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Happy 523rd Birthday to Bluff King Hal!

HenryBDayThe following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

The fact that the King has returned to dust does make it hard to get him a birthday present, though. Clearly, the only option one has is a personal gesture of goodwill. To that end I will do my best to elucidate on a topic that I am sure still bothers him beyond the veil of death, bless his egotistical heart: the idea that he was ugly.

If there is one common misapprehension that Henry VIII would wish to debunk, it is probably the one wherein he was gross in every possible way. Heaven knows “modest” and “humble” were not adjectives used to describe him, so the fact his image in the public imagination is usually that of a fat and pus-oozing old lech must be making him spin in his grave.

When the King was young he was a prime bit of manflesh. The young Henry was described, in the private letters of more than one foreign ambassador or other court contemporary, as having incredible physical beauty. His hair was red-gold, he had very fair skin, and apparently his face was so lovely it would have looked good on “a pretty woman”. Not only that, he could sing. He was the teen heart-throb of the Tudor dynasty.

Measurements for his armor also show that Henry was well over six feet tall and had a godlike body. A man’s legs were an especially important feature for masculine beauty in those days, and Henry had a first-rate set of limbs. He was vain about them (as he was about everything), bragging that his legs “had a good calf”. The fashion of the time made much of a man’s lower body, and Henry certainly looked hot in a doublet and hose when he was young. Henry, with his long and muscular legs encased in the skin-tight hose that were topped with an enormous codpiece made of stiffened (insert own joke here) cloth and his broad chest covered in a gem-encrusted doublet, had to have been an impressive sight. I am sure most of the ladies of the court, and likely some of the guys as well, would admire Henry as he moved among them, resplendent as both a man and a king.

Henry’s body wasn’t just for show, either. The King was a very, very good athlete and demonstrated outstanding abilities in several medieval sports. He was a particularly good equestrian, and could ride for more than thirty miles without needing a break. Anyone who has ever ridden a horse can tell you that riding a horse is not a passive activity; your thigh and core muscles in particular have to be strong in order to keep your seat. He could also joust better than any of his court contemporaries, which was not an easy thing to do. (Contrary to rumor, Henry always lost games with good grace and people who could beat him would win significant sums of money — people did not “let” him win.) Jousting was an incredibly difficult and demanding sport that could easily lead to fatal injuries.

Moreover, the King was also extremely good at tennis. Back then tennis was played in an indoor court and used hard leather balls packed with wool, or even human hair, and was more like squash than tennis as we know it today. Modern tennis is certainly not a sedentary sport, but squash is even more physically demanding. Since Henry was recorded more than once stripping down to his shirt during physical exertion, I’m pretty sure the sight of sweat-soaked linen clinging to his muscular chest and back was one of the reasons people crowded around to watch him play.

Henry was also a skillful archer, and could shoot an arrow as well as most of the bowmen in his guard. These were longbows, people. You had to be built like a brick house just to nock the arrow on the string of the bow. The pull weight on those things was around 200 lbs. Although the average male height was around 5’8”, the archers whom Henry competed with were typically about 6’ 2” or 6’3” with thickened bones to compensate for the weight of their extra muscle mass.

Henry may have been vain, but to be frank he had a damn good reason for his vanity. No wonder he couldn’t quite believe that Anne Boleyn was serious when she told him that she only wanted to be his subject, not his mistress. As a personable, intelligent, and handsome king,“no” was probably not a word he encountered overmuch.

Now, let’s raise a symbolic toast to this amazing King in honor of his birthday. History may have been served by his obtaining more inner beauty, but let no one question the pulchritude of his exterior.

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Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Looks

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu. (Shares of this piece on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are appropriate).

The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Looks

We don’t know when Henry first became attracted to Anne, or what the circumstances were, in large part because the available sources only begin to mention her when the King’s interest was publicly known, and by the time that happened, in 1527, people were more interested in the divorce and scandal of it all than how it began.  All later accounts of Henry and Anne’s meeting are retrospective. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, writes (thirty-five years after the event) that “the King’s love began to take place” when after her return from France, Anne was made one of Katherine’s ladies in waiting, “among whome, for her excellent gesture and behaviour, she did excel all other; in so much that the Kinge began to grow enamoured with her; which was not known to any person, ne scantly to her owne person.” (12) Agnes Strickland, citing Gregorio Leti, whose 17th century “Life of Elizabeth I” includes many colorful but uncorroborated anecdotes, relates that “the first time Henry saw her after her return to England…[was] in her father’s garden at Hever, where..

