The Sword and the Axe

Arianna Kiriakos

There are few royal marriages discussed more than those of Henry VIII

There are few royal marriages discussed more than those of Henry VIII. Both his executed queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were accused of adultery. They were beheaded, but Anne received a more merciful death by the sword while Catherine was subjected to the cruder axe. This gives insight into how Henry and history perceived them. Anne’s rapid downfall added to her allure. Many historians lay its orchestration at the feet of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister. Cromwell’s investigation led Anne from imprisonment to death in seventeen days—a rushed job by any standards. Evidence was so skeptical that even Anne’s enemies did not believe it all. As head of state and Cromwell’s benefactor, only Henry could have slowed the process. Henry chose not to for both political and personal reasons. Catholic Europe hated Anne for her role in Henry’s break with Rome: her death made her a useful scapegoat. Furthermore, their marriage was failing; Anne had miscarried more children than she had borne, while Henry’s mistress Jane Seymour waited in the wings, possibly pregnant already. (Some sources report a miscarriage shortly after Anne died.) Anne’s death was convenient for Henry; so, he modified her execution instead of stopping it. Beheading was the usual genteel punishment for Tudor England. Even pre-guillotine beheadings were more humane than other methods when done properly. Death occurred quickly and with little pain, especially compared to a commoner’s brutal sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering. However, the choice between sword and axe was the same as using a pocket knife versus a steak knife at dinner. Unlike swords, which produced more accurate blows, axes were harder to control. Mistakes frequently occurred. Several victims took three or more blows to die. Catherine, imprisoned, even heartbreakingly asked to practice laying her head on the executioner’s block before her death after seeing so many botched executions in her short lifetime. For Anne, however, Henry selected a skilled swordsman—bringing him specially from France. Henry thus demonstrated a measure of mercy towards Anne.
<strong>The Sword and the Axe</strong>
Anne Boleyn

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<strong>The Sword and the Axe</strong>
Portrait possibly of Catherine Howard

Henry was more active in Catherine’s ordeal to give it a layer of respectability

Henry was more active in Catherine’s ordeal to give it a layer of respectability, using Parliament to enforce the idea that killing his queens was not a habit. Henry had even more power to decide Catherine’s fate after she forwent a trial, since this meant that Catherine was to be judged solely by the king instead of having the verdict of the peers of the realm that oversaw Anne’s trial. Catherine faced stronger evidence when charged with adultery. When she confessed instead of denying the charges like Anne did, Catherine’s contemporaries believed her sentence could be commuted. But, while Henry merely imprisoned her relatives indicted on similar charges, he did not spare Catherine. Her young age and palpable fear did not move him. Henry was older now—ill and in pain. He believed he had found love again and was humiliated with another wife cheating on him—including with his own servant. So, Catherine was beheaded by axe. That Henry did not change the weapon illustrated a hardened, less merciful king, which also affected Catherine’s legacy in relation to Anne. hrough death Anne became an icon. She died with dignity befitting a queen: the use of sword confirmed her as retaining some semblance of Henry’s respect and former affection. Catherine did not garner half that attention. Only one eyewitness account of Catherine’s execution is trusted compared to the litany of witnesses at Anne’s, leading to misattributed details such as her endlessly quoted last words proclaiming her love of Thomas Culpepper. While the account mentions she too was poised in death, Catherine’s fate is swept into the frenzied tempo of Henry’s last years. When not overshadowed, she has been reduced to the sum of her sexual encounters with men who either groomed her or used her as a vessel for their own desires. As historian Gareth Russell points out, where Anne ‘tangibly and deliberately mattered, Catherine has been depicted as an irrelevance, the author of a shallow yet profane queenship.’ In scholarship and popular culture alike, Catherine usually falls by the wayside. In conclusion, the manners of execution for Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard reflect Henry’s escalating reaction to being betrayed, as clemency gave way to bitterness. Anne’s death, through Henry’s efforts to procure a skilled swordsman to spare her unnecessary pain, helped fuel her legacy of melodrama: a tragic love story undone by power struggle and politics, of Cromwell, Henry, and Anne herself. Catherine, younger and politically naïve, condemned to a dull axe by a resentful man, subsequently faced the second injustice of an underdeveloped legacy, fueled by Henry’s disregard for her suffering and memory.
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<strong>The Sword and the Axe</strong>

Arianna Kiriakos

Arianna Kiriakos completed a Master’s in Modern History from King’s College, London and two Bachelor’s degrees in history and criminology from the College of William and Mary. Her focus areas are monarchy, assassination, warfare and other violent crime, and their impact on media and culture. Currently based in Chicago, she does curational and content work for the Edith Farnsworth House, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site..
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