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“He Will Come And Steal You”: Anne Boleyn’s Burial Place In Fact And Fiction

When Agnes Strickland and her sister Elizabeth began their research for Lives Of The Queens Of England, Anne Boleyn had been dead more than three hundred years but had never, as far as anyone knew, had any burial service or commemoration. Although the site of her grave was known — the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, close to where she died — it was not marked, nor had there been any official prayers before her body had been pushed into an elm arrow-chest and buried in the chapel floor, near the body of her brother. Although the tide of historical and public opinion had long been turned in favor of Anne’s having been a victim of judicial murder, feeling was not strong enough to mount any sort of campaign to have her gravesite marked or to have her reinterred, as Catherine Parr had been in the 1820s after being accidentally exhumed fifty years earlier. Not until 1876, when the chapel was in such disrepair that portions of the floor were sinking, would Anne’s remains be unearthed, examined, and eventually reburied in the newly repaired floor — this time under a marble marker with her name.

That these were in fact her remains is highly likely; the odds that one of the few other women buried there not only ended up in the spot which had been recorded as Anne’s but also happened to be of an age and body type consistent with hers seems too unlikely a prospect to be seriously considered. However, it is also unsurprising that thirty years earlier, the Stricklands had unearthed numerous legends from different locales which said that Anne was not, in fact, in the Tower of London — she was buried under an unmarked stone in Horndon-on-the-Hill, Essex, or Salle Church in Norfolk, where a number of her ancestors were buried. Seizing on Wyatt’s cryptic remark about Anne’s body being “in a place consecrate to innocence,” Strickland went on to weave a tissue of hypotheses.

There was neither singing nor saying for her, no chapel ardente nor midnight requiem, as for other queens; and, in the absence of these solemnities, it was easy for her father, for Wyatt, or even for his sister, to bribe the porter and sextons to the church, to connive at the removal of the royal victim …. The existence of a tradition of the kind in two different counties, but in both instances in the neighbourhood of Sir Thomas Boleyn’s estates, can only be accounted for on the supposition, that rumours of the murdered queen’s removal from the Tower chapel were at one time in circulation among the tenants and dependents of her paternal house, and were by them orally transmitted to their descendants as a matter of fact. Historical traditions are, however, seldom devoid of some kind of foundation; and whatever be their discrepancies they frequently afford a shadowy evidence of real but unrecorded events, which, if steadily investigated, would lend a clue, whereby things of great interest might be traced out. (Lives Of The Queens Of England, vol. IV, pp. 213-214)

Discrepancies there certainly are — a major problem with part of this scenario is that Thomas Wyatt, far from slipping away that evening with Anne’s corpse in tow, was still in prison after being arrested on suspicion of having been Anne’s lover. He would be released a few weeks after her death, but by then any nocturnal resurrections would have been extremely difficult. As for Thomas Boleyn, the fact that the legend has him retrieving the body of only one of his children leads one to suspect that this is less a case of a dimly remembered real event and more that of speculation hardening over time into belief. Three hundred years after the event, George Boleyn was a side character to Anne’s legend, but to Thomas Boleyn, the death of his only son who had lived to adulthood virtually guaranteed the end of the earldom of Wiltshire. To risk stealing and reburying the body of one child but not the other would be unlikely even for the most coldhearted caricature of a courtier.

However, this does not mean the legend was self-evidently foolish. There remained, after all, the third possibility: that Anne’s attendants or friends had somehow managed to steal her body and arrange for a respectable if anonymous burial. As she had died two days after her brother and the other accused men, and anyone attending her was unlikely to have access to any other corpses, it would make sense if she were the only one to escape the Tower chapel, so to speak. And with the rising popularity of antiquarianism in the nineteenth century, people must have been aware of just how many graves, even those of the most powerful people in the country, had been lost over the preceding centuries. After the chapel in which Catherine Parr had been buried fell into ruin, for example, the exact site of her body was unknown for a very long time, and Mary Boleyn’s burial site was — and remains — unknown. As Anne’s burial had not exactly been a well-attended occasion, one can see why people might imagine — or hope — that she had posthumously thwarted her husband’s intentions and ended up quietly buried somewhere other than where he wanted her to be.

