Beheaded

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IT IS OUR LAST full day in London, my daughter Melissa and me. We take an Uber to the Tower of London and book the hour-long Beefeater tour. The guide is dressed as a guardsman in a red suit, trimmed in gold, and a tall black hat. He cracks jokes on the lawn that used to be the castle’s moat — jokes about the plague and the lack of modern amenities and the beheadings. We laugh, blissfully unaware that we are less than two years away from a plague of our own. It is an unusually warm summer day in London. California weather, ironically. My daughter and I are enjoying our trip, excited to be in a different country, the day filled with possibilities. I am exhilarated.

The guide shows us the White Castle, the Crown Jewels, the battle turrets. When we come upon the Tower Green Monument, my mood changes. The monument stops me cold. This is not the spot where Anne Boleyn was executed, but we are surrounded by her death. Boleyn was beheaded by sword on May 19, 1536, at the age of 35, in a spot that is visible from the monument, to the right of where we are standing. It is now a tourist-filled walkway between the White Tower and the building where the Crown Jewels are kept. Boleyn’s body lies within the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, just behind the monument and directly in front of us. Behind and to the left of us, the prison towers rise — the Beauchamp Tower, the Bloody Tower, the Bell Tower — the cramped quarters where Boleyn and so many others awaited their deaths, prayed for mercy, witnessed the executions of their friends through grated windows the size of postcards, scratched their names and their last words into the stone walls. “The bell tower showed me such sight / That in my head sticks day and night,” the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote in 1536 from a prison cell overlooking the Tower Green. He was imprisoned with Boleyn and is said to have witnessed her execution. “These bloody days have broken my heart.”

I feel a kinship with Anne Boleyn, with women whose portraits will not end up in the National Portrait Gallery for their accomplishments. Women whose only accomplishment was having survived for a brief period of time in a world which did not belong to them. The monument jolts me from a sleep, reminds me that here a man ordered his wife’s head severed from her body without remorse. The crimes of which Boleyn was accused hardly matter. Her biggest crime was not holding her king’s attention.

In her book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, anthropologist Frances Larson writes that beheading another human being is an act requiring feelings of both distance and superiority. In the 1500s, King Henry VIII was already superior to any woman by virtue of his birth as a man. Perhaps not so different from today, I think, except the optics have changed. But he was also born a Tudor and became the king of England. In terms of privilege, entitlement, and appetite, I picture him a 16th-century Donald Trump.

At one time, Henry was so infatuated with Boleyn that he broke with the Catholic Church in order to marry her. Three years and three miscarriages later, his feelings had cooled. I imagine King Henry VIII going through the mental gymnastics necessary to distance oneself from a former lover, the rationalizations required to convince oneself the leaving is justified, the cruelty needed to cut the ties, to harden the heart, to take a new lover while the old one is still living, breathing, crying. I have done it. I have had it done to me. However he managed it, Henry distanced himself enough from a woman he once loved, the mother of one of his daughters, to have her killed. He was engaged to his new crush, Jane Seymour, the day after Boleyn’s beheading. They were married 10 days later.

King Henry VIII had between 57,000 and 72,000 people executed during his 40-year reign. The tens of thousands of people who were killed here could never have imagined what this place would become 500 years later. They could not have imagined the people like me, coming here for amusement, gawking and joking and snapping photographs.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that, as many around the world, including many of the visitors to The Passive Voice, worry about sickness or death from Covid, there have definitely been more dangerous and difficult times to live during the past.

PG is presently reading an excellent biography of Peter the Great by Robert Massie.

Peter was the the 14th child of Czar Alexis by his second wife, Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina. All the other sons, except one, died before Peter, at age ten, became the Tzar, chosen over an older half-brother, Ivan, due to Ivan’s severe physical and mental disabilities.

Immediately prior to Peter’s affirmation as Tzar, at the instigation of a competing Russian royal family, the elite Streltsy Guard fomented a huge riot in Moscow. During this turmoil, Peter witnessed the slaughter of several members of his family, including two of his uncles at the hand of the Streltsy.

Covid sounds benign by comparison.

5 thoughts on “Beheaded”

  1. King Henry VIII had between 57,000 and 72,000 people executed during his 40-year reign

    This sent me down a historical rabbit hole from which I emerged with no reason to think this is true, but no idea what the real number is. It’s easy enough to count up the well know political and religious killings but these come nowhere near the numbers quoted (which may or may not be intended to include “normal” judicial punishments). So, are there any experts out there who can enlighten me, or is this a (400+ years old) bit of fake news (i.e. religious propaganda)?

    Note: I’m not suggesting that Henry VIII was not a bad man, just wondering at this casual use of statistics (and also why the reviewer was so moved by Anne Boleyn and not by other female victims like Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who was blessed with a particularly incompetent executioner).

    Reply

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