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News reaches Devon - the fate of Queen Anne Boleyn

An extract from "A Woman of Noble Wit" May 1536. All is calm at Greenway Court until Katherine's husband brings shocking news.............

May Day came. Katherine no longer went out early to wash her face in the morning dew as she had as a girl at Modbury. But Bessie had picked armfuls of spring flowers, and they were trying to encourage Katie to help weave them into garlands with hawthorn and woodbine.

“When you’re older, Katie, I’ll take you to the May fair at Modbury,” Katherine said with a bright smile.

But Katie was not to be won over with promises. She soon wandered off, to be found later pulling the heads off the primroses in the orchard.

Unbeknown to them all, unbelievably shocking events were unfolding at the court while they went a-Maying. Toward the end of the month, John Gilbert rode over from Compton to pay yet another visit to the nursery. Katherine set down a pitcher of hippocras beside him and had just picked up the cup ready to pour when Otho burst through the door.

“The King has cut off Queen Anne’s head!” he shouted from the doorway.

Katherine sat down hard on the bench beside the old man, letting the empty cup fall from her hands to roll across the floor with a clatter.

“Surely not, lad,” said Uncle John. “It’ll be some tall tale, grown taller in the telling.”

“No, ’tis true as I do stand here,” was the reply. Otho threw back his head and thrust out his chest. “I had it from Master Richard Prideaux, the Mayor of Dartmouth, and from Master Rowe the lawyer. It’s not just idle chatter on the docks. What a story! It all seems to have happened so fast. One minute Queen Anne was watching the May Day tournament, all decked out in her best, cheering on her brother George and Henry Norris, the King’s close friend. You know? He’s the one that served in the privy chamber. Well, the next minute the King had gone from his place and those two gentlemen, and some others as well, were all arrested there and then! Then Queen Anne was taken to the Tower. There’s not many go in there and come out with their head still on their shoulders!”

Katherine shuddered and gripped the bench hard.

“Go on then, boy,” said the old man, shaking his head from side to side. “You’d best spit out the whole sorry tale.”

“Well, ’tis shocking indeed. She was charged with adultery with no fewer than five men, including some lowly musician and even her own brother. Two others are held under suspicion: Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page. Those two are still in the Tower, but not so the others, and not so Queen Anne. All found guilty in hastily arranged trials. The Duke of Norfolk was one who sat in judgement on his own nephew and niece. He sent them to their deaths.”

“Do you mean to say that the King has actually signed his wife’s death warrant? Is she actually dead, then?” John Gilbert thundered. “What on earth is the world coming to? He was hot enough for her not so long since. I had little time for her, I’ll own. But to send his own wife to the block! Norfolk, you say? Harrumph! He was happy enough to profit from her elevation, but I’m guessing he showed no remorse at her downfall. He’d be callous enough to condemn his whole family to death if he thought it would save his own skin and make him rich.”

“How can the King be so cruel? Could he not have sent her to a nunnery, or put her aside as he did his first wife? I can’t believe it,” whimpered Katherine, rubbing her eyes. “Did they all have to die?”

“Now this is odd. He could have set her aside,” said Otho, sitting down beside her and taking her hand. “Apparently Archbishop Cranmer obligingly gave his view that the marriage had never been lawful on account of King Henry’s earlier affair with Mary Boleyn. Master Rowe told me that Cranmer tried to defend the Queen. She’d been a strong ally to the Archbishop in the religious reforms that he holds so close to his heart. Master Rowe’s pleased to see her gone, of course. He says Cranmer must have seen that the King’s mind was set against his former lover, so he delivered the result that was demanded. But it did not save her. The King showed some mercy and ordered a swordsman from France to strike off the Queen’s head with a single blow. And then he went to have dinner with Jane Seymour the very same day!”

“That’s a very small measure of mercy if you ask me!” Katherine exclaimed, holding her hands around her own slim neck. “Can there be any truth in those dreadful allegations? Surely not! She seemed such a clever woman. Would she really risk all, just for a few moments’ pleasure with those men? To think they even accused her, a woman of refinement and education, of the dreadful sin of incest…” She bent to retrieve the cup and, with shaking hands, began to fill it, sloshing more than a little of the spiced wine onto the floor. The spreading puddle of red made her think of Queen Anne’s blood. She felt her legs turn to jelly, and sat down again with a bump.