Excerpt: Anne Boleyn's Execution from UNDER THESE RESTLESS SKIES by Lissa Bryan

At nine AM on May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed at the Tower of London, after being convicted of treason, adultery and incest. I wrote of Anne's execution in my historical novel, Under These Restless Skies.


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Anne stepped outside into the sunshine and took a deep breath. Emma did, too, of the scents of fresh green grass, warm earth, and flowers that sweetened the air. The birds twittered in the trees as the breeze rustled the leaves around them. It was a day, Emma thought, that should be remembered for its beautiful spring perfection, but instead would be remembered for this horror.

Kingston realized his charge had stopped, and he paused to turn back. At his glance, Anne started forward once more, her heavy skirts swishing on the grass behind her. Margaret Wyatt and Mistress Orchard followed close behind. Emma was glad that on this last walk Anne was surrounded by friends.

Anne held an open, tiny prayer book in her hands, but Emma didn’t think she was reading it. She kept glancing back over her shoulder, as though expecting to see a messenger racing after them, a last-minute pardon clutched in his hand. But no one came.

They strode in silence past the great hall, through the massive Coldharbor Gate, and along the west side of the White Tower.

At the corner, the scaffold came into view, surrounded by a huge crowd of spectators, except for a small path left open to the steps. Emma was tempted again to grab Anne and force their way out of the Tower, to stop her friend from walking to her own murder.

Emma expected the crowd to laugh and jeer, as they had done at the Nun of Kent’s execution, but the silence was so deep, their steps on the soft grass were audible. There were at least as many here as at the trial—a massive number beyond Emma’s ability to count—but they were as silent as a grove of trees.

Many of the highest nobles in the land were present, faces she saw every day at court. None of Anne’s family, save her uncle Norfolk and the Duchess behind her, were present. As at the trial, Norfolk and his wife did not even nod to acknowledge one another.

Anne did not look up from her book, staring at the page until she reached the steps, when she had to close it to have a hand free to lift her skirts. Kingston took her elbow to guide her, and she gave him a glance of thanks and a small smile. The edges of the scaffold had been skirted with black velvet, and on the top, the raw boards were covered with straw. The soles of Anne’s leather shoes rasped on the three unsanded wood steps as she climbed them. Emma trudged up behind her, her head swimming with a strange dreaminess, as though her mind refused to accept it and recast it as a fantasy.

Will and Emma were directed to the back of the scaffold and were joined by Margaret Wyatt, Mistress Orchard, the Duchess, and Lady Kingston. They huddled together in a small knot against the wood railing. Emma edged as far away as she could get from the executioner, who stood in the opposite corner, dressed in a dark brown leather jerkin, his face concealed beneath a black hood. When Anne reached the center of the scaffold, he knelt before her and bowed his head.

“Do you forgive me, my lady?” he asked in a heavy French accent.

“With all my heart,” Anne replied. She handed him a purse as he rose, containing his vail to ensure her quick and painless death. The king, or one of his ministers, had been thoughtful enough to send her this purse along with the one containing her alms.

“I pray you, dispatch me quickly.” She glanced over at Kingston. “But do not give the signal until I have finished what I have to say.”

Kingston looked nervous at that, as though he were worried about how it would reflect on him if she bucked all tradition and proclaimed her innocence in front of this huge crowd.

Anne surveyed the audience for a moment, her gaze lingering a moment on faces she knew. In the front row of the spectators stood Henry FitzRoy, the king’s bastard son and beside him, his wife, the Duchess’s daughter, Mary Howard. On his opposite side, Cromwell watched with impassive features. Charles Brandon scowled, his arms crossed, as though he wished to make it plain to all and sundry that he disapproved of the woman on the scaffold.

Anne’s voice echoed from the stone walls surrounding them. “Good Christian people, I am come here to die, according to the law, and I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the king . . .”

Emma lost track of her words after that. Anne said something about praying for the king and asked for the world to pardon her sins. It was the simple, graceful speech expected from a noble facing the executioner. And that was all. The silence rang loudly when she finished, without so much as a whisper from the crowd.

Emma’s breath came in short gasps, and her head swam in dizzy circles. Was this really going to happen? Was she really going to stand here and watch Anne Boleyn die?

