THAT minute detail of circumstances frequently found in writers of the history of their own times is more interesting than the elegant and general narratives of later, and probably of more philosophical historians. It is in the artless recitals of memoir-writers, that the imagination is struck with a lively impression, and fastens on petty circumstances, which must be passed over by the classical historian. The writings of Brantome, Comines, Froissart, and others, are dictated by their natural feelings: while the passions of modern writers are temperate with dispassionate philosophy, or inflamed by the virulence of faction. History instructs, but Memoirs delight. These prefatory observations may serve as an apology for Anecdotes, which are gathered from obscure corners, on which the dignity of the historian must not dwell.
In Houssaie’s Memoirs, Vol. 1. p. 435, a little circumstance is recorded concerning the decapitation of the unfortunate Anne Bullen, which illustrates an observation of Hume. Our historian notices that her executioner was a Frenchman of Calais, who was supposed to have uncommon skill; it is probable that the following incident might have been preserved by tradition in France, from the account of the executioner himself.—Anne Bullen being on the scaffold, would not consent to have her eyes covered with a bandage, saying that she had no fear of death. All that the divine who assisted at her execution could obtain from her was, that she would shut her eyes. But as she was opening them at every moment, the executioner could not bear their tender and mild glances; fearful of missing his aim, he was obliged to invent an expedient to behead the queen. He drew off his shoes, and approached her silently; while he was at her left hand, another person advanced at her right, who made a great noise in walking, so that this circumstance drawing the attention of Anne, she turned her face from the executioner, who was enabled by this artifice to strike the fatal blow without being disarmed by that spirit of affecting resignation which shone in the eyes of the lovely Anne Bullen.
“The Common Executioner,
Whose heart th’ accustom’d sight of death makes hard,
Falls not the axe upon the humble neck
But first begs pardon.”
Amelot de la Houssaie (1634-1706), was secretary of the French ambassador in Venice. He wrote several books besides his Memoires Historiques, Politiques, Critiques, et Litteraires, including a history of the Venetian government. Bullen=Boleyn.
¶ This article is revised and abridged from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. D’Israeli began the original versions of the piece with the following preamble:
Every particular relating to eminent persons in our own history, interests the reflecting mind. One can hardly be too minute, though an unskilful writer may frequently become prolix. It is the opinion of the laborious Dr. Birch, that too many facts cannot be given; they must not however be presented in a cold and dry manner; as are most of his voluminous Anecdotes.…
The article was formerly concluded by a short paragraph following the Shakespearian quote:
Not however if the executioner should be a Santerre. Perhaps these are miscreants whom even the imagination of Shakespeare could not conceive.
General Santerre was the Mayor of Paris who supervised the execution of Louis XVI. in 1793.