February is a bit of a bit of a bumper month as far as Tudor Queen beheadings go…
First to set the trend was poor little Catherine Howard, who met her doom on the 13th February 1542. It is said that on the night before her execution, she ordered the executioner’s block be brought to her cell in the Tower so that she could practise the best and most graceful way to kneel before it.
Poor Catherine has always been dismissed as relatively unimportant by the serious historians of the period, victim perhaps of a misogynistic view that as her adultery is undisputed, she deserved to be punished.
History has not recorded what she was wearing when she stepped out into the chill cold air at nine o clock in the morning of the 13th February all those years ago, but I expect she paid great attention to her dress. This is in a great contrast to the earlier execution of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, an undoubted Queen of style whose final outfit was meticulously described by contemporary chroniclers.
Lady Jane Grey is the next Tudor Queen to meet her end in February and was beheaded in the same spot as Catherine Howard on the 12th February 1554 after being found guilty of high treason.
Lady Jane was just sixteen or seventeen years old when she was executed and had been jointly condemned with her young husband, Guildford Dudley. Her husband died first and Jane stoically stood at her window at ten in the morning, when he was due to walk past on his way to the scaffold that had been erected for him on Tower Hill. The young couple were not fond of each other but she was moved by the sight of his folorn figure going past and then shortly afterwards the sight of his decapitated body being brought back for burial.
It was Jane’s turn next and leaning on the arm of the Tower’s Lieutenant and followed by her ladies in waiting, she walked out to the scaffold that had been erected for her, within the confines of the Tower, leaning against the side of the White Tower. She was a very small girl and must have appeared absolutely tiny at that moment as surrounded by adults and dressed in a simple black dress (not the shimmering, eye catching white of Delaroche’s painting) she made her way up the scaffold to the block.
After making a speech and giving her gloves, handkerchief and prayer book as final gifts to her companions, she then shrank away in horror from the executioner as he stepped forward to take her dress from her, the confiscation of his victim’s often costly clothes being one of the perks of what must surely have been a very unpleasant job.
Her ladies helped her remove her gown and then gave her a piece of cloth to cover her eyes. It was at this point that she could have done with some of Catherine Howard’s foresight in learning how to kneel at the block because as soon as the cloth was fastened around her eyes and her ladies had stepped away, Jane was left all alone in the darkness, unable to find the block and unsure of where to go.
She staggered forward with her arms outstretched and cried out: ‘Where is it? Oh what shall I do?’ While all around gawped in horror and confusion, unsure of what to do. Finally someone stepped forward, took her hands and led her to the block.
Mary Queen of Scots is the last of the February Queens and was beheaded on the 8th February 1587 in Fotheringay Castle. The Queen was only informed of her fate the evening before the execution was due to take place and spent her final hours in prayer, composing her will and also writing a final letter to her former brother in law, the King of France.
We can only imagine the ripple of appalled shock that ran through the room when the deposed Catholic Queen stepped up onto the three foot high scaffold and removed her black cloak and gown plus two petticoats and corset to reveal a blood red chemise, the colour of martyrdom.