The Anne Boleyn Myth-Buster: #1, Anne’s Looks

Anne as a ravishing beauty, a la Natalie Dormer.

Our ideas about Anne Boleyn’s looks tend to fall into two equally inaccurate categories. The movies and television have taught us that she was a ravishing beauty, a la Natalie Dormer.  Yet mythology surrounding Anne describes her as six-fingered and sallow, covered with disfiguring moles, sometimes with three nipples.  In the “Corpus Christi” festival in parts of Spain, even today, she is depicted in floats as a monster riding on Satan’s back.  Which should we believe?  The answer is: neither.

Anne’s looks were generally not rated among her greatest assets.  “Reasonably good-looking” pronounced John Barlow, one of Anne’s favorite clerics.  “Not one of the handsomest women in the world” reported the Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, who praised her dark eyes but criticized her flat chest and “swarthy complexion.” Both Elizabeth Blount and Anne’s sister Mary, who had both been Henry’s mistresses, were regarded as more beautiful, as they typified the medieval ideal of the blue-eyed blonde, with skin so fair and translucent one could see blue veins through it. The ideal combined equal parts of Virgin Mary and Botticelli’s (1486) powerfully sexual Venus, both of whom, at the time, were always pictured as blondes.  So were all the heroines of the literature of courtly love, from Iseult to Guinevere. Light-haired women were also considered to be more “cheerful and submissive” (very desirable.)

An example of raven-haired Anne

Anne was dark-haired and olive-skinned in an era that worshipped the fair, blue-eyed blonde. And to make matters worse, judging from the few portraits[1] that remain that are judged to be based on actual sittings (as opposed to works of pure imagination), her dark hair would have been auburn, of reddish rather than black hue (think Genevieve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days). This was hardly a plus when it was commonly believed that red-headed children were conceived while their mothers were menstruating, thus making them impure and liable to witchcraft. Nowadays, Anne is often portrayed as raven-haired, in part because of our own associations to hair-color, which code female sexual power as either blonde or jet-black.  Flaming red hair may also be seen as “wild” and sexual, but Anne did not have flaming red hair (if she had, her enemies surely would have made the most of its satanic associations) so we have converted her hair into the hue that spells “temptress” to us.  But most likely (we do not know with certainty), she had dark auburn—not black—hair.   (Henry himself had red hair, but of the golden variety, indicating angelic origins.)

A rather unflattering image of Anne, suspiciously poor.

Anne apparently had a few other small imperfections, which her admirers saw as negligible and her enemies were able to successfully convert into major deformities.  The most credible account comes from George Wyatt, the grandson of one of Anne’s early admirers, the poet Thomas Wyatt.  George Wyatt writes that “there was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which was yet so small, by the report of those that have seen her, [that] the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and was usually by her hidden without any blemish to it.” Wyatt also reported that she had several small moles, “coincident to an otherwise clear complexion.”

Post-Cindy Crawford, Anne’s moles may seem trivial, even—as moles came to be seen a century later—“beauty spots” that drew attention to attractive features.  But in Anne’s day, moles could have been seen, by her detractors, as ominous signs. The medievals, who believed that a mother’s imagination while pregnant can rupture the skin, read birthmarks the way later generations would decipher bumps on the skull. A mole on the throat (where several report Anne’s to have been) predicted a violent death.  One on the upper lip meant good fortune for a man—but debauchery for a woman.  If it was just above the left side of her mouth, “vanity and pride, and an unlawful offspring to provide for.”   Some saw them as witch’s marks:

“There is not a single witch upon whom the devil doth not set some note or token of his power and prerogative over them… “Sometimes it is the likeness of a hare, sometimes like a toad’s foot, sometimes a spider, a puppy, a dormouse.  It is imprinted on the most secret parts of the body; with men, under the eyelids or perhaps under the armpits, or on the lips or shoulders, the anus, or elsewhere; with women, it is generally on the breasts or private parts.  The stamp which makes these marks is simply the devil’s talon.” (Fifteenth Century witch-hunter Lambert Daneau)

The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, by Nicholas Sanders

Notions such as these explain how Anne’s moles could morph, in the hands of Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, writing half a century after Anne’s death, into a third nipple.  Sander, who probably never saw Anne dressed, let alone naked (he was nine when she was executed) also converted the vestigial nail into a sixth finger, and sprinkled in a few other nasty features for good measure:

“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.”

