In Search of Tudor Ghosts at Tower of London

My Fascination with the Tudors

Exploring the Tower of London – in search of Anne Boleyn’s ghost!

Since my college years, I’ve had an interest in Tudor era history. I have more books about King Henry VIII and his life than I can count. Whenever I see a documentary about the subject, I watch it. I binge watched The Tudors starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers in about four days. I’m absolutely fascinated.

Hungover at the Tower of London. Luckily, we found a water source.

King Henry VIII is a larger than life figure, both in his reputation and in his physical size at the end of his life. He gained an enormous amount of weight due to comfort eating all day long, and an injury which left him nearly unable to participate in the sports that he used to enjoy. In the comfort eating respect, I find him rather relatable.

Henry VIII and all of his wives as Christmas ornaments!

I tend to look at historical figures in terms of their humanity. Rather than look at the wars they have won or movements they have started. I harp on the day to day details of their life. Who did these people love? What did they gossip about? What did they think about while tossing and turning in bed at night? What were their fears? How was their childhood like? I suppose that is why I became an English teacher and not a history teacher. I’m far more interested in stories and small details than historical facts and numbers.

Nina and I ready to explore the London Tower!

I’m particularly interested in King Henry VIII’s love affairs and wives. Just a quick overview for those unaware. King Henry VIII was the ruling monarch from 1491 to 1547. In that time, he had married six times. This of course was not legal in the Catholic church, so how did he do it? More to come on that. 

King Henry VIII’s royal armor. I can’t believe they keep the king in this box.

Visiting the Tower of London

I was drawn to Tower of London not really because of it being on an obligatory list of things to see in the city. I was on a mission to walk in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn. I’m utterly fascinated by her, King Henry VIII, and all of the rest. Having such an interest, I of course needed to visit.

I did not realize the scale and size of the Tower of London. It’s HUGE, almost like a small city in my eyes. You really need an entire day to explore it, and I’ve had friends who come back a second day to see it all. Nina and I were severely hungover, and wandered for a half day which I feel was definitely not enough time. But, better to see it in half a day than never see it at all, right? It’s a UNESCO world heritage sight. 

I had no idea the magnitude and scale of the Tower of London

There’s a plethora of interesting exhibits and sights to see. The Medieval tower for example shows life as it would have been for the monarchy of the past. For instance, the “royal slumber” has a recreation of Edward I’s bedchamber. 

There is also the crown jewels and the animal menagerie. In medieval days, exotic animals would be given to the monarchs from other royal visitors as gifts. Many people in London had never seen such animals. You can see the types of animals that would have lived in the Tower of London complex including lions, an elephant, and a polar bear! 

This is where the polar bear would have been kept when he lived at the Tower of London. Sad, but fascinating at the same time.

I don’t know how visiting the tower feels for normal people, but for me, it was thrilling. The magnitude of historical significance was palpable. The walls are stone, and I would touch one every so often and wonder who else had touched it before me. (Probably the city pervert who doesn’t wash his hands after he pees, and less likely any sort of important figure.) The fact that Anne Boleyn had roamed these areas before me gave me chills.

Dragon art at the Tower of London mixes the old with the new. It was made with the weapons of war and includes pieces from guns, cannons, and helmets.

Wife #1: Catherine of Aragon and Henry of Arrogant

At first, he was married to Catherine of Aragon. She was significantly older than Henry, and he had numerous flings and affairs during their time together. It’s a fair assessment that if Henry really had a hand in choosing a wife, it probably would not be Catherine as doting and loyal as she might be. He was was a show off, a great sportsman, and rather handsome. In his eyes he was probably a “10” and her a “7.” The two had a daughter together, Mary. Considering she never could bear him a son, Henry no longer wanted to be wed to her, and here is where all of the pandemonium starts.

The Catholic church refused to grant Henry VIII a divorce, and so being a petty mother fucker, he started his own church. This is now the Church of England, or Anglican church which allows divorces. After a messy battle, Henry VIII married his beloved mistress, Anne Boleyn. 

Henry VIII and Amy Schumer.
Courtesy: History Channel

Wife #2: The Lowdown on Anne Boleyn

I have a particular interest in Ms. Boleyn, and looked for her ghost everywhere that I could when visiting the Tower of London. Once the shining center of Henry VIII’s world, and fascination of all of England, Anne Boleyn fell from grace. She could not produce a male heir for her king, only a daughter, who would later be Queen Elizabeth I. Two more miscarriages following their daughter made the superstitious king second guess his marriage to Anne. Henry VIII also had his eye on a new woman to wed. Charges against Boleyn were falsified, stating that she committed adultery and had relations with her own brother. She was executed on Tower Green by beheading. Henry VIII showed mercy in that he brought in a special swordsman from France to get the job done in one blow. Reports account that when he held her head up to the crowd, her eyes were still moving and her “lips were formed in her dying prayer.” Yikes.

