Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived. That’s about the extent most of us know King Henry VIII’s wives, and—let’s face it—grim as they are, the beheadings get all the glory. Anne Boleyn might be the first of the six that comes to mind for that very reason, but did you know that there were reports her head tried to speak after the fatal chop? Are these bogus stories, or is there scientific evidence that a head can remain conscious after it has separated from the body?
Queen for just three years, on May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, was executed by beheading within the confines of the Tower of London.
Anne, about 35 years old, was found guilty of high treason. She had been charged with having intimate encounters with five men of Henry’s court—including Henry’s BFF and her own brother. According to the indictments, not only had she slept with these men, but she had also conspired with them to kill Henry. So, whether these indictments were true or not—and many think she was framed, plus Henry wasn’t much of a loyal partner either—off with her head it was!
In Anne’s last moments, she knelt down in preparation for the executioner’s blow, and began to pray loudly. In an instant, the executioner beheaded Anne with a single strike of his sword. Some eyewitnesses reported that Anne’s lips continued to move for several seconds after her beheading. Did she remain conscious? Is that even possible?
The debate comes down to voluntary muscle reactions vs. pure consciousness.
Some believe movements, like Anne’s, are simply the result of the voluntary muscles that control the lips and eyes spasming after a shock. This is probably true for the rest of the body, but the head is home to our motherboard—the brain. With a clean cut like Anne’s, the brain would not have received any trauma and could very possibly continue to function until inevitable blood loss.
How long it could function is really unknown. Studies in small mammals have found that consciousness can last from four to 29 seconds, and we know that that chickens can run around with their heads decapitated for several. This is actually horrifying if you think about it—even just for four seconds. Just count to four and take in everything around you. Now imagine that plus the shock and the panic.
Now, the most famous case of surviving decapitation has already been covered on Cool Stuff Strange Things—that’s Mike the Headless Chicken. Mike survived being decapitated for 18 months. How is this different than what I just presented, you ask? Mike’s not-so-fatal blow cut at an angle through his brainstem, just missing the parts of his central nervous system that control basic functions. A well-placed blood clot also stopped him from bleeding to death.
As for Anne Boleyn’s last words, it was likely a muscle spasm or hyperbole in the Tudor press. Believe It or Not! nobody had thought to even have a coffin on hand for her burial, so an old elm chest from the Tower armory was used. Anne’s head and body were placed in the chest and buried.