The Tudor Society

Talk on Anne Boleyn and the Tower of London by Claire Ridgway


There is so much misinformation out there regarding Anne Boleyn, her execution and her links with the Tower of London. Ones I've come across include:-

  • Anne Boleyn was executed by an axeman
  • She was executed where the glass memorial stands today
  • Anne was imprisoned in a room in the Queen's House overlooking Tower Green where “ANNE” was carved into the stonework
  • The bodies in the chancel were exhumed and then buried in the crypt or in a mass grave
  • An extra finger was found when the Victorians exhumed her remains
  • Anne was escorted through Traitors' Gate

I haven't read these in fiction, I've read them on forums or heard people like Yeoman Warders tell them to tourists. One person who confronted a Yeoman Warder and told him that Anne was not executed on the spot he pointed out, got the rather sarcastic reply, “Oh, you've been reading Alison Weir”.

Today, we think of the Tower of London as a prison and fortress. The Yeoman Warders tell you its history – the White Tower dates back to William the Conqueror in the 11th century – and then concentrate on the grisly goings-on, which is, of course, what tourists want to hear about. Executions, daring escapes, murders, the Princes, ghosts, the menagerie and the Polar bear who once swam in the moat etc. All interesting stories but there is so much more to the Tower, a building which has also been a royal mint, jewel house, armoury and royal palace.

Today, we're going to consider Anne Boleyn's links to the Tower of London. Let's begin with her coronation...

The Tower and Anne's Coronation

It was traditional for monarchs to go to the Tower before their coronations and process from there to Westminster. Henry VIII wanted his queen consort, Anne Boleyn, to do this, to show the people that Anne was his rightful wife and Queen. He spent a fortune refurbishing the royal palace and commissioning lavish timber-framed lodgings for Anne's comfort. Alison Weir, in her book “The Lady in the Tower”, writes that Cromwell spent the equivalent of nearly £1.3 million in today's money on the repairs and improvements. It is sad that these apartments became uninhabitable by the end of the 16th century and were demolished in the 18th century when so much was spent on them and they have such history.

The royal palace consisted of :-

  • The Great Hall, the centre-piece of the palace and a huge hall built by Henry III in the 13th century
  • Kitchens
  • The Queen's lodgings, which overlooked the palace gardens
  • The jewel house
  • The Queen's gallery, used for promenades and viewing the gardens
  • The palace gardens with their courtyards, railings and posts topped with heraldic beasts

It was a sumptuous royal palace. In the photo below, the Great Hall is the rectangular building with roof at the bottom and then the Queen's lodgings are the buildings on the right, running between the White Tower's Wardrobe Tower and the Lanthorn Tower in the bottom right of the picture.
The kitchens were situated by the Wakefield Tower.

On the 29th May 1533, Anne Boleyn's coronation celebrations began. At 1 pm the London livery companies’ fifty barges set out from Billingsgate for Greenwich, accompanied by an escort of smaller vessels. These “barges” “were sixty or seventy feet long with a beam of ten feet or so, shallow draft and a large covered cabin for passengers. They were powered by four to eight oars a side up forrard and were highly decorated”. Ives describes their appearance that day:

“On that Thursday they were more elaborately dressed than even for the lord mayor’s procession, with flags and bunting overall, hung with gold foil that glistened in the sun and with little bells that tinkled; the vessels were packed with musicians of every kind, and more cannon than seems safe on such a crowded waterway. The fleet was led by a light wherry in which had been constructed a mechanical dragon that could be made to move and belch out flames, and with it were other models of monsters and huge wild men, who threw blazing fireworks and uttered hideous cries.”

Behind these barges came the mayor’s barge with the scarlet robed aldermen and the bachelors’ barge which was dressed with gold and silver cloth, flags, streamers with bells on, two huge banners decorated with the arms of Henry and Anne, and thirty-six shields, and which carried “trumpets and divers other melodious instruments”. A wherry on the opposite side of the mayor’s barge carried a huge representation of Anne Boleyn’s badge: the crowned white falcon perched on a gold tree stump, which had red and white roses bursting out of it, with a green hill in the background surrounded by “virgins singing and playing sweetly”

It must have been quite a spectacle for the people of London, as was the Thames procession of 2009 marking the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession – see the photos to get an idea of how Anne's procession would have looked.

