An Oxford resurrection

It was Anne Greene’s great good fortune that, after she had been hanged in the castle yard at Oxford, her body was given to the university’s physicians for dissection.

In the summer of 1650, Anne, aged 22, had been seduced by Geoffrey Read, the teenage grandson of her employer Sir Thomas Read at the manor house in Duns Tew where she worked. She became pregnant, unknowingly, and some time later – one report says ten weeks – was shocked to deliver a stillborn boy, said to be no bigger than a hand.

Terrified, Anne tried to hide the body, but a fellow servant reported her to Sir Thomas, who was determined to prosecute her. She was taken to the gaol at Oxford on a cold, wet November day, where she “passed about three weeks… in continual affrights and terrors” before being committed to trial under the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children. If the mother was to be pardoned, The Act required at least one witness to the stillbirth of the child. Anne had none. She was sentenced to death, with the sentence to be carried out on 14 December 1650.

Climbing the ladder to her death, Anne asked a cousin at the foot of the gallows to help her die quickly. This he and others friends did, pulling so hard on her legs after she was turned off the ladder that the under-sheriff was worried the rope around her neck would break. A soldier helped by striking Anne on the chest and stomach with the butt end of his musket.

After half an hour, she was pronounced dead, placed in a coffin, and taken to a house where Dr William Petty, professor of anatomy, was due to read a lecture while her body was dissected.

But when her coffin was opened, “she was observed to breathe, and in breathing… obscurely to rattle”. Anne was still alive.

Petty, aided by three fellow physicians, immediately set about her recovery. The treatment included bleedings and massaging with scented oils, together with clysters and cataplasms – enemas and poultices. A woman was persuaded to get into bed with her, and to lie close and keep her warm.

After 14 hours Anne spoke again. One report, published less than a month after her execution, has her first words as, “Behold God’s providence, and his wonder of wonders”. Stories circulated that she recalled being “in a fine green meadow [with] a river running round it, and that all things there glittered like silver and gold”.

But another contemporary pamphlet, Richard Watkins’ Newes from the Dead, which offers a remarkably detailed account of her treatment and recovery, explicitly refutes such rumours, noting that she remembered between her last hours in prison until her reawakening – although she later had a fleeting memory of the hangman.

While the doctors tended to her, the under-sherif petitioned for her reprieve. Many saw the hand of God at work in the miracle of her survival. Some saw it too in the death of her prosecutor, Sir Thomas Read, three days later.

It took a month for Anne to return to full health. In the meantime, she became a local sensation. Thousands visited the house, and her father took up station outside charging entry to see her.

Robert Plot, in The natural history of Oxfordshire (1677), records her death in 1659. However, John Evelyn, after dining with Petty in March 1675, noted in his diary that she lived for 15 years after her ordeal.

Certainly Greene had gone to live with friends at Steeple Barton. She took her coffin with her as “a trophy of this her wonderful preservation”. That is, a souvenir.

This piece first appeared in the December 2021 issue of History Today.

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