IT IS OUR LAST full day in London, my daughter Melissa and me. We take an Uber to the Tower of London and book the hour-long Beefeater tour. The guide is dressed as a guardsman in a red suit, trimmed in gold, and a tall black hat. He cracks jokes on the lawn that used to be the castle’s moat — jokes about the plague and the lack of modern amenities and the beheadings. We laugh, blissfully unaware that we are less than two years away from a plague of our own. It is an unusually warm summer day in London. California weather, ironically. My daughter and I are enjoying our trip, excited to be in a different country, the day filled with possibilities. I am exhilarated.
The guide shows us the White Castle, the Crown Jewels, the battle turrets. When we come upon the Tower Green Monument, my mood changes. The monument stops me cold. This is not the spot where Anne Boleyn was executed, but we are surrounded by her death. Boleyn was beheaded by sword on May 19, 1536, at the age of 35, in a spot that is visible from the monument, to the right of where we are standing. It is now a tourist-filled walkway between the White Tower and the building where the Crown Jewels are kept. Boleyn’s body lies within the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, just behind the monument and directly in front of us. Behind and to the left of us, the prison towers rise — the Beauchamp Tower, the Bloody Tower, the Bell Tower — the cramped quarters where Boleyn and so many others awaited their deaths, prayed for mercy, witnessed the executions of their friends through grated windows the size of postcards, scratched their names and their last words into the stone walls. “The bell tower showed me such sight / That in my head sticks day and night,” the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote in 1536 from a prison cell overlooking the Tower Green. He was imprisoned with Boleyn and is said to have witnessed her execution. “These bloody days have broken my heart.”
I feel a kinship with Anne Boleyn, with women whose portraits will not end up in the National Portrait Gallery for their accomplishments. Women whose only accomplishment was having survived for a brief period of time in a world which did not belong to them. The monument jolts me from a sleep, reminds me that here a man ordered his wife’s head severed from her body without remorse. The crimes of which Boleyn was accused hardly matter. Her biggest crime was not holding her king’s attention.
In her book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, anthropologist Frances Larson writes that beheading another human being is an act requiring feelings of both distance and superiority. In the 1500s, King Henry VIII was already superior to any woman by virtue of his birth as a man. Perhaps not so different from today, I think, except the optics have changed. But he was also born a Tudor and became the king of England. In terms of privilege, entitlement, and appetite, I picture him a 16th-century Donald Trump.
At one time, Henry was so infatuated with Boleyn that he broke with the Catholic Church in order to marry her. Three years and three miscarriages later, his feelings had cooled. I imagine King Henry VIII going through the mental gymnastics necessary to distance oneself from a former lover, the rationalizations required to convince oneself the leaving is justified, the cruelty needed to cut the ties, to harden the heart, to take a new lover while the old one is still living, breathing, crying. I have done it. I have had it done to me. However he managed it, Henry distanced himself enough from a woman he once loved, the mother of one of his daughters, to have her killed. He was engaged to his new crush, Jane Seymour, the day after Boleyn’s beheading. They were married 10 days later.
King Henry VIII had between 57,000 and 72,000 people executed during his 40-year reign. The tens of thousands of people who were killed here could never have imagined what this place would become 500 years later. They could not have imagined the people like me, coming here for amusement, gawking and joking and snapping photographs.
When I was a young woman, I lived with a man who owned a machete. One day, he hit me across the face because I didn’t want to leave my mother’s house. He never hit me before that day, but he hit me every day after, and he enjoyed it in a way that terrified me. He kicked me, slapped me, punched me, pushed me, but mostly, he liked to threaten me with his machete. He held it up to my throat for what felt like hours at a time, hissing threats into my ear, calling me trash, daring me to make a wrong move or to say a wrong word. His voice was low. He did not seem angry. He seemed distant and superior. He stopped only when he became bored of it. Every time, I wondered how close he had come in his mind to carrying out his threats.
