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A (very) brief history of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, this is possibly the most famous image of Anne, and most likely closest likeness, however no contemporary images of Anne survive (this image dates from the late 16th century). Image: National Portrait Gallery.

I have always been a bit of a sucker when it comes to royal ghosts – the bloodier and more headless the better – and they don’t come more headless than Anne Boleyn.  Strong willed, intelligent and beguiling, Anne Boleyn supplanted the popular Queen Katherine of Aragon and stole the heart of Henry VIII.  She successfully held the amorous Henry at bay until he divorced his wife and broke with Rome – talk about a tease.  Once queen she presided and flirted with a dazzling and talented young court, encouraged religious reform and was not afraid to go head to head with the King. Nevertheless she could also be ruthless – she passionately hated the Lady Mary, Katherine’s loyal daughter, to the point where Lady Mary became convinced that Anne was trying to poison her. She also made some very dangerous political enemies such as the equally ruthless Cromwell.

Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, locket ring taken from the dead finger of the Elizabeth I in 1603.

Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I; locket ring worn by Elizabeth I until her death in 1603

In short, it would seem that the seeds of tragedy were planted early on in Anne’s relationship with Henry VIII.  She was never a popular queen, and being an English commoner rather than a foreign princess she could not call on powerful alliances abroad to protect her when the kings love turned sour and the vultures began to circle.  Eventually, having failed to produce a male heir, and successfully alienating a lot of powerful men around her, including the King her only protector, Anne was accused of adultery with several men of her inner circle, and incest with her brother George (and just for good measure witchcraft was also added to the litany of charges).  Following the execution of many of those closest to her, on 19 May 1536 Anne Boleyn herself was executed by a French swordsman on Tower Green.  The fickle Henry was canoodling with Jane Seymour as Anne’s head fell.

Although we might all think we are familiar with Anne Boleyn, thanks to the most recognisable image of her (reproduced here), no contemporary images of Anne survive.  All we have are ghosts of her memory – initially created in the reign of her daughter Elizabeth I who, privately at least, did wish to keep the memory of her mother alive. It is a powerful reminder of how someone so famous, briefly so powerful and who held the most famous King of England in her thrall, so much so that he reshaped the English church in order to win her, was almost expunged from history after her fall.  Only the whim of fate, which placed her daughter Elizabeth I on the throne, ensured that this most enticing of Tudor queen’s was not lost to history for ever.   Sic transit gloria mundi indeed…

The Hauntings of Anne

Having just read Alison Weir’s fascinating account of the fall of Anne Boleyn, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, I was delighted to find a section in the appendices relating to the legends of hauntings related to Anne Boleyn.  Weir brought the historian’s rigour to these colourful tales and cross-referencing the tales against Anne’s known movements, and attested connections with a place during her life, Weir was able(sadly) to debunk quite a few of these sightings.  Well… at least to provide evidence that the spectre in question was not Anne Boleyn!  From my point of view, the fact that we don’t really know what Anne looked like, does make identification of her spectre problematic!  Nevertheless, here are a few tales of this royal revenants peregrinations…I will leave it to the reader to decide on their veracity…

Blickling Hall

Blickling Hall.  Image by Lenora

Blickling Hall. Image by Lenora

Blickling Hall in Norfolk is one of my favourite stately homes. On a lush summers day it seems the quintessentially English ancestral pile with its dusty rose brick walls, mullioned windows and topiary garden….but on a dark night in May this rural idyll is rudely shattered by the unquiet souls of the dead.

Although the current hall was rebuilt in the early seventeenth century – well after Anne’s death – legend has it that Anne and her siblings were born at Blickling.  The earlier hall had belonged to the Boleyn family in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  George and Mary were born there, and it seems likely Anne was too.

One local tale that was well established by the eighteenth century, according to Alison Weir, concerns Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s feckless father.  Happy to benefit from Anne’s rise, Thomas nevertheless stood by and did nothing as his children Anne and George went to their bloody deaths on the scaffold.  It is said that his tormented spirit is seen driving pell mell up the drive way of Blickling Hall in a carriage driven by a headless coachman and a team of headless horses, pursued by blue devils, and sometimes the headless corpse of George Boleyn.  By 1850 Weir notes that this version had elaborated to say that the luckless Thomas was cursed for a thousand years to ride out on the anniversary of Anne’s death, crossing every bridge between Wroxham and Blickling, his gory head in his lap.  (There is a slight flaw in this embellishment – Thomas died in bed, with his head fully attached).

As with many stories passed down in folk memory they are often elaborated and embellished with the telling, and by the nineteenth century versions of this tale had Anne as the occupant of the carriage – dressed in pure white but glowing red, and with her blood drenched head resting on her lap.  Some versions have Thomas, her father as the coachman.  The carriage drives right into the hall and disappears, or else stops to allow the gory Anne to descend and begin a nocturnal perambulation of the gloomy chambers of the Hall.

The lake at Blicking - does Anne's ghost search in vain by its shores...? Image by Lenora

The lake at Blickling – does Anne’s ghost search in vain by its shores…? Image by Lenora

Sightings of Anne (and/or Thomas) and the carriage have been frequent and reported by witnesses of varying degrees of credibility.  In 1979 an apparition supposed to be Anne was sighted in the library, in 1985 a former administrator of Blickling Hall was awoken by female footsteps in the night only to find no one there.  Another sighting occured during world war II when a Butler accosted a mysterious lady by the lake.  She was dressed in Grey and had a white lace collar and mob-cap.  When asked what she was looking for she replied with the poignant words “That for which I search has long since gone.”   It has been pointed out that the costume described sounds more seventeenth century than sixteenth, and that lace was extremely rare in the 1530’s, nevertheless adherents point out that Anne was beheaded in a very similar costume with a white-collar and coif.

