Anne Boleyn (c.1500-1536), the second of Henry VIII’s six wives who met her eventual fate by beheading, is — to so many — one of the most mysterious and captivating figures in European history. You may have seen her portrayed by Jodie Turner-Smith in the popular Channel 5 miniseries, Anne Boleyn, or as the titular role in the multi award-winning 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days. Most recently, her story was featured in the Tony Award winning, pop musical sensation, Six. Her credits just keep rolling…
Despite this extensive catalogue of pop-culture references and features, however, we don’t have much of anything in Anne’s own voice or writing. Perhaps this is precisely why her story is so universally intriguing. We can postulate and infer who she was, how she felt, and why she met the fate she did, but we can never really know for certain.
Anne’s Court Life
Anne Boleyn’s life in the court of Henry VIII was marked by her blend of intelligence, charm, and ambition. Captivating the King’s attention, she was able to gain a significant amount of influence in ruling, a factor in the decision to both break from the Catholic Church and force Cardinal Wolsey out of power. Her presence in Henry’s life would go on to change religious life in England forever, resulting in the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which formalised England’s break with Rome, and made Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
But she is particularly remembered for her death – that is, being the first Queen of England (but not the last) to meet her death as a result of Henry VIII’s accusations.
Imprisonment and life in the Tower of London
Anne was arrested on 2nd May 1536 on charges of adultery and treason. Her arrest resulted in her placement in the Tower of London. Stripped of her title and separated from her loved ones, the last weeks of Anne’s life were filled with hardship and uncertainty. And yet, on the evening of her execution, the Constable of the Tower reported that Anne had joked “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”. Anne’s character and unwavering belief in her own innocence have since cemented her figure in history. Although perhaps an unpopular monarch at the time, many now tend to look back on her fate as a wrongdoing.
It is said that Anne used her time in the tower to reflect, pray, and write.
O Death Rock Me Asleep
It is here that we find perhaps the closest thing we have to the inner thoughts of Anne Boleyn, ‘O Death Rock Me Asleep’. A poem attributed to Anne herself, but with inconclusive evidence. The poem was said to be written in the final days leading up to Anne’s execution. It serves as a reflection on her pain, sorrow, and eventual coming to peace with her impending death.
“Farewell my pleasures past,
Welcome my present pain!
I feel my torments so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell;
Rung is my doleful knell,
For the sound my death doth tell,
Death doth draw nigh,
There is no remedy.”
With this poem etched in history as her parting words, she was laid to rest in the Church of St Peter ad Vincula.
The Church of St Peter ad Vincula
Originally built outside the walls of the Tower of London, the Church of St Peter ad Vincula looks over the outer bailey of the tower, onto what is now known as Tower Green, where Anne met her death. In the 13th century, it was brought inside the walls, and a vault built beneath. It served as a place of worship for the inhabitants of the Tower, where the King and Queen attended regularly.
In 1512, a fire destroyed the building, prompting its reconstruction between 1519-20. It was within this rebuilt church that Anne was laid to rest, later followed by thirteen key figures of Tudor history, including the second of Henry VIII’s wives to be beheaded, Catherine Howard.
The thirteen lay in unmarked graves – a tradition for those who died accused of treason – but historical accounts including a plan of their projected burial positions indicated the final resting places within the church.
In 1876, a full restoration of the church resulted in the excavation of the thirteen tombs, and remains that matched the historical descriptions of Anne were discovered beneath the high altar of the church. After being returned to their original burial sites, the church was restored to its original style, this time with the addition of decorative tiling on the sites of the burials. This tiling remains in place at the church to this day.
Resting in the shadow of the Tower, and overlooking the place of execution, the site stands as a somber reminder of Anne’s tragic fate.
On 8th July, the Church of St Peter ad Vincular will serve as the backdrop for ‘Try Me, Good King’, where Anne’s final poem ‘O Death, Rock Me Asleep’ will be performed along with Libby Larsen’s titular piece, and Julian Philips’ songs inspired by the great Tudor poet (and Anne’s rumoured lover), Thomas Wyatt. The works paint yet another nuanced interpretation of Anne’s captivating inner life. This will be accompanied by Rachel Long’s new poem ‘A Necklace for Anne Boleyn’ (referencing Anne’s famous golden ‘B’ pendent), and traditional music from the Tudor court, performed by the Choir of the Chapels Royal.