…Admiring her beauty and graceful demeanor he entered into conversation with her; when he was so much charmed with her sprightly wit, that on his return to Westminster he told Wolsey, ‘that he had been discoursing with a young lady who had the wit of an angel, and was worth of a crown.’ (Strickland, 575)

Cavendish and Strickland/Leti disagree sharply on Wolsey’s reaction.  Strickland, citing Leti, describes Wolsey as so eager to get power in his own hands that he was “glad to see the king engrossed in the intoxication of a love affair” and delighted that it was Anne, whom he had first recommended to be one of Katherine’s ladies.  But Leti was a devoted Elizabethan Protestant and harsh critic of Wolsey.  Cavendish, in contrast, was Wolsey’s faithful admirer and servant, and presents Wolsey as only “acting on the King’s devised commandment” in breaking up Anne’s then-relationship with Henry Percy, so that Henry could get his hands on her. [1] Wolsey’s interference, according to Cavendish,  “greatly offended” Anne, who “promis[ed] if it ever lay in her power, she would work much displeasure to the Cardinal” (which according to Cavendish, “she did in deede” by goading Henry to turn against Wolsey.) (15) Cavendish goes on to show that he clearly belongs to the “greedy Anne/patient Katherine” school of thought: “After [Anne] knewe the kings pleasure, and the bottom of his secret stomacke, then she began to look very haughty and stoute (arrogant), lacking no manner of jewells, or rich apparel, that might be gotten for money,” while Katherine accepted all this “in good parte”, showing “no kinde or sparke of grudge or displeasure.” (16).

With historical sources leaving no clear record, the imaginations of biographers, fiction and screen-writers have followed their own fantasies—or those that they feel will appeal to audiences.  Many of them, in one way or another, have Henry being struck by the thunderbolt of love at first sight.  William Hepworth Dixon, in his 1874 pro-protestant biography of Anne, describes Henry as “taken by a word and smile.  A face so innocently arch, a wit so rapid and so bright, a mien so modest yet so gay, were new to him.  The King was tiring of such beauties as Elizabeth Blount; mere lumps of rosy flesh, without the sparkle of a living soul…He fell so swiftly and completely that the outside world imagined he was won by magic arts.” (p. 107) In Anne of the Thousand Days, Henry sees Anne dancing at court, is immediately smitten, and instructs Wolsey to “unmatch” Anne and Percy, and then send her packing back to Hever.  Henry then takes off himself (on a “hunting” trip, as he tells Wolsey) for Hever, where he tells Anne that he will have her “even if it breaks the earth in two like an apple and flings the halves into the void” (30, Anderson) In the movie of The Other Boleyn Girl, Henry picks Anne (Natalie Portman) out of the Boleyn family line-up with nary a glance at Mary (Scarlett Johansen); he takes up with Mary first only because Anne humiliates him by being a more expert rider than he.  The Tudors has Anne and Henry locking eyes on the tower of the Castle Vert,  where Henry, as the shooting script tells us, “comes face to face with his destiny—with a sharp intake of breath, like an arrow through his heart.  A very beautiful, 18-year-old young woman with jet-black hair and dark, expressive, exquisite eyes looks back at him.” Later, after the dancing begins, he “stares at Anne as if suddenly rendered incapable of speech…’Who are you?” he asks, when the steps of the……………bring them eye-to-eye.  And she whispers back.  “Anne Boleyn.”

