Listen to this article:


At nine o’clock on 15 May 1536, the Great Hall at the Tower of London – part of the now lost Tudor royal palace – was thronging with some 2,000 courtiers, clerics and lawyers, all gathered to witness the trial of the century. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s notorious second wife, stood accused of adultery, incest and treason. It was the first time in history that a queen of England had been put on trial – and the proceedings resulted in her bloody end.

Her arrest, 13 days before, had sent shockwaves across the kingdom and abroad. She had been queen for a little under three years, during which time she had become increasingly unpopular with the people of England and made dangerous enemies at court: none more so than her husband.

And yet, it had all started out with such promise. Anne had been Henry VIII’s great obsession for seven long years. Driven mad by frustrated love – and lust – he had been unable to think of anything but setting aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne, who had cleverly refused to become a mere mistress. What had sharpened his appetite for her was the fact that she held out the promise of the thing he most desired in the world: a male heir. After more than 20 years of marriage, Catherine had only given him one surviving child, the princess Mary. The Tudors were still a fledgling dynasty, so Henry had been desperate to secure his throne with a son.

By the time Henry married Anne in secret in January 1533, she was already pregnant. The annulment of his first marriage had been rushed through, and Anne had arrived in triumph at the Tower at the end of May for her coronation. Henry had ordered a lavish refurbishment of the royal apartments to accommodate her – the same apartments in which she was later a prisoner. The September after her coronation, she gave birth to their first child: not the coveted male heir, but a daughter, the future Elizabeth I.

A series of miscarriages followed, the last being in January 1536, when it was said that the foetus had been well enough developed to tell that it was a boy. Already tired of Anne’s fiery nature and ‘unqueenly’ behaviour, Henry convinced himself that this marriage, too, was displeasing to God. With the help of his trusted adviser, Thomas Cromwell, he brought a case against Anne that was inspired by her flirtatious manner and coterie of male admirers. She was accused of adultery with five men – including her own brother, George – and of conspiring about the king’s death with one of her lovers. The entire case was based upon little more than rumour and gossip, but it was enough to have the queen arrested at Greenwich on 2 May and brought to the Tower to await her trial.

Anne Boleyn mourning her fate
This 1835 painting shows Anne Boleyn mourning her fate in the Tower of London after her arrest on 2 May 1536. (Image by AKG)

A family affair

As Anne walked into the Great Hall on 15 May, she would have recognised a host of familiar faces. The roll call of attendees at her trial reads like a who’s who of Tudor England. Presiding over the inquiry was Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and there is evidence to suggest that her father, Thomas Boleyn, sat on the jury. When it came to survival in Henry’s court, blood was not thicker than water.

Detailed records of the trial survive in the National Archives, nestled in their original leather pouch labelled “Baga de Secretis” (Bag of Secrets) – the official records of many important state trials. They make for salacious reading. Anne was depicted as a wanton woman who could not control her “frail and carnal lusts” and who allegedly enticed the men of Henry’s court with “kisses and touchings… to be her adulterers and concubines”. She reportedly encouraged her brother’s advances, “alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth”. With Henry Norris, she had apparently joked that if the king died, he would seek to fill “dead men’s shoes”. To speak of the king’s death, even in jest, was treason.

Although Anne was almost certainly innocent of all the charges against her – for the vast majority of the instances when Anne had apparently been unfaithful, she wasn’t even in the same place as her alleged lovers – she managed to retain her composure throughout the proceedings. When she was finally permitted to speak, she gave an eloquent and well-reasoned defence. But the odds were so heavily stacked against her that there could only be one outcome. She was found guilty of treason and condemned to be burned or beheaded at “the king’s pleasure”. Upon the delivery of the verdict, a cannon was fired from the Tower, giving the signal to Henry, who was at nearby Whitehall Palace, that his wife has been condemned.

More like this
The odds were so heavily stacked against Anne that there could only be one outcome: she was condemned to death

Henry seemed entirely unconcerned by the news. In fact, the court had never been so lively, with feasting and revels continuing late into the night. The imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, reported that the king had “daily gone out to dine here and there with ladies, and sometimes has remained with them till after midnight”. He likened it to “the joy and pleasure a man feels in getting rid of a thin old vicious hack in the hope of getting soon a fine horse to ride”.

Behind the scenes, though, Henry was making detailed plans for his estranged wife’s execution. Although the trial papers have been trawled over at length, another, lesser-known but altogether more chilling document relating to Anne’s fate is worthy of consideration: a warrant issued by the king to Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, concerning the manner in which the queen was to be dispatched. He stipulated that although Anne had been “adjudged to death by burning of fire or decapitation”, his pity led him to spare her the more painful death by burning, instead commanding “that immediately after the receipt of these presents, upon the Green within our Tower of London, the head of the same Anne shall be cut off”. Henry added that Kingston should “omit nothing” in carrying out his orders.

Although it is horrific that a man should order his wife’s execution with such apparent coldness, the fact that Henry spared Anne the more agonising death by fire was a real kindness, by the standards of the day. The Treason Act stipulated that a guilty man should be hanged, drawn and quartered, while a woman should be burned. Although this was often commuted to beheading, that was not much better; if the axe was blunt, it could take several blows to sever the head. But Henry had specified that Anne’s head should be “cut off”, which meant by sword – it would take the head off with one clean strike. This method of execution was common in France, but not in England.

