Anne Boleyn’s Appearance & Demeanour

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.

References

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.

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Comments

  1. I personally think that King Henry VIII would not have married Anne Boleyn in knowing that she had the growth on her hand and the mole on her neck, as too him this would be sign of any children by her may be deformed and weak as the pressure was on for him to have healthy children. It it just slunder by those who hated her!

  2. I agree Lyn. I think that the grotesque descriptions of Anne were simply hostile observers doing their best to ruin her reputation and portray her as a monster!

  3. Thanks so much for this page! It has been invaluable for my recent project, “What did Anne Boleyn look like?”

    My personal opinion is that Anne was not the typical “Tudor beauty”, but may well have been considered beautiful by today’s standards. At the very least she had a certain allure that captured the hearts of many, not least the great king Henry VIII.

    As such I doubt that she had six fingers, as in those days this was a certain sign of a witch. There is more evidence for a deformity on the neck , but I think it was more likely to have been a small mole or a large freckle, and this has been exaggerated by her enemies.

    • I am so glad that the page has been helpful! I agree with you in that Anne was not the ‘typical’ Tudor beauty but she was magnetic and alluring. 🙂

      • A very real consideration was / is Anne’s well known vivaciousness. She was witty, intelligent, graceful, musically talented and clearly could cause men to loose good sense. I think it may be she was graceful enough to hide or distract from the minor flaws which I am very sure she did possess. Still all this lively grace can make an average women seem to glow and sparkle. I had a wonderful friend. For many years I envied her beauty! Then one day I saw a few photographs of her and laughed out loud, I said B___ you look just like Dick Tracey!!” She did, too! A heavy squarish face with pronounced jowls. Still, every one I know remembers she was “beautiful” AND ALIVE AND ANIMATED SHE VERY MUCH WAS!! I on the other hand photograph very well but look awful when present. Real beauty seems to do with symmetry and that holds true no matter what the fashion of the day!

  4. Michel Marleau says:

    Anne Boleyn may not have been a “classic beauty” by 16th century standards, but to have so captivated the king and hold such an ascendency on him for some 6/7 years, she certainly had to be attractive. It was propably a mixture of look and personality that made her “stand out” from the rest of the court ladies, a bit like Jackie Kennedy, who while not a beauty was very attractive and charismatic.

  5. Or perhaps like Wallis Simpson, who was also dark, slight and outspoken…and who also captured the attention of a king…

  6. I think it bears recognizing that Henry VIII, in choosing his wives, seemed to bounce from one extreme to the other sequentially. Catalina was the perfect royal queen, pious, humble, and obedient to her husband. Anne was most likely more outgoing, exotic, and outspoken. Jane, then, was more quiet and obedient. (leaving out Ann of Cleves because she was not ‘chosen’) Katherine was young and carefree, probably foolish. Then, finally, Catherine who was more settled and mature. This seems to me like a ping-ponging between two extremes from wife to wife.

  7. I think the whole 6 fingers thing with a large wen on her neck is full of bullshit. Why would Henry VIII, The king of blooming England, marry someone who has a mole on their neck and 6 fingers? *rolls eyes*.
    Anyways, considering how she was described i think a mix of Nina Dobrev and Natalie Dormer is a perfect representation of her appearance 🙂

  8. Hi Natalie, we read a lot about Anne not being of conventional Tudor looks, nor a beauty, but who or what was considered attractive at that time? Can we trust accounts of peoples attractiveness? I mean if you are describing a Queen you would want to flatter, I am thinking of Mary Queen of Scots who was considered a beauty. Was a fuller figure considered more attractive as it showed good health and perhaps fertility? Can you tell us a bit more on this subject as I am sure you have the knowledge! x

  9. BanditQueen says:

    Anne Boleyn was not a beauty by the standards of even her own day as she had dark eyes, swarthy or sun tanned skin, and was either brunette or dark haired. Beauty was being fair and even pale skinned with blue or green eyes. Did she have a swelling under her chin? She may have had a mole but that was nothing. Did she have a sixth finger? No, but she may have had a hangnail as we know it today or a growth on her finger that was easily concealed. She did not have the grotesque markings that Sander claimed and I doubt that a fickle Henry VIII would have been attracted to her if she had.

