One of the most frequently quoted accounts of Anne’s last night on Earth was a letter Chapuys wrote to Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a leading advisor of Charles V:
‘The night before her beheading the Lady Anne chattered in the most playful way in the world, and among other things she said that those glorious and ingenious people who have invented an unheard of name for the good Queen will not struggle to find her one because they could call her ‘la Royne Anne sans tete’ (Queen Anne without a head), and saying such a thing, she laughed so hard that such a thing had never been seen, knowing all the same that she would die the next day without any remedy.’
(La veille de sa décapitation, la dame Anne s’est mise à bavarder de la manière la plus ludique du monde et entre autres, elle a dit que ces gens glorieux et ingénieux qui ont forgé un nom inouï pour le bon Royne ne l’empêcheront pas de lui en trouver un parce qu’il pourrait appelez-la la Royne Anne sans tete et disant une telle chose, se mit à rire si fort qu’une telle chose ne s’était jamais vue, sachant bien tout de même qu’elle mourrait le lendemain sans aucun remède.)
As striking as this account is, we should not take it at face value.
This letter was not written until almost three weeks later; though he was sending almost daily dispatches during this period, Chapuys does not mention this scene until the 6th June. This is the only source of this story. Although we know that one of the ladies attending Anne was reporting back to Chapuys, the ladies were also reporting back to William Kingston, the man in charge of Anne during her time in the Tower. Kingston wrote frequently to Thomas Cromwell, often several times a day, about Anne’s behaviour and anything she said. If Anne had made such a joke, we would expect to read about it in one of Kingston’s letters.
Actually, Kingston does make a similar report of Anne’s mood on her final night:
‘And at my comynge she sayd, ‘Mr. Kyngston, I h[ear say I shall] not dy affore none, and I am very sory therfore, for I thowt[h to] be dede [by this time], and past my payne.’ I told hyr it shuld be now payne, it [was so sotell. And then she said, ‘I] heard say the executor was very gud, and I have a lyt[el neck,’ and put he]r hand abowt it, lawynge hartely. I have sene [many men and a]lso wemen executed, and al thay have bene in gre[at sorrow, and to my knowle]ge thys lady hasse mech joy and plesure in dethe.’
(And at my coming, she said ‘Mr. Kingston, I hear say I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry indeed, for I thought to be dead by this time, and past my pain.’ I told her there should be no pain. And then she said ‘I hear say the executor was very good, and I have a little neck,’ and put her hand about it, laughing heartily. I have seen many men and also women executed, and all they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowlede, this lady has much joy and pleasure in death.’
Given that Kingston’s letter was written on the same day, and was the person to whom the comment was addressed, and Chapuys’ version was a second-hand account written several weeks later, clearly his account is much more reliable.
However, though the details of the event differ, they convey a similar sentiment, and both are supposed to have occurred on the 18th May. What I think is likely is that a rumour circulated about Anne’s comment to Kingston, and the details that Chapuys described were either created by one of the intermediaries or by Chapuys himself – almost like a twisted game of telephone.
We can only imagine the horrific prospect that Anne faced. Although many had faced the same fate she did, that does not diminish what she went through. Was it her strength of character that allowed her to joke in such a manner? Hysteria? A disconnected sense of surrealism? We can only speculate.