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‘Anne Boleyn in the Tower’ by Édouard Cibot. (Public Domain)

What Happened to Anne Boleyn’s Heart?


Anne Boleyn is arguably one of the most famous women of the Tudor period. She was the second, and most notorious, wife of Henry VIII (whether she deserves her reputation, though, is a matter of debate), and the mother of Elizabeth I. Although Anne initially enjoyed the king’s favor, Henry did, after all, defy the Pope and the powerful Roman Catholic Church to marry her, she was eventually discarded, and executed. While the story of what happened to her corpse is relatively well-known, the tale of what happened to Anne Boleyn’s heart is not as common.

Who was Anne Boleyn?

Anne Boleyn was born around 1501 and was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, who later became Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard. The Boleyns were associated with Salle, a small village in Norfolk, and are recorded to have been living there as early as 1318. In time, the family rose to prominence, and purchased Blickling Hall. It is believed that Anne was born in Blickling Hall, and Salle plays a role later on in the story of Anne Boleyn’s heart. In any case, Anne lived in France for some time during her youth, before returning to England in 1522.

Blickling hall, Norfolk, England. (nukul2533 /Adobe Stock)

Blickling hall, Norfolk, England. (nukul2533 /Adobe Stock)

Back in England, Anne lived at the royal court, and served as a maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon, the wife of King Henry VIII at the time. Anne was a charming woman, and soon won many admirers, one of whom was Henry Percy, who later succeeded his father as Earl of Northumberland.

Although the two were secretly betrothed, they did not get married in the end. According to one account, it was Percy’s father who prevented the two from marrying, as he did not support the union. Another account claims that it was the king himself, through Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who prevented the pair from marrying. To complicate matters further, Henry himself had fallen for Anne.

King Henry’s Dramatic Gesture of Love

It is not known for certain if Henry had taken an interest in Anne before or after her secret betrothal to Percy. What is clear, however, is that Mary, Anne’s sister, and one of the king’s mistresses, had introduced Anne to Henry. In addition, around 1525, Henry was writing love letters to Anne.

King Henry and Anne Boleyn deer hunting in Windsor Forest. (Public Domain)

King Henry and Anne Boleyn deer hunting in Windsor Forest. (Public Domain)

In one of the king’s letters, Henry promised to make Anne his only mistress. Anne, however, rejected the king’s offer. As a consequence, Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine, his legitimate wife, so that he could marry Anne, which proved to be a more difficult task that the king had imagined.

Henry sent his petition for annulment to the Pope in Rome, citing a passage from the Book of Leviticus (Leviticus 20:21, to be exact). The king argued that he had taken his brother’s wife (Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur), which was forbidden in Leviticus. As a result, his relationship with Catherine was condemned by God, evidenced by the fact that they were unable to produce a male heir after all these years.

Pope Clement VII, however, refused to grant an annulment, as a result of the pressure placed on him by Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and Catherine’s nephew. Moreover, the Pope was at that time a prisoner of the emperor. Consequently, the issue of Henry’s annulment dragged on for a long six years.

Finally, in early 1533, Anne discovered that she was pregnant, and Henry decided to marry Anne with or without the Pope’s blessing. Around January 25th that year, Henry and Anne were secretly married. Their union was made public on Easter, and on May 23rd, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void.

Cranmer also validated Henry and Anne’s marriage several days later. On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to the future Elizabeth I, her only child with the king. Although Anne conceived twice more in the years that followed, no children were produced. The queen had a miscarriage in 1534, and in 1536, she gave birth to a stillborn male child.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn probably based on a contemporary portrait which no longer survives. (Public Domain)

Portrait of Anne Boleyn probably based on a contemporary portrait which no longer survives. (Public Domain)

Anne’s Fall from Grace

Anne’s fall from grace was primarily caused by her failure to produce a male heir. At the same time, Henry had lost interest in Anne, and barely a year after marrying her, was already having affairs with two of the queen’s maids of honor. The two women were Madge or Margaret Shelton (though it has also been suggested in more recent times that it was Mary, Madge’s sister, who was Henry’s mistress) and Jane Seymour, who eventually became Henry’s third wife.

Unlike Catherine, who knew of Henry’s extra-marital affairs, but was able to tolerate them, Anne was furious with the king when she found out what he was doing with her maids. Henry, on the other hand, grew increasingly frustrated with Anne’s jealousy, and defended his adultery, as he had done before, by claiming that he was doing so with the aim of producing a male heir. Needless to say, the king and queen grew more and more hostile with each passing day, and their marriage eventually broke down.

The birth of the stillborn male child in 1536 was the last straw for Henry, who felt that it was time to get rid of Anne. Unlike Catherine, Anne did not have the backing of any powerful foreign monarch. Additionally, since Henry had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church, he did not need to send a petition for annulment to the Pope.

Possible drawing of Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public Domain)

Possible drawing of Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public Domain)

Hence, the king was able to deal with Anne as he pleased, and took the easy way out - by having her executed. On May 2, 1536, Anne was arrested, and taken to the Tower of London on several charges, the most serious of which being high treason, adultery, and incest. Along with Anne, her five alleged co-conspirators, who happened to be her lovers as well, were arrested.

The men were George Boleyn, Lord Rochford (Anne’s brother, hence the additional charge of incest), Sir Henry Norris, a close friend of the king and groom of the stool, two courtiers, Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton, and Mark Smeaton, a musician.

Anne’s trial took place on May 15, 1536, during which she was tried by a court of peers. Incidentally, the jury included Henry Percy and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, one of Anne’s uncles. Nevertheless, the jury unanimously found Anne to be guilty of all the charges against her.

