“It is foretold in ancient prophecies that at this time a Queen shall be burned; but even if I were to suffer a thousand deaths, my love for you would not abate one jot.”
—Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII, 1530
Anne Boleyn’s execution on May 19, 1536 was the sordid conclusion of a nearly ten-year relationship with King Henry VIII. Though Henry first met Anne in the mid to late 1520s, they could only marry after fighting for a divorce from Henry’s first wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, in a legal battle that lasted at least five years. Finally, in a secret ceremony near the end of 1532, Henry and Anne were married, and by the time she was crowned queen in May 1533, Anne was pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I. But after a turbulent three-year marriage that produced one daughter and a series of miscarriages, Anne’s immutability began to fail.
Part One: I Would My Head Were Off
May 18, 1536. Late afternoon.
Today the men are long dead, and in the morning I will die.
From my chair beside the window I hear the hammers, the shouts. For the past day they have been building the scaffold on which they will kill me—burned or beheaded at the king’s pleasure, and his pleasure is to behead me, his pleasure enacted through the swordsman of Calais.
In the morning you will die, Anne.
Yes, I know. And no time left to atone, I know, I know. No time left for Henry to lift the veil, kiss my fears away.
I spent all night, every dark hour of the morning, in prayer; futile, for they lied to me, they will not let me die until tomorrow.
So often in these last two weeks, I have been in hope of life because of such little mercies. Now I am not so foolish. I know they planned for my death all along, I know they have shown mercy only to make me suffer the surges of hope lost and regained.
I believe they have framed me. I believe my follies have convinced them to condemn me, like that day I spoke to Smeaton and Norris, and said such unthinkingly stupid things.
I believe I am innocent, but I do not appear to be.
April 29, 1536
My ladies were quiet the day it began, subdued, plucking away at their sewing with the alacrity of hangmen. Perhaps it was the weather, the rain tapping down from fog-gray clouds; ten o’clock in the morning, and the candles were already lit. A few of the ladies murmured amongst themselves—that chaste little angel and her flock of silly friends, sitting in the corner, as far from me as they could without leaving my chamber of presence. I caught a strain of their words—will the jousts go on, with the ground so muddied?—and I turned to tell them Henry would not let a little rain ruin his tournament. But I paused when I saw the fabric in their laps: mounds of snowy linen. I knew that linen. My chest tightened. I watched their pinched little faces whisper and giggle over needle and thread, and I could not keep from curling my lip.
“Jane.” I snapped my fingers. She looked up and bobbed her head, and a strand of hair, yellow and brittle as straw, shivered free of her gable hood. A great pitiful prude, this girl. A perfect old maid.
“What is it you are sewing?”
“The king’s shirts,” she said timidly. She lowered her head, and her chin melted into her neck. I smirked at her.
“And did I tell you to make the king’s shirts?”
“Your Majesty asked my Lady Worcester to make them,” said Jane, “but considering her condition I thought it best if I did instead.”
The girl had not even the boldness to look me in the eye as she acknowledged her usurpation. Making Henry’s shirts fell to me, his queen, as it fell to that Spaniard Katherine before me, but the man seemed to need new ones constantly—was it so wrong if I shared the burden with others? But I watched the drab little Seymour girl bend her head over my husband’s clothes, and I wished I were sewing them myself.
“Send for Mark,” I said, tossing my embroidery aside. “He will play on the virginals for us.” I waved a hand at the door, and a waiting footman dipped his head and ducked out to get the boy.
I was fond of Smeaton: his eagerness to please, his clumsy praise, his puppyish joy. He was sure to cheer me, or at least distract me. But when he entered, lute trailing at his side, he looked pitiful, dejection enhancing the boyishness in his round twenty-year-old face. He bowed limply.
“Why are you so sad?” I said with a laugh. “We have summoned you to cheer us with the virginals.”
“Madam, it is no matter,” he said mopily, and aimed a forlorn sigh at his feet.
I felt a flash of anger. Did he expect me to pry, to beg until he told me what was wrong, like a concerned lover? The boy had grown emboldened of late—did he forget his place, the son of a carpenter playing pretend in a court full of noblemen? I looked to Cromwell for the blame. If the son of a Putney blacksmith could worm his way to the top of the king’s council, a court musician could wear the airs of a highborn courtier. But still he must not forget himself.
“You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a nobleman,” I said sharply to Mark, “because you be an inferior person.”
He recoiled, opened his mouth and closed it, clasped his hands behind his back. I imagined his hidden fingers twitching in worry that he had gone too far, and I smiled.
“No, no, madam, a look sufficed me,” he said; his voice was higher than usual. One of the ladies giggled, and Lady Rochford gripped her arm, eyes wide. Mark darted a glance at me, saw my amused annoyance, and ducked his head again. His next words came out all in a rush: “And thus fare you well.”
And he hastened off. I thought I saw him wiping his eyes on his woolen sleeve as he rushed from the chamber.
“The nerve of the boy,” I exclaimed, “rushing off without giving us a song!”
But his discomfort was greater entertainment than his music could ever be.
Hours later now, but I still had not laid eyes on Henry since last night’s supper. I supposed he was busy making arrangements for the joust, or else limping about on his bad leg, telling everyone who would listen—and they all must listen—that he would be jousting through the pain if not for his wife’s insistence that he rest. As if I should be blamed for worrying that he would die without an heir—for who would be blamed then, but me?
My ladies and I had just finished our supper, a quiet affair in my chambers to offset the feast at the following night’s masque. As the dishes were cleared away I turned to Madge, who sat dourly nibbling on a chunk of bread.
“Madge,” I said, “why has Sir Henry not yet married you? He is so often here to court you.”
“I know not, madam,” she said, and her fingers curled around the bread. The murmured conversation around the table had fallen silent.
“I shall ask him,” I declared. “When next I see him.”
“There is no need, Your Majesty, truly,” she protested, but I waved her off.
“Nonsense, Madge, you are a cherished cousin, and a loyal one at that. We Boleyns care for our own, even if they bear not our name.”
“I thank you, Majesty,” she murmured, but her eyes were cast down, and crumbs fell from between her fingers. Perhaps she knew the true reason for my questions and for my promise to her. Perhaps she, too, had sensed the sparks of our downfall gleaming in the eyes of Cromwell, in the short, dutiful politeness of the king’s dealings with me. Perhaps she, too, prayed for me at night.
When we had finished our supper, Jane slipped away, and the rest of the ladies dispersed in murmured conversation. And I—I attempted to visit the king, alone. I wished to speak to him at least, perhaps remind him why I caught his eye, perhaps entice him to try again for a son, but he was not in his chambers; indeed he was nowhere to be found.
I did my best to leave with dignity, to sail through the corridor past his watching chamber as if I had business to attend to elsewhere. But the palace felt empty, silent; my footsteps barely echoed.
My mind was occupied so thoroughly that when Norris rounded the corner walking briskly towards me, I merely nodded to him as he stepped aside to bow, and I continued a few paces before I remembered my promise to Madge.
“Sir Henry,” I called, and he halted, turned to bow again. He smiled blandly and settled himself, hands behind his back. “Why have you gone not through with your marriage?”
If the air between us was easy a moment before, it had soured now into strained politeness, and I felt our whole history, his every visit to my chamber, my every favor tied upon his armor, stretched out in the space between us. He took a moment, adjusted his stance, his smile.
“I will tarry a time,” he said.
He had spoken these words before, about Madge; I knew it, he knew it. And my response was scripted, memorized. But there is no woman more worthy of your love than the Lady Shelton, sir, and no man more worthy of hers. And he—Nay, for one stands before me now. And I—I defy you, for the love of a subject for his queen could hardly be greater, purer, than that of a husband for his wife. But I looked at him, and I found I wished an end to these games. Behind the love of queen and country, behind the gentle sweetness, what loyalties hid?
“Well,” I said, “you look for dead men’s shoes.”
“Madam?” He smiled still, perplexed. As if he knew not of what I spoke.
“Why, for if ought came to the king but good,” I said quietly, nastily, for his lust was plain, “you would look to have me.”
The tension tightened, snapped. Norris’s face blanched, and he recoiled, even stepped back a pace.
“If I should have any such thought,” he said loudly, adamantly, “I would my head were off.”
And there was the truth: that Gentle Norris, extolled as he was, would rather lose his head than admit his love for his queen. Was I not the court’s most desirable woman, did not the king tear out the very backbone of religion in this country for my sake? I leaned in with narrowed eye, and Norris bowed his head.
“I could undo you,” I said, with all the contempt of the ambitious for the fallen, “if I would.”
He looked at me, those eyes like a kicked dog’s. And from each other we fell away, he to the king’s chambers, and I to my own.
My ladies exchanged tentative glances, and Lady Worcester opened and closed her mouth.
“Your Majesty,” said Lady Rochford finally, squinting at me with those clever wide-set eyes, “I am sorry to have caused this worry—”
“You did rightly,” I said sharply. “You brought rumors to my attention which I must quash. And I intend to do so through Norris. And you will fetch him.”
“Madam, it is late and you are in a state of undress, is it wise—”
Lady Rochford murmured consent and ducked away. I resumed my pacing, back and forth past my bed, up and down my chamber halls, and I muttered to myself.
