The debate about what Anne Boleyn actually looked like has raged for many years and I think will continue to do so as no contemporary portrait of Anne survived. The other issue is that many of the contemporary descriptions of Anne were written during her relationship to the King and so, as Eric Ives says, are ‘already coloured by the controversy surrounding her relationship with the king’ (p.39). Hostile observers skewed their descriptions to serve a political purpose. Antonia Fraser calls it ‘venomous propaganda’ (Fraser, p. 122).
I have collected the following quotes about Anne’s appearance, qualities and demeanour from Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII , Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Josephine Wilkinson’s The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn.
I am including this first description not because I feel it is in anyway a reflection of what Anne actually looked like but because it’s useful to see how Anne was wilfully misinterpreted by some because of their dislike of her controversial relationship with the king. It also shows how these extreme views of Anne’s appearance became part of popular culture and were actually taken seriously by some writers. The most extreme of these descriptions was made by Nicholas Sander, an Elizabethan recusant activist. According to his account:
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.
(Ives, p. 39)
Now, apart from the fact that he contradicts himself in the description, how could anyone have possibly believed that Anne Boleyn actually looked like the monster described by Sanders. How could she have attracted the suitors she did in her lifetime, including the King of England, if she had a protruding tooth, sixth finger and a large wen?
George Wyatt writing at the end of the 16th century to contradict the monstrous description of Anne written by Nicholas Sander claims that:
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.
(Ives, p. 40)
So perhaps a ‘minor’ malformation is possible and maybe one or two moles or beauty spots but not the sixth finger and large wen described by Sanders.
The French poet, Lancelot de Carles called her ‘beautiful and with an elegant figure’. (Ives, p. 40)
He also said that ‘She became so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a Frenchwoman born.’ (Weir, A. p. 151)
Brantome remembered Anne Boleyn in his later years ‘as the fairest and most bewitching of all the lovely dames of the French court.’ (Weir, Pg. 151)
According to Lancelot de Carles, her most attractive feature was ‘her eyes, which she well knew how to use. In truth such was their power that many a man paid his allegiance.’ She used her eyes, he tells us, to invite conversation, and to convey the promise of hidden passion. (Weir, Pg. 151)
A Venetian reporting what was known of her in Paris in 1528 described her as ‘very beautiful’. (Ives, p.40)
John Barlow, one of Anne’s favourite clerics said she ‘was very eloquent and gracious, and reasonably good looking’. (Ives, p.40)
The Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, described Anne as:
‘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.’ (Ives, p. 40)
Simon Grynee, a professor of Greek at Basle, described her complexion as ‘rather dark’. (Ives p. 41)
Thomas Wyatt gave her the poetic name, ‘Brunet’. (Ives, p. 40)
Ives also points out that when Elizabeth was born it was remarked how fair she was and that she’d obviously taken after her father not her mother. (p. 41)
A servant of Wolsey’s recalled how Anne stood out among the women at court ‘for her excellent grace and behaviour’. (Ives, p. 45)
The French courtier Brantome in his memoirs talks about how Anne dressed with marvellous taste and devised new modes which were copied by all the fashionable ladies at court. (Weir, p. 151) In his later years, he remembered Anne as ‘the fairest and most bewitching of all the lovely dames of the French court.’ (Weir, p. 151)
A Protestant writer of the next generation told how ‘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’. (Ives, p.45)
She was the model and the mirror of those who were at court, for she was always well dressed, and every day made some change in the fashion of her garments. (Ives, p. 45)
Cavendish, in his Life of Wolsey, wrote that she had a ‘very good wit’ (Fraser, p. 124).
Even from a very early age Anne impressed those whom she met. Archduchess Margaret writing to Thomas Boleyn to advise him of Anne’s arrival:
I have received your letter by the Esquire Bouton, who presented to me your daughter, who was very welcome to me, and I hope to treat her in such a fashion that you will have reason to be content with it; at least be sure that until your return there need be no other intermediary between you and me than she; and I find her of such good address and so pleasing in her youthful age that I am more beholden to you for having sent her to me than you are to me.
(Wilkinson, p. 19)
Alison Weir, in The Six Wives of Henry VIII asserts that “Both Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon had hair so long they could sit on it.” (p. 10)
After examining all the available portraits of Anne, Ives concludes that she had ‘a face long and oval with high cheek bones’ (p.42).
Anne had a fine singing voice and expertise at dance. ‘She was also an accomplished musician, skillfully playing the lute, the virginals and the rebec’ (Wilkinson, p. 52). Anne spoke and wrote in French and also spoke Latin, although to what extent is debatable.
Therefore, we can gather from the evidence that Anne was slim, of dark complexion, with a long oval face and high cheekbones. She had long dark hair and beautiful, expressive dark, almost black eyes.
It seems highly likely that although Anne was not beautiful in a conventional 16th century way, she was most certainly charming, sexy, sophisticated, witty, elegant, stylish and intelligent. She was spirited, an independent thinker and a trend-setter. But as Antonia Fraser points out she also had another more impatient side to her, displaying on occasion a quick temper and a sharp tongue (Fraser, p. 124).
Anne Boleyn aroused passion, desire and loyalty in some and resentment and hostility in others. I think that she will continue to fascinate us for many years to come.
Fraser, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1992.
Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004.
Weir, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2007.
Wilkinson, J. The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn, 2009.