Some other historians picked up Strickland’s speculation and ran with it: Natalie Grueninger has an excellent roundup of nineteenth century writers’ increasingly vivid speculations about how exactly this had been brought about — the most evocative, not surprisingly, is from Charles Dickens, imagining Thomas Boleyn’s thoughts as he prepares for a secret burial of a body rescued and brought to Salle by her attendants:

The bitter reflections of those two hours, perhaps the better prepared the Earl for the solemn ceremonies that awaited his coming at Salle Church. He alighted there at midnight. A few faithful servants bore the mangled remains of his daughter to the side of her tomb; but the perilous duty all there were arranged in would not allow of numerous tapers – of a chappele ardent – of a whole choir of priests, or of grand ceremonials. One priest was there, and the few candles that were lighted did no more than just show the gloom in which they were shrouded.

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 marked the spot which contains all that was mortal of Anne Boleyn – once queen of England.

Dickens’s account was meant to be imaginative fiction — in his A Child’s History Of England, which he intended to be factual, he wrote simply that Anne was beheaded “on the Green, inside the Tower, and her body was flung into an old box and put away in the ground under the chapel.” Curiously enough, however, he is so far the only author of fiction I have found who embraced the tale of a secret burial at Salle at any point in the thirty-four years between Strickland’s first publication of her series on the queens of England and the day when Anne Boleyn’s skeleton was brought up from “the ground under the chapel.” Part of the reason for this may be that although novels were reasonably common, the majority of Anne’s fictional recreations were in stage plays, where for obvious reasons, her actual beheading was never depicted and any aftermath very seldom.

The first instance I have found of a novelist incorporating Strickland’s suggestions is in The Favor Of Kings (1912), in a scene where Anne and her attendant Helen are in the Tower, waiting for the former’s end. Helen has long nursed a hopeless crush on Thomas Wyatt, and when Anne, with some irony, tells her that “You may yet hope. For you all things are not ending,” Helen’s response chills her:

”Hope,” whispered the other girl ironically. “His heart will be buried with you, Anne. He is a man possessed. He hath talked with me before I came here, because he knew that I was true to you, and said over and over that he would give his life for the chance of raising a rescue expedition. He said to me that if all were hopeless and the end came he would not let you lie under the stones here in a dishonored grave. He will come and steal you, he said, and carry you by night to a place in Blickling or Hever Churchyard.”

Anne shivered. “I wonder if you can guess how strange my flesh creeps to hear you speak of me as under the stones, when here I sit in my flesh so strong and well. Helen, ’tis a strange thought that to-morrow night this gown will lie here as it was, but I — I shall be no more. The lumber that we call into being, the gear that serves us, is of more lasting stuff.”

True to the story’s speculative origins and the fact that Anne’s body had been found in the Tower chapel forty years earlier, we never actually find out whether Wyatt manages to “steal” her or not. It would be fifty years before the story of Anne’s stolen body would appear again, this time in a very different context. In The Favor Of Kings Wyatt’s wish to steal Anne’s corpse is not one that appears to be shared by her — at any rate, it’s a decision he makes unilaterally, and one that obviously means much more to him than to her. In The Concubine (1963), Anne’s body is left after her death with several attendants while the gravedigger goes off to have a meal before starting the afternoon’s digging. The women don’t know what to do and are horrified that absolutely nothing else has been arranged; they’ve even had to scrounge up the arrow-chest without warning.

”She was a Christian, she should have had a Christian burial.”

Nan Savile said, “Yes. So she should. Even if — we know there was no truth in the accusations, but even if there had been, she had made her confession and taken the Sacrament; she died in a state of grace, and she should have been buried decently, not like a dog.”

“Oh, I’ve known a dog buried with more ceremony,” Emma said. She told them about old Nip.

Margaret said, “Under his favourite tree. Her favourite place was Norfolk.”

“Not Blickling,” Emma said quietly. “I know for a fact that she was once very unhappy there.”

The women are finally able to put together a plan to hire a cart, take Anne’s body to Salle church, and bury her under another name. “They had stumbled, by chance, upon the oldest solace for the oldest of mankind’s sorrows — the decent laying away of the beloved dead.” Like the earlier book’s iteration of Thomas Wyatt, they want her body to treated with respect, but unlike him, they put real thought into where Anne herself would want, or not want, to end up.