It took the procession two hours to get from Billingsgate to Greenwich because they were rowing against the tide. At Greenwich Palace, Queen Anne Boleyn boarded her barge, her ladies boarded a second one and the King’s guard boarded the King’s barge, the King was not part of the procession. These three barges were joined by the barges of the courtiers and Eric Ives writes of how there were “some 120 large craft and 200 small ones”, all lavishly decorated.
Letters and Papers describes how gun salutes heralded the Queen as she made her way along the Thames and that “when she came over against Wapping mills the Tower four guns shot at once.

On landing at the Tower Wharf, Anne was received by Sir Edward Walsingham, lieutenant of the Tower, and Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, as well as a long line of other dignatories. She entered the Tower by the Court Gate of the Byward Tower and was received by her husband, the King, who kissed her and led her to her new lavish chambers. They supped together later.

The royal couple spent the next 48 hours in the royal palace of the Tower of London, before Anne's procession to Westminster in readiness for her coronation ceremony. Eric Ives describes how Anne had a “rebuilt great chamber and a rebuilt dining room, while a new bridge across the moat gave access from her private garden into the city. “ She also had a restored great gallery.

Knights of the Bath

The traditional Order of the Bath ceremony took place from the night of the 30th May to the morning of the 31st, with 18 Knights of the Bath being created. George Younghusband, in his book on the Tower, describes this traditional coronation ceremony in relation to the coronation of Henry IV:

“Round one of the large halls in the White Tower on the eve of the King's coronation were ranged forty-six baths, filled with warm water, and draped within and without with clean sheets ; over each bath was a canopy spread. Into these forty-six baths stepped the forty-six knights-to-be, and performed their ablutions. When these were completed a distinguished train, headed by the King, and consisting of nobles and prelates, entered the hall with all pomp and ceremony. The King then slowly approached each aspirant, as he sat in his bath, and, dipping his finger in the water, made the sign of the cross on his bare back. At the same time His Majesty pronounced the solemn words which made an esquire into a Knight of the Bath. " You shall honor God above all things ; you shall be steadfast in the faith of Christ ; you shall love the King your Sovereign Lord, and him and his right defend to your power ; you shall defend maidens, widows, and orphans in their rights, and shall suffer no extortion, as far as you may prevent it ; and of as great honor be this Order unto you, as ever it was to any of your progenitors or others." When each in his turn had thus been knighted the King with his retinue slowly passed out of the hall. The Knights then rose from their baths and were by their esquires each put into a bed with rich hangings, which stood behind each bath. After the Knights had rested for some time in these beds and were warm and dry, the old bell on the Bell Tower, which still rings nightly at the curfew hour, summoned them to rise again. As each arose his esquire robed him in a long brown woollen cassock with a cowl, such as is worn by monks and hermits, and in procession the Knights, preceded by music, made their way to St. John's Chapel, in the White Tower. Round the chapel on the pillars, and about the high altar were arranged the helmets, and armour, and swords, and spurs of the new Knights, and before these each Knight knelt in devotion, and watched his armour all night.”

Henry VIII, as monarch, would have knighted the 18 men chosen and the list of Knights of the Bath at Anne Boleyn's coronation included Sir Francis Weston, a man who would be executed in 1536 for alleged adultery with her. Sir Henry Norris's name is in the list of Knights Bachelor who were dubbed the following day.

Anne left the Tower of London at about 5pm on Saturday 31st May to process to Westminster. The lavish rebuilding and refurbishments that Henry VIII carried out for Anne's execution were for a 48 hour stay, but Anne would use the Queen's lodgings again in May 1536.

The Queen's House

Various websites state that Anne Boleyn was imprisoned in a small room, the Anne Boleyn room, of the Queen's House, the part-timbered building which overlooks Tower Green. Victorian visitors interested in the tragic queen were once shown around this bedroom, complete with ANNE carved into the stonework, but we now know that this building was not built until around 1540. Anne could not have been imprisoned in a building that did not exist in her lifetime!

The Men and the Tower 1536

On the 30th April 1536, court musician Mark Smeaton was apprehended and taken to Thomas Cromwell's house in Stepney. There, he was interrogated until he confessed to sleeping with the Queen three times.