Joan Bergin, the award-winning fashion designer who did the costuming for the show, deliberately updated and sexed-up the costumes of the women in the tower, who appear, anachronistically, in bare-armed tutus inspired by Balenciaga corsets and Degas ballerinas.  “I wanted people to look at it and say ‘Look how sexy and foxy,’ rather than ‘Oh, who would wear that?’” The instant infatuation between Henry and Anne on the turrets of the Castle Vert is as fantastical as the costuming, for Henry was almost certainly having an affair with Anne’s sister Mary at the time, and there’s no indication that he had any romantic interest in Anne until that affair was over.  Which raises the question: Why not?  If Anne was as gorgeous as the popular media have presented her, from classically lovely Merle Oberon (in Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII) to the sensuous Natalie Dormer of The Tudors, surely he would have noticed that Mary, pretty as she was said to be, had an even more stunning sister.

Anyone who has even the slightest actual knowledge of Tudor history is aware that the Anne who could turn men to jelly at first sight is a myth—or perhaps more accurately, a reflection of the limits of 20th century conceptions of attraction, fixated as they are on the surface of the body.  It’s hard for us to imagine a woman for whom a king would split the earth in two who is anything less than ravishing.  But in her own time, Anne’s looks were 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: “She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English king’s great appetite and her eyes, which are black and beautiful.” (Denny, 20)  Sanuto was not a fan, but George Wyatt, grandson of one of Anne’s early admirers, the poet, was. In 1623, he gave his nephew a manuscript that he had apparently written some twenty-five years, in which, drawing on the reports of relatives and friends who had known Anne, he writes that although Anne was a “rare and admirable beauty,” she was not without flaws: her coloring was “not so whitely” as was then esteemed, and that she had several “small moles” “upon certain parts of her body.”  Wyatt also 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, as the workmaster 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 least blemish to it.”

None of Anne’s “flaws,” in our multi-racial, post-Cindy Crawford age, seem particularly significant.  Some, such as Anne’s olive skin, boyish physique, and wide mouth—not to mention the well-placed moles—would put her in contention for America’s Next Top Model.  But in Anne’s own time, beauty spots were not yet a fashion accessory, and even so slight a deformity as a “little show” of extra nail, despite Wyatt’s courtly spin, could raise questions about Satan’s influence in Anne’s conception. Snow white skin, which women would try to simulate through make-up (including Anne’s famous daughter, Elizabeth I) was a requisite of English beauty, and remained so for hundreds of years, overdetermined by racial, class, and moral meanings distinguishing the leisured classes from their “coarse and brown inferiors” and thought to be the outward manifestation of a “fair and unspotted soul” (Anatomy of Fashion, 149).  And fair hair, which Anne’s predecessors (both legal and extra-marital) apparently enjoyed, reigned in the Tudor hierarchy of beauty.  Both the Virgin Mary and Venus (most famously, in Botticelli’s 1486 painting) were always pictured as blondes.  So were all the heroines of the literature of courtly love, from Iseult to Guinevere: “Gallant knights, poets and troubadours celebrated their love of blondes with much eager serenading” and “felicitous poems and romantic tales bursting with golden-haired heroines poured from the pens of passionate lovers.” (On blondes, p. 61-62) Light-haired women were also considered to be more “cheerful and submissive” (very desirable.)[2]  Within a century or so, the generous, sweet, needing-to-be-rescued blonde heroine would become an essential ingredient of every successful fairy tale.

The 16th century ideal.

“Where did ever mortal eye See two lovelier cheeks displayed?  Lily-white, without a lie, Sweetly, featly are they made.  Long and pale and gold’s her hair.  If hers and mine the whole realm were, I would give no one else a share?” (13th Century German love song”)

“Look for a woman with a good figure and with a small head; Hair that is blond but not from henna; whose eyebrows are spaced apart, long and arched in a peak; who is nice and plump in the buttocks.” Juan Ruiz, 14th century courtier

“A Lady’s hair should be fine and fair, in the similitude now of gold, now of honey, and now of the shining rays of the sun” (Firenzuola, Dialogue of the Beauty of Women, 1548)

“I desire to take first her hair, for that, methinks, is of more importance to her beauty than any other of her charms…Tresses must adorn our Lady, and in color they shall be like unto clear shining gold, for that in truth affords more delight to the eye than any other whatsoever.” (Fererigo Luigini,  Book of Fair Women, 1554.

