Anne Boleyn or Nanny McPhee?

Thank you to Baroness, a regular commenter on The Anne Boleyn Files, for inspiring today’s post. I’ve been meaning to write another article on the myths surrounding Anne Boleyn’s appearance for some time so when I read Baroness’ words, “Henry fell in love with her because she was a stunning, smart women, not because she looked like Nanny McPhee”, I was inspired.

Did Anne Boleyn really look like Nanny McPhee, the character played so wonderfully by Emma Thompson?

Well, yes, if you believe Nicholas Sander. Sander wrote of Anne Boleyn in his book De Origine ac Progressu schismatis Anglicani, more commonly known as “Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism” (the English title of the translation from Latin by David Lewis, 1877):

“Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a 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 persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth, amusing in her ways, playing well on the lute, and was a good dancer.”1

Sander really could have been describing Nanny McPhee, couldn’t he? Could such a woman really have caught Henry VIII’s eye and kept him chasing her for so many years? I don’t believe so, not when we consider that Henry was looking for a woman to give him a son and heir, and how superstitious people were in those days about things that were seen as deformities. There is no way on this earth that Henry would have wanted an extra finger being passed on to his precious child.

But Sander was writing in the 16th century so shouldn’t we put some store in his words?

No, not really. Sander was born in 1530 and so was only six when Anne Boleyn was executed. He never met her, he never saw her. He was a Catholic recusant and wrote De Origine while in forced exile during the reign of Elizabeth I, a woman he hated. While De Origine has been hailed by some as “an excellent, popular account of the period from a Catholic point of view”,2 others describe Sander as “Dr Slander, the most violent of anti-Elizabethan propagandists… an enemy agent and no bones about it, an emissary from the Pope to a rebel army”.3 While acting as the procurator for the English exiles in Spain in the 1570s, Sander urged Philip to attack Protestant England, believing that “The state of christendom dependeth upon the stout assailing of England.”4

As J.H. Pollen5 points out in his biography of Sander, “Heylin calls him Dr. Slander, Strype ‘a most profligate fellow, a very slave to the Roman see, a sworn enemy to his own country,’ Burnet’s opinion is that ‘Sanders had so given himself up to vent reproaches and lies, that he often does it for nothing, without any end but to carry on a trade that had been so long driven by him that he knew not how to lay it down.'” Pollen goes on to write of how Francis Mason described Sander’s work as “libel” where “the number of lies may seem to vie with the multitude of lines.” It is worth noting that Peter Heylin, John Strype and Gilbert Burnet were all 17th century historians and Mason was a 16th and 17th century English churchman. They were not modern day historians examining Sander’s work out of context, and they knew their history, it was recent history. 19th century historian James Anthony Froude described Sander’s work as “the most venomous and successful of libels”, describing how Sander “collected into focus every charge which malignity had imagined against Henry VIII and his ministers” and making use of every “scandalous story” going around at the time.

In my opinion, Sander was going by the old saying “A grain of truth is needed to make a mountain of lies believable” by making use of contemporary descriptions of Anne Boleyn and then embellishing them so as to blacken her name, and that of her daughter Elizabeth I. The Venetian ambassador described Anne as “not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised… and her eyes which are black and beautiful…”6 and reformer Simon Grynée wrote that “she is young, good-looking, of a rather dark complexion, and likely enough to have children.”7 It is likely also that Sander relied on the hostile account of Anne’s coronation which was once in a catalogue of papers at Brussels:

“Her dress was covered with tongues pierced with nails, to show the treatment which those who spoke against her might expect. Her car was so low that the ears of the last mule appeared to those who stood behind to belong to her. The letters H. A. were painted in several places, for Henry and Anne, but were laughed at by many. The crown became her very ill, and a wart disfigured her very much. She wore a violet velvet mantle, with a high ruff (goulgiel) of gold thread and pearls, which concealed a swelling she has, resembling goître.”8

This is the only contemporary account of Anne having a wart but, as Professor Eric Ives9 points out, Anne’s coronation garb would have covered her neck anyway if it was like the surcoat and mantle that Elizabeth I wore at her coronation. It was not an attempt to hide her neck and how could the observer see the wart anyway? Contrary to what some historians and authors have said, it is the mystery account to Brussels which mentions a swelling on Anne’s neck at her coronation not Chapuys. The account is lost so we do not know who wrote it. Chapuys’ account of the coronation processions and pageants is not a glowing one – he compares the pageant to a funeral and describes it as “a cold, poor, and most unpleasing sight”10 – but he certainly does not give Anne a wen.

So, the wen (goitre) or wart is not mentioned by any valid contemporary report and, contrary to Sander’s account, Anne was not known for wearing high necked dresses or for bringing in the fashion; high necked dresses came later. Although one historian11 has quoted George Wyatt, grandson of poet Thomas Wyatt and author of “The Life of Anne Boleigne”, as saying that Anne had a pronounced Adam’s apple, I have been unable to find any mention of it in Wyatt’s work.

Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, wrote that Anne was “belle et de taille elegante”,12 beautiful with an elegant figure, and he had no reason to lie. Would de Carles really have described a woman with a projecting tooth, six fingers, yellow skin and a wen as “belle”? I don’t think so.

As for Anne being “a thin, old, and vicious hack”, another description of Anne which is often given as a reason for her losing Henry’s interest, this is a translation of Chapuys’ words “Que sentoit fort a linterpretation de plusieurs la ioyssance destre quiete de maigre, vielle et meschante bague avec espoir de rechargement quest chose fort peculiarie [ment] aggreable au dict roy”13 in 1536. Actually, “maigre, vielle et meschante bague” translates to “skinny, old and nasty ring” so Chapuys may actually be saying that Henry VIII wanted to replace a thin, old, nasty wedding ring with a more agreeable one, i.e. Jane Seymour, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Anne was thin and old. Chapuys is commenting more on Henry VIII’s whim than Anne’s appearance.14

What about the extra finger?

