CHAPTER 10: BURN THE WITCH
The court arrived back at Greenwich Palace just in time for the May Day festivities. A great tournament had been planned as well as other entertainments such as boat races, picnics, fireworks, masques, and bear baitings. The King was in good spirits, although his injured leg had been giving him trouble. Anne sparkled with joy throughout the merry days where the court welcomed the spring. The public opinion of her was getting better as her charitable works became more and more profound. The King had given her a gift every day of the celebrations. On May Day morning, she had awoken to a chorus of singers serenading her from below her window, the next day a case containing diamond earrings was left on her bed, the next day a posy of flowers attached to a poem praising her beauty, and so on. Henry had crowned her Queen of the May, Queen of the Spring, Queen of the Joust, and every other sort of Queen imaginable.
The third month of her pregnancy was approaching swiftly, and she could just see the slightest curve in her otherwise flat belly. Every day, she prayed the child would be born a healthy boy. By mid-May, they were still celebrating the spring and the good weather. Anne was sitting in the Queen's box watching the lists and awarding prizes to victors. The King sat beside her to watch the sport as well. It was a sweltering hot day, more like summer than spring. On the final tilt, Anne had begun to feel lightheaded. Mary, while not scholarly, glanced intuitively at her sister, knowing something was wrong. She moved towards her. "Your Majesty, are you well?". That made everyone in the Queen's box turn their attention to Anne, who was rubbing her head slowly. "I'm fine Mary, I just...I feel...tired…". Suddenly, Anne fell to the floor with a dreadful thud.
Many of the ladies screamed. The King was on his feet at once, which caused the jousters in the tiltyard to pause. "Anne!", he called. Mary was at once kneeling beside her sister and examining her face. "She's breathing, Your Majesty", Mary turned and reported to the King. "It seems as if she's fainted". "Someone fetch a bier!", called Elizabeth the Countess of Somerset. "Her Grace should be brought inside!". "Yes!", said the King in frantic agreement. "At once! Bring a bier at once!". The men whose job was to wait in the jousting yard to carry unfortunate competitors to the medical tent came at once to have Anne brought to her rooms, and her ladies laid her in her bed. The King called his physicians to attend her and several of her ladies including her mother and sister remained in her bedchamber with her.
Anne woke to a cool rag on her forehead. Dazed, she removed it and sat up in her bed. "You should not be sitting up just yet, Your Majesty", said Doctor Butts softly. "You fainted", her mother supplemented. "Are you alright, Anne? Do you know where you are?". Anne nodded. "My bedchamber". "I am gladdened to know your faculties have not been addled by your fall", said Doctor Butts warmly. "And I do not believe the babe has been affected at all". Anne sighed in relief. That was the main concern. He turned to the ladies. "The Queen needs to rest but His Majesty the King will want to know the Queen has awoken at once". "I'll go", said Elizabeth Boleyn. "Thank God you're alright, my dear". Anne turned her head to hide a smirk. She knew she loved her in her own fashion, but Anne knew the main reason her mother was thanking God was because Anne was Queen and pregnant with the King's child, which could be a Prince. The King came at once, as he had been sitting in Anne's presence chamber. He waved all of Anne's ladies and Doctor Butts away so he could sit privately with Anne.
He came to sit beside her on the big bed. "My love, are you alright?", he queried. Anne looked up at him. "I am. Doctor Butts says I only need to rest". Henry nodded. "I'm relieved to know you and the baby are safe", said Henry, gently resting his hand on the tiny curve of her stomach. Suddenly Anne realized how she could play the situation to her advantage. She snuggled closer to him and grabbed his arm. "Henry, I was so afraid". He held her to him. "I was too, Nan", he intimated. She shook her head. "There was a moment where I thought…I had the feeling I was…", she trailed off. Henry was alert. "What is it, sweetheart? What did you feel?". Anne turned away from him and he grabbed her chin gently and tilted back towards him. "Nan, tell me". "I felt as if I were being watched", said Anne reluctantly. Henry looked puzzled. "Anne…you were at a tournament and you are Queen; everyone was watching you". "No, Henry", said Anne seriously. "It felt like…a glare…like I was being watched by a baleful eye".
Henry began to look grave. "As if a witch overlooked you?". Anne crossed herself quickly. "I don't know, I don't know!", she cried with emotion. "But I know I did not like it". She let out a small sob and buried her face in his chest. "I felt cold, Henry! My God! I felt so cold all of a sudden!". He held her tightly and slowly rocked her back and forth. "The most important thing in the world now is our baby", said Anne, playing her trump card. "I want him to grow strong inside me". Henry nodded. "Of course, my love". Anne looked him in the eyes intensely. "Tell me that you think this is nothing Henry. For if you can assure me that this is nothing but coincidence, I will take your word as truth". "What do you mean?", he asked softly, quite confused by her words. "According to the doctor, I am perfectly well; I have had enough to drink, I have not eaten strangely, I have an appetite. Yet, today, on the hottest day we have had all year, I took a sudden chill and I fell unconscious. I pray it is not the work of a witch, for I tell you Henry, I feel as I did just before I lost the last child".
