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.)
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 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.)
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)
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.
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.”
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?
 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.