Will Anne Boleyn’s ghost appear on this Norwich bridge tonight?
- Credit: Archant 2022
It is a frantic annual dash and a dark curse that links poor headless Anne Boleyn, her father’s callousness and an unwitting eye witness to one of the oldest bridges in Norwich.
Anne’s father, Sir Thomas, is said to have been cursed for 1,000 years for taking no action to prevent two of his children from being executed by Henry VIII.
When the clock strikes midnight on May 19, he has until cockcrow to cross 12 bridges in Norfolk on a frantic drive that takes him from Norwich to Blickling. Some say poor Anne is a passenger in the coach, returning to her childhood home at the Jacobean hall.
And one Norwich eye-witness believes she may have seen Sir Thomas as he made his way to Bishop Bridge in the city, or at least the flash of his spectral coach as he rushed past.
Historian Sarah Walker had enjoyed a night at a friend’s house and was walking home along Bishopgate when she saw something very strange career round a sharp corner.
It was a dark night May night, close to midnight, and Sarah had left Cathedral Close at the Bishop Bridge exit when she saw something hurtling towards her.
“It wasn’t exactly shining, but it looked as if it was moonlit – it was a large coach, tall and absolutely hurtling down the street so fast that I couldn’t really make out exactly what it was,” said Sarah, who saw what she thought for years was ‘an optical illusion’.
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“It was travelling at such speed that it didn’t so much as round the corner, but cross it – in that split-second I felt this dread that it was going to crash into a wall…but then it just disappeared. One second it was there, the next it had gone.
“I thought something must be wrong with my eyes, but I could see perfectly clearly and my night vision has always been excellent. “
When she saw the coach, she was level with The Great Hospital, walking towards Norwich city centre and on the left-hand side of the road.
Sarah had enjoyed an evening with a friend from New Zealand who had been staying in Cathedral Close: so much so, indeed, that she missed the 10.30pm main gate closure.
She said: “My friend doesn’t drink, so I didn’t either that night. We had a lovely time and by the time I started to think about leaving, I realised that the main gates would be locked.
“It had been my birthday on May 13 but we’d been unable to get together that day, so it was about a week later that we made our plans. As I walked home, I wasn’t nervous at all, I walk at night a lot and it is completely normal to me.
“When I saw whatever it was I saw, I then had to walk past the place where it had been. It made me feel a bit jumpy, but equally I wanted to check there weren’t any driveways where it could have disappeared. There weren’t, just a locked gateway.
“I hurried home and wondered what on earth had just happened. Occasionally, I’d mention it to people – I certainly never forgot what I’d seen.”
Several years later, when she was undertaking research for her walking tours, Sarah read a book called The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, by Jennifer Simpson and Jennifer Westwood.
In it, she read a section about ghostly anniversaries, including the annual visit Sir Thomas Boleyn’s ghost is said to make to Norfolk every year.
“I looked at the date and it was May 19. I looked at the bridges, and one was Bishop Bridge. I thought back and worked out that what I’d seen sounded very much like this terrible journey,” she said.
“I am someone who, if they see something strange, would think of every possible explanation before alighting on a supernatural one.
“I am a sceptical person but I have never seen anything like it, before or since, and I cannot think of an explanation as to what it was.
“It was a still night, my eyesight was perfect, there was no one else around. While I can’t say for certain I saw a ghostly carriage, I can say that I definitely saw the movement of what looked like a carriage travelling unbelievably fast which then completely vanished.”
The ghost of Sir Thomas, poor Anne Boleyn’s father, is said to drive the coach that delivers his daughter to Blickling Hall on the anniversary of her execution.
Some accounts claim the bridge number is 40, not 12 and that he is pursued on his route by hordes of screaming demons.
Norfolk-born Anne died two days after her brother George, her head severed expertly by a swordsman from Saint-Oer in France on Friday May 19 1536.
Although Sir Thomas did not die by executioner’s blade, many accounts of his ghost say that it is headless, or rather that his head is tucked under an arm as he rides.
The curse is said to be 1,000 years long, meaning it won’t be until 2536 that his debt is paid.
Anne Boleyn joined the English court in around 1522 when Mary was around six years old.
Initially, Anne was simply a maid-of-honour for Catherine of Aragon, but by 1528, Henry had fallen in love with her and made it his intention to marry her.
Anne was crowned on June 1 1533 when she was six months pregnant: Mary refused to recognise her step-mother as queen or her baby Elizabeth as anything other than an illegitimate child of her father’s.
In 1536, Catherine died, Anne lost a baby son and within weeks the new queen had been convicted of adultery, incest and treason and executed within three weeks.
By the time Mary was 27, she would have known five step-mothers, but it was Anne Boleyn she hated most, and the feeling was mutual.
“Mary will be the cause of my death unless I get rid of her first,” Anne once said.
Before she was executed, and while imprisoned in the Tower of London, Anne wrote desperate letters begging for her father and worrying her mother would “die of sorrow” upon hearing of her and brother George’s death.
She received nothing but silence from her father. While his lack of action may seem callous to us, in truth there was nothing he could have done: King Henry was not for turning.
Thomas remained loyal to his King and was present at the christening of Henry’s son Edward with Jane Seymour. While Elizabeth died a year after her children, Thomas died three years later at the age of 62.
Henry VIII ordered masses to be said for Thomas’ soul.
Sarah, who runs Hidden History Tours will be returning to Bishop Bridge this year to see if she can spot Sir Thomas again - if she does, she says she will rethink her scepticism.
But she adds that if she does spy the cursed Boleyn once again, she won’t look directly at him or try to speak to him: “It’s said to be a bad idea to even look for the carriage,” she said, “if you do, it’s said that Sir Thomas might scoop you up and take you with him for eternity..."