Tudor history is littered with tales of executions gone wrong. In 1541, an inexperienced axman butchered Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, taking upward of ten blows to dispatch the elderly noblewoman. Four decades later, Mary, Queen of Scots—executed on the orders of her cousin Elizabeth I—required three strikes of the ax before she lost her head.
Comparatively, Anne Boleyn’s execution was a relatively straightforward, albeit unprecedented, affair. On the morning of May 19, 1536, Henry VIII’s fallen queen ascended the scaffold, delivered a conventional speech praising the king as a “gentle and sovereign lord,” and knelt to receive the death blow. The executioner struck Anne’s head off with a single swing of his sword.
Recent reporting by the Observer’s Dalya Alberge suggests that a previously overlooked passage in a 16th-century warrant book housed at the United Kingdom’s National Archives offers fascinating insights on the events surrounding the execution.
Researchers have long debated the circumstances surrounding Anne’s downfall, from the question of her guilt (most contemporary scholars agree that the charges of adultery, incest and conspiring to kill her husband were contrived) to the issue of whether Henry bears the brunt of the responsibility for the queen’s fate. Opinions differ, wrote historian Suzannah Lipscomb for History Extra in 2018, with some experts positing that the king instigated the proceedings after tiring of Anne and others arguing that Henry’s top adviser, Thomas Cromwell, conspired to convince the “pliable king” to abandon his wife in favor of the more demure Jane Seymour.
Anne’s actual “crimes” were merely failing to produce a male heir and refusing to rein in her headstrong personality. Found guilty of treason, the queen was sentenced to “be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, [or] else to have thy head smitten off [per] the King’s pleasure.”
According to the document reported on by Alberge, Henry, who claimed to be “moved by pity,” opted against the harsher sentence of burning at the stake. But he commanded that “the head of the same Anne shall be … cut off” and proceeded to map out every aspect of the execution, urging Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, to “omit nothing” from his orders.
Archivist Sean Cunningham brought the book to historian Tracy Borman’s attention when she visited the National Archives to examine Anne’s trial papers. Borman, who is set to include the entries in an upcoming documentary series, tells the Observer that the warrant book exemplifies “Henry’s premeditated, calculating manner.”
She adds, “He knows exactly how and where he wants it to happen.”
As several Tudor historians observed on social media, the details included in the warrant book aren’t entirely new discoveries. Still, Cunningham notes on Twitter, “[I]n a wider context of organizing public executions, the series of entries reveal much about the regime’s concerns.”
Writing for the Spectator in 2013, historian Leanda de Lisle pointed out that Anne was the only Tudor figure beheaded with a sword instead of an ax. (Henry failed to extend the same courtesy to his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who was executed for adultery in 1542.) Leading theories regarding the king’s choice of weapon include affording Anne “a more dignified end” or using an execution method popularized in France, where the queen spent many happy years; de Lisle, however, argued that Henry’s decision was an entirely selfish one rooted in warped conceptions of chivalry.
Both Henry and his father, Henry VII, painted the Tudor dynasty as a continuation of the Camelot of Arthurian legend. Henry’s older brother, who died at age 15 in 1502, was even named Arthur in a nod to the apocryphal king. Faced with the dissolution of his second marriage, Henry cast himself as Arthur and Anne as Arthur’s adulterous wife, Guinevere, who was similarly sentenced to be burned at the stake but saved by her husband’s act of mercy.
“The choice of a sword—the symbol of Camelot, of a rightful king, and of masculinity—was Henry’s alone,” wrote de Lisle in her sweeping 2013 biography of the Tudor family.
Anne’s alleged adultery cast aspersions on Henry’s masculinity, suggesting that the king was unable to fulfill his marital duties. In public, Henry countered this perception by surrounding himself with beautiful women and partaking in displays of “extravagant joy,” in the words of one contemporary observer. Privately, the king comforted himself by taking charge of every aspect of Anne’s execution. As de Lisle explains, “Taking control of the minutiae of how his wife was disposed of helped Henry to convince himself that he was empowered rather than diminished by her fall.”
Another potential factor in Henry’s method of execution was a desire to avoid the drawn-out, tortuous ordeal of burning at the stake—the typical sentence for female traitors in Tudor England. Executing a queen was unprecedented in and of itself; consigning one to the flames could have had an even greater impact on the image-conscious king’s reputation.
“Because we know the story so well, we forget how deeply shocking it was to execute a queen,” Borman tells the Observer. “They could well have got the collywobbles and thought we’re not going to do this. So this is Henry making really sure of it. For years, his trusty adviser Thomas Cromwell has got the blame. But this shows, actually, it’s Henry pulling the strings.”