This Day in History: May 19th

Today in History: May 19, 1536

AnneboleynOn May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn, the woman for which King Henry VIII cast aside a Queen, broke with the Catholic Church and drove his country to the brink of civil war, climbed the scaffold to meet her death at that same King’s command. She was the first Queen of England to be legally executed.

Many people believe Henry VIII was content with his first wife Catherine of Aragon until he was seduced by the vixen Anne Boleyn, but this is simply not the case. By the time Henry met Anne he was already looking for a way out of his marriage, as the union had not produced a desperately needed son to inherit the throne of England.

King Henry convinced himself his lack of a living son could only be due to one reason- his marriage to the Queen was cursed because she had been married to his older brother Arthur for a very brief period before his death at age 15, which was an abomination to God. (Funny that it took almost 20 years for this to dawn on him.)

Henry appealed to Pope Clement for an annulment, but given the political climate at the time, the Pope was hesitant to anger Catherine’s powerful nephew Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. So the Pope stalled. And stalled and stalled and stalled.

No-one knows for sure when Anne Boleyn first showed up on Henry’s radar, but we know Anne grew up serving in the courts of Archduchess Margaret of the Netherlands and Queens Mary (Tudor, Henry’s sister) and Claude of France. She returned to England around 1521, and took a position as lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine.

The raven-haired and dark-eyed Anne was elegant, intelligent, witty and cultured, with effortless continental sophistication that set her apart from the giggly, pink-cheeked girls at the English court. These qualities made her very popular with the opposite sex, and won her the admiration of a King.

By 1527, it was obvious to all that the King was becoming smitten with Mistress Boleyn. Her politically ambitious father, diplomat and courtier Thomas Boleyn, pushed her to encourage the King’s advances – as her sister Mary had before her – but Anne would not allow herself to be used and then tossed away. If Henry liked it, then he’d have to put a ring on it.

Henry was willing to do so, and imagined all the bouncing baby boys they’d have when the Pope finally granted him his long-awaited annulment. But years passed, and the King grew increasingly impatient, and then outright furious at this blatant challenge to his authority.

By 1533, Henry split from the Catholic Church and named himself head of the Church of England. Anne Boleyn was pregnant by January of that year, and she and the King were secretly married in a ceremony presided over by Archbishop Cranmer. At long last, the two lovers were married, Catherine of Aragon had been exiled, and Anne Boleyn was Queen of England.

They welcomed a daughter, Elizabeth, in September, which was, of course, a disappointment because of her sex, though Henry seemed to take the news reasonably well. But their wedded bliss was short-lived. Henry and Anne had a passionate, stormy relationship with lots of fighting and making up. Anne was always one to speak her mind, even to the King of England. The traits that Henry found so attractive and exciting in a girlfriend irked him to no end in a wife.

Anne may have thought that becoming Queen would end her anxieties, but it increased them a hundred-fold. The pressure to produce an heir to the throne was immense; she was vexed by the existence of the Dowager Princess of Wales, who insisted that she was the rightful Queen, and her daughter Mary, who refused to play second banana to her own daughter Elizabeth. The people of England had no use for Anne, spitefully calling her “The Great Whore.”

Anne suffered a miscarriage in the summer of 1534. The King and Queen quarreled more and more often, though Anne still seemed to have a firm hold on the King’s heart. The tide quickly turned in January 1536 when Catherine of Aragon died and Queen Anne miscarried a baby boy, which may have signaled the beginning of the end for her, because from that moment on Henry became convinced his second marriage had been cursed as well.

Henry had many reasons to want Anne out of the way. For starters, it was politically expedient. No Catholic country in Europe recognized his marriage as lawful, creating all sorts of awkwardness. Now that Catherine was dead, the situation had changed considerably. Anne was not a member of the formidable Spanish Royal house, and she had many powerful enemies at court. Henry still needed a son, and there was this cute chick named Jane Seymour …

But Henry being Henry, he let his toadies do all his dirty work.

Anne Boleyn was arrested on charges of adultery with Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris and her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. There wasn’t likely a morsel of truth to any of the charges, but there didn’t have to be. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. All those charged were sentenced to die.

On May 17, George Boleyn and the other men were beheaded on Tower Hill, and poor Anne imprisoned in the Tower must have heard the workmen putting the scaffold together and then the executions themselves, knowing full well her turn was fast approaching.

The King ordered his and Anne’s marriage dissolved and declared invalid a couple of days earlier, which rather begs the question of how he could have a woman executed for adultery that he was never married to. Considering the way death sentences were being handed out, no-one wanted to point this out to His Majesty.

On the beautiful spring morning of May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn, wearing a dark gray dress, stepped out into the sunshine for the last time looking composed and serene. She gracefully climbed the black-draped scaffold. A Portuguese observer reported: “Never had the Queen looked so beautiful”

She spoke to the crowd and praised the King’s kindness, no doubt in the hopes of ensuring her daughter’s safety. Her ladies helped her to remove her headdress and jewelry, and then she knelt in the straw, for Henry, nice guy that he was, had arranged for a French swordsman to come from France to decapitate her instead of an oafish English axeman. How positively chivalrous!

As the Queen was praying, the swordsman took off her head in one swift blow.

In the end, Anne Boleyn had the last laugh. King Henry and Jane Seymour were betrothed before her body was even cold, but Henry’s long awaited son with Jane died at the age of 15. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I, went on to become the most legendary monarch England has ever known.

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