Anne Boleyn, A Redhead?

Hollywood has continually given Anne fair, pale skin and dark hair. However, from the scant evidence we have, it seems more likely that Anne had auburn hair, and her contemporaries described her as having a "swarthy" or "dark" complexion, which may have meant she had an olive skin tone. Anne Boleyn’s coloring might have been closer to a young Sophia Loren than any of the pale, dark-haired actresses who have depicted her.

Though there aren’t any extant contemporary portraits that show her coloring, the earliest portraits of Anne show reddish hair. To the left is the Hoskins miniature in which Anne wears her famous “B” necklace. It's suggested by Eric Ives that John Hoskins copied an original portrait by Holbein, which is known to have existed until the late 1700s, when it vanishes from the historical record.


Queen Elizabeth owned a ring which contained a miniature of herself and her mother. While Elizabeth is unlikely to have had any memories of Anne Boleyn, others in the court would have been able to describe her features and confirm whether or not the portrait in the ring was a good likeness.

The identification of the portrait has been questioned because the woman has light red hair. Some have suggested it's actually Kateryn Parr, but Elizabeth would not have had to conceal an image of Kateryn, as she seems to have concealed this image.

Another argument in favor of Anne’s hair color being something other than black is the Holbein sketch. The identity of the sitter has been long in dispute, but it is now definitively identified in the Royal Collection as Anne Boleyn.

Sir John Cheke was the one who did the identifications. The young King Edward was fascinated by the "great booke" of sketches Hans Holbein had done of the members of the court, and asked Cheke, his tutor - later his secretary - to identify the sitters.

Anne Boleyn was Cheke's patron, so he should have been able to identify her. Cheke was reliably accurate in his other identifications (as the link above explains, only a couple of his identifications are in question.) What’s most interesting is that Cheke identified Anne as a woman with light-colored hair.


The sketch been long contested by historians who feel the round face and double chin do not match other, more accepted portraits of Anne. However, the puffiness of her features could be explained by pregnancy. Another argument in favor of the sitter being Anne Boleyn is the casual attire she's wearing. Only the highest-ranking ladies could be seen in such clothing.

Another, less well-done portrait of Anne based on the National Portrait Gallery pattern shows Anne with a shade of hair associated more with her daughter, though that could have been intentional.

Due to the lighting conditions in Tudor palaces, it would have been easy to mistake Anne’s hair color as darker than it was. Similarly, her eyes were likely brown, but they were called "black" by her contemporaries.

This portrait of Mary Tudor Brandon is an excellent illustration of the point. In the locket on the right is an actual piece of Mary's hair, retrieved from her tomb in the 18th century.

The only reference to Anne's hair color we have is Thomas Wyatt's description of her as "brunette." That means "brown" to us, but it may have had a completely different meaning at the time. "Auburn," as an example, meant blonde or whitish at the time. Wolsey called her "the night crow," but that is not necessarily a reference to her hair color.

Nicholas Sander was the one who popularized the notion Anne had black hair in his ardently pro-Catholic Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, published in 1585. Sander almost certainly never laid eyes on Anne Boleyn. He was less than ten years old—and in another part of the country— when she died. He is so painfully biased in his account that he has been nicknamed “Slanders” by other historians.

His biographical section on Anne included claims of the famous sixth finger, bucked tooth, jaundiced complexion, and a big, ugly wen on her throat that forced her to wear high-necked gowns to conceal it. He also makes the unfounded allegation that Anne was Henry’s own daughter, from an affair with Elizabeth Howard Boleyn. (Henry would have been barely more than a child when this alleged affair occurred.) 

Sander's purpose in claiming Anne had black hair was to make her as sinister as possible. The Victorians saw women with dark hair as being earthy and sensual, as opposed to the delicate, blonde, English rose, and so Anne continued to be depicted with black hair. Not everyone followed the convention, however. Eduoard Cibot painted Anne Boleyn as a blonde in his famous portrait of her in the Tower.

In the end, it was the dark-haired image of Anne in the Hever portrait that captured the popular imagination, and every actress who has portrayed her since has modeled their look on this portrait.



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