    Another possible hair colour is red hair and this would have made her attractive to Henry who himself had read hair, as did Queen Katherine and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, despite them being shown in some films with dark hair.

    Henry would not have married anyone with any grotesque deformities and would have seen these as the sign of bewitchment. Her having a mole or swelling would not have been seen as something he could not ignore and she could conceal this.

  10. I recently saw a special on the finding of Richard III’s skeleton. His distractors described him as being hunchbacked and having a withered arm. His supporters described him as being a fine and skillful warrior in battle. His skeleton showed that he did have severe scoliosis that could have resulted in him having one shoulder higher than the other if he wasn’t careful with his posture. The anthropologist identifying his skeleton said that his forearms were “gracile”. Women’s bones are described as being “gracile”, men’s are usually not. Another way of describing this might be “fine-boned.” Interesting how facts collide with fantasy.

  11. BanditQueen says:

    If you look at the Rolls pictures of the day, they show both Richard and Anne his wife as long and slim, it may have been a format for that time, but also there are stained glass that show him as slim and long hands. It does not mean that he was not strong, as working out from a young age gave boys of all classes good upper body strength. Boys from 12 years old since the time of Edward 111 had to practice bow on Sunday afternoon. Richard would have added horse, spear, sword, staff, and general physical exercise as a young man from a royal and noble house, again from a young age. This would have given him experience for battle and of course skill with the weapons. Armour and weapons were also generally custom fitted, so any deformed shoulder or back could be concealled. His disability obviously did not stop him being a skilled warrier, and during the turbulent period of growing up he had plenty of practice.

    Back to Anne Boleyn. She must have stood out with those dark eyes of hers and she probably knew how to use them. Her hair colour is also interesting. Many historians assume that she had dark hair, black or very dark brown, but in fact you can see from the one portrait that may be contemporary and from actual descriptions that her hair is more likely to have been brunette or have had a reddish look. Now it may have grown darker with time, but a new book The Creation of Anne Boleyn looks beyond the Hollywod portrayal and thinks her hair was red. She could still have appeared to have dark hair as red does not mean bright coloured: it can be a dark shade and appear almost black. If not a lot of hair was shown in those days; then it is no wonder debate on its true colour began.

    A small wren under her chin actually translates as a swelling under her chin. It does not sound as if it was anything more than a mole and I do not know about you, but most people I know have the odd mole. In the eighteenth century it would have been considered a beauty spot so fashion changes. Moles were not seen as the devils marks, but had she been covered in them or the swelling been large then she would not have been attractive to anyone, let alone the King. It is always assumed that Henry liked fair women, but that is not the case.

    Catherine of Aragon was red haired, Anne brunette or redish but dark haired, Jane fair, Anne of Cleves was something like a brunette, Catherine Howard was mousy in colour and Catherine Parr, something between fair and mousy in colour. Bessie Blounte was also a brunette. So he obviously had a wide taste in ladies and as at least three of them were beyond the average in education he also liked a lady with brains. The body shape that he liked is debated and I will not bother about it. But he found something that he did not like in Anne of Cleves and I do not believe she was either ugly or had no whits as she is shown in Hollywood. I think it was her strange dress that put the English off and their first meeting was awkward to say the least. And what she thought when she was face to face with a large mountain of a man, charming as he was with her, and not the ‘most handsome prince in Christendom’ is anyone’s guess. The shock must have been mutral.

    But as you say, fact and fantesy do collide as the skeleton of Richard 111 has shown.

