On 19 May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn was executed at the Tower of London. Execution within the Tower walls was something of a rare privilege accorded to rank, offering a privacy for death granted to only a select few. In addition to this however, this allowance of privacy at the end enabled the monarch’s name to be less exposed to public criticism and also enabled any state prisoner who excited strong support to be rendered less dangerous by so doing.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower, by the artist Edouard Cibot
The site of the scaffold itself is somewhat uncertain, as questions have been raised over the accuracy of the location traditionally associated with it. Although the new memorial that has been erected in front of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula marks the spot that was ‘identified’ in the Victorian period as being the site of the scaffold, this could have been due to an inadequate understanding of the actual geography of the Tower in proportion to the apartments where Anne Boleyn had been housed. It would seem that the area in front of the Tower’s Waterloo Barracks could be a more accurate suggestion, given the fact that Anne Boleyn had to walk to the scaffold to what would approximately correspond to the north side of the White Tower in front of the Waterloo Barracks. The traditional spot was marked until recent years by granite paving alone but a new poignant memorial has been placed there, designed by the artist Brian Catling, with the inscription – “Gentle visitor pause awhile, where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life, may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage : under these restless skies“. This memorial was designed in the shape of a glass pillow bearing the impression of a head and was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable trust which maintains the Tower of London. Poignantly, the pillow conjures up both imagery of the execution with the lowering of the head onto the execution block, but also of a poise in death that evokes rest and repose.
The Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, burial place of Queen Anne Boleyn
The Queen looked – according to the Spaniard Antonio de Guaras, who managed to obtain access that morning and therefore wrote an eyewitness account in his Spanish Chronicle of great historical value – “as gay as if she was not going to die”. Anne Boleyn was recorded as wearing a mantle of ermine over dark grey damask, with a crimson petticoat and fur trimmings, her hair bound up in a white coif leaving her “little” neck exposed, so as to aid the executioner – who had come from St. Omer in France specifically to complete the task – with a sword and not an axe as had been the accustomed English manner. Following a short speech in which she beseeched God and made mention of the King, she knelt down and prayed. The executioner actually performed his deed using the element of surprise, asking that the sword be brought to him so as to enable Anne’s head to be in the correct position when she instinctively turned, at which he struck it off, taking the kneeling woman genuinely unawares. Anne’s body was then placed in a modest elm chest but not buried until the afternoon of the same day. This lack of organisation as to how the event should be treated in terms of precedent underlines the sense of confusion that must have prevailed. The body of Henry VIII’s disgraced second queen was then quietly interred in the nearby Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula and her grave remained unmarked. Indeed, it did not receive any further attention until the Victorian period when the Chapel was restored and her remains purportedly ‘identified’.
The modern memorial placed at what is traditionally believed to the site of the scaffold on Tower Green
The restoration of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula appears to have been prompted by the sad state of the building as described by the 19th century historian and politician, Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay, who visited it and recorded his impressions in the first volume of his History of England from the Accession of James the Second, published in 1848. It was Macaulay, who memorably called it “the saddest spot on earth”, going on to describe the great difference between the burial sites of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, where death was celebrated in terms of greatness and “genius” but yet in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, there was instead death’s representation in “whatever is darkest in human nature and human destiny.” (Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James the Second, 1848) The Chapel is a ‘Royal Peculiar’, which means that the church is royal, being in the monarch’s direct ownership and not coming under the jurisdiction of a diocese.
The Constable of the Tower, Sir Charles Yorke, applied to Queen Victoria for permission to introduce a programme of restoration to the Chapel, so that it might be used by the community at the Tower as a place of worship and also be architecturally renewed. The Queen approved his proposal but this was only on the strong condition that the work which was carried out be conducted with the greatest respect. It is worth mentioning that the Queen’s late consort Prince Albert, who had died in 1861, had decided that the Tower’s preservation was a point of national and cultural importance, objecting to its being used to house munitions and desiring that the site be kept “purely as an ancient monument”. In October 1876, work began to restore the chancel in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, which was the area near the altar which contained the site of the graves of among others, Queen Anne Boleyn, the Duke of Somerset, the Duke of Northumberland, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady Rochford and the Countess of Salisbury.