At dawn on the 2nd May, Sir Henry Norris was escorted to the Tower of London. Smeaton joined him that morning and George Boleyn was taken there early in the afternoon. Smeaton was kept in irons, probably due to his lower status. We do not know where abouts in the Tower they were held but there is a carving in the stone of the Martin Tower of a rose with what looks like a letter “H” and the name “Boullan” and another carving, this time Anne's falcon badge, but without its crown and sceptre, in the Beauchamp Tower.

Anne Boleyn's Arrest

Anne Boleyn was watching a match of real tennis on the morning of the 2nd May when she received a message telling her to present herself before members of the King's council. She duly presented herself and was informed that she was being accused of committing adultery with three different men: Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris and a third, unnamed at this stage. She was also told that Smeaton and Norris had confessed. Anne remonstrated with her accusers, but her words had no effect and the royal commission ordered her arrest.

Anne was then taken to her apartments until the tide of the Thames turned and then, at two o'clock in the afternoon, she was escorted by barge to the Tower of London.

Upon arrival at the Tower, it is likely that Anne would have entered through the Court Gate (Tower Gate) of the Byward Tower, the King and Queen's private entrance, rather than through Traitors' Gate. This was the same gate that she had entered through in 1533 and she was even met by the same man, Sir Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower. How ironic! Anne was then escorted to the Royal Palace where she encountered the Constable of the Tower, Sir William Kingston. He informed her that she was to be imprisoned in the Queen's lodgings, rather than a dungeon, much to Anne's surprise.

On the 4th May, Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton were arrested and taken to the Tower and they were joined on 5th May by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page. Wyatt's poem about the executions of the five men includes the words “The bell tower showed me such sight” so he must have been imprisoned there.

The Trials

The trials of Norris, Smeaton, Weston and Brereton took place in Westminster Hall in front of a special commission of oyer and terminer. The men were taken there and back by barge along the river Thames. Anne and George, however, were tried in the Great Hall, or King's Hall of the Tower in front of a jury of their peers. A great platform had been erected in the hall so that everybody could see.

The picture you see here is of the Great Hall at Winchester which was built at around the same time as the Great Hall at the Tower and on the orders of the same man, Henry III, in the 13th century. This surviving building gives us an idea of what the Tower's great hall looked like. It is easy to imagine how 2,000 spectators managed to fit in the hall for Anne's trial.

There are more photos of Winchester's Great Hall at

The Tower and the 1536 Executions

Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, George Boleyn, Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton were executed on the 17th May 1536 on Tower Hill. Tower Hill is outside the Tower walls and is sometimes missed by tourists and visitors to the Tower because you have to cross a road to get to it. It is next to the Tower Hill war memorial.

It is a simple paved square marking the spot of the scaffold and has plaques commemorating some of the people who were executed there. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, recorded Anne Boleyn witnessing the executions of the men, something that she would not have been able to do from her lodgings in the palace complex, so my good friend Gareth Russell wonders if Anne asked Sir William Kingston to move her to one of the towers, such as the Bell Tower. There is no way of knowing.

Anne's Execution Spot

We know from contemporary accounts that Anne Boleyn's scaffold was not where the present day glass memorial is. In the 16th century, Tower Green was much bigger and stretched around the back of the White Tower. The photo is of the parade ground between the White Tower and the Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are, and that's where Anne's scaffold was built.

Anne exited the Queen's Lodgings, walked past the Great Hall, through Cole Harbour Gate (Cold Harbour Gate), and along the western side of the White Tower to the black-draped scaffold. There, she was executed by the famous Hangman of Calais how used a sword, not an axe. She did not lay her head on a block, she knelt upright, so images of Anne with an axeman and block are not at all accurate.

Anne's Resting Place

After her execution, Anne Boleyn's body and head were wrapped in white cloth and placed in a chest which had been fetched from the Tower armoury. It was a chest which had once contained bow staves. The chest was buried in the chancel area of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, St Peter in chains, where it lay in peace until 1876 when much-needed restoration work was carried out on the chapel. During the work, it was found that the pavement of the chancel area, where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey were buried, was sinking. It was decided that proper foundations were needed so the chancel area was dug up and the remains exhumed.