Now Henry was looking at her intently. "You're sure?", he asked swiftly. Anne looked away from him. "How could I forget such an awful feeling?". Henry nodded at the logic. "Doctor Butts assures us that the baby is unharmed". Anne wriggled out of his arms and turned on her side. She made a gesture with her back to him. "Yes, thank God, he is unharmed. This time. But what of the next time? Shall it be a repeat of what happened before? Shall a witch turn what should be our beautiful, Christian prince into a monster?!". Henry shuddered, crossed himself, and turned Anne towards him. "Anne, do not say such things! And for God's sake calm yourself. You have to be calm for the baby". She whirled around on the bed to face him. "Be calm for the baby? Be calm for the baby?! I am in a terror for the baby! For you, who should have been our unborn son's greatest protector have let a witch live to threaten his life!".
"Anne!", cried Henry. "No!", she cried back, tears streaming down her face. "No Henry! I'll not hear a word from you! Our son….!", she broke off into sobs. He caught her to him. She wrestled with him for a moment, trying to avoid his embrace, but of course he overpowered her. Moments later she was sobbing on his shoulder. "My God Henry, our son! Our son!", she cried over and over. She pulled back to look at him, her eyes red rimmed. "Henry, you will have to do it. You will have to order the execution of Jane Seymour". Henry opened his mouth as if he would argue, but Anne shook her head. "Henry, my love, she was tried and found guilty of witchcraft. She has tried to overthrow order in your kingdom and she placed you under an enchantment so you would love her". Anne looked down as if she were embarrassed about something. "I care for nothing that occurred between the two of you". Henry had the grace to look abashed. "You are the King and I am always your wife and the Queen; I see that now. But I do care for this country, and for you, and certainly for my son. Our son. Henry, please. You cannot leave anything to chance with our son, the future King".
Henry nodded, remembering how the old wise woman had said their next child would be a bonny prince, if he could uncover and prevent the witch. Jane Seymour was in the Tower under lock and key, but could that stop a witch- a woman who sold her soul to the Devil himself for unnatural power? Of course a prison cell could not stop a witch! Only death could stop a witch. He sighed and rubbed his temples. Could it really be true that sweet, pure, Jane Seymour was a witch? In his mind he could envision her shy smile, her demure expressions, and the simple purity of her; so different from the fiery, passionate brilliance of Anne Boleyn. Jane had been like a refreshing balm on irritated skin, or a drink from a cool stream in the heat of summer. To be sure he did love Anne for her brilliance, her quick wit, and to some degree, her quick temper. It was just that sometimes he needed a break from her unending charm and fire. Of late though, Anne had seemed to simmer down. The miscarriage had brought about a real change in her.
He took in his wife's anguished face and the tears that sparkled in her eyes. Even like this, she was somehow alluring. Well, she was only young, he reasoned. Certainly, she was more than a decade younger than he was, and he had been high-strung and as fiery as she had been when he had begun courting her. He pulled Anne to him and kissed her firmly on the lips. "I will set it to rights, my love. I will. I will never allow you and our son to become endangered again". Anne seemed to be soothed by that, as she slumped a little on the bed. "You're agitated, as well you might be. And I know that it is my fault. Rest now, sweetheart, and I shall have things set right again". Anne nodded and curled up in the bed. Henry kissed her forehead before he exited her rooms. As soon as he was in his rooms he called the Privy Council to him and began to draw up the death warrant for one Mistress Jane Seymour.
On May 19th 1536, Jane Seymour was brought from the Tower of London to Smithfield Market. As they approached the center of town, Jane could smell the sharp scent of blood from the butchered beasts whose carcasses hung on racks. Above the noise of the butcher's wives who were hollering the prices for joints of meat, she could hear a curious slapping sound in the distance. Slap! Slap! Slap! As her escort neared the center of the market, Jane realized the sound had been the men throwing logs of wood onto the giant pyre, which was to be her gravesite. Jane felt her throat go dry. When the Warden of the Tower came to her with the death warrant bearing her name and the King's seal two nights before, she had immediately burst into tears. She had protested her innocence and begged to see the King to plead her case. Of course, it was denied her. Of course. They would think she meant to "enchant" the King again. She was a witch as far as anyone knew. Even now as she walked some people made the old sign against witchcraft and others crossed themselves. Nearly everyone hissed and booed at her.