Well, although an extra finger is not mentioned by any other contemporary source, George Wyatt writes:

“There was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which yet was 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.”15

He goes on to say that Anne had “certain small moles” but goes on to write of her “bright beams of beauty” and “rare and admirable beauty”. Wyatt obviously saw this “little show of a nail” as very minor and it is far from an extra finger. The extra finger is definitely a big ‘Boleyn myth’.

Wyatt makes absolutely no mention of a wen or projecting tooth. Although Wyatt was not a contemporary of Anne Boleyn, he explains in his biography that his information came from a lady who attended on Anne before and after she was Queen (thought to be Anne Gainsford) and “a lady of noble birth, living in those times, and well acquainted with the persons that most this concerneth, from whom I am myself descended”, so, people who knew Anne.

In recent times, a six fingered (on one hand) Anne Boleyn has appeared in Robin Maxwell’s “The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn”, Karen Harper’s “The Queen’s Governess”, Norah Lofts’ fictional “The Concubine” and non-fiction “Anne Boleyn”, and in the Ludlow Castle Lodge portrait of Anne, a modern painting based on the NPG face of Anne. Anne Boleyn Files visitor, Sonetka, recently commented “The major source for many earlier novelists was Agnes Strickland’s “Lives of the Queens of England” which had a sympathetic account of Anne but which also stated that she had a sixth finger, which is why Lofts et al gave her one and made it a way to set her apart from the crowd, both literally and symbolically” and she is probably right. I have also heard of Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London mentioning Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger and a recent London Dungeon Henry VIII themed “infographic”16 declared that “Henry’s wife, Anne Boleyn, had 6 fingers on each hand”, along with a few other dubious facts about the King. This, of course, sparked off outrage on Tudor Facebook pages, particularly as nobody has ever gone as far to say that Anne had an extra finger on both her hands! Obviously the Yeoman Warders and London Dungeon are using the myth as a salacious fact to interest tourists and to entertain.

It is frustrating that we do not know exactly what Anne Boleyn looked like but I think it is safe to say that she had dark hair and eyes, olive skin and moles, and that she was of medium build with small breast. It is impossible to say what the blemish/deformity was on her hand, but there was obviously something on it.

Please do comment if you have any thoughts on Anne’s appearance.

Anne’s appearance and the representations of Anne Boleyn through the ages are explored in “The Creation of Anne Boleyn” by Susan Bordo, which is due out next month. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon – click here – and it has had a wonderful pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly. You may also be interested in Susan’s latest blog article which is an excerpt from her book and which talks about websites including The Anne Boleyn Files – see Viral Anne.

Notes and Sources

  1. Sander, Nicholas, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585), p25
  2. “Nicholas Sander” in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
  3. Rose, Elliot, Cases of Conscience: Alternatives open to Recusants and Puritans under Elizabeth I and James I (1975), p47
  4. Ibid.
  5. Pollen, J. H., Dr Nicholas Sander (1891), English Historical Review 6, p36
  6. Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, Venice, Vol. 4 (1527-1533), 824
  7. Simon Grynée quoted in Sergeant, P. W., The Life of Anne Boleyn (1923), p129
  8. LP vi. 585
  9. Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004), p30
  10. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2 , 1077, p700, and 1081, p704
  11. Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991), p151
  12. de Carles, Lancelot, line 61, in Ascoli, George, La Grand-Bretagne Devant L’Opinion Francaise, 1927
  13. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Vol. 5, Part 2, 1536-1538, p127
  14. Thank you to Teri Fitzgerald for the discussions we’ve had on this sentence by Chapuys and for pointing out that he uses the word “bague” in the original.
  15. Wyatt, George, The Life of Anne Boleigne, in Cavendish, George, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, p183
  16. London Dungeon Infographic

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76 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn, Nanny McPhee and Nicholas Sander”
  1. Nanny McPhee! Hilarious! Thanks for the post, Claire.

    How sad that Sander’s report is one that has survived history as an account of Anne’s appearance when he was only 6 when she was executed.

    I anxiously await “The Creation of Anne Boleyn”. Does anyone know what inspired Anne’s image on the cover? Lovely.

    Also, has anyone heard of any updates on David Starkey’s revised article regarding the reconstruction of the “Moost Happi Medal”?

  2. It’s really simple to me. I don’t believe Henry would have fought so hard to wed a woman with an extra finger, a large wen on her neck, a sallow complextion, etc.

    I read Loft’s book a few months ago. I found it in the library and was shocked when I read the bit about the extra finger. I couldn’t believe it was put in there as fact.

  3. Very informative, thank you for posting these it!

    IMO I think Anne was probably like 5’5″ 110 pound dark hair, eyes, skin..pretty and smart as a whip with a tongue to match (ahead of her time) she probably didn’t have an extra nail but a mole on her finger that probably looked bad and they didn’t have wart remover back then. I highly doubt that H8 would chase a hag..she was young when she died but to H8 she was old, he obviously got a taste for younger woman.

    I think she was her own beauty!

    My question is Thomas Wyatt wrote about her, yes? He knew her personally though right? Would he lie?

    1. It was George Wyatt, Thomas Wyatt’s grandson, who wrote about her, but he had no reason to lie. Various poems by Thomas Wyatt have been linked to Anne.

      1. Oh, duh (palm to forehead) I didn’t mean to mix those 2 up. 🙂

        Thank you Claire, you are A-mazing 🙂 keep these myths coming…

      2. Claire,I would also like to point out that it was also said that Queen Anne wh*re gowns with very long drape like sleeves on her gowns, to cover up the “sixth finger” another myth and not True.That was the fashion back in the Queens day,even her ladies wh*re much the same type and women at the court aswell it,s called Fashion.Not to hide the so called 6th finger,also the surcoat was also used to wear over gowns ,as the castles were very large and drafty aswell they wh*re a high collar to because of the cold,and England is not like living in Carribian,the weather is not the best in Europe,such as England ,Scottland,Ierland, France it gets very cold.So if you heard or read ,thats why she wh*re long sleeves on her gowns to hide that 6th finger, just a rumor or myth. THX Baroness X

  4. Wonderful article!
    I wonder if the “extra nail” Wyatt describes might be an ingrown fingernail? Huh. Just throwing out there….

