I wake up early with a strange feeling of impatience and some kind of discomfort. The day is still asleep, and the last stars are slowly fading as I look out the window. I stretch and wash and I start to pack, as we are to go on the road soon enough. Then I walk outside and sit in the cold air, watching the slowly rising sun. I think about what lies ahead – a long travel, a weary one perhaps, and at the end – a job. My job, my task, my duty and the craft I am taught in – the craft of killing people.
One subtle blow – and it’s over. But long years had to pass before I learned to do that without wavering, without anxiety or tremble. I was a young boy, without parents and I had to take up a trade to make a living. My big brother and I were sent to different towns, to live and learn skills. And since we both have muscular arms, and big, strong hands, we took up trades which demanded their use and their strength. My brother became a blacksmith. I became an executioner.
My name is Jean Rombaud, I am now 27 old. I have never been in love and I do not have a family of my own. I often wondered through the years how did it happen that I became a man at whose hands so many die. A man who hears people’s last thoughts, prayers, who sees their tears seconds before his hands stop them forever. I believe I could have easily become a blacksmith as well, only I didn’t. I execute. I stop hearts. And I’m good at it. In the past ten years I became one of the best. I do not hesitate, I do not shake and I act with precision. One blow – subtle, quick, almost gentle – and it’s over for everyone. I am that good. And because I am that good, I will be the one to fulfill the task of executing Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII of England, the mother of his daughter Elizabeth and the woman who somehow made him break every rule in the book. They sent for me, because I am known in these lands for being the best executioner, as well as for my cool approach. I never feel sorry for those whose life I must take. I never dream of their faces afterwards. I am not scared I will regret what I did, because it is a job like any other and in the times we live in, men like me are as needed as a blacksmith, a sewer or a cook.
The other reason why King Henry must have chosen me is that I am French. And even I have heard of Queen Anne’s deep love for all that is French – clothes, music, dance, food and politics. She has lived in France half her life and they say she even speaks with a slight French accent. I believe King Henry’s gesture of making sure a French executioner ends her life is nothing but a cruel joke. But that is not for me to think about or care about. I do what I am asked and I take my purse. I will take my purse from her as well, because even though she is a queen, she will die by my hand like any other convict.
We go on the road now and we ride the whole day. My hands are steady on the rein, my grip is so powerful that the horse would not wiggle a muscle without my command. We ride through villages and we rest at inns and we sleep in a smithery. As I watch the rugged men who beat the steel I think of my brother and how he probably makes the swords I use to execute people. I touch my sword with one hand – I will use a sword for her as well, for this rebellious queen. They say she betrayed the king with over a hundred men – among which her own brother. That does not concern me – that could be a lie for all I know. It certainly sounds incredible enough to be nothing but a lie. But my duty stays and her head must fall. Even innocence means nothing before the rage of a king.
On the second day – on the day we should arrive – one of the horses suddenly hobbles and breaks a leg. The animal must be put down and another horse found quickly. But it doesn’t happen so fast and so we are delayed. I cannot but think of how this delay would affect her, the woman who is waiting for my arrival and looking through the window with her dark eyes, looking upon her already built scaffold. A scaffold waiting only for me. She is probably scared. She will look at me and see a tall, well-build man, with blue eyes and long, strong limbs. Then she will look at my hands. They always look at my hands. Their eyes fill with horror and they tremble, looking at my hefty, long fingers, the muscles of the arms. Then they look me in the eyes again – the only part of my face which they can see. As if they want to know in their last moments that I am after all a human being and not some dark and cruel creature, crawled out of their nightmares to get them. She will too look me in the eyes and I must not wince. They say one look from her can make a man weak in the knees and send his heart to his throat. I will not be one of those men. Even if she’s so captivating as they say. I have never been in love and I do not intend to ever be. Besides, I never let myself feel for those, who must die. Even the time when I had to take the life of a seventeen year old girl, who was convicted for witchcraft. She cried – I had never seen a person cry like this before – and then she was very quiet and her big eyes stared at the sky, as I swiftly lashed with the sword. Even for her I felt nothing. It was just a job. It was my job.
We sleep another night on the road, and I watch for a long time the dark sky with white, sparkling stars. On the next day we are again delayed for a while, because one of my companions feels sick. We have to leave him behind and we continue – me and my helper, a boy of 15 years, a boy who has to learn to do what I do and also become an executioner one day. He cleans my swords and helps me with everyday tasks, and he assists me at the executions; but he still has a fear in his eyes every time I execute someone. I know it will pass – he is still young.
We arrive in London in the early morning. So the queen will die soon, around nine o’clock. I will make it quick and painless; I will go there, listen to her last words, ask for her forgivenes as is the custom and she will,of course, grant it; then she will give me my purse and the rest will be left to me. I hope she does not weep or ask for mercy – it just does not seem fit for a queen. I have seen hundreds die – I have seen mostly fear and rarely courage. I admire those, who face death with resolve and are brave in their last moments. I find myself hoping she will be like that and things will pass smoothly. We stop to refresh and have a quick breakfast. Then we are ready to go.
