1536: Anne Boleyn

22 comments May 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Anne Boleyn lost her head.

Any queen decapitated by her king would of course rate an entry in these grim pages. But this does not quite explain Anne Boleyn‘s enduring appeal, relevance and recognizability for the most casual of modern observers, and her concomitant footprint in popular culture, even with the “Greek tragedy” quality of her life.

Anne stands at the fulcrum of England’s epochal leap into modernity. Whether she was that fulcrum might depend on the reader’s sympathy for the Great Man theory of history, but little more do we injure our headless queen to regard her as the woman for her time and place — the accidental hero (or villain) raised up and thrown down by the tectonic forces of her milieu.

Through Anne was born — for reasons of momentary political arrangements of long-forgotten dynasts, which seems a shockingly parochial proximate cause — the English Reformation, and through the Reformation was born the crown’s decisive triumph over the nobility, the broad middle class nurtured on the spoils of Catholic monasteries, the rising Britannia fit to rule. Most would take as an epitaph historical accidents of such magnitude.

Of course, by those same accidents, Anne was the instrument of thousands of deaths herself, and little did she appear troubled in life by the corpses upon which she ascended the throne.

Her own family maps the change wrought on England. An ancestor was beheaded in the Wars of the Roses, medieval England’s last great breakdown; her uncle Thomas Howard was one of the throwback scheming Dukes, mastered by his sovereign to the extent of issuing Anne’s capital sentence from his own lips;* the beheaded woman’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, set a recognizably centralized English state on the path of empire.

Fitting tribute that, from the Tower where she met her end** to lands undreamt-of in her time, people still, like Henry, find her captivating.

[audio:http://www.bl.uk/whatson/podcasts/podcast95533.mp3]

* Anne’s father also declared for her guilt. Unprincipled as these men undoubtedly were, it cannot have been a pleasant responsibility; the question of whether she was actually guilty of adultery-cum-treason, the fatal charge extracted from a supposed lover by torture, has been hotly and inconclusively disputed by posterity.

** With a solemn speech submissive to Henry but not admitting any guilt — in an earlier moment of levity, she had famously remarked of the French swordsman hired to do the job, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Political Expedience,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Torture,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1547: Not Thomas Howard, because Henry VIII died first

8 comments January 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1547, the Duke of Norfolk was to have been beheaded.

But thanks to the previous day’s death of the corpulent 55-year-old King Henry VIII, the duke’s death warrant was never signed, and the condemned noble died in bed … seven years later.

A force in the gore-soaked arena of English politics for two generations, Thomas Howard had steered two nieces into the monarch’s bed. Both girls had gone to the scaffold,* and the disgrace of the second, Catherine Howard, brought a collapse in the whole family’s fortunes. Thomas Howard’s son Henry was not as lucky as the father: Henry was beheaded just a few days before the king succumbed, on the same charge of treason that almost claimed Thomas this day.

Though Howard pere would survive long enough to see his title restored, this day was far from the last chapter of his grasping family’s encounter with that classic Tudor denouement, the chopping-block. Thomas, his executed son, and his executed grandson today stock the family tombs at St. Michael, Framlingham — itself a sort of late monument to the aristocracy unmade by Henry’s reforms more than by his executioners.

* “She has miscarried of her savior,” Howard famously remarked of the male heir his niece Anne Boleyn delivered stillborn. A few months later, the Duke presided over Anne’s trial and voted to condemn her to death. (Hat tip: Fiz.)

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,England,Lucky to be Alive,Nobility,Not Executed,Politicians,Power,Scandal,Treason

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