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

May 19, 2021

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.

From → Essays

3 Comments
  1. Lindsey Nicholls permalink

    I read Philippa Wiat’s trilogy on Sir Thomas Wyatt, many moons ago and I am sure one of them has Wyatt, bringing back Anne’s body for burial from the Tower.
    Doesn’t Norah Lofts talk about how the churchwarden kept vigil in Salle church on May 19th, only to see a leaping hare which melting away, when he tried to catch it. Lofts was pleased to tell him there was a common belief that witches took the guise of a hare – it’s an odd footnote to the story.

  2. Ana permalink

    Wow. I’ve just spent the last few weeks going through all the posts after discovering you. This is a great blog, I’ll be coming back to check for updates ❤️

  3. Elizabeth Keesey permalink

    Very interesting. I had already heard the legend that she was buried elsewhere and it was much easier to achieve because she was executed on Tower Hill outside the walls and NOT Tower Green inside them. The distance to the chapel was greater and therefore easier to perhaps do a switch and literally bury a box of arrows there instead of Anne. Who knows?

    There are already rumours that Diana, Princess of Wales, is not buried on an island at Althorp but in the family vault next to her father in the village church. The Althorp story is maintained because if people knew she was buried in a publicly accessible church, it would encourage “pilgrimages” etc which nobody wants. I have always found the island location odd. It’s an isolated, artificial and damp location. Lead does not preserve for all time nor is the coffin waterproof.

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