Fashioning Death: Anne Boleyn, James French, and the Last Dying Speech

Good Christen people, I am come hether to dye, for accordyng to the lawe and by the lawe I am judged to dye, and therefore I wyll speake nothyng against it. I am come hether to accuse no man, nor to speake any thyng of that wherof I am accused and condempned to dye, but I pray God save the kyng and sende him long to reigne over you, for a gentler nor a more mercyfull prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, & soveraigne lorde. And if any persone will medle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.  And thus I take my leve of the worlde and of you all, and I heartely desyre you all to pray for me. O lorde have mercy on me, to God I comende my soule. 

– The final speech of Anne Boleyn, prior to her execution in the Tower of London on May 19 1536 [1]

How’s this for your headline? ‘French Fries.’ 

– The alleged last words of convicted murderer James French, prior to his execution by electric chair in Oklahoma, 1966 [2]

At first glance, Boleyn, the most famous of Henry VIII’s six wives, and French, a double murderer in twentieth-century Oklahoma, appear to have little in common. They were convicted of very different crimes, the methods by which they were executed – beheading and electrocution respectively – were different, and their deaths have been remembered in entirely different ways. Today, Boleyn remains perhaps the most frequently-discussed and debated figure of the English Renaissance behind Shakespeare himself, and her execution marks either the final moment of a heretical “temptress”, or the creation of a Protestant martyr “comforter and aider of all the professors of Christ’s gospel” depending on which source one consults.[3] French, on the other hand, is known primarily for his final one-liner.

Dig a little deeper, however, and some similarities emerge between the approaches to imminent death on display in Boleyn’s and French’s respective dying speeches. For one thing, neither talks about the past. Neither uses their last words to address their crimes directly, to explicitly admit guilt or protest innocence. As a matter of fact, one might read in both speeches a measure of subversive defiance. Boleyn’s insistence that she will neither “accuse” nor speak anything “against wherof I am accused and condempned to dye” belies the fact that she is clearly thinking about those things, and her pointed disregard implies paradoxically that there is reason to accuse her accusers and doubt the veracity of her alleged crimes, thereby “leaving open the question of her innocence”. [4] Similarly, French does not dwell on the nature of his crimes, choosing instead to make a joke which acknowledges the reality of his death sentence – that he will ‘fry’ – but which is entirely devoid of any punitive context. By disassociating his crime from his punishment, French achieves the same effect as Boleyn of subtly undermining his punishment. Unlike Boleyn’s sober dismissal of the facts, however, French uses gallows humour to surmount, as Wylie Sypher might put it, the evil of his situation. [5]

The examples of Boleyn and French demonstrate the powerful opportunity afforded to condemned individuals to influence their discursive – and in the case of Boleyn, spiritual – futures with their last dying speeches – an opportunity that involves not only self-representation but, to borrow a term coined by Greenblatt, “self-fashioning”. [6] Greenblatt uses the concept of “self-fashioning” to describe the “crafting of a public role” by an individual. [7] To self-fashion signifies a willingness to transform one’s identity, “if only for a brief period and with mental reservations, into another”, and project that fashioned self onto the wider world. [8] The notion of self-fashioning is, as Greenblatt discusses, particularly useful in discussions of self-representation in Renaissance literature due to what appears to be “an increased self-consciousness” in the sixteenth century “about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process”. [9] One may detect in the last words of Boleyn and French the same kind of manipulation of public identity that Greenblatt observes in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1589) when Spenser writes that the general intention and meaning that he has “fashioned” is “to fashion a gentleman”. [10] In each case the speaker alludes to the performativity of selfhood: Boleyn fashions herself as an image of stoic virtue; French projects humour; Spenser proposes to compose a “gentleman” in the same way that one might compose a book of poetry.

If Boleyn and French are not concerned with the past, it is because they are instead focused on the future. For French, this is simply a focus on his place in the living world after death and the level of control which he might exert over it. For Boleyn, this proves a tricky balancing act of her posthumous role in the living world, and readying herself for the immediacy of her entry into heaven or hell. Indeed, Boleyn’s final words to her audience are a call to prayer, followed by a quiet commendation of her soul to God. [11] Although the religious connotations of speeches by executed men and women in general are certainly of relevance to this discussion, I suggest that one’s spiritual fate is but a part of a broader posthumous future envisioned by the condemned in their dying speeches – a post-execution future which takes part in both the realm of the dead and the discourse of the living.

