London, May 19th, 1536.
The endless wait was agonizing.
Gerard sat alone in the dark, his troubled thoughts and his burdened conscience his only company. The coming dawn would bring with it an ordeal the very thought of which made him feel ill.
The execution was scheduled for first light.
While Gerard silently bemoaned his fate, he was painfully aware that he’d brought this on himself. The time for denial had passed, he was about to come face-to-face with the dreadful consequences of his actions.
The priest had assured him that he’d already been granted absolution, that his sins would be washed away by the merciful blood of Christ, shed for sinners such as he.
Gerard believed not a word of it. A religious man himself, he knew that some sins stained the soul beyond cleansing, past the reach of redemption, and the mercy of blessed absolution.
Some sins were mortal.
He cast his thoughts back to how he’d gotten into this untenable situation.
Gerard had been an obedient youth and had grown into a decent, God-fearing man. He’d acquitted himself honorably in battle and had earned the right to settle down and start a family.
Providing for them was something of a challenge for one like him, with only a single marketable skill to his name. He had no agricultural ability and proved equally inept at trade and industry.
He was good at only one thing, learned on the bloody sands of Acre: killing.
It was only natural, then, that he’d turned to what he knew best in desperation when he found himself with no other way to support his wife and children. That fateful decision was what had brought him to this detestable place, far from the familiar comforts of home.
Thoughts of his family brought tears to his eyes.
In the silence, Gerard wept bitterly.
Did they understand his actions were bourne not of malice, but only of his desire to be a good husband and father? That he sought only to provide for them, to keep them safe? What would they think if they could see him now?
Fortunately, it mattered not. His family would not be in attendance to bear witness to his shame. For that much at least, he was grateful.
All this and more ran through Gerard’s mind as he sat alone, waiting. He tried to pray.
In Nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti…..
But he could go no further.
His faith, it seemed, had deserted him in the time of his greatest need.
Father, why have you forsaken me?
But he knew the answer. One who casts his morals aside and takes gold in exchange for murder, as Gerard had done, had no hope of spiritual succor at this late hour.
He was alone.
As torturous as the wait was, Gerard dreaded its ending. The cruel night, the moon-drenched eternity, was all too brief and over too soon.
He was not ready.
It mattered not. Time would wait for no man, least of all the likes of him.
At the rooster’s first crow, the church bells began their ominous tolling.
They came for Gerard soon after.
The town square was packed.
As he was led out into the crisp morning air, Gerard beheld the astounding sight. The mass of people stretched back as far as the eye could see. Public executions were always popular affairs, and this one would have special significance. The villagers had traveled from far and wide for the occasion.
None would dare miss the grisly spectacle.
At the sight of him, an excited buzz arose from the crowd. Children fled to the safety of their mother’s skirts, from behind which they gazed fearfully out in horrified fascination. Women lowered their eyes and averted their gazes. The men regarded Gerard with a strange mix of awed respect and morbid curiosity.
He bore their scrutiny in silence, focussed solely on what stood in the clearing in the middle of the square.
Executions ordinarily took place on the gallows. But, as this one was to be a special event, it occasioned a grander display. A large wooden scaffold had thus been constructed in the clearing.
Gerard mounted the platform. From the top, he could see out over the sea of heads to the tranquil fields beyond. Deserted now, they bathed serenely in the first rays of the sun cresting the horizon. The sight was one of heartrending beauty, completely at odds with the deadly business soon to unfold in the town square.
Far in the back, on his throne and surrounded by all manner of royal attendants, sat the king.
Gerard lowered his head, unable to meet the sovereign’s steely stare.
A black hood was secured over his head.
It was almost time.
A blast of trumpets split the air, silencing the crowd and heralding the arrival of the queen. Flanked by guards, she mounted the scaffold and made her way past Gerard, to the center of the platform.
As she did so, she accidentally trod on his foot.
At that, the queen halted mid-stride. She turned to him and addressed him respectfully, apologizing profusely for her clumsiness. Gerard could tell her kind words were sincerely meant.
He was stunned.
That she of noble birth and the finest breeding would deign to speak to the likes of him, a mere commoner and a foreigner besides, in such a gentle manner was unthinkable. He should have been beneath contempt, yet she’d treated him as a human being, as an equal, despite what was to shortly occur.
Her words touched some deep, heretofore dormant part of him.
They threatened to unman him.
Having silently endured thus far with no outward display of emotion, his hands began to tremble. His breath caught in his throat.
He could not do this.
Gerard was overcome by a sudden urge to flee. The desire to run, despite the consequences, was overwhelming. But he knew he could not. Every eye in the square was trained on the platform, including those of the king.
There would be no escape.
The sheriff stepped forward and, from a parchment scroll, read aloud the sentence of death finishing with a solemn, “May God have mercy on your soul.”
Gerard silently repeated the words to himself: a final prayer, a desperate plea. But he doubted any such mercy would be forthcoming.
Now that the dreaded time had arrived, at last, he wanted only to be done with it.
He was tired of waiting.
He raised his head.
Through the eye-holes cut into the executioner’s hood he wore, Gerard saw the king give the signal.
It was time.
He regarded the beautiful queen kneeling before him. The nape of her fragile neck lay exposed, awaiting the deadly steel kiss of Gerard’s blade. The injustice of it enraged him. She had been convicted on numerous charges, all fabricated by her husband. She was innocent of all wrongdoing, save for her inability to provide the king with a male heir.
And for that, she would pay with her life.
Gerard hefted the mighty blade that had been placed into his gloved hands high above his head. There it hung, its cruel blade glinting in the sunlight.
Gerard hesitated, suspended in an agony of indecision.
It was not too late to pull out, to turn back.
Except it was.
Through the endless hours of his nocturnal wait, he’d concluded that he had no choice but to go through with it. And so it remained. He’d agreed to this unspeakable task, had taken the king’s gold, and traveled from his home across the channel to this strange land. If he didn’t put the king’s new bride to death as per the royal decree, the next public execution would be his.
And, unlike the queen, Gerard would not be afforded the mercy of a clean, painless death.
It would be the gallows for him.
That, he could not have. His family needed him.
May God have mercy…
Mouthing the words silently once more, he prepared to bring the sword to bear in the skillful manner for which he was famed.
The steel blade became a silver blur as it began its swift, deadly descent.
Henry VIII, King of England, married Anne Boleyn on January 15th, 1533, after breaking with the Catholic Church to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry desperately wanted a male heir, and Catherine had given him only a daughter.
Anne Boleyn proved similarly incapable of providing the king with a son.
On May 19th, 1536, the queen was convicted on fabricated charges of adultery, incest, witchcraft, and treason, and was sentenced to death. Her only real crime was failing to give Henry a male heir.
Her execution was the first time in English history a monarch was publically put to death, making it a unique spectacle. A scaffold was erected at the Tower Green in London especially for the occasion.
She was beheaded while kneeling, in accordance with her royal status. The swordsman had been summoned from the English-held French town Calais, across the channel. While his name has been lost to history, it is said that he was one of the greatest swordsman alive, and Henry VIII had chosen him for the task because he wanted Anne’s death to be as clean and painless as possible.
Henry VIII had six wives, all told. Anne Boleyn was his second. She was the first he had executed.
She would not be the last.