Friday, 19 May 2017


An assumed portrait of Anne Boleyn. The
so-called "Nidd Hall portrait," currently held
by the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums,
was linked to the former English monarch in
2015 after undergoing facial recognition by
state-of the-art equipment at the University
of California in Riverside. Portraits featuring
the likeness of the Queen were famously
rounded up and destroyed after her execution
in 1536 in a concerted effort to erase the
Queen from present and future history books.
To date, the only confirmed likeness of Boleyn
exists on the "Moost Happi" medal, pictured here.
481 years ago today, a regally dressed woman, who truly needs no introduction, knelt before a crowd of her peers on London’s Tower Green, moments after beseeching of them their prayers for the prosperity of her Sovereign lord: that ‘goodly’ King of England, Henry VIII of whom she was now divorced – that possessor of the fatal hand who executed her death warrant. That accuser of witchcraft, adultery – and most horrifically, of incest.

Draped in a cape of ermine fur – a style formerly designated to reflect the status of her (once) most exalted station - the woman who would die a "Queen” to her allies – and a "concubine" to her enemies,[1] wavered momentarily during her cry of adulation for her single greatest foe – her one time lover and life partner who had so callously cast her aside for one of her very own ladies-in-waiting. Readily, Anne Boleyn steadied the quaver in her throat – perhaps distracted by delusions of an 11th hour reprieve - before succumbing to a trembling bout of nerves. Submitting to that all-too-late and momentary cold slap of reality, she darted a fearful glance over her shoulder at the finely dressed Frenchman from Calais, who stood just behind her. Perhaps the dethroned monarch expected to faint away fast at the sight of the glistening blade of a freshly sharpened sword steadily arching toward her "fair neck"[2] - saving her from the spectacle of being caught unawares, and from crying aloud and thereby dismantling before the several thousand spectators[3] who had gathered to witness the unusually restrained demeanor of the royally condemned. What Anne Boleyn saw instead was the unmasked face of her husband’s hired assassin. It was a kind face: one that bespoke of generous and thoughtful consideration for her untimely plight. He would strike, he warned the former queen, only after giving her fair warning. It would be just one of the many lies cast upon the former monarch in an effort to both placate her and assuage her fears.

It would also be the last.

As the regal woman, once formerly Queen of England began reciting a prayer for the Lord to receive her soul, the swift arc of the expertly yielded blade sliced though the neck of Anne Boleyn. So precise was the cut by the assassin from Calais, the very lips on the now severed royal head appeared to continue on reciting the condemned's solemn prayer.

A 19th century  German illustration depicting the execution of former
English Consort Queen Anne Boleyn, c. 1830. The doomed monarch was
beheaded 481 years ago today - exactly - May 19th, 1536, which just so
happened to also fall on a Friday.
The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, consort and second wife to 16th century King of England Henry VIII is the stuff of legend. Her tragic fate has inspired countless poets, screenwriters, librettists and authors to convey her story (as they see it). Perhaps the most famous ‘retelling’ of the plight of the much maligned queen – where the arts are concerned, lay in Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s 1830 tragic opera “Anna Bolena,” a two-act composition so titled after it’s namesake.

But much of what we think we know of the Queen is part and parcel of that age-old adage that decrees that the truest version of history lay with the victor - and Anne certainly had her detractors. In fact, we aren’t really sure if the famous last words of the former Queen (in which Boleyn never once admits to any guilt for the offenses charged against her) - as retold by Edward Hall, an English member of Parliament and Under-Sheriff of London - were actually spoken by Boleyn, or were the half-manifested product of the Officer’s imagination – or worse – false recall, politically motivated or not.

The Tudor propaganda machine, historically, had been one of the most heavy-handed, stalwart mechanisms that often succeeded by churning out defamatory accusations against anyone who stood in the way of - or threatened - the royal crown (including consorts) often by means of torture, the threat of torture, or by exacting the ultimate form of punishment: the public execution. Thus, it is with great difficulty for historians of the era to discern with any fair degree of certainty the fact from the fiction – even concerning the smallest minutiae of the lives of their victims. That doesn’t make the lives of those living under the royal yoke of the renaissance any less interesting. Quite by contrast, it ignites a very constant, almost universal fascination with the attempt to uncover the truth.

