I look about me at the greedy, bloodthirsty faces of the crowd, eager for the final execution to take place. My mother is in the crowd too, but her head is bowed and her gaze averted as her sister is blindfolded and made ready for the coming blow. She is guided forward and we, her ladies, shrink back from this terrible, all consuming fear that grips us all. I did not think it would come to this. I thought the King would forgive this strong, resolute woman who brought such change to England. I thought Anne Boleyn would live.
Unable to watch for a moment more, I take the letter Anne gave me as she ascended the steps to the scaffold. I break the seal, ‘Anna Regina', as defiant to the last as the Princess Dowager Catherine was. "My dear niece...". I look up hastily as an eerie silence sweeps over this, the rowdiest of crowds and the Frenchman lifts his sword. The sword. They have not cleaned it after the other executions and the stench of the blood sickens many a delicate spectator. Anne must sense what is happening as she turns her beautifully long, swan-like neck to face him. He speaks calmly in a deep, lilting French accent, his hands tremble and then the blade whistles and flashes through the air. The severed head of Anne Boleyn lies amongst the already blood-soaked straw. It is over.
"My Dear Niece Catherine,
"I pray that this letter will tell you of my story in truth. I know my sister, Mary Stafford, also your mother. She will not have told you of my life, or the early part of hers. After my death, my enemies will change the events of these past ten years, as they have already begun to do. I beseech you, do not pay heed to them. These pages, tear stained as they are, tell the real story of my existence.
"I spent much of my youth in France, with Queen Margaret of Navarre. She is a goodly woman whom I do, nay did, still have the pleasure of continuing correspondence with. It was she who opened my eyes to the corruption and blasphemy of the Catholic Church. My education was exemplary and I learned the fluency of language upon which I pride myself. It was not a lonely existence, despite the slight contact with my family. I spent many a happy hour talking, masking and feasting with my friends.
"After some happy years there, I went to join your mother at the French Court at my father's request. It was an evil court, much as I am fearful that the English one is becoming, despite its supposed Catholic holiness. I detested it there and pleaded with my father and my Uncle Lord Norfolk to release me home to England. My sister was unhappy with this, she was in favour, and wished me to be also to advance our family through well-made marriages. But she could not stop me from my chosen path.
"Within months I was back at my happy home of Hever. However, I spent little time there as your mother wished me to accompany her at court, where she had a prominent position. I shall say no more of that time, but leave it to my beloved sister to decide as she sees fit. I found court tiresome, the gentlemen less than charming and the women false. The false queen Catherine of Aragon was unable to run her household and prevent any immorality in her ladies. She was a pleasant woman despite this, but her obstinacy and duplicity would often emerge.
"After a few years at court, Mary Carey (your mother) fell from favour. She removed herself to Rochford Hall, the seat of my lately deceased and beloved brother George. It was at about this time that Hid Grace the King began to pay court to me. I was fearful that it was merely lust, and kept the king at bay for many years. At times, my apprehension governed my actions so much that I fled to Hever for sanctuary from his advances.
"Some years passed and the King proved his affection by making me a promise of marriage. He was afraid that Lady Catherine had lied about the consummation of her marriage to the King's late brother. You will know of the stories about the divorce and the bitter arguments that ensued. Even my sister could not protect you from those. Throughout this ordeal I stayed as modest and chaste as I had before. I supported the King through his pain and remained faithful to my God.
"There will be tales as to why I accepted the King. Some people say it was ambition, some pressure of my family. Neither are correct. I did not love the king then as I do now, despite all that has happened. I saw him as a figure of authority, unable to be loved as a husband. I initially relented to advance the true religion and make His Majesty aware of the debauchery that he unwittingly defended.
"When I finally was made Queen, the elation I felt was beyond compare. My husband and I removed any trace of the false queen. It marked a new beginning for England, as did my first pregnancy. The joy we felt in having redeemed England was overshadowed by that of Elizabeth's birth. She was my beautiful baby, though not the Prince which would have secured my position. This did not affect my mind until later, until my life came to this. Until I craved security and familial comfort.
"I was still abused by my people on progress. In London, I had many evangelical supporters who raised my spirits; but in the country, many were still naïve pagans or Catholics who resented the change in religion. I ignored these taunts for I had the love of my King, which was now more valuable to me than anything.