“Who, who could have overheard, who—”
“Madam, your gown,” said Lady Worcester quietly, desperately, holding it up for me. I snatched it from her hands and swung it around my shoulders as I walked.
“This would not have happened if not for Norris’s self-righteousness, his—his—his nerve, standing up to me as he did, defying all the laws of courtesy—”
“You are right, madam,” said Lady Worcester.
"Every convention dictates he should not act as he did, yet—”
“Sir Henry Norris,” someone announced.
“Your Majesty,” he said as he entered, bowing. Even once he straightened, he kept his eyes politely averted.
“There are rumors that I am a traitor,” I said, “because of you.”
“I never intended for Your Majesty—”
“Enough.” I did not have the patience for petty excuses. “It matters not what you did. You must simply fix it. You will go to my almoner on the morrow, early, and you will swear before him that the queen is a good woman.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. He nearly whispered. I thought of telling him you should be glad I have had mercy on you. But I did not.
And so he bowed out of the room, eyes downcast, hat in hands. I could not have known the thoughts in his head if I tried.
May 18. Midnight.
I slip into fitful sleep with my hand upon my throat and the rhythm of hammers in my ears.
I dream of Elizabeth. Of her red hair like down upon her head, of her fat little arms reaching up to beg for my embrace. Of how little they have let me love her, my salvation, our pride, the little future queen Henry paraded round court the day we dressed all in yellow to celebrate the Spaniard’s death.
And of how he has bastardized her now, the last blow he has used to strike me to the ground. Of how I will never again feel the warmth of my little girl, my someday queen.
When I wake I am sweating, shivering, and I throw the blankets from my body. The room is still and dark.
I think of Katherine; she is not infrequently on my mind these days. I feel her presence in this room, in the scoffs of Lady Boleyn, in the air of tired formality surrounding every bow, every “Your Majesty.” In the absence of my daughter, the silence of my husband.
Did Katherine feel so obsolete?
If she did I made her so; and I have made myself so, too.
I shake Lady Boleyn awake, bid her fetch Kingston and bid him send for my almoner. I try to pray, but I cannot; my mind drifts back, always back to Katherine.
Begone from me, yours is not the judgment I must face.
When the Spaniard died, did she spend her final night thinking of me, cursing me? Or did she have space in her mind only for God, and for Mary? She must have known, then, that she would not see her daughter again, but in Heaven.
As I know.
When I die I must protect Elizabeth above all—though I know not what more I can give her, my bastard princess. But still I must not declare my innocence upon the scaffold, or she will pay for my audacity. I will declare my love for the king and my indebtedness to his just rule, and perhaps she will be queen one day despite me.
I squeeze my eyes shut until stars burst behind my lids, and I try achingly to pray for my soul and hers, and it occurs to me that Henry is not the author of our downfall, nor Cromwell. God did this. God smote me from my queenship. And why—why else, but that I have been a poor servant to him—vengeful and ambitious, wrestling Katherine from the throne and Mary from the succession, tearing mother from daughter, debasing one and making the other illegitimate.
And now God has seen fit to test me with the very pain I wrought.
April 30, 1536
I spent the morning as I spent the night, restless and perturbed. Nothing could hold my attention—not music, nor embroidery, nor reading. I wished only to run screaming to Henry’s apartments, demanding to know what was in his mind.
But as it was Henry came to me. He entered without warning, bursting in and sowing chaos among my ladies. Embroidery slipped from laps and needles fell into carpet as the women scrambled to stand and curtsey. I rose with more grace, taking him in as he blustered on the threshold. To my ladies he towered, certainly, hand resting on hip, legs spread, filling the doorway with his bulk. But I knew true: I knew that hand gripped at his side in pain, his stance a desperate attempt to shift weight from his ulcerated leg.
“Your Majesty,” I said. I tried to add a smile to my voice, a touch of the warmth we once shared, but my words emerged cold. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?”
“Out, all of you,” he said too loudly. “I will speak with the queen alone.”
They all bobbed out past him with a chorus of murmured submission. It was a testament to his visible agitation that he acknowledged none of them, not even the simpering Jane, and he hardly waited for the sound of their rustling skirts to recede into silence before he burst.
“What were you thinking, woman?” he shouted, and advanced on me with all the menace he could muster in his diminishing body. “You have degraded my good name—your own name, though it was not untarnished—”
“Your Majesty, I know not—”
“You know very well of what I speak!”
I tried not to flinch from the spittle flying from his lips, or the hammer of his fist upon the table. The Lord in his kindness would allow this to pass, I knew—so I remained silent, waited for him to put a voice to the space between us.
“How could you say such things to Norris,” he cried, and curled his thick ring-laden fingers into a white-knuckled grip upon a chair, “such despicable things, urge him to treason, and then force him to go to John Skip on your behalf? As if your almoner could fix your reputation and mine! The whole court knows of it already. You have cuckolded me, Anne, in the eyes of God and men, and if you were not my wife your words would make you a traitress.”
He was winded, from anger toward me or the pain of his festering leg, I could not be sure. I waited a moment for his breathing to level, his hunched body to straighten, before I defended myself.
“I did not intend these consequences, Your Majesty,” I said, and though my voice trembled my words were sincere. “I was angry with Sir Henry, and I misspoke. He has not yet married Madge, and I cannot fathom why, as she is my cousin—”
Henry scoffed. “There is your reason.”
I shot him a glare and clasped my hands over my belly. “I said things I do not believe, Majesty, and I beg your forgiveness.” But again, that cold and unintended emptiness hollowed my voice.
“You ask my forgiveness,” he said bitterly, shoving away the chair, “as if I could forgive. And I pray God that I may, for this deception, this conspiracy against me. For your many sins against me.”
And he left. I did not try to stop him. But when his footsteps had faded, I crossed myself, let out a breath.
“Sun and storms,” I whispered. “Sun and storms.” But something was wrong now, something different. These storm clouds were darker.
I took a breath, steadied myself. Perhaps Elizabeth could fix this—I would collect her, use her to remind him of what wonders we could make together. And so I rushed through my lodgings, through my watching chamber, up the stair. I noticed none who I passed, who made hasty bows in my path.
The nursery door was open slightly, and it rattled in its frame when I shoved through. Despite my distress I laughed in delight when I saw her, plopped on the carpet, playing with a doll.
“Hello, little one,” I said softly, and scooped her into my arms, kissing her downy red head.
“Mama!” she cried, toothless but smiling, and buried her warm little face in my neck.
“Your Majesty?” said the nurse.
“I am taking my daughter,” I said, and I left without closing the door. Elizabeth was docile in my arms, babbling softly to herself, bouncing against my hip as I hurried to Henry’s apartments.
The guard stepped in front of Henry’s chamber door as I swept towards him.
“Let me pass,” I said, breathless.
“The king wishes to be alone, Your Majesty,” said the guard stiffly.
“I must speak with him,” I said, and in my voice I heard not a queen, but the Anne of years past. Anne the mistress. Anne the concubine.
“I have my orders, Your Majesty,” said the guard. He did not meet my eye.
“If he will not receive me here,” I said, shrill but dignified, “then I will await him in the Inner Court. You will inform him of this.”
And I spun and hurried away, clattered downstairs and burst outside into the daylight of the Inner Court, blessed light of Heaven on my skin. And I paced. And I waited as, God be my witness, I have spent these ten years waiting, always waiting for Henry.
At last he appeared in the window of his watching chamber. He gazed down on me, in his eyes the distant pity of a ruler for a sinful subject.
“Your Majesty, look at our daughter,” I said. My words were almost a sob. On seeing my lips move he threw open the sash. He toyed with his beard, and he watched us.
“Look at her,” I cried. “I beseech Your Majesty. She is ours. My eyes, your hair. Our legacy. And by the grace of God I will bear you a son in her image.”
“You have borne no sons yet,” he said. His voice, his gaze, his words, all gone cold.
“Your Majesty, I have, I bore a son but God saw fit to snatch him early from us. But it was the fault of the Spaniard, her last act on Earth was to strangle him in my womb, and if we try again—”
“Speak not of Katherine,” he said bitterly, and moved to close the window.
“Your Majesty,” I cried. “Henry.”
He turned away.
And for the rest of the day I tried to forget what had happened. I played idly with Elizabeth, I attended the masque, I sat beside Henry, we feasted, laughed, talked but not to each other. I passed from partner to partner, handed off between courtiers like an eligible maiden, but Henry and I never even brushed sleeves in passing. I did not let it bother me. I danced, and danced, and had just sat down, breathless and thirsty for a sip of wine, when Henry spoke to me at last, abruptly.
“We will forgo our spring progress to Calais,” he said, eyes averted.
“What?” I said, and I stood so quickly I knocked over my goblet.
“Yes,” he said. “Cromwell will handle the details.” He rose, ungainly; he pecked my cheek with drunken wet lips and a bristle of mustache. “I will retire now. Alone.”
When he walked away I wiped my cheek. The song ended, and amid the dancers’ soft breathless laughter I could hear the steady drip of red wine onto flagstones.
May 17. 8 p.m.
I lie in bed after my evening prayers, the last evening prayers of my life, thinking of Norris, and I wonder how he died. How many strokes before his head parted from his body? What were his last words? Was he afraid?
