Anne BoleynHistorian and author Conor Byrne discusses Anne Boleyn’s physical appearance, primary source descriptions of Anne and the controversy over her appearance in an article over on The Tudor Society website.

Here’s an excerpt and you can just click on “more” to read the rest of the article.

Every aspect of Anne Boleyn’s life is controversial. Her birth date, her personality, her relationship with Henry VIII, whether she was guilty of the crimes attributed to her – all of these, and more, arouse fierce debate. But it is Anne’s physical appearance that is perhaps the most lingering and heated of controversies about her. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the news this week, when it was declared that the Nidd Hall portrait of Anne is in fact a realistic depiction of Anne, because of its close match to the 1534 medal bearing a defaced Anne alongside her motto ‘The Most Happi’. Yet the researchers involved in this have warned that their recent findings have been misinterpreted by the press. The overall results from their research remain incomplete. So much, then, for discovering what Anne Boleyn ‘really’ looked like.

As Susan Bordo notes, ‘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’, in no small part because of the campaign of destruction waged against her by her husband after her death, in which portraits of her were destroyed. Contemporary descriptions of Anne’s appearance, moreover, were rarely objective and were influenced by religious, political and cultural mores, viewing her either as a paradigm of religious virtue or as the incarnation of the Devil. Nicholas Sander, a hostile Jesuit priest writing in the reign of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I, clearly subscribed to the latter view:


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37 thoughts on “What did Anne Boleyn look like and does it really matter?”
  1. Conor Byrne makes the point that it does not really matter what Anne looked like; we should celebrate her achievements. Point well-made but the human response is to want to know about her appearance. If it were otherwise we would not be interested to see a picture of a new arrival in the family.
    Perhaps it is the lack of importance of Anne’s appearance that brings about so many blue-eyed depictions of Anne in such as “The Tudors” and “Wolf Hall”. I know it shouldn’t matter, and the quality of acting is all, but I really don’t like to see it. After all, other characters are made to appear as much like their known representations as possible.
    In my view Anne’s appearance is important because much was made of it, one way or the other, during and shortly after her life. It is also part of the whole Anne, whom we seek to know.

    1. We have blue-eyed Annes on television and in movies often because the actress is chosen for reasons other than her eye colour. Not everyone can safely wear coloured contacts.

    2. Also Katherine of Aragon was in The Tudors dark because she was Spanish, although she was fair (if I remember correctly).

      In The Other Boleyn Girl Mary Boleyn was fair and Anne was dark, according their characters in the film.

      There are strong stereotypes about fair and dark women. Besides, the watchers need to differ the characters also by looks.

      1. Katherine of Aragon was indeed fair-haired and blue-eyed, much more like the ideal of female beauty of the time. Her appearance has perhaps been distorted as much as Anne’s by novelists and film makers over the years, who seem hung up on a rather un-PC stereotypical view of all Spanish people as dark with black hair and olive skin. There are plenty of fair Spaniards, but you’d never guess!

  2. In all reality Nicholas Sander is not a credible witness to what Anne looked like because he was only 3 years old before she was beheaded AND they were never formally introduced.. He had a hatred of Anne so in my opinion, he would of course says hateful things about her.

  3. I am with you Sheila, that it matters. An article in the APS (Asoc. for Psychological Science) says it take us 13 milliseconds to rate a face. It goes on, “Evolutionary psychology holds that faces really are windows onto certain fundamental & important characteristics indicative of a person’s quality as a romantic partner and as a mate – qualities of health and genes, and even character.” It lists, as if it is any surprise, “prominent cheekbones, large eyes, small nose, a taller forehead, smooth skin and an overall young or even childlike appearance add to women’s allure in the eyes of male raters. Our faces are sculpted by hormones.” OK, we don’t want to marry Anne but we just know that the minute we see a portrait, that vague shadowy historical person takes on human form and that it is pivotal to our understanding of them. I personally long to meet Anne. Know you do, too!

    1. I think it’s only human to want to know what someone from history really looked like, particularly if it’s someone who fascinates you and who you spend a lot of time researching and reading about.

      1. Part of our fascination with Anne…..another mystery. She does keep us enthralled doesn’t she? What is it about her that keeps us so fascinated nearly 500 years down the road? I have been fascinated since I was 12 years old 50+ years ago I I read the book Anne Boleyn by Norah Lofts and was hooked!