    1. My thoughts too about the extra finger/nail or what ever it really was. I think it could of possibly been a mole?!?! Who knows…

      1. Kara,Hi thats my daugthers name ,spelled the same way a very pretty name ,in Greek Kara means Pure.I just what to say there is a huge difference between a 6th finger and a nail ,a finger is just that and a nail is a nail keratin is what nails aremade from protein that grow 1/3 inch per month on everyone and does the hair grows 1/4 a inch per month one all humans.I never heard it was a nail,I have always heard it was a 6th finger,and Claire is right about Sanders and the myth of the so called 6th finger,as were the long sleeves on Anne’s gowns to hide this 6th so called finger all, myth or rumors spread very quick we all know that. Thx Baroness x

    2. LOL! It was probably a hangnail! I was born with one and still have them frequently. In those times, that could have easily been considered an “extra nail”….

  5. Claire,I thought you would get a really good laugh on that one,sorry I spelled McVee instead of Nanny Mcphee,was a spelling mis function.But never thuoght you would write a post on how they made, Anne look to be.I agree that she was a stunning,smart !and true, Henry would have never look at a women twice ,if she in fact looked that bad.But you know how I feel about Chaupy’s,he never had a good thing to say about QueenAnne or Elizabeth.Poor Elizabeth having to grow up being addressed as the little Bastard which was often used by Chaupy’s and her mother the concubine,OMG.I also anserwed a Qs, just be get a chukkle out of you .Where is Queen Anne’s B neckless ?and replyed it’s on Claire’s neck,I jest, but you do grace the neckless ,as I am sure Queen Anne did to. Kind Regards Baroness X

  6. maybe she had sallow skin and moles but that’s not ugly, I’ve got sallow skin and dark eyes and moles ( us dark skinned types often do) but it’s not ugly. I think she’d have looked like my friend Meg who was thin, flat chested, with a long neck, black hair, sallow skin, full mouth and prominent nose and almost black eyes, I thought my friend was beautiful .

    1. But it was far from the standard of beauty at the time, the classic English rose. No, I don’t think it’s ugly at all and I’m dark too. If she looked anything like the Hever portrait (the one with the rose) then she was beautiful.

    2. Alison,There’s not a person on the planet earth, that doe’ent have a mole or two,I wonder how many moles good old Henry V111 had on his body???He also talked badly about ,Anne Of Cleve’s and how much he had know attraction to her,as they sent a portrait of Cleve’s before she ever went to England.It was also said she had moles ,saggy breasts ect;And he hated the way she dressed.

  7. Not a word of truth in Sanders supposedly observations. He must have been one very bright and observant child if these phyiscal attributes were true. The Catholics at that time would have blamed Anne for Henry’s evil behaviour. So, in order to do that they had to make her ugly and stupid. No-one spoke up for her while Henry was alive.

    Henry would have never even looked twice at her if she looked like that. I don’t think that Henry would have become involved if she hadn’t had been beautiful.

    Henry was a true narcisstic personality and everything Anne was or wasn’t would have reflected upon him and his image. Perception and image were all to Henry. Remember it was all about him.

  8. IMO, the term “beautiful” seems to have been used as value judgment, rather than saying something factual about Anne’s appearance. Wasn’t “beauty” listed as a virtue, along with kindness and perseverence in the “Chateau Vert” pageant? It was a reformer who said that Anne was good looking, whereas the Venetian ambassador (presumably Catholic) says that she was “not one of the handsomest women in the world …” However, there is a huge difference between the value judgment and making something up about her appearance. If Anne did have a wen or goiter, I think the Venetian ambassador or Chapuys would have said so. IIRC, Chapuys didn’t say Anne was particularly unattractive in any way until making the “thin, old hack” comment … which was at a time that we now know was close to the end of her life, when stress would have greatly affected both her looks and her temper.

    1. Yes, beauty was a virtue so I agree with you there.

      I do think that if she had a wen that Chapuys would have mentioned it and a few times too. He disliked Anne so I’m sure he would have used such a physical characteristic to criticise her even more.

      Re “hack”, Chapuys actually didn’t use the word hack, he wrote “bague” which translates to “ring”. The translator of the State Papers put “hague?” but it was written “bague”. Interesting!

  9. It drives me a little nuts that the things “everybody knows” about the Boleyn family are the things written by ardent partisans who hated them. It’s like having Chelsea Handler write Angelina Jolie’s obituary and taking it as gospel.

      1. Good point. I amend my statement to include “especially”, to indicate the vastness of Ms. Handler’s mishandling of information. *See the pun? I worked hard on it, tell me you see it.”

        1. Kyra,I agree a very good repy and I get it,I see the pun, I know Ms. Handlers work on E very well. Kind Regards Baroness X

  10. Dear to whom this may concern,

    Hi my name is Miranda Lynn Reed. I was just wondering. Why do people really hate Anne Boleyn? What did Anne Boleyn every to people? Am I making any sense right now? I hope i am making sense right now. Let me know if i am making any sense right now okay.


    Miranda Lynn Reed.

    1. Hi Miranda, and welcome to the Anne Boleyn Files!

      Claire is your hostess/myth debunker and ardent seeker of the truth of one Anne Boleyn. Join in on the discussions, and read any and all of the posts that Claire posts here, and your curiosity will be well rewarded.

      Claire has made it her mission to hunt down every hint, myth and story she can, and present it by way of some VERY serious scholarship. She, like many historians, does speculate, given the gaps in the historic record, but she does so utilizing the highest academic standards possible. If she does make a mistake, she WILL correct herself, right here in public, too.

      Anne is a fascinating woman to many of us here, for as many reasons as there are fans of Anne herself. Was she an Angel? A Devil? Both? Neither?

      So sit back, read, and prepare yourself for many an interesting discussion!

    2. Hi Miranda,

      There are many different reasons why people hated (and still hate) Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII’s love for her led to him leaving Catherine of Aragon (his wife of 24 years) and sending her away from court, treating his daughter Mary cruelly, breaking with Rome and thereby starting the English Reformation which led, ultimately, to England being a Protestant country, and the persecutions which happened as a result of the break. People today because some see her as a ‘homewrecker’, some believe that she used witchcraft to bewitch Henry, some believe that she committed incest and adultery and therefore got what was coming to her, some believe that she gets too much attention… Lots of reasons.

