensible part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it” (Lewis, 104-5).

While I was in London, conducting interviews for this book and visiting sites of importance, I had an experience that reminded me of Lewis’s essay. Returning to my hotel from a day-long visit to the Tower, I was obediently following the crowd across a busy intersection when I heard a voice call out “Watch Out!” and, struck on my lower back, was knocked to the ground. The impact was forceful and disorienting; I had no idea what had happened.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the red of a London bus. “I’m about to be run over by a bus!” I thought, disbelieving but sure; it seemed impossible, on my innocent little research trip, that I should die in this arbitrary, unexpected way, but that was clearly what was about to happen.  I tried to lift myself up, and realized that although I was hurt, I wasn’t about to be crushed, for I’d been hit not by the bus I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, but by an impatient bicyclist; the bus had slowed to a stop by the time I was on the ground.

I was bleeding from a bad scrape on my arm, and sharp darts of pain in my back and side accompanied every breath, in a way that I recognized from a hair-line rib fracture I’d once received in an auto accident. I suppose I ought to have gone to the hospital just to be sure everything was okay, but I didn’t.  And eventually, everything did heal.  The only injury that remained was existential: the memory of that moment when I was sure that I was about to be extinguished, just like that, without warning.  I had felt terror, yes, but then, when the fatal blow seemed inevitable, an eerie calm overcame me.  It seemed useless to struggle—a feeling that I had never before experienced, in a life devoted to making things happen, protecting myself and those I love, and constantly moving forward.  For a moment, when I thought I was about to be struck by that bus, I relaxed into the unfamiliar sense of “letting go.” It was only for an instant, and then, when I realized that the bus had stopped and escape from the traffic was still possible, the self-protective fear returned and I scrambled to my feet, and hobbled across the street to the sidewalk where my husband was standing, looking alarmed.

Dostoevsky, too, had experienced a close brush with death—by the Czar’s firing squad, a sentence from which he was reprieved at the last moment—and fictionalizes his experience through a character in The Idiot.  His account, though very different from Montaigne’s or mine, nonetheless describes a radically altered state of consciousness, not characterized by pain but a sense of the infinity of time, stretching his final moments into an extended reflection culminating in the sense of impending re-birth into the “new self” that James Hillman describes:

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may also have been filled with internal good-byes, existential confrontation with the mystery of “being” and “nothingness”, and imaginings of becoming one with nature.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that was sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

Sir William Russell Flint – Queen Guinevere rescued from the stake by Sir Lancelot, from ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, Book XX, Chapter VIII

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Famous Thinkers on the Approach of Death

Something to consider when thinking about Anne in prison and at the scaffold. From Dostoevsky, with many thanks to Lisa Tecoulesco for sending it to us:

“As to life in a prison, of course there may be two opinions,” said the prince. “I once heard the story of a man who lived twelve years in a prison–I heard it from the man himself. He was one of the persons under treatment with my professor; he had fits, and attacks of melancholy, then he would weep, and once he tried to commit suicide. His life in prison was sad enough; his only acquaintances were spiders and a tree that grew outside his grating-but I think I had better tell you of another man I met last year. There was a very strange feature in this case, strange because of its extremely rare occurrence. This man had once been brought to the scaffold in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die. I was very anxious to hear him speak of his impressions during that dreadful time, and I several times inquired of him as to what he thought and felt. He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience.

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

“He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.

“The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, ‘What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!’ He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it.”

 

A photo of Fyodor Dostoevsky

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