The many faces of Anne Boleyn

At the moment my WIP (or Work-In-Progress for the non acronym-inclined) is a novella featuring historical fiction favourite, Anne Boleyn. I know, I know, you don’t need to tell me – she’s been done to (French swordsman-assisted) death. What more could I possibly add? Still, I feel an overwhelming compulsion to add my little pebble to the mountain of Anne Boleyn historical fiction and biography that already exists.

Although the work is Anne’s own first person narrative and I don’t intend for her to ramble on about her own appearance, the eternal question: “What did Anne Boleyn look like?” (or its less polite translation: “What was so bloody fantastic about Anne that a man like Henry VIII went to all that trouble??”) still seemed a good place to start.

The many faces of Anne Boleyn

So, what do we know?

Hardly anything. Before Anne’s “little neck” was even severed, Henry was already wiping the slate clean – literally. All and any portraiture of the unfortunate queen was destroyed. Anne’s emblems and initials were chiselled out of coving and architecture. Inscriptions to “Queen Anne” were smoothed over, the “AN” being replaced with “JA” to effortlessly turn ‘Anne’ into ‘Jane’; Anne’s emblematic leopards were transformed into Jane Seymour’s panthers (all this is very convenient, Henry must have been pleased). All portraits of Anne that survive were done posthumously. David Starkey thinks that a rather ugly sketch by Holbein is of Anne, and was drawn from life. I happen to disagree, but you can read more about it here if you are so inclined…

The closest thing to a dependable image of Anne is the surviving prototype of a portrait medal done in 1534, bearing the initials A.R for Anna Regina and encircled by Anne’s personal motto: The Most Happy. The medal was probably struck due to Anne becoming successfully pregnant again after the birth of the Princess Elizabeth. Although the condition of the medal was poor, it has recently been reconstructed, and shows us a woman with a long, oval face and a strong nose and jaw, not too unlike the posthumous portraits of Anne that are well-known. We also have a locket ring, thought to have belonged to Elizabeth I, within which are miniature portraits in enamel of the Virgin Queen and her mother. The scale is so small that the features are teasingly vague, but again we can make out the oval face and the ‘determined’ features. Interestingly – whether it was a stylistic choice or not, we just don’t know – Anne’s famously ‘brunette’ locks are here picked out in gold, giving her the appearance of a blonde.

So, without any reliable contemporary images of Anne, we turn to the next best thing: gossip and ambassadorial reporting, from those who would certainly have seen Anne in the flesh. Anne was only “reasonably good-looking” according to a favoured cleric/scholar. Francesco Sanuto, the ambassador to Venice, wasn’t even that gracious: “Not one of the handsomest women in the world,” he sneered back to his master. “She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English king’s great appetite and her eyes, which are black and beautiful.”

Anne Boleyn

Anne, the dark-eyed beauty

It is those dark eyes of Anne that crop up again and again, in contemporary reporting as well as later portraiture. The French ambassador, Lancelot de Carles, was particularly complimentary, stating that Anne had the “most attractive” eyes, “which she knew well how to use with effect, sometimes leaving them at rest, and at others, sending a message to carry the secret witness of the heart. And truth to tell, such was their power that many surrendered to their obedience.” Talk about a come-hither glance!

Hand –in-hand with the dark eyes comes the raven black hair. Cardinal Wolsey – again, not Anne’s biggest fan – rather bitchily referred to her as “The Night Crow”, but this was probably much more a comment on how he perceived Anne’s personality than anything about her physical appearance. However Anne was almost certainly not a blonde, despite what the Elizabethan locket ring might want to portray.

Thomas Wyatt’s poetical name for his adored Anne was “brunet” – likely the first known use of the word in English – but in this context it rather meant “dark haired girl from France”, as opposed to “girl with brown hair”, as it does today. There are many who argue that the term “brunette” meant for a long time hair of any hue, as long as it was dark; in fact, some believe that Anne may have had auburn hair, a chestnut colour with reddish tones. Watching Anne dance once, the French King Francis declared:  “Venus etait blonde, on m’a dit: L’on voit bien, qu’elle est brunette!”  (They say Venus was a blonde; but you can well see that she is a brunette!)

It is this ‘darkness’ of Anne that is so interesting. She completely broke the mould in terms of both Tudor beauty and Henry’s other wives and mistresses. Her own sister, Mary Boleyn, erstwhile lover of the king, is usually taken to have been a blonde. Katherine of Aragon, her predecessor on the throne, is shown in portraits done of her as a young girl to have had strawberry-blonde hair. Jane Seymour too is usually taken for a blonde due to the paleness of her eyebrows in paintings. Anne of Cleves we are unsure about, but she was probably ‘mousy brown’ in colouring. Catherine Howard was another red-head and it is likely that Catherine Parr was also a blonde (see a news article about the sale of a lock of what is believed to have been Catherine’s hair here)

Blonde was beautiful in medieval Europe and fair-headed wives were very, very desirable. Medieval marital advice was typical of the following quotation: “Look for a woman with a good figure and with a small head; Hair that is blond but not from henna; whose eyebrows are spaced apart, long and arched in a peak; who is nice and plump in the buttocks.” Blondes were considered to be much more submissive and biddable and the lightness of their hair and complexion was seen as an outward manifestation of the goodness of their soul within. Even today we still suffer from the “black/white” dichotomy – fairy-tale princesses are always yellow-haired, their evil step-mothers menacing in their darkness. When the Victorians took up Anne’s cause and reinvented her as a tragic heroine, they most often chose to cast her as blonde in their paintings and writings, to better highlight their take on her as an innocent.

Anne Boleyn

Novelty is the parent of pleasure

So, so far we have built up a picture of an Anne with dark hair – although probably chestnut-brown as opposed to raven-black. She was very proud of her hair and wore it loose and flowing whenever ceremony allowed her to after her marriage; it was long enough for her to sit on. Along with this glorious dark mane she had expressive and alluring dark eyes set in an oval face with rather strong features. She was unfortunately rather olive-toned in complexion and had a rather boyish figure. Going by the ideals and preconceptions of her own time, she had almost nothing going for her.

But Anne was exotic. It is often said that her adolescence in the French court had given her little affectations and a grand sense of style and how to convey herself; many people commented on her elegance and grace and how she was “more French than a Frenchwoman born” (from a Frenchman, so a compliment!). She wasn’t afraid to use those much-remarked-upon eyes to flirt. She was very accomplished, speaking several languages and playing numerous instruments. She had a finely honed sense of her own “PR”, taking great pride and care in her appearance. Even before she became queen she was a trend-setter at court, with all the other ladies rushing to have their seamstresses create them something similar to what the Mistress Anne had late been sporting. It really isn’t hard to see how a young woman like this would have caught the attentions of illustrious men like Thomas Wyatt, Henry Percy and of course, King Henry.

She was very interested in the new learning and Humanism, and could and did talk to Henry authoritatively about almost any subject he so chose. She continued to speak freely to Henry after their marriage – something that might not have been so appealing in a wife. She could turn her quick and charming wit to vicious insults at the drop of a hat and ranted and railed at him for slights both real and imagined. She considered herself Henry’s equal in a way that Katherine would never have dared, for all that she was the daughter of two monarchs, and Anne the descendant of merchants by her paternal side. Anne – in the 1520s at least – was haughty and confident and expected to be treated like a queen; Henry apparently agreed.

So although there is absolutely nothing in contemporary reports to suggest Anne was particularly unattractive, I feel strongly that – for Henry – the attraction was a combination of a ‘meeting of minds’ and the fact that Anne – in both appearance and personality – was the polar opposite of Katherine of Aragon, who had been his queen for over twenty years by this point, and whose appeal had grown very, very worn.

Anne Boleyn

Anne the six-fingered witch

Even today, in 2013, such illustrious places as the Tower of London continue to perpetuate the myth that Anne had a sixth finger (they even go so far as to say she had six fingers on each hand!). The Anne who had six fingers was also meant to have had a third nipple, a projecting “snaggle tooth” and a rather gross swelling on her neck. Apparently she hid these things by dressing carefully (her big necklaces and trailing sleeves werent just fashion statements then!).

Of course all of this is utterly ridiculous. Henry may have fallen for Anne’s winning personality, but I’m quite sure that she couldn’t have talked him into bed – let alone into marriage – if she was as unsightly as all this. These particular slanders stem from the writings of one Nicholas Sander, a Catholic writing in the time of Elizabeth I. He hated his monarch – and her mother – for the Anglican Schism. Although he was barely out of toddlerhood when Anne was executed and had never seen her, he wrote authoritatively on her witchy hideousness:

“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 the court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their person uncovered.”

It was propaganda, pure and simple, yet to this day there are people – apparently at the Tower of London – who take it as fact. “Did she really have six fingers?” (and: “did she really shag her brother?”) are two questions that my other half immediately asked me when we were about to start watching The Tudors, as if I was going to authoritatively nod and say “of course. Well, she WAS a witch, you know…”

You have to feel sorry for Anne, who took such obvious care in her appearance and in how she was portrayed, when almost 500 years later people still believe the nastiest of her posthumous propaganda. At worst the poor thing may have had a bad hangnail and a couple of facial moles…

Anne Boleyn

The bones of Anne Boleyn

After her execution by the swordsman from Calais, Anne’s body lay on the scaffold for some time. Perhaps nobody had truly believed that Henry would have his wife killed – Anne herself confessed to her ladies and Archbishop Cranmer that she thought Henry would end up sending her to live out her years in a nunnery. No coffin had been ordered, no burial preparations made. After a while, Anne’s decapitated body was placed into an elm chest, which had been used to deliver arrows to the Tower. The chest was too small, so her head – wrapped in white linen – was likely placed ingloriously between her legs. A hasty, shallow grave was dug in front of the altar in St Peter ad Vincula, the Tower’s chapel, next to that of her brother, who had been executed two days previously. Her fine gown would have been removed, perhaps given to the executioner as spoils – so the Queen of England was laid to rest in her undergarments. And so Anne lay undisturbed for many years.

In the 1870s, it became unavoidable that St Peter ad Vincula would have to face retoration; the floor was sinking and proper foundations needed to be introduced. Using records and historical sources, the Victorians created a plan of where they imagined the Tudor nobles (aka: Henry’s victims!) would have been buried.  Due to the passage of time and the probability that there would have been other burials disturbing the originals, they didn’t expect to actually find anything definitive.

But when they lifted the stones and dug in the spot where the plan indicted Anne Boleyn would be, they immediately struck bones belonging to a “female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions; the forehead and lower jaw were small and especially well formed. The vertebrae were particularly small, especially one joint (the atlas), which was that next to the skull, and they bore witness to the Queen’s ‘little neck’.” Anne was either in her early thirties or late twenties when she was executed, depending on whether you adhere to the 1501 or 1507 birthdate, so this fits nicely. As is to perhaps be expected in the chapel of the Tower of London, the neck bones also proved that this lady had been decapitated.

The doctor who examined the bones continued: “The bones of the head indicate a well-formed round skull, with an intellectual forehead, straight orbital ridge, large eyes, oval face and rather square full chin. The remains of the vertebrae, and the bones of the lower limbs, indicate a well-formed woman of middle height, with a short and slender neck. The ribs show depth and roundness of chest. The hands and feet bones indicate delicate and well-shaped hands and feet, with tapering fingers and a narrow foot.”

Here we have the oval face and the strong chin that we discovered earlier and indeed see the genetic mirror of in the many portraits of her daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth too was particularly proud of her elegantly long fingers and took care to show them off in company and in portraiture – it is possible that she inherited this feature too from her mother. Needless to say, there was no evidence of a sixth (or twelfth) finger…

The bones that are believed to have been Queen Anne Boleyn were reinterred into a labelled iron box, reburied and given a memorial tile, as were the remains of the other six individuals that the restorative work discovered. Every year on the anniversary of her death, a mysterious basket of roses arrives at the Tower with instructions to lay it on her memorial tile.

Anne Boleyn

Anne regains her face (if not her head)

We will never be able to say definitively what this most controversial Queen of England truly looked like. It seems her appearance – like her manner – was divisive. She was a woman who had a quality about her, one that could inspire the greatest devotion and loyalty, but also the greatest hatred. Unfortunately, Henry travelled from one extreme to the other during the course of their ten year relationship.

Looking at the evidence, some of which I have detailed here, I think I can say with some authority what my Anne looked like. She was of average height for the time – perhaps about 5’3” – still dwarfed by the six-foot-plus Henry. She had long, chestnut brown hair that she had quite a vanity for, and large, almond-shaped dark eyes, which she knew exactly how to use. She was slender with a boyish frame and a slim, long neck to match her slim, long fingers. Her complexion was darker than the ideal, her facial features rather strong and her lips rather thin.

My Anne knew she had to work with what she had, and so dressed for best effect and throughout her life – even when she was Queen – studied and read extensively to improve her mind. She loved music and dancing and merrymaking but also was a deeply religious person, concerned with charity and ecclesiastical reform for the good of the people. Although her household was a merry one, she expected her ladies to be dignified and chaste and she kept a copy of Tindale’s Bible in English in her apartments, which she encouraged everyone to read. She wasn’t afraid to flirt with you, or to dress you down to size, as the situation called for. Her relationship with Henry is sometimes referred to being “of sunshine and showers”, but I think this phrase does well to describe Anne’s personality too.

So Anne turns out to have been only “reasonably good-looking” in the end after all, rather disappointing for a woman so alluring that Henry split with his mother church just to be able to marry her, a figure who inspired passionate love poetry, a character who has been played by bombshell actresses throughout cinematic history. It was something deeper that was what was so attractive about Anne Boleyn – causing all that fuss, and centuries worth of wondering – and it is this indefinable spark of something that I am most looking forward to getting across in my novella.


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