What Did She See?

The life of Anne Boleyn is well-known – her lethal fame, the circumstances of her downfall; her public death:  the French sword, her bloody denouement.  Her queenly career is well-known: bearing the brunt of England’s hatred, riding to her coronation through a rain of spittle and jeers.  Her husband is well-known:  broad and muscular, red and gold, marbled with fat – a royal butcher.  Henry VIII was still young, and for a while had hopes that his dark wife would bear him a son.

And Anne did bear him a child – but a girl.  And she is well-known, too.  Pale and angular, with intellectual energies burning her into a skeleton, Elizabeth grew to be a brilliant ruler, a devastating opponent, a maddening personality.  But that would be in the future.  When she lay at Anne’s side, flushed and swaddled, she was only a disappointment.

The face of Anne Bolen is well-known:  the eyes as feral and dangerous as a jungle, the currents of black hair that flowed down her back like a thick, depthless river, the skin that her admirers called ‘olive’ and her detractors described as ‘jaundiced’.

Her career was infamous – tantalizing, tormenting and teen-aged, a spirited girl moving with ease through the predatory courts of Francis I and Henry VIII.  Without shame, and full of spirit, amongst the young men she was the stuff of legend.

Anne’s death is known to all – the first ‘beheaded’ in the old litany of Henry’s wives: ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’.  Her request for a sword, a blade with would swipe quickly through her neck.  The moment when she grasped her neck between her hands, telling her handlers that she had ‘but a little neck’.  Her hair piled in careful cords by her ladies, so as not to impede the headsman’s work.

These images are familiar.  But they are still things that are read, stationary visions framed by words in a book.  There is nothing that makes the miraculous leap from page to heart.  There is nothing that will place Anne Boleyn within the warmth, the closeness of your mind.

Sometimes it is a small thing that will bring a distant tragedy, to brilliant, thrilling life.

Witnesses to Anne’s beheading say that before she knelt before the block, she repeatedly looked behind her.  A simple act – but something that can be shared; it is something we all do, not a thing only relegated to a doomed queen.

What did she see?  What did she hear?  Did she hear her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, in the crowds?  Did she see him – the glint of his chain of office?  Did she think she heard a messenger – perhaps with the king’s reprieve?  Did she hear the soft weeping of her ladies?

And suddenly, at the end of her life, Anne Boleyn suddenly comes alive.  And we are suddenly near her, pressed against the scaffold, holding handkerchiefs aloft, reading to catch the blood of a tragic, misjudged queen.

AnneSignature

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7 responses to “What Did She See?

  1. I had no idea she was Elizabeth I’s mother. Huh. Learn something new every day! I need to know more about her. The more I hear the more intrigued I am! Thank you for sharing!

  2. i have always ben fascinated by anne boleyn, her story, her life.
    and i have asked myself these questions, too.
    what did she feel in the last days and hours of her life? did she have someone she talked to? or was she literally all by herself?

    thank you for sharing your thoughts ❤

  3. This was terribly distressing to read – because, of course, I was reading it through the lens of recent events in London. We tend to think of beheading as historical curiosity, while of course it isn’t. From the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan to the murder of the British soldier, it’s all around us.

    Maybe Anne Boleyn was looking at us, urging us to pay attention.

  4. I just started reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which is interesting not because one doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but because of the way Mantel describes Boleyn’s downfall through the eyes of the rising Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s secretary. Anne is regarded with very little sympathy—ambitious and ruthless, clever in a feral way. She would have made a great politician in another era; unfortunately for her, women in her time could only hope to gain power through marriage to a powerful man. But what a man she hooked her star to.

    I suspect she was hoping for a last-minute reprieve, that Henry might spare her for the sake of their daughter. It must have been a cruel moment when she realized none was forthcoming.

  5. *shivers*

    that signature…….

    breathtaking to see it.

    thank you dear aubrey for This!

  6. Her story, as well as so many others like hers — “dangerous”, cast women doomed to slaughter in these extreme patriarchal societies — has always greatly affected me… Thanks for sharing it in such a personal way.

  7. This account brings back memories of the 1969 movie, Anne of the Thousand Days, which I must have seen when I was about twelve years old. Richard Burton played King Henry VIII and Geneviève Bujold was Anne Boleyn. I imagined the horror of contemplating and deciding the method of one’s own execution. And tried to comprehend the mindset of a dogmatic patriarchal culture that would drive a man to murder in order to bend the rules. To realize that women were once thought to be dispensable property, pawns used and discarded at the whims of their owners. Sigh… And now I wonder, too, what she was seeing when she kept looking behind her. Perhaps it was an angel no one else could see, come to give her courage.

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