The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

  Anne Boleyn might have died in ignominy, but she left, all unwittingly, a rich heritage in her infant daughter, the child who grew up reluctant to speak her name, and who so nearly met the same fate as her mother.

  Significantly, after complying with tradition and spending a week in the Tower palace prior to her coronation, Elizabeth I never stayed there again. The place held too many terrible memories of her imprisonment there in 1554, and of her mother’s fate. She may well have been thinking of Anne as well as her own past experiences when, reining her horse to a standstill as she arrived at the Tower on that January day in 1559, she announced to the watching crowds, “Some have fallen from being princes of this land to be prisoners in this place. I am raised from being a prisoner in this place to be a prince of this land. That dejection was a work of God’s justice. This advancement is a work of His mercy.” One can sense the elation in her words, for she had overcome much, starting with the loss of her mother and her bastardy, to achieve her throne. This was Anne Boleyn’s great legacy to England: her daughter, the great Virgin Queen, Elizabeth. How she would have gloried in and enjoyed Elizabeth’s triumph.



  Legends about Anne abound. Her ghost has long been reported in at least a dozen places. At Blickling Hall in Norfolk, the house in which she was probably born around 1501, the specter of her father, Thomas Boleyn, seated in a coach drawn by headless horses and driven by a headless coachman, has been reportedly seen on many occasions. The legend has the coach racing along country lanes to the door, followed by a blue light or screaming devils, or sometimes by a headless male corpse, said to be that of Lord Rochford, which is itself sometimes supposed to be dragged across hedges and ditches by four headless horses. This tale was probably well established by the eighteenth century.

  According to some late Victorian versions, it is Anne herself who occupies the coach, dressed all in white and bathed in a red glow; she sits there headless, holding her bleeding head on her lap. Some have claimed that as soon as this spectral vision reaches the door of the hall, it vanishes; others assert that Anne alights and walks through every room of the house. A tradition grew up over the years that it made its appearance every year on May 19, the anniversary of her execution.

  By 1850 superstitious country folk were claiming that Thomas Boleyn was condemned—as punishment for having connived at his daughter’s fall—to drive his coach and horses once a year, for a thousand years from his death in 1539, over the twelve—or forty, according to later versions—bridges that lie between Wroxham and Blickling, including those at Belaugh, Coltishall, Hautbois, Aylsham, and Burgh. It was said he carried his head, its tangled hair matted with blood, under his arm, and flames shot from his mouth while performing this annual ritual, which is somewhat strange, as he died in his bed.1 It was also once said that anyone witnessing this coach would immediately be dragged down to Hell. Despite this dire prediction, in 1940, Christina Hale, a member of the English Folklore Society, wrote that “the occupants of the house are so used to this annual appearance that they take no notice of it,”2 although around that time the wife of the head gardener confessed she could never go to sleep on the night of May 19 until she had heard the crunch of coach wheels on gravel. In 1985 an old local man, asked by the writer Richard Whittington-Egan if he believed in this apparition, replied that it was “a load of old squit.”

  Although Blickling was rebuilt in 1616-27, more than a century after Anne’s birth, there are also claims that her ghost has been seen in the drawing room, walking its corridors and, dressed in gray, reading a book in the long gallery. Around 1979 an apparition was seen there by a steward, but vanished almost immediately, leaving behind the book—on Hans Holbein’s paintings—open at a portrait of herself. There is, in fact, no surviving portrait of Anne by Holbein, only two sketches by him that are unproven—and unlikely—to be her. One, in the collection of the Earl of Bradford at Weston Park, is a portrait of a noblewoman who was identified as Anne only in 1649 and bears little resemblance to the standard portrait types, even though it has been widely copied, as Anne, by several painters over the centuries (two notable examples are at Hever Castle and Warwick Castle). The other, in the Royal Collection at Windsor, of a blond lady in a furred gown and nightcap, labeled “Anna Bollein Queen,” has been misidentified, as proved to be the case with sitters in other Holbein drawings labeled in the same hand. Again, the lady in this picture bears little resemblance to known paintings of Anne, and the coat of arms of the Wyatt family is sketched on the reverse, so it is possible that she was the promiscuous Elizabeth Brooke, and that this sketch was a companion portrait to that of her husband, Sir Thomas Wyatt.3 So the ghost in this story—if there was indeed a ghost—may not have been Anne but someone else entirely.