If you happened to have been born with less than shining gold tresses, there were many recipes for curing that.  You could take the rhine of rubarb, steep it in white wine or clear lye, and wet your hair with the solution, leaving it to dry in the sun (repeat if necessary).  Sulphur and lead were also useful, and could bleach freckles too.  But the most successful procedures were more complex, involving many stages of pulverizing, soaking, boiling, pounding, applying, rinsing, and re-applying, and their success was temporary: golden tresses, tortured by lye, usually fell out over time.  Other formulas were employed to achieve the “whitely” complexion that was most admired. You could soak wheat in flour for fifteen days, then grind and blend it with water, strain through a cloth, and let it crystallize and evaporate.  You then mix it with rosewater, which “will obtain a make-up which will be as white as snow.” White ceruse (containing lead carbonate, lead oxide, and lead hydroxide) could also be smeared on the face to simulate a pale matte complexion.  (It was poisonous, but other popular recipes–such as egg whites–left the face shiny and stiff.)  To complete the fair, faultless look, shaggy eyebrows, as well as the hairline, could be be plucked to create a “clear, high forehead. ” Blue veins could be (and were) painted on the skin.  And teeth could be bleached:

“Take three drachms each of crystal, flint, white marble, glass and calcined rock salt, two drachms each of calcined cuttlefish bone and small sea-snail shells, half a portion each of pearls and fragments of gemstones, two drachms of the small white stones which are to be found in running water, a scruple of amber and twenty-two grains of musk. Mix them well together and grind them into the finest powder on a marble slab. Rub the teeth with it frequently and, if the gums have receded, paint a little rose honey on them. The flesh will grow back in a few days and the teeth will be perfectly white.” (16th century recipe for teeth-whitening)

Moles were a bigger problem, because the medievals did not have our advanced surgical procedures for removal, and birthmarks were often seen 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.”

“To make the hair yellow as golde.  Take the rine or scrapings of Rubarbe, and stiepe it in white wine, or in cleere lie; and after you have washed your head with it, you shall weatte your hairs with a Spoonge or some other cloth, and let them drie by the fire, or in the sunne; after this wette them and drie them again.” (Recipe for bleaching hair, 1568)

Fifteenth Century witch-hunter Lambert Daneau, saw moles as witches’ marks.  Daneau and other “witch-prickers,” would stick pins in them to find the bedeviled ones; when the suspect registered no pain (hard to imagine) it indicated Satan’s handiwork:

“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.”

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), but was exiled by her daughter Elizabeth, is responsible for most of the mythology surrounding Anne’s body, including her nortorious sixth finger.  In his book, Schismatis Anglicani (The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism), written expressly to provide a counter-history to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (among whom Anne is numbered), Sander wallows in descriptions of Anne’s body as the gateway which lured the lusting, ensnared Henry through the doors of heresy.  But amazingly, Sander saw no contradiction in claiming that this desirable body was also marked with the outward manifestations of her league with Satan:

“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 yet 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.   The wen probably was inspired by the anonymous manuscript describing Anne’s coronation which attributed a “disfiguring wart” and a neck “swelling resembling goiter” to her.  The sixth finger seems likely to have been an exaggeration of the vestigial nail that Wyatt describes, and explains Wyatt’s mention of it, as his book was, by his own admission, “not without an intent to have opposed Saunders (Sander,)” who he calls “the Romish fable-framer.” The point of his book (entitled “Some Particulars of the Life of the Virtuous Christian and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne”), he tells the reader, is to dispel the “black mists of malice…instructed to cover and overshadow [Anne Boleyn’s] glory with their most black and venomous untruths.” So he was hardly an impartial reporter himself. But despite his biases, Wyatt’s own sources are far more respectable than Sander’s, especially when it comes to descriptions of Anne’s physical appearance. Based on notes taken when he was young, gathered from Anne Gainsford, one of Anne’s personal attendants, as well as relatives of his own “well acquainted with the persons that most this concerneth,” his corrections of Sander’s descriptions of Anne’s imperfections sound highly plausible, as Wyatt doesn’t insist that Anne was a beauty without flaws, but acknowledged the nail, moles, and “not so whitely” complexion.