        1. My first Anne Boleyn Book was “Brief, Gaudy Hour” by Margaret Campbell Barnes. It is still in my mind when I read anything about Anne. Suffice to say it is very frequently wide of the mark. The interest began with my history teacher, who described Anne as having dark hair and eyes, not being particularly beautiful but having charisma which made men think that she was beautiful. He described the extra feature on her finger, and an alleged mole on her neck, and how she dealt with those features, only making herself more attractive and mysterious in the process. It is almost as though her charisma is still at work nowadays.

      2. Just a general thought. In this day and age and with the technology we have, would it not be possible to reconstruct her features. I imagine though that that would only be possible only if her skull was available. A generally accepted image of Richard III was generated by todays means. As I said just a thought. (SIGH)

  4. I think there is some importance on what Anne Boleyn looked like, simply as a “check” on the credibility of various sources, especially when the description of an appearance doesn’t match with what the person has done. David Starkey has noted that, just because someone disliked a given historical person doesn’t mean that everything they say about that person is false. That Sanders would have hated Anne Boleyn doesn’t mean what he said is not true; the fact that his physical description is inconsistent with what we do know about her is evidence that he is willing to make things up, so other statements in his book should be viewed with distrust.

    1. Starkey is basically right that just because a source is hostile does not make it valueless. Sander however says that Anne wore high neck dresses to hide her wen. She did not, he knows nothing about the dress of the period. Such necklines were not worn at court until many years after Anne’s death. Given the fact that this is wrong, one has to doubt the rest, especially as his description contains features regarded as bad at the time. Although Sander does not do so, she is often credited by other authors with inventing the long hanging oversleeves, allegedly to hide her extra finger, but these sleeves were worn long before her birth, and were nothing new. Susan Bordo says, I think with accuracy, that a woman with such defects would not have been acceptable as a Lady-in-Waiting.

  5. I think it matters that we know what Anne looked like as it could help us understand more about Henry and Anne’s relationship and give us more important clues about who she really was.As far as the portraiture goes I think everyone’s interpretations of her are too different to be relied on.I also don’t understand why some sort of underground radar or imagine scanning of where she is buried give us some sort of images that could possibly be used to reconstruct Anne’s face as they do with actual skulls.

    1. I don’t know much about such scanning but the remains that were found were put in leaden coffers so that might hamper things, plus it is not known for sure whether the remains found were actually those of Anne Boleyn – there is controversy over them.

      1. The remains at St Peter ad Vincula were exhumed quite a long time ago. It was not possible to know which were Anne’s, as there were several females of suitable age, and when they were returned they were further muddled, and in any case some people say her body was removed shortly after her death and buried elsewhere. It was possible however to say that none of the bodies had six fingers!

    2. To Mrsfiennes

      I agree. When we knew that there were more beautiful women than Anne, we know that she must have something else to capture Henry.

      When we also know that Anne acted a part in the masque in 1522, we know it was not love at the first sight on the Henry’s part.

      Therefore, it tells a lot of our culture that The Tudors chose a beautiful Anne who had only to look at Henry to catch him.

      It would be enjoyable to read a book or see a film where where Anne says or acts in so different manner Henry is used in a woman that he falls for her because of this.

  6. I think that, even if she wasn’t beautiful, she must have been attractive in other ways… such that people didn’t realize she wasn’t. We all know women who have such charm and allure that it doesn’t matter a bit what they look like. I think Anne must have been one of these. Even so, I’d love to get an accurate, good look at her! I’m waiting for a new portrait to be discovered.

  7. Does it matter what Anne looked like? You could say it depends on the purpose of meaning. It matters if you wish to identify her remains or to match a true likeness, which is almost impossible as most portraits we can safely assume were lost or destroyed, although you never know, perhaps a Holbein original may turn up in a private collection, pictures assumed lost have done so before now. Recently controversially the National Gallaries in Scotland had to remove their portraits of Bonnie Prince Charlie as they were correctly identified as his brother Henry. In fact no contemporary portrait currently identified as him from 1745 during the rising when the portraits were made could be correctly identified as Charles Edward Stewart. That is until last year when a historian tracked down a known author and a listing that took him to a private collection and there, hidden in a dark corridor was a true portrait of the Bonnie Prince. It was examined and authenticated and now is the only truly contemporary portrait from the period 1745-6, known to be correctly identified as Charles Edward Stewart aged 25. Later portraits exist but he is no longer wrongly identified with the famous portrait on the cover of most books which is actually his brother Henry. So a portrait of Anne could still emerge.

