In the 19th century the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay visited the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London and recorded his impressions in the first volume of The History of England from the Accession of James the Second published in December 1848.
‘I cannot refrain from expressing my disgust at the barbarous stupidity which has transformed this interesting little church into the likeness of a meeting house in a manufacturing town. In truth there is no sadder spot on earth than this little cemetery.’
It was perhaps this protest that awakened the desire to address the sorry state of the chapel and restore it to its original condition.
In the early part of 1876, the Constable, Sir Charles Yorke submitted a proposed restoration plan for Queen Victoria’s consideration. The goal was to architecturally restore the chapel to its original state and arrange it as a place of worship for the use of residents and garrison of the Tower. In August of 1876, work commenced.
In various places the pavement of the chapel was broken and uneven. Once the pews were removed it became clear that a safe foundation was needed before the new pavement could be laid. It was also decided that a ‘heating apparatus’ should be fitted to the church.
After removing the stones of the pavement, it was discovered that the resting places of those who had been buried in the chapel in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been desecrated.
An explanation might lie in the following:
‘When the Tower ceased to be a residence of the sovereign or a state prison, the chapel of St. Peter appears to have gradually come to be regarded too much in the light of a mere ordinary parish church, in which the interment not only of those who had lived in the Tower, but even of residents in the neighbourhood, was freely permitted.’
In some instances, coffins had been broken up and the bones scattered to make room for a new burial. It was therefore decided that immediate steps should be taken for ‘removing the remains into the crypt’.
A proposal was once again submitted for approval by the Queen and was sanctioned with the express condition that
‘the greatest care and reverence should be exercised in this removal, and that a careful record should be kept of every sign of possible identification which might come to light.’
These conditions were observed and all human remains found beneath the floor of the chapel were collected, enclosed in boxes and an inscription added. Coffins that were found in tact were removed to the crypt.
In October 1876, attention turned to the restoration of the chancel where it was known that Queen Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, the Dukes of Somerset, Northumberland and Monmouth were buried.
It was hoped that this area could remain undisturbed and that the new pavement could be laid over the top but in the end this was impossible because in two places the pavement had sunk and was thought to be hollow beneath.
So it was decided to remove the paving in order to rectify the sinking, with minimal disturbance to the ground. Every spadeful of earth would be carefully examined with a sieve and any remains found reinterred on the same spot.
The work would all be carried out under the supervision of a team of six people including the Resident Governor of the Tower, Colonel G. Bryan Milman, C.B.
Doyne C. Bell documented the findings in Notices of the Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula in the Tower of London (1877).
Since the chancel had been less disturbed than other areas of the chapel, it was hoped that some of the remains of those buried in the sixteenth century would be in situ.
Mr Bell, Secretary to Her Majesty’s Privy Purse, consulted various historical authorities and produced a plan showing ‘the relative positions in which it was believed these persons had originally been buried’.
On the 9th November 1876, the pavement above the spot marked on the plan as the final resting place of Queen Anne Boleyn was lifted and the earth removed to a depth of two feet. In Bell’s account he notes that ‘it had certainly not been disturbed for upwards of a hundred years.’
According to Bell,
‘At this depth the bones of a female were found, not lying in the original order, but which had evidently for some reason or other been heaped together into a smaller space: all these bones were examined by Dr Mouat, who at once pronounced those to be of a female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions; the forehead and lower jaw were small and especially well formed.’
Bell continues his account by noting that ‘the vertebrae were particularly small, especially the joint next to the skull and so bore witness to the Queen’s ‘lyttel neck’. Dr Mouat (Local Government Inspector) asserted that the bones all belonged to the one female and had been buried for upwards of three hundred years. No other female bones were found in this area.
All present were convinced that these were the remains of Queen Anne Boleyn who, according to Bell, was recorded as being buried in front of the Altar by the side of her brother George.
George Boleyn’s remains were not discovered during the restoration and so were either removed or buried further towards the north wall, an area that remained undisturbed.
Close to where the female remains were found, were some male bones ‘belonging to a man of considerable stature, and of about fifty years of age.’ The committee concluded that these were the remains of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (c. 1506 – 22 January 1552) who along with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504 – 22 August 1553) was said to have been buried between the two Queens, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard in front of the altar.
In his account Bell notes that two feet beneath the female remains believed to be Anne Boleyn’s, was discovered the lead coffin of Hannah Beresford, interred in August 1750. He believes that it was around this time that Anne Boleyn’s remains were gathered together.
Included in the account are Dr Mouat’s notes about the bones believed to be the remains of Anne Boleyn.
The bones found in the place where Queen Anne Boleyn is said to have been buried are certainly those of a female in the prime of life, all perfectly consolidated and symmetrical, and belong to the same person.
The bones of the head indicate a well-formed round skull, with an intellectual forehead, straight orbital ridge, large eyes, oval face, and rather square full chin. The remains of the vertebrae, and the bones of the lower limbs, indicate a well-formed woman of middle height, with a short and slender neck. The ribs show depth and roundness of chest. The hand and feet bones indicate delicate and well-shaped hands and feet, with tapering fingers and a narrow foot.
