Friday, December 5, 2014

Counting the Days

Anne Boleyn spent the night of May 18, 1536, in the Tower of London.  She'd been there for some 16 days, since her arrest on May 2 on charges of adultery, incest, and plotting to kill her husband, Henry VIII, King of England.  That night was to be her last.

The next day she was taken to the Tower Green and beheaded.  

It is said that she became hysterical during those two weeks in the Tower.  Uncontrollable wailing and crying.  Manic laughter.  She was herself, they say, conniving enough to understand that she'd been a victim of a plot.  She was herself, they say, disbelieving that she could have been so suddenly and unceremoniously ruined.

I've quoted before this passage from Camus' essay "Reflections on the Guillotine."
What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be an equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal, who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him, and who from that moment onward had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.
I've observed that it's not actually true.  There are, indeed, such monsters in private life.  There are worse.*  Regardless, the wait is horrific.

And so Anne Boleyn, whether in a kind of bipolar hysteria or not, sat in the Tower.  Waiting.  Day by day having hopes raised and dashed, ultimately knowing that at some point, in the not distant future, they would come for her and she would have her head chopped off.

Imagine yourself in her slippers.

Now it is the last night.  In the morning they will come.  Beheadings were often particularly gruesome.  It wasn't just the spectacle.  More than the spurting blood, more than the head falling to the ground.  More than that, there was the all-too-common failure fully to decapitate with the first blow.  This was likely to be better.  Rather than the common executioner with his ax, a special swordsman was, they say, brought in for the occasion.  She is supposed to have expressed relief.
I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.
By all accounts, he was very good.  The killing itself was swift and clean, a single blow with the sword.

She was probably 35.  Some scholars say 29.  Not a beauty, they said.  There are stories of sixth finger on one hand, stories of a large goiter on her neck.  Perhaps.  Regardless (or perhaps because), she'd bewitched the king.  Until she no longer did.

It appears she wrote poetry during those days and nights in the Tower.
Defiled is my name full sore
Through cruel spite and false report,
That I may say for evermore,
Farewell, my joy! adieu comfort!
For wrongfully ye judge of me
Unto my fame a mortal wound,
Say what ye list, it will not be,
Ye seek for that can not be found.
And then the night before.  The night of May 18.  In the Tower.  Knowing she would be killed the next day.  Not sure how it would or would not go.  That night, so it is said, she wrote another poem.**
O death, rock me asleep,
Bring me to quiet rest,
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

My pains who can express?
Alas, they are so strong;
My dolour will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Alone in prison strong
I wait my destiny.
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Should taste this misery!
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Farewell, my pleasures past,
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torments so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell;
Rung is my doleful knell;
For the sound my death doth tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.
* * * * *

Some 349 years later, in 1995, the Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal by Clarence Allen Lackey who was under sentence of death from a crime in Lubbock, Texas.  Not a single Justice voted to hear Lackey's appeal, but John Paul Stevens wrote a memorandum "respecting the denial of certiorari."  The claim (known as a "Lackey claim," and despite some interest expressed at one time or another by judges and justices no court has yet found it compelling), stripped to its essence, is that spending decades on death row is itself cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn
*Which is really beside the point.  We're supposed to be better than the people we kill.  

** The authorship is not conclusively established.  It may have been written by her brother.

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