The Headless Boleyns Prepping for Annual Appearances

By , Columnist
Heads up, folks! If she keeps to her supernatural schedule then now's a great time to look out for Britain's most famous phantom.

When Anne Boleyn (or Bullen) married King Henry VIII she wasn't his first wife. That dubious privilege had fallen to Catherine of Aragon, who had previously been married to Henry's brother Arthur (he had died in 1502). Canon law - based on the Bible - forbade men from marrying their brothers' widows and so Henry had needed to get special dispensation from the Pope to marry Catherine in 1509 but he reckoned it was worth the effort. As the daughter of the Spanish king and queen, Catherine was a prize catch.

But as the years passed Henry grew worried. He desperately wanted a son, a legitimate male heir to inherit his crown when he eventually died, but of the six children Catherine gave birth to between 1510 and 1518, five - including two sons - were either stillborn or died in early infancy, and the only child to survive was a daughter, Mary. By the mid-1520s Catherine was no longer able to bear children and still Henry was without a male heir. It seemed as if God were punishing him for going against holy law.

The king decided to try another wife. As luck would have it he already had his eye on someone - Catherine's beautiful lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn - but before he could do anything about this he needed to get his existing marriage annulled. He was therefore incensed when the new pope refused to agree to this and in fury Henry broke away from the church in Rome and set up his own version, the Church of England. Funnily enough, the new church was happy to give Henry his annulment.

AnneBoleyn.jpgHenry wed Anne on or about 25 January 1533 and he couldn't wait to consummate his marriage. Nine months later Anne gave birth, but it was to another daughter, Elizabeth. It was a disaster for the new queen, who had every reason to want a son as much as her husband did; Henry was already losing interest in her, she had made few friends but plenty of enemies at court, and the knives were out for her. In 1534 she had a miscarriage and when she did finally give birth to a son in January 1536, the boy was stillborn. Henry had had enough.

Three years after becoming queen the unfortunate Anne was arrested and committed to the Tower of London facing multiple charges of adultery, including incest with her own brother, George Boleyn (Viscount Rochford). Although the charges were almost certainly false she was found guilty and sentenced to death.

On 17 May 1536 her brother was taken to Tower Hill, just outside the Tower, and beheaded. Anne was executed two days later on Tower Green, within the confines of the Tower itself. Her head was chopped off not by axe as was usual but by sword, the grisly work carried out by an executioner brought in from Calais especially for the task.

It is hardly surprising that such a tragic tale should live on in British folklore. If any spirit is entitled to be restless it is surely Anne's and according to the many legends that echo down the centuries Anne's ghost is just about the most restless of them all.

If you fancy your chances of spotting her then the best place to go should be Blickling Hall in the village of Blickling in Norfolk, England. The present-day Jacobean mansion dates back to the early 17th century and stands on the site of an older moated manor house that was at one time home to Sir Thomas Boleyn, Anne's father. This is one of several locations claimed to have been Anne's birthplace and it is at least possible that she spent some of her childhood here.

According to a longstanding tradition she returns to Blickling each year on the anniversary of her execution, on 19 May, and does so in quite spectacular fashion.

A black coach emerges from the darkness, driving towards the hall, and seated inside is the slim figure of Anne holding her bloody head in her lap. This phantom coach is drawn by four black horses who, for reasons best known to the Other Side, are also very noticeably headless. The coachmen too are headless, as are Anne's attendants. It is not a sight for the faint-hearted!

You shouldn't have any trouble distinguishing this coach from any earthly carriages that might be rattling around on the night but as one final confirmation, keep an eye on the coach as it approaches Blickling Hall. As it draws near it should fade away and vanish, perhaps taking Anne off to one of her other supernatural appointments.

Before declaring you've seen Anne though, take a few moments to make sure you have the right ghost. You'd think that if you happen to see a phantom coach resembling the above description there'd be no question as to its identity but this may not be the case, for another legend holds that Anne's father is also doomed to haunt this area.

For being too frightened to stand up to the King on behalf of his children, Sir Thomas Boleyn must pay yearly penance on the night of his daughter's execution. As with Anne's coach, Sir Thomas's spectral transport is drawn by four headless horses and he sits inside with his head held in his lap. Some versions of this story mention that he has flames shooting from his mouth and that his coach is pursued by shrieking demons as it charges through the Norfolk night.

Sir Thomas's curse forces him to cross over a certain number of bridges between midnight and cockcrow; older versions of the story state that he has to cross 12 bridges but in later tellings the number has increased to 40. Poor devil, as if he didn't already have enough to cope with! Even worse, at least one version of the tale maintains that he does this every night of the year rather than just on 19 May.

If you happen to miss Anne's ghost on 19 May then don't worry too much because you'll have plenty of other opportunities. For instance, she is supposed to appear inside Blickling Hall as well from time to time, in more sedate form as a simple apparition attired in grey.

As you might guess, she also haunts parts of the Tower of London, including the Queen's House where she was held for four days prior to her execution and Tower Green, the spot where she lost her head. Her headless figure has reportedly been seen leading a phantom procession inside the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, and at least one Tower sentry apparently fled his post one night after challenging her white apparition as it loomed at him through the mist and panicking when his bayonet passed straight through her.

Elsewhere, a sad figure in a blue dress drifting through the corridors of Hampton Court Palace in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames is said to be Anne's ghost, as is an apparition that appears at one of the windows of the cloisters in Windsor Castle in Berkshire.

At Marwell Hall, approximately eight miles south of Winchester in Hampshire, local legend maintains that Henry secretly married his third wife, Jane Seymour, here while Anne was still in the Tower awaiting execution. A white lady wafting through Marwell's grounds is said to be Anne's vengeful spirit, returning to bring misfortune to her rival's home.

Anne's spectre can also be spotted on Christmas Eve, floating across a bridge in the grounds of Hever Castle in Kent. Hever competes with Blickling Hall for the title of Anne's birthplace, as does Rochford Hall in Essex where her headless apparition prefers to manifest during the twelve nights following Christmas. Hers is a busy ghost indeed!

If Anne fails to keep any of her appointments, though, don't blame her too much. It can't be easy finding your way around when neither you, your driver, nor even your horses have your heads attached.

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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