Anne Boleyn’s Death

Two days after the trial and her conviction, Anne’s marriage to Henry was declared null and void. Anne was to be beheaded on May 18, but her execution was postponed to the following day, as Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, received orders to clear the Tower of ‘strangers’, i.e. foreign diplomats.

‘Anne Boleyn in the Tower’ by Édouard Cibot. (Public Domain)

‘Anne Boleyn in the Tower’ by Édouard Cibot. (Public Domain)

Henry and Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, were worried that these diplomats would send reports of Anne’s execution to their masters, thereby stirring sympathy among foreign monarchs for the former queen, and / or making Henry look like the villain in this whole affair. On May 19, 1536, Anne was beheaded by an expert swordsman who was specially brought in from France.

Throughout her ordeal, Anne maintained her innocence. Indeed, most modern historians believe that the queen was innocent and that she was framed either by Henry or by Cromwell. According to the first scenario, the king was determined to marry another woman, with whom he might be able to produce a male heir. As Anne was in the way, he decided to get rid of her.

In the second scenario, Anne was perceived by Cromwell as an obstacle in his political machinations, and hence he sought to have her eliminated. The king’s chief minister favored an alliance between England and the Holy Roman Empire. Anne, on the other hand, was pro-French. Moreover, Anne opposed Cromwell’s plans for the monasteries, and the queen’s almoner attacked him and the advice he gave to the king in a sermon preached before Henry.

A Hasty Burial for a Former Queen

After Anne’s execution, her remains were wrapped in a piece of white cloth and brought to the nearby Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Unfortunately, no one had prepared a coffin for Anne’s burial. Eventually, a Yeoman Warder managed to find an old wooden box, which was once used to store bow staves, for Anne. The remains of the former queen were placed in the box, and buried in the chancel near the remains of her brother, who had been executed two days before her.

In 1876, repairs were carried out in the chapel, and bones were found in the chancel. It is believed that one of the individuals there was Anne. Her remains were exhumed, reburied, and her final resting place marked by a memorial tile bearing her coat of arms, her name and title, i.e. ‘Queen Anne Boleyn’, and the year of her death.

Where is Anne Boleyn’s Heart?

While the story of Anne’s burial and the rediscovery of her remains are relatively well-known, the tale about her heart is much more obscure. One version of the story connects Anne Boleyn’s heart to Erwarton, a small village in Suffolk. Apparently, as a child, Anne had visited Erwarton Hall on many occasions, and since she loved the place so much, she requested that her heart be buried there. Thus, following her execution, Anne’s heart was taken by one of her uncles, Sir Philip Parker, to be buried in St Mary, the village’s church.

One source, however, points out that the Sir Philip Parker in question is actually a later owner of Erwarton Hall, and that Anne’s uncle was Sir Philip Calthorpe. Another version of the story claims that it was the king himself who secretly ordered Anne Boleyn’s heart to be removed, and buried in that church.

Some say Anne Boleyn’s heart is in St. Mary's church, Erwarton, Suffolk. (Robert Edwards/CC BY SA 2.0)

Some say Anne Boleyn’s heart is in St. Mary's church, Erwarton, Suffolk. (Robert Edwards/CC BY SA 2.0)

In any case, the claim in these stories seems to have been substantiated in 1836/7, when restorers working in the church discovered a heart-shaped tin casket in the chancel wall of the church. The casket was full of black dust, which was presumed to be the disintegrated remains of Anne Boleyn’s heart. The casket was re-sealed, and buried in the Lady Chapel vault, beneath the organ. The burial spot is marked by a plaque.

Although Anne’s heart is commonly believed to have been buried in Suffolk, there is another claimant to the final resting place of the dead queen’s heart, St Peter and St Paul Church, in Salle, Norfolk. As a matter of fact, it is even claimed that Anne’s remains are buried in the church.

According to an unsubstantiated legend, after Anne’s burial in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, her friends secretly exhumed her body and brought it back to Salle, her place of birth. She was then buried in the church, which had been built by her paternal grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, at midnight, so as to avoid rousing the suspicion of the villagers.

A plain black stone was erected over Anne’s burial spot. This legend was mentioned as early as two weeks after Anne’s death, allegedly by an eye-witness to these secret undertakings. This is indeed a curious tale, so much so that a version of the story was reported by Charles Dickens in 1848, in an article in Bentley’s Miscellany.

Another legend says that Anne Boleyn’s heart is in the St Peter and St Paul's church, Salle, Norfolk. (David/CC BY 2.0)

Another legend says that Anne Boleyn’s heart is in the St Peter and St Paul's church, Salle, Norfolk. (David/CC BY 2.0)

It is also claimed that Anne Boleyn’s ghost can be seen wandering around the church on the anniversary of her execution. The discovery of the skeletons in the chancel of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in 1876, however, probably shows that there is no truth to the legend.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Anne Boleyn was undoubtedly one of the most important women of Tudor England. Yet there are certainly many unanswered questions surrounding her tragic life. In a number of ways, Anne’s influence persisted even after her death. Her daughter, Elizabeth, for instance, eventually became Queen of England.

Less directly, stories were told about what happened to her heart, as well as an alternate version about the fate of her remains. While we may never know if Anne Boleyn’s heart was indeed brought to Erwarton and buried in its church, it is clear that our fascination with Anne has continued till this day.

Top Image: ‘Anne Boleyn in the Tower’ by Édouard Cibot . (Public Domain)

By Wu Mingren


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I’ve read the ‘legend’ that Anne’s friends secretly took her body for burial at Blickling before. Although people dispute it because of the skeleton at the Tower of London, the interesting thing was that they could not locate a skeleton or any remains of her cousin, Queen Katherine Howard. A theory was put forward that the skeleton identified as Anne, is in fact her cousin, and Anne’s remains WERE moved as was claimed.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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