"You, my precious niece, soon arrived at court in the midst of this gaiety. Every day I wore the finest damasks and silks that my husband have presented me with. I fell pregnant twice more, but the strains of being Queen caused them to end in grief and sorrow. You know the remainder of my story. I cannot tell of what followed, for I fear my heart will break to write it. I give this letter unto your hands that you may be enlightened in your knowledge as I once was. Now and Forever your loving aunt,
I weep in my chamber as I read of my aunt's early life. Her wasted life. Yet she alone brought change to England. And I know of the following years as few others do.
I was her maid-in-waiting and saw as the King tired of Anne's wit and intellect. She had proved not to be the fertile, demure, submissive wife he had once thought she might become. Henry's paranoia craved total control over everything and everyone around him. Anne could not give him that, just as she could not give him a living son. He began to listen to the tales of her depravity, her immorality, her shamelessness where he had once dismissed them as vicious lies.
No one could have suspected the King's renewed opinion of his wife unless they were privy to his vicious moods as I was. My uncle George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was one of the King's closest friends and often gave me leave to join him on a hunt with His Majesty. On hearing the news of Catherine's death, he and Anne danced merrily together, she elated that their only true enemy was dead, he glad that he could more easily marry again. He begged me to dance with his favourite, Nicholas Carew, and we laughed at seeing the strangest look of delight on his face. Henry behaved with the same loving tenderness as he had always given his Queen and showed none of his heart's icy coldness. Anne did not know that the following year would bring her downfall.
It was only after Anne's third failed pregnancy that the King's displeasure began to show in public. At the May Day joust his irate scowls were obvious as Anne talked with the competitors and gave out her favours. Henry's attention was no longer fixed solely on his bride. His gaze often left her to follow Jane Seymour in the way his eyes had sought out Anne. We did our best to prevent her from noticing, but it was inevitable. She provoked the King with her ill-timed outbursts on finding them together. She often came flying into her rooms in tears after being upbraided by her husband. It was then she confessed to me of her fears and expectations. It did not occur that her end would be a tragic death; all she anticipated was a cruel divorce.
Anne had worn the new gown intended for Prince Henry's christening for the joust, despite Henry's order that she was not to. It's full skirts billowed like sails as she ran to her privy chamber, laughing like the girl she no longer was. We were all in merry spirits, the king had not seemed so cold and we believed that his fancy for the plain, ignorant Jane Seymour had passed. We did not know that the King's anger could be so severe nor so unflinching. Four hours later, the Duke of Norfolk entered and read the proclamation announcing Anne's imminent incarceration in the tower. She fell to the ground and wept like a child for an age at the terrible shock of the news. The King never said goodbye.
Anne was taken to the tower that day. She did not know her brother was already there, taken from his chamber in the dead of night. I knew, of course, having been sent with a message from Lady Jane Rochford, but had been threatened with death for revealing it to anyone. We travelled at dawn, the royal seal torn from the extravagant canopies so that we might not be attacked. It was known that the country was hostile towards the queen and the oarsmen did not wish to take any risks. As Anne was led up the steps at Traitor's gate, she fell on her knees and prayed fervently for her salvation. It took three yeomen to finally drag her along the dark, dank halls and into her comparatively lavish cell.
She was to be imprisoned in the Royal apartments in the White Tower until her trial was over and the verdict given. As her ladies, we too were sealed in the tower, lest one of us take messages to traitors for Anne. We all still believed that the King was trying to appease his parliament and subjects. Anne was constantly changeable, sweeping from manic hysteria to grievous sorrow and self-pity in a moment. At night her troubled pacing, muffled crying and intermittent screams of terror kept all near her awake. Her increasing anxiety about her fate exercised a terrible toll on those assigned to her well-being. The King did not want her dead before her execution.
By the time of her trial's verdict, she alone could stride into the room and face the jury without fainting. I had seen Anne‘s alleged lovers collapse on hearing their sentences. My uncle George was little better, weeping as we did. Everyone pronounced her guilty. Even her uncle Norfolk. Even her old suitor, Henry Percy.
All through the verdict's announcement, Anne was silently composed. Her face paled considerably as she heard the unanimous reply of "guilty" to both charges - treason and witchcraft but she stood her chin raised with daring calmness. Her eyes sparked fire as she dared her uncle Norfolk to declare her punishment. Her knuckles whitened as she fiercely clenched her fists, recklessly defying them - refusing to confess. Anne Boleyn never broke down, never wept in public like we did for her, never ‘lost her head' in public. Until she did.
© 2009 Copyright held by the author.