    It is important if you are a historian and you are using the sources to come to a conclusion about her appearance, something that seems to have been debated and certainly neither Nicholas Sander or George Wyatt can be relied upon here. I loved Bordo writing that she may have had brunette or even dark red hair, that her hair colour was something of a mystery as it is described as dark, her complexion swarthy or dark and she is obviously not very tall. It is important if you are attempting to identify Anne from the copies of her portraits and if you are interested in those aspects that deal with historic ideas of beauty and grace. But is it all that is important about her? We see a portrait or drawing that we expect to be Anne and we use it to identify her for outselves and in that sense we do need to have an idea of her appearance, but we must also note that this was not the only important thing about her.

    In discriptions of Anne it is also noted that she had grace and she walked, danced and talked like a sophisticated French woman. Her manner was almost French and she was intelligent. Henry was not merely interested in her for her looks; there were far more beautiful women at the English court if he was and he wanted something different from the pale, fairhaired beauties of the court. He wanted passion and excitement and he saw that in Anne Boleyn. Anne was not a conventional beauty, but she had a way of getting your attention and Henry proved that he was not shallow by seeing more than just outward good looks in Anne. He saw her whit and he saw her intellect and he saw her fire; he saw those beautiful dark eyes, he saw something more in her than just her looks. He was able to converse with Anne as with an equal on matters of theology, of art, of political changes, on the latest literature, on religion, on the theories about his divorce, on designs for the new palaces, and many more subjects; she was able to grasp the legal aspects of the divorce; she was full of her own ideas; he certainly liked her for her charm and grace and her looks; but he appreciated her for more than that.

    We have to remember that looks do not tell you anything about a person. The way a person acts and thinks and behaves and carries themselves, deports themselves, treats others and you, their interests, their beliefs, all of these things point to if the person is beautiful and not what someone looks like. +The ugliest person in the world can be the most beautiful; the most beautiful can be the most evil. We are far too shallow in todays society; we think someone is perfect for us because they are the most beautiful person we see; then they turn out to be totally opposite. We judge people by what they wear or their hair style, colour of their skin, height, weight, if they are tall or short, bald or not, and so many different physical characteristics. This is wrong. Of course, the Tudors were human too and made these same errors; but it is clear that Henry was able to make distinctions beyond looks alone; personality attracted him as well. Anne probably also acted beautiful; she could dance well and play music and she may have walked in a way that was graceful and attractive. She could engage people in interesting conversations and she seems to have been at ease in company, especially male company. She appears to have had a love of life, that would have matched the Kings and that she also loved the hunt and outdoor pursuits, much as Katherine had done. She would have been better educated than many other ladies at court and this may have made her stand out. Anne seems to have had the whole package; we may never really know what she looked like; and if we did confirm her remains through DNA; profile her with a reconstructed face; then as the DNA of Richard III has shown, in hair colour and in eyes; a few surprises may emerge.

  8. Well said, BanditQueen!

    Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice is no beauty, either, and Mr Darcy dismisses her first not handsome enough to tempt him. But when he falls in love in her, she becomes beautiful in his eyes.

    Also Elizabeth’s forte was conversation.

    1. Hello, Hannele, thanks for your kind response. Eliza Bennett like Anne shows her intelligence by meeting conversations with wit and cleverness. I love the couples in all the books, they always challenge. I especially like that all Mrs Bennett sees in the men is how much they are worth a year as the family fortunes have gone. Mr Colins was nothing to write home about, but he does make Clara content. I agree, Elizabeth makes Darcy see her both for her quality of conversation and her true beauty. Henry must have been attracted to.Anne in the same way, as well as through desire. Of course also like Elizabeth Anne drove Henry mad by refusing his early desires.

  9. I think Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair is fascinating too, she’s charming and witty yet ruthless in her quest to climb the social ladder, I see Anne a lot in her, in fact iv often wondered how many heroines of literature have been inspired by actual historical figures.

  10. Ugh.

    I would be gobsmacked to be shown any evidence that jane would have been positively impressed by a husband chasing, pre marital sex having, pregnant on her wedding day, blood bath encouraging woman like Anne Boleyn.