      I hope that helps and welcome to the site.

    3. Hi Miranda,Those are very good questions you ask and you are making sence.Itseems to me that you are trying to learn more about Queen Anne and why people said such bad things about her?So I am sure that ,Claire and all the Anne Boleyn Friends on Claires site will help you to understand and help in anyway we can.I take it that you are in school and younger,so maybe they don’t talk about Queen Anne in History?But you will learn alot from this site and we all will try to help you understand what really happen.Welcome new Anne Boleyn Friend. Baroness x

  11. I find it incredible that people comment on the fact that the King would not have married a woman with a sixth finger. REALLY!!!! Come on, I seriously doubt he was even aware of it, & had Henry known, a sixth finger would hardly keep him from having Anne Boleyn. We all would like to think of Anne as being beautiful. I doubt she was beautiful; but perhaps she was lovely. Certainly she was intelligent, charming, stylish, and religious. Most of the things a King would no doubt look for in a woman and a Queen.

    1. But you have to see it from a 16th century point of view and from Henry VIII’s point of view, I think. Henry was deeply religious, superstitious and paranoid about his health and avoiding illness. He wanted an heir but he wanted a perfect one. Deformities were thought to be linked to sexual sin (or the mother having a terrifying experience during pregnancy) so an extra finger would have made some people think that Anne was the product of sin and if her child had been born with an extra finger you can imagine the tongues wagging about her and Henry. Henry could not have had such gossip surrounding any child of his, regardless of how he felt about Anne.

      Even in today’s world in some cultures anything that isn’t “normal” results in gossip and even a person being treated as an outcast.

      I don’t think Anne was beautiful, she certainly didn’t fit the idea of beauty for her time, but sources suggest that there was something about her, some kind of magnetism. Lancelot de Carles puts it down to her eyes.

      1. In that entire instance you could go on about the myth then if the deformity was sin, the myth of Anne’s mother and Henry having an affair and Anne was his.. (Which I know isn’t possible) but I saw someone mention that myth.

  12. To me, Genieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days)epitomises the “looks” and spirit of Anne Boleyn. No-one else even comes close to upstaging GB. Not even Natalie Dormer!

    1. Kelpiemare,You are sooo RIGHT!!!!!Know one can even come close to Ms.Bujold and I really think that every actor in that flim did there ,RESEARCH!!Sir Richard Burton was excellent as Henry V111. THX Baronesss x

      1. Ah Richard Burton……a REAL actor…he was a tremendous Henry VIII, romantic one second and darkly menacing the next. His ability is sadly lacking in today’s’ “stars”, imho!!

        1. Kelpiemare,Sir Richard Burton,By far one of the best to portray HenryV111, he even look like Henry in some of the early paintings,not at all the short scwaty man with bowed legs,as some people think thats what he looked like,not so!He was over 6 ft tall buff ,love sports, hunting, joust and chaseing the ladies aswell.It was after the death of Seymour that he became obesse a gultin,as for the bowed legs horses were the only way of travel ,if you been on horse all your life,your bound to have bowed legs.I agree with you he was one of the best actors of his time.Did you know that Burton and Bujold had a romance durring the making of Anne Of The Thousand Days? It’s true and Liz was none to happy ,to here about that,but they were divorced. THX Baroness x

        2. kelpiemare,I have watch Anne Of The Thousand Days perhapes a ,1000 times,and the details of the flim,I had a qs for Claire about Elizabeth 1 and wanted to know if they had found any of her belongings.Claire had told me that Elizabeth 1was very proud of her long slender fingers and that they had found a pair of her gloves,which are on display.When watching Queen Anne just gave birth to Elizabeth,I noticed that the new born baby that was in the flim ,had the longest fingers, I have ever seen on a new born baby,so I thought of what Claire had said, she loved her long slender fingers .So if you have the movie take a gander at new born Elizabeth and the long fingers on this baby,what detail.So I truely think they really did there research so well I was amazed!!Baroness x

  13. Sanders is a bit contradictory, isn’t he? First he described all these things wrong with Anne’s looks – snaggle tooth, wen, etc. Then he says she was handsome to look at! Bet he didn’t even proofread his own words! LOL Just love some of the things that has come to light on this website that I would never have the time to find – thanks again, Clare for doing it for us!

    1. That’s always bothered me too.

      Anne had all those supposed faults and yet was still a looker. Strange indeed.

  14. It’s very kind of you to quote my opinion on the sixth finger in fiction — thank you! It’s actually turned up in (by my count) 17 fictional works on Anne brought out during the last 150 years, and usually she has a hanging sleeve to conceal it — this is also right out of Agnes Strickland. I have a post about the sleeve (and finger) here, if you don’t mind the self-linkage:

    About Sander’s writings, it’s rather like the Spanish Calendar, I think — difficult to take at its face value but not for that reason entirely false (the trouble, of course, is telling the false parts from the true ones!) After all, what he says isn’t even really that bad overall — he draws attention to and exaggerates her “flaws”, but at the same time he does praise her music and dancing skills, and calling her “handsome to look at” isn’t exactly damning. It’s true that Sander was violently Catholic, and very anti-Elizabethan (being a priest, he would have been in some bodily danger had he been caught and exposed as such in England) but many of the criticisms of him are also coming from sources that weren’t exactly neutral — Burnet, for example, may have called him “Dr. Slander” but in his own “History of the Reformation”, while he correctly rebuts Sander’s saying that Anne may have been Henry’s daughter, he manages to imply that Anne’s downfall was brought about by unnamed people “out of their zeal to Popery” — Cromwell’s name doesn’t even come up once. George Wyatt, too, was the son of Thomas Wyatt the younger, who had been executed under Mary, and was no friend to Catholics. So while Sander’s picture was undoubtedly skewed against Anne, the other men weren’t necessarily being more objective — not to mention that except for Wyatt, most of them were writing at least a century later. It’s a lot closer than we are, but still long enough for distortions and omissions to occur. I mean, what do most people know now about Queen Victoria?