This mythology was clearly ideologically motivated. Such pronounced deformities as described by Sander would certainly have eliminated Anne as a lady-in-waiting, much less a candidate for Queen. Sander, moreover, was not well-informed about female fashion. For high necks were not in vogue while Anne was alive, and a “large wen” would not have been hidden by the delicate ropes of pearls or the decorative “B” that she wore around her neck.  Sander probably was inspired by the anonymous, and clearly hostile, account describing Anne’s coronation which attributed a “disfiguring wart” and a neck “swelling resembling goiter” to her.  (The same description says Anne wore a dress covered with tongues pierced with nails “to show the treatment which those who spoke against her might expect”—so it was clearly not exactly an objective description!)

Although the conversion of mole to third nipple, minor nail malformation to extra finger is clearly part of the detritus of anti-Anne propaganda left in the wake of her execution, it had held surprisingly tight over the centuries.  The sixth finger, in particular, just won’t let go.  By the nineteenth century, it had become a “fact” which even today, many people remember as among the first things that they learned about Anne. The third nipple, too, is reported as fact (or is described as “widely rumored” or “was said to have”—a characterization that tends to perpetuate itself) on numerous websites, many of which site the popular Book of Lists, first published in 1977, as their source.   This book, which the authors admit was written “for fun,” quickly became a source for schoolchildren “to spice up their schoolwork.

Anne was not seriously deformed, nor was she a conventional beauty (by the standards of her own times).  She was something far more interesting than either of those—a reminder that beauty, far from being cast in an unchanging, Platonic mold, is the human body moving through history, accepting or challenging the rules of its time and place. Sometimes, the prevailing rules of beauty are ripe for changing.  When Anne came back from France to the English court, English culture was on the cusp of the Renaissance, caught between rigid religious ideology and humanist values, English customs and the discovery of other cultures that knew a thing or two, courtly love and “modern” romance.  Perhaps England—or at the very least, Henry–was ready for something new.

Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett was not the only person to have been described to possess a pair of "fine eyes."

It’s striking that when her contemporaries describe Anne, they emphasize precisely those features which strayed outside the prevailing English ideal of the fair-haired, “whitely” blonde. Eyes, for example. The Trobriand Islanders called eyes “the gateways of erotic desire,” and spent more time decorating them than any other part of the body.  The use of kohl to line and accentuate was common in the Middle East.  But proper English ladies did not brazenly provoke, issuing a sexual invitation; they submitted, casting their eyes downward.  Not Anne, apparently.  Nearly every commentator mentions her eyes, not just  “black and beautiful,” (according to Sanuto, who was not a supporter) but sexually artful.  The French diplomat Lancelot de Carles, who later brought the news of her execution to France, was—being French—more lavish and precise in his description of Anne’s “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.”

The poet Thomas Wyatt, one of the first at court to develop an infatuation for Anne, probably had Anne in mind when, in one of his love poems, he describes his beloved’s eyes as “sunbeams to daze men’s sight.”

