When London hits twenty-four degrees as it did this fine Sunday, the city sings. It is criminal to not put your glad rags on – in my case a rather dashing pair of yellow cotton shorts and a navy blazer – and go for a stoat around on Shanks’s pony. London never ceases to fascinate me, particularly the City and its Wren churches. This being the eve of the anniversary of Queen Anne Boleyn’s execution on the 19th of May 1536, I made the pilgrimage to her grave in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) at the Tower of London.
It is terribly hard to imagine the Tower as a sinister prison and place of execution when the White Tower is bathed in sunlight. When Anne Boleyn was rowed from Greenwich Palace to the Tower in 1536, the edifice was still primarily a Royal Palace and one hopes at least she too had the sunshine to soothe her fears. Queen Anne was detained in the same rooms she had occupied three years previously when awaiting her coronation. She’s the only Queen Consort in British history to have been granted a Coronation ceremony without a king at her side.
I often ponder the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. Her death was expedient because the poor lady could not bring a male child to term. The fact that Henry VIII’s butcher general Thomas Cromwell had to entrap her in a cat’s cradle of adultery, incest, witchcraft and treason suggests that she was still too powerful and dangerous to be allowed to live or, perchance, to die with questions surrounding her guilt still unresolved.
History has concluded that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the charges that saw her beheaded by the French swordsman within the precincts of the Tower. Anne was a religious woman and confessed to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and various witnesses that she was not an adulteress. Would the patroness of the Church of England out her immortal soul in peril? I think not.
Henry VIII has gone down in history as the most bloodthirsty British monarch. He dispatched 86,000 people during his reign: an average of 500 people per day. The 1000-day queen would not have been unaware that she walked to the throne stepping over countless corpses of loyal Catholics. So perhaps her guilt lay elsewhere. The Yeoman Warder in St Peter Ad Vincula certainly believed Anne had blood on her hands. He was much more forgiving of Anne’s cousin Catherine Howard (Henry VIIIs fifth wife) who was also beheaded in the Tower and buried beneath the altar charged with adultery.
St Peter Ad Vincula is a Chapel Royal. It is also one of the most melancholy places in London. Only a hundred years ago prurient tourists would be led down to the crypt below St Peter’s to view the coffins of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, the Countess of Salisbury, Jane Boleyn and the 2nd Earl of Essex: all of whom were decapitated and given a traitor’s burial with no religious rites. The Yeoman seemed pleased this was no longer allowed. I disagree but there we are.
Some kind soul had left a white rose on the alleged site of the scaffold next to St Peter in honour of Anne Boleyn. I have been told the monument is in the wrong place and the scaffold was built closer to the White Tower. It was a pleasure to see the Crown Jewels again. The rooms that lead to the main display aren’t particularly impressive or informative. In fact if I recall rightly, there is magnificent wood panelling and gaily painted royal crests now hidden behind plasterboard.
But once you lock eyes with the Koh-i-Noor diamond set in the Queen Mother’s crown, one understands the power and symbolism of priceless regalia. I adored the delicate diamond crown set for Queen Mary to wear at the 1911 Coronation Delhi Durbar. The crowns for George V and Queen Mary were set because the Crown Jewels cannot leave British shores.
One of the most brutal exhibits in the White Tower is an executioner’s block from the 16th century that could quite possibly have been drenched in the blood of Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey who was barely seventeen when her head was axed from her shoulders in a single blow. Teenage Catherine Howard asked for the block to be brought to her chambers on the eve of her death so she could practise the correct posture.
Anne Boleyn’s death was so much more elegant. She died kneeling and praying while the Calais headsman sliced her head cleanly off with a single stroke. When the lady’s head was shown to the small crowd appointed to watch her die, Anne’s eyes were still darting and her mouth uttering the words of a prayer. It was Queen Victoria who commanded that St Peter Ad Vincula be restored and that the graves of the royal and aristocratic victims buried there be marked in marble beneath the altar.
The Yeoman Warders were quite strident in their opinions. One quite rightly said he didn’t believe Prince Charles would not take his birth name when he became king. I too had heard that he would adopt the title King George VII. He also surmised that Buckingham Palace would be vacated by the Windsors after Her Majesty dies and be opened to the public. That’s a new one on me but interesting nonetheless. Maybe St James’s Palace will once again be home to the British monarchs.
Anne Boleyn’s death was protracted because the Calais headsman was delayed. On this day in history in 1536 she had thought to have been dead. She wasn’t and had to suffer a sleepless night in prayer before being prepared to die on the morning of the 19th of May. As she was led to the scaffold the ex-Queen kept glancing over her shoulder as if hoping for the king’s messenger to grant her a reprieve. It never came. Until next time…