The wens, goiters, and projecting tooth have all faded from the popular imagination. But that sixth finger 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[3]. At the beginning of every public lecture I ask my audiences what they know about Anne Boleyn; invariably, several shout out “She had six fingers!” Internet sites devoted to “Fascinating Facts” still list Anne’s six fingers (sometimes multiplying it to six on each hand.) Women’s magazine features giving inspiration for women to “love their bodies” present Anne and her extra finger (and sometimes, an extra nipple) as a role model.  At least one well-known portrait, now hanging in Ludlow castle, prominently features Anne with six fingers on each hand.  One of the more imaginative histories cites her “malformed hand” as the reason she was kept out of sight, in France, until a suitable husband could be contracted. (chapman, p. 28.) When an art installation opened in London in 2011 with a full-size Anne among the creations, the wax figure had an extra finger.   Anne’s sixth finger is even mentioned in the movie “Steel Magnolias,” as the women in Truvee’s beauty shop banter, through the bathroom door, about an article in a woman’s magazine.  The bottom line, however:  Anne did not have six fingers. Since Anne’s death, the bodies buried in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower of London have been exhumed and none of the skeletons have shown evidence of a sixth finger.  Of course, there are those who claim Anne’s body is actually not among them. But skeletal remains aside, if the living Anne actually had a sixth finger, would the eagle-eyed Chapuys have failed to report it?  Anne’s liabilities were a favorite topic of his gossipy letters home; yet a sixth finger is mentioned in none of them (or in any other court letters or papers prior to Sander.)

Beyond the dark hair and eyes, the olive skin, the small moles and the likelihood of a tiny extra nail on her little finger, we know very little with certainty about what Anne looked like.  Before her execution, as we’ve seen, Henry, determined to wipe the slate clean, had any original portraits of Anne that he could find destroyed.  Those that remain are almost all later copies and interpretations, and are quite inconsistent with each other.  Some have been contested as actually of Jane Seymour or some other woman rather than Anne, while other portraits not identified as Anne—the beautiful Sommersby portrait thought to be of Jane Grey, for example—have been argued to actually be Anne.  Historians and art historians have gone back and forth on the identity of the various sitters in many “Anne” portraits, with agreement on only a few.  One is a tiny miniature in a “locket ring” worn by Elizabeth I, which was found among her belongings after her death.  The existence of the ring, which bears the image of Elizabeth on one side and her mother on the other, is haunting, but being so small, tells us little about what Anne looked like.  There is also general consensus about a portrait, by an unknown artist circa 1534, on permanent exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. This portrait, often referred to as “the NPG portrait”, has provided the model for many later depictions on book covers, magnets, and postcards, where it has been variously glamorized or distorted, depending on t he artist’s inclinations.

The NPG is as reliable an indication as we have of what Anne looked like.  But even this portrait cannot be taken “literally.”  Art historian Lacey Baldwin Smith has written that “Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes.”  A slight exaggeration, maybe. But it is true that portraits often bore the mark of “symbolic iconizing”— the translation of a belief or argument about the person’s character into visual imagery—more than the attempt to mirror features with photographic precision.  Holbein’s famous sketch of Henry (the painting itself was destroyed in a fire) clearly served this function, with the king posed to emphasize his power, authority, and resoluteness: legs spread and firmly planted, broad shoulders—and very visible codpiece.  Since generations of later artists were content with small variations on the Holbein paradigm, we have the sense that we know what Henry  looked like.  But actually, what we have is an icon that has settled into a recognizable shape over the centuries.

There is no icon of Anne comparable to that of Holbein’s Henry, and in its place, we have created our own.  It varies a bit from generation to generation, but she always has a beauty that stands out in the crowd, by whatever standards appeal to the writers or directors that have cast her.   Merle Oberon, Alexander Korda’s Anne, and considered an “exotic beauty” at the time, later became his wife.  Genevieve Bujold was picked out by Hal Wallis without benefit of a screen-test; she was a little-known Canadian actress at the time, he saw her in her first role and immediately recognized that “this is my Anne.” Although most Annes have followed the historical record in depicting her wit h dark hair, one of the most recent Annes, Miranda Raison, who plays Anne in Howard Brenton’s play “Anne Boleyn,” is a decidedly contemporary looking blonde.[4]  But perhaps the most stunning Anne of all is “The Tudors”’ Natalie Dormer:  exquisite, sensual, curvaceous in her push-up gowns.  She gave a brilliant performance, but the only indisputable correspondence to the historical Anne is her dark hair (dyed for the role) and a few fetching facial moles.

