The exhumation of Anne Boleyn and restoration of the Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula

In 1848, a historian by the name of Lord Thomas Macaulay visited the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the grounds of The Tower of London. He recorded his thoughts on the place in the first edition of his book The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. Suffice to say, he was not impressed with what he discovered. He wrote,


"I cannot refrain from expressing my disgust at the barbarous stupidity which has transformed this interesting little church in to the likeness of a meeting house in a manufacturing town. In truth, there is no sadder spot on earth than this little cemetery"


By 1876, a senior British army officer Sir Charles Yorke had been appointed Constable of the Tower. He recognised that urgent repair work was needed on the Chapel of St. Peter and submitted a restoration plan to Queen Victoria to approve. The purpose of his plans was to ensure the chapel was architecturally sound so that it could be used as a place of worship for those who lived and worked inside the Tower of London.



One of the biggest issues was that the floor of the church was in a very bad way, making the whole building unstable. The decision was taken to relay the pavement which had sunk in several places and to also provide greater insulation and comfort for the chapels parishioners. Hundreds of bones were found once the pavement had been lifted, all scattered together, probably done so to make room for more human remains. Queen Victoria ordered that "the greatest care and reverence should be exercised in this removal", which was carried out. The bones that were found were labelled and reburied in the Tower crypt.


Perhaps the most delicate challenge was restoration work needed at the chapels chancel. The records showed that it was the burial site of several very significant Tudors including Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and the Duke of Northumberland. Because of this, the decision was taken to just lay new pavement over the top of the old and leave the chancel alone. Unfortunately a surveyor at the time examined the area and discovered that it was also sinking. The only solution was to lift the paving slabs away and replace them with matching tiles to ensure it was in line with the rest of the church. Whilst this was undoubtedly more work than was initially intended, it did provide a fascinating chance to study the remains of some of England's most famous historical figures. Dr Frederick Mouat, Professor of Medicine to Queen Victoria was given the task of examining and identifying the remains.

The slabs which lay over where Anne Boleyn was marked as being buried were lifted, and at a depth of about two feet the remains of a woman were found. Dr Mouat stated 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; 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, bearing witness to the Queen’s ‘little neck’".

He went on to further add "the bones found 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 concluded that in life she would have been between 5' and 5'3 in height, and that the remains were in his belief definitely of Anne Boleyn. It was reported that Anne had been buried next door to her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. His remains were not found, either having been moved elsewhere or closer to the north wall where restoration work was unnecessary.

Close to Anne's remains the bones of two men were found. It was said that "two Dukes were buried between two Queens". Dr Mouat confirmed that one set of the bones belonged to a tall and broad man of about fifty years old, and concluded that they were the remains of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. Seymour was the eldest brother of Queen Jane Seymour and was executed in 1552 on the orders of his nephew, King Edward VI. The other male remains "belonged to a large man, about six feet in height; and aged about 50 years" and included a large skull, which the committee believed to belong to John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland. Dudley was the father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey and was executed during the reign of Queen Mary I for his attempts to overthrow her rule. His actions led to the death of his own son Lord Guildford Dudley, and the aforementioned Lady Jane Grey, who was beheaded at just the age of sixteen.

The Queen supposedly buried next to the two Dukes would of course have been Catherine Howard, but unfortunately no remains of her were ever discovered. Believed to have only been around 19 (21 at most) at the time of her death, her bones had not sufficiently hardened with age and so when she was interred with lime, they simply turned to dust. To the right of where Catherine Howard was once buried, the remains of two further women were discovered. The first bones belonged to a woman of around forty years of age which the committee believed was Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn as the wife of her brother George. Jane Boleyn had been implicated in the downfall of Catherine Howard and was executed alongside her. During her imprisonment prior to execution she is said to have suffered a complete mental breakdown and was driven insane. Tudor law dictated that the insane could not be executed, which Henry VIII promptly changed to ensure the punishment could go ahead as planned.

The second females bones belonged to "a woman of considerably advanced years who had been tall and certainly of above average height". The conclusion here was that these were the remains of Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Margaret Pole's execution towards the end of Henry VIII's reign is considered by many to be one of his most senseless and cruel acts he ever committed. She was 67 years old which is very old by the standards of the day

and was innocent of all crime. Her 'crime' was ultimately the fact that she was one of the very last Plantagenets as the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV. Henry VIII, paranoid and irascible by this time believed that Margaret and her family were planning to overthrow the Tudor dynasty in what is known as the "Exeter Conspiracy" - a plan to replace Henry with his first cousin and Plantagenet, Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter. Many believe the whole thing was concocted by Thomas Cromwell but utterly destroyed the Pole family. The portrait seen on the right is traditionally thought to be of Lady Pole.

Several other notable Tudors were buried on the west side of the chancel, but because work was not carried out there, their remains were untouched. These include Guildford Dudley, Lady Jane Grey and the Earl of Essex, one time favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.

The remains of those found were soldered up into individual leaden coffers, with a small engraving of the name of the person whose remains were inside. These were then placed in the floor of the chancel of a depth of about four inches. Memorial plaque's were then placed over each person buried in the chancel. Every year on the anniversary of Anne Boleyn's execution, May 19th, a bouquet of red roses is delivered to the tower of London anonymously with the instruction for it to be placed over the plaque carrying Anne's name. The identity of the sender has never been confirmed. This can be seen below, alongside the plaque over the place where Catherine Howard's remains once were.


By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was generally accepted that Anne Boleyn had been innocent of the charges brought against her. Because of this, many people have wondered why her remains were not dug up by her daughter and reburied with greater reverence. You might expect the mother of Elizabeth I to buried in somewhere like Westminster Abbey, but that is to overlook a fact about the tower, or to give it it's full name -"Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London", in short, it is a Royal palace, and as such the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula is a royal chapel. It is that reason why I believe her remains stayed where they are to this day.


As I discussed in my previous blog, it is my hope that in time Anne's remains are dug up and a facial reconstruction is done so that we may finally know what she looked like. Alas I can't see it happening, I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed a contemporary portrait comes to light!


Written by Adam Pennington

16th November 2020.