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Anne Boleyn - gender, love and fate

In 1536 the English queen Anne Boleyn was condemned to death on charges of adultery, incest and witchcraft. Her final speech on the scaffold fascinates literary historian Pil Dahlerup, who here decodes it with reference to issues of gender, love, politics, humanism and religion.


KVINFO/21.5.2008 “Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”

These words were spoken on May 19 1536 by Anne Boleyn, standing on the scaffold awaiting her execution by beheading. I recently read those words for the first time and my reading is an attempt to decode her final words with reference to issues of gender, love, politics, humanism and religion.

The background in brief of Anne Boleyn is as follows: in 1533 Anne Boleyn (born c.1500) became pregnant by Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) who, convinced that the child would be his long-awaited son, petitioned the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused and so Henry annulled it himself by, among other things, splitting from the Church in Rome and making the English king head of the independent Church of England. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter, later to become Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). Two later pregnancies ended in a miscarriage and a stillbirth. The latter infant, a boy, was also physically deformed; Henry VIII denied paternity; Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery, incest and witchcraft – and beheaded.

Upon reading Anne Boleyn’s parting words my first reaction was one of astonishment. “I accuse no man.” Did she really say that? Whether or not she composed the speech herself is not really the issue – the main thing is that she chose to say those words. My initial surprise was followed by the question as to how Anne Boleyn’s farewell should be interpreted. 

Gender and biology as fate
Anne Boleyn’s fate was, primarily, one of biology. It would seem that her only crime was the inability to produce a robust son. As one of her biographers writes:

"Anne Boleyn had won her way by education, personality and courage, but now she had to accept that success as an individual was unimportant against biological success or failure" (Ives, p. 235)

According to the outlook of the times, lack of a son was due to her biological shortcoming, and the deformed infant was a sign either of witchcraft or of God’s punishment. It was even rumoured that one of Anne Boleyn’s hands had six fingers. Up against all this, it was of no help that she was of noble parentage, had spent six or seven years at the French court, spoke fluent French and was interested in French fashion, French literature and French music.

Anne Boleyn’s parting words can be read as a display of total female subjugation. She does not proclaim her innocence, she does not rage against the King and she does not protest to God. The tenor of the text also corresponds to the inclination of the times. In his colloquy on marriage, Coniugium (1523), the leading humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam gave voice to this tendency by means of two women discussing how they should deal with their husbands. Xanthippe, named after Socrates’ sharp-tongued wife, chooses the tactic of scolding the husband who neglects her in favour of drink and other women. Eulalia, on the other hand, has from the outset known that men and wild animals have to be tamed by the application of kindness.

Erasmus also wrote a treatise elaborating his views on the matter, Institutio christiani matrimonii (1526) (The Institution of Christian Matrimony). This book, he said, was written at the request of Catherine of Aragon. Petrarch’s rewriting of Boccaccio’s story about the obedient Griselda (1453) made its triumphal progress throughout Europe. The dutiful and submissive wife was a common European ideal.

The fall from love
Anne Boleyn might also have drawn on memories of her personal love story for her farewell words: “to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.” No one reading about the relationship between Henry VIIII and Anne Boleyn can be in any doubt that theirs was a grand passion. Henry VIII apparently first spotted Anne Boleyn around 1526; by 1529 his interest was so plain for all to see that she had to be removed from court. From that period 17 love letters from him to her have been preserved. The letters live up to the tradition of courtly love, according to which the lover acts as his lady’s humble servant and is consumed with yearning when they are apart:

“My mistress and friend, my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us commended to your favour, and that by absence your affection to us will not be lessened: for it were a great pity to increase our pain, of which absence produces enough and more than I could ever have thought could be felt, reminding us of a point in astronomy which is this: the longer the days are, the more distant the sun, and nevertheless the hotter; so it is with our love..." (Letter four to Anne Boleyn)

In the midst of all this courtly prose the letters also express burning passion, great tenderness and an obvious eagerness to consummate their relationship. By 1536, however, the lack of a son, suspicion, jealousy, gossip and the beginnings of an interest in Jane Seymour had brought Henry VIII’s complex temperament to bursting point. The gruesome finale to his passionate love for Anne Boleyn was that he sent for a top professional executioner from France to carry out her beheading with a sharp-edged sword. In contrast, when Thomas Cromwell was to be beheaded in 1540, Henry expressly ordered that it should be carried out by a young inexperienced Englishman – who hacked three times with an axe before the head fell. Anne Boleyn’s letters to Henry VIII have not survived.

Political intriques and false charges
Anne Boleyn might also have included a helping of bitter sarcasm in her final speech. There is, after all, a glaring contradiction: she is about to be executed on the orders of the King, and yet she says of this King that “a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never”. If this is read as sarcasm, then she was expressing her turmoil and her protest in a circuitous manner.

Anne Boleyn’s choice of words could also have been a deliberate tactic. She was politically active, and her French connections had a finger in many a political affair. She was a highly political figure. She was the cause of Henry VIII’s split from Rome, which paved the way for the Reformation in England. Her laudatory testimonial to the King might well have been a final ploy to ensure compassion for her family. She might have wished to make sure the King would act with kindness to their daughter. It has also been claimed that her gentle words were the reason her father kept his properties even though he lost his position at court.

With regard to the accusations against her, Anne Boleyn would appear to have remained neutral. She was charged on five counts of adultery and of committing incest with her brother. All the men implicated were executed. She was accused of enticing Henry VIII into marriage by means of witchcraft, and witchcraft was cited in connection with the deformed infant. She was, furthermore, charged with planning to poison the King and his stepdaughter Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, later "Bloody Mary", reigned 1553-1558).

