The shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, was one of the highest profile casualties of the Reformation, with the lavish monument destroyed on Henry VIII’s orders in 1538. Henry’s second wife is, with good reason, remembered as one of the architects of the Reformation, playing her own part in sweeping away what she saw as superstition in traditional religious practices. It was Anne, for example, who reputedly sent her commissioners to Hailes Abbey to investigate a relic of the blood of Christ – something which was found to contain either duck’s blood or red wax.
What is less well known is that Anne actually had a family connection to Thomas Becket, Henry II’s archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170 by knights who believed that they acted on the king’s orders.
Anne’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Butler, was a member of a noble Irish family who claimed descent from Agnes, a sister of the martyred archbishop. Margaret’s uncle, James Butler, Fifth Earl of Ormond, for example, laid out these claims in a petition to parliament in the mid-fifteenth century.
For the Butlers, this connection was very important, with Thomas Butler, the seventh Earl of Ormond (Anne’s great-grandfather), showing a particular interest in the Church of St Thomas Acon in London, which was reputedly build on the site of Thomas Becket’s birthplace by another of his sisters. The seventh Earl, who bequeathed a Psalter bound in white leather and signed in his own hand to the church, was buried there. In his Will he also showed his devotion to the saint, his long dead kinsman, by specifically bequeathing his soul to the ‘glorious martyr Saint Thomas’ in his Will.
That this connection was known to Anne and her family, and important to them, is clear from the Will of her great-grandfather, the seventh Earl of Ormond, who died in 1515. The Earl paid his favourite grandson, Thomas Boleyn, the compliment of leaving him a precious family heirloom: a white ivory horn, garnished with gold which ‘was mine ancestors at first time they were called to honour, and hath since continually remained in the same blood; for which cause my lord and father commanded me upon his blessing, that I should do my devoir to cause it to continue still in my blood’. The horn, quite apart from its obvious monetary value, was of great sentimental importance to the old earl, and was also rumoured to have been the cup from which St Thomas Becket drank. It was the most tangible thing that the old Earl had to link him to his distant uncle, the saint.
It is interesting to think that Anne’s father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, had this horn in his possession even as he and his daughter were urging the king towards the break with Rome and, particularly, the appointment of the Boleyn family chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, as the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.