Anne gestured Emma closer. She removed her ermine cloak first, handing it to the Duchess. To Emma’s surprise, she saw tears spring to the woman’s eyes as she stepped back. Emma’s hands shook so badly, she could not untie Anne’s hood, and so Anne did it herself, slipping it off her head to hand to Mistress Orchard. Beneath it, she wore a simple linen cap to cover her hair, bound high off her neck. Anne took the hand of the sobbing Margaret Wyatt and pressed the little prayer book into her palm. After dawn that morning, she had inscribed within it Remember me when you do pray, that hope doth lead from day to day—Anne Boleyn.

Not Anne the Quene, or even Anne Pembroke. She was now simply Anne Boleyn. She would leave this world as she came into it.

Emma fumbled as she tried to unfasten the gray gown. Anne gave her a gentle, encouraging smile, and Emma was struck by how much bravery that must have taken. She heard a collective intake of breath from the crowd as the brilliant scarlet kirtle was revealed.

Anne had said nothing against Henry in her speech, or the injustice done to her, but her choice of color spoke for her. Scarlet, the color of martyrdom, her innocence proclaimed in a brilliant flash of crimson. Emma folded the pieces of Anne’s gown one by one and laid it aside for the executioner to collect afterward. The cross was the last thing Anne removed, and that she handed to Emma. “I hope you can keep it,” she murmured. “I love you, Emma.”

Emma’s throat was too tight for speech, and she could not see Anne through the glaze of tears in her eyes. She wound the pearl necklace around her wrist and gripped the cross. Anne gave Emma a quick, hard hug before she turned to the center of the scaffold. There was no block; swordsmen didn’t use them.

Anne licked her lips and glanced over at the executioner, her voice timorous as she asked. “You will not . . . you will not do your office before I am ready?”

“No, Your Grace,” he promised.

Anne swallowed and straightened her shoulders, though her face was growing paler by the moment. “M-might I have a moment to pray?”

“Aye.”

Slowly, Anne sank to her knees onto the cushion placed atop the straw. Her hands trembled a little as she tucked her skirt with care around her feet. Emma thought at first it was to keep a breeze from immodestly exposing her legs, but the cloth of her kirtle was too heavy for that. It was to keep them covered when her body fell.

Behind Anne, Emma clutched the cross in her hand so hard it cut into her palm, but she barely noticed the pain. Her instincts screamed to her to stop this, to charge forward and save Anne, even if she had to fight off every one of the thousands of people watching. Perhaps Will knew. He laid his hands on her shoulders. She reached up with her empty hand to grasp one of them, absorbing his love like parched soil drinking the rain.

And then, something remarkable happened. The Bishop of Reiz, one of the spectators, sank to his knees, crossing himself as he bowed his head. And behind him, another man knelt as well. One by one, the thousands in the audience sank down to kneel on the grass. Even Cromwell knelt, leaving only FitzRoy and Brandon standing, staring around at the crowd in astonishment.

Nothing like it had ever happened before.

Emma wasn’t sure if Anne saw it. She hoped so, that Anne might be touched and comforted by this incredible tribute. Some were openly crying as they murmured their prayers.

This cannot happen, Emma thought. There had to be a last-minute pardon.

This cannot happen. Her panicked eyes flicked around at the crowd, hoping to spot someone charging forward with a scroll in hand, to the walls along the Tower. Her ears strained to hear pounding hooves or faint cries to wait.

Anne pressed her hands together. Emma’s preternaturally sharp eyes saw a tiny sliver of paper between them. Anne began to pray aloud, “Oh, Lord have mercy on me. To God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul. Lord Jesus, receive my soul.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. The executioner moved toward her, and when Anne heard the creak of the leather he wore, her eyes flew open in a panic. He froze when she turned her head to look back at him. Emma heard her breath hitch. Anne turned her head to face forward again, bowing it over her hands. She began to repeat her prayer but as soon as he moved again, she couldn’t help but look. Those beautiful, black eyes, which had once captured the heart of a king, were wide with swelling fear.

The executioner was merciful. He looked to Anne’s right, toward the stairs and called, “Bring me my sword!” Anne automatically turned her head toward the stairs, and that’s when he swept up the sword from where it had been hidden in the straw. Before she knew what was happening, he struck, the blade flashing down behind her.


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Under These Restless Skies is available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publisher. You can read more about the historical background of the novel on the book's blog.


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