When I meet him in Heaven, will he blame me for his death?
May 1, 1536
I watched the jousts from the highest tier of the tiltyard gallery. Henry sat beside me just out of reach, sullenly sipping at a goblet. This day would be hard for him, I knew. He yearned so much to be down there among the horses and the dirt, tilting with his courtiers like a man, but his advisors had triumphed over his will this time; for the safety of the succession, they told him, he must not joust.
My lord brother led the challengers, Norris the answerers. I paid little attention to the competition; I had no bets out, and for the first time in years, no tilter had asked to wear my favors. But I tried to suppress my anxieties, and I clapped politely at the outcome of each match, and in my periphery, I watched the king.
Henry grew drunker, and louder, and friendlier, roaring with the old men seated around him, the only other noblemen who did not joust. He slapped the arm of his chair at one of my father’s jokes, and turned to me with tears of mirth in his crinkled eyes.
“Do you hear that, Nan?” he cried, and wiped away the tears with jewel-laden fingers.
“An excellent joke, Your Majesty,” I said, and my joy was unfeigned. He smiled upon me, and I felt the sun on my face.
“Look there!” he said suddenly, and pointed to the tiltyard. “Harry’s horse—it will not ride.”
Indeed, Norris’s horse twisted under him, thrashing its head as he struggled to restrain it. The king leaned forward in excitement.
“Norris shall take my horse,” he said. “Boy, run down and tell him. What is mine is his, tell him that.”
The servant at his side bowed and hurried away.
“You are a gracious prince, Your Majesty,” I murmured, and he smiled again, humble and graceful though his cheeks were red with drink and merriment.
“I am only a servant of God,” he said, “and of my people.”
For the last tilt of the tournament, Norris jousted on the king’s horse, and won. He clanked up to the gallery after and knelt to my husband, giving ardent thanks. Henry pulled him to his feet, clapped him on the back.
Norris faced me, but never acknowledged me. Indeed he never even looked my way.
Norris had no sooner descended back to the tiltyard than a messenger ran up, out of breath, and with a hasty bow offered a letter to the king. Henry broke the seal, barely scanned it before he crumpled it in his fist.
“I must away,” he said quietly, not to me but to Suffolk, seated on his left. And he stood, and he stumbled hurriedly down the stair, and he seized Norris by the arm as the courtier stood wiping his brow, helmet tucked under arm.
All rose and bowed to the pair as they left, and when Henry had rushed Norris from the tiltyard the murmurs began.
May 18. 2 a.m.
As the Tower bells strike twice, there comes a knock on the door. I rush to the door myself; no time to pretend I am still queen. I am no more than the ladies that serve me, now.
When I see John Skip I am struck by a sudden and urgent need for comfort, and I fall to my knees before him.
“Your Majesty,” he says, alarm in his voice, and he hesitates, but he seizes my hand.
“I am to die tomorrow,” I say. “I must pray, and you must pray with me.”
I struggle to my feet, walk into the closet, sink to my knees before the altar within. Skip kneels silently beside me.
I make the sign of the cross, murmur a paternoster. I breathe in, close my eyes. Skip’s presence soothes me, the presence of a man of God soothes me. So I pray.
I pray first for the men who accosted me, arrested me; do they regret how harshly they treated me? Or do they feel satisfied, that their business is over? I pray that they will find peace, no matter if they rejoice when I die.
May 2, 1536
I thought to spend my morning at a tennis match. I placed a few risky wagers, if only to distract myself from Henry’s hurried exit and continued absence. The time passed slowly, and I found myself tapping an impatient foot; impatient for what, I still do not know.
“Your Majesty,” said a man’s voice nearby.
I barely heard the words, and I waved a hand to dismiss him.
“What?” I snapped, and swiveled in my seat. I met the eyes of a minor courtier, who held my gaze for only a flicker before he flushed and bowed his head.
“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” he stammered. “I have a message. Your Majesty has been summoned to the council, if you please. Right away.”
“What, am I not to stay out the match?” I said sharply.
“Lord Norfolk requests your immediate presence, madam.”
My uncle would not do so if there were not an urgent matter at hand. I smiled tightly at the courtier and rose. I wished I could tower over him.
“Bien sûr, j’irai,” I said, for I doubted he had any French. I swept past him and led the way through the halls toward the council chamber; though he was allowed to summon me I would not allow him to feel he was more than nothing to me. Indeed I was already forgetting his face.
My mind bubbled with worry. Would Henry be there? Cromwell? Did they call me to answer for Norris? To tell me the Calais progress would not be cancelled?
The guards before the chamber doors stood aside for me, and I lifted my chin as I entered.
A table of men awaited me—some I recognized as Crown lawyers, some I had never seen—and at their head sat my uncle Norfolk, and William Fitzwilliam, and William Paulet. They stood at the far end of the table, but I kept my nerve as I strode the length of the room with their eyes upon me: that wretch Fitzwilliam with his absent cross-eyed gaze, and the ever-gentlemanly Paulet fidgeting to avoid my stare, and my uncle with brisk annoyance in those tiny dark eyes.
“Master Treasurer, Master Comptroller,” I said to them as I approached. “Uncle. What of this summons?”
Norfolk glanced at the lawyers, at Fitzwilliam and Paulet. None met his gaze. He licked his thin dry lips and turned to face me.
“Queen Anne,” Norfolk said at last, “you have been accused of adultery with three men of this court.”
Part Two: In Hope of Life
May 18. 8 a.m.
I wrap Cranmer’s hand in a tight, trembling grip.
“Tell me, please, how my brother died.”
Cranmer bows his head, envelopes my hand in his. “He died well, Your Majesty. His final speech did him service.”
“Thank God,” I breathe. I wish the knowledge could assuage my grief, but it does not. I do not attempt to control the waver in my tear-thick voice before I ask, “And the others?”
“The others all died well, and said little before. But—” He hesitates.
“Say it, without fear. No more harm can come to me now.”
“Mark Smeaton,” he says unwillingly. “Smeaton insisted he was justly punished for his misdeeds.”
“Did he not exonerate me before he died,” I say incredulously, “of the public infamy he laid on me?” Good God, and to think I once pitied the boy. “Alas! I fear his soul will suffer for it.”
Cranmer bows his head. “I fear so, too, madam.”
And I close my eyes, and I muster the last of my grace, and I send away one last prayer: May Mark find peace, and truth, and mercy—for his misdeeds and mine.
May 2, 1536
From Greenwich to the Tower of London
At first I wished to laugh.
“So this is what you have been appointed to do,” I said. “To test me with lies, to try my loyalty to the king. Well, I shall not be tested. Ten years I have stood by his side—”
“We do not test you, madam,” my uncle said, and his voice boomed. I heard the shift of bodies behind me, and I turned to see guards moving to bar the door. “Do you deny the charges?”
“The charges? Charges based on what? I defy you to produce any evidence—”
“Smeaton has confessed to committing adultery thrice with you, madam,” said Norfolk, and his meaty hands tightened into fists on the tabletop. “Henry Norris has confessed as well. Even now they are in the Tower awaiting trial.”
Confessed! Confessed to what?—but I was beginning to sweat, to feel faint, and I knew I could not let terror overwhelm me. The waver in my voice was barely perceptible as I declared, “I have been with no man but the king. I have never so much as looked at another man since I met the king. Yes, yes, I deny the charges.”
“Forgive me, madam, but the evidence is undeniable,” said Paulet quietly, grudgingly.
“Is it?” I cried. “Then why do you withhold it from me, this evidence?”
“The evidence,” said Norfolk, pushing his chair back from the table with a great echoing scrape, “is that Smeaton has confessed. You have urged them on with caresses and gifts. Your court is a bed of sin—”
“I have done nothing! Nothing, I swear to you, on my daughter’s head—”
“Your daughter,” said Norfolk, and sighed, and shook his head, and clicked his tongue. “Anne, the royal commission orders your arrest.”
The guards escorted me to my chambers. They said they would wait to take me to the Tower until the tide of the Thames turned. My ladies were silent, my apartment hollow and cold. I sent for my dinner but I did not eat. I sat, and I gazed out upon the garden, and I tried to shield from the women my contorted face, my trembling hands. My terror.
Then the guards came, and took me.
They led me to the dock alone. The three councillors awaited me in an unadorned barge; I did not acknowledge them, nor meet their eyes. I simply stepped into the boat, and arranged myself upon the cold wooden seat, and balled my fists into the folds of my skirt. I would throw myself into the river before I would let them see me lose composure.
The barge docked at the Court Gate, and a guard helped me onto land. Knees weak, thighs stiff from the journey, I allowed the men to herd me through the gate, within the Tower walls. There the constable met us, and with him the councillors left me, without ceremony or farewell. I was glad to be rid of them.
“Master Kingston,” I said, turning to the constable. I had met him before, and I remembered well his quietly sagging face, the paunch and jowls of a man aging too quickly.
“Majesty, I will lead you to your chamber.”
My chamber, I had not thought about my chamber, where they would keep me, a cell in the cold underground. I reached a hand out but there was nothing to clutch, nothing to steady my shaky knees.
“Master Kingston,” I said, my voice piping higher than it should, “shall I go into a dungeon?”
“No, madam, you shall go into your lodging that you lay in at your coronation.”
