Hidden messages revealed in Anne Boleyn’s execution prayer book

·3-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A secret inscription has been discovered in the prayer book Anne Boleyn was reading before having her head cut off on the orders of Henry VIII.

Anne became the first Queen of England to be executed on May 19, 1536 after being found guilty of adultery, incest and high treason.

Legend has it Anne handed the Book of Hours to one of her ladies-in-waiting on the day of her beheading.

The book, which she may have taken to her execution, bears the heartbreaking inscription, ‘remember me when you do pray’.

Hever Castle & Gardens
Hever Castle & Gardens

But historian Kate McCaffrey used ultraviolet light and photo editing software to reveal the names of women the book had been secretly handed down through loyal relatives despite orders to remove her belongings.

Working at Hever Castle, Anne’s childhood home, Kate McCaffrey spent nearly a year studying the two prayer books.

She found three family names, undiscovered for hundreds of years and faded so badly they were invisible to the naked eye. The names were Gage, West, and Shirley (from Sundridge, near Sevenoaks). These three names centre around a fourth, the Guildford family of Cranbrook in Kent.

She explained: It is clear that this book was passed between a network of trusted connections, from daughter to mother, from sister to niece. If the book had fallen into other hands, questions almost certainly would have been raised over the remaining presence of Anne’s signature. 

“Instead, the book was passed carefully between a group of primarily women who were both entrusted to guard Anne’s note and encouraged to add their own.

Hever Castle & Gardens
Hever Castle & Gardens

“In a world with very limited opportunities for women to engage with religion and literature, the simple act of marking this Hours and keeping the secret of its most famous user, was one small way to generate a sense of community and expression.”

She added: “It was incredibly exciting and surreal to uncover these erased inscriptions, and it has been an absolute privilege to restore the names of their authors and recover their stories. What is perhaps most remarkable is that these inscriptions have been unknown and unstudied for so long.”

Dr David Rundle, Kate’s supervisor said: “It is every graduate student’s dream to uncover previously hidden information about a well-known historical figure. Kate’s energy and enterprise have allowed her to do just that, even in the depths of the pandemic when libraries were out of all researchers’ reach. What she has discovered has potentially highly significant implications for our understanding of Anne Boleyn and her posthumous reputation.”

Only a handful of Anne’s books survive today and only three contain her signed inscriptions. One is held at the British Library, the other two at Hever.

Tower Of London Officials did not believe the execution would go ahead so there was no coffin and her remains were bundled into an old arrow chest found in the armoury.

Gates to the Tower were accidentally left open allowing 1,000 people to crowd in to watch the supposedly private execution.

The day after Anne’s execution Henry betrothed Jane Seymour and she became his third wife on May 30, 1536.

Hever Castle reopened to visitors on Monday 17 May. Tickets must be prebooked.

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