How does the run-up to 19 May and Anne Boleyn’s execution make you feel? Having celebrated the joyful anniversary of her proclamation as queen at Greenwich on Easter day in 1533, the mood turns. Those of us loyal to this most courageous of women are plunged into sadness as the countdown begins to her execution.
The betrayal and bitter sadness of it all weighs heavy. We think of Anne’s desperation, terror and grief at being parted from everything and everyone who mattered to her. How alone she must have felt! But is this the whole story? Maybe not…Maybe there is a glimmer of hope in among the tragedy. The following may well be the surprising truth about her last moments. It is a story of hope, and in the run-up to the annual anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn, perhaps it might prompt us to think of her differently in those last few days and hours of her life.
‘Never had the queen looked so beautiful…’
There has always been something that has intrigued me about Anne’s final hours in this world – her incredible courage and profound serenity in the face of her imminent oblivion. It is almost impossible to imagine the sheer terror, the desolation and the sense of utter betrayal that she must have felt as the shocking events of May 1536 unfolded to their dramatic climax.
We know from the reports of those around Anne during those final few days that she experienced periods of fluctuating mood, sometimes tending toward hysteria and that, as Anne Boleyn’s execution approached, she slept only a little. So one might imagine that when Anne finally emerged to make her last walk from the queen’s apartments to the scaffold, she would have looked frail and exhausted, haunted even at the horror of what lay ahead.
Yet surprisingly, what we know from contemporary sources does not suggest that this was the case. I have always been strangely fascinated by the words of a Portuguese witness who afterwards wrote an account of the events on that May morning saying that, ‘Never had the queen looked so beautiful’. Another account from De Carles stated that the queen ‘went to her execution with an untroubled countenance’. How is this possible? What was happening here?
I had always assumed Anne’s state of mind on 19 May 1536 was as a result only of her renowned courage and her deep religious piety. Whilst these two factors were of undoubted significance, I have recently come across what I believe may be an even more convincing and comprehensive explanation for Anne’s appearance and behaviour.
Anne Boleyn’s Execution: Out of the Darkness…
In his excellent book, Out of the Darkness, the renowned transpersonal psychologist, Steve Taylor, gives a fascinating insight into a phenomenon which he calls, SITEs – Suffering Induced Transformational Experiences. As the name suggests, these are profound shifts in consciousness which occur usually as a result of an individual experiencing significant trauma or turmoil.
As I hope to describe in this article, there are some fascinating and tantalising indicators which suggest that at some point during her final hours on Earth – and facing the inevitability of her death – Anne Boleyn underwent such a transformation and this radically altered her state of mind. It is clear from Taylor’s account that individuals who have experienced such ‘high-intensity awakening experiences’ as he calls them, radiate an aura of profound peace. Was it this that the Portuguese witness saw in Anne Boleyn as she made her way to the scaffold?
However, before examining the evidence, we need to cover some basic psychological concepts in order to that we can make sense of what might have happened to Anne. We need to understand the psychology of the self and how intense trauma paves the way for SITEs to occur.
Understanding Anne Boleyn’s Transformation
Taylor describes that the self takes two forms; the ego, which is our conditioned sense of self, and a deeper, ‘real’ self, also known as the soul. The ego is a fragile concept. Through the accumulation of positions and possessions, we constantly seek to reinforce our sense of self through our status, wealth, plans and ambitions etc.; the more we have, the more we feel in control, and stronger and more secure our ego becomes. When any aspect of our sense of self is threatened, we usually experience fear on a scale that ranges from anxiety to terror, depending upon the extent of the threat which faces us.
Clearly, when an individual faces imminent death, as Anne did, this fear-based response becomes heightened to the extreme. When we face our demise, we are forced to confront the loss of our dreams, hopes, status, family, and friends etc. This can lead to a ‘psychotic breakdown’ (or nervous breakdown) of the type that was recorded in the case of Lady Rochford who went mad in the face of her own pending execution in 1542.
