“Intelligence, Spirit and Courage”
On the morning of May 19 1536, Anne Boleyn went bravely to her death in a private execution at the Tower of London.
It took only one stroke of the executioner’s sword to sever her delicate neck, the very same neck that the poet Thomas Wyatt had once praised as ‘fair’ in one of his admiring verses. It was then left up to her four ladies to move and prepare her body for burial.
Anne’s head was covered in a white cloth and carried by one of her ladies. Her body was undressed and ‘wrapped in a white covering’ and placed in an old elm chest.
Although only a short while ago Anne had been Queen, loved and desired by a King, no provision had been made for a proper coffin.
Anne’s women carried her body approximately 65 metres (Ives, Pg. 359) to the royal chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, passing the newly filled graves of Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton, and buried her in the earth beneath the chancel pavement in an unmarked grave (Weir, Pg. 273).
Although Anne was executed at 9 o’clock in the morning her body was not buried until ‘the same day at afternoon’. According to Weir it is likely that the delay was caused by the need to wait for someone to arrive to lift the paving stones in the chancel and dig the shallow grave – no provision had been made for this either (Pg. 273).
Before burying Anne her attendants removed her garments and jewellery and distributed them to the Tower officials as customary after executions. The King would then redeem the items for a substantial sum (Weir, Pg. 274).
The matter of exactly where Anne Boleyn was buried is a difficult one. Some evidence points to Anne being buried next to her brother, George Boleyn, while other evidence suggest Anne and George were some distance apart.
In 1876, Queen Victoria approved the restoration of the royal chapel of St Peter ad Vincula and the remains of those buried beneath the sunken altar pavement were excavated, examined and ‘identified’.
The remains were then
‘reverently laid in individual leaden coffers, which were screwed down and placed inside oaken outer coffins one-inch thick, these being sealed with copper screws. A lead plaque bearing the name and arms of the person thought to be inside was affixed to the lid of each coffin, and all were decently reburied in the place where they were found, just four inches beneath the altar pavement, which was then concreted over and laid with decorative octagonal memorial slabs of green, red and white marble in a mosaic design, each having a border of yellow Sienna marble and the names and armorial crests of the deceased.’ (Weir, Pg. 327)
I feel that I should point out that historian Alison Weir does not believe that the remains identified as Anne Boleyn were in fact that of Henry VIII’s second Queen. She instead concludes that
‘we can be almost certain that Anne’s memorial stone does not mark the last resting place of her actual remains, and that she lies beneath Lady Rochford’s memorial’ (Pg. 327)
I hope to look in more detail at the Victorian excavation of the Chapel Royal and Alison Weir’s conclusion in a separate article.
Visiting the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula today
You can visit Anne Boleyn’s final resting place and pay your respects at St Peter ad Vincula on your next trip to the Tower of London. The Chapel can be accessed through a Yeoman Warder tour (check the daily programme on arrival) or in the last hour of standard opening time, usually from 4.30pm.
Other notable Tudor personalities are also buried within the chapel, including George Boleyn, Jane Grey, Catherine Howard, Lady Rochford, Thomas More, John Fisher and Edward Seymour.
For me, being so close to Anne’s physical remains was very moving. I kept picturing her ladies cradling their mistresses blood stained head and body whilst waiting for someone to dig her shallow grave.
I imagine that those few hours must have seemed so surreal and felt like an eternity.
Only three years and thirty-seven days after Anne Boleyn had first dined lavishly as Queen of England, she now lay dead and all but forgotten by those at the English Court who now chose to turn their back on the past.
But one thing is for certain; I have not forgotten her and I know that many others around the world remember this remarkable woman.
In the words of Thomas Cromwell, Anne was ‘intelligence, spirit and courage’ (Ives. Pg. 359).References Ives, A. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004. Weir, A. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 2009. Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula *Image copyright, Donald Greyfield at Find a Grave.