May 19, 2023

Anne Boleyn’s Execution

Anne Boleyn’s Execution

May 19, 1536. After being accused of treason, adultery, and incest, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, is publicly executed.


Cold Open - Young Anne goes to France

LINDSAY: This ageless episode of History Daily originally aired on May 19, 2022.

It’s before dawn on October 2nd, 1514, in a cabin below the deck of a ship off the coast of Boulogne, France.

Anne Boleyn, the 7-year-old daughter of an English noble, clings to her father’s hand as the ship sways in the wind of a raging storm. The Boleyn family is traveling to France along with several other nobles for a special occasion: the wedding of King Henry VIII’s sister. But Anne is afraid they’ll never make it to French shores.

Anne clutches her father’s hand tighter as thunder claps overhead. In the midst of the violent tempest, the wind thrusts the ship into shallow water… where it scrapes against the ocean floor.

Anne screams and hugs her father’s leg, as she hears men shouting from the deck above. They’re worried the ship might be punctured and it could start taking on water. Before Anne knows what’s happening, her father scoops her up and carries her out of the cabin and onto deck, followed by the rest of the Boleyn family.

There, they climb into a rowboat that crewmen then lower into the rough seas. Anne holds her father close and shuts her eyes tight, as the tiny vessel fights through choppy waves, and finally finds its way to shore.

Anne Boleyn has arrived in France. She might not realize it yet, but this country is her new temporary home, and her time here will shape the rest of her life.

At the request of her father, Anne spends her formative years in the courts of French royal houses. Anne’s education in France is said to make her indiscernible from a high-born native Frenchwoman, and she develops what one historian will call a French courtier’s skill for “rampant eroticism.”

In early 1522, as a teenager, Anne returns to England and becomes a lady-in-waiting to King Henry VIII’s wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon. The beguiling Anne quickly catches the eye of the King, and before long, Henry will abandon Catherine and make Anne his new Queen.

But Anne will discover that being married to King Henry is a dangerous proposition. And when Anne and Henry’s relationship sours, the King’s men will accuse Anne of treason, adultery, and incest. Anne Boleyn will be found guilty and confined to the Tower of London until she is publicly executed on May 19th, 1536.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 19th, 1536: Anne Boleyn’s Execution.

Act One: Anne is Crowned Queen

It’s Saturday, May 31st, 1533 in London, England. One day before Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen.

Anne beams as four knights carry her through the city streets on a gold and white litter, a transport fit for a queen that allows Anne to recline on a luxurious bed. Anne is overjoyed, but she’s also exhausted. She’s several months pregnant with her first child, and the many days of celebration leading up to her coronation have worn her out. Anne is ready to take her crown, enjoy some rest, and put the ugliness of the past several years behind her.

In order to marry Anne and make her his Queen, King Henry VIII cast aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and their daughter, Princess Mary. This decision angered many of Henry’s own subjects, who remain loyal to Catherine and Mary.

The decision also angered the Catholic Church, which refused to grant Henry an annulment. So, Henry spilt with the Catholic Church, named himself the head of a new Church of England, and got the approval he wanted from his highest-ranking Archbishop.

And now, Anne hopes her coronation will quell the growing anger in the country and endear her to the English people. Reclining on her litter, she rests her hand on her stomach, which she now believes carries the future King of England. Anne smiles and waves as her royal procession approaches a large gathering of people. But when Anne sees the crowd’s disposition, her smile disappears. Anne hoped the crowd would cheer, throw their caps in the air, and proclaim their love for her. But all Anne sees are people staring back in silence. Most refuse to remove their caps at all, a clear sign of disrespect.

Anne tries to regain her composure as she’s led through the city. She hopes things will go better tomorrow when she’s taken to Westminster Abbey to be anointed and crowned Queen.

Luckily, Anne’s hopes come to fruition. After her majestic coronation, Anne hosts a fantastic feast complete with food, wine, dancing, and music. Celebrations spill over into the following days and Anne is left with high hopes for the future. She feels confident that she will win over even her most ardent skeptics when she gives Henry the healthy male heir that Catherine of Aragon never could.

