In this piece, we introduced the idea that Shakespeare, although a very inaccurate historian, accurately reflected the cultural history of his time with respect to the political execution of women. We have also discussed how the Bard’s Richard III may actually have been a portrayal of Robert Cecil. Another piece showed the uncertainty as to the origin of coloured roses as politico-military badges.
Now think of Hamlet. His adversary is King Claudius, his uncle, supported by the verbose courtier Polonius. The play was set in Denmark and written during 1599-1602 when it was apparent that England would soon have Anne of Denmark as Queen Consort. Hamlet kills Polonius as the older man hides behind an arras, which is a tapestry or curtain.
In January 41 AD, Claudius was proclaimed as Rome’s new Emperor. Graves portrayed him as hiding behind a curtain as his nephew Gaius (“Caligula”) was assassinated, to be found by a Praetorian named Gratus. Sometimes, it seems, those writing fiction cannot be original.
Many of the facts about Anne Boleyn are well known nowadays. As the second “wife” of Henry VIII, she was beheaded for treason by adultery in 1536. Their marriage was annulled shortly before her execution but it was quite possibly bigamous anyway and invalid by affinity in that Henry had previously slept with her sister. Anne’s last request was that a swordsman be brought from Calais for the purpose and he seems to have obtained a work permit. She left Henry a daughter.
Fifteen centuries earlier, Messallina (1) was the third wife of the emperor Claudius until she too was beheaded, in 48 AD to be precise, for treason by adultery, leaving him a son and a daughter. The facts are rather more confused by the further passage of time and the sources appear to be very partial but the accusations against Messallina are more convincing. Suetonius (2) records that “… it turned out that she was not only guilty of other disgraceful crimes but had gone so far as to commit bigamy with Gaius Silius and even sign a marriage contract before witnesses so Claudius had her executed …”. Graves (3) goes into rather more detail, describing a mock divorce, a “marriage” to Silius, an attempted escape and a surrender to a group of soldiers in the Gardens of Lucullus. He also implies that Claudius’ freedman Narcissus ordered the execution, with or without the emperor’s endorsement.
In the years between these deaths, and more certainly from 400 onwards, executions by decapitation were carried out more crudely, usually with an axe. Anne Boleyn’s special request was the only prominent use of a more humane implement in the British kingdoms, except the Halifax Gibbet (c.1280-1650) and Scottish Maiden (c.1550-1710).
(1) I use this spelling because her father’s name, from which hers was derived, was Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus.
(2) The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics edition, p.203, note 26.
(3) Claudius the God. A modern novelist wouldn’t normally have such an exalted status but Graves accessed many contemporaneus sources and indeed translated (2) above.