    1. On the contrary, in her 1791 work “The History of England from the Reign of Henry IV to the Death of Charles I”, Jane Austen wrote of Anne Boleyn:

      “this amiable woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, and of which her Beauty, Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s character.”

      1. Yes many women have sympathised with Anne throughout history, Henry may have succeeded in getting rid of her on trumped up charges yet in the end, history has been her judge not the men who tried her or her tyrant of a husband, but basic good old fashioned common sense, to me the most compelling piece of evidence of her innocence came when she swore on peril of her soul that she was innocent of the charges against her.

        1. “to me the most compelling piece of evidence of her innocence came when she swore on peril of her soul that she was innocent of the charges against her” – yes, and also the fact that Chapuys didn’t believe the charges against her and the men.

        2. That’s it in a nutshell isn’t it, if Chapuys didn’t believe she was guilty either,

        3. That’s it in a nutshell then if even her hated enemy never believed she was guilty either.

  11. I wonder who else Anne impressed by her looks and charm. Elizabeth I could make people love her, and she may have inherited this trait from Anne. The reason I have started this particular hare is because of the Tudor Life magazine, which shows a picture of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. Margaret has pinned to her headdress a gold-coloured capital ‘B’ (for Burgundy?) with a single pearl hanging from it (assuming that it is a real jewel and not an allegory). She died at Mechelen in 1503, and will have left her jewellery. Her successor may not have been interested in a ‘B’ jewel because it was either not fashionable or not topical. It might have made a lovely gift to an attractive young girl whose name began with ‘B’. It would be fairly easy to add two more pendent pearls to the gold letter. I wonder…

  12. I did attempt to post this before so apologise if it comes up twice, but I think my Kindle swallowed it in any event.

    First of all, Anne’s appearence has nothing to do with her reputation, so one particular post earlier annoys me somewhat as a historian that she was bloodsoaked and chased after Henry as a married man.

    Second, there is no evidence that Anne nagged Henry into giving the order to pass legislation that led to the executions and deaths of More, Fisher and several monks because they could not agree to Henry’s new titles as head of the church or to the new marriage and new succession. Anne was neither guilty of these deaths or the vile crimes that she was wrongly accused of in order to get rid of her.

    Anne may have been many things, she may have had a temper, she may have rubbed a few choice courtiers up the wrong way, she may even have been pregnant before her marriage but that does not make her the nasty piece of work that some novels and dramas choose to portray her as, nor did she and the five men killed with her deserve the terrible deaths that awaited them.

    The legistlation that Cromwell prepared and promoted and may even have bullied through Parliament could only have come about with the consent and the orders of the King; not even Cromwell had the power to prepare legislation without the King requesting it and giving him the orders to do so. That legislation, the acts of Treason 1534, Supremacy and Succession, all made it punishable first by imprisonment and later by death to deny, publish, speak, refuse the oaths, proclaim and so on anything that was against the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England instead of the Pope, anything that said that Catherine was still Queen and was against the marriage of Henry and Anne and their successors. The new laws went further than ever before to protect the succession via one particular Queen and made most things treason that people had gotten away with via word of mouth before this. The Acts of Supremacy and Succession, which are really one act combined were enforced by oath and also implied that Princess Mary was illegitimate. To declare the Pope and not the King as Supreme Head of the Church in England was made treason under the new treasons act when before it was life in prison. The punishment for all of this was death. It is understandable that men of tender conscience like More and Fisher and others could not and would not swear to this, but that is not the fault of Anne Boleyn, even if traditionally Henry did blame her.

    The new laws came about tragically as a result of the marriage of Henry and Anne, not because Anne demanded them. Many people had spoken against the marriage; Henry wanted the country to be pacified. Cromwell who drew up the new laws must have had a lot of imput in persuading the King and Parliament of the need for such laws and that threats of death were the only way to ensure that people agreed. Most people did not even question the new laws, they accepted them as they were either afraid or indifferent. It is only the more learned persons such as More who really considered the fuller implications of the new laws and could not swear. There is no evidence for Anne demanding the deaths of men like More or others, there is no evidence that she egged him on and she is not blood soaked. Oo the contrary, from what I have read both on this site and from sources elsewhere; Anne was generous and may even have been concerned that so many people were dying because they could not accept her marriage. We do not have enough information to go on to know fully what she felt; but she intervened in the cases of several reformers; she must have been disappointed that a man such as More died rather than accept her marriage.