"I am innocent!", Jane cried emphatically. The crowd continued to hiss at her. Some people even began throwing filth. One goodwife manning her husband's butchery threw a piece of rotted meat, the smell of which turned Jane's stomach. Her skin, always paler than what might be considered normal, was deathly white now. The guards urged her forward, poking her in the back with the hilts of their swords. The fabric of the scratchy, shapeless sack she wore mortified her delicate skin. "Onward ya go now, Mistress", one would say every now and then, his London accent heavy. Jane continued to walk, dreamlike, to the stack of wood that would soon be set ablaze with her tied to it. "Please", she cried, feeling her legs buckle as they moved closer and closer. "Burn the witch!", one old woman who was missing most of her teeth yelled. Jane cringed, but the guards kept her moving. Could it even be possible that the King, who had claimed to love her would allow her to die? If he loved her as he said he did, surely he had to know she was innocent!
Then again, he had allowed her to be kept in a tiny damp cell for months. Her brother Thomas had told her to be of good heart because if the King meant to execute her, he could have done so at once on a charge of witchcraft. And her brother Edward had told her that it was rumored that the King planned to wait to see if the Queen was carrying a son. If she was not, he would put Anne Boleyn aside and have her to wife instead. It was a great honor to be loved by a King, although Jane had no real desire to be a Queen. Still, being Queen would certainly be more preferable than being burned alive at the stake. Jane was shaken out of her reverie by a guard pushing her up onto the pile of wood. The executioner, in his black hood with the eyes cut out, bound her hand and foot to the large stake. Jane looked around with the limited neck movement she had available. "Sir, have I no priest for the last rites?", she asked the executioner. "No soul to pray for if you already sold it t' the Devil", he replied flatly. Jane closed her eyes, stricken. A lone tear escaped her eye. "I'm not a witch", she sobbed feebly.
"I'm not a judge Missus, just an executioner", said the executioner drily. The crowd that had seemed so vast before had seemed to double. Everyone was now chanting "Burn the witch! Burn the witch!". Jane felt the hot tears streaming down her face and dripping down to her neck. She desperately searched the crowd for at least one friendly face. A single well-wisher to focus on while she died shamefully. As if summoned on her wish like magic, a couple of riders bearing the royal standard rode towards them at full speed. Jane felt her heart lift. Surely this had to be a royal pardon from the King! What else could it be? The executioner, who had his torch at the ready paused and waited for further instruction. Jane recognized the first rider as one of the Howard retainers. He unrolled a parchment and a second rider jumped down from his horse with a small package and headed towards the pyre. "Mistress Jane Seymour, accused of witchcraft, who has been sentenced to die on this the 19th day of May, in this the 1536 year of Our Lord", the rider read aloud for the crowd to hear, "was once one of the Queen's ladies. It is Her Majesty's pleasure that although the accused was found guilty of high treason and witchcraft, she not be made to suffer".
Jane's mind was furiously working out what was going on. Had the…Queen pardoned her? Could she even do such a thing? Certainly, the King had given Queen Anne the right of femme sole, but did that mean she could extend a royal pardon? But the man continued to read. "Therefore, Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Anne, with the ascent of His Majesty our good King Henry, has taken out the amount from her privy treasury to buy a purse of gunpowder for the accused, so that she will not suffer the full pain of her right, good, and just punishment". Jane's heart which had begun to feel some hope, quickly fell to the bottom of her chest. Gunpowder. The Queen had sent gunpowder so that instead of burning alive for several minutes, she would like as not blow up the moment the heat touched the purse.
The crowd, which had hitherto been quiet on account of waiting to see if a royal pardon had been given, were now openly murmuring. Whispers of how gracious Queen Anne was, and "God bless the Queen in her mercy" and "By God, that black eyed whore Nan Bullen does have a heart after all!", filled the market. Jane closed her eyes again and said a silent prayer. The executioner thrust the purse of gunpowder into her hand. Jane clutched it tightly although her hand trembled. Her breath came faster and faster and her heart pounded in her ears like a drum as the executioner lit the timber below her feet. She saw the flames slowly begin to engulf the logs and then pick up speed. She could feel the slight warmth at the soles of her feet. She prayed more fervently. "Oh Jesus! I commend my soul to you! Oh God have mercy on my soul!", she began to scream as the flames licked at her feet and ankles. The crowd jeered at her, for how could a witch commend the soul she had given to the Devil, to Jesus? In her agony, Jane dropped the purse which she had been clutching so tightly. There was a deafening sound, a blinding white-hot light and then…nothing.
NOTE: The second installment in this series, entitled "GRUDGE WHO GRUDGE" is coming soon!