Doyne C. Bell, Secretary to Her Majesty’s Privy Purse, recorded his findings the following year in his Notices of the Historic Persons buried in Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, when in the unavoidable course of new pavement being laid in the chancel, the area which contained the graves themselves had to be disturbed. The investigation was carried out under the supervision of the Resident Governor of the Tower, together with a small team. Deeply concerned to cause the least possible disturbance to the remains, the excavation was conducted with the utmost respect. One Dr. Mouat examined the remains and afterwards declared one of these sets to be those of Anne Boleyn, basing his assumptions on the known descriptions of Anne Boleyn and the slenderness of the bones, in particular of her “little neck”. It has however recently been suggested by the historian Alison Weir in her book, ‘The Lady in The Tower’ (Vintage, 2010) that the remains of Anne Boleyn could be those which were found where Lady Rochford had been ‘interred’. Weir stresses the fact that five beheaded females were buried in the chancel area – Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady Rochford, Lady Jane Grey and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and Victorian forms of identification as to the ages of the bones concerned may of course have been inaccurate. Based on their assumptions however, the Victorian excavators seemed satisfied that they had indeed found the remains of Anne Boleyn.
The slabs marking the tombs consist of a border of yellow Sienna marble with the name and the armorial crests, buried according to their identification in the Victorian period. As Antonia Fraser rightly points out, it is significant that both queens have had the royal title of which they were stripped, restored to them in death. Anne’s slab records her name, coat-of-arms and the date that she died. One senses that it attempts in dignity, to atone for the disgrace that surrounded her name. Similarly, the banner of Queen Consort was placed at the tomb of Catherine of Aragon at the order of George V’s consort Queen Mary, restoring to her the rank of Queen instead of Princess Dowager, a title which Catherine of Aragon had in life, stubbornly refused to recognise.
And then, there are the roses. A curious but beautiful tradition persists every 19 May; a bunch of roses arrives at the Tower of London and has done so now for many years. Weir mentions the tradition as having taking place since at least 1960. (The Lady in the Tower, 2010). The bouquet arrives and is collected by a Yeoman Warder and placed on the memorial slab for Anne Boleyn, the exact location of the slab corresponding roughly to where the altar cloth falls to its bottom left. No member of the public is normally allowed into the Chapel unless it is in the Chapel’s last hour of opening time; otherwise visitors are respectfully escorted by one of the Yeoman Warders, who close their popular tours of the Tower of London with a talk inside the Chapel. The altar area is roped off. A high degree of anonymity as to the sender of these flowers has been achieved and respected, although a former Director-General of the Tower of London particularly intrigued by this charming story, managed to establish the fact that the roses could be traced to a flower supplier in London. The bunch that is sent every year comes from an “undisclosed firm of trustees” (Weir, The Lady in the Tower, 2010) and always is accompanied by a card which reads quite simply, “Queen Anne Boleyn 1536.” These memorial roses are only removed after they have wilted, however other flowers are also left by private individuals at any time and not simply to mark this anniversary.
Another pleasing anecdote is that a rose has been actually named for Anne Boleyn. Created by David Austin, it is an English shrub rose. Introduced in 1999, it has next to no perfume and is a warm, pink rosette.
Whilst it is certain that Anne Boleyn will remain a figure that will forever excite controversy, she exerts a fascination which I believe even exceeds opinion. It almost seems as if she is somehow centuries later still trying to defend herself and her character as she did when she was tried before a jury at the Tower of London in 1536. Her strong voice seems to persist through time and there are many ready to sympathise with her story. These flowers laid annually, would seem to be a touching proof of that.
Photo credits: Edouard Cibot (Musée Rolin, Autun, France) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Photographs of the Tower of London, Elizabeth Jane Timms, Copyright of the author, 2015-2016.