Sixteen years after The Concubine was published, its author, Norah Lofts, published a popular biography, Anne Boleyn: The Tragic Story Of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Wife. It’s a curious book — since Lofts’s novel had come out, the sixties and seventies had revived the popularity of Margaret Murray’s lurid if shakily sourced work on supposed witch-cults in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and Lofts’s nonfiction book shows much more enthusiasm for the idea of Anne as a witchcraft practitioner and the likelihood of popular legends than her novel did. In the last chapter of the book, “The Legend Lives On”, she discusses the stories of the black, unmarked slabs both in Norfolk and Essex (only here, the Essex marker is said “mark the place where her body rested overnight on its journey from London to Norfolk” not to mark a rival burial location as in Strickland). Although Lofts acknowledges the skeleton that was brought up and reburied in St. Peter ad Vincula, she points out that it couldn’t be completely established as Anne’s and speculates that it might have belonged to Katherine Howard. While she’s careful to say she’s speculating, Lofts clearly wants Anne to be in Salle Church.

If her remains were moved it is more than likely that [Thomas Wyatt] and his sister organised the removal. It would have been relatively easy; the Tower officials would be relaxing from the vigilance of the last nineteen days and the snatching away of the body of a person executed for treason was not so usual a thing as to be guarded against. An ordinary cart with two men would attract little attention in a place where deliveries of food and fuel were constantly made. The paving-stone near the choir in the little church would not yet have settled into place, and an old arrowbox would be far less conspicuous than a coffin. In May the light lasts long. The cart could have reached Thornden Heath, those with it could have sheltered overnight in the church there — the functions of churches in Tudor times were far less specialised than they are nowadays. And a better place for a secret burial at the journey’s end than Salle Church could hardly be desired; it stands in splendid isolation, well away from the village. If indeed Anne did have sacred burial there, the services of a priest would be needed but priests were, of all people, best skilled in the keeping of secrets.

Lofts’s biography ended up in a lot of libraries, and influenced its fair share of novelists, but the story of a secret burial does not appear to have been taken up by too many of them. A few did, however — but neither Thomas Wyatt nor Thomas Boleyn played any part. In each instance, Anne’s ladies are the ones who make sure the right thing is done. In Blood Royal (1988) “It was Meg [Wyatt] who organised the secret removal, during the night that followed, of the butchered corpse in its rough arrow-chest of a coffin …. A cart was waiting outside the Tower to carry the arrow-chest by stages to Salle Church in Norfolk, where the Boleyns had been Lords of the Manor. Among her ancestors, in a service conducted by a priest who could keep a secret, those who loved her laid Queen Anne `in a place consecrate to innocency.’”

All Or Nothing (1997) doesn’t follow Lofts’s pattern quite as closely and leaves more of the details vague, but the basic story is the same. Anne’s body has been left on the scaffold, since no further plans had been made for it.

And so she lay, all that bright day. Lay until black night fell, when two figures climbed silently up the scaffold, into the blood-sodden straw and gathered up the mutilated remains of the woman who had once been so beautiful and so beloved. An old arrow-chest lay empty and they stuffed her head and body into that.

Where to bury her? They did not know …

Salle Church still exists, and this guide for “church crawlers” shows that it’s well worth a visit — but no mysterious black marble slab is mentioned, although the brasses of Anne’s great-grandparents are. An even more detailed guide has some wonderful photographs of brasses, details of misericord seats, vaulting, and stained glass, but no mention of anything associated with Anne except, again, her great-grandparents. Norah Lofts writes that she saw the slab in the course of her research — it was shown to her by a sexton, and “I would have dug it up with my bare fingers. I asked if it had ever been lifted, and was told that the patron of the church was not in favour of any investigation.” Natalie Grueninger also wrote in her 2011 post that she had contacted Salle Church and been told that permission to dig had been requested thirty years earlier, and that it would never be given. If the slab still exists, it’s either inaccessible or enthusiasts have been very restrained about posting pictures of it. Like the bones it was once said to guard, we can’t see for ourselves, only hear of what others saw, and draw our own conclusions.

Two Anne-Adjacent Books: The 48 by Donna Hosie (2018) and Fatal Throne (2018) by Jennifer Donnelly et al.

Neither of these books casts Anne Boleyn as its central figure, but she’s an important character in both, so naturally I wanted to read them. Results were mixed.

It’s hard to come up with a more flat-out fun and melodramatic idea than a secret society of time travelers tweaking history in order to produce a better modern day, and whose next mission takes them to the court of Henry VIII. This is what made The 48 so disappointing; of course there are plenty of stories which don’t quite live up to their original inspirations, but this one was so poorly executed that I couldn’t help wondering if this secret society had put all their brainpower into time travel and not had any intellectual firepower left over for what to do when they achieved it, because even by the standards of melodrama, these are astoundingly witless people.