What medieval women did to become blonde: “Take a pound of finely pulverized beech-wood shavings, half a pound of box-wood shavings, four ounces of fresh liquorice, a similar amount of very yellow, dried lime peel, four ounces each of swallow wort and yellow poppy seeds, two ounces of the leaves and flowers of glaucus, a herb which grows in Syria and is akin to a poppy, half an ounce of saffron and half a pound of paste made from finely ground wheat flour. Put everything into a lye made with sieved wood ashes, bring it partly to the boil and then strain the whole mixture. Now take a large earthenware pot and bore ten or twelve holes in the bottom. Next take equal parts of vine ash and sieved wood ash, shake them into a large wooden vessel or mortar, whichever you think better, moisten them with the said lye, thoroughly pulverize the mixture, taking almost a whole day to do this. Make sure that it becomes a bit stiff. Next pound rye and wheat straw in with it until the straw has absorbed the greater part of the lye. Shake these pounded ashes into the said earthenware pot and push an ear of rye into each small hole. Put the straw and ashes in the bottom so that the pot is filled, though still leaving sufficient space for the remainder of the lye to be poured over the mixture. Towards evening set up another earthenware pot and let the lye run into it through the holes with the ears of rye. When you want to use the lotion, take the liquid which ran out, smear your hair with it and let it dry. Within three or four days the hair will look as yellow as if it were golden ducats. However, before you use it wash your head with a good lye, because if it were greasy and dirty it would not take the colour so well."

Defying the fashion for blondes, which many privileged women with less than “whitely” locks tried to achieve through various recipes for hair and skin-lightening, Anne also grew her dark hair so long that she could sit on it. French king Francis (whose wife Claude Anne had attended when she was younger) was dazzled:  “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.)

Most important, 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 (Henry called her small breasts “pretty duckies”) and a birthmark into a beauty-spot.  “Style” cannot be defined.  But in its presence, the rules of attraction are transformed.  Style defies convention and calls the shots on what is considered beautiful.  So does grace of movement.  “Her gracefulness rivaled Venus,” said the French courtier Brantome.  He was speaking there about Anne’s stylish French way with clothing; but she was also continually described as a wonderful dancer.

Anne Boleyn reminds us that the body is not just a piece of inert matter that can be measured and molded.  It’s an animated, moving, speaking presence in the world.  And even in our cosmetic culture, there is still something magical, elusive, and open-ended about its attractions.   Think Helen Mirren, generally acknowledged as one of the sexiest women around.  Is she beautiful? Yes, but only if we grant the word “beauty” far greater range and variety than the surgeon’s formulas.  Think Michelle Obama, whose prominent jaw would disqualify her immediately among those who insist that symmetry and a delicate chin are biologically inscribed requisites for female appeal.  And think Anne Boleyn, who by virtue of confidence, wit, grace, intelligence and style, is now remembered as a great beauty.

If you could pick an actress to play her—other than those who have done so already—who would it be?


[1] Henry, determined to wipe the slate clean when Anne was executed and he married Jane Seymour, had any original portraits that he could find destroyed.

45 Comments

Filed under Anne and Gender, Anne Boleyn Myth-Buster, Anne Through the Ages, Life in 16th century England

45 responses to “The Anne Boleyn Myth-Buster: #1, Anne’s Looks

  1. Karissa L

    Have you ever seen the movie Memento? I think the woman who plays Natalie, Carrie-Anne Moss fits how I would picture Anne sans the light-colored eyes. I think she can be fiery when she needs to be, and soft at others. Her perfomance in Memento was the first i could think of in response to this question. If I think of any more I will reply once more! :)

  2. Daniella

    If I could pick an actress to play anne boleyn, I would probably use Ashley Judd, she has sex appeal and is’nt the standard beauty.

  3. If I could chose one woman to play Anne, it would be Anne Hathaway. She is not the most beautiful, but there is something about her that makes her charming.

  4. What about our own modern day Jane Seymour (in her younger days)…..she has lovely dark eyes, long dark auburn hair and a fairly flat chest…..she has style and knows how to use her eyes

  5. Susan

    Both Ashley Judd and Anne Hathaway are fantastic ideas! Re. Carrie-Ann Moss, I’ve seen “Memento” (great movie), but I have to say I don’t remember her very well. I’m going to Google-image her.
    Cris, hi girl, and so glad you like the piece!

