12th May 1536
An English messenger arrived today and handed me a thick letter, bearing the royal seal of King Henry VIII. The king requires my services, the “hangman of Calais”, for a most urgent matter. After bidding my wife and children a brief farewell, promising to return with a heavy purse, I begin my journey, accompanied by the messenger. He seems very anxious, as if afraid that someone might recognise him and ask questions. It will take almost a full day to ride to Calais from my hometown, followed by an unpredictable sea-crossing and a further 3 days ride from Dover to London. I cannot help but wonder why the king does not simply arrange for an English executioner to deal with his “most urgent matter”, which would be far cheaper and quicker. But I am the best and perhaps the English king desires a swift, clean end for whoever has offended him this time, God have mercy on their soul.
19th May 1536
I have seen enough scaffolds in my time but this is more akin to a theatrical stage. It also been built in haste, evidenced by the fine sawdust. My journey began almost a week ago, so why the need for such haste, I wonder. A large crowd of spectators have gathered below, eagerly awaiting the events that will soon unfold. This is a most unusual execution, for which there is no precedent.
The Queen of England has been tried and found guilty of treason. I am usually pragmatic about these matters and don’t pretend to understand matters of law. My role is simply to provide the guilty with a quick, clean death. But today I feel a sense of deep injustice. I was called from Calais before the Queen’s trial took place. Therefore how did the King know he would require an executioner? When I raised this concern with the messenger, he warned me against voicing such thoughts. I have been dragged into a terrible conspiracy, forced to participate against my will, for I know that if I were to refuse, I would be severely punished.
I catch the eye of the assistant I have been assigned and give him an encouraging nod, which he acknowledges. He has not forgotten what we discussed earlier.
The crowd stirs and I turn towards the procession that is now approaching the scaffold. The Queen walks behind the constable and I am struck by her calmness and grace. Her face is starkly pale against her dark gown and her eyes are downcast as though deep in thought. She stops and distributes alms to some of the poorer looking spectators, but she does not stop for long. This is not a crowd of peasants in need of her generosity.
The procession reaches the scaffold and the Queen ascends the wooden steps, requiring no assistance. She appears fragile and thin, and I know that this is a lady that has suffered for some time. As she looks around her, examining the place to which she has been brought to die, the crowd falls deathly silent. They are eager to hear her confess her crimes against the king and against God. The queen speaks, her voice resonating with solid conviction, which grows stronger with each word.
When she has finished she turns to her ladies to comfort and wipe away their tears. They help to remove her fur collar and hood, revealing a curtain of thick raven hair that is quickly tucked into a white linen cap.
The constable gives me the signal I have been waiting for and now the time has come for me to carry out my bidding. Reluctantly I step forward and the queen looks at me for a moment before moving towards me. Never before have I felt such shame and as I fall to my knees, I am sure her eyes must burn with hatred.
“Your grace, I crave your pardon and forgiveness, for I am ordered to do this duty.”
I feel a soft hand on the back of my head and listen as the queen speaks to me in comforting French tones. When I look up into her onyx eyes, they are kind and understanding. I realise that I am in desperate need of forgiveness today.
I rise from my knees as the queen falls to hers and a maid steps forward to cover her eyes with a blindfold. She starts to utter a hurried prayer and her hands twitch nervously, as if waiting for me to strike at any moment. Sensing her fear, I lean towards her and whisper in French:
“Madam, have no fear. I will wait until you are ready.”
The queen calms herself, finding solace in a steady prayer with her hands hanging still at her side. Her ladies cling to each other in their grief and the crowd has also been brought to its knees, overcome by the bravery shown by their queen. She gives a slight nod of her head, signalling that she is now ready to die, and I step back to quietly remove my boots. I look towards my English assistant, standing below the steps, and call out:
“Bring me my sword!”
Remembering what we discussed earlier this morning, he steps away out of sight. I retrieve my sword from its hiding place beneath a pile of straw and breathe in a mouthful of cold air. In one swift movement I raise my arms and swipe the blade down, slicing through the queen’s pale, delicate neck. I hear a thud as her head falls and a cannon fires into the distance, signalling her death.
I cannot look at the broken body that lies at my feet and I am not prepared for the waves of guilt that drown my heart and soul. In the distance, I hear an echo of the queen’s last words, her last prayer.
“Jesus have pity on my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul.”
With a sense of doom, I realise that I am also praying. But nobody will hear my prayer. Jesus does not pity the dammed.