Obtaining an expert executioner was the final piece in a jigsaw that Henry had been carefully laying ever since Anne’s arrest

The king had already sent for an expert swordsman from Calais before his wife’s trial even took place. The warrant, which was dated 18 May 1536, was the final piece in a jigsaw that he had been carefully laying ever since Anne’s arrest.

Killing with kindness

Henry had even gone to the trouble of ordering a new set of clothes for the swordsman. Contrary to the popular image of executioners dressed all in black with hoods covering their faces, they in fact wore garish clothes more akin to jesters so that they could be easily picked out (and avoided) by members of their local community, who feared and reviled them. Henry therefore ordered a sombre outfit for the Calais swordsman so that Anne would not be able to distinguish him from the other men gathered on the scaffold. It was another ‘kindness’, intended to spare her undue alarm.

The same was true – in part – of the stipulation that Anne should be put to death inside the walls of the Tower, rather than up on Tower Hill, the site of hundreds of public executions over the centuries. Although this spared her the baying crowds that gathered to witness each execution, this was at least as much for Henry’s benefit as hers. He did not want to risk the fallen queen attracting any support from the people. The green inside the Tower is now synonymous with executions, but Anne’s was the first officially sanctioned, pre-arranged one to be ordered there.

Anne Boleyn's execution
Anne was executed by sword, as depicted in this etching from the c17th century. Henry delivered Anne a great ‘kindness’ by sentencing her to death in this manner, as it was much quicker than execution by fire or the axe. (Image by Alamy)

The king’s attention to detail was justified, if calculating. This was the first time an anointed queen had been put to death, so it was important to get it right. The Tudors were obsessed with protocol and ceremony, and the queen’s execution was setting a precedent for any future such occasions. Anne’s successors should have taken note: Henry knew exactly what to do next time.

The effort that the king put into preparing for his wife’s execution also implies that he harboured no doubts whatsoever that it must be done. And yet, the evidence suggests that those closest to him – and Anne herself – did not believe he would really go through with it. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who knew the queen well, was utterly distraught when he heard that she had been arrested. He told Henry: “I had never [a] better opinion of [a] woman,” and he firmly believed she was innocent of any wrongdoing. The same was true of a growing number of Henry’s subjects. During Anne’s trial, which was packed with hostile courtiers, the mood had shifted in her favour thanks to the dignity and conviction with which she had refuted all the charges against her.

By 18 May, when the king had ordered her execution to proceed, there were so many supporters of Anne within the Tower that it had to be postponed for fear of unrest. Cromwell duly cleared the fortress of all those whom he suspected were sympathetic towards the fallen queen, as well as foreign diplomats who would describe the execution in their dispatches. The delay was torture for poor Anne. “I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain,” she lamented to Sir William Kingston. Her torment was heightened by the knowledge that the five men accused with her had been executed the day before on Tower Hill. From her apartments, she would have heard the roar of the crowd each time the axe fell.

Kingston likely witnessed this brutal demonstration of the king’s justice first-hand – the men had been his prisoners, after all. But it seems that he, more than any of the other officials involved, could not countenance the king taking such a shocking and unprecedented step and was sure that Henry would grant Anne a last-minute reprieve. Indeed, despite the king’s very clear instructions, when the day of her execution – 19 May – dawned, he seemed wholly unprepared.

A catalogue of blunders

What unfolded on 19 May was a catalogue of blunders. Although Henry had stipulated that his estranged wife was to be beheaded on Tower Green, the hastily built scaffold had been erected on the north side of the White Tower, opposite what is today the Waterloo Block, home of the crown jewels. Staggeringly, the gates of the Tower had been accidentally left open, and a thousand people had surged in to witness Anne’s execution – only a few of whom were supposed to be there.

At around 8.30am, Anne was escorted to the scaffold by Kingston. Eyewitnesses noted that she kept looking around her, as if hoping to see a messenger from the king carrying a royal pardon. The crowds fell silent as she mounted the scaffold and delivered her final speech. As the church bells struck nine, Anne sank to her knees and began to pray. There was no block; she was to be beheaded while kneeling. A blindfold was placed over her eyes, and she was heard to utter: “God, have pity on my soul!” After a few breaths, the executioner silently stepped forward and swung the sword above his head to gain momentum, then sliced it swiftly and cleanly through Anne’s neck. The Tower cannons fired out, giving the signal that the Queen of England was dead. Upon hearing it, the king boarded his royal barge and travelled the short distance upriver to Chelsea, where Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, was waiting for him. The very next day, the king was betrothed to her.

For Anne, there was one final indignity. In his general unpreparedness, Kingston had not thought to order a coffin. An arrow chest was therefore hastily brought from the nearby Tower armoury, and the former queen’s remains were placed in there. Three hours later, she was finally laid to rest in the Tower Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula – likely still in that same arrow chest.

Anne’s execution might have been arranged as a matter of expediency by a king desperate for a male heir, but it had profound implications for the future of the English monarchy. Never again would an anointed queen – consort or regnant – rest easy on her throne. Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, was also put to death at the king’s command. Long after Henry’s reign had ended, in February 1554, Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine days’ queen’, was beheaded in the Tower. Thirty-three years later, Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, ordered the execution of her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. And it was thanks to her mother’s fate that Elizabeth feared history might repeat itself for her, too.


This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine


Tracy Borman
Tracy BormanAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. She works part-time as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and as Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.