The Ladies Upon the Scaffold

Today is the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution. When this maligned and falsely accused queen walked her last steps to the scaffold where a swordsman waited to take her head, four ladies accompanied her. I agree with Eric Ives (no surprise there) that they were probably the four ladies of whom I wrote yesterday – the ones assigned to spy on Anne by Thomas Cromwell ; Mary Scrope (Lady Kingston),  Margaret Dymoke (Lady Coffin or Cosyn), Elizabeth Wood Boleyn (Anne’s aunt by marriage but no friend to her), and  Elizabeth Chambers, (Lady Stonor and the Mother of the Maids). 

On the Tudor Trail does an excellent breakdown and summary of the arguments for and against the identities of the women accompanying Anne to her final destination, so I won’t go into why I think that Ladies Kingston, Coffin, Boleyn, and Stonor were the ones with her at the end. Instead, I want to talk about what it must have been like for them if they were indeed the ones escorting the former queen to her death.

There is no doubt that Anne was not friends with the ladies who were “serving” her at the beginning of her incarceration, and there is little doubt the speculative tittle-tattle of those same women help Cromwell make his flimsy case against Anne. Nevertheless, something may have changed between Anne and the ladies who waited on her in the Tower in the two weeks between her arrest and execution.

One ambassadorial account hostile to Anne (whether or not it is a firsthand description or hearsay, no one knows for sure) made no mention of any sorrow among the ladies who stood with her:

The said Queen (unjustly called) finally was beheaded upon a scaffold within the Tower with open gates. She was brought by the captain upon the said scaffold, and four young ladies followed her. She looked frequently behind her, and when she got upon the scaffold was very much exhausted and amazed. She begged leave to speak to the people, promising to say nothing but what was good. The captain gave her leave, and she began to raise her eyes to Heaven, and cry mercy to God and to the King for the offence she had done, desiring the people always to pray to God for the King, for he was a good, gentle, gracious, and amiable prince. She was then stripped of her short mantle furred with ermines, and afterwards took off her hood, which was of English make, herself. A young lady presented her with a linen cap, with which she covered her hair, and she knelt down, fastening her clothes about her feet, and one of the said ladies bandaged her eyes. Immediately the executioner did his office; and when her head was off it was taken by a young lady and covered with a white cloth. Afterwards the body was taken by the other ladies, and the whole carried into the church nearest to the Tower of London.



In contrast, a poem published shortly after Anne’s untimely death that was sympathetic to the queen claimed that the ladies beside her were grievously distressed:

One of [Anne’s] ladies in tears came forward to do the last office and cover her face with a linen cloth. The executioner then, himself distressed, divided her neck at a blow. The head and body were taken up by the ladies, whom you would have thought bereft of their souls, such was their weakness; but fearing to let their mistress be touched by unworthy hands, forced themselves to do so. Half dead themselves, they carried the body, wrapped in a white covering, to the place of burial within the Tower.


Which was it? Greif or indifference?

The odds are it was a bit in the middle. It’s hard for normal humans to see another human they knew well slaughtered without feeling at least some sad emotion. Although I doubt they wept as if bereft of the souls, they were probably (like many in the crowd) moved to tears by Anne’s calm bravery. Moreover, the ladies who attended her in the Tower – like William Kingston – had heard Anne take her last sacrament and swear upon the state of her immortal soul that she was not guilty of the charges she was accused of:

During her imprisonment Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, reported Anne’s remarks to Cromwell. His first letter details Anne’s ardent declaration of innocence: “I am as clear from the company of man, as for sin… as I am clear from you, and the king’s true wedded wife.” A few days later, Anne comforted herself that she would have justice: “She said if any man accuse me I can say but nay, and they can bring no witness.” Crucially, the night before her execution, she swore “on peril of her soul’s damnation”, before and after receiving the Eucharist, that she was innocent – a serious act in that religious age.

How must they have felt watching a woman who had never confessed any wrongdoing kneel and prepare calmly for her own death? Were their hearts still hardened toward her – considering that it is a human failing to double down on a belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary? Or did Anne’s assertions of innocence convince them she was dying for the king’s pleasure rather than for just cause?

We cannot know how the people of the time felt, no matter how skillfully we portray it in fiction or how many factual accounts we collect, because we want history to be a narrative and we cannot “think” the way the people of the time thought because we are not of the exact same enculturated beliefs. Personally, I still feel sincere grief for Anne’s death because it was, in my opinion, the brutal end of a guiltless prisoner and the unfairness of her execution –  like the unfairness of the way she is depicted as a home-wrecking harpy – is hard to view dispassionately by an inveterate lover of justice such as myself.

May you rest in peace Anne, and may light perpetual shine upon you.


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