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Anne Boleyn’s head was not put on a spike

Posted By on May 19, 2015

London_Bridge_(1616)_by_Claes_Van_Visscher Thank you to Jen for inspiring this post. She emailed me yesterday with the question “Was Anne Boleyn’s head put on a spike” and it’s one that I’m often asked about Anne Boleyn and also her brother and the men who were executed in May 1536, and I know it’s a question I will be asked today. The answer is “no, it wasn’t” and I’m so glad that their remains were treated with respect, rather than being put on show.

Traitors’ (or alleged traitors’) heads were often displayed on spikes (or pikes) on London Bridge as a warning to the population. In his Travels in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth Paul Hentzner, a German man who visited London in 1598, described London Bridge and said “Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty.”1

Sir Thomas More’s head was displayed there, although his daughter Margaret Roper “bribed the executioner, whose office it was to remove the heads, and obtained possession of the sacred relic”,2 and the heads of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were displayed there after their executions in December 1541. It is said that Dereham and Culpeper’s heads were still there when Catherine Howard was taken to the Tower of London by boat in February 1542. If you click on the image above, which is from an engraving by Claes Visscher showing Old London Bridge in 1616, you can see what look like flags on the arched gatehouse on the bottom right. They’re not flags, they’re heads!

But what about the the heads of Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton?

We know that their heads were not put on display because of what the primary souces state about their burials. Here are some examples of evidence:

  • Charles Wriothesley, chronicler and Windsor Herald – Wriothesley wrote of the men: “Their bodies with their heades were buried within the Tower of London; the Lord of Rochfordes bodie and head within the chappell of the Tower, Mr. Weston and Norys in the church yeard of the same in one grave, Mr. Bruton and Markes in another grave in the same churche yerde within the Tower of London.”3
    Regarding Anne Boleyn’s burial, Wriothesley wrote “her bodye with the head was buried in the Chappell within the Tower of London, in the queere [quire] there, the same daye at afternoone, when she had reygned as Queene three yeares, lackinge 14 dayes, from her coronation to her death.”4
  • Letters and Papers – In a document from the Vienna Archives, transcribed in Letters and Papers, it says of Anne’s remains: “Immediately the executioner did his office; and when her head was off it was taken by a young lady and covered with a white cloth. Afterwards the body was taken by the other ladies, and the whole carried into the church nearest to the Tower of London.”5
  • Lancelot de Carles – In his Poème sur la Mort d’Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carles writes:
    “The head and body were taken by the ladies,
    Who were judged to be nearly dead themselves,
    From languor and extreme weakness
    But fearing for their mistress
    To be held and touched by the unworthy
    Hands of cold-blooded men,
    They offered themselves to this task,
    And this dead body was carried by the nearly dead,
    Wrapped in a white blanket,
    Up to the place of sad burial,
    Inside the Tower, where she had been a prisoner
    Which would also be her final resting place.”6
  • Holinshed’s Chronicle – In the account of Anne Boleyn’s execution in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle, it says “hir bodie with the heade was buried in the queere of the chapell in the tower.” Regarding the men, it says “the lord Rochfords bodie with the head was buried in the chappell of the tower, the other foure in the churchyard there.”7

So, there are various mentions of their heads being buried with their bodies and I have been unable to find any mention of their heads being displayed on London Bridge. I’m so relieved!

Notes and Sources

  1. Hentzner, Paul Travels in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (London: Cassell, 1892) read at http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/text/chap_page.jsp?t_id=Hentzner&c_id=1
  2. E.E. Reynolds quoted in “Lady Margaret Roper and the head of Sir Thomas More” at http://www.lynsted-society.co.uk/Library/Books/Margaret_Roper_and_head_of_Sir_Thomas_More.html
  3. Wriothesley, Charles. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, 42.
  4. Ibid., 40.
  5. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, 911.
  6. Lancelot de Carles in La Grande Bretagne devant L’Opinion Française depuis la Guerre de Cent Ans jusqu’a la Fin du XVI Siècle, George Ascoli. This translation is from “Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carle, and the Uses of Documentary Evidence”, Susan Walters Schmid, dissertation Arizona State University 2009, p174.
  7. Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Volume III, 797.

