Not long ago, we explored the legends and lore behind the pop culture cliche of depicting ghosts in chains (see here). And with Halloween just around the corner, it is high time we returned to the spectral realm to discuss another common feature of ghosts in popular culture - their famous habit of wandering about the place with their heads tucked under their arms! Certainly it has been a perennial favourite with cartoonists and illustrators when they turn their attention to matters spectral, and hence someone in ye olden times dress - usually Tudor, with a ruff and hose - carrying their own head under their arm has become short-hand for ghost. Yes, it's true the sheeted phantom is perhaps the most common pop culture image for ghosts, but if you want some drama and expression in your picture, a headless apparition will do the trick far better than some supernaturally animated linen! Not to mention the fact that there's huge comedy potential in carrying around one's own head.
Now many would point to a famous literary source for this popular and enduring ghostly trope - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Irving's classic tale, although written in 1820, remains a perennial favourite, especially at Halloween-time thanks to its links to both ghosts and pumpkins. And it is perhaps very telling that this well-loved tale uses its feared Headless Horseman too both spectacular dramatic and comedic effect. However as we discovered in an early edition of this column, the Headless Horsemen was no invention of Irving's imagination, and was in fact drawn from a variety of folkloric sources - indeed there is a whole distinct tradition of headless riders in the realm of folklore and legend. So then while Irving's classic has undoubtedly had a long reaching impact on the popular conception of ghosts - with many other fictions drawing inspiration from it - it is not the origin of headless spectres.
An important clue is found in the choice of attire we normally see headless ghosts decked out in. As I mentioned, it is normally Tudor dress, all puffed sleeves and ruffs, and we can trace this to one particular phantom, the spectre of Anne Boleyn. As I'm sure you'll all know, Anne Boleyn was the second wife of Henry VIII, who fell from favour when she failed to provide him with a male heir to the throne and ended up charged with high treason and adultery, and was executed by beheading in 1536. Now Henry VIII is famous for having six wives, and although another of his spouses was executed for adultery (his fifth wife Katherine Howard), it is Anne Boleyn who has captured the popular imagination - indeed she is the wife most people think of first in relation to Henry, and for many the only wife they can actually name.
And this state of affairs originates from several factors working in concert. Firstly it is because the tale of her rise and fall has been retold many times, often as a tragic romance. Secondly it is because this particular marriage is part of a key turning point in British history: Henry broke away the English Church from the leadership of the Pope in order grant himself a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. And this was an event to have long lasting repercussions, such as providing the basis for Protestantism in England, and leading to the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada. However the third reason that Anne Boleyn is so well-known is that after her death she was to become the most famous ghost in England.
Henry's affair with Anne Boleyn was followed closely by the public in Tudor times, partly because it had huge political ramifications, but also because it was the Tudor equivalent of the celebrity gossip sagas of today. Hence it was perhaps unsurprising that not long after her death, stories began to circulate that her ghost was seen walking around near the White Tower where she was executed. Popular accounts of her death claimed her body was placed in an old arrow chest and buried in an unmarked grave, and traditionally ghosts are often a result of the person's body not being buried properly in consecrated ground. Actually we now know, thanks to her skeleton being discovered during Victorian renovations, that while her grave was unmarked, she had been buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
However before the building work of 1878 uncovered her mortal remains, the old story that she had been dumped in a chest was still believed, and having not had a proper burial Anne's spirit had good cause to be restless, at least according to the popular beliefs of the day. Furthermore her ghost appeared as the tale claimed her body had been buried - with her head tucked under her arm! However the Boleyn saga was so well-known that soon it was being claimed that her ghost was not only haunting the place where she died but also several other sites too, often without her head.
Next week, we will explore the various tales told of Anne Boleyn's ghost, and chart how she became the best traveled and the most famous ghost in English folklore.