Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trials and Deaths of Anne Boleyn & Katherine Howard

Beheaded

At the beginning of 1536, Queen Anne (Boleyn) had been married to Henry VIII for a little more than three years. The king had already begun to tire of his wife. Henry was in love with another woman who he wanted to one day make his queen. He hoped his new love would be more successful than his current wife at producing a male heir to the throne. Henry knew his hopes for the future would remain unfulfilled, however, unless he was able to find a way to divorce Anne. He contemplated the many ways in which he could end his marriage. It wasn't long before he was presented with a solution to his matrimonial dilemma, however unconventional.

Portrait of Ann Boleyn
Portrait of Anne Boleyn

That spring, Henry allegedly heard gossip that his wife had conducted extramarital affairs with four different men, although there was no concrete evidence to support the rumor at the time. The men named were Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton. A fifth man would later be added to the list of Anne's lovers, that of her brother George, also known as Lord Rochford. Henry decided that the most efficient way to get rid of his wife was to accuse her of adultery with the men, as well as high treason. The charge of treason was for Anne's suspected conspiracy with some of her lovers to murder the king, an allegation that also lacked any supporting evidence.

According to Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, adulterous behavior by a queen was not a recognized crime. But high treason was punishable by death. Henry's scheme would prove to have devastating consequences for Anne Boleyn, which would in turn alter the course of history.

The severe charges against Anne resulted in her arrest and imprisonment in the Royal Lodgings at the Tower of London. Anne was still the queen, and a constable and five attending maidens looked after all her needs during her incarceration. The weight of the scandal brought against her, coupled with the fact that she faced imminent death, caused Anne immeasurable distress. According to Antonia Fraser's The Wives of Henry VIII, Anne suffered from a nervous breakdown, in which she was said to have alternated "between fits of weeping and fits of laughter."

The trials of the five men charged began in May 1536. They were promptly found guilty of their crimes and sentenced to an extraordinarily gruesome death. Fraser wrote that Norris, Brereton, Weston and Smeaton were ordered by the court to be hung, cut down, disemboweled, quartered and castrated. Anne's brother Lord Rochford, was sentenced to be burned and then beheaded. Later the king altered their sentence to decapitation by an axe, which was carried out. Anne was shocked and horrified by the unnecessary deaths, especially that of her brother, and she feared for her own life.

Anne's punishment for her supposed crimes came swiftly. She was stripped of her title of queen after her marriage to Henry was found to be invalid. Days later, she was found guilty of treason and adultery and sentenced to death. The method of execution ordered was decapitation by a sword.

On May 19, 1536, Anne was led from her chamber in the Tower of London to the Tower Green where her executioner awaited her. When she reached her final destination she was permitted to make a short speech before a crowd of approximately 2,000 onlookers. According to Weir, Anne said:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die according to the law and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King's Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defense doth not appertain to you. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus, I take my leave of the world and you and I heartily desire you all pray for me.

Soon after her noble speech, Anne knelt and was blindfolded by one of her attending ladies. Fraser wrote that she repeatedly murmured before her death, "To Jesus Christ, I commend my soul." Anne's head was swiftly severed from her body. Her remains were buried 20 yards from Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Anne Boleyn would be the first, but not the last of Henry's six wives to die by beheading.

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