  12. Disclosure: I’m a member of the Richard III Society and a Plantagenet supporter. That said, King Richard may have been rather fine of frame, but there can be no doubt he was muscularly well-developed. To have wielded a sword in battle, this must have been the case. Fan or not, there were no contemporary accounts of him as being anything but a skillful and accomplished warrior. The smear came from Shakespeare under the Tudor reign. But I digress. Much as is the case with Anne Boleyn, whether she seen as the “Goggle- Eyed Whore” or as having eyes “black and beautiful”. Depends on who is in charge at the time…

  13. We look at beauty differently today than in 15th century. In those days it focused more on colouring than actual features, facial contours etc. Jane Seymour was considered beautiful because she had the fair hair and pale skin which was admired at that time but her features were not actually beautiful and she does in fact have a slight double chin and a large nose. If we forget about colouring and look at the two portraits Ann is more feminine and pleasing in her features than Jane.
    However there is also now doubt that this was a smear campaign.

    • Alan Ellaway says:

      I have never read any comments about Jane Seymour that declare her to be beautiful. And the well know portrait is certainly pretty homely.

  14. Allison Weir states that Elizabeth “took after Anne in every way except for coloring”, since Elizabeth was fair and a redhead. If you look at the portrait of Elizabeth, age 15 or so, in the red and gold dress, holding a small book (probably the Bible or a prayer book) you will see she has the exact same face as Anne Boleyn as Anne is portrayed in the few portraits that we have of her. Elizabeth also has an oval face, the same nose, and big, expressive eyes (my Mother would call them ‘almond eyes’).

    What is interesting is that the Elizabeth portrait by Holbein is realistic, so if you can imagine Elizabeth with dark hair and maybe a darker complexion, you get a pretty good idea of what Anne looked like.

    • Good point. I have a small paper weight that shows a portrait, but just the head of Anne Boleyn, and she appears to be light skinned, with sharp features and maybe light hair. I’m trying to imagine her with dark hair.

      She is a fascinating person who is still attractive in that she causes discussion and makes us curious. She was put into a very dangerous position by her family…but I wonder how willing she was to go along with them…was she forced into it? It seems so.
      I think there were plenty of wide eyed staring critics in court that enlarged her faults. Maybe a protruding tooth was so slight and rather cute, but they made it a detraction.

  15. Alan Ellaway says:

    I think it should be noted that the George Wyatt quoted in the 2nd excerpt was not Anne’s contemporary but his grandson who was born 14 years after Anne was killed. So he never saw her. Henry was such a dictator that his efforts to vilify Anne would have met little resistance. So much of what has survived is negative. It is ludicrous to accept a picture of Anne as anything but very attractive. Yes she was undoubtedly witty, intelligent and had great style and flair. But Henry was besotted for YEARS, read the surviving love letters he sent her. Quite why he decided to turn against her is somewhat of a mystery. I personally believe that Anne’s initial reluctance to become Henry’s mistress was simply because she didn’t find him attractive. The notion that she schemed to replace Katherine and become Queen, I also don’t believe. Where would she get the notion that she would be able to achieve this, the daughter of minor nobility and Henry already married to A Spanish princess for many years, not likely is it? If later after it became a possibility she succumbed to the notion, we will never know. Henry was a mean violent man, he murdered not only wives but friends, trusted confidants. Many people mistakenly present his fall from his horse as in some way the catalyst that somehow turned him into the monster he became. But he was capable of extreme cruelty before. Poor Anne was arrested and tried( a misnomer if ever there was one, her supposed lovers-apart from her brother who was tried the same day as Anne – had already been ‘tried’ and condemned 2 days before, so it was not likely that she would get a fair trial- and this was not a trial as we understand the term) She was basically accused and condemned.
    She was arrested at the beginning of the month, tried, and murdered(for surely that’s what she was) and Henry was married to Jane before the month was up. Only a fool would not see the plot for what it was. Royal murder..

    • You seem to be right on target re: royal murder. Her family was portrayed in Wolf Hall as ruthless. It’s similar to Jane Grey’s family…they did not stand by her once she was arrested and up for execution. They were pawns in an ascent to power.
      Fascinating Henry Vlll, I’ve heard recently, was more in control than he is often portrayed. Ego and power that knew no bounds. Sometimes he has been shown in films as confused and maybe he was, too.
      At a time when so much innuendo was communicated by looks and stares and winks and glances, Anne Boleyn’s intelligent dark eyes must have been very exotic to the king.