    1. I think the important things to consider when using historical sources is who they were written by, in what context they were written, who they were written for and for what purpose they were written. If we use that filter here, Sander’s work is definitely Catholic propaganda, just as John Foxe’s is Protestant propaganda. What we get in both their works is truth mixed with exaggeration and embellishments. What we need to do is to compare what they say with other sources from the time. There is no other contemporary source stating that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand and Chapuys would have been sure to mention it.

      Regarding the long sleeves. Yes, we’ve had lots of discussions on the site over the years about the whole long sleeve hiding the extra finger story and costume expert Molly Housego pointed out that long sleeves were the fashion of the time and had nothing to do with Anne, they were popular from 1510 onwards. The sleeves were long with a deep turnback cuff. It is funny how the sleeves have been used in fiction as a special design by Anne to hide her hand!

      1. Oh, I wasn’t saying that I thought she had a sixth finger — just that Sander wasn’t the only partisan writing about her. And yes, that “hanging sleeve” or “Boleyn sleeve” has turned up a crazy amount of times. You can blame Agnes Strickland for that one as well — I have no idea where she got the information (or if she thought it up herself, based on the “fact” of Anne’s sixth finger and the elaborate sleeves of the time) but it’s certainly echoed down the centuries — they turned up even in a 2007 novel, and I wouldn’t bet on that being the last time!

        1. I didn’t think you were, so don’t worry.

          I think a few novelists have relied on Agnes Strickland, or Norah Lofts.

      2. THANK YOU CLAIRE,For clearing up the gowns wth the sleeves, it was the FASHION in the mid 1500’s. I collect remakes of such gowns and have gowns from early 1500’s aswell.Then as we go on in fashion history we see ,Queen Elizabeth1 change the fashion, when she was Queen,were the women and men had a clearly different sence of Fashion.They did not were hoods anymore ,they liked hats and snoods,.Back in the days of Anne ,they wh*re hoods and the vail,because womens ears were considerd to be a private part of a womens body,so you never saw a womens ears exsposed,just in private and that is the trueth. THX Baroness x

      3. Thanks for the mention, Claire. Re the tiresome ‘sleeves invented by Anne to hide the extra finger’ myth, may I refer any doubters to a 1515 manuscript image of Anne of Brittany, the NPG portrait of Catherine of Aragon (1527) and Holbein’s sketches ‘Study for Thomas More’s Family’ (1527) and ‘Woman wearing an English Hood’ (1528-30). All prior to Anne’s elevation to Queen at Court (and thus prior to her role as fashion influencer) and therefore debunking the myth completely.

        1. Mollyhusego,I did not say that Anne was a Fashion infuencer, and the hood was around before Anne,but has the women today also follow the fashion of these times ,so did the women of Queen Anne’s life ,they did also have designers from all over a lot of french fashion, were Anne had spent alot of time at court.But the hood did in fact disapear when Elizabeth 1 was Queen even before that ,and to the, Queens did have a say has to what they wanted there ladies inwaiting to wear at court. Kind Regards Baroness x

    2. Sonetkka,I have study the fashion and Queen Anne since ,I was 15 yrs old and now will be 57,there was always the myth of ,Annes dresses being long drape like sleeves,how ever you have been mis informed,all the ladies wh*re long sleeved gown and it is true that was the Fashion, durring that time period.However it wasnot to hide the ‘sixth’ finger,or so called extra finger.Also Queen Katherine wh*re mostly black and dark in color ,almost nun like with hood vail and a large cross,where as Queen Anne wh*re white and yellows, light blues,aswell as the ,Royal colors of Blues and Reds,very opposite of Katherines gowns ,as QKate was a devout Cahtolic and very religious ,were as QAnne also was very religious, but she was a Protesstant in her faith.So the 6th finger is just that a ugly lie from the ,Queen Anne haters Sanders,Chapuys and all others that disliked the Queen. Kind Regards Baroness x

  15. My 10 year old nephew has recently been studying the Tudors in his history class. He told me the following ‘facts’ about Anne……
    – She was the bad one out of all his wives
    – She deserved to have her head chopped off
    – She had 6 fingers on one hand that she always kept covered up.
    Interestingly he goes to a local Catholic Primary school!!!
    Don’t worry Claire, I put him right on his Anne facts 😉

  16. I am surprised that no one has mentioned Henry’s treatment of Anne of Cleves – it’s a bit like the photos on those dating sites – all he had to go on was Holbein’s rather flattering portrait of Anne but when he actually met her and didn’t find her all that attractive, it was game over. One of the reasons for Cromwell’s downfall was that he pushed Henry into marrying the “Flanders Mare”. The point I am trying to make that perhaps Henry was a wee bit shallow when it came to how women looked. I am inclined to believe that if Anne Boleyn had even remotely looked like Nanny MacPhee, Henry would not have gone there at all. However, sex appeal and sexual attraction has nothing to do with beauty – perhaps Anne had a lot of sex appeal – her life in the French court would have certainly taught her a thing or too. Intelligence and confidence are sexy too – Anne would have had this in abundance – but I think that she would have been quite attractive anyway – perhaps a small mole or two and maybe even crooked teeth – no orthodontics back then!

    1. Andrew,I did make mention on how Henry had a dis taste for the way Anne of Cleve’s looked moles, saggy breasts and that he really hated how she dressed.But Cleves was also smart,as she disliked Henry just as bad.So Henry made, Ceves his sister,as he did’ent want to tick off Germany to.I think Anne of Cleves was a very pretty young women. Kind Regards Baroness x

  17. Thanks for a great article,Claire. I have seen many women over the years who would not be called beautiful but who were so full of life and charm that men fell all over themselves for these women. I like to think of Anne that way–not unattractive but rather, attractive but with the added plus of sex appeal and liveliness! Evidently, many men found her just so!

