The resurrection of the slippery quean


Anne Green was a slippery quean,
In vain did the jury detect her —
She cheated Jack Ketch,
And then the vile wretch
‘Scaped the knife of the learned dissector.

(Verse by an anonymous 17C Oxford student)

Anne Greene’s luck only began to turn after she was hanged. A maid-servant in the household of Sir Thomas Read in the Oxfordshire village of Duns Tew, her misfortunes began when Sir Thomas’s grandson Jeffrey took a fancy to her. Whether it was a seduction or a rape, Anne stated in a later petition that Jeffrey led her ‘into the foul and fearful sin of fornication’. Worse was to come. Not even realising she was pregnant, Anne felt suddenly ill one day when she was turning malt. She took herself to the privy and gave birth to a premature and stillborn child. Frightened and confused, she hid the small body in a corner of the privy, covering it up with dust and ashes. it was soon discovered and Sir Thomas was an immediate and zealous advocate of her prosecution for infanticide.

Anne was tried at the Oxford Assizes, and despite the testimony of midwives that the child was extremely premature and of her fellow servants that she had no idea she was pregnant, she was found guilty of murder. In December 1650, at the age of twenty-two, she was taken to Oxford Castle to be executed.

The hanging took place on 14 December and the crowd that watched the proceedings included several of Anne’s family and friends. One witness described Anne’s appearance as ‘fat and fleshy, of a high sanguine complexion’. She bequeathed her clothes to her mother and her last words, according to another witness, condemned the ‘lewdness of the family wherein she lately lived’.

oxford castle

Oxford Castle today

At her own request, several of her friends pulled Anne’s legs as she hung to hasten her death. A soldier assisted by hitting her several times with the butt of his musket. After thirty minutes or so, the Sheriff pronounced her dead and her body was cut down, placed in a coffin, and taken to a local house to await dissection.

In this period, local by-laws stipulated that the body of any person executed within twenty-one miles of Oxford became the property of the University’s Reader in Anatomy. When, however, the University physicians turned up to prepare the body for dissection (this too was to be done in front of a crowd, albeit a smaller one, that included Anne’s family and friends), someone heard a sound in Anne’s throat. Her pulse was checked and she was found to be alive, just. The physicians got to work. ‘Hot and cordial spirits’ were administered, a cupful of blood was drained from her, and she was put to bed with a ‘warm woman’.

Anne Greene made a full recovery and her remarkable tale become a sensation. Two pamphlets narrating the events, A Wonder of Wonders and Newes from the Dead, were published soon afterwards, and Anne’s resurrection inspired many poems, including the one at the head of this post. Christopher Wren, at that time a student at Oxford, even composed a set of verses on the subject. Wren was a close friend of Thomas Willis, one of the physicians who helped revive Anne Greene and the ‘learned dissector’ referred to above. The two men went on to be founder members of the Royal Society.

Anne’s father took charge of the coffin she had been laid in and turned it into a local attraction, charging visitors to view it and hear the story of his daughter’s return from the dead. This money paid Anne’s apothecaries’ bills and also enabled her to pursue a legal pardon. In a final twist of fate, three days after her pardon was granted, Sir Thomas Read died, suggesting to many that the injustice he had dealt her had been paid back. Anne Greene went on to marry and have three more children. She died in 1659, possibly in childbirth, aged thirty-seven

[The woodcut at the top of this post is from A Wonder of Wonders by W. Burdet, and is a public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia.]