Anne Boleyn Executed: Was She Really Guilty of Her Crimes?

Updated on May 19, 2015
The second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn
The second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn

On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was finally executed. I say finally because it was a day later than it was supposed to be and had been delayed twice on May 18, so was likely a relief for the young Queen. Anne’s execution was by swordsman, which was the French way of this form of death and a hint that Henry VIII still respected and cared for his wife.

Did Anne Boleyn’s Actions Lead to Her Execution?

There have been some historians, such as David Starkey, who make it clear that Anne’s actions may have led to her execution. She was a stubborn woman and often said “no” to her husband. This was how she got the throne from Catherine of Aragon but became a problem for Henry VIII during their marriage.

King Henry was used to getting his own way. When he was chasing her, saying no was an invitation to try harder; it made him want her more. When she said no during their marriage, it was unattractive and often annoying. She would debate politics with him and it often caused problems in court.

Maybe it was Henry’s mistake. Henry liked to have a woman who he could debate with, and it attracted him to Anne at first. She stood up for herself and it meant many passionate arguments and reunions. She was a world apart from the other English ladies but he expected her to become one of them when she was made Queen. He expected her to change her whole personality, which is simply something that she couldn’t do (and why should she?).

Anne Boleyn’s stubbornness also caused problems with Thomas Cromwell. During the initial Dissolution of the Monasteries, Cromwell wanted all the money to go to the royal coffers; the crown's pockets. Anne wanted the money to go to the poor. She believed that the people of England should be educated – or at least have the chance to be – and not live the lives they were.

She had a lot of support in the court, especially with the reformist supporters. This caused further problems for Cromwell as he wanted more power. He needed a way to remove Anne, and her whole faction, and her stubbornness, strong-willed character was enough for Henry VIII to want to remove her too.

Wencleslas Hollar's portrait of Anne Boleyn
Wencleslas Hollar's portrait of Anne Boleyn

The Decision for a Swordsman for Anne Boleyn’s Execution

Anne was executed by sword. This was the French form of an execution and something that had never been done in England before. In fact, the execution of a queen was something that had never happened in England before, so it must have been nice for Anne to know that she was the first for two things. *Yes, that is sarcasm, there.*

Why would Anne want to be executed by sword? She loved the French and so much about it. She had spent a lot of time in the French court when she was lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and then Queen Claude afterwards. She had brought many of the French ways to the English Court, including the fashion, the extravagant parties and style.

There are other questions as to why she was executed by sword. Why would Henry VIII agree to wait longer to allow her a French death? After all, during her imprisonment, he showed no mercy. Is it possible that Henry knew that she was innocent all along and wanted to show her some mercy? This is unlikely. Eric Ives states that Henry was likely moved by pity. It does seem strange that Henry would choose to be merciful unlike when he had his friend, Thomas More, executed.

However, by deciding on death by sword, Henry must have decided weeks before that Anne would be executed. This was before her trial on May 15! Henry didn’t care if she was innocent or not; she was to be found guilty regardless.

A Change of Date for Anne Boleyn’s Execution

She was originally to be executed on May 18, the day after her brother and the other four men who were accused of adultery with her. On the morning of May 18, she declared her innocence twice – before and after taking communion – and prayed for her own salvation. She arranged for money given to her by Henry to be distributed to the poor and then prepared herself for her execution.

When Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, arrived at 9am, it was not to take her to the scaffold. He informed her that her executioner was delayed and it would take place at noon. There are different accounts as to the reason for the delay. Some historians believe that it was due to the people, who didn’t want to see their beloved Queen executed and had gathered around The Tower.

Instead of complaining about the predicament, Anne explained that she was disappointed and joked about having a little neck. She waited for a further three hours and prepared herself again, only to find out that her execution would not take place until the next day.

It must have been hard for Anne Boleyn to have to wait an extra day for death.
It must have been hard for Anne Boleyn to have to wait an extra day for death.

Anne Boleyn Finally Executed

9am on May 19, 1536 finally came and Anne Boleyn was to be executed. She made her way to the scaffold, in front of many people she would have known, including Thomas Cromwell, Charles Brandon and even Henry Fitzroy, the King’s illegitimate son. By this point, her own daughter had been made illegitimate and taken out of the line of succession, like Mary Tudor years earlier.

She made a dignified speech on the scaffold, acknowledging that she was to die according to the law. She did not admit to being guilty but she didn’t protest her innocence either. This may have been because she wanted to keep her composure, or because she feared Henry would decide that the French swordsman was not worth it and to execute her in a more painful way, such as burning at the stake or by axe.

At no point did she want to die. She was actually scared of the swordsman’s blow and begged him not to take her head off before she had finished speaking to the people. After her speech, she prayed to God to take her soul, constantly looking behind her to see when the executioner would take off her head. When her head was removed and the execution held it to the crowd, there are reports that her lips were still moving as she prayed. In fact, showing the head to the crowd was not actually for the crowd to see the head had been removed but for the prisoner to see the crowd as it takes about 5 seconds for the brain to completely shut down.

Anne Boleyn was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Peter ad Vincula. It was the burial of any common convict – not the queen that she was. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the area was renovated and her grave was found. She was one of 33 bodies out of 1,500 identified during the renovations, possible because elm wood was found with the body, as Anne was placed in an old arrow chest made of elm wood. She was re-interred in a crypt in the chapel, where she now lies with her sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn's Execution The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Jennifer Jones 

        2 years ago

        I. Have Always felt Very much drawn, to Queen. Anne Boleyn and while I feel she may have been Innocent of The Crimes she was Charge. With, I think she. Was very much Guilty of other Crimes they. Couldn't. Directly. Pin. On. Her, And, Since when was being a Manipulative, Conniving , Whoring, Usuper ever. A. Crime punishable by. Death?????? I. Guess only British. Queens. Get that. Honor..

      • profile image

        lisa 

        3 years ago

        I feel so sorry for Ann Boleyn. She seemed a kind and honest person.

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