More unusually, a person may experience a ‘break up’ as the ego disintegrates and a new sense of self emerges; a sense of self which is fearless and profoundly peaceful. Facing her demise, Anne’s whole identity would have been swept away and as Taylor states, it is ‘at this point of devastation and desolation you are, paradoxically, close to a state of liberation’. In modern parlance, we call this ‘enlightenment’.
So what evidence do we have to suggest that such transformation occurred? As I have already mentioned, we know that at the beginning of her imprisonment, Anne suffered from periods of intense, fluctuating mood which, from time to time, bordered on near hysteria.
Yet by 18 May, Anne Boleyn’s execution was delayed for a second time and she was noted as saying to Master Kingston, Captain of the Tower of London, that it was ‘not that she desired death, but that she thought herself prepared to die’ (De Carles). It seems to me that Anne had reached a deep sense of acceptance and possibly genuine fearlessness, typical in such cases.
Finally, we’ve already touched on the accounts of eyewitnesses who described Anne’s peaceful countenance and radiant beauty. In fact, one account says that as Anne stepped onto the scaffold she was ‘as gay as if she were not going to die’. Again, this is characteristic of someone who has undergone a SITE.
What is also intriguing is the classical type of person that Taylor describes is most likely to experience a SITE. I think the parameters that he identifies closely describe what we know of Anne’s character:
- Individuals are often courageous and tend towards realism: We know that Anne was noted for her courage. As Ambassador Chapuys noted in 1530, she was, ‘braver than a lion’. We also often read of Anne being incredibly pragmatic, ready to face situations that arose head-on – and with no sense of squeamishness.
- The need to be in control. Anne lived in a world controlled by men. Yet, I believe she was an alpha female, who took her fate into her own hands and strove with great resolve to bring about that which she desired, (note the falcon on her badge, adopted after she became queen, which symbolises, ‘one who does not rest until the objective is achieved’). Part of the reason that Henry fell in love with Anne was, of course, her strong personality.
- ‘Right brainers’; i.e. people with a strong creative bent. We certainly know that Anne was incredibly creative. She enjoyed writing poetry, writing music, dancing and singing. Even in her dress, it was noted that she ‘everyday make some change in the fashion of her garments’ (Wyatt, Papers, v.p.141) Taylor suggests that such individuals have an intuitive personality and are highly emotional. This predisposes them to an intense response to trauma. There is plenty of evidence of Anne’s intemperance and that she was highly strung.
- Finally, gender also plays a part. Women are more likely to experience SITEs in relationship to bereavement, illness and disability. Anne was not only facing her own death but two days prior to this had possibly witnessed the execution of her own brother. She certainly knew of it. In her own death, she also faced separation from her beloved daughter, Elizabeth. Taylor states that women, on the whole, have a weaker sense of ego – and therefore, it is more vulnerable to being blown apart by severe trauma.
Of course, this is a theory that can never be proven. However, given these predisposing factors and what we know about eyewitness accounts of Anne’s state of mind in the run-up to, and immediately before, her execution, I think it is worthy of consideration that something profound and amazing happened to Anne Boleyn in those final few days and hours. So that, to use her own words, she was able to say to the Constable of the Tower, Master Kingston, when he came to inform her that the hour of her death was upon her, ‘Acquit yourself of your charge for I have long been prepared’.
Whether Anne experienced the highest intensity awakening experience possible or a partial but significant shift, I do not know. However, as the anniversary of her execution approaches, I would like to think that Anne walked to her death a more fully liberated woman, and at last, having found a profound sense of peace.
It is something that we can hold onto during these dark weeks running-up to Anne Boleyn’s execution. I hope that with the possibility in mind, you and I, and all those who hold Anne in their hearts can be inspired by her example and live more fearlessly – for what greater legacy could she leave us?
Note: For a full explanation of the SITE phenomenon see, Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation by Steve Taylor. 2011. HayHouse.