On March 3, 2018, three months before my daughter and I traveled to Europe, Katherine Cunningham’s beheaded body was found. She was killed by her boyfriend after he isolated her from her family. She was 26 years old. He used a samurai sword. Her boyfriend had lured her from her home in Central California to live in the wilderness of Camano Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. I wonder what she had come to symbolize to him. Virginia Woolf once wrote that women reflect men — we are mirrors put up to them in which they see themselves, magnified and larger than life. Perhaps, in Katherine’s case, her boyfriend saw the truth of who he was reflected in her eyes. Perhaps he did not like what he saw. Perhaps, rather than become the man he ought to be, he broke the mirror.
In Paris, we take a double-decker tour bus to see the sights. As our bus circles a turnabout and heads toward the Arc de Triomphe, the guide lets us know that the Place de la Concorde, the monument we are passing on the left, marks the site where Marie Antoinette was beheaded.
Marie Antoinette came to France from Austria at the age of 14, promised in marriage to the man who would become King Louis XVI. Louis was a weak and indecisive leader. As the French Revolution gained momentum, the foreign-born queen was accused of controlling the king. Supporters of the monarchy attempted to arrange an escape for the royal couple, but Louis would not make up his mind to act, and Marie Antoinette would not leave without him. By the time he agreed to attempt escape, it was too late. The couple was caught and confined, then arrested and imprisoned. Louis was executed on January 21, 1793.
Marie Antoinette had become a symbol of privilege and elitism to the French people, a lightning rod for their anger. Privilege and entitlement do not sit well on a woman. The people felt a vast distance between them and their queen. As for superiority, they denounced hers. The one percent had ignored the rest for far too long. Marie Antoinette was beheaded on October 16, 1793, at the age of 37.
When I tried to leave the man with the machete, he came after me with it. Once, he stood brandishing his machete in my parents’ front yard, in broad daylight, while they were both at work. He yelled at me to come out and return home with him. He had no fear of consequences, didn’t seem to care that someone might call the police. My 14-year-old brother ran out of the house and chased him away with a baseball bat.
The next day, he caught me when I was away from my parents’ house and alone. I had walked a half-block to a nearby convenience store at midday. I had just come out of the store when I saw his white car in the parking lot, saw him get out of the car, saw him reach into the back seat and pull out the machete. He came at me in public and in broad daylight, swinging the machete over his head and across his body. He forced me into his car and took me home. After, he was apologetic, tearful, sought my comfort. He blamed my family. He said they interfered in our lives. He said we should move to San Diego, over 400 miles south, to get away from them. He said we would be happy then.
On February 12, 2009, in Orchard Park, New York, Aasiya Zubair was beheaded by her estranged husband when she left him after years of physical abuse. She was 36 years old. He used hunting knives he had purchased that day and for that purpose. He lured her to their business in Upstate New York under the pretext of having her drop off his clothes after hours, when he would not be there. But he was lying in wait for her. He told police he was the victim.
In Siena, Italy, Melissa and I stay at the Alma Domus, a charming hotel next to the Sanctuary of St. Catherine and the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico. The afternoon of our arrival, we walk over to the Basilica’s parking lot to see the sweeping views of the valley, but they are preparing for the town’s annual horse race, the Palio di Siena, and a woman comes out to shoo us away and close the gate. The next day, when the gate is open again, we are able to go into the parking lot which abuts the Tuscan valley. We stand breathless and look at the view — lush green hills below us, as far as we can see, remnants of ancient stone walls tucked into them. We still cannot go inside the Basilica — they are preparing for the blessing of the horse. Each district in the town will have a horse in the race. We are in the Drago district, the dragons, the bankers. The Dragos will lead their horse inside the Basilica and up to the altar tomorrow night to have it blessed before the race.
Because of the Palio di Siena, we are never able to visit the Basilica during our stay, the place where the relics of St. Catherine are kept. I am not Catholic, and I assume the term “relics” refers to her ancient belongings — perhaps a rosary, a Bible, a dress she once wore. It is not until we are back home in the United States that I learn relics include body parts, in this case the head of St. Catherine of Siena — we had slept next door to her head for two nights, oblivious. I am both horrified and fascinated.