Such an example of this fascination – where Anne Boleyn is concerned – occurred only recently, in 2015, when researchers brought to light a 16th century musical scrapbook containing the works of several highly prized Franco-Flemish composers, said to have been signed by – and possibly even owned and compiled by - the Queen herself: the most interesting scores in the lot being those pieces of anonymous authorship – one of which (“O Deathe rock me asleep”) may have been composed by Boleyn herself as she effectively sat on death row, awaiting her final exit from both her former realm and the worldly sphere.

Inscription from the music book bearing Queen Anne Boleyn's signature
The loosely binded (ravaged by the hands of time) 42-piece scrapbook, now preserved at The Royal College of Music, London, bears the inscription “Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus” followed by a portion of musical notation.

Scholars of the era have suggested the styling of “mistres[s]” as being indicative of the former consort’s time as concubine to a married Henry VIII, who was then famously wed to the unfortunate Spanish Queen Katherine of Aragon - “nowe thus,” they remind us, was the motto of father to Boleyn, Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire. They believe mistress Anne started the book during her time in France as maid of honor to Henry’s sister Mary, and later, to Mary’s stepdaughter, Queen Claude. It was in France that Boleyn is believed to have immersed herself in the courtly arts, chiefly, in the areas of manuscript illumination, literature, poetry, and music. Like her future daughter with King Henry, Elizabeth, Anne is said to have mastered playing – and possibly composing music for – the lute.

Therein lies the supposition that it was Anne who authored not only the lyrics – but possibly even the music for Deathe rock me asleep, which reads most languorous:

“O Deathe rock me asleep
Bringe me to quiet rest

Let pass my weary guiltless ghost...

For I must dye, there is no remedy.”

A beautifully notated selection from the scrapbook said to have belonged to Anne Boleyn

Upon it’s discovery, some 500 years after the scrapbook’s final entries were sewn into the fragile binding, Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College (Cambridge) and head of the Alamire choir (named after the 16th century royal composer and spy, Petrus Alamire of Bavaria) Dr. David Skinner selected 20 pieces of music from the tome – many of them by renowned artists of the era, possibly known to - or, as in the case of French composer Josquin Desprez, patronized by Boleyn herself – and recorded them for the pleasure of modern ears.

Included in those recordings – for which Skinner earned Best Vocal & Choral CD of 2015 for Australia’s Limelight Magazine and a nomination for the coveted Best Album award by BBC Music Magazine – is the mysterious and doleful lament…that just maybe among those so-called “known” final words - and thoughts - of Queen Anne Boleyn herself.

Listen to a recording of O Deathe Rock me Asleep below, followed by a delicious recording by a Boleyn favorite composer (and recipient of the Queen’s royal patronage), Josquin Desprez, in the 16th century composers’ setting of “Stabat Mater" (Dolorosa): *UPDATE / NOTE 12.26.17: Much of the Alamire/Skinner album unfortunately is no longer on YouTube, however listen below to the piece"O Deathe.." performed by Mezzo-Soprano Catherine King and the Rose Consort of Viols, and, in lieu of the now removed Dolarosa by Desprez, I am replacing the latter with the composer's "Praeter rerum seriem," which is included in Anne's Song Book and is recorded by the Alamire Choir under Skinner:


[1] The harsh epithet was famously so lauded on the now decapitated Queen by the Catholic Imperial ambassador to Emperor Charles V, Eustace Chapuys, who messengered the following note to his employer (excerpt): “The execution of the concubine took place at nine o’clock this morning in the tower…"

[2] Boleyn famously referred to her “fair (little) neck” in an exchange with her jailor, Constable of the Tower Sir W. Kingston. True or fictitious as the account may be, it does lay small credence to the notion that the Queen approached her death in an ‘unusually calm' manner. From Kingston’s letter to Thomas Cromwell, dated the day of Boleyn’s execution, May 19, 1536:
“This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, "Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain ". I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, "I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a fair neck", and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily. I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death. Sir, her almoner is continually with her, and had been since two o'clock after midnight.”

[3] Also from Chapuys' account to the Emperor Charles V "...the thing was not done secretly, for there were more than two thousand persons present.”


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