“It is too good for me,” I said, and I let out a gasp, choked out a sob; for in this act of kindness I found mercy, and in mercy hope, and I could no longer contain my pent-up tears. If Henry would put me in a queen’s lodging then he would allow me to atone for my sins and return to him. I had only to wait, and he would take me back.
My knees gave way under the weight of relief, and I sank to the ground. “Jesus, have mercy on me.”
And I began to weep—with helpless grief, with wanting. But despite my sorrow or perhaps because of it, I fell into a great laughing at the thought of the sight of me. A queen, on her knees before a constable, begging God for His mercy! I tipped my head back to the sky, and a glimpse of Kingston’s clumsily concealed shock reminded me I was not alone.
“Master Kingston,” I implored him, wiping my tears and meeting his eyes, “I desire you to move the king’s highness to let me have the sacrament in the closet by my chamber, that I might pray for mercy.”
“I shall, madam,” he said, shifting uncomfortably, but I pressed on, reaching up to seize his hand.
“For I am as clear from the company of man, as for sin, as I am clear from you,” I said, vehement, “and am the king’s true wedded wife.”
He said nothing, but allowed me to grip his hands and rise to my feet. He led me on, along the palace wall toward the doors. His silence unnerved me, and I found I could not abide it.
“Master Kingston, do you know wherefore I am here?”
“Nay,” he said shortly, and gestured to the guard to open the Royal Palace doors. We entered. I did not remember these passages being so dark, so still. Once, not an inch of wall was left in shadow, not a corner rounded without meeting bowing servants. But not so much had changed; I was queen still. I am queen, still.
The corridor ended in stairs, and Kingston began the ascent with heavy echoing steps.
“I hear said that I should be accused with three men,” I said, my voice echoing in the dank silence of the spiral staircase. Kingston did not respond, but plodded on upward. I pressed on anyway: “And I can say no more but ‘nay,’ without opening my body for scrutiny.”
He was silent still. We reached the landing, and Kingston swung open the door to my coronation chambers. I swept in, listening to the swish of my skirts on the floor and barely noting the presence of four other women in the room. Three years ago I had entered these chambers under very different circumstances, my cloth-of-silver train held reverently aloft by my ladies, my head high.
But I was still queen and my chin was still lifted, eyes scrutinizing the ladies standing before the fire.
“Mistress Coffin,” I said kindly to the first, a small woman as diminutive in mind as in body. “Your husband is well?”
“Yes, madam, I thank you,” she said with a bob of a curtsey.
“Lady Kingston,” I said to the second, whose stoic stoutness paired her well with her husband, “how lovely to see you again.”
“It is a pleasure, Your Majesty,” said the constable’s wife tightly, but I knew she detested me; Katherine would always be her queen, and Mary her princess.
“I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting you,” I said to the third, although indeed if I had met her I would not remember such a face.
“Mistress Stoner, madam,” she said, her head down.
“Of course,” I said, and no more, for I did not know her mind, and I would not assume her friendship.
“Lady Boleyn,” I said crisply to the last, and she did not respond, and I turned away, for she was my uncle’s wife, and though my reign could have graced her with power, she chose to support Katherine over her own blood.
“These women will serve you during your time here,” said Kingston, emerging from the doorway to stand beside his wife.
“Thank you,” I said, though I did not mean it. What affront to justice had they planned, to surround me with women unfriendly to me? Mistress Coffin would be my only friend here, and they had overwhelmed us with foes.
“Is any other man here with me?” I asked Kingston. “Norris, Smeaton, and a third, all arrested on my account?”
“Norris and Smeaton are in the Tower, madam.”
Then who was the third, who Uncle spoke of? The room was warm, too warm now. I opened my gown and let it fall from my shoulders. I heard one of the ladies swoop in to collect it as I sank down upon the bed and pressed a hand to my breast.
“Oh, Norris,” I cried, “have you accused me? You are in the Tower with me, and you and I shall die together.” I stood, clutching the bedpost with a trembling hand. “And, Mark, you are here too. Oh! And my mother—you will die for sorrow.”
The tense silence in the room frightened me, hinted to me of things Kingston and Cromwell and Henry were keeping from me, and I turned about, quickly.
“Master Kingston,” I said, “shall I die without justice?” I spoke almost without thinking, and I knew not if I was asking for some girlish reassurance that I would be spared, or if I was baiting him, daring him to say yes.
“The poorest subject the king has,” he said solemnly, “has justice.”
A foolish joke to tell a woman, a queen, awaiting such so-called justice. But then, I did ask. I peered at him, at his unsmiling face. And I realized he had spoken in earnest.
A year ago, some clergymen who refused to take an oath of loyalty to the new Church, to Henry and I and our future children, were executed—brutally. They were half-hanged, just enough to make them blue in the face, and then were cut down from the gallows to be castrated and disemboweled before the sweet mercy of an axe to the neck.
Their crime was treason, and perhaps they deserved their traitors’ deaths. I certainly thought so at the time. But then, did I deserve to be imprisoned like this, handled so cruelly?
I looked into William Kingston’s solemn little eyes, promising me this English justice, and all I could do was laugh. So I laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
May 18. 9 a.m.
The hour of my death arrives, and passes. We sit in silence, the four women and I, for I have learned my lesson; I know that they are traitors, all of them, for why else would Weston be condemned, but that Coffin made much of what I said of him? Time aches on.
“I cannot bear it,” I burst out, and leap to my feet. “I am ready to die. Why have they not come for me?”
“I do not know,” Lady Kingston murmurs.
“Then find out,” I snap, and when she has hurried from the room I drop my face into my hands.
She returns momentarily, closes the door gingerly behind her.
“Madam, they say you shall not die until afternoon.”
“What?” I cry, and Mistress Stoner flinches beside me. “Fetch Master Kingston, at once. He must answer for this.”
When he enters he is almost sheepish, his wife stark-faced beside him. He bows silently and waits for me to speak. I take a moment, collect myself so I do not snap at him. For all I know, the ease of my death may lie in his hands.
“Master Kingston, I hear say I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore,” I say tightly, “for I thought by then to be dead and past my pain.”
Kingston’s drooping face flushes, and he looks at his feet. “It should be no pain, it is so subtle,” he murmurs.
“Yes, I heard say the executioner was very good,” I say, as I feel the last of my careful self-control slip from my grasp, “and I have a little neck.”
Then I clutch my hand about my throat, and I laugh heartily.
May 4, 1536
The Royal Palace, Tower of London
I rose early that second morning in prison, and stood by the window while the ladies slept. The beginnings of a strange scarlet sunrise stained Tower Green, glowing upon the southern corner of the White Tower, but beyond the shift of light, nothing stirred within my little slice of the outside world. I let my eyes cross and refocus on the reflection in the glass. I was sallow: sunken eyes bruised with purple, shadows of wrinkles spidering between my brows, across my forehead. Everything about me was dark, yet faded. I touched my hair, let the braid slip through my fingers; was there a hint of coarse grey in it, or did I deceive myself? I deceived myself, surely, for it was still brown, and thick, and shiny. But still this was not quite the woman for whom Henry risked all.
The feeling crept upon me that I could no longer breathe this close air, and I fumbled at the window latches, filled with vain hope. But the panes rattled as if in reproach and the latch did not yield to me, and a groggily shocked voice behind me exclaimed, “Madam!”
I whirled, breathing heavily. Mistress Coffin perched on the edge of my bed, Lady Boleyn and Mistress Stoner standing just beyond. There was fear on their faces.
“I cannot open the window,” I said. Even in my frenzy I knew I sounded mad, and likely looked it too. They glanced amongst each other.
“I do not believe it opens, madam,” said Mistress Coffin softly.
I turned back to the window, to my little square of freedom, and let my face contort into grief.
“Do you know,” I said too loudly, for I could not stand for my thoughts to be trapped in my head any longer, “Norris did say on Sunday last onto the queen’s almoner that he would swear for the queen that she was a good woman.”
“Why should there be any such matters spoken of?” said Mistress Coffin after a moment, with the air of one aching but unable to stay silent.
“Marry, I bade him do so,” I said, and I told them of our talk, as near as I could remember. I began slowly, each word deliberate, pulled from memory, but I continued in a rush, frantic new thoughts bubbling from my lips.
“But of course I more fear Weston,” I said, and in my periphery I saw Lady Boleyn and Mistress Stoner frozen, staring at me, “for on Tuesday last Weston told me that Norris came more unto my chamber for me than for Madge Shelton, and further caused Norris to delay his marriage to her.”
None of the ladies spoke. They seemed somehow shocked, and stuck fast in their horror. I grew more and more discomfited, but the prospect of silence seemed a private Hell, and so I rushed on.
“And I spake to Weston in the first place because I thought he did love my kinswoman Mistress Shelton, and not his wife,” I said, and I could no longer remain seated so I leapt to my feet and began to pace, “and he made answer to me again that he loved one in my house better than them both, and I asked him who is that? To which he answered, ‘It is yourself,’ and then of course I defied him.”
The ladies said nothing, avoided my gaze, avoided each others’.
“Will you make no answer?” I cried. I heard the door to my chamber open and close lightly. Mistress Coffin had slipped away.