Anne has reason to believe the baby she’s carrying is a boy. The King’s doctors have said as much, and court astrologers have supported the doctors’ claims. Henry and Anne are so confident in this that they have birth announcements created to welcome Henry’s son and heir. The Royal Couple also call for a huge celebration and jousting tournament to be held in honor of the birth of the new prince.

As the day approaches, Anne bids Henry farewell and goes into confinement, as is the custom of the time. During this period, no men, including the King, are allowed into Anne’s chambers. But while Anne rests, she hears distressing news: that her husband has taken up with another woman.

Anne is not a fool. She knows kings have affairs. She herself attracted Henry’s favor while he was still married. But the news of Henry’s latest dalliance strikes Anne with fear. She worries that if Henry’s eye wanders too far, he might get rid of her, just like he did with Catherine.

Anne tries to remain calm for the sake of the baby in her belly. She holds strong to the belief that when she gives Henry a son, all will be well. But soon, Anne will learn that the doctors and astrologers were wrong.

On September 7th, 1533, Anne gives birth to a happy, healthy baby, but a girl. Upon hearing the news, Henry flies into a rage. The jousting tournaments and celebrations are canceled.

But Henry’s initial anger quickly wanes. As Anne dotes on their daughter, Henry can’t help but fall in love with the little girl who has red hair just like her father. Anne and Henry christen the baby, Elizabeth. The newborn child is celebrated as the Princess of England. And eventually, she is named heir to the throne, leaping over her older half-sister Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon.

And Anne is a loving and protective mother to Elizabeth. Still, she knows that to solidify her position as Queen, she must give Henry a son. But as Anne struggles to provide a male heir, she again watches as Henry’s affections turn to another woman. Before long, many of Henry’s advisors, and the people of England, will make it clear that they do not want Anne Boleyn for their Queen, and King Henry VIII might agree.

Act Two: Tensions rise between Anne and Henry

It’s late 1533 in Hertfordshire, England.

Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, prays in a small Catholic church. Being here behind these sacred walls is one of the only ways Mary finds respite from the anger she feels on a daily basis.

After the birth of Elizabeth, Mary was forced from her home, and put under the charge of Anne Boleyn’s aunt. And though she’s been officially stripped of her title, the rebellious young woman still refers to herself as Princess Mary. She calls her mother Queen Catherine, and she refuses to acknowledge her infant half-sister Elizabeth as the heir to the throne. Mary’s actions have made her a hero to much of the English public, especially her fellow Catholics.

In church, Mary finishes praying and then heads outside. When she sees a crowd of townspeople gathered out front to see her, a smile forms on her lips. The crowd cheers for her as if she is their queen.

But news of the adoring crowd reaches Ann Boleyn's ears. And when she hears it, she’s enraged, venting her anger to one of the few people she truly trusts: her older brother, George. Anne tells George that she finally feels like the aging Catherine of Aragon isn’t a threat to her status as Queen. But now, instead, she’s forced to deal with Catherine’s daughter, Mary. George listens as he always does, and urges Anne to think carefully about her next move.

Anne doesn’t let anger cloud her judgment. Instead of lashing out at Mary, she decides to try and form an alliance. Anne knows if Mary publicly acknowledges her as Queen, it will gain Anne much-needed support among English Catholics.

So in January of 1534, Anne writes to Mary with a proposition: if Mary agrees to acknowledge her as Queen, Anne will convince the King to restore Mary’s title as Princess and give her a life befitting a royal.

But Mary’s response is not what Anne is hoping for. Mary writes that her mother is the only Queen of England. But she does say she’d be appreciative if Anne, the “King’s mistress,” spoke to the King on her behalf to have her title restored. After reading Mary’s barbed reply, Anne realizes that Mary will never be an ally, and she fears the people’s loyalty to her stepdaughter Mary makes her own position as Queen vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Anne’s marriage is falling apart. Henry continues to engage in affairs with various women, and Anne’s objections to his infidelity are not well met by the King. Henry says Anne needs to do what all good queens should:  “close her eyes and ignore his affairs”. 