Anne Boleyn wearing her signature “B” necklace. “B” of course standing for ‘bad bitch.’

Wife #3: Jane Seymour Ironically Got to “See Less”

Henry VIII married several more times. Next was Jane Seymour, the only wife he claimed to truly love. Probably because she was the only one to give him a son. She died shortly after childbirth due to complications. 

As a child, Jane Seymour got her head stuck in the box that sits atop her head. She was never able to find a surgeon to remove it and thus wore it for the rest of her life.
Courtesy: History Extra

Wife #4: Anne of Cleves: The Ugly Queen – Ye Olde Bullying

Anne of Cleves was next, but their marriage was shortly annulled. It only lasted six months. This is because she was the original catfish. Henry VIII wanted to make sure that his next wife would be a looker. He commissioned that a painter must go and paint her in all of her likeness for him to confirm the marriage. When he received the painting of her with her fair skin and delicate features, he pretty much said, “Shorty can get it. Hook it up, bro.” However, when she arrived at court he immediately wanted out. “I like her not” he chanted over and over like a petulant child. She was perhaps not ‘ugly’ but far different from what he had wanted. She was big boned and had a strong stature. Unfairly, Anne of Cleves gained a reputation as the ugly queen. Henry VIII initially couldn’t just back out of the marriage. However, long story short, he was able to finagle an excuse and it was annulled. 

Anne of Cleves was often teased for this hairstyle that she is adorning in this photo.

Wife #5 Catherine Howard: Young, Dumb, and Chopped

Catherine Howard, his next wife, was a great reason he wanted a divorce from Anne of Cleves. Catherine Howard was incredibly young and his idea of beauty. Unfortunately, she was convicted of adultery, and beheaded at approximately 17 years old. It is not known whether or not she actually had an affair. Could you blame her? Being somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 and married to someone like Henry? Teenagers do stupid things without thinking no matter the time period. A typical teenager today would be broken up with, and hopefully learn from the experience. Catherine Howard had her head chopped off. I do not think Cathering Howard had the ability being so young to understand the gravity of her actions in her particular situation. I do not think it is a coincidence that she did not or could not give the king a son.

Few people know that Catherine Howard is the originator of the “duck lips” pose.
(Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Wife #6: Catherine Parr: I Guess You’ll Do Until I die

Catherine Parr was Henry’s final wife before he passed away. The two did not have any children, as they were both older and nearer to the end of their lives. Really, they kept each other company. Parr was a driving force in Henry VIII leaving the world on good terms with all three of his children. 

Courtesy: National Trust Portraits

Walking in Their Shoes

Ever infatuated with Henry VIII’s legacy, and that of his offspring, I visited the “imprisonment at the tower exhibit” to see what life would have been like for some prisoners. To be clear, your status reflected the type of accommodation you received as a prisoner. Queen Anne Boleyn lived in royal apartments and kept her servants. The films depicting her as being in a small cell like a common prisoner were untrue. Sir William Raleigh was also allowed to live in a very pleasant apartment complete with a garden that he tended to and exercised in. Priest John Gerard did not have such lavish accommodations, but escaped with his life after extensive torture.

For those not so fortunate, many were already condoned to die and so were under immense psychological strain. It was haunting to see the carvings and “graffiti” they had completed while awaiting execution, perfectly preserved in the Beauchamp tower. The carvings were a way to ensure that their memories would love on after their death.

The Tower of London is a hugely popular tourist attraction. When I went, it was full of people taking selfies. Children were running and playing, reading maps, and being guided by Yeomen around the castle. Knowing the history that I do, it felt odd to me. The scene of gleeful travelers frolicking among the ghosts of people who unjustly lost their lives. 

Hanging with one of the yeoman at Tower of London. This was taken by tower green, near where Anne Boleyn had her own royal apartments. The same apartments in which she prepared for nuptial bliss, are ironically the apartments where she prepared to meet her death.

I thought a lot as I wandered around the green former execution area. As a woman, I consider the perspective of all of Henry VIII’s wives. How must it have felt to be Catherine of Aragon? Holding onto a man who couldn’t stand the sight of her? The entire nation and world watching as he does everything in his power to rid himself of her?

What would it feel like to be Anne of Cleves? Humiliated and the name “the ugly queen” forever etched into history? How do you wake up and face the world with the kind of shame that comes from enduring a divorce due to being too unattractive?

What of Catherine Howard? Imagine being a young, dumb teenager and married to a king, one like Henry the VIII. Thrust into a world of politics and deception that she may have been too naive and foolish to understand. I’m haunted by the account of her running down the halls of Hampton Court Palace BEGGING and screaming for her life. She was beheaded on the Tower Green, the same as Anne Boleyn.

