by Jason Howard
I stand on grey cobblestone, my thighs pressed against a black iron railing, staring at a square of grass. This is my first visit to Tower Green, the plot of earth within the Tower of London where two English queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—both seemingly my first cousins sixteen times removed—are said to have been executed. Here in this fortress, I become a kind of medium, conjuring the ghosts of these women in whose lives I see my own reflected—a gay man who has known the scaffold, who has fought to find his place. I gaze across the green, the grass a brilliant emerald that shimmers within the dour fortress, shining underneath an overcast February sky. I bend down, my knees grazing the wet granite, dampness splotching my grey jeans. I reach under the railing and touch the grass. The blades are sharp and sting my fingertips, tiny swords of ancestry and exile.
Photography is not allowed in Westminster Abbey. Signs posted on movable stands alert visitors to this rule as they stand in the admission queues along the north entrance of the church. Inside, in Poets’ Corner, I become the ugly American who flouts this regulation. As my partner kneels on the stone floor, his hand stroking the marker of Thomas Hardy, I sneak a picture with my iPhone, the guards oblivious to my sin of commission. Hardy’s ashes rest below us, but not his heart, which was buried in St Michael’s churchyard in the Dorset countryside that he so loved. Before his cremation, it was cut out of his chest, wrapped in a small towel and placed in a biscuit tin.
The summer I am nine, my grandmother calls me to the dining room table where she is surrounded by books and papers, documents of her collaboration with a genealogist, tracing the Howard line back from Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland to England. She points to a Xeroxed portrait of a woman who returns my gaze with an enigmatic expression, her plain face framed by a jeweled hood and my grandmother’s liver-spotted hand. “Anne Boleyn,” she says, “Queen of England. Her mother was a Howard.” My grandmother does not tell me about the salacious details of Anne’s life and death, the affair with Henry VIII that began the English Reformation, her intrusions into the male-dominated worlds of church and state, the false accusations of adultery, incest and treason that led to her execution after only a thousand days as queen consort. But years later, during an affair of my own, I find myself drawn back to Anne, to her resolve and conviction to have the man she wanted, the rest of the world be damned. I imagine her telling me to have patience, to summon the courage to live openly, to hold my head high and set my thin Howard lips in determined repose to mirror her own, whispers across nearly five centuries of blood and ocean.
It took only one stroke to sever Anne Boleyn’s head from her body. The expert swordsman, imported across the Channel from Calais, wielded his three- to four-feet long, two-inch wide, double-edged blade of Flemish steel across her thin neck. Her execution by sword rather than the brutal axe was the one merciful gift from her barbaric husband. When blade met flesh, Anne’s spinal cord was sliced in two, her head tumbling onto the straw that carpeted the scaffold. Witnesses reported that her lips continued to move, mouthing the prayer that she had repeated over and over as she knelt, awaiting the blow: To Jesus Christ I commend my soul. One of her ladies covered her decapitated head with a white handkerchief that quickly turned a deep crimson. It was placed alongside her corpse in an old elm chest that had been used to store arrows, and was buried in the floor beneath the altar of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula that stands across Tower Green. If exile of head from body weren’t enough, legends soon appeared about Anne’s heart being stolen, secreted away to a church in her native Norfolk or to another in Suffolk, interred in a heart-shaped tin behind a chancel wall of grey stone. Such a casket was discovered there three centuries later. When opened, it contained nothing but a mound of dust.
I was fourteen when I decided to separate my own heart from my body. I was in middle school, consumed by a secret romance with another boy. Everyone suspected—we were inseparable, passing notes in between the few classes we did not share, sneaking away from Science Olympiad practice after school to make out in darkened classrooms. We were bullied in the hallways, learning to stare straight ahead when a gang of jocks passed by muttering faggots and queers. When he began dating a girl, I retreated to fundamentalist religion, to the prophet Jeremiah’s belief that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” I burned my boyfriend’s letters on the mountainside behind my house, flames scorching the college-ruled paper into a pile of grey ash. With my bare hands I dug a shallow hole, scooping in the embers after they had cooled. I covered them with black dirt that caked beneath my fingernails.
My grandmother did not tell me that day at the dining table about Catherine Howard, Anne’s cousin who became Henry’s fifth wife and queen consort for less than two years. She too, was beheaded at the Tower, executed around the age of twenty, the accusations of infidelity true in her case—instances of what one historian has called “lighthearted idiocy” due to her youth. There is no grand passion to identify with in Catherine’s case, no royal affair that sparked a religious schism, no tales about her heart being extracted and buried in a place she loved. There is only loneliness, an emotion I knew all too well during my years in the closet. Looking back, I realize the parallel between our plights. Her a young queen, exposed as a whore before all of England; me a teenage boy, scared of where the desires of my heart and body might lead. I see myself as her on the scaffold, trembling with fear, barely able to speak, about to be decapitated with an axe, punishment from a vengeful God for my carnal lusts.
The Tower’s Yeoman Warders in their red and gold uniforms are famous for embellishing, telling tourists stories designed to hold their interest but to grant them historical fact. On the day that I visit, I have tucked Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower into my messenger bag, and I pull it out for reference points about Anne, to separate fact from fiction about the last days of this Tudor queen. I find that I have paid homage at the wrong place, an error that must be corrected. My partner waits as I insist on retracing my steps, back from the monument at the edge of Tower Green to the true place of her execution, on the paved parade ground in between the White Tower and the Waterloo Block. There, among the clusters of tourists and school groups, I lean down to feel the damp cement flecked with pebbles, to get as close as I can to the earth on which Anne walked, to imagine the brush of her ermine cloak as she approached the scaffold. This act of reverence is vital for me, an offering from my younger, powerless self, who took comfort from Anne’s ascendance to a place of authority—a tribute to a wounded queen whose dignity, even in the midst of scandal and ruin, could never be violated.
Like Anne’s, there is a myth that persists about Thomas Hardy’s heart. When the surgeon extracted it from his chest and placed it in the biscuit tin, his cat supposedly knocked the container off its temporary resting place on his mantel. The cat ate part of the organ before it was slaughtered and buried alongside what remained of Hardy’s heart in the churchyard. Claire Tomalin, his biographer, believes this tale originated in the pubs of Dorchester, where such black humor would have been appreciated. What is fact is this: his heart was transferred from the biscuit tin to a tiny casket and interred in Dorset. The tin that once held Hardy’s heart is now in the hands of a private collector, coated with the organ’s residual blood, strands of DNA flecking from the tarnished metal. I imagine the owner removing the tin from its display case on occasion, fingers caressing its cool surface with reverence, a tribute to the novelist who might have created the stories of Anne and Catherine had they not already existed, recognizing in them his own obsession with forbidden love and tragic heroines.
I am quiet as we walk through Hyde Park, conscious of the sound of loafers meeting pavement. These 350 acres were once the hunting grounds of Henry VIII, and I picture him and Anne at the height of their passion, thundering over the greens on horseback in search of deer and wild boar. I think again of Anne and her fierce heart, and how my own was finally exhumed, removed from its tiny casket and joined once again with my body. I grasp my partner’s hand, feel its warmth in the London damp, and release it just before we reach the Serpentine, where I stop to run my fingers through the soft grass, burrowing down beneath the smooth blades to touch the earth. I need to feel this English soil, this belonging, to remind myself of the darkness of the grave, to dig up the hearts and blood and memory of my ancestors, and place them in a tin of my own to carry back with me across the waters.
JASON HOWARD is the author of A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music and coauthor of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Nation, Sojourners, Lumina Journal, The Louisville Review and in other publications, as well as on NPR. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and serves as editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly based at Berea College, where he also teaches.