Sunday, January 20, 2008

The lady of the tower

The haunting strains of Greensleeves and it’s link to Henry VIII and his tragic queen Anne Boleyn adds a piquant element to the Tower of London for yours truly.

I have always been attracted to the old English song ‘Greensleeves’ - more so because green is my favourite colour. Having read somewhere that the song was created during the Tudor period, I had as a matter of course, attributed the words and the music to the bestknown bard of the time, William Shakespeare. However, on a recent visit to the Tower of London, I discovered that in actual fact, King Henry VIII penned the words for his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

So enamoured with Anne was the philandering King, that he secretly married her four months before his divorce from his first wife Catharine of Aragon, was finalized. ‘Greensleeves was written by him during this period - on a day when Anne looked particularly fetching in a green velvet gown.

So there I was on a bright sunny day, joining a large number of others on a visit to the Tower, to see a programme on The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. I have to admit to feeling a ghoulish sense of anticipation, in visiting the place. Prior to this, any mention of the Tower of London, would send shivers down my spine. My expectations were not unfounded, for one certainly managed to get a complete picture of this unfortunate queen, who was beheaded for adultery, after she lost Henry’s favour for not bearing a son.

But first, a few words about the history of the Tower - London was originally the Norman settlement of Londinium (as all readers of Asterix would know) and the Tower of London, was built in place of a wooden castle begun by William the Conquerer sometime after 1076. Ten years later, great stone palace with 15 ft thick walls were constructed in its place. Now more than 900 years later, that Palace is the White Tower, the most imposing structure within the complex.

The programme on The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, was conducted in an interesting manner. Costumed characters spoke about major events in the-Queen’s life. They were not meant to be important people, but essentially spectators who gave personal views of Anne’s life. One of the characters was the executioner, who spoke about how she faced death with dignity, as befitting a queen.

Anne Boleyn was born in 1502 and was Lady-in-Waiting to her predecessor Catherine of Aragon, when she was first noticed by Henry. Her sister Mary was the King’s mistress and is rumored to have borne him a son in 1521. Henry was captivated by the young, lively and attractive Anne and managed to persuade the church to allow him to divorce his first wife, to make way for his second. In 1532, in preparation for Anne Boleyn’s coronation there were changes at the Palace with St.Thomas’s Tower, being largely rebuilt.

As is commonly known, Anne’s reign as Queen lasted only 1000 days, but while she was unable to give the King a son, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth I, who inherited her spirit.

False charges of adultery were brought against Anne and of the six men mentioned, one of these, a court musician under torture, admitted to the charge. No doubt he had entertained her with his songs, ironically, Greensleeves, which was among her favourites, may well have been her downfall.

Anne Boleyn’s trial was held in the now lost Great Hall, of the Medieval Palace at the Tower of London and was attended by 2000 spectators. At her trial the Queen refuted the musician’s claim saying,”He was the worst dressed man in the Palace, he wore no jeans, he was no gentleman”. While imprisoned in the Tower, Anne is said to have etched her signature on the walls.

An executioner, skilled in the use of the sword, was brought over from Calais in France at her request, as it was said to be a swifter death than by the axe. The scaffold site is in front of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, which is best known for being the burial place of some of the most famous Tower prisoners, including 3 Tudor queens - Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey.

Anne a woman of spirit was not one to give up easily and till today, her ghost is said to haunt the Tower. Among a large number of ghosts sighted in the complex, Anne Boleyn’s has been the most persistent one. Described by witnesses as a headless female figure, she drifts from Queen’s House to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula and leads a procession of dignitaries down the aisle to the site of her burial place under the chapel’s alter.

While Anne’s ghost may not be seen by everyone, the fascinating story of her life is there for all.The Tower, has much more to offer and most go there to see the Crown Jewels. Indians in particular are keen to see the Kohinoor diamond...but that is another story!!

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