Woman squatting next to the memorial on Tower Green at Tower of London commemorating those lives lost.
Artwork commemorating those who unjustly lost their lives on Tower Green. Anne Boleyn is named in the memorial.

I am most haunted by Anne Boleyn. To have the world and the king by the balls in one moment, and to feel so utterly in power – then –  to lose everything in the next moment. Looking at the imposing and frightening Tower of London, I cannot imagine the terror she must have faced knowing she would be at the end of the axe, with no one loving her in the end. No one to guide her through that terror and fear. Worst off, she was being killed for having done nothing wrong. Her biggest crime was not giving the king a male heir.  The pain of knowing she would never see her daughter again, and wondering who might raise her and love her. The anguish of suffering through two miscarriages and being admonished for not carrying those children to term. The cruelty of being euthanized for out living her earthly usefulness is unfathomable. Anne Boleyn, and most women were left with very few choices in life. Relationships were made for them, she was an instrument in bringing success to her family and ultimately paid the price for their desired advancement. I cannot fathom living my life being a puppet on a rope, a pawn in a societal game, the object of scorn and gossip. Most of these women, Anne included were merely given the script and made to perform, so to speak. What were their options? Run away? Find a career? Certainly not in this time period. Anne was a prisoner long before she arrived at the Tower of London.

A woman in a white and pink striped shirt and jeans stands in front of Traitor's Gate at the tower of London
Prior to her execution, Anne Boleyn arrived to the Tower of London via boat through this gate – Traitor’s Gate. Although, I’ve read some sources that do contest this notion.

These women were pawns. Their lives were expendable depending on the sexual whims and desires of the king. We get one life to live, and that is all. Imagine the injustice of being murdered by beheading for not being able to produce a son, or because your husband has fallen in love with someone else. 

Beauchamp Tower

Final Thoughts

Despite all of this, do I hate Henry VIII? I don’t know that I do. Remember, he had been conditioned, as had the country, that is was his divine right to rule. He truly believed that his power came directly from God. He was determined to be memorable, all powerful, and to secure and preserve his place in history. His actions against his wives were monstrous. But, I do look at him, and even his ruthlessness with a semblance of awe. We should really hate him, and others in history such as Al Capone for instance who are like him…but do we? Don’t we tend to allow our fascination for their notoriety to outweigh our disdain? Henry VIII was an alpha-male. At least here in the states..we love that shit. That machismo male arrogance, the power, the good looks (in his youth) and athleticism (in his youth) scream I’M A BOSS. If we didn’t the most popular shows on Netflix would be Mother Theresa documentaries, but instead, it’s “Narcos” and “Tiger King.” Sure, his actions were deplorable. But, even if you remember nothing from history class, you remember King Henry VIII.

We should really hate him [Henry VIII], and others such as Al Capone for instance who are like him…but do we? Don’t we tend to allow our fascination for their notoriety to outweigh our disdain? Henry VIII was an alpha-male. At least here in the states..we love that shit. That machismo male arrogance, the power, the good looks (in his youth) and athleticism (in his youth) scream I’M A BOSS. If we didn’t love it – the most popular shows on Netflix would be Mother Theresa documentaries, but instead, it’s “Narcos” and “Tiger King.”

As I walked around the Tower Green I was pensive, and solemn. I could not believe how much history happened within these walls. I needed to remind myself that Anne Boleyn, one of the most famous figures in history, was beheaded in front of a crowd and drew her last breaths near where I stood. “I’m really sorry. I’m so sorry that your one opportunity at life was manipulated and marred. I’m sorry for all of you who have met your end here, for seemingly no reason at all. I’m sorry that your last moments in life were filled with terror and humiliation.” I said these words in my heart, but I don’t think they fell entirely on deaf ears. The wind had a chill and blew through the trees strongly, knocking some leaves down right in front of me. Perhaps someone was grateful to have been remembered and seen as human, instead of a scandal personified.  

I chased after many ghosts on this trip including Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Click to read more!

2 thoughts on “In Search of Tudor Ghosts at Tower of London

  1. I’m a huge Tudor/Plantagenet fan, too. I’ve read and seen everything there is on him/them. Last summer when we were in England I had hoped to make it to Hever Castle, but we just couldn’t fit it in. Have you been to Hampton Court Palace? Another fascinating place for Tudor lovers. Another time we were in England we visited Windsor Palace and I was so looking forward to visiting the graves of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, both of whom are buried in the palace’s chapel. Unfortunately, we were visiting on a Sunday, the chapel was being used for services, and we couldn’t go in. 🙁

    1. I was dying to visit Hampton Court Palace, sadly, I didn’t make it! I’ve watched a few good documentaries on it and was really looking forward to seeing it. I think you’re able to stay overnight at Hever Castle which would be awesome! I would have loved to have seen Windsor. I feel like I need a whole trip there just to investigate Tudor history!

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