At the Tower gates, I am met by one Master Kingston. He was the one, who sent me the order from King Henry. He is short and has a shrewd face.
“You must be Jean Rombaud” – he speaks with a quiet, reserved tone. – “I am bound to ask you something.”
“Yes, my lord?”
“The woman you will be beheading today is a convicted traitor, but she is, nevertheless, a Queen. She has been Queen of England for three years now – God knows, she acted like a Queen even before that. Anyway, in order to honor her royal status, you will need to distract her in her last moment…so that she wouldn’t know it was her last moment.”
I nod slowly, looking at him.
“Even right before you strike her“, he continues “she must not fear and she should think she still has few moments to live. A royal shouldn’t fear death at the hands of a commoner, at the hands of an executioner. We owe her that, even though she will, undoubtedly, be dead very soon. You understand?”
“Yes” – I answer briefly and we part with a polite nod. The boy and me enter the Tower of London.
So I will have to distract Queen Anne, to spare her the painful expectant seconds before the blow. That seems strangely comforting – she will die, thinking she still has a few moments to pray, to breathe, to be.
Everything is set – someone takes our horses and we take our place behind the scaffold. The crowd has gathered – I see many royally dressed people, I see courtiers and commoners too; there are several little children, holding their mothers’ hand. People’s faces are tense and pale, they are very still and no one is shouting. I still have a few more minutes before I put my hood on, climb on the scaffold and wait for her. I sit for a while, looking at my sword. It has been perfectly cleaned and it shines in the sun. It is beautiful and deadly and I touch it gently with my fingers, praying to God that I do my job as well today as any other day. I pray to do my job well enough for a Queen.
I cover my head in a black, tight hood, with two holes for the eyes. She will not see my face, only my eyes, as I ask her forgiveness. I climb the scaffold and I put the sword behind me, under a cloth of wool. Then I stand and wait for her. She will be out any minute now. I feel no emotion, I am trained well. I stay perfectly calm as I wait.
I hear the crowd murmuring and moving and I know she is coming. I do not see her at once, but I hear people’s voices; a couple of women pronounce the words “Bless you, my lady.” and these words are for her, for Anne Boleyn, the once hated woman, who stole the heart of Henry and became his whole world, replacing his first Queen, the Spanish princess, Catherine. People seem to have forgiven her for that; even more, they seem to feel she is unjustly condemned, because no one shouts wretched or mean words at her; they are either quietly watching her or saying “Bless you” and “God have mercy on your soul”.
She approaches now and I stay with my eyes down, as it is not appropriate to look a Queen directly in the face at once. I hear her climb the scaffold, along with four ladies in waiting. Master Kingston is there too; as well as a chaplain. She is now standing three feet from me and I lift my eyes to look at her at last.
And I am stunned. For the first time in my life, I am stunned by a woman. She is exquisite; her face is perfectly shaped and even pale as it is now, it has the color of a fresh peach, with a hint of olive. Her chin is small and fine, her lips are gorgeous. She has hair as dark as the night, thick and long, covered with a netted coif; she is thin and elegant, her waist is so small; she wears a mantle, furred with ermines and a red damask skirt. And her eyes… I’ve never seen eyes like this. They are brown and big, with long eyelashes, resting peacefully under her thin, beautifully shaped eyebrows. I sink into them; they are deep and filled with the uttermost sadness, but also conviction. She looks around herself like a real queen; she looks at everyone like she’s the one that is judging them, and not the other way around. And she is beautiful. I’ve seen beautiful women before, I’ve seen blonde women, I’ve seen dark women, but this woman, this Queen Anne, Anna Regina, she is something I never thought I would see, something I never thought I would feel. She moves like she’s walking on water; she is so graceful and elegant and she holds her head with such dignity. She has a gentle neck; I can see the veins through her skin, as she walks up towards me, casts me a look – one look – and then she calmly turns and faces the crowd.
This is the moment I compose myself; this is the moment, while I cannot see her face and the moment I use to try and block my feelings, my very inappropriate feelings, my entirely unexpected feelings. I have never felt this pulling up inside before, never felt this feeling of sinking deep, of dizziness, of embarrassment, of insignificance. I am insignificant in front of this queen, even though I am the one that will take her life in a few short moments. I finally find the strength to look at her again; she is now facing the crowd with a completely calm expression on her face. She is a rock; she is composed and peaceful. She turns her head to Master Kingston and says something to him and he nods at her. I realize he had given her leave to speak her last words.
Then we hear her steady, calm voice, with a slight French accent.
“Good Christian people”, she says with fixed expression on her beautiful face. “I have come here to die, as the law requires me to do and so I will speak nothing against it. I will not accuse anyone for my condemnation, instead, I heartily pray that God save the king and prolong his reign over you, for he is the gentlest, most merciful prince that ever walked this earth. And to me he was always a good and gentle lord.”
