Was Anne Boleyn a Red-Head?

Anne as featured in the National Portrait Gallery, along with an image-inspired doll by the artist Miss Tiggywinkle

Asked in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries about Anne Boleyn’s hair color, most people would answer “black”—or, perhaps, “very dark brown.”  With the exception of Genevieve Bujold, whose hair was distinctly chestnut hued, the best-known actresses who have played Anne—Merle Oberon, Dorothy Tutin, Natalie Portman, Natalie Dormer–have black or dark brown hair (Dormer dyed hers), and modern portraits and cartoons follow the prototype of Anne as a “raven-haired temptress.” Yet the portraits and representations that have been judged to bear the closest resemblance to the historical Anne—including the National Portrait Gallery painting–show her with auburn hair.  This isn’t incompatible with the many descriptions of her as “dark”—for in an aesthetic/religious world which divided things into “light” and “dark”, you wouldn’t have to have jet-black hair to be in the “dark” category.

            In fact, there are only two descriptions of Anne from (roughly) her own time which associate Anne with the color “black”:  one is from the Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who was born after Anne died, and was clearly out to make Anne sound as witch-like as possible, with an extra digit, a huge wart, and other deformities that would surely, if true, have eliminated Anne from Henry’s lists of marriageable ladies. The other is Cardinal Wolsey’s private nickname—“the night crow”—a metaphor which cannot be taken as physically descriptive.  All other sources describe her simply as “dark” or “brunette.”  “Brunette” translates to “brown” for us, but may have had a much broader referent then, covering many hues of darkish hair.  It’s not clear that the medievals even had a term for dark red hair; “auburn”, for example, originally meant whitish. And “black” could refer to colors, but in their deepest, darkest hues.

Given the suspicious origins of the satanic image of black-haired Anne, I was surprised when I suggested, on my facebook page, that Anne’s hair was probably dark auburn or chestnut.  I got a ferocious response.  “NO WAY was she a redhead!”  “Anne had black hair, NOT red hair!”  People did not merely argue with me; they were offended at the very suggestion. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, similarly, was revolted at the idea of playing Henry as red-headed, which the King most certainly was.  (So, of course, was his famous daughter, and many other members of English royalty, from the Plantagenets and the Tudors through Prince Harry.)  Even after I explained that I didn’t mean fire-engine red, Opie red, or Lucille-Ball red, and despite the evidence of the NPG and other representations from Anne’s own time, people refused to accept the idea that Anne could possibly have had reddish hair.  Somehow, despite many glamorous redheads from Susan Hayward to Julia Roberts, “sexy” is not what comes most often to mind when we think “red hair.”  Orange-wigged clowns, old ladies with garish dye-jobs, and freckle-faced farm boys still crowd our images of redheads.

It provides some perspective on our own visual stereotypes of Anne to learn that raven-haired Anne—Sander aside—is largely a twentieth-century invention. Not that other eras are more historically reliable than ours.  The romantics almost always depicted her as fair—the visual counterpart to their view of Anne as victim rather than vixen.  This lasts well into the early 20th century, as in this description from Reginald Drew’s 1912 novel:  “She was radiant and dimpled, and her beautiful face, pink-hued and lily white, rippled with laughter and bubbled with vivacity.  She had sparkling eyes, wav, golden-brown hair which framed her face like a picture, and which her coif could not either confine or conceal.” (p. 14)  Ernst Lubitsch’s Anne, Henny Porten, is fair (1920).  And Jessie Armstrong’s Anne, in “My Friend Anne” (1935) could be Mary Pickford (whose style was already out-of-date in the thirties, but perhaps for that reason could represent ‘old-fashioned’ beauty.)  In the thirties, “blonde” was already becoming, with Mae West and Jean Harlow, to be the mark of the vamp.  But it hadn’t happened yet.  For the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the old associations of fair hair with innocence and purity still held. Today, it’s surprising (and annoying, for those who care about historical accuracy) when a blonde Anne (Miranda Raison, in Howard Brenton’s 2010 play “Anne Boleyn”) pops up, but it doesn’t signify much other than the loosening, in our post-modern age, of “moral” associations to hair color.

The most tenacious historical inaccuracy, actually, has not been in depictions of Anne, but of Katherine, Henry’s first wife.  She—unlike Anne—was indeed golden-haired.  But she was Spanish, and our stunted racial imagination has therefore almost invariably given her dark hair (Irene Papas in “Anne of the Thousand Days”, Maria Doyle Kennedy in “The Tudors,” Ana Torrent in “The Other Boleyn Girl.  The outstanding exception:  Annette Crosbie’s Katherine in the 1970 BBC production of “Henry VIII and His Six Wives.”)  Racial stereotyping, it seems, trumps gender ideology.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that racial profiling collaborates creatively with gender ideology.  “Our” Anne-the-seductress, still wearing the collective imprinting of Sander, is raven-haired.  But since she has morphed into a great beauty, too, we’ve rejected the historical consensus (from sympathizers as well as detractors) that her skin was “not so whitely as desired.”  Surely that better describes Katherine, the unglamorous Spanish discard!  So Anne becomes Snow White in coloring, while Spanish Katherine, who was in fact the fairer-skinned of the two, becomes the “swarthy” wife.