    1. A lot of the comments about Anne’s appearance were almost certainly related to the contemporary idea of beauty.

      During the Renaissance, blonde hair and ‘pink and white’ complexions were held up as the ideal. This was certainly the case in Italy, where there was a preponderance of brunettes – Botticelli’s Venus is a blonde and Lucrezia Borgia was praised for her golden hair. Some aristocratic Italian ladies resorted to dubious means to lighten their complexions and tresses, even using preparations of urine! The Venetian ambassador might well have been surprised that with a plethora of English blondes to choose from, Henry fell for the dark haired and olive skinned Anne.

  18. ‘Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder’…and I think that’s what it comes down to concerning Anne. Some will see her as stunning, others ‘the goggle eyed wh*re’. It is a great shame there is no reliable portrait of this Lady. But as many have said above, Henry liked glamour and excitement, and I doubt very much he would have moved Heaven and Earth to marry someone who wasn’t physically presentable.

    She wasn’t the Tudors idea of beauty then, blonde, pale, blue eyed, being dark, but I personally think she had a strong attractiveness about her that she knew how to make the most of, in her fashion sense, her wit, in her abilities such as dancing, and in her intellect, put these all together and you have a powerful force of sexuality and womanhood…those that liked her thought she was wonderful and said she was beautiful, those that hated her were afraid or jealous of her and said she was ugly.

    The ‘sixth finger/nail’ thing to me is exaggerated folk-lore, a wart or skin tag maybe…
    Moles who hasn’t got them, bet Henry had a few too.
    A sticky out tooth!, in those days you were lucky to have any teeth left in adulthood if you were wealthy and could afford sugar.
    A wen/double chin, possibly when pregnant, but not all the time.
    All these things are normal human traits, but because/if Anne had them, they were ‘ugly and/or signs of a witch’…

    Talking about Anne starting the long sleeve fashion to cover her extra finger, it was also said that she also made wearing one glove fashionable, and started the trend of wearing velvet chokers round the neck to conseal her ‘mole’. This was seen on the film version of the series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, with Keith Michell, Anne wearing the glove and choker…

    Great post Claire, and really funny the ‘Nanny Mcphee’ comment from Baroness.

  19. great article again! i really enjoyed reading it!!! i had a question, cause we don’t know the exact date of birth of anne boleyn, what do you thhink of the sign anne boleyn was? i myself am an aries & i think that anne might have been an aries too, any ideas what sign she might have been, like her traits, with that temperament, brave or were that just the person she was, any thoughts?

    1. Juia,I ask Claire about Annes birth date and we really don’t know the exact date of birth,but Claire did make mention under the post of Mary the Unknown sister as to who was the oldest sister.But as Claire states they really did’ent keep birth records back in the days so big ???? I would go to the site on Mary and Claire has the dates on that post. Thx Baroness x

  20. This post was great. I would recommend it to any one thinking of Anne as an ‘ugly hag’ with six fingers. But some people insist on demonizing her still, even with these facts presented to them. Oh well. People are entitled to their opinions, I guess. But to me the post proves what I have always believed of Anne’s appearance (ever since I had educated myself on her)-that she was certainly not ugly or plain but no great beauty. And no sixth finger! And moles? Well they do not make a person ugly or deformed or (lol) a witch.

    1. Leandra,I agree with your reply,but I do think Anne was a stunnig women carazmatic,very lively and enjoyed life,andto I think she was young perhapes 17 to 18 years old.Where as Henry was much oldre and we know he liked the youngers females,Henery was intensly attracked to Anne,and if she had been tis hag,he would not of spent 6years, trying to gain her love.As far as the witch myth goes, that nothing but and ugly romour.I can just here Chapuys,saying she stirs her brew at midnight, olny when theres a full moon,with her black cat.A witch one large lie!!!

      1. Yes Baroness, I completely agree that is was Anne’s charisma and wit and fun loving personality that made her one the most desirable women in court. That is definitely why Henry was so head over heels. Anne was not just another pretty face,when it all comes down to things I believe it was her personality and not so much her looks that won them over. Thanx for the inspiration of this post,btw. It was a good one!

  21. I’m so glad to see someone mentioned Kieth Mitchel… I grew up on, and absolutely LOVE and adore Kieth Mitchel’s portrayal of Henry the V111! As well as the Wonderful Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn. Though they were both a bit older than their characters would have been at the start of the story, they brought those long ago –‘who really knows’–(Some of the portraits I’ve seen of Henry almost remind me of one that I’ve seen of Paul Revere!) people back to life for us to see in fabulous living, moving color, with WONDERFUL perofmances.
    ***Keith dressed as the 18 yr old Henry with the short tunic and tights on very long lean shapely legs, and the longer pageboy haircut REALLY illustrated him SOOOO well as a YOUTH… the very strength and vigor Henry must have seen himself as all his life… even in later years when we know he was not that young handsome strapping young man any longer, and looked quite different. THAT scene always stuck with me. THAT’s the man he was, and probably continued to THINK he was… even 4 wives and many lbs, fears, upsets and sorrows later. –to the overweight, flamboyant tyrant history has revealed.
    I also loved of course the magnificent Richard Burton and the lovely Genvieve Bujold in Anne of the 1000 days. Her firey performance and looks were rivetting. * If the real Anne had all those unattractive things that have been written over the years, yikes!!!… Would Henry, the King of England who NEEDED to have the perfect, unblemished heir, really have been so enchanted with her???

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you Cindy, to me Keith Michell gave the most convincing and realistic performance of what we know of Henry throughout his life, his temperment and personality etc. The costumes were great, the amount of padding and make-up ‘Henry’ had to wear must have been so uncomfortable.
      I have 3 copy prints of the costume designs framed and hung on my walls, these were sold as a limited edition set of 8, (2 0f Henry), after the series, still searching for the others, the costumes themselves went on tour too, around the country. I know the actual filming of the series now looks dated, the film not to bad, but the acting was spot on.
      Also like you, I think Burton & Bujould film was excellent too, again the costumes and acting were wonderful, and she is my all time favourite Anne, I think with her being French/Canadian showed Anne’s ‘Frenchness’ off to a T, and I always imagine Anne to look and to have been like her, rose-tinted glasses maybe, who knows….but in real life I still think Anne had an unusual attractiveness about her that captivated many, especially the King.