  As recently as 1985, Steve Ingram, a former administrator of Blickling Hall, was asleep one night in his flat there when he was awakened by the sound of light female footsteps advancing along the corridor and into his bedroom. He thought it was his wife, then realized that she was asleep beside him, yet when he turned on the light, expecting to see a form standing at the end of the bed, there was no one there. One might be tempted to dismiss this as a dream, save for the fact that, the next morning, Mr. Ingram’s colleagues pointed out to him that the previous day had been May 19.4

  A former custodian of Blickling Hall, Dennis Mead, told the author Joan Forman that during the Second World War a butler named Hancock had seen a woman wearing a long gray gown with a white lace collar and white mobcap walking across the lawn to the lake. He went up to her and asked her if she was looking for someone, to which she replied mysteriously, “That for which I search has long since gone.” Hancock glanced up at the house at that moment, but when he turned back the woman had disappeared. Forman suggested to Mead that the costume she wore perhaps belonged to the seventeenth century, but he pointed out that Anne Boleyn had been wearing a gray gown, white coif, and white cape on the day of her death.5 However, the costume worn by the woman on the lawn would appear to be of a later date than the 1530s; lace was barely known in England then, and there is no record of Anne wearing a lace collar—or any collar at all—at her execution.

  Norah Lofts reported a tale that a ghost called “Old Bullen” haunted Blickling, and that a room called “Old Bullen’s Study” had such a bad atmosphere that the servants were too scared to enter it, so it was locked up, but its location is supposed to have long been forgotten.

  Anne is also said to haunt Rochford Hall in Essex, which was formerly owned by her family and lived in by her sister Mary, with her second husband, William Stafford. In the 1920s it was believed that Anne had been born there, and her ghost was said to appear in a large room called “Anne Boleyn’s Nursery,” but the building dates from Henry VIII’s reign, and since Mary Boleyn died there in 1543, we might wonder if it was her shade, not Anne’s, that people claimed to have seen. At Wickford in Essex, at the turn of the year, Anne is said to travel in a phantom coach in the area where Runwell Hall, a house belonging to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral, once stood.

  Surprisingly, there are few accounts of Anne Boleyn’s ghost haunting Hampton Court, a royal residence where much supernatural activity has been reported. There is a late nineteenth-century tale that she was seen drifting along a corridor wearing a sad face and a blue gown in which she is supposed to have been painted;6 yet no such portrait exists. However, a female ghost in a blue velvet cloak has in recent years been reported in a grace-and-favor apartment that was once Katherine of Aragon’s presence chamber. In 1945, Lady Baden-Powell, who had a grace-and-favor apartment just off the great hall, recorded in her diary that a visitor, a Mrs. Hunt, sensed the presence of “Queen Anne Boleyn!” Anne, she went on, “used my little turret room at the end of my bedroom as her secret praying room,” and Mrs. Hunt “sees the Queen, who is beautiful, in the room.” Quite how Mrs. Hunt made the identification is not recorded, and Anne Boleyn’s apartments, the Queen’s Lodgings
that were built for her at Hampton Court, were nowhere near this end of the hall. Adjacent to the hall, in the southeast corner of the Base Court, were the apartments refurbished by Henry VIII for Katherine Parr in 1543; prior to that date they were occupied by ladies-in-waiting of his previous wives.

