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.