If death is the great leveller there are few more macabre examples of it than the church and crypt of St Peter ad Vincula. The church – its name means “St Peter in chains” – is one of two situated within the Tower of London, and an earlier version of it was probably there before the Tower was built.
It is a macabre place because it contains the decapitated bodies of a Who’s Who of powerful people executed at the Tower for alleged acts of treason – many sanctioned by an Act of Attainder, which meant they didn’t have a proper court trial. It would fit perfectly into Game of Thrones. Lord Macaulay, in his 1848 book The History of England, said there was no sadder place on earth, and it is easy to see why. If there is life after death, goodness knows what those laid to rest there might be talking about.
Here lies the headless body of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, executed with a sword on 19 May 1536 on Tower Green in front of the church for alleged adultery. The green, now a bizarre tourist attraction, is much as it was back then, although without the scaffold. Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, had met the same fate as his sister two days earlier. He was beheaded in public view on nearby Tower Hill, but was buried in the same place.
Anne was killed on the authority of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, who was later blamed for the King’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. What happened to Cromwell? He was beheaded on Tower Hill 28 July 1540, which was the same day – can you believe it? – as Henry married his fifth wife Catherine Howard. She in turn lost her life two years later, on 13 February 1542, because of her alleged promiscuity, a subject Henry was a bit of an expert on. Like those of other nobles her beheading took place on Tower Green and her corpse added to the St Peter ad Vincula collection.
Even before Anne Boleyn was despatched the church was where the headless corpses of distinguished traitors were laid to rest in Henry’s time. Thomas More‘s was put there after he was executed on Tower Hill on 6 July 1535 – he is buried at the far end of the crypt (main photo) – for refusing to acknowledge that Henry, rather than the Pope, was head of the Church in England. His friend John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, had met the same fate on 22 June of that year, though his body didn’t get taken to the church until the same time as More’s. Both men were later canonised.
To list all the executions connected to this church would be to risk decapitation fatigue. One of the most bizarre was that of Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and the husband of his sixth, Catherine Parr, whom he married after Henry’s death. Seymour was a ruthlessly ambitious man who was beheaded on Tower Hill in March 1549 for treason on the authority of his older brother, Edward Seymour, who was Lord Protector of England while the boy king Edward VI, the son of Henry and Jane Seymour, was growing up.
Edward’s reward? He was himself decapitated on Tower Hill for treason nearly three years later, in January 1552. The Lord Protector didn’t even last long enough to enjoy the ludicrously palatial residence, Somerset House (not the present one), he built from stone pillaged from other buildings, including the nearby church of St Mary’s in the Strand and the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell. He even tried to demolish the wonderful St Margaret’s church next to Westminster Abbey, only to be repulsed by armed parishioners. Both brothers are buried at St Peter ad Vincula.
It goes on and on. In 1553 John Dudley, first Duke of Northumberland, who succeeded Edward Seymour as chief minister under King Edward, was executed on Tower Hill on August 22, 1553 in front of thousands of people following his role in helping his Protestant daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, very briefly on to the English throne. He was buried in the church as well.
How did this come about? The young king, a Protestant, who was terminally ill, hadn’t wanted his half-sister “bloody” Mary Tudor, a Catholic, to be Queen and in his will had nominated Grey – who was married to one of Dudley’s sons, Lord Guildford Dudley – to be his successor.
It is not clear how much the elder Dudley influenced Edward’s decision, but it was clearly in his interest and, ahead of events, he marched to East Anglia to capture Mary, only to surrender when the Privy Council in London proclaimed Mary Queen.
The upshot was that Jane Grey spent her nine-day reign in the Tower with her husband, a fellow teenager, in a different part of it until on 12 February 1554, they, like Dudley senior, were beheaded, Dudley junior on Tower Hill for public consumption, Grey in private on Tower Green. Two more decapitated bodies for St Peter’s.
Later execution victims buried there include Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a former favourite of Elizabeth I, who became the last person to be beheaded on the green on 25 February 25, 1601 for, in the words of his indictment, conspiring “to depose and slay the Queen, and to subvert the Government.” His executioner was one Thomas Derrick, whom Essex had previously pardoned after Derrick was convicted of rape.
The one condition for this let off was that Derrick became an executioner. He went on to put over 3,000 people to death, including, eventually, Essex himself. Gratitude, as they say, belongs to history. The word “derrick” became the name for the frame from which a hangman’s noose was supported, and is today the term for a type of crane or the frame above an oil well.
It is a great shame that its macabre history has distracted attention from the attractions of this small but rather wonderful church, which still functions as a Chapel Royal, run by the Crown, and holds regular services which are open to the public and free to attend, as long as you don’t also visit the rest of the Tower.
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