To fill in the background: the 48 are a small group of time travelers who selectively alter history in order to bring about a better future (or present, depending on your perspective). They were founded in 1945 after the Hiroshima bombing — time-travel, as it turns out, was a fortunate byproduct of the Manhattan Project experiments. It’s not clear if any of the members are outside recruits or if they’re all the children of older members; the twin heroes, Alex and Charles, are the children of members, but vague references to academy training and students washing out makes it sound like outside recruits might also exist. There are only 48 members of the 48, but fortunately for the academy students new positions are always opening up because once a member turns 48 they get the Logan’s Run treatment, because too much time traveling is hard on the body and they’re aging out of the spying-and-changing game. This prescribed death was in fact the fate of Alex and Charles’ parents, which is why they’re twenty-one-year-old orphans. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader, if not the characters, that killing off their aged-out members should have destroyed this organization by the mid-1960s at the latest; not only are they ungratefully destroying people who could help them plan missions in potentially familiar territory, they’re also, apparently, losing the only people who have time to read any history books. This is painfully evident in the premise of the mission upon which Alex and Charles are about to embark: to prevent Jane Seymour from marrying Henry VIII. And why would they do this? In their own words: “She was a devout Catholic, and her death as queen would see a resurgence in the Catholic faith in England as people mourned for the `sainted’ wife who gave them hope after the toxic years of Anne Boleyn’s reign.”

Charles and Alex are not doing this because of adherence to the Protestant cause — or at least, not directly. They’re doing it to hasten the extinction of organized religion altogether, as “all religions had — or eventually would — become a catalyst for conflict among people. For humankind to endure, we were told, the religious past had to be changed…. My brother and I were but two of hundreds. In our case, we’d been sent to ensure the continuation of the Reformation ushered in by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.”

This, pretty early on, was where the book lost me, and although it read it all — several times, in fact — I couldn’t muster up much more interest in it, as the premise was just so ridiculous. Alex and Charles claim that they’re great lovers of history, but if that were so, surely they would know about the Pilgrimage of Grace, and that England was unravelling religiously well before Jane Seymour’s death — to say nothing of the fact that, regardless of the religious opinions of his mother, Edward was raised to be firmly reformist. The 48’s religious eradication project is made even more confusing when we learn later on that they assassinated Prince Arthur in 1502 (because covering up future murders with Henry VIII as king would be easier … well, that kind of makes sense) and also that they killed Catherine of Aragon in 1536, which for smooth religious transitions was about ten years too late. Were they not able to get at her circa 1525?

Anyway, in pursuit of their weirdly pointless mission, Alex and Charles travel back in time to the Tudor court, disguised as Charles and Alexander of Cleves, minor German princelings, with fellow 48 member Aramis pretending to be their father. And as it turns out, another 48 member named Alice has been sent there as well — which was not part of the plan at all, and is Charles and Alex’s first hint that something is awry within the 48 organization as well as outside of it. They suspect malfeasance by The Grinch (a woman so nicknamed because frequent time-travel has left her skin greenish — it’s not the healthiest thing) but meanwhile they have to make inroads into court by befriending Jane Seymour and Lady Margaret, another lady in waiting who thinks that the “sons of Cleves” are far more inviting matrimonial prospects than the wealthy old fart her father has lined up for her at home.

Various conspiracies, adventures, and betrayals ensue, all in a court that seems weirdly empty of people (to say nothing of the fact that all the people in it seem to be pretty easily fooled). Cromwell is silky and malicious and suspects the brothers of not being what they seem, and later gets a chance to show his penchant for torture. Lady Margaret is rebellious and wants to marry for inclination as well as duty. Jane Seymour is sweet and sincere. Anne Boleyn is cold as ice, very stylish, and has extremely black eyes. A courtier named Marlon is there to make an emotional connection with Alex and to show us that not everyone in the 16th century was straight. In all my rereadings, I never quite understood the ins and outs of the ending and who was conspiring against whom, except that the older members of the 48 turned out to be bad, and Alex and Charles decided that changing history to eradicate religion was a bad idea after all and people should be free to make their own choices and not be manipulated by a shadowy time travel agency. Unfortunately, the book isn’t bold or coherent enough to set them to undoing all the previous assassinations they’ve committed, so we’re deprived of a chance to see Arthur living past his time — or Catherine of Aragon dying before hers.

