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The grave of Anne Boleyn

The new memorial that has been erected in front of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula on Tower Green marks the spot ‘identified’ in the Victorian period as being the site of the scaffold, which may have been a misunderstanding of the Tower’s geography in proportion to the apartments where Anne Boleyn had been housed. The fact that Anne’s burial place of St Peter ad Vincula lay only behind can also be to blame. Modern theory suggests that the area in front of the Tower’s Waterloo Barracks is more accurate, 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 barracks. Execution within the privacy of the Tower walls was reserved for prisoners of high rank, excluding public visibility.

The traditional spot was marked until recent years by granite paving 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. To be beheaded implies the bowing of a head, a royal gesture. The violent act of the axe is disempowered by death’s peaceful sleep.  

Church of St Peter ad Vincula. By Michael Coppins – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Anne had been brought to the Tower of London by river. Her arrival had a black symmetry with her first arrival for her coronation three years earlier. Anne would surely have noticed that the King was not there to greet her this time. Arriving by river, we might poignantly think of the gift that Anne Boleyn had given Henry much earlier, of a jewelled ship ‘in which the solitary damsel is tossed about’. At Anne’s coronation, the people lining the processional route had been described by one eyewitness as ‘as sorry as though it had been a funeral’. This underlined that Anne was left dangerously dependent on the King’s love, which could only really be maintained through pregnancy and the birth of a male heir. This time, there would be no ‘funeral’, only a burial.

The Queen looked – according to the Spaniard Antonio de Guaras, who managed to obtain access that morning and wrote an eyewitness account in his Spanish Chronicle – “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 neck exposed so as to aid the executioner. The man had come over from Saint-Omer, France specifically to complete the task with a sword and not an axe as had been the accustomed English manner.

This last touch is poignant, given how very French Anne had appeared to the English court, being fluent in the language that had also featured in her troubled courtship with Henry VIII. It was also in France that both Henry and Anne had been in 1532, prior to that pivotal year in Anne’s life – 1533. It is possible that in this show of mercy in allowing the elegant and sharp sword as opposed to the English axe, a flicker of Henry’s love or at least the memory of it, may be seen. Anne’s spirit rose but her words were black: ‘I heard say the executioner was very good’. The slender neck that had attracted the King now became an aid to dispatch her: ‘and I have a little neck’.

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.

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 precedence underlines the sense of confusion that must have prevailed. There could hardly be a greater contrast to the burial of Queen Elizabeth of York, the last English queen consort to be buried in normal circumstances according to state protocol. Queen Elizabeth of York had also died at the Tower of London following childbirth. The body of Henry VIII’s disgraced second queen was then quietly interred in the nearby Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Her grave remained unmarked and did not receive any further attention until the Victorian period when the chapel was restored and her remains purportedly ‘identified’. The long gap perpetuates the sense of disgraced memory.

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 nineteenth-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. 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.”

The Constable of the Tower Sir Charles Yorke appealed 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 on the strong condition that any work which was carried out be conducted with the greatest respect.  It is worth mentioning that the Queen’s late consort Prince Albert 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, 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 Margaret Pole, 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 containing the graves had to be disturbed. The investigation was carried out under the supervision of the Resident Governor of the Tower with a small team. One of these Dr Mouat, examined the remains and afterwards declared one of these sets found 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”, perhaps also recalling surviving portraiture, the best known of which is the late sixteenth century portrait by an unknown artist in the National Portrait Gallery based on a work of circa 1533-1536. It is poignant that this slender neck, a symbol of graceful femininity, found its own grim compensation when it came to the French sword.

It has been suggested by the author and 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 was assumed to have 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. Victorian forms of identification as to the ages and identity of the bones concerned could well have been insufficient, the plaques being placed there afterwards. Based on their own examinations and assumptions made on the evidence available, the Victorian excavators seemed satisfied that they had indeed found the remains of Queen Anne Boleyn in St Peter ad Vincula, although it may have been no more than mere guesswork based on pictorial evidence.

The Victorian slabs that mark the assumed tombs consist of a border of yellow Sienna marble with the name and respective armorial crests. As the biographer Antonia Fraser rightly points out, it is significant that both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Katherine Howard have the royal title of which they were stripped in life, restored to them in death. We might remember here the tomb of Queen Catherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral, which now proudly boasts the banner of English queen consort, placed there on the order of Queen Mary, George V’s queen consort, thereby effectively burying the title of Princess Dowager which Catherine stubbornly refused to recognise. Anne’s slab records her name, coat-of-arms and the date that she died. One senses it attempts to atone for the disgrace that surrounded her name. Importantly, this all took place in the Victorian period – an irony given its strict hallmark for high moral values – yet as we know, neither of Henry’s disgraced queens may have been guilty as charged. The Victorian age was more forgiving on the Tudor ages than it was on its own generation, something contributed to no least by Agnes Strickland’s twelve-volume series on the Queens of England, written between 1840 and 1848.

And then there are the roses. A curious and beautiful tradition persists every 19 May when a bunch of roses arrives by taxi at the Tower of London and has done so now for many years, since at least 1960. The bouquet solemnly arrives, 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, in the chancel area. No member of the public is normally allowed into this part of the chapel royal outside services, unless as part of the popular tours of the Yeoman Warders when the altar area is respectfully roped off.

A high degree of anonymity as to the sender of these flowers has been achieved, although a former Director-General of the Tower of London who was intrigued by the story managed to trace the roses 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.” The 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. A handful of curious onlookers always remain at the altar area after the close of the Yeoman’s tour, gazing at the Victorian plaques too far away to be read. An English shrub rose has, in fact, been named for Anne Boleyn. Created by David Austin, it was introduced in 1999, has next to no perfume and is a warm, pink rosette.

Anne Boleyn will remain a figure that forever excites controversy, exerting a fascination which exceeds opinion. She retains that dark appeal so peculiar to her and bewitches us historically, a parallel perhaps of how she once fascinated Henry VIII. Seventeen of Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn survive in the Vatican Library in Rome, a poignant relic of his passion. Centuries later she might still be seen to be trying to defend herself even now, just as she was tried before a jury at the Tower in 1536. The legendary sightings of Henry’s second queen demonstrate that she defiantly maintains her place in the English historical imagination and therein we could be said to feel the force of her personality, even in our own time. Her strong voice rises to defend herself, at the bar of history and there are many ready to sympathise with her story.

These flowers laid annually, would seem to be a touching proof of that.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.