  Anne’s ghost has also reportedly been seen on Christmas Eve, crossing a bridge over the River Eden on her way to Hever Castle, her family home in Kent, or as a wraith in white, gliding across the castle lawns; and she has apparently appeared at Windsor Castle, looking through a window in the Dean’s Cloister or walking along the eastern parapet.7 She is also said to walk every May 19, on the anniversary of her execution, at Salle Church in Norfolk, where some of her Boleyn ancestors—including her grandparents—are buried, and where tradition once had it that her own remains were moved in secret. Norah Lofts related a tale told her by the sexton, who sat up to watch for this ghost; all he saw, however, was a hare, which ran around the church and then vanished. Lofts, a true East Anglian with an interest in the long tradition of witchcraft in that region, and with a lively imagination, made the connection between witches and their familiars, hares having been so commonly associated with the latter that few Norfolk people would eat their meat.

  Anne is also said to haunt thirteenth-century Bollin Hall, Cheshire (demolished in the 1840s), where local legend erroneously has it that she was born. Even though she had no connection with the place, she was at one time thought to be the White Lady seen on the grounds of a property owned by Jane Seymour’s family, Marwell Hall, Hampshire, walking in the shade of the Yew Walk behind the hall. Local legend (falsely) claims that Henry VIII waited with Jane at Marwell for news of Anne Boleyn’s death, having arranged for a chain of beacons to be lit to signal the event.

  A ghostly vision of a barge, manned by shadowy gray oarsmen, taking Anne along the River Thames to the Tower, has been glimpsed passing the Water Tower of Lambeth Palace, despite the fact that in real life she was not conveyed so far upriver; and there are tales that her voice, moaning, crying, and pleading for her life, echoes in the dark and ancient undercroft of the palace. These tales seem to be based on the untrue but oft-repeated assertion that she appeared before Archbishop Cranmer’s eccleciastical court in the undercroft on May 17, 1536, the day her marriage was dissolved, or even on the myth that she was tried there and, after being condemned, was taken down the steps of the Water Tower to the barge that would convey her back to the Tower.8 Her ghost is also said to have appeared in Durham House Street off the Strand in London, in an ancient basement that is all that remains of Durham House, a former episcopal palace in which she once resided before her marriage. She is also said to be responsible for ghostly footsteps and lights in a shoe shop in Wisbech, on the premise of its proximity to Blickling, about forty miles away! The shade of a Tudor lady in green that manifests itself at the King’s Manor in York cannot be Anne, despite claims to the contrary, for she never traveled as far north as York.

  Predictably, there have been several tales of Anne’s spirit appearing at the Tower of London. The figure of a headless woman in a Tudor gown has been seen several times near the Queen’s House, formerly the Lieutenant’s Lodging, where Anne was once thought to have been confined before her execution; since she was never held there, she cannot be the “Gray Lady” in Tudor dress whose ghost haunts the building but can only be seen by females. The room next to the one in which Anne is supposed to have spent her last days is unaccountably colder than the other rooms in the house. In 1899, at a meeting of the Ghost Club, Lady Bidduph related how she had seen a lady with a red carnation over her right ear looking out of the window of Anne Boleyn’s room in the Queen’s House.9 Even today, the room next door has an evil reputation because of its chill, forbidding atmosphere, and strange perfumed odor, and because people have awoken there with a dreadful feeling of being suffocated, no child is permitted to sleep there.10 However, these tales can have nothing to do with Anne Boleyn.

  One night in 1864 a guardsman of the Sixtieth Rifles saw a white figure emerge from the dimness of a doorway of the Queen’s House, where he was standing on duty. As it moved toward him, he challenged it, but as it came out of the shadows, he saw to his horror that it was headless and raised his bayonet, only to see the figure walk straight through it and himself. At that, he fainted with terror, and after being found by his angry commanding officer, was court-martialed for drunkenness and dereliction of his duty. Fortunately, two other people revealed that they too had seen the figure at that spot, and two other guardsmen swore that they had watched from a window of the Bloody Tower as it approached the sentry, and heard his scream of terror as he collapsed. In the face of this evidence, the court acquitted him.11