33 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn’s head was not put on a spike”

  1. Jenny says:

    Hi Claire,

    I wonder, do you think the fact that none of these people were subjected to gratuitous voyerism of their remains after execution, could be seen as further proof that Henry Ethan al, knew full well that these were innocent victims, not traitors?

  2. Jenny says:

    Sorry, that was supposed to say – “Henry et al””.

    1. Claire says:

      That’s an interesting thought, Jenny. I wonder if it was out of respect for her position as queen, although that doesn’t explain why the men’s heads were not displayed, Culpeper’s and Dereham’s certainly were.

      1. Sue says:

        Least said, soonest mended, maybe?

  3. I wonder if “the young lady” who took possession of Anne Boleyn’s head and covered it with a white cloth was Catherine Carey. I’ve read in several places that she was a witness to the execution, and the other ladies mentioned were what would be considered ‘fully adult’ by sixteenth-century standards.

    That would explain Elizabeth I’s unswerving loyalty to Catherine Carey, even beyond the blood relationship to Elizabeth’s mother. Picking up a severed head and wrapping it in a white cloth took a strong constitution, as well as a lot of love and respect for the owner of that head.

  4. Marie says:

    I think Henry wanted no reminders of another failed marriage. Nor the fact that he had turned the world upside down to make it so. Its over and done, and God Save the Queen!

    1. rosalie says:

      respect for Anne? Henry VIII was clamouring for the jewels and clothing from her body

      1. rose says:

        much like at diana’s death – clamouring for the windsor jewels. they can’t help themselves: its tradition

  5. Christine says:

    Hi Claire I know you probably think I’m a bit mad but I was Catherine Carey in a past life.. Me & another lady took Anne’s heart back to Salle Church in Norfolk it’s a family Church near Blickling Hall. The heart is buried in the Church.. I was regressed last year & found out this was what had happened as I’ve always loved Tudor History. The regression was very in depth & in fact I could write a book about it which I may do one day. Just wanted to let everyone on here know about Anne’s heart.. Christine

    1. Christine says:

      You say you have always loved Tudor history maybe this was the reason you believe you were Catherine Carey? Your brain is a computer with a memory bank and under hypnosis all what you have heard and read about you experience, it isn’t proven that we have past lives although many people have experienced a case of déjà vu where they seem to know people they have only just met and been to places that seem familiar, this has happened to me to but lots of people resemble one another and your obsession with the Tudor period has led to you believing you actually lived in those times, why Catherine Carey? Why not a peasant girl who worked in the kitchens or on the farm, it’s more exciting to think you were some one famous isn’t it, I’m not debunking what you experienced but it’s a bit of a coincidence that you love Tudor history and then under hypnosis hay presto you were a famous 16 th century royal personage.

      1. Zeraphina says:

        I do believe in reincarnation and do believe that we are drawn to the times we were here before. I also believe that our brain does remember everything we experience in our present life. I do believe that Christine could very well have been Catherine Carey. I myself have vivid flashes of what could very well have been other lives lived. We just have no way of knowing if these things are actually the result of previous lives lived.

    2. Christina Goltare says:

      Hello, I’m new here as of today 2/25/19, and find everyone’s posts very interesting, thank you for sharing. I have been interested in Tudor history for almost 20 years, but do not have much historical knowledge about the family, or others who were involved with the Tudors. There are so many books, movies, documentaries, etc. that it can be quite confusing about what truly happened and what is fiction. When reading what is supposedly the truth, I feel as if it may be fiction to cover up the truth or protect people. I look forward to reading more posts in my efforts to learn more, and to engage more in the future. -Christina