  6. What a great article! I really enjoyed reading it. When I came across Anne Boleyn’s name, I was 12 years old. The Encyclopaedia stated that Anne had six fingers…Well, this myth is really popular. Also, in Alison Weir’s book I came across this info ;
    ‘George Wyatt says she had a large Adam’s apple, ‘like a man’s”. /A.Weir, Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 151/.
    I just bought E. Norton’s book ‘Anne Boleyn in her own words….’ but I haven’t yet found this information in G.Wyatt’s biography of Anne Boleyn.
    Anyway, I think Anne was not a beautiful woman (I think she was pretty though) but she had ‘something’. I know few people who are not considered beautiful but they have this charm about them, that makes them really special. I guess Anne was this kind of person – although not beautiful, she still captured attention.
    I don’t think that she had black hair, although for some time I thought so. It was Sander who (in my opinion) wanted to show Anne’s connection to ‘dark powers’ and that is why he described her hair as black. But none of Anne’s portraits features her with very dark hair – in most of them she had auburn or dark/medium brown.

  7. I would pick Minnie Driver. Seriously. Not a conventional beauty, and very intelligent, very funny. I think she has the personality to pull it off, and that’s really what we’re looking for, right? A personality who can pull off “Anne Boleyn.”

  8. Anne Barnhill

    Really interesting! I think Cate Blanchett could play Anne (just dye her hair) and she would have the appeal and the fire. I can imagine Anne looking very dramatic dancing with her impeccable French manners and style. I also think she had sex appeal, which is another indefinable something that one either has or not–nothing much to do with beauty. Thanks, Susan!

  9. That was fascinating. I for one, had bought into those myths about Anne’s deformities, so I’m glad to have been enlightened.

    I picture Anne as having strong features, or am I confusing her personality with her looks? Ah well, since we will never have the definitive portrait of Anne I guess we will see her through our own imaginations .

  10. Susan

    I know this is going to sound nuts at first, but think about it for awhile: Jennifer Love Hewitt.

    • Katie

      I think Mia Wasikowska could play Anne Boleyn. She just has this look about her that says Anne. I just saw her in a movie where she has auburn kinda brown hair and it makes me want to see her as Anne! Susan I’ve always thought Jennifer Love Hewitt could play her as well. Shes so beautiful.

  11. I think Natalie Dormer was perfect as Anne Boleyn so I would not seek to replace her with another actress. I think that Anne Boleyn has that elusive X Factor that is difficult to define, the kind of look that made her stand out in a crowd

  12. Roberto

    I would have loved the young Olivia Hussey to play Anne Boleyn in “Anne of the thousand days” (1969). In my eyes she would have been the PERFECT Anne!

    • Defiantly Selma Brook, who is a French actress, who played Bridget in The Tudors. She has dark eyes, as Anne did, which I believe is a very important feature to portray in Anne, as it was considered her most beautiful feature next to her hair. Elizabeth also inherited Anne’s black eyes, but is often shown with blue. Anne also had a French accent.

      I think Anne’s hair was dark brown, not auburn. (Anne also had olive skin, which doesn’t match a red-head) Artists would change certain features to make the sitter more attractive – Such as Henry VIII being painted with brownish hair rather than red, as was Mary I. There’s no proof that Mary Boleyn was blonde…

  13. Susan

    Ellie: I know we have gotten the idea Anne’s hair was brown, but nowhere is it described as brown–only as “brunette,” which in those days covered all dark shades, it didn’t mean “brown” as it does for us. And in all the portraits (except recent ones, which sometimes follow stereotypes that she had black hair) Anne is, indeed, auburn-haired. (Not bright red or strawberry blonde, but quite dark, with a red hue.) Red heads can have olive skin–I know because red hair runs in my family–just as people with black hair can have very fair skin; it all depends on genetics.
    Re. Mary: I just read in Alison Weir’s book that Mary may not have been blonde. Is that where you read it? This is the first time I’ve read that–everyone else describes her as fair-haired. But just as with Anne’s hair, that may be an incorrect idea, passed down through time. Weir’s book has other inaccuracies, so I don’t know what to make of this! Maybe I’ll post the question on our page….Or perhaps you have some other reference for this, that might settle it?
    Could you tell me your references for Elizabeth’s eyes and Anne’s french accent? They would be useful to me.
    Thanks so much!!!

