So it seems that a mystery that has intrigued me since I was a child will remain unsolved.
As I’ve mentioned from time to time, I have always loved history. I don’t know when that love started, but I do know that by the time I was 11, it was well developed. When I was a child, I lived within walking distance of my local library, the Berkshire Anthenaeum,
and I went there frequently. This wasn’t just a library, it was a Romanesque castle of books and learning, with the quiet and hush of a church The children’s room was upstairs, and it was still the norm that children never went down to the adults’ area.
When I was 11, I read a book that mention that Henry VIII‘s wife, Anne Boleyn, was executed by a “swordsman from Calais”. Traditionally, traitors in England were executed with an ax, but, according to the book, Henry VIII sent to Calais to for the swordsman, as death by the sword was less painful.
This detail fascinated me. Sure, it was just a minor detail, but for some reason I really wanted to know the name of the swordsman. I pestered the children’s room librarian. She sent me off to the encyclopedia, which as you can imagine, had no information on the topic. She suggested I look at other books about Henry VIII, but the children’s room was not well stocked on the topic. After asking her questions for over a week, I finally persuaded her to let me go to (dramatic pause here) The Adult Part of the Library. It was all carefully planned – I could look at books, but could not check them out, I had to sit at a certain table where a librarian could keep an eye on me.
And so I went. I went through all the books on Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn, and anything else I could find. Many of them made mentioned the swordsman of Calais, but not one mentioned his name. This was before I realized that much about what we know about the past is based on what happened to survive – if his name was never written down, there is no way to know it. It was disappointing to me, but it opened the door to the inner sanctum of the adult part of the library, and I got permission to continue to use it. This was happiness for me!
But back to the swordsman –
I just read The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir. It’s about the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and is copiously researched. Weir is a well known Tudor historian, and she goes in to great detail about each event in the last few months of Anne Boleyn’s life. A good book if you have a deep interest in the topic. As I read the book, I grew excited. Perhaps at last the mystery of the swordsman’s name would be revealed!
But alas! It was not. Here’s what she does know:
He was referred to as “the hangman of Calais” and the “sword of Calais” in different manuscripts
He was given money to buy clothing suitable for a gentleman for himself and his assistant. At the time of the execution, he and his assistant were on the scaffold with others, and did not stand out as executioners
He was paid 23.6s.8d for the job (including money for the clothes)
For him to travel from Calais to London, he must have been summoned well before the trial of Anne Boleyn. According to one contemporary account, it was nine days from the time messengers were sent to summon him, until his arrival. Anne was tried and convicted on May 14, and was scheduled to be executed on May 18, though there was a delay, and she was executed on May 19. This adds to the evidence that Henry VIII and his councilors planned to execute Anne Boleyn.
So, it is likely that the mystery of the swordsman’s name will remain a mystery. One contemporary account said “He did his office very well, before you could say paternoster”, and all accounts seem to concur. That may be the best I can do.