At 14, Catherine of Siena was expected to marry, but that is not what she wanted. She wanted to devote herself to Christ, not passively, as a nun, but actively, as men did. As a woman, this was not a choice she could make. There were choices Catherine could make, though, and she made them. She cut off her hair, short and cropped, like a boy’s. She scalded her face with boiling water from a hot spring to make herself unattractive to suitors. When she spoke with others who suffered from unhappiness, she advised them to do as she had done, to “build a cell inside your mind from which you cannot escape.” Catherine’s father eventually gave up and allowed her to live as she wished. Her writings are considered among the greatest early Tuscan literature.
Catherine’s independence came at a high cost. She inflicted a great deal of punishment on her body in an attempt to control her own life. Even before she began fasting as a part of the practice of her faith, Catherine often expressed a desire not to eat. Eventually, Catherine said she physically could not eat. Contemporary historians and psychologists suggest Catherine had developed an eating disorder. A common underlying cause of eating disorders is an inability to control one’s own life. The refusal to eat is an attempt to regain control — even when one cannot control external events, she can control what she allows into her body. She can refuse to eat. Catherine suffered a stroke in Rome at the age of 33 and died eight days later, on April 29, 1380. A group of followers cut off her head and transported it to Siena. Even in death, her body was not her own.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a 14-year-old girl in 14th-century Italy, a 14-year-old girl who sounds like she might have been something like me. A 14-year-old girl who didn’t want the life that was being foisted upon her, who didn’t accept the limitations that were being imposed on her, who would go so far, as the saying goes, as to cut off her nose to spite her face.
I think about being a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s in the United States of America during a time when cigarette ads told us that women had come a long way, baby. I was told I could not wear jeans to school like the boys did. I was told I could not go to college like my brothers did. I was told I should find a husband.
When I was 16, I started getting up early on Sunday mornings while my family was still sleeping. I walked to a Catholic church in our neighborhood in Salinas, Madonna del Sasso, to attend mass and to escape into the cell I had built in my own mind.
As a young woman, I fell in love with a man who owned a machete. He terrorized me for over a year, until I escaped. I have no doubt he would have killed me if I had stayed, but for a long time I was afraid he would kill me if I left.
On August 26, 2018, in Mount Vernon, Washington, Vanessa Cons was beheaded by her boyfriend in front of their three-year-old daughter. He used a butcher knife. He told police that he struck her down because she would not repent and follow God’s word. Vanessa was 27 years old.
On November 14, 2019, in Uddevalla, Sweden, Wilma Andersson was beheaded by her ex-boyfriend when she went to his apartment to collect some of her belongings. He used a kitchen knife. He was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, a grandiose sense of self, and a lack of empathy. Wilma was 17 years old.
On May 21, 2020, in Talesh, Iran, Romina Ashrafi was beheaded by her father after she eloped with her boyfriend. He used a farming sickle. He said that his daughter had shamed their family. Ashrafi’s murder was considered an honor killing under Iranian law, so her father was sentenced to only nine years in prison, a penalty similar to that imposed upon women who do not wear the hijab in public. Romina was 14 years old.
On November 5, 2020, Steve Bannon, a former advisor to Donald Trump, argued in a podcast that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’s top infectious disease specialist, and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded: “I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I’d put their heads on pikes, right, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning.” His defenders argue that it was a joke. Beheadings are medieval. People don’t behead other people anymore.
Of the three women whose beheadings I was reminded of in Europe, I am most haunted by the beheading of Anne Boleyn. It seems she was murdered for loving someone or for reaching too high. Or both. A single portrait of Boleyn hangs in the National Portrait Gallery with a didactic informing that she was the “Second Queen of Henry VIII” and that she had a “long neck, wide mouth and […] ‘eyes which were black and beautiful’.” Boleyn’s worth, it seems, was tied only to her looks. Several portraits of Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, hang in the gallery. Elizabeth seems to have had her mother’s eyes. I wish Boleyn had lived to see her daughter’s legacy eclipse that of Henry.
My son-in-law, my daughter’s husband, is also named Henry. Henry, who wept four summers ago while reciting the wedding vows he’d written for my daughter. Henry, who does the deep cleaning on his Fridays off so that he and Melissa can both enjoy their weekends. Henry, who didn’t bat an eye when his wife took her mother to Europe for two weeks a couple of years ago. I think of these two Henrys, born 500 years apart, and I imagine how it might be for my granddaughters and great-granddaughters and great-great-granddaughters in 500 years’ more time.