  14. Yann

    I absolutely loved Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn . She is beautiful,but not conventionally beautiful ( Some even find her ugly) . She has this quite unique face with really remarkable features (The shape of her eyes,her nose,her mouth with its thin upper-lip ) which alone could well be considered as flaws but which are all together just ravishing . A kind of beauty that sure attracts the eye but can also become irritating . It’s exactly the type of beauty that I think Anne had and which enabled her to catch Henry’s eye and afterwards made him want to get rid of her .
    As to my personal view of how Anne looked like,i would take the Hever Castle portrait of Anne holding a rose as a reference or the likeness from Elizabeth I’s ring .

  15. Susan

    Yann: Memorable quote from your reply: “A kind of beauty that attracts the eye but can also become irritating.” Love it!!!

  16. Pingback: Anne Boleyn : the Rival of Venus? | Queen Anne Boleyn

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  18. Such a great post and very well documented!

    • Thanks so much!! I hope you’ll buy the book now that it’s out!

      • Yes I will! definitely. and bravo for all these well documented researches, all very to the point. Anne Boleyn was one of these women who stood up from the crowd by her singularity: smart and daring at a time when women were still a man’s possession, at a time when women had no choice but being docile at risk of being demonized.Unfortunately she paid the price…

  19. When it comes to actresses who portrayed Anne, it is too difficult to pick a favorite… Let alone trying to decide on a new actress to play her. Being an actor myself, I love seeing how each of them brought their own tantilizing qualities and contribute to the ever changing image of Anne. I simply adore the enigmatic mythology that is Anne Boleyn.

    • “Enigmatic mythology”–I love that!!
      From your pic (it’s kind of small, but…) it looks like you might be a candidate to play Anne, too.

      • Thank you so much! Anne is a role I could only dream of playing. What little is known, and the complexity of what we do know about her, leaves so much up for interpretation. I’m currently reading your book, and it’s a joy so far. Needless to say, I was more than thrilled to see your reply!

  20. Keith Kerwin

    Greetings from Australia, just love this site Susan. Personally I cant go past Genevieve Bujold as the ideal ‘Anne’ ie the slight accent and just so gorgeous…and feisty against Burtons Henry [albeit with Liz in the background]. Natalie Dormer’s portrayal was fantastic, as was the entire cast and production in ‘The Tudors’. Haven’t heard much mention of Natalie Portmans portrayal in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ featuring our Aussie Eric Bana as a young Henry, just beautiful and fantastic. I don’t think Cate Blanchett would be an ideal, probably tooo typecast as Elizabeth. I guess we shall never really know what she may have looked like…an ideal actress to portray her…Audrey Toutou [is that how you spell it] from DaVinci Code, perhaps, Cheers

    • Yes, I know…GB really did set the standard for me, too. But Audrey Tatou (I think that’s how you spell it–not sure!) is an interesting possibility.
      So glad you like the site!
      It’s nine a.m. here, so you must be just getting ready for bed….Sweet dreams!

  21. Megan

    I think I could play Anne Boleyn. I have her face shape, and medium brown hair. She is one of my favorite Queens.

  22. Audrey

    I think Michelle Dockery would be great as Anne Boleyn, maybe a bit too pale, but she has the beautiful dark eyes, strong jaw, and high cheek bones that are commonly associated as being some of Anne’s best features. She’s also statuesque and has a grace about her, a certain “something” that makes you take a second glance.