She pauses for a second and I see that she had stopped her gaze at a child in the crowd – a little girl, clenching her mother’s hand. And for the first time since she had climbed the scaffold, the queen’s face shows some emotion. And right there, in this moment, I know she’s lying. She does not feel guilty; she does not feel she deserves to die and she does not believe the king is gentle and just. Not this king, her husband, the father of her child, who has sent her to be beheaded. I see her lower lip trembling and something in her eyes makes me shiver. It’s all there, all you would expect to see in the eyes of a person that is about to die – the despair, the betrayal, the sadness, the memories, the pain. It’s all there, but it’s gone in a blink. And I wonder what she is thinking while she’s looking at this little girl. Is she thinking of her daughter, who is not yet three, who will never hold her hand again, like this girl holds her mother’s? Is she scared she’s leaving her without protection? Is that why she’s doing this, why she’s saying this by the book scaffold speech? And then the moment’s gone. Queen Anne lifts her eyes and continues.
“And if any person should ever bother to meddle with my cause, I only pray you to judge it the best. Thus, I take my leave of this world, and of you. And I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”
There is again murmur from the crowd, and I hear again “God bless your Majesty”, as if whispered with a hushed tone.
The moment approaches; her ladies in waiting help her take of her mantle, her jewels and they put a linen cap on her dark hair. She looks so young; I know she is over 30, but she looks way younger than I am. Her cheeks grow paler by the second, but her eyes are calm now, even cold. She has accepted her fate – there is no room for regrets in her world now. Anna Regina is prepared to die. But for the first time in my career as an executioner I ask myself: am I ready to take her life?
I look at my hands, my very capable and strong hands. They are trembling now. I can’t do this with trembling hands. I look at the place where I hid my sword, I desperately need to clench to something. I need to believe I can do this; I need to believe she is no more than a convicted traitor, that she is just one more head to fall by my hand. This queen will die at my hands and there is nothing me or her can do about it. And not her beauty, nor her charisma, nor mesmerizing her eyes will be enough to keep her alive.
And then she’s ready.
I pull myself together, I walk up to her left side and I fall on one knee, bowing my head to her.
“Madam”, I say, with a voice that is not my own, “forgive me for what I must do”.
“Gladly”, she says. “And here is your purse, monsieur.”
And as I feel her small hand touching my shoulder, I lift my eyes and I see something extraordinary, something almost crazy: she’s smiling at me. She is looking me right in the eyes, smiling. It’s a brief smile, a hint of a smile, really, but it’s enough to give me a glimpse of the queen she must have been in the court – proud and beautiful. And I feel pain in my chest and my knees grow weak; I am not sure I can get up right away. Then she hands me my purse. I take it and for a brief second our fingers touch. My hand is cold and hers is warm. It’s not the hand of a person who will die soon. It’s the hand of a living and breathing woman. And it’s as if part of her strength comes into me. I stop shaking. Our eyes meet for the first time upon the scaffold I feel a wave of sadness that I will be the one taking this life from this world. And I feel horror, because I feel this sadness.
But the time has come. And now I get up, and she is the one that kneels. She’s facing the crowd again, her eyes are like glass, her face is composed and I hear her quietly saying over and over again: “To God I commend my soul; Jesus Christ receive my soul” She is ready for her transition.
And as she is saying her last prayer, I take one last look at her – her posture, her small hands, her elegant neck, her long, dark hair and that stunning face – and I know, I am sure this will destroy me, but that I will do it anyway. I stand immobile for no more than three seconds and then, to the astonishment of everyone, I shout to her right:
“Boy! Fetch my sword!”
As expected, she turns her beautiful head to the right with a single graceful motion. That’s all it takes for me to draw my sword under the cloth. And I swing.
I turn my back to her and I walk away. She is gone. Her blood is on my sword. I throw it at the confused and scared boy and I walk away from this scaffold. Behind me I hear the ladies in waiting crying. I walk faster. I go as far away as possible, I walk outside the gates… and I break down on my knees again. I break in tears and I hit the ground with my fist. She never looked at my hands. They always look at my hands. She never did. She looked me in the eyes and she smiled.
My name is Jean Rombaud, I am now 27 old. And I have never been in love. Until now. On this day, May 19th 1536, I put my skills as an executioner into killing a woman. An English queen. And I know, as well as I know that my heart beats in my chest, that I will never feel like this again.
I was perfect in ending her life. And I have the slight comfort that she didn’t feel any pain. She never even knew the moment was coming. But she also never knew that she was taking my soul with her to eternity. Queen Anne Boleyn died today by my hand. And part of me died with her.
I get up now and walk back to our horses. My tears dry in the warm wind; and I feel empty but I know that even though she will never be in my arms, she have died by my hand. And she smiled.
Maybe she smiled at the thought of the comfort of approaching death and no more pain, and maybe she smiled at the comfort of dying by the hand of a Frenchman. But I sometimes like to think that she smiled at me.