After a one-sided courtship which mostly involved her putting a stop to King Henry VIII’s advances, the posthumously famous Anne Boleyn finally consented to his pursuit of her which culminated in a marriage in 1533. Little did she know that this marriage would trigger a series of events that had catastrophic consequences for the English monarchy, as it ushered in the period known today as the ‘ English Reformation ’, changing the history of the empire forever. Anne Boleyn is now in the news again for a rediscovered emblem of hers – an original heraldic decoration in the form of a gilded oak bird, reports The Art Newspaper .
The emblem, a small white and gold bird, crowned and holding onto a sceptre and perched uncomfortably on some Tudor roses, was almost unrecognizable under a layer of black paint and centuries of wax, dirt, soot, and grime. It was auctioned for a pittance as an ‘antique wooden bird’ to Paul Fitzsimmons of Marhamchurch Antiques for a mere $101 (or £75), an estimated 2,700 times lesser than its actual value! It has now been leased out on a long-term loan to the Hampton Court Palace, and was put on display earlier this month, on the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII seeing her for the first time.
“I didn’t know immediately that it was the badge of Anne Boleyn,” the antiques dealer from Devon told The Guardian . “But I knew that it had some sort of royal connection because it had the crown and sceptre, and it was a royal bird,” added the expert on early English oak.
Hampton Court Palace South façade, residence of King Henry VIII. (Mark Percy / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Anne Boleyn: A Queen Amongst Queens?
Tracy Borman, a leading Tudor historian and joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages Hampton Court, was quoted as saying:
“The irony is that Anne Boleyn is the most popular of the six wives and she’s probably the one with the least surviving evidence … because she was obliterated by Henry. So that makes this really quite special and obviously I’m very excited about it. When I realised how this absolutely would have fitted with the decorative scheme, I had a shivers-down-the-spine moment.”
An early-20th-century painting of Anne Boleyn, depicting her deer hunting with the king. ( Public Domain )
As his second wife, Anne Boleyn held secondary status to Queen Catherine of Aragon , but when Catherine prematurely died in the January of 1536, the overjoyed Henry and Anne celebrated. These celebrations were cut short as later that month, Anne would have her third miscarriage (the reasons still remain unclear), allegedly a male child, which caused Henry to fly into a rage as he desperately sought a male heir.
On May 2nd, 1536, Anne was arrested on the fabricated charges of adultery, incest, and conspiracy, and executed later that month. Her inability to bear the king a male heir was seen as an unpardonable sin by Henry, though incidentally her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I would take the throne in 1558, until her death in 1603, closing the chapter of the Tudor dynasty with her. She was just over 2 years old when her mother had been executed, and she was declared an illegitimate child. Her father would go on to marry four more times.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower’ by Édouard Cibot. ( Public Domain )
Boleyn’s historical importance cannot be understated – not only did she become a legendary, cult figure after her death, and a symbol of the corruption and complete apathy of the English court, but she unwittingly caused a historical split between the English and Roman Church . The Pope had refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, causing the tempestuous and short-sighted Tudor king to cut ties with Rome.
The Heraldic Falcon and It’s Surviving Legacy
Around the time that Henry married Anne, she began using a badge depicting the falcon alighting on roses. Her reason for using this symbol was that her father, Thomas Boleyn, was the heir of the Butlers, Earls of Ormonde, who used the falcon in their heraldic crests, reports The Smithsonian . Bormans adds that that emblematic bird was not dissimilar to others carved ahead of Anne’s ascension to the throne.
The Anne Boleyn falcon emblem is one of many that were ‘perched’ around Hampton Court Palace. (Paul Fitzsimmons / Marhamchurch Antiques )
They were perched, quite literally, high up on the ceiling of Hampton Court’s Great Hall, where they probably escaped Henry’s notice due to being blackened by smoke. This emblem was likely in Anne’s private quarters, kept safely by one of the late Queen’s supporters. And there was a significant difference between those on the ceiling, and the one in her private quarters, as noted by Tracy Borman.
“This one wears an imperial crown. That was an absolute nod to the fact that Henry by now had got imperial ambitions. He was trying to supplant the pope’s authority, promoting himself as some kind of emperor rather than just a king,” explains Borman. She has written in greater detail in her forthcoming book, Crown & Sceptre , a history of the British monarchy.
Sebastian Edwards, deputy chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces , adds that it might be many years before a roof height scaffold could be set up to compare this piece with the survivors, who are allegedly 43 in number. Nonetheless he is pleased with the current find and is optimistic about what the future holds.
“The evidence that has emerged during our research lends great weight to the theory, particularly with there being one falcon less than we’d expect in the surviving decorative scheme. Either way this is an incredibly rare example of Tudor royal ornamentation, imbued with the legend of Henry’s most famous Queen,” he concludes.
Top image: Anne Boleyn’s carved falcon that went on display at Hampton Court Palace earlier this month. Source: © Historic Royal Palaces
By Sahir Pandey