Among historians there is a general consensus that the charges were fabricated and were the result of political intrigues stirred up by Thomas Cromwell. One historian has suggested, however, that Anne Boleyn might well have committed adultery in an attempt to produce a son. In her final words she avoided the provocation of protesting her innocence, but then again neither did she admit to anything. During the trial she is supposed to have said:

“I do not say that I have always borne towards the king the humility which I owed him, considering his kindness and the great honour he showed me and the great respect he always paid to me; I admit, too, that often I have it taken into my head to be jealous of him … But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong.”

Her speech to the judge apparently also expressed sorrow for the men who had been condemned to death on her account. In her final words on the scaffold Anne Boleyn submitted to the law, whilst implying, however, that her case had not received just treatment: “And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.”

Humanism and dignity in death
It should not be forgotten that the last words spoken on the scaffold are part of a public performance. Anne Boleyn was going to die in front of a large crowd, which included her friends and enemies at the court. In such a situation it was a matter of acting with dignity. Anne Boleyn was no longer Queen; two days before the execution Henry VIII had seen to it that their marriage was declared invalid. In addition, she had been forsaken by her father who had played a part in the accusations levelled against his son and daughter.

Standing on the scaffold Anne Boleyn had been divested of everything. She chose not to protest, not to rage against her fate and not to object and accuse. This might have been prompted by her upbringing, but it could also have been motivated by the new philosophy of humanism in which she was very interested. Human dignity and a stoic philosophy of life were central tenets of the humanist agenda. The story goes that in prison Anne exhibited various mental states: despair, gallows humour, fantasies of reprieve and miracles. On the scaffold she obviously went through the whole spectrum, and arrived at a state of dignity and serenity.

Religious defiance
Anne Boleyn’s final speech was also a religious statement. She was apparently interested in Reform Catholic factions, she owned a French translation of the Bible and the banned English translation by Tyndale. She seemingly used her influence to secure the appointment of Reform bishops, and she also supported the Reform movement in other ways. But, like other Reform Catholics, she appears to have had opponents both in Catholic and in Protestant circles. The renowned statesman and philosopher Thomas More (1478-1535, author of Utopia, 1515) was beheaded because he refused to accept Henry VIII’s rejection of papal supremacy. From the other flank, Anne’s most ruthless enemy was the zealous Protestant Thomas Cromwell.

By a strange coincidence, in 1533 Anne Boleyn’s father had asked Erasmus of Rotterdam to write swiftly an ars moriendi, i.e. a book about the art of dying. The genre had become very common in the late Middle Ages, and it acquired renewed force in the 16th century. Luther’s 1519 book about preparation for death had been published in numerous editions in many languages, and Erasmus’ book was published in 1534.

Anne Boleyn might have read an English translation of the book. Whatever the case may be, her final words show that she had given consideration to the contemporaneously important act of preparing for a good death. Catholic, Reform Catholic and Protestant ars moriendi books emphasised the initial leave-taking from this world. The process involved the forgiveness of any wrongs the dying person had committed against others. It is obvious that, in a religious sense, Anne Boleyn had reached the point where she did not lay blame on anyone (“I am come hither to accuse no man”); but she forgave no one, and she asked forgiveness of no one. This she would, of course, have done in prison during her final session in the confessional, but she did not wish to bring up the issue of forgiveness in her public utterance.

For Anne Boleyn execution did not mark the absolute end. In the same situation, Mary Stuart uttered the famous words: “My end is my beginning.” Eternity superseded all mortal concerns on Anne Boleyn’s horizon. Once her head had fallen she would face yet another judge. To him she addressed her very final words: “O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.” In this she was following advice given in the books about preparation for death; once the earthly concerns have been settled, the dying person must concentrate solely on the forthcoming audience with God.

There is another religious element that should be mentioned: Anne Boleyn’s request for intercession: “And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.” Intercession on behalf of the dead was (is) a central element of Catholicism; it is based on the belief that after death a person can be cleansed of their sins in Purgatory, and that the intercession of the living can aid this process of preparation to be worthy of meeting God. A central issue for the Protestants involved the rejection of Purgatory and intercession, following the line of thought that Jesus, by means of his sacrificial death, had done penance for the sins of humankind once and for all; the dying person sole responsibility was therefore to believe in this.

Peder Palladius, the chief advocate of the Reformation in Denmark, was a leading opponent of intercession for the dead. But it had been difficult for the general public to give up the belief that it was possible to help the dead by means of intercession. In Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) and Will in the World (2004), Stephen Greenblatt argues that an existential confusion vis-à-vis death, which resulted from the introduction of Protestantism, is a significant factor in Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet.

Anne Boleyn, who was a triggering cause of the Reformation in England, retained her belief in intercession for the dead. However lonely and abandoned she might have felt on the scaffold, she held onto the idea of a community that could be carried over into the next world. Her wish might well have involved a final political motive. Anne Boleyn’s main enemy, the zealous Protestant Thomas Cromwell, was standing close to the scaffold. One of his main objectives was closure of the monasteries – particularly because their intercession for the dead ran so contrary to his beliefs. It would seem quite likely that Anne Boleyn also inserted an element of defiance in her desire for intercession on behalf of her soul.

Marie Louise Bruce: Anne Boleyn, London 1972.
Hester W. Chapman: Anne Boleyn, London 1974.
E.W. Ives: Anne Boleyn, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1986.
The Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, John W. Luce & Company, London 1907.

Pil Dahlerup is dr.phil. and docent in Nordic philology at the University of Copenhagen.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch

Anne Boleyn's story and fate is highlighted in a new Hollywood production now out in USA: The Other Boleyn Girl
Read more about Anne Boleyn and Mary Boleyn at BBC history

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