  23. Susan 2

    How about Julia Roberts as Anne? Long dark red hair, wide mouth, dark beautiful eyes, enchanting laugh (she’ll need to act to acquire Anne’s licentious demeanor), intelligent, passionate, not too bossumy, slender neck

  24. I think Sandra bullock would make an interesting anne boleyn shes definitely not your typical beauty but shes got both a calculating mind and could pull off the fire for sure

  25. Verity C.

    In Hilary Mantel’s ‘Notes on Characters’ in the book for the Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies plays, she says to Anne (they notes are in 2nd person present) “There is only one attested contemporary portrait, a medallion, not a picture. In it you can clearly see a swelling in your throat, which was noticed by your contemporaries who also called you a ‘goggle-eyed whore’. To our mind, this suggests a hyperthyroid condition.”

    In pictures of the original medal, I can vaguely see something that might be what Mantel is talking about, but nothing that suggests a hyperthyroid condition. What do you think?

    • Verity, thanks for your inquiry! I don’t see any indication of hyper-thyroid, and doubt very much that Henry would have been interested in Anne had she had any visible goiters or swellings. You might be interested in this piece by me and Lucy Churchill, who restored the medal that Mantel is referring to:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/susan-bordo-/anne-boleyn_b_4737660.html?just_reloaded=1&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=1362201b=facebook.

      • Verity C.

        Thanks for the link. It’s a fascinating reconstruction.

        I’m not quite sure what to make of Hilary Mantel’s hyperthyroid suggestion. I think you’re right, in The Creation of Anne Boleyn, when you say she is offering “her own rejoinder to the more sympathetic portraits of other writers and filmmakers”; and this could be an example. However, there is a slight something in the middle of Anne’s throat in pictures of the original medal (though evidently Lucy Churchill did not see it as significant). It is presumably what Hilary Mantel sees as a “swelling”; and a bulging-eyed (“goggle-eyed”?) look can also be a sign of some forms of hyperthyroidism (which may be why Hilary Mantel mentioned it in this context).

        I looked around a bit on the Web, and it turns out that in Hilary Mantel’s “Royal Bodies” LRB lecture — the one some saw as attacking the Duchess of Cambridge — she says a lot about Anne and made a similar hyperthyroid suggestion:

        “It was said, though not by unbiased observers, that after her marriage she aged rapidly and grew thin. If this is true, and we put it together with reports of a swelling in her throat, and with the description of her by one contemporary as ‘a goggle-eyed whore’, then we’re looking, possibly, at a woman with a hyperthyroid condition, a woman of frayed temper who lives on the end of her nerves.”

        I am sceptical of what might be called amateur diagnosis at a distance, especially one assembled from such uncertain evidence, but it seems perhaps possible that Anne had a relatively mild form of the condition which developed towards the end of her life (and so wouldn’t stop Henry from becoming interested).

  26. Pingback: Mythic Monday: Anne Boleyn | Flossie Benton Rogers

  27. Britt

    KATE MARA…. She’s got the auburn hair and brown eyes (maybe slightly hazel). Not the dark brown eyes that Anne was reported to have but Kate’s eyes are definitely beautiful and alluring.
    When I think of an actress to play Anne, I try to think of someone I saw in a movie or tv show that I couldn’t take my eyes off of and I wanted to see more of…not because they’re necessarily physical perfection but because they just have “it”. That’s how Anne must have been…she just had “it”.

    • Britt

      I also like the idea of Eva Green playing Anne. Maybe with some brown contacts. She definitely knows how to use her eyes and I think her screen presence would be spot on for Anne.

  28. I remember reading/seeing somewhere that Anne wasn’t necessarily the prettiest woman at court, but she was definitely the sexiest woman at court.

  29. Michel

    My favorite Anne has always been Genevieve Bujold, I think of all actresses who played Anne she fits her physical description best and also her personality. If I had to compare Anne to a modern personality if would be Jackie Kennedy – not the conventional blond beauty but a striking brunette with sharp features !

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