May 19, 1536 : Anne Boleyn is executed
On this day in 1536, Anne Boleyn, the infamous second wife of King Henry VIII, is executed on charges including adultery, incest and conspiracy against the king.
King Henry had become enamored of Anne Boleyn in the mid-1520s, when she returned from serving in the French court and became a lady-in-waiting to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Dark-haired, with an olive complexion and a long, elegant neck, Anne was not said to be a great beauty, but she clearly captivated the king. As Catherine had failed to produce a male heir, Henry transferred his hopes for the future continuation of his royal line to Anne, and set about getting a divorce or annulment so he could marry her.
For six years, while his advisers worked on what became known as “the King’s great matter,” Henry and Anne courted first discreetly, then openly—angering Catherine and her powerful allies, including her nephew, Emperor Charles V.
In 1532, the savvy and ruthless Thomas Cromwell won control of the king’s council and engineered a daring revolution—a break with the Catholic Church, and Henry’s installation as supreme head of the Church of England. Many unhappy Britons blamed Anne, whose sympathies lay with England’s Protestant reformers even before the Church’s steadfast opposition turned her against it.
At Queen Anne’s coronation in June 1533, she was nearly six months pregnant, and in September she gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth, rather than the much-longed-for male heir. She later had two stillborn children, and suffered a miscarriage in January 1536; the fetus appeared to be male.
By that time, Anne’s relationship with Henry had soured, and he had his eye on her lady-in-waiting, the demure Jane Seymour.
After Anne’s latest miscarriage, and the death of Catherine that same month, rumors began flying that Henry wanted to get rid of Anne so he could marry Jane. Henry had apparently convinced himself that Anne had seduced him by witchcraft, and also told Cromwell (Anne’s former ally, now her rival for power in Henry’s court) that he wanted to take steps towards repairing relations with Emperor Charles.
Seeing Anne’s weak position, her many enemies jumped at the chance to bring about the downfall of “the Concubine,” and launched an investigation that compiled evidence against her.
After Mark Smeaton, a court musician, confessed (possibly under torture) that he had committed adultery with the queen, the drama was set in motion at the May Day celebration at the king’s riverside palace at Greenwich.
King Henry left suddenly in the middle of the day’s jousting tournament, which featured Anne’s brother George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, and Sir Henry Norris, one of the king’s closest friends and a royal officer in his household. He gave no explanation for his departure to Queen Anne, whom he would never see again.
In quick succession, Norris and Rochford were both arrested on charges of adultery with the queen (incest, in Rochford’s case) and plotting with her against her husband. Sir Frances Weston and Sir William Brereton were arrested in the following days on similar charges, while Queen Anne herself was taken into custody at Greenwich on May 2. She was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The trial of Smeaton, Weston, Brereton and Norris took place in Westminster Hall on May 12. At the conclusion of the trial, the court sentenced all four men to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Three days later, Anne and her brother, Lord Rochford, went on trial in the Great Hall of the Tower of London.
The Duke of Norfolk presided over the trial as lord high steward, representing the king. The most damning evidence against Rochford was the testimony of his own jealous wife, who claimed “undue familiarity” between him and his sister.
As for Anne, most historians agree she was almost certainly not guilty of the charges against her. She never admitted to any wrongdoing, the evidence against her was weak and it seems highly unlikely she would have endangered her position by adultery or conspiring to harm the king, whose favor she depended upon so greatly.
Still, Anne and Rochford were found guilty as charged, and Norfolk pronounced the sentence: Both were to be burnt or executed according to the king’s wishes.
On May 17, the five condemned men were executed on Tower Hill, but Henry showed mercy to his queen, calling in the “hangman of Calais” so that she could be beheaded with the sword rather than the axe.
On the morning of May 19, a small crowd gathered on Tower Green as Anne Boleyn—clad in a dark grey gown and ermine mantle, her hair covered by a headdress over a white linen coif—approached her final fate.
With a swift blow from the executioner’s sword, Anne Boleyn was dead. Less than 24 hours later, Henry was formally betrothed to Jane Seymour; they married some 10 days after the execution.
While Queen Jane did give birth to the long-awaited son, who would succeed Henry as King Edward VI at the tender age of nine, it would be his daughter with Anne Boleyn who would go on to rule England for more than 40 years as the most celebrated Tudor monarch: Queen Elizabeth I. ■