On 19th May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn was taken from her cell in the Tower of London to a wooden scaffold, where a French swordsman awaited her. Henry believed that an axe was too common an instrument to behead the Queen of England. After speaking briefly to the crowd who had gathered to watch the spectacle, Anne tucked her hair out of the way of the sword, and was beheaded in one stroke.
Apparently unable to bear Henry VIII a son, she was accused of multiple charges of adultery with five men, including her brother George and the lutenist Mark Smeaton. No one knows whether Anne was in fact unfaithful or not, but it is certain that by 1536 Henry had his eyes on another young woman, Jane Seymour.
The story of Anne’s death is a sad one, but her life was one of intrigue, excitement and colour. At a young age she joined the household of Margaret of Austria (the daughter of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor). Margaret was famous as a patron of music, and Anne would have had early exposure to high-quality music making.
Anne was soon placed in the French court, where she attended Henry VIII’s sister Mary. While she was there, it is likely that she came into contact with Claudin de Sermisy, a composer whose piece Jouyssance seems to have been written with Anne in mind. The poet who wrote the lyrics to the piece, Clement Marot, was also patronised by the French court, and he is known to have presented Anne with a personalised copy of his most famous work.
In Jouyssance, the lyrics read: “I will give you pleasure, my dear, and thus I will ensure that what you hope for ends well… but if it weighs you down, appease your hurting heart: everything will be good for those who wait.” This seems exactly to describe Anne and Henry’s situation during their extended courtship between 1526 and their marriage in 1533.
Anne was herself a great lover of music. The Royal College of Music in London contains a manuscript music book which is thought to be owned and used by Anne Boleyn herself. The evidence for this comes in the middle of the book, where an early 16th century inscription reads “Mistres A Bolleyne nowe thus.” “Now thus” was the motto of Anne Boleyn’s father, and the fact that she is styled “mistress” suggests that this was penned before she became Queen in 1533.
Anne’s own talents also apparently included the composition of poetry. The song “O Deathe rock me asleep” is said to have been written by Anne whilst she was awaiting her execution in the tower of London. The lyrics are both vivid and tragic: “Alone in prison strong / I wait my destiny. / Woe worth this cruel hap that I / Must taste this misery.”
The contents of the Royal College of Music manuscript, along with an Elizabethan setting of “O Deathe rock me asleep”, have been recorded by Alamire on the disc Anne Boleyn’s Songbook, released by Obsidian Records. This year, the CD was nominated for a BBC Music Magazine award.