Blickling Hall can even boast a lost chamber – no English country pile should be without one – associated with Anne Boleyn.  It is said that there is a room at Blickling that had such an evil atmosphere it was walled up and its whereabouts lost – it was called ‘Old Bullen’s study’.  Just as an aside, personally I don’t think some one as elegant and sophisticated as Anne would be as crass as to leave an evil atmosphere behind her, (intense perhaps – but surely not evil) perhaps Old Bullen could in fact be greedy, gutless Thomas!

Tower of London


The Tower of London from the Thames. Image from ‘London Attractions’ Tourist site.

Unsurprisingly there are many tales of Anne connected with the Tower of London – after all she was imprisoned here from April until her execution on 19 May 1536 and it was here that she watched as her brother and the men closest to her were brutally executed.

My favourite tales from the tower relate to the service that Anne has provided to countless soldiers, the first noted as being in 1864.  A guardsman on duty one night saw the white-clad figure of woman emerging from the Queen’s House.  Approaching to offer a challenge he got a clear look at the figure and was horrified to discover the lady was sans head!  The soldier was found to have fainted and accused of being drunk on duty and court marshaled.  One would not expect a hard-bitten military court to consider the appearance of a headless Tudor Queen as a mitigating factor in such dereliction of duty, however when two witnesses were produced the case was quietly dropped.  Needless to say, the ‘Anne Boleyn defense’ was used more than once by soldiers down the years to explain abandoning their posts!

Other sightings include ‘bluish figure’ floating across the ground to the Queen’s House and in 1967 the case of one John Hawden who observed a strange glow coming from the windows of the White Tower,  lighting a mysterious figure moving between the rooms.  When he asked a fellow warden about the phenomenon he was told that it was probably the ghost of Anne Boleyn and that many wardens had witnessed it (although few spoke of it).

Hever Castle

Hever Castle, Anne's family seat in Kent.  Image by Puffin.

Hever Castle, Anne’s family seat in Kent. Image by The Giant Puffin via wikimedia.

Hever Castle was the Boleyn family seat in Kent and therefore has strong connections with Anne Boleyn.  The most famous story relating to Hever takes place on Christmas Eve (always a perfect time for ghost stories) and relates to a bridge over the River Eden, close by the Castle.  Anne is said to be seen crossing the bridge heading for home.  In other instances her shimmering wraith-like form is seen lurking about the lawns.  The Splatter blog (see sources) describes a chilling encounter with Anne on the bridge over the Eden.

In 1979 a member of the Society for Psychical Research set about capturing an image of Anne on the bridge.  Staking out the bridge on the appointed day, he was not to be disappointed.  On the stroke of midnight Anne duly appeared in the form of a white light.  Delighted, he took his picture.  Elation soon turned to fear though, when the white light came hurtling directly at him and passed right thorough him.  As he turned he saw it disappear over the bridge towards Hever.  The following day when he developed his film he found that the entire roll was exposed and not one image had been captured….


Hampton Court and other places

Hampton Court - does Anne's restless spirit roam these corridors?  Image by Lenora

Hampton Court – does Anne’s restless spirit roam these corridors? Image by Lenora

Oddly enough there are not many sightings of Anne at Hampton Court – perhaps even her ghost finds it too painful to revisit the site of her greatest triumphs and her eventual fall.  However in the late 19th Century she was sighted walking the corridors dressed in blue and looking rather sad.

Anne’s restless spirit is associated with more locations that can be covered in this post.  Some other places she has been sighted at include Windsor Castle, Rochford Hall in Essex and Bollin Hall, Cheshire.  One memorable sighting is recounted by Alison Weir and is based on an interview Nora Lofts conducted with the old sexton of Salle Church in Norfolk.  This story links Anne with Witchcraft.  Anne is said to walk at Salle Church on the anniversary of her death. Wanting to find the truth of the legend the old sexton sat vigil determined to catch the royal revenant.  However, all he saw was a hare run a course about the church before disappearing……the hare being a symbol, particularly in East Anglia, of witchcraft.  (NB. Why is it always an old Sexton in these stories…?)


 Anne’s lasting memory

Some sightings of Anne’s ghost or imprint seem well attested by credible witnesses at sites with a verified connection with Anne’s life.  Others have grown around received wisdom and when checked against the historical ‘facts’ cannot possibly relate to Anne (this is not to say that they are not bona-fide sightings – just not necessarily sightings of Anne).  Whatever the truth of these tales, their continued popularity demonstrates how much Anne, with her glittering life and her cataclysmic fall from grace, has entered into the subconsciousness of a nation (and beyond).  People WANT to see Anne Boleyn and to claim that connection with her enduring ‘glamour’ and her tragic end.  Even now, vigils are held on the anniversary of her execution at Blickling Hall and other locations associated with Anne.  This woman who might have vanished from history with out a trace as the discarded wife of a fickle King – still has the power to fascinate and captivate us.

Image by Lenora

Anne – among us still? Image by Lenora

In her own words

So much has been written about Anne Boleyn, I would like to end by letting her speak for herself. The following poem has been attributed to Anne in the days before her execution…

O Death, O Death, rock me asleepe,
Bring me to quiet rest;
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;

Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

My pains, my pains, who can express?
Alas, they are so strong!
My dolours will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

Alone, alone in prison strong
I wail my destiny:
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Must taste this misery!
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

Farewell, farewell, my pleasures past!
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torment so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell,
Ring out my doleful knoll,
For thou my death dost tell:
Lord, pity thou my soul!
Death doth draw nigh,
Sound dolefully:
For now I die,
I die, I die.


There are a lot of great books and websites out there devoted to Anne, her history and her ghost, here are a few that I found particularly useful in preparing this post:




Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower, Random House, 2009