  6. HollyDolly says:

    All I have read said that the heads were buried with the bodies of Anne, her brother and the others. Don’t forget Henry loved her once, and she had been Queen, and that certainly would not be something that one should do with poor Anne’s head after she died. The same goes for the others. They had been friends of Henry’s before all this, and maybe tryant though he was,he still felt some affection in his own way for these men who had been his companions.That may explain why there heads didn’t turn up on spikes.
    Now as far as Mark Smeaton does, does anyone know what happend to his?
    The others I understand. But Smeaton wasn’t a wealthy courtier nor came from a family of the nobility or gentry as far as anyone knows.So what did happen to his after he died?

  7. Banditqueen says:

    I believe Anne and the men were innocent, but I don’t know that Henry believed this, I believe that he was convinced that the charges were true. On the other hand he may not have cared if he wanted rid of Anne. However, Henry had invested many years of love and passion into Anne, her head may have been too beautiful and close to him for him to have placed on a spike. As a queen it may have been merely respect, but why not the men? I can also guess that as a woman it was rare for a woman to be beheaded or even executed for treason. The normal death for a woman in the case of treason was burning. Anne was the first queen in England killed for treason. Henry may have been showing some mercy for her, although he also showed the same respect for the remains of the men, whereas in the case of Catherine Howard, as Claire says, he did not place her head up, but he did with her alleged lovers. Henry seems to have channelled an aweful lot of anger and hatred into the treatment of Francis Dereham, having him suffer the full sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering, as he had spoilt Catherine by having her first, as he crudely put it. But yes he does seem to have shown remarkable respect for the remains in not placing their heads on spikes as a warning.

    I am pleased Anne was not treated in this way, but I don’t believe her head is in Salle Church, even though there is an old traditional myth which says her body was smuggled out by her ladies.

    1. Christine says:

      I think had Henry put Anne’s head on a spike it wouldn’t have made him look very good there was a lot of muttering about her death as it was and there’s the respect thing here to, she was an anointed Queen and it would have been unseemly to have her head displayed where people could peer at her and the flys and carrion made lunch of her, Royalty were different from the ordinary classes and Henry would not have done that to his former Queen, however much he hated her she had been a Queen and died a Queen and so no ignoble end for her, the Salle Church legend is something Norah Lofts mentions in her books but several years ago the slab where her body was said to lie was pulled up and no body was found, and it wouldn’t have been possible to have smuggled her out from the Tower it was too heavily fortified so that’s just a myth put about by the locals as the Boleyns did hail from Norfolk, I thought it was mean of Henry to kill Dereham just because he had relations with Catherine years before, after all she was single then, Henry was just being vindictive there, he was ill and obese and was most likely jealous of a younger fitter man.

  8. Maria says:

    I thought only men’s heads were displayed. I’ve never read about a woman’s head displayed on a spike. They probably thought it would go against the code of chivalry or what not.
    As for the men, I thought Henry would be eager to forget about Anne altogether. He had every image he could find of her destroyed. Why ruin that by putting reminders on spikes around the city?

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Hi Maria, you make an excellent point. I think it may well have been normal to put only men’s heads, women were not normally beheaded, but when they were, it seems that their heads may not have been displayed. I would love to know if anyone has any cases of them being displayed, I am not sure, the head of the Holy Maid of Kent, may have been. Your point about Henry wanting to forget Anne is spot on, he tried to erase her and historians agree that he may have destroyed her portraits and so on. Having her head watching him would have reminded him of the years they spent together and the injustice of her death.

  9. Clare says:

    Some people are suggesting that Thomas Wyatt’s poem below can be interpreted as saying the mens head were put on spikes:-

    “And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!
    The axe is home, your heads be in the street;
    The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes
    I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.”

    I think this is merely a poetic device meaning the mens head were cut off (hence in the street) not that they were put on spikes. In any event there are other contemporaneous sources to disprove the idea that any of the mens heads were put on spikes.