    As to the ridiculous accusation that she chased Henry; that is a good laugh. Henry on the contrary was the one who did the chasing. Anne seems to have been reluctant for a time to want to become his mistress and she held off from sex, as did he by mutural consent in order to wait until they were married. Henry had doubts about his marriage to Katherine before turning to Anne. Anne did offer herself to Henry as his wife and the mother of his future sons, but only after they had courted for several months or longer. Their relationship developed into one that was warm and passionate and of mutural consent and there was far more to Anne Boleyn than her looks or her sex appeal. In any event even if the case can be put that she wrecked his marriage; the same is true of the King; no-one forced him to divorce Katherine. Henry was as much to blame for the ending of his marriage as Anne was; more as he was a married man and he chased a younger single woman. Henry was also the one in authority; just as the employer is in authority over the female employee he goes after, or the teacher who falls for a student; etc; he should carry even more of the blame, even if their relationship developed into one of equality and respect; he was the King; the buck stops with him.

    The crimes levelled agaisnt Anne are a complete nonsense. One third of the dates can be misproven as either the King and Queen were elsewhere or the men accused with her where. Some of the dates correspond with the time that Anne was locked in a chamber, surrounded by a gaggle of matrons, having just given birth to Princess Elizabeth. Not even the King was allowed into this chamber. Even at the baptism, Anne was behind a screen, and before coming out into public and contact with the court she had to be churched. It is highly impossible that she would have had any sexual contact during this period or up to three months later as this was considered to be dangerous. Anne, as Claire has pointed out swore she was innocent on the Blessed Sacrament, which in a deeply religious age was significant and as she was about to die, her immortal soul was in danger, so she was telling the truth. She made her confession before witnesses, including the Constable of the Tower. It was reported back to the King and to Cromwell. She was detested by Eustace Chapyus who also wrote that he did not believe the charges and others also said so. Some historians in fact believe that Cromwell, ordered by Henry to get rid of Anne as being in the way, made the entire thing up an invented all of the dates. Whether he did so or was merely a tool, most of the charges could have been disproved and other evidence was lost or pushed even the treason laws to a stretch. Adultery, even 21 chargvesof it was a sin, not a crime, so not punishable by death. Anne’s foolish talk had brought her into contact with Henry Norris and accidently condemned her and him for imagining the Kings death; something that was not their intention. Anne had even tried to undo the damage, but Cromwell had what he needed and a Queen and five innocent men were killed because it was convenient to kill them.

    In any event, I do not see what the statement made by the commentator above concerning these things has got to do with an article about her appearence and her personal charm, wit, and so on. Anne was far more than a sexual being or a pretty face; she was intelligent and educated. She may have made some foolish remarks under stress and pressure; she may have been carrying Elizabeth before she was married, but that does not make her bloodsoaked or anything else that is levelled against her by the poster mentioned.

  13. Yes all I can read here makes sense to me : Anne’s appearance does matter . I agree with most of you thinking that her supposed physical defects were born long after her execution or – but the result is the same – were just a gossip among english people so much attached to their “good queen Katherine” they felt sure that only a witch could have taken a royal heart . We have to remember that sovereigns were just like messiahs fulfilling God’s wishes and a royal pair could be broken only by death (God almighty with no doubt on the matter) . In both cases, these people had never met the beautiful young queen .Yes she got black hair, a really dark complexion (very far from the standards by the time, when nobility was anxious to make believe they were only of norman or saxon descent) . Dark hair or eyes and – worse – brown skin was iunsuitable according to these “rules” . It’s clear that Anne was out these beauty standards but her fine features, her grace, her wit and her amazing eyes made her unique of her kind . For a venitian diplomate, she ha a bosom “not much raised” but well, he was italian after all ! And even Eustache Chapuys, who hated her is unable to criticize anything in her appearance – in fact, her main defect lays in her non-royal blood (even if her own grandmother could claim irish kings among her own ancestors) and the fact that the king had to split first with european courts and even the pope in order to marry her . When we remember that Catherine of Aragon was the emperor’s aunt, we are aware of the shock in this very little word (by then) .

    1. This portrait is the one from the inner hall at Hever Castle. It is not believed to be contemporary and is one of the portraits that Lord Astor collected. It is beautiful, but is just thought to be a copy or variation of other portraits.

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