I wrote this to commemorate the 476th anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn, 19th May 1536.
18th May 1536
Heaven! It seems so near I could touch it. All around me is beautifully, bright and blue. The sky links hands with the sea, both so clear and pure. So pure I expect some unknown force to dispel me in case the blackness of my soul should taint it. This journey I am on carries my soul to hell. I am not a philosophical or superstitious man. I am not a bad man. As a matter of fact until three days ago I believed myself a righteous man, making my living ridding the world of tortured souls, providing well for my family. I never considered the consequences of my living. Until three days ago I took great pride in the knowledge that I am considered an expert in my field, thus I am commissioned by Kings and Emperors. Until three days ago, sleep came easy. However, sleep now evades me. I lay on my bunk tilting and swaying with the ocean, my mind engulfed in doom. The rats below decks are gnawing their way through to my cabin, they would gnaw at my throat while I slept, even they sense that the journey I take is against God’s natural order. Three days ago I received a commission that will see my soul doomed forever. Tomorrow’s sunrise will be the last I will experience as a virtuous man. My name is Jean Rombaud. I deal in death. On the morrow I will become a Queen slayer!
The sun is setting as my vessel comes into port. The landscape is basked in majestic reds and gold’s as though painted in honour of the King himself. The masts of the carrack that carried me appear to be touched by Midas. As we reach our destination however, I am engulfed in shadow. I enter the Tower via Traitors Gate. Dank, darkness engulfs me yet this feels more fitting for my purpose. I feel at ease in the dark. I am met by a steward who shows me to a small room with food and drink waiting for me. I manage a little bread and pork and take a few swags of wine. The Constable of the Tower, Mr Kingston, comes presently and confirms my doom. Queen Anne has been found guilty of her crimes and has been condemned to die by my sword. I wish the King was not so merciful, is the first thought to enter my tortured mind. Her crimes normally incite death by burning, to cleanse the soul, so they say. My commission demonstrates that this is no ordinary execution, this is an execution fit for royalty. This is an execution against God’s natural order and as Executioner; I will become the criminal – in God’s eyes at least.
I retire to my sleeping quarters with the hope that a little wine will induce sleep. Alas it does not come easy.
19th May 1536
I rise well before the sun. I pace my room while tortured thoughts pace my mind. I try to console myself that this is just a job. I see the gratitude in my wife’s eyes when I present my generous purse, then see the disappointment when she looks in my eyes and sees the blood that prevents us from eternal unity. I see my sons proud of the father who has been commissioned by the King of England, and then I see the words ‘the sins of the father’ emblazoned on their foreheads. Even my sword taunts me as I polish it, “La main droite, c’est mon signeur. La vertu, L’amour, Le Mort”. As the sun rises I ask the Lord for forgiveness for what I am about to do.
It is almost time. I seek out the chaplain but am informed he has been with the Queen for some time. I return to my chamber and kneel by my bed. I pray for forgiveness one last time before departing on the road to hell and condemnation.
The bright morning sun is at odds with the darkness in my heart when I step out to the courtyard. Again I am reminded that this is no ordinary execution in the setting. A scaffold has been erected by the White Tower, within the walls, only a privileged audience will witness my crime. As I make my way over to the scaffold I pray silently, asking God to allow me to carry out my task with the dignity the Queen deserves. I ascend the steps, the newness of the wood teases my nostrils and I am momentarily transported to the carpenter’s workshop near my home in St Omer, oh how I wish I was back there now. There is fresh straw carpeting the floor, aiding the clean-up process. I take my position like an actor treading the boards. My sword I unsheathe, careful this time not to catch sight of the inscription. The sun catches the shaft making it gleam like a precious jewel, not a bringer of death. I choose my spot and gather straw into a mound beside my left foot, I conceal my sword beneath it. Content that my method of execution will be as dignified for the Queen as possible, I take in the surroundings. For now the space is sparse, fresh straw scattered under foot. The air is crisp, but not cold. The atmosphere is calm, betraying the forthcoming events that will be imprinted in the stone walls for eternity.
Crowds of selected people start to gather, members of the Kings Privy Council are present, eager to convey the news back to the King that he is free. Free! If only I could claim the same. The air is warmer and the scent has changed, as the crowd grows. I feel easier now; this is what I am familiar with, the growing buzz in the atmosphere. The air is heavy with excited anticipation, well it’s not every day an Englishman witnesses their Queens head roll over fresh straw at the sword of a Frenchman. Despite my uneasiness I appear calm. I am lost in the bustle of the crowd, for a moment it is just a normal working day for me.
Then a hush followed by a buzz of voices travels through the crowd. I look up and am brought back to reality abruptly. Making their way through the crowd is the Constable of the Tower flanked by his officials. Behind him, flanked by three of her maids of honour, a role she once played herself to two French queens, is Queen Anne. She wears a grey damask gown and an exquisite ermine mantle. For all those present she looks like she is taking a stroll round the palace not walking to her death. She wears a devilish smile and appears carefree.
As she climbs the scaffold I notice her red petticoat peeking out beneath her gown. Her slender neck is adorned with a garland of pearls. She takes her own position, as if perfectly rehearsed and addresses the crowd,
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”
Throughout her speech, I still my nerves. I have the all the images in my mind I had earlier, my wife, my sons, God. I battle with them and manage to compose myself outwardly, for I must do this with a steady hand; it was my skill at carrying out executions swiftly and cleanly that got me here after all. She turns to me, and I see why she was described as the Rival of Venus when she was at the French court. Her eyes, dark and sumptuous, do not betray her thoughts. She passes me her purse, the very same that I will pass to my wife on my return. She resumes her position and her maids remove her headdress and jewellery. Her mantle is shed. A tearful maid places a white bonnet on her head and tucks a rogue strand of raven hair under. I kneel before her and ask forgiveness for what I am about to do, she gracefully grants it. I resume my position and take deep breaths to steady myself. The queen kneels before the block and begins to pray, ‘To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul.’ With perfect posture, she doesn’t flinch as she is blindfolded.
No one has yet laid eyes on the tool that will remove her head. I retrieve the sword now she is spared the sight of it. My heart is steadied now, as is my hand, as the professional in me takes centre stage. I shout in the direction to the left of the Queen asking an imaginary boy to “bring my sword”. Instinctively the Queens head turns in the direction of my command unknowingly offering my sword the best striking point. In a swift, professional, time perfected movement, my sword slices the air. As her head is removed it continues to pray.
In the precise moment that my sword met her skin my mind is engulfed in darkness. The hush of the crowd slowly ascends back to normal voices and they disperse to carry on with their day. The show is over. The King’s men take leave to deliver their news. In minutes I am alone apart from those charged with clearing away the bloody straw.
20th May 1536
I board a carrack bound for home. My purse is full, as is my belly. I drink in the view of a beautiful, bright, blue sky linking hands with the ocean, both so clear and pure. Heaven seems so close I could physically touch it. I take solace that Queen Anne Boleyn will already be there, dancing and singing in the court of the Lord.
Heaven! So near yet so far.