Fatal Throne also has an engaging concept; a different author writes the story of each of Henry VIII’s wives, and a seventh writes post-wife interludes in the voice of Henry VIII. This avoids a lot of common pitfalls — certainly you won’t read this and think how weird it is that Catherine Howard has a lot of the same verbal tics as Jane Seymour — but leads to some other problems, mostly having to do with consistency. It’s not clear how much detail the authors were given about their assigned characters initially but while they’ve all clearly done their research, they would have had to read a wide variety of books, not all of which agreed with each other. Inevitably, this leads to weird, clashing moments like the one where Anne Boleyn, in her chapter, describes Jane Rochford as good friend and loving wife to George, and six years later Catherine Howard is remembering how Jane betrayed Anne and George by testifying against them. It’s possible this was some sort of Rashomon-style device but it seems more likely that the two different authors had different opinions about Jane Boleyn’s involvement in Anne’s death and either didn’t realize it or weren’t able to come to an agreement. Of course, there are many disparities which make sense — Jane Seymour’s recollection of her interactions with Anne Boleyn naturally cast a rather harsher light on the latter than Anne’s own recollections!

Each short story follows a general pattern: it begins at a pivotal moment in the woman’s life (Catherine of Aragon about to marry Arthur, Katherine Parr getting word that she’s on the brink of arrest, Anne Boleyn in the Tower, etc) and then pulls back the camera, so to speak, to show us the wider context and let her tell us about her early life, how she got to this point, and what happens afterwards. It’s very much to the credit of these authors that someone who knew nothing about Henry VIII’s wives could read this book and come away with a pretty good basic idea of each of these women’s biographies; squeezing an entire, complex life into a short story is not easy. Less successful, perhaps inevitably, are the interstitial chapters written from Henry’s point of view — since these chapters are less about his own life than his reactions to his various wives and the issues that were the centers of their own lives, he comes across less as a powerful, if monstrous human being and more like a two-dimensional psychotic in a murder mystery telling you his motives between chapters as he’s hunted down by the detective.

Now I was head of the English Church — no more foreign interference by the Pope — and it was entirely my right to dissolve the monasteries in my own kingdom and seize their property for the Crown. The Pope should never have defied my wishes, for now I took out my revenge on each and every shaved-headed English monk I kicked out and sent to pasture. My will cannot be bent or broken … My bully-boy Cromwell displayed the accounts and I sat on my horse above him. Servants of the Crown were burning books and fraudulent artifacts.

The wives, perhaps because they’re not put in the position of constantly reacting to all the misdeeds we’ve been reading about, come off more naturalistically, but given the compressed nature of the stories they all inevitably end up having to monologue a bit about things they would take for granted, and tell associates and friends things everybody would already know. Anne Boleyn’s story, written by Stephanie Hemphill, doesn’t do better or worse than the others in that regard. In the classic manner, it starts with Anne in the Tower, and between intercut flashbacks of events like her coronation and her time with Elizabeth (with whom Anne speaks in French, giving us a hint about where Elizabeth’s youthful linguistic talents may have originated) she’s mostly speaking to the unsympathetic servants-cum-spies who attend her in the Tower as she reflects on how she ended up there. This is a very modern Anne — pointing out to her ladies that she had no choice about the king’s pursuit and was bound to be the villain no matter what she did.

”I tried everything I could to dissuade His Majesty … yet every action I took to escape his advances was misinterpreted. If I returned his gifts, people called me manipulative. If I ignored him, they said I tormented the King and toyed with his affections. If I spoke to him, I did so out of selfish ambition. Mean Anne Boleyn, the conniving serpente francaise. I had been back little more than six months when I felt forced to leave the court a second time.”

She goes as far as to say she prayed for death when she was ill with the sweat because “I thought death a better fate than to sleep with the king,” but rather jarringly goes on to say immediately afterward that “The truth was, we had fallen deeply in love.” Later, she takes the very twenty-first century approach of laying the blame for England’s rupture with the Pope on Catherine of Aragon — “All she had to do was say the marriage was invalid and become the Princess Dowager, and England would have remained a Catholic nation” — and after her aunt’s shocked exclamation of “You should have refused!” responds with “I should have refused King Henry the Eighth?” as if it’s self-evident that this is impossible, even though obviously her predecessor managed it, albeit to her cost.