In the area where Anne Boleyn was recorded to have been buried, the bones of a female were found at a depth of about two feet. The remains were examined by Dr Mouat who confirmed that they belonged to “a female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions”. He went on to say that “the forehead and lower jaw were small and especially well formed. The vertebrae were particularly small, especially one joint (the atlas), which was that next to the skull, and they bore witness to the Queen's ‘lyttel neck'.” Although the bones were mixed up, they had been heaped together in a small space and there were no further female remains at that spot. Dr Mouat's memorandum said of Anne Boleyn's remains:

“The bones found in the place where Queen Anne Boleyn is said to have been buried are certainly those of a female in the prime of life, all perfectly consolidated and symmetrical, and belong to the same person.
“The bones of the head indicate a well-formed round skull, with an intellectual forehead, straight orbital ridge, large eyes, oval face and rather square full chin. The remains of the vertebrae, and the bones of the lower limbs, indicate a well-formed woman of middle height, with a short and slender neck. The ribs show depth and roundness of chest. The hands and feet bones indicate delicate and well-shaped hands and feet, with tapering fingers and a narrow foot.”

He noted that she had been around 5' to 5'3 inches in height. Both hands were entirely normal and no extra finger was found.

In her book, “The Lady in the Tower”, Alison Weir discusses the findings of the Victorians and the records of Dr Mouat, and argues that the Victorians made a mistake. Dr Mouat gave the skeleton’s age as between 25 and 30 years of age and described the woman as having a “square, full chin”, but Alison Weir points out that not only does this description not tally with the widely accepted birthdate of 1501 (and therefore an age of 35), it also does not match Anne Boleyn’s appearance. Alison Weir writes:-

“It is just possible that the bones thought to be Anne Boleyn’s – the diminutive slender female with a square jaw – actually belonged to Katherine Howard, miniatures of whom by Holbein show her with what could be a jutting square jaw."

She goes on to say that the remains identified as Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, which were described as belonging to a female of “rather delicate proportions” and of “about thirty to forty years of age”, are actually Anne.

However, the Victorians found the body they identified as Anne in the place where they expected to find her and any mistake with the age could be explained by the Victorians not having access to the forensic science we have today. Also, Jane Boleyn is thought to have been born around 1505 so she was around 37 when she died. Therefore the description of her remains matches what we know about her anyway.

One feature of the skeleton though to be Anne that really does make me think of Anne Boleyn is the description of the hands:-

“delicate and well-shaped hands and feet, with tapering fingers and a narrow foot.”

We know that Elizabeth I was proud of her long, elegant fingers and I am convinced that she inherited these from her mother, Anne Boleyn. I don't believe there is any reason to doubt the Victorians' findings or re-interments.

After the work had been completed in the Chapel, the remains found in the chancel area were “soldered up in thick leaden coffers, and then fastened down with copper screws in boxes made of oak plank, one inch in thickness. Each box bore a leaden escutcheon, on which was engraved the name of the person whose supposed remains were thus enclosed, together with the dates of death, and of the year (1877) of the reinterment. They were then placed in the respective positions in the chancel in which the remains had been found, and the ground having been opened, they were all buried about four inches below the surface, the earth was then filled in, and concrete immediately spread over them”.

Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, Lord Redesdale, recorded how a plan of the burials was deposited amongst the Tower of London records and a “solemn ceremony” was carried out, presided over by the chaplain, the Reverend E. Jordan Roberts.

Memorial Tiles

Beautiful memorial tiles were used to mark the resting places of those buried in the chancel and these can still be seen today, although a rope cordons off the chancel area and some tiles lie underneath the altar table. As you look at the altar, Anne Boleyn's tile is to the left of the table.

Every year, a basket of red roses is delivered to the Tower with instructions to lay on her memorial tile. The card simply reads Queen Anne Boleyn 1536. The roses have been delivered every year as far back as anyone can remember. According to one article, Major General Chris Tyler, a former director-general of the Tower, played detective and tried to find out who was sending the rose. He tracked down a family of Boleyn descendants who live in Kent. After polite questioning during a visit to the Tower they admitted that they had been responsible for the flowers, and their relatives before them. The florist shop closest to the Tower confirmed that they had been receiving the order since the 1850s but a few years ago the order was moved to florist in a Kent village close to where the descendants lived.
When I spoke to the Chief Yeoman warder about it a couple of years ago, he was under the impression that the flower order was part of a bequest and that it would go on and on until the money ran out.

The Tower Today

Open Tower of London Plan for this section.

The Queen's lodgings stood in the area between 38 and 20 by the big round tree by the red blob marked Entrance to the White Tower.