      1. Dawn 1st,I so agree with your reply Burton&Ms.Bujould what a great team of actors to portray the love,hate ,relationship between Henry and Anne!They also in true life ,had a relationship it was short lived but,I think thats were alot of the passion came from,truely a great flim!! Kind Regards Baroness

  22. Claire, it’s worth noting that most people don’t read what Sanders originally wrote, but quote the 1877 English translation by David Lewis. Sylwia Zupanec has rightly pointed us in the direction of the original Latin text in this blog article:

    She rightly points out that Sanders didn’t mention a “large wen under her chin” at all, he says “sub mento etiam succrescebat turgidum nescio quid” and is describing some sort of swelling for which he has no more information – not a “wen” but some sort of swelling, which is clearly connected to
    Similarly, while the translation says “she had a projecting tooth under the upper lip” which, as you say, sounds Nanny McPHee-ish, the Latin is:
    “cui dens unus in superiore gingivo paululum prominebat”, ie a tooth in her upper gum that was “a little prominent.” The translation makes it sound as if the tooth protruded beneath the top lip; Sanders says no such thing – he describes a slightly irregular upper tooth; no more, no less.

    While it is true that mention of Anne’s “deformities” is made by people hostile to her, that is no reason to dismiss them out of hand; the fact that her friends don’t mention them may arise from either conscious or unconscious self-censorship. My guess is that hostile sources don’t entirely invent these details; they latch onto peculiarities and exaggerate them, and then – as with Chinese whispers – each quotation becomes more wildly exaggerated still: a small facial mole becomes a disfiguring wart, a slight swelling under the chin becomes a monstrouse goitre, etc.

    1. [Sorry, my previous comment was sent before I’d edited it. It should read as follows:]

      Claire, it’s worth noting that most people don’t read what Sanders originally wrote, but quote the 1877 English translation by David Lewis. Sylwia Zupanec has rightly pointed us in the direction of the original Latin text in this blog article:

      She rightly points out that Sanders didn’t mention a “large wen under her chin” at all, he says “sub mento etiam succrescebat turgidum nescio quid” and is describing some sort of swelling for which he has no more information – not a “wen” but some sort of swelling, which is clearly connected to the supposed goitre mentioned by the witness to the coronation.

      Similarly, while the translation says “she had a projecting tooth under the upper lip” which, as you say, sounds Nanny McPHee-ish, the Latin is: “cui dens unus in superiore gingivo paululum prominebat”, ie a tooth in her upper gum that was “a little prominent.” The translation makes it sound as if the tooth protruded beneath the top lip; Sanders says no such thing – he describes a slightly irregular upper tooth; no more, no less.

      While it is true that mention of Anne’s “deformities” is made by people hostile to her, this is no reason to dismiss them out of hand; the fact that her friends don’t mention them may arise from self-censorship – conscious or unconscious. My guess is that hostile sources don’t entirely invent these details; they latch onto peculiarities and exaggerate them, and then – as with Chinese whispers – each quotation becomes more wildly exaggerated still: a small facial mole becomes a disfiguring wart, a slight swelling under the chin becomes a monstrouse goitre, etc.

      1. I actually have real problems with Sylwia Zupanec’s book because she twists the Latin to suit her purpose. David Lewis’ English translation, done in the 19th century, is actually perfectly fine as “wen” means “A boil or other swelling or growth on the skin, esp. a sebaceous cyst”. it can refer to any swelling whatsoever. Sylwia completely misquotes and mistranslates Sanders’ words re Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage, see I think it is wrong to misquote and mistranslate something to fit a theory.

        There IS reason to dismiss these descriptions because NO other source mentions them and Sander was writing in 1585 and never saw or met Anne Boleyn. Yes, just because a source is hostile it doesn’t mean that it is not correct, but Sander was not in the position to know anything about Anne and there are various errors on his book.

        1. Well, I don’t really know what Sylwia Zupanec’s purpose is, and only mentioned her because it would have been dishonest to hide the fact that my examination of the original Latin was prompted by her essay, not my own ingenuity.

          My view is that the Latin “turgidum” really is best translated as “swelling”; this avoids any definition of the condition whatsoever, whereas “wen” defines it as a boil or growth. One can have a swelling under the chin because of a bad tooth, or a viral infection, and one wouldn’t call that a “wen” or “boil”. Since Lewis described the wen as “large”, a word that manifestly doesn’t appear in the Latin, and also didn’t translate Sanders’ doubts about the precise nature of the swelling (“nescio quid”), I don’t believe that the older translation really is “perfectly fine”, or that the alternative translation is at all twisted.

          As regards corroboration, you earlier quoted the Brussels memorandum, which refers to “the swelling she has, resembling goître” which surely provides a perfectly legitimate contemporary source, however hostile.

        2. The Brussels report has many “facts” in it which are not corroborated by any other source, for example the description of Anne’s gown. I suspect that it was this account that Sander used as a source for his description and that it is not s corroborating source. Just as Sander uses chronicles like that of Edward Hall. Sander was writing 50 years after the events.

          A wen is a swelling and does not have to refer to anything else, so I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with Lewis’ translation and it certainly should not be dismissed as it was by Zupanec. We have to remember that he was translating it in the 19th century, so he uses a different style of language than we would today, hence the use of wen.

          It’s always a good thing to go back to the original sources, so I’m not disagreeing with that, it’s what historians and authors do, they do not rely on just the translations.

        3. I forgot to say that Chapuys did not describe Anne Boleyn as “scrofulous”, as Zupanec says in her article and book, the only contemporary description of Anne having a swelling of any kind on her neck is the anonymous Brussels report which is now lost, unfortunately. Chapuys makes no mention of it in any of his reports and does not corroborate the Brussels report in his account of Anne’s coronation.

          I should have been clearer about what I meant about twisting a source, I was referring to another Latin/English translation issue in the book regarding Anne’s final pregnancy. If you haven’t read the book then what I said doesn’t make much sense – sorry!

