Saturday 9 December 2023

Anne Boleyn's Falcon Badge in the Tower of London?


The so-called falcon badge is in the lower right corner. Above is an inscription by Thomas Miagh (dated 1581).


At the fall of Anne Boleyn in May 1536, Henry VIII and his court were ready to move on. The king was described as having 'come out of hell into heaven for the gentleness in this (his new lady love Jane Seymour) and the cursedness and the unhappiness in the other.' Anne, the cause of his great misery was now out of sight and out of mind. Her portraits were destroyed or put away, and her heraldic badges were removed - though not altogether successfully. Examples of her likeness and her emblems still survive here and there.

Does a reminder survive in the Tower of London where Anne was imprisoned before her execution? Amidst a clutter of stone carvings in one of the buildings within is that of a bird perched upon a curious object. The eminent historian, Eric Ives, had no doubts as to what this represented - the disgraced Queen Anne - he even waxed poetic about it:

'For her, the most poignant memorial was in the Tower of London, where it remains to this day on the wall of one of the cells in the Beauchamp Tower. There crudely and hastily scratched by a man who knew he had little time, is Anne Boleyn's falcon. Which of 'lovers' made it we do not know, but the image is unmistakable. The tree-stump is there - the barren Henry - the Tudor rose-bush bursting into life, the perching bird whose touch wrought the miracle. But there is one change to the badge which Anne had proudly flourished in the face of the world. The falcon is no longer a royal bird. It has no crown, no sceptre; it stands bareheaded, as did Anne in those last moments on Tower Green'. (1)

But Ives' opinion that this was chiseled in tribute to Anne Boleyn needs be examined. That it is 'unmistakably' her heraldic badge is questionable. It actually bears little resemblance to Anne's majestic falcon standing on a stump. The missing crown and sceptre were explained as the artist's commentary of Anne as a victim of Fortune, but what is left - the bird and what it situates itself upon look nothing like what ought to still be recognized as Anne's royal device.


The badge in the Beauchamp Tower



Anne Boleyn's falcon badge



The bird - whatever its species here - stands with both feet on a large object. It is not a wooden stump as Ives said. Shaped like a spade instead of a column as a tree-stump ought to be, it is probably a leaf or some kind of plant - an artichoke perhaps? It seems to taper to a point behind the bird and its surface appears to be veined or with clustered petals. More significantly, there is a noticeable stem on the bottom.

While the amateurish skill of the carver can be excused, an ignorance of heraldry cannot. Armorial achievements were meant to be precise and easily recognizable - one had to be able to easily pick out friend and foe in the heat of battle. A carving in honor of Anne Boleyn should have been that - instantly identifiable. And if the artist was indeed one of the five men - George Boleyn, William Brereton, Francis Weston, Henry Norris or Mark Smeaton - accused of treason and adultery with the queen, he would have been entirely familiar with Anne's device and would have carved it with a degree of accuracy, if not talent.     

As the carving was done near an inscription by Thomas Miagh, a prisoner of the Tower in the reign of Elizabeth I, the emblem may actually have been done by him for himself. (2) If not, who the device represents eludes us for the moment, but it is almost certainly not Anne Boleyn, as Ives believed. The carving has no perceptible association with the tragic queen, other than in a romantic notion.



(1) Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004, p. 364. See also note 34 on p. 424.

(2) For an opinion that the emblem was not associated with Thomas Miagh: The Falcon Crest in the Tower of London, 2013.