The bottom line:  Don’t expect to find “history” in the cultural imagination.


Filed under Anne Boleyn Myth-Buster, Anne Through the Ages

18 responses to “Was Anne Boleyn a Red-Head?

  1. LOVE the article Susan! What are your personal thoughts on Anne’s hair colour?

  2. Great blog!! I have often wondered what color hair she had because of the alteration of opinions about not just the way she acts but the way she looks. ; )

  3. History changes only as much as we want it to. Great article!

  4. Karissa

    Amazing article! I have read several books involving Anne with black or very dark hair, but anytime her with an auburn like hair color is brought up, I can picture it. I can believe it because so little is known about her, whereas with Catherine, it is well documented that she had fair hair from her shared ancestor with Henry. (Correct me if Im wrong please). I think Catherines sister Juana was golden haired as well.

  5. Isabelle

    As a redhead (not a clown, or a dyed old lady, just Irish!), I love the idea of a red-haired Anne! Annette Crosbie’s Katherine has always been my favourite, as I can see the famous portrait of the young Katherine, red-gold hair and all, when I look at her. It adds realism for me when I can identify the actress with the well-known imagery. But it IS harder to decide on Anne, simply because a lot of the well-known imagery doesn’t agree.

  6. I only want her to have the “Snow White” coloring because that is what I have as well!

  7. Sarah

    I personally believe she had dark brown hair with reddy- coloured hue. In other words – Auburn.

  8. Anne Barnhill

    Great article! I do think she had dark hair but I’ve seen very dark hair with a reddish cast in the sunlight–my mother’s for one. Mom’s is about as black as you can get but still looks red (well, more when she was younger) in the sun. My own hair is dark brown but glows red in the sun, too. So, why not both–her dark eyes, though, and less that pale skin cannot be denied. I do think it would all work together. Thanks!

  9. Anne would of have had reddish hair in her portraits but she is not a redhead her hair would of most likely been a dark chestnut brown which would glow red in the sun

  10. sonetka

    I really liked this article — the changing image of Anne is always fascinating to watch. There’s one detail I should mention, though — “My Friend Anne” was published in 1900, not 1935, and it describes Anne specifically as being not beautiful but charismatic. (The paintings do show a very nice-looking Anne who could easily be sister to a Gibson girl, however).

  11. Pingback: Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair |

  12. Interesting! I definitely don’t think Anne had BLACK hair, but I do think it was medium/dark brown (Natalie Portman, for me, got it the most accurately).

    I’m researching Katherine Howard, and I wonder what her colour hair was – portraits show her with auburn hair (if they’re even of Katherine) or a reddish-gold.

  13. Anne’s “black and beautiful” eyes were likely not black, either, but ordinary brown, like her early portraits show.

    My hair is currently a deep auburn color. In the evening, unless I have the room well-lit, my hair looks dark brown. The lighting conditions in a Tudor palace would likely have made Anne’s hair appear darker than it was, unless she was next to a window or outdoors.

  14. Debbie Macaulay

    When you consider the colours they had back then to paint with you either had dark or light???? Anne had either Auburn , burgundy or raven all those hair colours are hard to pick the red up in certain lights

  15. I have said and posted many times that Anne had auburn hair and no one believed me!!!!! Also Kathryn of Aragon being portrayed with Spanish looks, dark hair etc., had me almost throwing something at the telly. As for JRM-as Henry??????????????????????????????????????????

  16. Suzi

    I have to admit- it is hard to shake the idea of Anne with her dark hair. I remember reading Ives and his explanation for the red hair was that it was a more popular or becoming hair color so the artist changed her hair to better fit the standards of the time. Not sure if this is true or not but I remember sitting on the floor in the library reading about it.

    Thanks for the article! It is amazing how much I want her to have the long dark, sexy hair. History is so interesting!

  17. Gail Marie

    I have a reddish brown cast to my hair, so I think that Anne’s hair could have been that same color, because people comment on my reddish tones and I have always considered myself a brunette. Whatever her hair color, I think we all agree Anne was definitely not a blonde, and I’m glad Natalie Dormer was able to convince the powers that be to let her play Anne with darker hair. Very interesting and thoughtful article!

  18. Pingback: Two Scenes In The Life Of Anna Boleyn by L.E. Landon (1837) |

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