In my haze of visible terror, in Coffin’s absence, Lady Boleyn seemed barely able to contain herself, sneering little secrets she thought might shake me—there are more men in the Tower with you, not just Norris and Smeaton, all your other little lovers have been exposed, George too—
And so I asked her why George, what treasonous intent they could possibly find to accuse him of.
“Oh!” she said, her face lit maliciously, “not treason, Anne. Incest.”
“If he be here now and if they be determined to end me, my lord my brother will die—”
I wished Lady Boleyn did not have such power over me but she did, and her words had been brewing in my thoughts, growing more dire and monstrous until they brought me to this, pacing my chamber, inconsolable even if these women cared to console me.
“And my lord father, I know not if he be held here or in safety, and my mother and sister, though they be not at court, oh!—”
“Madam, what is the matter?”
I whirled, nearly tripping over my skirts. I steadied myself on the bedpost, but my chest heaved. Master Kingston stood in the doorway, that now-familiar horror in his eyes.
“The king knew what he did when he put such two about me as my Lady Boleyn and Mistress Coffin,” I snapped, advancing on him, “for they could tell me nothing of my lord father—nor nothing else!—but I defy them all.”
Lady Boleyn scoffed. Four pairs of eyes turned on her, theirs nervous, mine furious.
“Such desire as you have to tell such tales has brought you to this,” she said, without looking up from her book.
My wit failed me, my terror deserted me; in their place was the kind of blind righteous rage that had sustained me through my days as Henry’s mistress, trapped in the same chambers as the Spaniard and her smug self-pity. But I would not allow Lady Boleyn the pleasure of seeing my helpless fury. I closed my eyes, and I turned to Kingston.
“I hear say my lord brother is here,” I said, a tremor in my voice, “and I am very glad that we both be so nigh together.”
“Then I must tell you,” Kingston said, his voice grudging, “that Masters Weston and Brereton are now here with you as well, and, ah—”
I maintained a pleasant countenance and waited for him to continue.
“And—Masters Page and Wyatt too.”
Wyatt, perhaps, I could understand; but Page—a courtier, and a kind one—why he should be held in the Tower on my account perplexed me. But I would not tell Kingston as much, in as many words.
“Sir Richard had his wife’s favor on his fist at the tilt the other day, and you hear now that his marriage is nothing to him,” I said coyly, and lifted my chin. “Master Kingston, I desire that you tell me the charges against me. What am I accused of? What evidence have they?”
“I do not know, madam.”
An expected lie, yet disappointing still. “I wish to see a written account of the charges, so I may defend myself.”
“I cannot do that, madam.”
I scoffed. “Then, Master Kingston, I shall desire you to bear a letter from me to Master Secretary.” If any could convince Henry to release me, to take me back, it was Cromwell. A devil on Henry’s shoulder, he was, but I thought to lend the devil my voice.
“Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.”
“I give you thanks,” I said, but it was not good enough. I thought to try another tack. “I have much marvel that the king’s counsel comes not to me.”
He seemed not to know how to respond. His saggy mouth opened a little, and he mumbled, “They are quite busy, I am sure, madam.”
“Too busy to attend their queen?” I said, and he did not respond, but shifted uncomfortably, toying with the trim on his gown.
“I must be going, madam,” he said, and turned to leave.
I began to feel frantic again; he must not abandon me, he must not, I must keep him here, the only voice that could break the silence of this prison.
“It has been fair these last few days, Master Kingston,” I said loudly as he opened the door. I giggled, and the sound was so misplaced in the barren stone room that I began to cackle, breathless and tearful. “Perhaps all England should have no rain,” I said haltingly, “till I were delivered out of the Tower.”
He said nothing, but closed the door quietly behind him.
May 18. Before dawn.
I pray that You will guide Elizabeth through her life as a bastard, and show her the way to salvation. May she live and grow with grace and strength.
>May my family find shelter from the king’s wrath.
May Henry atone for what he has done to me, and to our daughter, and to the England we built together.
>But I am to die in a few short hours, and I do not wish my last thoughts to be vengeful. God asks for mercy, for peace, and I will give it Him.
>May Henry live long, prosperous. May his ulcerated leg heal. May he continue to rule with a just hand. May he have at last the son I could not give him.
May Jane Seymour, the wretched bitch, give him that son—
No, no. I must not condemn her so. But I cannot wish her well, the woman replacing me. I shall simply not pray for her at all, and hope my gracelessness will be forgiven.
I pray that Mary will be kind to Elizabeth, or at least stay away. I pray that Katherine has found peace in Heaven.
I pray that Cromwell may see what evil he has wrought, and forgive himself for it.
I pray that I will forgive myself, too.
May 10, 1536
“Madam, you have a visitor.”
Midmorning, and I had been kneeling, praying; I rose. Lady Kingston stood in the doorway, a hint of excitement on her sour face.
“Who is it?” Suddenly I could not catch my breath. It was Henry, surely, come to deliver me.
“Secretary Cromwell, madam; he is here specially to see you, I hear.”
Cromwell. Yes, of course. He was as close to Henry as I would get, I knew this. Foolish Anne, to think Henry himself might deign to visit me. And so I sighed, and arranged myself in a chair, and laid my hand upon a prayer book in my lap, and tried to be patient. But as minutes passed I began to tap my foot, and to feel I would scream if I were made to wait any longer.
I breathed a quivering gasp as the door handle creaked, turned. I fumbled with my book, tried to assume a disdainful raise of the brow. But my mouth trembled, and I knew he would know, the moment he saw me, that this was not the queen he spoke to last.
I heard him shuffle his feet and clear his throat, rustle his gown. I counted out the seconds, eight, nine, ten, before I laid aside my prayer book and rose to my feet. He stood before the door, one hand holding his hat, the other fiddling with the thick black hair that concealed his ears. The vastness of his fur-trimmed body seemed almost to block out the light, though he stood illuminated in the dim glow from the window.
“Master Secretary,” I said, smiling graciously. “Forgive me, I was in the midst of reading.”
“My apologies, madam,” he said, and bowed.
He was strangely diffident—or perhaps I was simply restless, accustomed to silence yet itching for talk.
“The weather has been fair,” I said, aching. “I trust your journey here was pleasant?”
“It was, madam,” he said, and no more.
Diffident, indeed—where was the Cromwell charm, the competent pandering that had raised him to such power? In his silence I found I knew not what to say; myriad questions, and no way to ask them without implicating myself.
How are the men—how is my George? Where are they all kept? Shall they die? Shall I die? Will you afford me a trial, or condemn me as I sit here among women appointed to shun me?
“Why have you come, Master Cromwell?” I said finally with a sigh. “You may tell me true.”
“I have come to see how you fare here, and how the men fare,” he said. He smiled benignly.
Ah. So Secretary Cromwell was not here specially to see me, was he—and why I should have believed such a lie, from Lady Kingston of all people, I knew not. I eyed Cromwell silently for a moment. I wished he were uneasy beneath my gaze, but I had long known he did not fear me as others did.
“And how do we fare?”
He breathed a low laugh, and his short fat neck wobbled. “The men are well, and though I see you look well too, still I must ask—how fare you?”
“I am in prison,” I said, with a touch of incredulity.
He said simply, “I know.”
Anger crept up, overwhelmed me; how dare he?
“I am in prison, and given no explanation of why, no written account of the charges against me—” I broke off, my fists balled like a child’s. “Master Secretary, I know that you know of what I am accused. I desire nothing, nothing in this world, but to hear the exact accusations against me.”
“I can give you no more than did the Crown lawyers,” Cromwell said.
“Adultery, incest, treason—so that is all? No evidence?”
“You shall hear the indictments at your trial.”
“Am I not to defend myself?” I cried. “Where is the justice in that?”
“If you were innocent,” he said, and turned to the door, “you would have nothing to defend.”
Cromwell departed; there was little else to say, few insults left to exchange. In the absence of his vast presence I knew not what to do with myself, and so I sat grinding my teeth, knocking a tight fist against my leg, and convincing myself that no matter Henry’s fickleness or Jane Seymour’s wiles, no matter my guilt or innocence, Cromwell was the only man to blame for all that had befallen me.
Finally I called for supper, and as we sat down to table I tried to be merry, to laugh heartily and talk at length of nothing, as I used to do; and so although I ate little I made a great dinner, much in spite of my ladies’ unkind silence toward me.
“Send for Master Kingston!” I cried as the meal was cleared, and I leapt to my feet. “He has been gone all day; I would speak with him.”
“I will ask after him,” said Lady Kingston, and she stood, and proceeded leisurely to the door. In that moment I would have given all hope of freedom simply for her to move faster, act with greater respect, look at me with a touch more fear.
When the door closed behind her the restlessness returned, and remained. Kingston came quickly to me but still I could not slow the painful beating of heart against kirtle.
“Where have you been all day?” I demanded when he entered.
“I have been with prisoners,” he said.
I hummed a little, watched him with raised brow. “Yes, of course,” I said. Suspicious, he had always been suspicious, how had I not seen it before? “You know, I was cruelly handled when I was arrested,” I said, rambling, still humming under my breath. “I to be a queen and cruelly handled as was never seen!—but I think the king does it to prove me.” I laughed withall; the thought made me very merry. But with the thought of the embrace and sweet kiss with which Henry would surely meet me when all this was over, I stilled. I looked up at Kingston. “I shall have justice,” I said quietly.