  Later in the nineteenth century a Yeoman Warder testified under oath to seeing a bluish form drifting across this area toward the Queen’s House, while another soldier saw a woman in white coming out of that house soon after midnight; he could hear her heels tapping on the ground. He watched her walk toward Tower Green, but when she moved into a moonlit area, he was shocked to see that she had no head. He fled from his post, but when he explained what he had seen, he too escaped punishment. Similarly, in 1933, a soldier claimed to have seen the indistinct white form of a headless woman near the Bloody Tower; it seemed to rise out of the ground, then floated toward him; horrified, he thrust his bayonet at it, only to see it vanish.12 Given that five different people saw this apparition at various times, there is perhaps some substance to these accounts, but the connection with the Queen’s House again precludes any connection with Anne Boleyn.

  In 1972 a nine-year-old girl from the North of England, visiting London for the first time with her parents, was standing by the scaffold site in the Tower, listening to a guide reciting the names of all the people who had been executed by the axe there. The child, who had no prior knowledge of Anne Boleyn, said to her mother that Anne had not been executed by the axe but by the sword, and afterward described in detail the Queen’s last moments, even asserting that the executioner had removed his shoes so as to come up behind her unawares and behead her.13 The only thing she did not mention was that the scaffold site was in the wrong place!

  In the late nineteenth century an officer, peering through the windows of St. Peter ad Vincula after seeing an unauthorized light inside at night, claimed to see the elegant figure of Anne Boleyn (whose face he said he recognized from portraits) at the head of a line of knights and ladies in period costume who were proceeding up the aisle toward the altar.14 He watched astounded for a few moments until the procession and the light vanished.

  There is a story that Anne’s doleful ghost appears for a few moments at a time on autumn evenings in a dark corner of the upper room in the Martin Tower, but she was never held prisoner there (although her brother might have been) nor ever visited the Tower of London in the autumn.

  One night in 1967, John Howden, a young soldier, patrolling near the White Tower, saw an eerie light in one of the upper windows, then a moving light illuminating a shape that passed from window to window. The next day a warder told him he had probably seen the ghost of Anne Boleyn, who was supposed to haunt the White Tower and the Bloody Tower, and that many warders had seen her but did not normally discuss their experiences.15 Again, the identification with Anne Boleyn must be incorrect, as she was not held in either building.

  One might perhaps expect to glimpse the ghost of Anne at the Tower, but there are odder tales. In 1963 an Anglican clergyman, William Packenham Walsh, a canon of Peterborough Cathedral who had a lifelong obsession with the executed Queen, published a book, A Tudor story: The Return of Anne Boleyn—which has been called “a Christian morality tale”—about his many supposed exchanges with her discarnate soul, and even with that of a repentant Henry VIII, through mediums and automatic writing. His claim that one of her maids-of-honor was executed “for her sake,” for which there is no historical evidence, alone casts doubt on the reliability of his book, as do many other errors that have since bee
n disproved by historians. In 2008 a woman claiming to be a witch advertised on eBay, the Internet auction Web site, rings that allegedly have been infused with the spiritual essence of Anne Boleyn.

  As a historian, I make no further comment on the veracity of these stories or the existence of ghosts. They are included here to illustrate how Anne Boleyn has become a figure of romantic mythology and a part of our national folklore.


  Full details of the works mentioned are given in the Bibliography.

  Anonymous accounts of Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution.

  1. Execution criminal hecha en Inglatierra el 16 [sic] de Mayo 1536, from the Vienna Archives. Anonymous Imperialist account of the executions of Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers. This account is given in LP 911, firstly in an English translation, and then in French. The date is incorrect, and it is not known how soon after the executions this report was written, although the details were clearly very fresh in the author’s mind. An English translation of the original Spanish manuscript, now in the Vienna Staatsarchiv, appears as Note D in J. A. Froude’s edition of William Thomas’s The Pilgrim (a life of Henry VIII written in 1546); the French version is in Rymer’s Foedera. Internal evidence suggests that the writer was not present at the executions on May 17, but was an eyewitness to Anne Boleyn’s death.

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