It’s difficult to understand Anne in this incarnation, as while the events in her life are straightforwardly told, the perspective on them is extremely modern-day and tailored to what a modern reader might be expected to admire. She doesn’t encourage a married man’s pursuit and in fact is disgusted by it, but she marries Henry because she loves him, as to a modern reader marrying for more practical motives might come across as cold. She blames Catherine of Aragon for not pretending to believe her own marriage was invalid (that phrase “All she had to do” is a very modern slip — unsympathetic as Anne may have been, she must have known how humiliating this would be to the daughter of a Spanish royal house who believed her marriage to be ordained by God). And yet, despite Catherine’s example, Anne cannot really defy or contradict Henry until virtually all hope is lost and she’s already in prison. Anne talks as though she’s a defiant, independent thinker, and yet at the same time castigates her predecessor for going against her husband and says, essentially, that anything unattractive she herself did was because Henry can’t be opposed. It’s hard to decipher whether this is meant to show how Anne justifies her own actions to herself or whether it’s simply an awkward attempt to make her as sympathetic as possible to a modern reader — except that an Anne whose every action and attitude is sympathetic to a modern reader can’t exist without being confusing and contradictory.

By far the best story in the book is that of Anne of Cleves, written by Jennifer Donnelly. Perhaps it seems contradictory to say that her story is the best because it invents the most, but that’s only partially the case. Anne’s story, like the others, begins at a critical moment in her life — in this case, when she begins her final decline from the illness that killed her (implied to be uterine cancer, but since she can’t be sure, neither are we). She can’t venture very far from her room, and in her waking hours she reminisces about her life to the country-bred servant girl who’s attending her — a girl who genuinely would have to have many of the story’s intricacies explained to her, so the exposition is more gracefully handled than most. In Anne’s sleeping hours the memories return through dreams. All throughout, Anne is struggling to decipher what the fragmented memories she’s experiencing and recounting are trying to tell her — because she’s convinced that there’s something she hasn’t yet done with her life, that something is missing, and that her dreams are the key to it. The answer she finds to this self-set riddle is not earth-shattering but feels exactly right. And this is what makes Anne’s chapter stand out — like all the other wives, she’s looking back on her life from the perspective of a key moment, but unlike the others, who are confined to talking about the problems they confronted in the past, Anne is also confronting and solving a new problem in the present, and it accounts for the small moments in her life, as well as the splendid ones that would have been considered worth recording. The book is worth picking up for this story alone.

Two Modern Tudors

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield (2020) and The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin (2019) are briefly reviewed together for two reasons: first, because while Anne Boleyn features prominently in them (and in the second is the key to the central mystery of the book) she is not the lead character or the main focus of the story, as all six wives, in various guises, are featured in both books. The second is that both are modernized updates — stories that could be said, until a month ago at least, to be “set in the present.” Suffice it to say that they are now set in the very recent past. Both updates succeed in their own way — the second more than the first, as it pulls off the astounding feat of successfully modernizing Catherine of Aragon — and both are excellent diversions for anyone who may be seeking indoor entertainment in the near future.

Henry VIII: Media Mogul And Teenage Sociopath

Anne Boleyn by Thomas Fielding (1838): A Lost Play

On December 27 1838, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a notice, nestled in amongst ship arrivals and the results of horse races. That evening at the St. Charles Theater, it announced, “will be performed a new historical play never acted, called ANNE BOLEYN, founded on a period of the reign of Henry 8th of England.” As for the author, the announcement said simply that it was “written by a gentleman of this city.” A few days later, the paper had identified the author as “Mr. T. Fielding” — a man who, despite the paper’s initial coyness about his name, could have had no reason to wish to remain anonymous; during the three previous years he had made numerous appearances in the columns of the Times-Picayune as Thomas Fielding, an actor affiliated with both the Camp Street and St. Charles Theaters. On December 29, the Times-Picayune, while reporting that Fielding’s “new and successful piece drew another good house last night and is to be repeated this evening,” also had a short review that was, in its own way, ominously prophetic.