My constable bowed. “Have no doubt therein.”
“Yes, for if any man accuse me I can say but nay, and they can bring no witness,” I said, smug and gleeful.
“Madam, they shall bring the men as witness,” Kingston said uncomfortably, as if uncertain he should speak on the subject.
“Ah, yes. Smeaton,” I said, and glared at him. “And Henry Norris. You know, I never knew that they had gone to the Tower, until I was informed so here.”
“None were told of their arrests, madam.”
“Hmm,” I said, skeptical, and then: “Tell me what I may do, to exonerate myself of this trouble.”
He floundered, tried to work his jaw into an answer.
“You may pray, Your Majesty,” he said at last, quiet and solemn. And that was all.
“I have prayed, and prayed—oh!” I burst out in frustration, “I would God I had my bishops, for they would all go to the king for me. I pray for hours each day—and I think the most part of England prays for me, too.”
“Yes, madam,” murmured Kingston. I glared at him; he was brushing me away. And suddenly, peering into his avoidant eyes, I was certain he knew already my fate.
“At the end of this I shall die,” I said to him, quiet and furious, “and I shall be in heaven, for I have done many good deeds in my days. And in the meantime I think much unkindness on the king to put such about me as I never loved.”
“The king takes them to be honest and good women.” Kingston did not meet my gaze.
“But I would have had women of mine own privy chamber, which I favor most.”
He was silent.
“Well, then, Master Kingston,” I said, and I reveled in the queen I heard in my voice, “when I die, you shall see the greatest punishment for my death that ever came to England.”
May 18. 7 a.m.
My knees have long since numbed; my neck aches, and my fingers, clasped together for hours, feel stuck fast. But still I do not notice the door open behind me, nor the approach of footsteps. But Skip stands and bows his head, I hear a murmured “Your Majesty,” and I creak to my feet, cross myself, turn.
“Archbishop,” I say, my voice thick and hoarse. “Thank God. Thank God you have come. You will take my final confession?”
“I would have no greater pleasure,” he says softly. Then, softer still—“But to see you released.”
I laugh at his loyal grief, and I kneel before him, and I share with him the burden of my sins. And at the end of it all I ask that he fetch Kingston, so that I may receive the good lord before him.
I take the sacrament as Kingston looks on, shifting in place. I watch him, keep my gaze steady upon him until he meets my eyes.
“I have never been unfaithful to His Majesty the king,” I say. “Never, I swear to you, Master Kingston.”
He does not look at me again.
May 11—12—13—14, 1536
The days passed in a blur, for they told me five of the men had been tried, and found guilty. They told me my brother would die.
What they did not tell me, and what I did not need to hear to understand, is this: adultery is not an individual offense. Its lovers go two by two, pair by pair.
If the men were guilty, then so shall their lover be found, by necessity and by law.
And so my fraud of a trial crept closer, four days away, two, one, and each day I broke by turns into tears and laughter, and I grew more and more to crave execution. In death I would see friends lost long ago, meet children born too early; I could watch my Elizabeth grow up, protect the ragged remnants of my family. My power here in life had run dry, a drip where it was once an ocean, and through death I would be renewed. Perhaps in Heaven I would regain my beauty, my youth, my quick laugh and quicker wit. My joy.
For I was tired; so deeply, so honestly tired.
Part Three: At the King’s Pleasure
May 18. 11 a.m.
And I pray for Harry Percy, because if not for Henry, if not for Wolsey, he might have mothered my child; and I would be the Countess of Northumberland, and we would live at his estate or perhaps at court, serving Henry and shaking our heads from afar at his antics. Surviving.
I open my eyes. Tears have dampened my face. I touch my cheekbones; the skin is tender, raw. I lay my head upon my bed, stare into the light blurring in from the window.
An hour left.
May 15, 1536
“Madam, you must wake.”
And I surfaced as if from a year of dreams, and I lifted my head from the pillow.
“Your trial, madam. You must wake.”
The trial, yes. I swung my legs from the bed, rested my feet upon the stone floor. The cold prickled at my soles, sharp and piercing, and I bent my head, tried to focus upon the sensation, the one sensation in my body.
“I must wash,” I murmured groggily. “I will wash.”
Shuffling footsteps hurried around me, the sound fading and sharpening. Someone knelt before me—Mistress Stoner, anxiety on her perky little face.
“I have cold water and linens, madam,” she said softly. “Will you stand, so I may wash you?”
I pushed myself to my feet, stared blearily over Mistress Stoner’s head. I felt her hands, birdlike, untie my shift. It spilled to the floor, a puddle of fabric around my feet. I heard the trickle of water, scented the damask rose wafting from the basin, as she dipped and wrung the linens, and I sucked in a hiss of breath as she pressed the cold cloth to my back.
“It will be all right,” she said quietly, and I thought of my mother, and my Elizabeth, and I shut my eyes upon the tears.
The linens rubbed feeling into my skin, and as the morning air prickled my body dry, Lady Boleyn laid a gown and kirtle upon the bed. I gazed at it, working up the words to tell her it was too bright, or too subdued, or too improper; but it was not. It was perfect: velvet kirtle of palest blue, creamy damask gown.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and she pressed her lips tight and bowed her head.
Mistress Coffin and Lady Kingston laced me into my kirtle, and Mistress Stoner brushed my hair, plaited it, bound it up under a sedate French hood and veil. Lady Boleyn secured a pendant about my neck, and I thought,
she must be overjoyed with her hands so close to my throat.
And I was ready, and the ladies melted away without another word; so I stood in the center of the room, alone, and I waited.
Kingston came to collect me near ten o’clock.
“It is time,” he said simply.
He and his wife and Lady Boleyn accompanied me out of my chamber. They led me down the stairs and through the door. Outside. I paused, breathed in the air. I nearly choked on my first breath, so clean and fresh was the breeze rushing into my lungs. Tears came to my eyes and I stumbled on.
We entered the Great Hall. I heard the murmur and shuffle of a great mass of people, and I stiffened, carved my face into pleasing regality.
And the doors opened.
At first I noticed the guard just inside, in his hands the great axe. Its blade was turned away from me then, but it caught the light as I passed, and I felt it flashed me a warning. And only then, only when I had fixed my gaze stubbornly ahead, did I notice in my periphery the masses.
A thousand or more, there must have been, stirring restlessly in a wooden stand I did not recall from my coronation. Thousands of eyes, glittering hatefully from faces framed in velvet and jewels, all the peers of England come to see me tried.
So they shall make a spectacle of me, shall they? So I shall remain unmoved, and challenge them to imagine that I am anything but innocent.
I walked slowly in, comporting myself as if I had come to receive a great honor. I stared ahead, eyes fixed upon my uncle Norfolk, standing at the center of the jury. I heard my companions’ shoes clicking on stone behind me, and the sound brought me strange comfort. Though they may not have been friends to me, they at least did not force me to make this walk alone.
I reached the front of the hall, and the stir of the crowd stilled.
“Lord Norfolk,” I said, and my haughty voice echoed.
“Your Majesty,” he replied, and bowed, and sat. I turned and walked to the chair placed before the jury, careful to keep my gaze above the heads of those looking on from the stands. But as I sat, hands clasped sedately in lap, I caught the eye of one man: Cromwell, his thin frowning lips nearly swallowed by the fat of his face. His expression did not lift when he met my gaze, and I made no sign that I even recognized him.
One of the jurors stood—Felmingham, was it?—and silence fell upon the crowd.
“We have summoned here the peers of England,” he declared, “to judge in the trial of Her Majesty Queen Anne Boleyn. You shall now answer to your names when called.
“Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.”
“Present,” he replied, and I did my best not to glare at him. He was pleased, I knew, to be part of my shame.
“Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.”
In defense of my uncle, his voice was grudging when he answered to his name. Then—
“Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.”
“Present,” said his voice shakily, and I sought out his face among the jury, and I saw that he was pale and sweaty, and that he would not meet my eye. And I remembered kissing him in those two years before I met the king, promising to marry him as soon as I could, whispering
Anne Percyto myself in the dark of the night when all others were asleep. And I watched him then, crowded among lords and earls and marquises, mopping his face and bending his head nearly to his knees, and I thought,
I wish I could have married you, I wish Henry had not come between us; you were my love, and now look at where we are, you and I.
I heard no more of the names, nor their responses. My eyes were fixed on Harry until a new voice, booming, reached my ears: Norfolk.
“Justices, bring in the indictments.”
When he had spoken I looked back to Harry, and did not look away. Some new justice stood, and began to read from a parchment.
“The indictment found on Wednesday last is as follows:
“Whereas Queen Anne has been the wife of Henry VIII for three years and more, she, despising her marriage, and entertaining malice against the king, and following daily her frail and carnal lust, did falsely and traitorously procure by base conversations and kisses, touchings, gifts, and other infamous incitations, diverse of the king’s daily and familiar servants to be her adulterers and concubines, so that several of the king’s servants yielded to her vile provocations—”
The crowd’s mutterings grew so loud he stuttered to a halt. And as for me—as for me, my ears rang, and my hands trembled upon the arms of my chair, and I no longer saw the face upon which my eyes were fixed.
