James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet

John Pemble writes:

The scene had been too trying even for the practised headsman of the Tower. His arm wandered. The blow fell on the knot of the handkerchief, and scarcely broke the skin. She neither spoke nor moved. He struck again, this time effectively. The head hung by a shred of skin, which he divided without withdrawing the axe; and at once a metamorphosis was witnessed, strange as was ever wrought by wand of fabled enchanter. The coif fell off, and the false plaits. The laboured illusion vanished. The lady who had knelt before the block was in the maturity of grace and loveliness. The executioner, when he raised the head, as usual, to show it to the crowd, exposed the withered features of a grizzled, wrinkled old woman.

This account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots wasn’t written by Hilary Mantel or Antonia Fraser. It was written more than 140 years ago by James Anthony Froude, whose History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada put the Tudor show on the road.

(LRB 23 May 2013)

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