They are all consistent with the published descriptions of the Queen, and the bones of the skull might well belong to the person portrayed in the portrait by Holbein, in the collection of the Earl of Warwick.
View the portrait here.
Dr Mouat also concluded that her height might have been about 5 feet, or 5 feet three inches and after carefully examining the fingers, asserted that no malformation was found.
The description offered by Dr Mouat is very much in keeping with what we know of Anne Boleyn’s appearance with the exception of one comment – ‘a rather square full chin.’
So were the bones discovered in fact the remains of Anne Boleyn?
Well, according to Alison Weir – no!
She states that Bell’s plan showing ‘the relative positions in which it was believed these persons had originally been buried’ was ‘highly speculative and inaccurate’ (Weir, pg. 324) on account that he did not specify what historical sources he consulted and in Weir’s opinion would only have had access to the chronicler John Stow’s account that asserted that, ‘There Lieth before the high altar in St. Peter’s Church, two dukes between two queens’.
Weir goes on to question the square chin and notes that Anne’s authenticated portraits depict her with more of a ‘pointy chin’. She also points out that no painting of Anne by Holbein is known to have survived and that the portrait that Dr Mouat refers to is an eighteenth century copy of Holbein’s sketch of a lady who was only identified as Anne in 1649 (pg. 325).
Dr Mouat records a ‘short and slender neck’ but Francesco Sanuto, a Venetian diplomat, described Anne as having a ‘long neck’ and being ‘of middling height.’
There is also the issue of age. The bones found are said to belong to a woman aged between ‘twenty-five and thirty years of age’ yet most modern historians agree that Anne was born c. 1501 and so would have been around 35 years old at the time of her death.
Before we make any final conclusions it’s necessary to return to Bell’s account of the other persons found buried in the chancel.
On November 11 1876, the excavation committee returned to the Chapel and removed the paving above where the Duke of Northumberland was thought to have been buried. There they discovered the ‘male bones of a person about fifty years of age’. Bell recorded that a large skull was found with the remains and notes that the Duke’s head was not left to rot on London Bridge, rather buried with his body. The committee concluded that these were the remains of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.
They then discovered the remains of two females in two distinct groups in a ‘south-east direction and nearer to the wall of the chancel’ believed to belong to a woman of about 30 to 40 years of age and another of ‘considerably advanced years.’
Bell noted that
‘These groups had been much disturbed and many bones are missing: the younger female had been of rather delicate proportions, the elder had been tall, and certainly of above average height.’
The committee concluded that these were the remains of Lady Rochford and Margaret, Countess of Salisbury.
They considered that the younger female could be Katherine Howard but because she was said to have been ‘very small in stature’, concluded that it was more likely the remains of Lady Rochford.
Katherine Howard’s remains were not found and the explanation offered was that because Katherine was very young at the time of death, her bones were not yet ‘hard and consolidated’ and so the lime used in the interments turned her bones to dust.
On Friday 13th April 1877, the committee met once more and seven cases containing the remains of those exhumed from the chancel on the 9th and 11th of November were reinterred where they had been found.
‘These remains had been soldered up in thick leaden coffers, and then fastened down with copper screws in boxes made of oak plank, one inch in thickness. Each box bore a leaden escutcheon, on which was engraved the name of the person whose supposed remains were thus enclosed, together with the dates of death, and of the year (1877) of the re-interment.’
The cases were then buried about 4 inches beneath the surface, the earth filled in and concrete spread over them and there they remain to this day.
Alison Weir believes that the bones identified as belonging to Anne Boleyn might in fact be those of Katherine Howard who was aged between 16 and 23 years in 1542 and ‘miniatures of whom by Holbein show her with what could be a jutting square jaw’ (Weir, pg. 326).
She also states that the remains identified as Lady Rochford, belonging to a woman of 30-40 years and of ‘delicate proportions’, are the remains of Queen Anne Boleyn.
‘Thus 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).
So much about Anne Boleyn’s life is debatable or a mystery but in my opinion the mention of a square chin is not enough to discount the committee’s findings. And no, Anne Boleyn was probably not between 25 and 30 years of age when she died but by the same token, Katherine Howard was not yet 25.
From Anne’s portrait it is clear that she did have an intellectual forehead, an oval face, slender neck, delicate and well-shaped hands with tapering fingers and it’s possible that Dr Bell had consulted documents now lost to us when he compiled his plan.
I feel honoured that I will be able to pay tribute to this remarkable woman when I visit the chapel on the 19th May. Being close to Anne Boleyn’s physical remains is incredibly moving.
I would love to hear what you think about the restoration and the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s remains.
I would also like to mention that as the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula approaches it’s 500th anniversary in 2012, the Constable’s Fund and the Choral Foundation, supported by Historic Royal Palaces, are looking to raise £1.5 million by 2014 ‘to restore the Chapel to its former glory through a number of sympathetic changes which will make a real difference to the way in which the Chapel is used and protected’.
For more information visit The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula Appeal Page.Sources
Bell, C. D. Notices of the Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula, in the Tower of London: with an account of the discovery of the supposed remains of Queen Anne Boleyn, 1877.
Ridgway, C. The Exhumation of Anne Boleyn.
Weir, A. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 2009.