May 19, 1536: The Body of the Queen

After the thousand spectators vanished, Anne Boleyn's body still lay where it had fallen, the blood draining from the stump of her neck to patter down through the boards to the grass below. It was at that point everyone realized no instructions had been given as to what was to be done with her body.

The king had given detailed instructions of every step in this process thus far, down to what type of cloth should bedeck the scaffold, but nary a word on what should happen to the body of the woman he had once loved enough to defy the crown heads of Europe and break a thousand years of religious tradition.

No one knew what to do. They waited, hoping word would come, but there was only silence from the king and council. Eventually, someone - possibly Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower - made the decision. A coffin had not been provided, but they did not want to put her body directly into the earth. She was, after all, the Queen of England. A shipment of bow staves, intended for troops in Ireland had recently arrived at the armory, and they decided to use the storage chest as a coffin to inter Anne's remains. It was brought to the scaffold.

Anne's body had been stripped of its clothing, likely down to her shift. The clothing of the deceased was the prerogative of the executioner, part of his expected payment. The rest of Anne's belongings, left behind in the royal apartments, belonged now to William Kingston. Later, the council would pay him 100£ to buy it back - they wanted no "souvenirs" of the dead woman surfacing.

Anne had removed her gray damask gown on the scaffold before the sword fell, and her ladies were likely the ones who removed the scarlet kirtle she wore below to give to the executioner. The cloth of it would have been too voluminous to fit in the bow stave chest, anyway. Anne's ladies wrapped her remains in white cerecloth - a heavy, wax-coated cloth used for burial shrouds - and placed them in the chest, her head tucked beneath her arm, because the chest was too short for normal placement.

They carried the makeshift coffin to the Tower's chapel, Saint Peter-ad-Vincula (Saint Peter in Chains) and dug a shallow grave to the left of the altar. There, Anne was buried beside her brother, in consecrated ground, but with no funerary rites. She would later be joined by her cousin, Katheryn, another of Henry's ill-fated queens, and Jane Parker, her sister-in-law.

In the Victorian era, the little chapel had fallen into a sad state of neglect. Queen Victoria gave permission for a restoration and ordered the graves beneath the sinking floor to be exhumed, with an attempt made at identification.

This proved to be much more difficult than anticipated.

On removing the stones of the pavement it was found (as reference to the burial register too abundantly proved) that the resting places of those who had been buried within the walls of the chapel during the troublous times of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had been repeatedly and it was feared almost universally desecrated.
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.
It is true that the bodies of those who had perished on the scaffold, or died as prisoners within the walls of the Tower, were buried (no doubt intentionally) "in great obscurity;"' but even if some memorial stone had recorded their burial place, it is doubtful whether that would have protected their remains, for in the instance of the three Scotch lords (Lovat, Balmerino, and Kilmarnock) although their grave was specially marked by a stone, which is still preserved, it was found that their bones had been much disturbed, so much so indeed as to be beyond all possible means of identification. It is even feared that in some instances coffins had been designedly broken up and their contents scattered in order to make room for some fresh occupant of the ground.

The chapel had been in continuous use as a parish church for those who lived and died in the vicinity of the Tower, not only prisoners, but also the families of the staff, and those from the surrounding neighborhood. Over a thousand people (I've seen figures ranging up to fifteen hundred) are buried in the tiny chapel. When a new burial occurred, the remains of those buried before were shoved unceremoniously aside in a jumble of bones. The spot where Anne Boleyn was supposed to rest was occupied by a lead coffin belonging to a woman who died in 1750.

The archaeologists believed they identified the remains of Anne Boleyn, based on the graceful physical characteristics of one of the skeletons found near the location her remains were supposed to be buried, though modern historians tend to doubt the identification. The final report stated:

“The bones found in the place where Queen Anne 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 vertebra 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.”
For a long while, it was said the “square, full chin” conflicted with the portraits of Anne which show a narrow, pointed chin. however, in the modern era, the “real face” of Anne Boleyn has been shown to be closer to the Nidd Hall portrait than the most widely-recognized portraits, and indeed, Anne may have matched this description. The bones were also said to be from a woman around 25 to 30 years of age, and those who insist on the 1501 birth date say this proves the bones cannot be hers. Some scholars, such as Alison Weir, speculate that the bones belonged either to Katheryn Howard or Jane Parker, both of whom ended up under the chapel floor. And we cannot discount the possibility that the bones were not any of these famous persons - they could have been the remains of one of the Tower residents.

The remains of George Boleyn and Katheryn Howard were not discovered. They speculated George had been moved to an area not excavated and that Katheryn had decayed to dust because her young bones were still soft and lime was found mixed with the soil.

The remains were collected into boxes and buried in a secret location to deter ghoulish curiosity and souvenir hunters. The chapel floor was set with marble markers depicting the arms of those who had once been buried there.

There is a legend that claims Anne's body was secretly exhumed and moved to Salle Church near Blickling Hall, and placed under a plain black marble block. Charles Dickens wrote a fictional account of the secret re-burial:

[Anne Boleyn] had apprehended that her remains would be indignantly treated – that the rites of sepulture would be withheld from her, and that her grave would be where no memorial would be found of her; and therefore, her appeal to Wyatt, to save her, if possible, to the tomb of her fathers. Her desire had now, however, a prospect of fulfilment – a grave had been opened in Salle Church, which was the ancient burial place of her father’s family; and thither, on the second night after Wyatt’s arrival, the Earl proceeded, accompanied by his guests, ostensibly for the purpose of having midnight masses said for the repose of his daughter’s soul’ his daughter’s remains, however, went with him. They had, under Mary Wyatt’s care, immediately upon their removal from the Tower to her house, been most carefully embalmed, and wrapped in cere-cloth. In that state, and covered with a black velvet pall, she was placed in one of her father’s carriages, into which Wyatt and his sister entered; the Earl proceeding them in another carriage alone.


But all that could be done for the murdered queen was done, – mass was said for the repose of her soul – De profundis (Psalm 130) was chanted by those present, – her remains were carefully lowered into the grave, where they now rest, and a black-marble-slab, without either inscription or initials, alone market the spot which contains all that was mortal of Anne Boleyn – once queen of England.”

Needless to say, this story is highly unlikely. The Tower was too carefully guarded to permit a secret exhumation and removal of a body, and Anne's family had shown little interest in her fate, let alone where her mortal remains would lie. Thomas Wyatt himself said, “God provided for her corpse sacred burial, even in a place as it were consecrated to innocence,” which seems to imply he felt any spot she was buried was sacred.

Recently, the story that Anne Boleyn's heart was secretly buried in St. Mary the Virgin Church in Erwarton was revived. In the 19th century, a small casket was discovered, which the residents believed contained the heart of Anne Boleyn. This story is as equally unlikely as the story of the secret exhumation and reburial.

Anne's ladies were recorded by witnesses as being very upset after the execution. The Bishop of Riez describes them as being "half dead" themselves. They were concerned her remains would be treated disrespectfully, and so they interred her as quickly as possible. Given their emotional state, it's unlikely one of them cut open Anne's chest to remove her heart.

There is currently a movement to have Anne exhumed again and reburied with the honors due a queen, but its unlikely to happen.


  1. I heard the "legend" about the reburial at Salle from a National Trust Guide at Blickling Hall. I was told that it was Anne's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who arranged it. (A more powerful individual, who possibly would have had the authority). It was due to his guilt, allegedly, at the fate he had been a party to bringing on Anne. I subsequently visited Salle church, and there is indeed a blank black slab in the central aisle, among the Boleyn ancestors' tombs. It's a fascinating theory.