  23. Hi,
    II love this topic and think it is one of life’s greatest debates and mysteries. To start with a good reference for translations of historical documents is the new testament specifically revelations. Through the ages it has been translated from Aramaic to Koine (Greek) to Latin to “olde” English to name a few. The result being a complete jumble of ideas combined with a little truth most of which when compared to writing in today’s standards can be said to border on the ridiculous. So, as has already been pointed out reliable sources are few and far between and also translation etc aside depend upon what faction the writer was affiliated with at that time. Hence Nanny McPhee, which I think is ingenious as it shows the great depth of mind set that can be built into the narrative descriptions.

    Whatever her looks, be it beautiful or a Nanny McPhee clone she will remain iconic in history for eternity.

    Digressing just a little bit, I wonder if you all have noticed a remarkable resemblance between the Holbein sketch (not the double chinned version), the moost happy medal and Holbein’s sketch of an unnamed woman in a gable hood c1535 which is shown on wkipeadia under a search for a gable hood. It would be interesting to see other opinions.

  24. In today’s world, we have mass media to bombard us with images of what is considered beautiful by today’s standards. How would the masses of this era have been exposed to the concept of an ideal beauty? Or, would there just have been an acknowledgement of an intrinsic beauty perhaps based on feature symmetry, lack of gross (large) abnormalities or blemishes, etc.?

  25. Hello Claire

    I have been a Tudor fan for as long as I can remember and I just wanted to say how much I enjoy visiting your website 🙂

    I came across an interesting article yesterday, which you may or may not have seen, it’s regarding a portrait of Elizabeth 1 – ‘portrait with a serpent’ and underneath Elizabeth’s face there is a portrait of another woman, which can be clearly seen under x-ray.

    It shows a woman with high cheekbones, dark eyes and an intense gaze (it also makes reference to her sporting a French hood but I can’t make this out), which I think fits with the contemporary descriptions of Anne Boleyn at the time. I just wondered whether you had came across this and what your thoughts were? Maybe it is too good to be true, but how amazing if it were though!


    1. Hi Faye,
      Yes, the NPG published their findings on their website – see I don’t believe the original portrait to be of Anne Boleyn for the following reasons:
      1)There would be no reason to paint over a portrait of Anne in her mother’s reign as that is when portraits of her became popular.
      2)The NPG states that the clothing dated to the 1570s or 80s.
      3)It was the norm for artists to reuse panels and paint over old paintings so it could be anyone.

      Just my opinion though!

      1. I am sure Elizabeth would not have allowed a portrait of her mother to be painted over.
        I also saw it on the Internet and thought it could be anyone.
        My interest lies in the locket ring removed from Elizabeth’s finger at her death. Could that be the real Anne? There were enough contemporaries of Anne around in Elizabeth’s time that would have known for sure.
        I do not believe in the myths surrounding Anne. She was skilled in the art of music, dancing, writing, language, fashion and more. She would have stood out at court as an accomplished young woman so it is no wonder Henry was attracted to her.
        A queen who changed history and gave us Elizabeth.

  26. I thought I would comment on this post since the latest one is about the myths and legends surrounding Henrys most controversial queen, what I find amusing about Nicholas Sander Is that after he had written quite derogatory remarks about her appearance he then goes on to say, ‘She was handsome to look at with a pretty mouth’ so what’s he talking about then, how can she have a protruding tooth and sallow skin, large moles and still look handsome? It’s as if he cannot make up his mind about her, Anne had a narrow face with high cheekbones, it was not a delicate face but one of character, her nose was slightly long yet she possessed a pair of wonderful eyes which must have glittered with intensity, she was slight of build and was graceful and elegant, it’s said she had a beautiful singing voice and her crowning glory was her extremely long dark hair which was so long she was said to have been able to sit in it, she had a love of life and was vivacious, this I believe was the secret of her allure, she had personality and was intelligent, she was no shrinking wallflower and it was this strength of character this daring boldness that made Wyatt and Percy and Henry himself fall for her, some men do like strong women, they find her sexy – Anne had sex appeal in abundance in the way she moved, laughed, partook in witty conversation and Henry found her irresistible, he had never met another woman like her and all the other women in his court must have appeared dull in comparison, most unkind comments arise from personal enmity, her detractors hated her because she had replaced Katherine and was responsible for the English reformation, therefore they would not praise her for her qualities but even some of them admitted she had beautiful eyes, no one is nearly as bad as what other people make out, Anne wasn’t a buxom woman she was no English rose but had French panache and style, which more than made up for her lack of cleavage.

  27. Anne was not a classic English beauty. She was said to said to be graceful and a good dancer. This would, I think, have mattered a good deal to Henry as a musician. She was also quite witty, something else he appreciated. This is where Anne of Cleves lost out. She was not schooled to understand anything about the courts of Europe, and so did not appreciate Henry’s gesture in coming to her in disguise.

    1. Yes Anne Of Cleve’s was quite gauche she wasn’t sexy, could speak no English and just wasn’t appealing to the worldly wise Henry, he wanted a swan and got a sparrow.

  28. Regarding Anne’s supposed 6th finger, I think this deserves a bit more attention. Whilst one can understand mentioning moles (thought to denote witches) mentioning a sixth finger is rather specific. I am inclined to believe this was the case, since a polydactyly – or showing of an extra digit on the little finger – is, and was, a medical condition. Affecting one in every 500 -1,000 babies it is genetic, so if she did have this condition did one of her parents have it too? Again, we have no proof, but it is an odd thing for her detractors to mention and an intriguing point.

  29. Regarding the meaning of “bague,” used by Chapuys, yes, the first meaning is “ring,” but in the 16th century, like many words, it had multiple meanings. According to the Dictionnaire du Moyen Francais (Dictionary of Middle French, available online), another definition, in satirical contexts, is “a girl or woman of easy virtue” [Dans des contextes comiques ou satiriques] “Fille, femme (plus ou moins facile).” I think this is the most likely meaning of Chapuys’s phrase. So the earlier adjectives, “thin, old, and evil,” are indeed to be applied to a woman (Anne), not to an object such as a ring. It is in keeping with Chapuys’s view of Anne, and perhaps by this point she did look rather thin and old, as she had been through a lot that year.

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