Wooden bird revealed to be Anne Boleyn’s falcon

A carved wooden falcon that sold at auction in 2019 for  £75 ($100) has been identified as a 16th century heraldic badge of Anne Boleyn that once adorned Hampton Court Palace. With this updated provenance, the oak falcon’s market value has skyrocketed to an estimated £200,000 ($270,000).

The falcon was one of the new architectural features King Henry VIII ordered be added to Hampton Court Palace before his marriage to Anne. The white falcon was on the crest of the Butler family who had held the title of Earls of Ormond. Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn was related to the Butlers through his mother, and in 1529 Henry browbeat the legitimate Butler claimant to the Ormond earldom to settle for another title so he could give this one to the father of his inamorata.

Anne took the white falcon as the centerpiece of her own heraldic emblem shortly before her wedding. It stands on a tree stump (representing Henry’s Plantagenet ancestry) from which red and white roses grow. These aren’t Tudor roses with red petals on the outside and white ones on the inside, but individual red roses alternating with white roses, symbolic of Henry’s dual claim to the throne through his Lancastrian father, Henry of Richmond, and his mother Elizabeth of York.

The bird wears an imperial crown and carries a heavy scepter in its talon, an unmistakable message Henry was sending that his power was absolute inside his realm, even overriding that of the pope, and that Anne would be his queen. Three years, one tumultuous marriage, several spurious charges of adultery and a decapitation later, Henry ordered all traces of Anne Boleyn obliterated from his palaces as a kind of Tudor damnatio memoriae.

Today there are two royal falcons surviving on the ceiling of Hampton Court’s Great Hall. This example was in a more accessible location, likely in her private apartments, and may have been salvaged by a supporter who wanted to preserve the memory Henry sought to eradicate.

Tudor historian and curator for Historic Royal Palaces Tracy Borman says:

“What’s really interesting about it is that – unlike the Great Hall examples – this one wears an imperial crown. That was an absolute nod to the fact that Henry by now had got imperial ambitions. He was trying to supplant the pope’s authority, promoting himself as some kind of emperor rather than just a king. There are other crowned falcons that we know about, that were used for example at Anne’s coronation in the pageant. But there’s no mention of imperial crowns, so this is very much Henry and Anne doing their very best for a kind of PR stunt. The decoration of Hampton Court was all about their ambitions and their defiance of the pope.”

The falcon was acquired by Paul Fitzsimmons, founder of Marhamchurch Antiques, which specializes in oak furniture from the 15th through 17th centuries. It was described in the auction catalogue as a “antique carved wood bird,” but Fitzimmons recognized its quality and its likely connection to royalty given the crown and scepter, but didn’t initially realize it was one of Anne Boleyn’s badges. After careful restoration removed the coating of black soot, the falcon was revealed to be in impeccable condition, complete with original gilding and polychrome paint.

Fitzsimmons has arranged a long-term loan of the falcon to Hampton Court Palace so the antique carved wood bird will come home to roost.

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