But Anne struggles to sit idly by while her husband falls into one woman’s bed after another. And in 1535, Anne loses patience when Henry falls for one of her own ladies-in-waiting: Jane Seymour.

Making matters worse, some of Henry’s advisors now see the people’s dislike of Anne as a threat to the monarchy; they fear the anger growing among the populace could spark a revolution. Anne is desperate to find stronger footing. She knows there’s only one way to secure her position: to give Henry a male heir.

And in the fall of 1535, Anne falls pregnant again. She hopes and praise the baby will be the answer to her problems. But in January of the following year, after just three months of pregnancy, Anne’s baby is stillborn. When Henry discovers the baby was a boy, he is distraught. He reportedly says to Anne, “God does not wish to give me male children.” But soon, Henry convinces himself that he and God aren’t the problem; Anne is.

For a time, Henry loved Anne for her fierce intelligence and headstrong nature. But after she loses the baby, Henry finds these same qualities revolting. He no longer believes Anne can give him a male heir. He wants to move on with his life and marry his new love: Jane Seymour. And many of Henry’s closest advisors are more than happy to facilitate the process.

They want the troublesome Anne gone, and to win back the opinion of the people, but they also want to ensure that Henry’s next marriage is viewed as legitimate. So they concoct a scheme to besmirch Anne’s character in a way that no one will question Henry’s need for a new wife.

They accuse Anne of having affairs, including with her own brother, George. They even go so far as to say that Anne conspired with some of her lovers to try and murder the King.

And these men, Anne’s alleged lovers are tortured into confessing their crimes and casting guilt on Anne before they are put to death. And then on May 2nd, 1536, Anne is arrested and sequestered at the Tower of London where she awaits trial. Soon, she will be found guilty, stripped of her title as Queen, and sentenced to public execution.

Act Three: Anne’s execution

It’s May 19th, 1536 outside the Tower of London.

Anne Boleyn steps onto the scaffold that has been erected for her execution. She wears a gray nightgown lined with fur and a cap over her hair. But Anne’s neck remains exposed. She looks out over the gathered crowd and tries to muster the courage to speak.

At trial, Anne proclaimed her innocence, but she wasn’t allowed to have witnesses come to her defense. Anne knows it wouldn’t have made a difference. The guilty verdict was a forgone conclusion. Now, Anne’s only hope is to die with dignity.

On the scaffold, Anne addresses the public one last time, saying “I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you… And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”

Anne takes off her cap and kneels before the French executioner who has been summoned for the job. She prays he’ll live up to the reputation French executioners have for providing fast, clean deaths.

Then Anne signals that she’s ready. The executioner raises his sword, and Anne allegedly utters her final words, “To Christ, I commend my soul.” The sword cuts through the back of Anne’s neck, and the former Queen of England’s head rolls across the scaffold.

Following her death, Anne’s enemies at court, and in the Catholic Church, use her supposed acts of adultery and treason to destroy her reputation. For decades, Anne will be vilified. And many will claim that she was never anything but the “King’s concubine”; others will go so far as to say she was a witch.

But even as Anne is reviled, her intelligence and ambition survive. In January 1559, Anne’s daughter is crowned Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s reign elevates England as an economic and military power, and gives rise to works of art and theater that will live on for centuries. Ann Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, will come to be seen as one of the most successful monarchs in English history.

And her story will force historians to revisit the downfall of her mother, Anne Boleyn, once painted as a witch, a harlot, or a heartless schemer who almost destroyed England, will come to be seen as a woman whose only sins were being intelligent, driven, and giving birth to a girl instead of a boy; supposed sins that were punished by a cruel King who sent her to her death on May 19th, 1536.


Next on History Daily. May 22nd, 2002. A jury in Birmingham, Alabama convicts former Ku Klux Klan member of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, resolving one of the most shocking cases of the civil rights era.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.