Until the very moment the swordsman of Calais swung his sword at her neck, Anne Boleyn may have been expecting a pardon.
No Queen of England had ever been put on trial, let alone executed. Though Anne likely expected to be found guilty at trial, it seems that she may have believed she would be pardoned afterward and sent to a nunnery.
William Kingston records the day after Anne’s trial, May 16, Archbishop Cranmer came to visit Anne in the Tower. We don’t know what was said, but at dinner that evening, Anne was cheerful and told her ladies she was going to be sent to a convent.
In the Tudor era, a marriage could be legally dissolved if one of the parties entered a religious order. The children from such a union would still be legitimate. This “solution” to ending a marriage was urged on Katharine of Aragon when the king wanted an annulment to marry Anne, because it would give the king his freedom to remarry, yet preserve Princess Mary’s rights to the throne. However, Katharine refused, saying she had no religious vocation. Another family of the era seems to have used this option. Catherine Fillol is another example of a woman who was sent to a convent when she was accused of adultery – her husband remarried.
It seems Cranmer’s visit to the Tower had two purposes: he was to act as Anne’s spiritual comfort – which she had been requesting – and he was to get from her a reason to legally declare the king’s marriage null and void. It has been speculated that at this meeting, Cranmer offered Anne a deal: Anne she would be pardoned and sent to a convent if she “confessed” to an impediment that made her marriage to the king invalid.
What was this impediment? We don’t know. The annulment decree Cranmer issued simply said it was something Anne had known all along but only recently revealed to Cranmer, which made the marriage invalid. Some have speculated Anne claimed she’d been pre-contracted to Henry Percy, because Percy was asked about it again during the proceedings. He irritably wrote back that he had already sworn on the host there had been no pre-contract between himself and Anne Boleyn. If this was, indeed, the issue that was cited, they must have decided Anne’s word on the matter would be accepted at face-value despite Percy’s denial.
Chapuys claimed that the reason cited was Henry’s prior affair with Mary Boleyn. However, Henry had not only gotten a dispensation from the pope allowing him to marry a woman whose sister he had slept with, he had also had parliament confirm his union with Anne as lawful. Chapuys seems incorrect on this one.
Henry never did anything by halves. He married Anne Boleyn twice. He had her crowned as a consort, and as a monarch in her own right. He had declared his daughter by Anne to be the only legitimate princess, and had made all of England formally swear to recognize her as the sole heir to the throne. Now it appeared he wanted Anne Boleyn to enter a convent to end their marriage, and to have an annulment, as well.
Anne seems to have agreed to the deal, believing it would save her life and preserve the rights of her beloved daughter to the throne.
But it seems the more she thought about it, the more she began to question it. Would Henry really let her live? She would still be a wealthy marquess, with powerful supporters, and any female children of his marriage to Jane would have to take place in line to the throne behind Princess Elizabeth. William Kingston reports that one moment she was cheerful and eager to find out what convent she’d be sent to, and the next moment, she was fearful she would be executed. She spent the next few days vacillating between these two states.
The king’s pardon didn’t come, and there were men building a scaffold on the green.
The annulment was announced, and it said since Anne had known of the impediment all along, it rendered the parents’ “good faith” invalid, and thus Princess Elizabeth was now a bastard. Kingston makes no mention he ever informed Anne of that fact. I hope he didn’t. I hope she went to the scaffold believing she had saved Elizabeth’s future.
As she waited those agonizing hours, did Anne hear the sound of the hammers as the scaffold was built?
Anne must of thought of Esther from the Bible – to whom she had been compared – pardoned by the king in front of whole court when she finally reached his throne and touched his sword. She must have thought of Guinevere, rescued from the stake itself, and the various tales of Tristan and Iseult seeking pardon from King Mark. The literature with which Anne was familiar had many such tales of last-minute redemption and pardon.
Dramatic, last-minute pardons were Henry’s style. On May 25, 1536, orders were given in regards to a request for a prisoner’s pardon by Lord Lisle:
… Peretre’s pardon is granted, and you shall shortly have a letter missive for it; but his Grace willeth the law to proceed upon him to the last point of execution before announcing it.
On the evening of May 17, Anne was told to prepare to be executed the following morning. What must she have been thinking at that moment? Shock and denial, wanting to protest there had been a deal? Did part of her think it was an elaborate show on Henry’s part so he could pardon her at the last second in a display of regal magnanimity? In any case, she decided to prepare herself.
She asked Lady Kingston to take a message to Princess Mary, requesting forgiveness of any wrongs Anne had done her. A Victorian chronicler paints the scene in dramatic fashion, with Anne pushing the protesting Lady Kingston into Anne’s chair of estate and Anne bowing to Lady Kingston as a proxy for Mary. There’s no contemporary source for the fanciful version, but asking for forgiveness was an ordinary preparation for death in those days, so an apology of some sort is likely.
Her almoner was sent to her to prepare her soul. Anne spent the night with him in prayer, but taking a moment to call Kingston to witness her swearing on the host she had never committed adultery. Whatever Henry had in store for her, Anne was prepared, her soul shriven and her earthly matters settled.
But the appointed execution time came and went. Anne finally called for Kingston and he told her it had been delayed to the following day. She replied she’d hoped to be dead by now and past her pain, then laughed about having a little neck. Kingston marveled at her odd demeanor and said she seemed to have much “joy and pleasure in death.” Could it be because Anne really didn’t think it would happen? Could the delay have added to her belief this was just a ruse to allow Henry to appear magnanimous when he cancelled it at the last moment?
The following morning, as she walked toward the scaffold, a witness reported Anne looked back over her shoulder frequently. Was she looking for a messenger, charging in with a pardon in hand to dramatically end the show?
She stepped up onto the scaffold and said the required words forgiving the executioner. She even praised the king as a “gentle and merciful prince”… Was it because she was still expecting his mercy to materialize at any moment now?
Anne removed her cloak, her jewelry, her hood. She stripped off her gown to reveal her scarlet kirtle, and then knelt down. She took a while tucking the kirtle carefully around her feet for modesty’s sake, and then began to pray.
Was she still expecting the sound of hooves? Of cries to wait?
When the executioner moved toward her, she turned her head to look at him. She looked away and went back to her prayers. He tried again, and her eyes flashed up to meet his. Did he see fear in their depths, or expectation? Was she waiting to hear Kingston step forward and draw a written pardon from his doublet to read to the crowd?
The executioner looked to the direction of the stairs and shouted, “Bring me my sword!” Anne turned her head to watch – perhaps expecting an assistant to carry up a pardon scroll instead of a blade. Behind her line of sight, the executioner swept the sword up from where he had hidden it in the straw and struck, taking off her head with one blow.
It’s possible that Anne died still expecting a pardon that would never come.