The Great Hall stood on the lawn between 36 and 20 and the White Tower, at right angles to the Queen's Lodgings. Anne's final walk took her past the Great Hall, out of Cole Harbour Gate, number 11 on the map and around the White Tower to the present day parade ground between the White Tower and the entrance to the Crown Jewels, marked with a red blob. Although the Royal Palace and Cole Harbour Gate no longer exist, you can still follow in Anne's footsteps and repeat her walk. Note: I forgot that the ravens' enclosure actually blocks the path from where the royal palace stood, but you can walk from Cole Harbour Gate to the parade ground - sorry!

The glass memorial is on the lawn marked 30 and “Scaffold Site” on the plan but as I said, it's not where Anne was executed. The real spot is near the red blob marked Entrance to the Crown Jewels. However, the glass memorial is moving as it has a beautiful verse etched on it in memory of those who died though. It reads:

“Gentle visitor pause a while,
Where you stand death cut away the light of many days.
Here, jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life.
May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage,
Under these restless skies.”

A must-see is Anne's resting place in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula by Tower Green, marked 10 on the plan. The Tower always seems to be changing the rules about entry to the Chapel and these days you have to join a Yeoman Warder's tour to go in there or wait until after 4.30 when it's open to the public. Unfortunately, as I said before, the chancel area is roped off so it's hard to see the memorial tiles. On our visit in 2012 the Chief Yeoman Warder actually took us past the rope and we were allowed to go and lay flowers on Anne's tile. It was a moving moment and one I will never forget. Sadly, they have never let us repeat that experience and they are very strict about it all.

Tudor Graffiti

The Beauchamp Tower is also a must-see because of all the Tudor graffiti there, including Anne's falcon, which is believed to have been carved by one of the men imprisoned there in 1536. There is also this John Dudley inscription, thought to have been carved by him or one of his sons and the “Jane” one said to have been carved by Lady Jane Grey's husband, Guildford Dudley.

The Gates

The Court Gate, the gate through which Anne entered at her coronation and when she was arrested, is a bit of a disappointment. It is found outside the Tower on the riverside and instead of having a plaque telling of Anne’s entrance into the Tower and her first public kiss with Henry, it is sadly neglected and when we were there it had rubbish bags piled up against it. Instead, visitors are shown Traitors' Gate and told that that is where Anne Boleyn entered.

When Elizabeth I, as a princess, was imprisoned in the Tower on 18th March 1554, she didn't enter by Traitors' Gate either. It was low tide so she was taken to Tower Wharf. David Starkey comments on how terrifying her walk from the wharf would have been because she would had to have walked past the Tower menagerie, past a line of guards and under the Bloody Tower where she may well have seen, across the court, the scaffold left over from the execution of Lady Jane Grey the previous month. Although some books state that Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Bell Tower, she actually stayed in royal palace, just like her mother before her.

Trivia: Elizabeth was released from the Tower on the 19th May 1554, the 18th anniversary of her mother's execution.

On one of the wall walks you will find a mock-up of how the Tower looked in Tudor times, giving the locations of the Royal Palace, and there is also a 3D model on display in the White Tower.

By the way, you might think that the Tower of London is simply a tourist attraction, but it's not. It is still a royal fortress and the Yeoman Warders, or Yeoman of the Guard, are not everyday people dressed up in silly costumes, they are required to have served in the armed forces with an honourable record for at least 22 years and to have reached a certain level. Yeoman Warders were royal bodyguards in the past and their commander in chief today is still Her Majesty the Queen.

There are 5 comments Go To Comment

  1. J

    Excellent, very informative and puts to right many of the misconceptions of where Anne entered the Tower and was kept before her execution and actual execution site. Bravo Claire!

  2. A

    Very interesting information! I have been to the Tower four times, but now I want to go for a fifth time, because of all the detailed information you provided. I almost can’t wait to see the things you have described. Great!

  3. H

    Thank you for this. It’s very informative, Claire. Does anyone know the actual time of Anne’s execution?

    1. C - Post Author

      Sir William Kingston appeared at Anne’s apartments at 8am on 19th May to Anne that the hour of her death was near and that she should get herself ready, so her execution must have been scheduled for 9am.

  4. M

    Another great session with Claire. I went to the Ceremony of the Keys the first time I went to London. It was surreal to be there in the dark, it felt kinda spooky. It wasn’t on my bucket list but I’m glad I experienced it.

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Talk on Anne Boleyn and the Tower of London by Claire Ridgway