“Silence!” roared Norfolk, and the noise abated. And the justice continued:
“On 12 November 1533, at Westminster, and diverse days before and after, she procured, by sweet words, kisses, touches, and otherwise, Henry Norris to violate her, by reason whereof he did so at Westminster on 12 November; and they had illicit intercourse at various other times, both before and after.”
How could they believe such lazy—I could refute every date if given time, no intelligent person will believe these lies—
“Also the Queen, on 2 November and several times before and after, at Westminster, procured and incited her own natural brother, George Boleyn, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers— ”
I fought the urge to cross myself.
O God, sweet Lord, please, it is too much, surely they will not believe it—but it went on, Brereton Weston Smeaton, the same words with different names, different dates. The crowd grew frenzied, wild with scandal.
“Quiet!” roared Norfolk, “or I shall have you all thrown out!”
“—and further the said queen and these other traitors, 31 October, at Westminster, conspired the death and destruction of the king, the queen often saying she would marry one of them as soon as the king died, and affirming that she would never love the king in her heart. And the king having a short time since become aware of the said abominable crimes and treasons against himself, took such inward displeasure and heaviness, especially from his said queen’s malice and adultery, that certain harms and perils have befallen his royal body.”
They blame me for his leg, his fatness?
Now I could not hear the crowd, nor my uncle’s livid shouts, and Harry’s face swam in my vision. All had faded, all but the prayers running nearly independently through my mind, all but the thought: there is no hope left.
The trial sped on without me and I wanted to scream wait but I could not, I was Queen, I was Queen, I am Queen.
“—slander, danger, detriment and derogation of the heirs of King Henry—”
No, no, Elizabeth is my child, mine, I love her, I am not so cold as that
“—conspired the king’s death, and promised to marry one of the traitors whenever the king was dead, affirming she would never love him—”
and I have loved the king, though he be impotent, though he be callous, though he has not returned my loyalty my love
“—treasonable conspiracy to procure the king’s death, meeting together at Westminster on 30 October 1535, and at Greenwich on 8 January 1536—”
he shall not die at my hand, rather at his own, for he is a fool, a great lubbering fool, fat and spoiling
“—wrote her brother George Lord Rochford to inform him of her pregnancy—”
and uncaring of my troubles, though he be the cause of them, and if I have sought comfort elsewhere I cannot be blamed
“—brought about the death of the late Katherine of Aragon by poison, and plotting to kill the Lady Mary with the same—”
as Katherine was blamed for her womb barren of boys, our wombs were long barren of boys but why, why else but that Henry is not capable
“—on diverse other days and places, before and after, treasonably violated the queen.”
and if I had sought to have a boy by other means it would not be violation, it would not be treason, it would be correct and queenly and wifely and if they knew that they would not accuse me of such—
But it was over, it was finished, I was finished but I did not yet know.
So I sat stiff and wide-eyed, treason on my mind, and waited, agonized, for the sentence.
“Queen Anne,” Norfolk called out at last, “how do you plead to the charges laid against you, of twenty counts of adultery and treasonable intent toward His Majesty King Henry?”
I stood, and I raised my right hand, and it held steady.
“I swear in view of God and Heaven,” I said, “I am not guilty.”
Murmurs filled the hall, and I paused, waited for some semblance of silence before I spoke again.
“I deny all charges against me. I was never unfaithful to the king, who I have loved these ten years with all my being. Never did I promise to marry Sir Henry Norris, who has ever been a loyal and loving friend to my husband the king. And never did I poison or attempt to poison Katherine of Aragon or the Lady Mary. I am guilty of one thing only,” I said, and paused. The silence the crowd had afforded me was captivating. “I did give money to Francis Weston, as I did for many young men and women of my court—”
A roar of murmurs, Norfolk’s shouts. Restless quiet once more.
“Lending money and gifts to the ladies and gentlemen of the court is the rightful task of a charitable queen,” I said, a little louder now, “and I have tried to be as good and righteous a queen as ever England has seen.
“I do not say that I have always borne toward the king the humility which I owed him, considering his kindness and the great honor he showed me and the great respect he always paid me; I admit, too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him.” I took a breath. “But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong.”
Silence once more; condemning or convinced, I could not know. Norfolk waited for a moment, his little eyes fixed upon me, before standing.
“The jury will now deliver the sentence,” he said, and turned to address the peers. “Lord Suffolk, how do you find the accused?”
“Guilty!” Suffolk shouted, and I winced at his vigor.
“Guilty,” said Audley, quiet and a little unwilling.
Silence. I turned my eyes upon Harry Percy, and I flinched away, for he was faint, listing sideways, his knuckles braced upon the arms of his chair.
“Lord Northumberland!” Norfolk said forcefully. “Your verdict. Now. Haven’t got all day.”
Harry raised his head, and for the first time he met my eyes. And my lips parted, and his face contorted, and he shoved back his chair, pushed through rows of lords, stumbled from the hall.
The doors boomed shut behind him, and the courtroom dissolved into chaos, chaos so complete not even Norfolk attempted to curb it. Gasping with every breath, I leaned forward, hands clutched upon the arms of my chair, legs tensed, ready to chase after Harry—but I could not, for if I did they would condemn me, if I was not already condemned.
“All right, all right! Quiet!” Norfolk shouted at last, and pounded his fist upon the table. “We will continue to hear the jury’s verdict.”
And he called out names, and each man cried guilty in turn, and with each condemnation I ceased more and more to listen. I felt the slip of my mind into that now-familiar listlessness, the sullen, hopeless darkness, and I closed my eyes. I must not let myself lose hope though there was none, must not forget to plaster innocent certainty upon my face.
The last guilty verdict rang out, and I opened my eyes. Norfolk was looking at me, pity in his gaze; pity I had never seen before on that deep-lined face.
“The jury unanimously concludes that Queen Anne is guilty of all charges,” said Norfolk, “and hereby strips her of all her titles but Queen.” He watched me for a moment, looked upon my lip as it trembled and my chest as it heaved and my hands as my fingers twisted and tugged at my skirt, not guilty, not guilty—as he said—
“Because thou hast offended against our sovereign the King’s Grace in committing treason against his person, and here attainted of the same, the law of the realm is this.” My uncle paused, cleared his throat. He, of all men, was beginning to weep, tears dripping down his hooked nose, sinking into the creases rippling from his mouth. He coughed, and continued. “The law of the realm is this: that thou hast deserved death, and thy judgment is this: that thou shalt be burned here within the Tower of London, else to have thy head smitten off, at the king’s pleasure.”
My head swam, and I raised a hand to touch my face but it landed upon my throat, and I choked back a cry.
But an angry rustle had swept through the judges, seated below the jury, and one of them stood, turned to Norfolk.
“Such an either-or sentence is improper and unprecedented,” said the judge, and he was met with an outcry from the jury.
“Sit down, sir,” shouted Norfolk. “The sentence is at the king’s pleasure, and you shall not defy your sovereign.”
For you see here what shall happen if you do.
“Have you any last words for the jury?” Norfolk said to me.
Only that they are deceived by pretense—but no, no, for Elizabeth’s sake, for George’s, I must speak with grace, with acceptance.
“I give my titles up willingly to the king who conferred them,” I said with dignity, but as I heard such false words issue from my lips, my anger, my righteous hatred, rose within me. I spoke then with contempt: “But I believe there is some other reason for which I am condemned than the cause alleged.”
I regretted the words the moment I spoke, as the crowd exploded in anger, and Norfolk began to shake his head.
“No,” I protested, “no!” But none heard me, and though Norfolk banged a fist upon the table, they did not quiet even when I jumped to my feet as though compelled.
“I am ready to die if it is what the king wishes,” I cried, “and I do not protest to preserve my life. I regret only that innocent and loyal men are to die alongside me.”
Through the din I heard a voice beside me, and I turned, and my knees nearly gave way but a hand seized tight upon my arm, and I saw Kingston, Kingston was beside me, tugging me toward the doors, and I wished to defy him and all of them but I had not the power in my limbs to pull away.
He led me from the courtroom, hand firm on my elbow. The great axe was turned toward me now, its edge sharp as reproach, and I saw in its blade my reflection: anguished, frightened. Guilty.
May 18. 10 a.m.
There is nothing more to do but wait, and kneel beside my bed, and pray; perhaps I have been blessed with a delayed death, perhaps it is God’s way of saving me, from the wrath of Judgment or of Henry. So I pray, I pray.
I pray that George is looking down upon me, and will welcome me to Heaven with open arms. I pray that Katherine will not hinder my entrance; that she will forgive my trespasses, and I hers.
I pray that Elizabeth will not forget her mother, though they may smite me from her history. And if she perseveres to remember me, I pray it will be with kindness, though my duties as queen took me often from her side, though I neither nursed her nor raised her.
I pray that when I see her again in Heaven, many long years from now, she will come to me with open arms. That she will forgive me, for letting them kill me, for caring only that she would someday be queen. For leaving her motherless.
May 16, 1536
I heard the birds chirping that morning. I could hear them, but not see them, though I craned my neck, though I nearly pressed my nose to the window like a little girl; all I saw was a single raven, flapping laboriously over the White Tower.
The door opened, and I sighed, closed my eyes.
