Friday, July 10, 2009

Question from Elizabeth M - Autopsy or embalming of Anne Boleyn

After the execution of Anne Boleyn, was there any record of an autopsy being done? After the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, an autopsy was performed and the body was embalmed. Was this standard procedure, or was Anne just buried with no post-mortem examination of her remains?

[Note from Lara - I'm adding in the embalming to Anne's body in the question subject heading, since I was kind of wondering about that myself!]


Roland H. said...

The contemporary records said that Anne was buried more or less right after her execution.

I think one chronicler said in the afternoon (Anne was beheaded around 8 AM), but there is no record of an autopsy or emblaming at all.

PhD Historian said...

I think perhaps "autopsy" is not the correct term to use. The modern term "autopsy" refers to the examination of the body of a deceased person ... externally and internally ... in order to determine the immediate cause of death and the presence of disease or injury. Autopsies for those purposes were not uncommon in the sixteenth century, but they seem to have been restricted primarily to persons from social classes with less power to object to the procedure (i.e., the lower classes), or to persons of great importance, such as monarchs. When done on persons of the lower classes, the purpose was for physicians to learn about diseases and their cures, not to explain to relatives how someone died. Answering the questions of "how" and "why" someone died was largely limited to monarchs and other people of great importance. While Anne had been important as a queen consort, she died a criminal. And her immediate cause of death was indisputable. I am inclined to assume that no formal post-mortem examination of any kind was performed. Neither was her body likely embalmed. But I am not aware of any documentation to prove my assumptions.

I think perhaps the more appropriate ... though less "polite" ... term in the context of Anne Boleyn would be "evisceration." As in the recent thread on the removal of hearts, the removal of all of the internal organs seems to have been practiced, largely to slow the decay process during the sometimes lengthy period between the death and the burial of wealthy people. Edward VI's body, for example, lay unburied for about 6 weeks after his death. Because Anne was buried the same day, evisceration was not required.

Regarding Mary Stuart, apparently there was a fairly thorough examination of the body performed, despite the rather obvious immediate cause of death. The results were published in France in 1589 in the form of a pamphlet, La Mort de Royne d'Ecosse, Dovariere de France, which also describes her funeral in considerable detail. Unfortunately, none of the specialized databases that I have access to has the pamphlet posted.

Lastly, bodies of the deceased were not "embalmed" in the same sense that they are today. The process was limited largely to removal of the internal organs (sometimes including the brain), filling of the cavities left behind, and the external application of substances thought to slow decay, then wrapping the body in tarred or waxed cloth. The modern method of injecting formaldehyde and other preservatives into the blood vessels was not developed until about 200 years ago.

Anonymous said...

While we're at it, what was the container in which Anne was buried? I've read an "arrow chest", but arrows for the longbow were often referred to as "clothyard" arrows. Even a decapitated body would have been too long to fit. (Crossbow "bolts" are even shorter.) A chest for bowstaves would make more sense. And was the chest beside the scaffold, or waiting in the church? The body would certainly have been easier to handle if it was supported by something solid. "Cmtemporary reports" seem to have differed on whether Anne's outer garment was black or gray. Are there other discrepancies?

Gareth Russell said...

The only recorded "autopsy" of Anne Boleyn was not carried out until the reservation of the Chapel in 1876, under a grandfather of the famous Mitford socialites, incidentally, but I digress.

The autopsy was cursory and simply stated that the victim had a delicate frame and that she was aged between 25 and 30 at the time of death.