Every aspect of Anne Boleyn's life is controversial. Her birth date, her personality, her relationship with Henry VIII, whether she was guilty of the crimes attributed to her – all of these, and more, arouse fierce debate. But it is Anne's physical appearance that is perhaps the most lingering and heated of controversies about her. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the news this week, when it was declared that the Nidd Hall portrait of Anne (above, right) is in fact a realistic depiction of Anne, because of its close match to the 1534 medal bearing a defaced Anne alongside her motto ‘The Most Happi’. Yet the researchers involved in this have warned that their recent findings have been misinterpreted by the press. The overall results from their research remain incomplete. So much, then, for discovering what Anne Boleyn ‘really’ looked like.
As Susan Bordo notes, ‘beyond the dark hair and eyes, the olive skin, the small moles, and the likelihood of a tiny extra nail on her little finger, we know very little with certainty about what Anne looked like’, in no small part because of the campaign of destruction waged against her by her husband after her death, in which portraits of her were destroyed. Contemporary descriptions of Anne’s appearance, moreover, were rarely objective and were influenced by religious, political and cultural mores, viewing her either as a paradigm of religious virtue or as the incarnation of the Devil. Nicholas Sander, a hostile Jesuit priest writing in the reign of Anne's daughter Elizabeth I, clearly subscribed to the latter view:
Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat. In this she was followed by the ladies of court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and upper portion of their persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth.
Modern historians firmly discount Sander's prejudiced, malignant portrayal of Anne's appearance, noting the contradictions (she was ‘handsome’, ‘with a pretty mouth’, despite her glaring deformities). Only six years of age when Anne was executed, Sander never saw her in the flesh, meaning that his account is probably little more than character assassination, informed by his own fantasies. Moreover, Sander was influenced by the belief that the exterior of a person reflected their interior: regarding Anne as responsible for England's schism, he characterised her as deformed, witch-like, the very embodiment of evil. As historians note, Anne would never have been invited to court, much less never have captivated Henry VIII, had she been as grossly deformed as Sander claimed.
George Wyatt, the grandson of the famed Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt (who may, perhaps, have admired Anne), wrote an account of Anne's life to counter Sander's malicious claims. He admitted:
There was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers some little show of a nail, which yet was so small, by the report of those that have seen her, as the work master seemed to leave it an occasion of greater grace to her hand, which, with the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and was usually by her hidden without any blemish to it. Likewise there were said to be upon some parts of her body, certain small moles incident to the clearest complexions.
Perhaps, then, Anne did have a slight growth on one of her fingers, but it hardly amounted to a sixth finger. Moreover, even this has been questioned. Retha Warnicke thoughtfully noted that sixteenth-century individuals were horrified by even minor deformities, explaining that Henry VIII himself refused to marry Renee of France upon hearing rumours of her limp and deformed appearance. It remains questionable, then, whether Anne did have ‘some little show of a nail’, but it can safely be asserted that she did not have a sixth finger.
The fullest description we have of Anne Boleyn’s appearance comes from the Venetian diplomat, writing in 1528 when she was perhaps only twenty-one years of age (if one accepts that Anne was born in 1507):
Not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, a bosom not much raised and eyes which are black and beautiful.
Contemporaries were united in their belief that Anne's dark eyes were her most striking feature. Lancelot de Carles, a member of the French embassy who wrote an account of Anne's downfall in 1536, referred to her ‘eyes, which she well knew how to use. In truth such was their power that many a man paid his allegiance’. He further described Anne as ‘beautiful, with an elegant figure’, and as being ‘of fearful beauty’ just days before her execution. Anne's grace was also noted by de Carles, writing: ‘She became so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a Frenchwoman born’. Anne was known to have been dark. Simon Grynee, professor of Greek at Basle, stated that her complexion was ‘rather dark’, while Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Brunet’ in his poetry could perhaps refer to Anne. Cardinal Wolsey disparagingly called her ‘the night crow’.