“Yes, Master Kingston?”
“I have come to tell you,” he said, and I knew without seeing his face that the news would be grim, “the men will die tomorrow.”
I pressed my lips shut around a sob and tipped my forehead against the window. “My brother, too?” I whispered.
“Yes.” Then, quieter—“I am sorry.”
“And I? When am I to die? Shall they burn me, or behead me?” The question was so absurd I nearly laughed.
“I do not yet know,” he said.
“You will come later, to tell me, when you know?” I meant my words to be a command, but they emerged a plea.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “I will. And in the meantime, madam, the Archbishop of Canterbury is here to see you.”
“Is he?” I said, and my voice livened for the first time since the trial. I rose laboriously, attempting a smile at the plain little man standing at the threshold.
“Archbishop, I was not expecting you.” I had asked for him, for my bishops, for any man of the cloth to come to me; but of course it took a death sentence to convince them I deserved to be forgiven.
“I am sorry I could not come to you sooner, Your Majesty,” he said, and dropped to his knees before me. “I pray you will forgive me, madam, for this and for what I have come to tell you. I did not wish for it to come to this, I tell you I was clean amazed—”
“Archbishop,” I said sharply. “What is it? You will tell me.”
“I fear—” He broke off, passed his hands over his face, scrubbed at the dark shadow of a new beard. “God forgive me, Your Majesty, but the king—the king has demanded a divorce.”
Dizzy. Lightheaded with shock, fear, exhaustion; spinning away from control; I wished to scream but I could only sink to the floor and brace my hands against the cold stone, breathing, “Divorce—”
“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” said Cranmer. His voice was helpless; through my despair I saw him hovering above me, twisting his hands. “If I might explain—”
“What could you possibly explain?” I choked out. “I would ask you why but I know Henry, I know there is no reason—”
“There is,” he said, quickly, sharply. “Leviticus.”
“Leviticus?” I cried. “But our dispensation—”
“Is now repugnant. His Majesty claims,” Cranmer said, and breathed deep, “that his previous relations with your sister proved an insurmountable barrier to your marriage. As Leviticus says it should.”
“So he shall say we have been living in sin,” I whispered, “and Elizabeth our bastard.”
Cranmer said nothing, but sighed. I looked up at him, tears contorting my face.
“The king did not tell me to come here,” he said quietly. “I came for you, to inform you. And to ask for your blessing.”
“I have not yet signed the annulment,” he said, and held out his hands to me. “I wished to tell you first. It is only right.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, and slumped, head bowed, flooded with foolish relief. I took his hands and allowed him to help me to my feet.
“Come,” he said, “sit,” and so we sat together on my bed, Cranmer and I, though I knew it was deeply improper. I cried into my hands, though I wished to throw myself to my knees and sob upon his lap. And I spoke freely to him, for there was nothing left to protect, and I told him so—my marriage dissolved, my daughter bastardized, my brother to die tomorrow and I after, what was left for me? But he said—
“Elizabeth. You have Elizabeth still, Your Majesty. She is worth protecting, is she not?”
“She is a bastard,” I cried. “Is that not why he divorces me? It is not enough to condemn me to death, he must also wrench from me my only legacy—”
“She is still yours!” Cranmer exclaimed, and leapt to his feet. At the shock on my face he shifted, looked away. “Forgive me, madam. I only—I beg you to think of her. It is not over yet. With your last words you may still save her.”
I exhaled a bitter laugh, and said, “But not myself.”
Cranmer departed with a promise of returning for my final confession, and I sat again by the window, gazing out at nothing. The door opened, and I knew from the scent drifting in that dinner had arrived. I sighed, and stood, and saw Kingston standing on the threshold, servants bustling through the space between us. I watched him, expectant.
“So? Will it be the flame, or the axe?”
“Neither?” My breath quickened; I took a step toward him, hand clasped upon my necklace. “So I am saved?”
“No, madam,” said Kingston quietly. He cleared his throat. “You shall die by the sword, madam. The executioner of Calais. Tomorrow.”
“The sword? Tomorrow—”
“He is very skilled, madam,” said Kingston quickly. “Renowned, even. The king requested him especially, as an act of mercy.”
An act of mercy. This was what I had waited for, prayed for—
“By the sword,” I whispered, and a smile grew upon my lips. “He is softening.”
If he had afforded me one mercy he could afford me others, soften further, send me away or perhaps even take me back.
“I shall go to a nunnery,” I said, laughing. I tipped my head back to the ceiling, to the sky, to God. “He will send me to Anvers, perhaps. I shall go, and live, and be a queen still, and—oh! Oh, I am in hope of life.”
May 18. Noon.
A bell strikes noon, and I raise my head, wipe my tears with the hem of my sleeve. The dampness spiders out across the gray damask, darkening it to charcoal.
As I push myself to my feet, wincing at twinging knees, the door opens.
“Master Kingston,” I say, and relief eases a smile across my face. “I am ready.”
He coughs into his fist, scratches at his cheek. “Madam, I—”
I cock my head, smile sweeter. His face reddens, and he looks at the ground.
“Madam, forgive me, but the execution must be moved to tomorrow.”
“But I am ready to die,” I say, too loudly. He flinches.
“I am sorry, madam, but the executioner has been delayed.”
“I have been preparing,” I whisper, “for hours.” But I look at the ladies and I see they are as distressed as I; I had not thought of it, but perhaps they, too, had been preparing for the moment of my death. For the bloody aftermath.
“It is all right,” I say, gently, smiling at each of them in turn. “Though this delay may weaken me, it is not a thing to be regretted by good Christians. Soon I will be quit of all unhappiness, will I not?” I chuckle a little. “And they shall call me Anne Sans Tête!”
I laugh at my jest but the others do not. They glance at one another. Mistress Coffin smiles uncertainly.
I wipe tears of mirth from my eyes.
May 19, 1536
I wake before dawn.
I have been dreaming, I think. I dreamed that Henry divorced me—no, not just divorced, declared our marriage null and void, declared we had never been married at all.
I dreamed we lived as lovers, not spouses.
And then I open my eyes to darkness, and I remember.
And in the darkness, in the black silence, there is clarity, there is an end to all the lies, and I am innocent, I know it, for if I was only his mistress I never could have been an adulteress, and I am innocent, they cannot persecute me.
But they must know what they have done, the discrepancy they have created. They do not care; they know I am powerless now, indefensible now.
So the sun rises, and so do my ladies, and it is time for me to ready my body for death.
My ladies braid my hair and search through my clothes. Lady Boleyn offers me earrings and a necklace, but I push them away. Before the morning is done my head and body will be parted; there is little sense in bedecking either.
When my plaits have been bound up I turn to the clothes they have laid upon the bed. A crimson kirtle, trimmed with ermine, and a gray damask gown.
So I shall die in crimson, I think, for I will mourn not for myself. That is others’ task; I must simply die with grace, knowing they have made me innocent.
They serve me a final meal, and my ladies and I eat quietly: I tranquil, they dispirited. As the servants clear away the food, Kingston enters. I look at him, and I wait.
“It is time,” he says. “Are you ready, madam?”
“Acquit yourself of your charge,” I say to him softly, “for I have been long prepared.”
He lowers his head and steps aside, gestures me out the door. In formation the six of us go out, two by two, Kingston and I ahead. He leads us past the Great Hall, through Coldharbour Gate, along the western wall of the White Tower, where the shadows sit so deep and damp that I shiver in the chill. And as we round the corner I see the scaffold, waist-high, draped in black, crowded round with people: an audience, for a spectacle. A set of steps along the side, and something missing—
“There is no block,” I say, frantic, to Kingston.
“No,” he says, and lays a soothing hand upon my arm. “You shall die kneeling.”
The way I began.
We approach the scaffold. I would slow our pace but Kingston pushes on, on. There are no guards, no barriers to keep the crowd from touching me, but none attempt it; they part before us, eyes shamelessly devouring me, my body, my uncrowned head.
We reach the steps and I falter, I whisper, “Master Kingston,” and he turns, holds out his arm. I wrap my hand around his elbow, and as we climb the steps I feel I will not be able to let go.
But I must, and so I wrench my nails free of his sleeve, and I take the final step alone.
May 19, 1536
Weeping and unassisted, Anne’s ladies carry her head and body the seventy yards from the scaffold to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. The dead queen is stripped of her clothes and laid in a wooden box that once held bow-staves intended to be shipped to Ireland; in the chaos of Anne’s fall, the king’s jailers and councillors forgot to prepare a proper casket.
Downriver at Greenwich, preparations begin for the new queen, Jane Seymour. She will be betrothed to the king tomorrow, married to him in ten days, crowned in two weeks; in a year and five months she will bear him a son, and she will die the only wife—according to him—he ever truly loved.
And Anne will be erased from Tudor history: until her daughter takes the throne in 1558, Anne will be a non-person, a shameful blot on Henry VIII’s already embarrassing reign.
But through it all, there will be those who remember.
AUTHOR BIO:Kathleen Danielson is a recent graduate of Carleton College. She lives in the Twin Cities with her partner and her cat, who she refuses to admit is getting chubby. She spends her newfound free time reading, knitting, sewing, and telling her cat to stop begging for food; so far, only one of those hobbies has proved a waste of time.