One of the women stretches out a hand for the purse. Anne passes it without looking at her, then moves to the edge of the scaffold. She hesitates, looks over the heads of the crowd, then begins to speak. The crowd as one sways forward, but can only shuffle by inches towards her, every man with his head lifted, staring. The queen's voice is very low, her words barely heard, her sentiments the usual ones on the occasion: ' ... pray for the king, for he is a good, gentle, amiable and virtuous prince ... ' One must say these things, as even now the king's messenger might come ...
She pauses ... But no, she has finished. There is nothing more to say and not more than a few moments left of this world. She takes in a breath. Her face expresses bewilderment. Amen, she says, amen. Her head goes down. Then she seems to draw herself together, to control the tremor that has seized her entire body from head to foot.
One of the veiled women moves to her side and speaks to her. Anne's arm shakes as she raises it to lift off her hood. It comes easily, no fumbling; he thinks, it cannot have been pinned. Her hair is gathered in a silk net at the nape of her neck and she shakes it out, gathers up the strands, raising her hands above her head, coiling it; she holds it with one hand, and one of the women gives her a linen cap. She pulls it on. You would not think it would hold her hair, but it does; she must have rehearsed with it. But now she looks about as if for direction. She lifts the cap half off her head, puts it back. She does not know what to do, he sees she does not know if she should tie the cap's string beneath her chin — whether it will hold without fastening or whether she has time to make a knot and how many heartbeats she has left in the world. The executioner steps out and he can see — he is very close — Anne's eyes focus on him. The Frenchman bobs to his knees to ask pardon. It is a formality and his knees barely graze the straw. He has motioned Anne to kneel, and as she does so he steps away, as if he does not want contact even with her clothes. At arm's length, he holds out a folded cloth to one of the women, and raises a hand to his eyes to show her what he means. He hopes it is Lady Kingston who takes the blindfold; whoever it is, she is adept, but a small sound comes from Anne as her world darkens. Her lips move in prayer. The Frenchman waves the women back. They retreat; they kneel, one of them almost sinks to the ground and is propped up by the others; despite the veils one can see their hands, their helpless bare hands, as they draw their own skirts about them, as if they were making themselves small, making themselves safe. The queen is alone now, as alone as she has ever been in her life. She says, Christ have mercy, Jesus have mercy, Christ receive my soul. She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God's sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if — the executioner calls out sharply, 'Get me the sword.' The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
The Duke of Suffolk is still standing. Richmond too. All others, who have knelt, now get to their feet. The executioner has turned away, modestly, and already handed over his sword. His assistant is approaching the corpse but the four women are there first, blocking him with their bodies. One of them says fiercely, 'We do not want men to handle her.'
He hears young Surrey say, 'No, they have handled her enough.' He says to Norfolk, my lord, take your son in charge, and take him away from this place. Richmond, he sees, looks ill, and he sees with approval how Gregory goes to him and bows, friendly as one young boy can be to another, saying, my lord, leave it now, come away. He does not know why Richmond did not kneel. Perhaps he believes the rumours that the queen tried to poison him, and will not offer her even that last respect. With Suffolk, it is more understandable. Brandon is a hard man and owes Anne no forgiveness. He has seen battle. Though never a bloodletting like this.
It seems Kingston did not think further than the death, to the burial. 'I hope to God,' he, Cromwell says to no one in particular, 'that the constable has remembered to have the flags taken up in the chapel,' and someone answers him, I think so, sir, for they were levered up two days ago, so her brother could go under.
The constable has not helped his reputation these last few days, though he has been kept in uncertainty by the king and, as he will admit later, he had thought all morning that a messenger might suddenly arrive from Whitehall, to stop it: even when the queen was helped up the steps, even to the moment she took off her hood. He has not thought of a coffin, but an elm chest for arrows has been hastily emptied and carried to the scene of the carnage. Yesterday it was bound for Ireland with its freight, each shaft ready to deal separate, lonely damage. Now it is an object of public gaze, a death casket, wide enough for the queen's little body. The executioner has crossed the scaffold and lifted the severed head; in a yard of linen he swaddles it, like a newborn. He waits for someone to take the burden. The women, unassisted, lift the queen's sodden remains into the chest. One of them steps forward, receives the head, and lays it — no other space — by the queen's feet. Then they straighten up, each of them awash in her blood, and stiffly walk away, closing their ranks like soldiers.
From Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Copyright 2012 by Hilary Mantel. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.