After an extended commentary on plays that fail to hold the interest of audiences but find success later “in the closet [drama]” due to their beauty of language, the anonymous reviewer writes:

And this is the only fault we have to find with Ann Boleyn. As a literary production it has the strongest claim to our favorable notice. There is a degree of nerve, conception and arrangement in this new tragedy which lifts it above the great number of our modern plays; while the language is poetic, powerful, and vigorous. When we commenced this article it was our intention, notwithstanding the smallness of our sheet, to have made some extracts corroborative of our opinion; but not succeeded in procuring the MSS. we must content ourself with saying that Ann Boleyn is a composition exhibiting a power capable of a yet higher flight of dramatic authorship.

The anonymous reviewer’s failure to secure the MSS must have seemed like a small matter at the time, but closing in on two hundred years later one can only regret exceedingly that he was unlucky in his efforts, because nobody since then has found it either. Thomas Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, quite possibly the first Boleyn drama to be first written and performed in the United States, appears no longer to exist. It is a ghost play, its shade appearing in newspaper reviews, theater notes, and, most sadly of all, in the surviving probate documents for Thomas Fielding, who died less than a year after the premier of his first and only play.

“The Vacant Succession Of Thomas Fielding”

Third by Q. Kelly (2011)

There’s a good idea buried in Third — one articulated by the character Helen Franklin, a modern-day history professor who, like many real ones, has discovered an Anne who strongly resembles herself. “Helen’s theory, or rather, her wishful thought, was that Anne was a lesbian trying to make her way in a ruthless, heterosexual world.” Unfortunately, the world in which we see the lesbian Anne emerge is not hers but our own; kidnapped by an unethical scientist who’s discovered time travel, a few years later she finds herself in the unwilling custody of the now-deceased scientist’s daughter, Helen Franklin, and her sort-of estranged wife, Yalia Yamato. Helen teaches history and is obsessed with the Tudors. Yalia is a cop who accidentally shot a six-year-old during a hostage standoff and as a result is starting to have doubts about having children — hence her estrangement from Helen. They both have serious doubts about the ethics of the situation, but since Anne is already here, along with the chatty, amoral Benjamin Franklin and one other mystery time traveler known only as TT0, they haven’t really got much choice. Fascinating ethical and historical questions arise and are promptly swatted away as the three women get distracted by their evergreen lust for each other, and by the end all we’ve really learned about Anne is that she enjoys sex toys and looks good in a Starbucks apron.

“You Want To Try A Three-Way Relationship Thing?”

The Early Years (1980), The Royal Suitor (1981) and Condemned (1981) by Linda-Dawn Reeve

“I adored my mother and I suppose because I was the youngest and because she had never really been well since my birth, I was closest to her.” Thus begins Linda-Dawn Reeve’s substantial trilogy — a little over six hundred pages — in which we’re introduced to an Anne who at first seems to be so typical of mid-twentieth century Annes that she could have been created from the distilled essences of thirty other fictional versions of her. The youngest daughter of Thomas Boleyn, she loses her mother at a young age (five) and is soon given a stepmother who, despite her fears, turns out to be kind and loving to her husband’s children. Young Anne is especially in need of affection, for despite her boldness she suffers from being teased about her minuscule sixth finger and the wen on her neck. She has a childish affection for Thomas Wyatt, who is much more serious in his intentions towards her, and her brother George is half in love with Thomas’s sister Margaret. When Anne is seven, her father manages to get her a place among Princess Mary’s attendants as she leaves to marry Louis XII, and after Louis’s death Anne attends the new Queen Claude and incidentally spends a lot of time with Claude’s sister-in-law Marguerite, learning to be witty and graceful and also that women can be as good anybody.

So far, so typical. But when Anne is brought back to England at the age of fifteen, the direction changes sharply — not the direction of the story, which of course can only be changed so much, but the direction of her development. Very shortly after her return, she meets the King at Hever, where he’s come to visit her sister Mary. The King is greatly taken by her and begins doing everything in his power to seduce her, although she rebuffs him and he apparently loses interest. And from that moment, Anne seems to be touched with a frost. The fifteen-year-old who is enjoying falling in love and charming people continues to be just that, even as she grows older and endures the winning and then losing of Henry Percy to Wolsey’s political plans and his father’s ambitions, and her subsequent rustication. In the traditional manner, she vows revenge on Wolsey, but it never seems to cross her mind not to believe in the sincerity of everyone else around her, to say nothing of her endearingly childish certainty that she should be able to manipulate any social situation into going the way she wants it to. And, most unusually of all, she ends up falling genuinely, obsessively in love with Henry VIII.