Observers mostly agreed that Anne was not the most beautiful of women at court. One individual, writing in Elizabeth's reign, admitted: ‘albeit in beauty she was to many inferior, but for behaviours, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all, for she had been brought up in France’. As we have seen, the Venetian diplomat stressed that she was not the ‘handsomest’ at court. Indeed, Anne was admired not so much for her physical appearance, as for ‘her excellent grace and behaviour’.
In summary, Anne Boleyn may not have been conventionally beautiful. She had beautiful dark eyes, was of medium height, with a dark complexion, and small breasts. Her hair colour has incited particular controversy. Sander is the only writer to characterise her as black-haired, probably to fit in with his conception of her as a witch. That Anne was brunette seems safe to say, going by Wyatt’s description and Wolsey’s allusion to her as ‘the night crow’. Yet, as Bordo concludes, ‘raven-haired Anne – Sander aside – is largely a twentieth-century invention’, explaining that Anne could well have been auburn or red-haired. We simply cannot rely on Anne’s portraiture to establish what she looked like, for Tudor portraits do not provide accurate depictions of their sitters' physical appearances. As Lacey Baldwin Smith noted, ‘Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes’. It was not, perhaps, Anne's beauty that captivated Henry VIII. Rather, as Bordo explains:
Anne… seems to have had that elusive quality – “style” – which can never be quantified or permanently attached to specific body parts, hair color, or facial features, and which can transform a flat chest into a gracefully unencumbered torso and a birthmark into a beauty spot… Style defies convention and calls the shots on what is considered beautiful…
The aim of this article is to question why Anne Boleyn’s physical appearance matters. Why does it seem a prerequisite of modern cultural works, including film and TV portrayals, to depict Anne as stunningly beautiful, an exquisite woman who effortlessly outshone all other women in her looks? To do so is to distort her history and to mock her life for what it was. Anne clearly was not a great beauty, by the standards of her day. Rather, it was her charm, her vivacity, her eloquence, her considerable talents, her intelligence and, perhaps above all, her opinions, which captivated not only Henry VIII but other admirers at court. Anne epitomised style and elegance, she embodied grace and charm. Whether she was black-haired, auburn, or chestnut-haired; whether her eyes were black, brown or somewhere-in-between; whether she was tall, short, slender or plump; it really doesn’t matter. Anne Boleyn contributed to changing England's history forever. She was a prime mover in the English Reformation, was involved in the English Renaissance, and was the mother of Elizabeth I, who many regard as England's greatest monarch. Surely we should be admiring her achievements and celebrating her talents, rather than concerning ourselves with the trivial matter of her appearance. Perhaps now we can finally come to the realisation that we will never know what Anne ‘really’ looked like. Perhaps, then, we can realise that it really doesn't matter.
See also Claire's article Anne Boleyn, Nanny McPhee and Nicholas Sander over on The Anne Boleyn Files.
Notes and Sources
- Sander, Nicholas (1585) Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism
- Bordo, Susan (2013) The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen
- Wyatt, George, The Life of Anne Boleigne, in Cavendish, George, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey
- Warnicke, Retha (1991) The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII
- Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, Venice, Vol. 4 (1527-1533)
- de Carles, Lancelot, in Ascoli, George, La Grand-Bretagne Devant L’Opinion Francaise, 1927
Conor Byrne, author of Katherine Howard: A New History is a British undergraduate studying History at the University of Exeter. Conor has been fascinated by the Tudors, medieval and early modern history from the age of eleven, particularly the lives of European kings and queens. His research into Katherine Howard, fifth consort of Henry VIII of England, began in 2011-12, and his first extended essay on her, related to the subject of her downfall in 1541-2, was written for an Oxford University competition. Since then Conor has embarked on a full-length study of qyeen Katharine's career, encompassing original research and drawing on extended reading into sixteenth-century gender, sexuality and honour. Some of the conclusions reached are controversial and likely to spark considerable debate, but Conor hopes for a thorough reassessment of Katherine Howard's life.
Conor runs a historical blog which explores a diverse range of historical topics and issues. He is also interested in modern European, Russian, and African history, and, more broadly, researches the lives of medieval queens, including current research into the defamed ‘she-wolf’ bride of Edward II, Isabella of France.