  16. We can see Anne was very attractive from her death mask and in any age, it has most to do with facial proportion and symmetry. Henry through young adulthood was known to be handsome, athletic, talented, charming , well educated and very intelligent. Jousting injuries, likely type 2 diabetes and constant pain with horrid medical treatments were, I think, what changed all of that.

    I think Anne kept telling him she would not “lay” with him during his infatuation because she feared being discarded like her sister and her excuse was they were not man and wife. Thus holding herself up as pure, moral and thus beyond reach.She did not likely expect him to divorce but when the events began to move in that direction she got carried along and bought in to the possibilities. As the infatuation wore off and no son appeared, Henry came to resent all he had done to obtain her and the promise of an heir. By that time his mind was far gone “and the rest is history”.

    • Dear Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I do feel that I should point out that as Anne was executed and buried in an unmarked grave, there is no death mask.

  17. Jennifer Temple says:

    Apologies!! I have a screen capture of a death mask labeled “Anne Boleyn”, clearly mislabeled. Someone else also needs to make corrections.

  18. Jennifer Temple says:

    Comparing Anne and Elizabeth portraits, one can see a strong family resemblance, especially in the 1534 painting of Anne as compared to Elizabeth in the 1546 painting. (Notice she is wearing her mothers necklace with the “B” replaced.)

  19. Really good to have come across this book, belatedly (!) I found it when searching for audio books on Youtube. Please advise me whether an audio book version is available could you? Pref not through Amazon…though if that’s the only source I’ll have to decide one way or the other! Thank you.

  20. I agree with those who remarked on the standard of beauty in that time. Fair skin and hair and blue eyes were the yardstick, even features and good teeth. To be dark with an olive complexion and black eyes and dark hair sounds like a Latin beauty, think Gina Lollabrigida( if anyone remembers her sultry beauty!) I imagine those features of Anne’s along with her sophistication, wit and her musical talent sounds like a fascinating woman to me. The reference to Wallis Simpson is a good one also. To me there is nothing pretty about her. But she apparently was very attractive , elegant , chic , witty and a very strong personality.

    • One of the Mrs Simpson’s philosophies was that if a woman couldn’t be the the most beautiful one in the room then she should be the best dressed. Sounds like AB to me.

  21. It was also her character and education, she wasn’t trained to be subservient in the royal courts overseas, I dont think this can estimated enough. She could have been the most beautiful woman in the world, but it wouldn’t have kept the king’s interest for 7 years! And she knew better than to submit to being his mistress, after all she had seen what had happened to her sister before her.

  22. The comparison with Wallis Simpson is a good one. Wallis was not at all beautiful, though she reputedly had fascinating eyes, like Anne. Wallis was magnetic, charming, sexy, elegant, cultured, witty, and independent, and these qualities created sharply divided opinions wherever she went. She, too, captured a king, but unlike the doomed marriage of Henry and Anne, their union lasted til death them did part. Wallis was a trend setter, always immaculately chic in all her photos, and with an unerring sense of style. Yes, a modern Anne Boleyn….and one who changed the course of the Royal Family of England…..

  23. Ali Browning says:

    Us olive skinned types often have moles, i have one on my neck it’s not an ugly thing, I imagine her as drak haired, olive skin, dark eyes ( which her daughter inherited) I don’t think she was especially beautiful but it was her charm, wit and charisma that did it.

    • True. And intelligence, and her upbringing in the French court which it is believed was kinder to women in the sense that women were expected to be more forceful and educated than in the English Court

  24. i think anne was another such as mary queen of scots- the whole package of the person/persoanlity was intensely attractive and had that indefinable quality known as sex appeal, rather than classic good looks. whatever the details, anne had that for henry.

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