Both Boleyn and French use their dying speeches to anticipate and participate in a discursive future beyond their deaths. In Boleyn’s case, she refers not only to the “lawe” by which she is “judged to die”, but also to “any persone” who might “medle of my cause”, and requires them to “judge the best” as well. Apparently confident that her trial and execution will find narrative currency long after she is dead, Boleyn imagines that people (and it is unclear whether she has anybody specifically in mind) will “medle” – actively involve themselves – in her story, interpreting the circumstances surrounding her death and judging as they see “best”. And as her subversive refusal to address those circumstances suggests, the conclusions which her biographers see “best” may not tally with the official judgement of the law. In essence, Boleyn imagines her death as the subject of discourse, and endeavours to influence that discourse as best she can in the moments which precede her execution. French goes one step further, actually imagining himself as a headline, a text to be interpreted: “French Fries”. Like Boleyn, he acknowledges – even hopes – that people will discuss him after he is dead, and stakes an immediate claim in that discussion by ensuring that his final words are an ultimate act of self-identification, defining the terms by which he is remembered before the newspapers can do it for him. Removed from any reference to his crimes, culpability or frame of mind, French resists any definition based solely on the circumstances of his condemnation and instead positions himself as, like Boleyn’s “cause”, open to a multitude of interpretations.

However, to focus on this “final moment” of selfhood and the “destruction” of self in death risks overlooking what happens to the fashioned self after death. I suggest that the type of self-fashioning found in last dying speeches of executed individuals such as Boleyn and French goes beyond the constantly shifting role-playing of action and reaction which Greenblatt describes, and involves an anticipatory element in which the condemned extend their subjectivity beyond their own deaths, pre-empting and combating their own posthumous objectification.

Depiction of the 1685 execution of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, at Tower Hill in a popular print. (Public domain image.)

Condemned individuals on the scaffold (or in French’s case, the electric chair) demonstrate an innate understanding of the transition that all those who die must undergo – a transformation not simply from living to dead, but from subjective, self-representing individual to objectified subject of outside interpretation. This shift begins the very instant that the individual ceases to represent him or herself. One recent critic postulates that Boleyn, who tucked her dress underneath her feet as she knelt on the scaffold, might have done so solely to prevent her sexual objectification in the moments immediately following the executioner’s stroke:

Boleyn’s body would have flailed wildly as it bled profusely, permitting those men who stood closest to the body to have a look under her skirts, or perhaps at other parts of her body, such as her bosom. With Boleyn’s head gone, she would have been unable to react of protest either physically or vocally. [12]

The implication is that those present understood that it might have been possible to view Boleyn in a most private, even voyeuristic manner when she was no longer able to defend herself. The fate of her headless corpse has also been re-imagined by the public as one of England’s most enduring ghost stories. To this day tales persist of Boleyn’s ghost, carrying her head under her arm, being spotted in the grounds of the Tower and at her ancestral homes of Blickling Hall and Hever Castle. Suggestions as to what her ghost might signify vary: is her head presented as a gruesome gift, to mark her as seductress? Does she cradle it maternally in a reference to the daughter from whom she was separated? Does she clutch it possessively, in defiance of the accusations levelled against her? [13] Although the treatment of Boleyn as a ghost might be considered less morally problematic than the potential treatment of her bleeding corpse as a sexual object, both scenarios involve the viewer re-presenting someone no longer able to represent themselves, in a manner both coldly impersonal and worryingly intimate.  

Faced with the alarming reality of posthumous objectification, the condemned may, like Boleyn and French, attempt in their last dying speeches to perpetuate their fashioned selves or otherwise exert control over their social roles even after death. In the theatre of the gallows, though, one’s death rarely remains one’s own for long: once dead, the corpse becomes an open signifier, ripe for re-interpretation and re-fashioning.

Works cited

[1] Anne Boleyn, 19 May 1536. Recorded by Edward Hall . The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (London, 1548). sig. PPP6r

[2] James French, 10 August 1966. From Geoff Tibballs. The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004). 316

[3] Nicholas Sander. The rise and growth of the Anglican schism (1585). ed. D. Lewis (London: Burnes & Oates, 1877); John Foxe. Acts and Monuments. Ed. J. Pratt, 8 vols. (London: 1877). v: 60

[4] Greg Walker. “Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn”. The Historical Journal 45/1 (March 2002). 1-29. 9. See also E.W. Ives. ‘Faction at the court of Henry VIII: the fall of Anne Boleyn,’ History 57 (1972): 169-88, 171-2

[5] Wylie Sypher, ed. Comedy: “An Essay on Comedy” by George Meredith. “Laughter” by Henri Bergson (Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1980). 246

[6] Stephen Greenblatt. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: UCP, 1980). 2.

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8] Ibid., 228.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Ibid., quoting: Edmund Spenser. “A Letter of the Authors Expounding His Whole Intention in the Course of this Worke”. Faerie Queene. The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Varorium Edition. Ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1932-57)

[11] Anne’s very last recorded words, according to Hall, were entirely concerned with her spiritual fate, and spoken quietly as she knelt blindfolded: “To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul” (Hall. The union. sig. PPP6r)

[12] Thea Cervone. “‘Tucked Beneath Her Arm”: Culture, Ideology, and Fantasy in the Curious Legend of Anne Boleyn”. Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey eds. Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination (Leiden: Brill, 2012). 289-310. 298

[13] Ibid., 289-90

One response to “Fashioning Death: Anne Boleyn, James French, and the Last Dying Speech”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

A Website.

%d bloggers like this: