Anne Boleyn's Appearance Anne Boleyn's Appearance

The only firmly identified, contemporary image of Anne Boleyn - a 1534 medal.
© British Museum.
Scanned by Douglas Dowell.
Anne Boleyn's appearance has been twisted by those who wished to denounce her. Contemporary accounts were distorted by the author's (usual) dislike of her. After her death, a monstrous legend was built up. Nicholas Sander's description provides the supreme calumny. The Venetian ambassador provided a more impartial report - but still not all that flattering. So, what is universally agreed upon?

Anne Boleyn was very dark. All writers agree on this point. Wyatt says she was "not so whitely as . . . above all we may esteem." Sander said she had a "sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice", and the Venetian ambassador said she had a "swarthy complexion". Dark brown or black hair, along with eyes so dark they were almost black and a very dark skin, combined to make Anne Boleyn conspicuously dark - and the opposite of the contemporary ideal, with golden hair, blue eyes and a pink-and-white complexion. Anne had small breasts, when a voluptuous figure was the ideal. The Venetian ambassador said she was of "middling stature" and Sander said she was "rather tall in stature". One of her favourite chaplains felt that Bessie Blount was more beautiful, although Anne was quite pretty. Much of this lukewarm praise would have been due to the fact that she was the opposite of the aforesaid contemporary ideal.

In all honesty, the following description of Anne Boleyn is ridiculous; the culmination of a legend built up by Roman Catholics who blamed her for the break with Rome. Therefore, it owes much to the deeply ingrained idea that evil people had hideous exteriors, very much like Richard III's alleged hunchback. However, it goes a long way to illuminate the degree to which Anne was slandered long after her death.

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 persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth.1

Quite apart from Sander's ignorance of the fashions of the time - high dresses weren't in fashion at the time at all - the passage is clearly self-contradictory. How could this montrosity ever be "handsome to look at"? The Venetian ambassador provides a more balanced account, but hardly flattering:

Madame Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world. She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful - and take great effect on those who served the Queen when she was on the throne. She lives like a queen, and the King accompanies her to Mass - and everywhere.2

The description of Nicolas Sander raises a vexed question: to what extent, if any, was Anne Boleyn deformed? The Venetian ambassador makes no mention of any deformity, and nor does Eustace Chapuys - Imperial ambassador, admirer of Katherine and passionately hostile to Anne; we wait until long after her death for any reports of deformity, and these from hostile recusant sources. But the sixth finger is, to some extent, corroborated by George Wyatt. He says that she had an extra fingernail. But he may have felt that Sander's description must have had some basis in fact, and therefore minimised the alleged deformities. The deformities were all supposed to be the signs of a witch - the Devil's teat. This is also in keeping with the sixteenth-century belief that ugly exteriors indicated evil characters, and explains why Sander took such pains to describe Anne's "deformities"; in this sense, the picture painted by Sander can be compared to the tradition of Richard III's deformities. It is inconceivable that Chapuys would have made no mention of a sixth finger; he would have been delighted to report such evidence of Anne's villainy, as would a great many other of her enemies. Therefore, the statement of the Venetian ambassador can be accepted as far more reliable than Sander or Wyatt.3

Portrait of Anne Boleyn in a ring owned by her daughter.
© Trustees of Chequers.
Scanned by Douglas Dowell.
Anne Boleyn's most famous portrait.
© National Portrait Gallery.
Scanned by Lara E. Eakins at Tudor History.
Anne's reliable portraits - both the National Portrait Gallery image (and the other images hailing from the same tradition) and the 1534 medal shown at the top of the page indicate a woman with a long face, high cheekbones, a high forehead and a pointed chin - features similar to those of her daughter Elizabeth. (Elizabeth's face was rather wider than Anne's, however.) The NPG portrait's features are further confirmed by a ring at Chequers, made for Elizabeth I in about 1575 (to judge from the image of the latter) and containing portraits of mother and daughter. The sitter is quite clearly the same, and Elizabeth had many around her who had known Anne Boleyn well. If the portrait enclosed in this ring was accepted by her court as Anne, it is clearly a satisfactory likeness - and both it and the 1534 medal broadly tally with the NPG portrait. The National Portrait Gallery image probably makes Anne's hair and complexion lighter than it really was, though. Another version of the same basic portrait survives at Hever Castle, and it may give a truer impression as to her colouring.4

Fundamentally, though, Anne (while moderately pretty) was clearly not one of nature's great beauties objectively speaking. Her charm was more indefinable than that - a combination of what we'd now call sex appeal and sophistication, wit and intelligence. She would have been good company and skilled in all and any courtly accomplishments such as dancing and music; she had a sense of style and elegance (mentioned by sources on all sides). Lancelot de Carles said, "No one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman"; the highest compliment a Frenchman could pay Anne Boleyn's charm. He probably hits the nail on the head.

The Hever version of the NPG portrait of Anne Boleyn.
© Hever Castle.
Scanned by Lara E. Eakins at Tudor History.

Notes

1 Sander, Nicholas. The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism. Ed. D. Lewis. London: 1877, p. 25. Cit. Ives, p. 50

2 Venetian Calendar, iv, No. 824; cit. DNB, i, p. 428

3 Warnicke, pp. 243-247

4 See Ives, pp. 49-56, for a conclusive discussion of Anne's portraiture.


Anne Boleyn's Appearance | The Birth Controversy | Anne Boleyn's Early Years | Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas Wyatt | Anne Boleyn's Later Life | Anne Boleyn and Religious Reform | The Fall of Anne Boleyn | Anne After Death | Bibliography | Portrait Gallery

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