    1. Claire says:

      I feel an article coming on!
      Yes, I think he uses poetic licence because I actually can’t see how he could have seen the executions from the Bell Tower anyway, there are walls and buildings in the way. He may have been moved to another Tower to watch and just said the Bell Tower or he may have imagined the goings-on. If he did witness the executions it would only have been a very distant view.
      I too think he is just saying that their heads were no longer on their bodies, and he certainly could not have seen what happened to their remains.

  10. Christine says:

    I believe the real reasons the men’s heads were not put on spikes was because Henry knew they were all innocent, these men were just being sacrificed to rid him of Anne so they would not have been subjected to such indignity after their deaths, it was enough they were losing their lives, in Henrys very actions you can read what he really thought, he was treating all the victims as nicely as possible even Anne had a sword instead of the clumsy axe, he’s sorry he has to kill them all but they will be treated right! So a sword for Anne and no displaying heads on London bridge, several years down the line his fifth wife had the axe and her lover Culpepper had his head on a spike and so did Dereham, the difference here is because Henry knew they were guilty, so no mercy there.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Hello Christine. I Know my reply is a little delayed, the book is called The Family and Descendants of Thomas More by Martin Woods. There is also a beautiful duel biography of Margaret and Thomas More by John Guy called A Daughters Love, and an old book called His Own Daughter. THE Family of Saint Thomas More by Alice Stewart. Hope this helps.

  11. judithRex says:

    Anne’s was an “anointed” head so I don’t think that was going to happen. It is possible that Henry, believing she was a traitor to him (as I believe he did believe) had suffered from her betrayal and wanted to forget her as soon as possible. (Alison Weir makes this point very well in her book “The Lady in the tower” 6 years ago.

    Elizabeth did not put Mary Queen of Scot’s on a spike either.

    More’s was put on the bridge but his daughter was allowed to take it down – a sign of respect for the man that is interesting considering his previous treatment in the tower.

    1. Christine says:

      Margaret Roper didn’t have any permission to take the head down Judith at least not from the King, I read years ago she went by barge at night and took it down and Henry was troubled as he thought it was an act from God, but that was in a book by Jean Plaidy that bit might be myth but then she did do a lot of research for her novels, she took her fathers head back home with her and kept it till she died, a devoted daughter indeed, but your right, an anointed monarch wouldn’t have their head put on a spike for all the world to see, even if they died a traitors death they were still Royalty and must be treated as such, and yes Mary Stuarts head wasn’t on a spike either, that would have been sheer folly to do that, the whole Catholic world would have invaded England had Elizabeth allowed that.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        In case you are wondering what Margaret Roper is reputed to have done with the head of her father, she kept it preserved for some time, initially it was placed in her grave. But an eighteenth century manuscript says that his head was preserved and taken by a descendant to the Roper church in Kent, and from the tomb to be placed behind a grill there. I think it is still there, having had it’s status raised to a holy relic. The rest of Saint Thomas More is in a lovely tomb in Saint Peter ad Vincular with a lovely memorial above it and a plaque dedicated to all buried there, whether executed or not. The tomb is obviously visited as flowers can be seen there most of the time. Moves have been made a few times to have the body moved to his church in Old Chelsea, but it was decided to leave him here and the new tomb was restored in the 1930s after his elevation of sainthood. Although perfectly normal to translate the bones of a saint I believe that members of the family and the Tower authorities agreed to leave him at rest. As for the head, some modern sources say it was moved, others confirm that the original church still preserves it and a guide book shows it is there, with a grill and the tombs of his daughter. Of course only science and expert eyes will ever confirm this, but there is no reason to doubt it. In any case why not accept these things and leave beloved people to sleep in peace. As long as the Tower Churches are not carparks and people come to them, all the people, Anne, George, the other people, Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher will be honoured and homage paid to them. This is not the only mystery head story, the head of Archbishop Sutton killed by beheading during the peasants revolt is preserved in his own home church.