“I Am Really Very Fond Of Him”

Anne Boleyn: A Tale Of The Sixteenth Century by Anonymous (1843)

I found this short story in an old newspaper database — while it appeared in only one paper, the databases are obviously not complete, and from the note I imagine it was the sort of story which was widely reprinted (a lot of similar stories also appear in December and January, I would guess as filler entertainment for the Christmas and New Year’s season). The moral of is clear, and fairly standard for the time — how quickly fortune can change and how little people can rely on it. And while the story itself is a fairly standard narrative — the young Anne divided from her true love, Henry Percy, by the King’s lust for her — there are a few intriguing aspects.

“Let Us Fly From This Tyranny To A Lovelier Land, Where We May Cull The Flowers Of Life Together”

Anne Boleyn’s Sleeve by Juliana Gray (2013)

The first thing I noticed about this chapbook was its choice of verse form — blank verse, a form whose first known use in English was in 1540. It felt peculiarly appropriate for a series of poems about Anne Boleyn, even though she died a few years earlier — it gives the sense that she’s ahead of her time, but not excessively so, and gives us a thought of what might have been had Anne survived into the middle of the century or beyond. The poems are arranged in roughly chronological order — the fact that many poems are centered on a theme rather than a specific event (“Her Cravings” “Her Sister” “Her Coronation” and so forth — each one a small jewel of distilled emotion) keeps them from being perfectly chronological, as the subject matter of these will necessarily cover any number of years. But the center of the story is clear, indeed, Anne tells us what it is in the first poem “The End.”

Remember, please, that this is a love story
though it ends, like so many stories,
with a good woman’s body in a box.

“A Queen Is Not Required To Explain Herself”

Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson (1876)

There have been a fair number of plays written about Anne Boleyn which never saw the stage, or saw it only for a brief time, but which nevertheless lived on in book form to be read by — and to influence — future Boleyn enthusiasts. Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson is a much rarer specimen: a play which saw many performances over a few years but which has never been published, although it got a great deal of (not always positive) attention from the newspapers and a number of actresses wanted to procure it for their own use. There is a long, complex, and ultimately somewhat sad story behind this, but briefly put, Dickinson — who had previously been a well-known abolitionist platform speaker, and for whom playing Anne was her first acting role — seems to have developed a strong attachment to her character, and although her acting was generally considered poor, she did not want anyone else to play her. Her possessiveness might even have extended to her own official copy of the script — the Library of Congress has two manuscript versions of the play, a fair copy in clear handwriting, and much scratched-out and amended rough copy. Only the rough copy contains Anne’s dialogue, the fair copy contains only dashes and a cue at the end of each piece of Anne’s dialogue, although all of the other characters have their dialogue intact. It’s not clear whether both versions were submitted by her together for copyright purposes, but if the fair copy was intended to be the “official” copy, her protectiveness towards the part extended far enough to prevent anyone else from seeing it even with the greatest amount of effort. Under these circumstances, it’s less surprising that the play does not seem ever to have been officially published. Dickinson’s quarrels with managers, her inability to act up the standards demanded by her own play, and her refusal to publish or sell the play to any other actress led, inevitably, to its disappearance. It survives now only in two handwritten manuscripts.

This is the more unfortunate because although it is far from the best ever written, the play is, in a few ways, shockingly ahead of its time. Its Anne is a paradoxical figure; determined to create her own fate and laughing at the idea of prophecy, yet ultimately hemmed in and destroyed by forces over which she has no control, never realizing that the choices she does have are all false ones, and that her fate has been predetermined. This predetermination is the work of none other than Thomas Cromwell.

“She has dug my grave – I leave you to dig hers in time to come”

The Chained Book by Emma Leslie (1879)

This is one of the earliest books about Anne Boleyn aimed specifically at children, and given that it was published in 1879 by the Sunday School Union, it’s not surprising that this earnest little novella puts the cause of serving and promoting Protestant orthodoxy well ahead of such considerations as character development, internal consistency, or historical accuracy. The chief aim of the book is to give children a simple, interesting story about the beginnings of the Bible in English, and how wicked men sought to stop it and good men sought to promote it, at which the latter group finally succeeded with some help from Anne Boleyn, who is the only person in the book with even a tiny bit of nuance to her character.

“God Will Accept Maidens’ Work, If No Better Is To Be Had”