The actresses who have played Anne have all been knock-outs. The real Anne, however, although not deformed, was not a conventional beauty (by the standards of her own times).  Yet dark-haired, olive-skinned Anne not only prevailed over the pale, English roses, but seems to have done so defiantly.  Ignoring the fashion for blondes, for example, Anne grew her dark hair so long that she could sit on it.  Before marriage, young women were permitted to wear their hair loose (after, it had to be hidden under a hood; the exception was the Queen, on those state occasions which required her to wear a crown.)   Religious ideology aside, Anne must have been quite a ravishing sight, dancing at court, her thick, chestnut mane cascading down her back.

And then there were Anne’s eyes. Eastern cultures foregrounded them for their sexual power, but which the British had kept as washed-out as possible.  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.”

De Carles here describes a classic form of flirtation, which Anne may have explicitly learned as an “art” during her formative years at the French court, or which may have simply come naturally.  She was not afraid to “send a message” with her gaze, then provocatively turn away, inspiring pursuit. Thus, Anne challenged the Mary-fixated religious ideology of beauty (not surprisingly, since she was highly critical of Catholic orthodoxy) to engage in the more biologically potent use of the eyes to meet and invite.  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.”

Anne also 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. There are plenty of examples from our own time.  Consider Audrey Hepburn, who emerged during a period of mammary madness to replace hour-glass-shaped Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, their bodies seemingly made for producing cute little babies, with a vision of cool, long-limbed, not-made-for-the-kitchen beauty that has remained a dominant ideal through the present day. This was also a time in which I never saw anyone who looked remotely “Jewish” playing anything other than comic or downright grotesque.  And then Streisand, like some modern-day Nefertiti, proudly offered her profile in dramatic, high-fashion poses that shouted “F… You” to Gidget—and the rhinoplasts.  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.

People with “style” remind us that the body is not just a piece of matter that can be measured and molded. Even in our cosmetic culture, there is still something magical, elusive, and open-ended about its attractions. And 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. The history of the mole is a case in point.  Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a mole’s “disruption” of the skin changed from being the devil’s handiwork to nature’s accentuation of especially pretty features (such as the lips, or the eyes) Men and women alike began to put false spots (beauty patches) on areas of their faces they wished to draw attention to. (Or, they might use them to hide scars or pock-marks.) Like actual moles, these mimic moles developed a code, but the meanings were far less menacing than the medievals: a spot on the forehead showed majesty, on the nose sauciness, on the mid-cheek gaiety, and near the corner of the eye, passion.  A patch on the lips invited a kiss.  “It is a Riddle,” mused Robert Codrington in his 17th century conduct manual, “that a Blemish should appear a Grace, and that a Deformity should adde unto Beauty.” (Anatomy of Fashion, p. 150)  But that is often the way ideals of beauty change.

Anne seems to have been among those who have changed the rules…..


[1] The exact nature and number of Anne’s pre-Henry relationships are fuzzy, but virtually all historians believe that she had some sort of serious romantic entanglement with Henry Percy, heir of the fifth earl of Northumberland.

[2] Elizabeth I had several of her portraits altered—the equivalent of today’s computer technology—to make her very red hair appear more blonde.  The most famous of these, known as the Coronation Portrait, was painted near the end of Elizabeth’s life.  It shows 25 year-old Elizabeth with every element of ideal Elizabethan beauty, from the pale arched eyebrows to the flowing golden-blonde tresses, right down to the delicate blue veins painted onto her white temples.

[3] 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.”

[4] When I asked Howard Brenton, in an interview, why the blonde Anne—I thought that perhaps he was making some point by going against archetype–he said it was simply because a wig would have been too uncomfortable for the blonde actress to wear. Of course, Raison could have dyed her hair, as Natalie Dormer did, and I wonder if Brenton would have given up so easily if other historical facts had collided with his cast’s preferences. My suspicion is that our own lingering blonde fetishism, still asserting itself even in an era of multi-racial aesthetics, played a role.

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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.

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