        1. Banditqueen says:

          Correction. Archbishop Sudbury not Sutton and church in question of the Roper vault is Saint Dunston Canterbury. The vault was opened in 1978, and the remains hard to find, but an account of the skull can also be found in the report.

        2. Christine says:

          Thomas Mores statue is in London somewhere having seen it in a guide book but can’t remember where it is,that’s interesting about the head, I saw on the tv about the peasants revolt but thought it was Simon Sudbury?

      2. JudithRex says:

        Christine, thank you. My wording was poor. I didn’t mean Henry said okay, but more like she got away with it and no one went after her to get it back or punish her. That to me shows a positive or sympathetic London. Am I wrong, did any one pursue it or did they just leave it alone?

        Elizabeth, on the other hand, never admitted she wanted Mary dead. She pretended it was all a mistake and her employees jumped the gun. So I guess that would preclude ordering the bald head on the spike as it would sort of give her away. ;-/

        1. Christine says:

          No Margaret Roper wasn’t punished for taking her fathers head Henry decided to be lenient there and maybe Anne persuaded him to let the matter rest, yes Elizabeth over fifty years later was in a quandary over what to do with Mary, she always claimed the death warrant was signed by mistake as it was hidden with a load of other documents given to her by her ministers, wether true or not they were made the scapegoats for her execution.

        2. JudithRex says:

          Christine, I am going to have to dismiss your wishful thinking that Anne showed compassion as it is out of character for her in regard to her “enemies”.

          I think it more likely that the More family knew their time in England was at an end and as they left the country not too long after they thereby made any action difficult.. Plus, I think Henry might have actually liked what Margaret did, He was a big admirer of loyalty, as we know.

        3. Banditqueen says:

          Hello Christine, yes I corrected to Sudbury, the statue is along the Thames in the gardens of the Old Chelsea Church Thomas More and family attended. It was a grandson who published Margarets life. Margaret was not published, but the family had mixed fortunes, having lost most of the houses and fortune to the crown. Some lands and money was restored, but their relationship with the crown never the same. I have a book on the family of Thomas More, I will look at the author.

  12. Christine says:

    Hi Bandit Queen that’s ok when I replied to your first post your second one hadn’t come through yet, yes the statue is in Chelsea they did have a home there believe, most of my knowledge of the Tudors comes from reading many of Jean Plaidy novels when I was younger, I still occasionally read them now but of course they are not particularly accurate as she used the authors prerogative to add a bit of imagination, now I’m older I do read biographies which I thoroughly enjoy, Judith I know Anne was ruthless to her enemies but she may have felt a bit of sympathy for Margaret Roper after all don’t we all love our daddy’s ?

  13. Mary says:

    Somehow the idea of Anne’s head displayed on a spike reminds of the final chapter of season Two of The Tudors (which I am aware is 40% exageration 40% artistic license and 20 % quasi history) when they are bringing this covered tray and you are almost frightened it might be Anne’s head (but no, It was a swan)

    I believe he just wanted the matter to be over. As much as in England, as out in Europe. (He did forbid any foreginers to be at the excecution, after all) and displaying the heads of her “lovers” (I do not believe she was guilty of adultery) would still be a reminder of the whole ordeal. Like:

    “Who is that bloke? why’s his head up there?” “oh, we was shagging with the queen behind the king’s back”

    My point is, he was eager to close the chapter for good as soon as he could.

    I am surprised he did not “got rid” of Elizabeth (as in throwing her away with the Howards or what was left of the Boleyns) and stating she was not his responsability as she was not his daughter…

    Sorry… I am rambling, now

  14. Marianna says:

    I very much hope this isn’t true! In the Calendar of State Papers, Chapuys says:

    “I hear that, although the heads and bodies of those executed the day before yesterday have been buried, the head of the concubine will be exposed on the bridge, at least for some time.”

    But it’s possible he could have been misinformed…it would definitely be strange to NOT display the heads of the men accused with her and then do so with Anne.

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