The Real Anne Boleyn

Despite all of the biographies written about her, Anne Boleyn is still somewhat of a mysterious character. We don’t have a contemporary portrait of her, aside from one badly-damaged medal, unless you believe the Holbein sketches are accurately labeled.

We’re not sure of when she was born. Scholars are divided between two birth dates: 1501 and 1507. Some of the strongest evidence we have for the later date is that Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, stated in her memoirs Anne died shortly before her twenty-ninth birthday. (Jane was a close friend of Anne’s step-daughter, Mary.) Secondly, in 1615, William Camden, a historian who had access to records which are no longer extant, gave her birthdate as 1507.

Lastly, no contemporaries mentioned Anne as being of advanced age for marriage, as they almost certainly would have if she and the king had married when she was thirty-two, nearing what the Tudors saw as the end of her child-bearing years. When Kateryn Parr married for the final time and became pregnant at age thirty-five, her friends and family wrote worried letters because pregnancy at such an advanced age was thought to be very dangerous—and she did, indeed, die from it.

What sort of person was Anne? Was she the ruthless character portrayed in some biographies and novels? Or was she the victim of circumstance, forced to make the best of the situation?

I believe she was a bit of both, a woman thrown into a turbulent sea, who had to sink or swim. She chose to swim. A fuller picture of Anne Boleyn as a person emerges if you consider the sources of some of the tales we have about her, and put them into their cultural perspective.

A great deal of “Nasty Anne” comes from the reports of Eustace Chapuys, and there never was a more biased chronicler. He was a dear friend of Katharine’s and he absolutely hated Anne Boleyn. The most polite thing he called her was “the Concubine.” He was eager to believe anything bad about her, so any bit of gossip that came to his ears that showed her in a bad light was faithfully reported to the emperor as truth.

That said, Anne certainly did have a temper and likely said some things she later regretted. But a good deal of the actions attributed to her in regards to the princess or Katharine, should probably be attributed to Henry. He was the one with the power. Anne could not do anything without his consent. Her power was actually lessened once she became queen.

What did she look like? The closest things we have to an original image are the paintings made during her daughter’s reign, some which were likely intentionally designed to look like Elizabeth.

Photo credit: lisby1 / / CC BY
Anne Boleyn’s hair was likely auburn, not black or dark brown, as she is usually pictured. Though there
Courtesy of the Anne Boleyn Files
aren’t any extant contemporary portraits that show her coloring, the earliest portraits of her we have show reddish-brown hair, such as the National Portrait Gallery painting above, the Hoskins miniature at right. in which Anne wears her famous “B” necklace, and the Chequers portrait ring worn by her daughter, Elizabeth, at the left.

Another argument in favor of Anne’s hair color being other than black is the Holbein sketch that’s labeled with her name. Sir John Cheke was the one who did the identifications; Anne Boleyn was his patron, so he should have been able to visually identify her. Cheke was Edward VI’s tutor, and he labeled the images because the young king was fascinated by the “Great Booke” of portraits from his father’s day. It’s been long contested by historians who feel the round face and double chin do not match other, more accepted portraits of Anne, but it’s now definitively cataloged in the Royal Collection under her name. What’s most interesting is that Cheke identified Anne as a woman with light-colored hair.

Photo credit: lisby1 / / CC BY
Another, less well-done, portrait of Anne based off the National Portrait Gallery model shows Anne with a shade of hair we associate 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, just as her likely-brown eyes were called black by the chroniclers of the day, a convention I’ve decided to stick with.

Nicholas Sanders 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. Sanders likely never saw 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 completely unfounded allegation that Anne was Henry’s own daughter, from an affair with Elizabeth Boleyn. (Henry would have been barely more than a child when this alleged affair occurred.)

Sanders’ 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. In coloring, Anne Boleyn’s hair and skin might have been closer to a young Sophia Loren than any of the pale, dark-haired actresses who have depicted her.

It is almost certain Anne did not have any of the physical deformities attributed to her, such as the sixth finger or the wen. As I pointed out in the novel, physical defects were seen as an outward manifestation of evil—which is why those who despised her claimed she had them. Had Anne worn high-necked gowns in a day when low, square-cut bodices were the fashion, it would have been remarked upon by her contemporaries. And a sixth finger would have certainly been a matter of much public comment.

The claim became so prevalent after her death that Thomas Wyatt’s grandson felt the need to explain it away by claiming she had a “little show of nail” on the side of her finger and a few moles. But all her contemporaries noted was a woman of somewhat ordinary looks who had charm and grace enough to make herself beautiful despite not conforming to current beauty standards.

I believe it’s self-evident that she was innocent of the charges against her. The evidence was flimsy at best and at least twelve of the accusations in the indictment can be proven false even 500 years later, with just the scant records we have. Lastly, Anne Boleyn was a deeply religious woman; she never would have sworn falsely on the host, not with her immortal soul about to meet its maker.

Even putting that aside, the practicalities of the accusations against Anne render it impossible for her to have done as she was accused. (Likewise, I believe it is possible Katheryn Howard could have pulled off a very brief meeting with her "lover," but would not have been able to commit actual adultery.)

Who was Anne Boleyn? A woman, nothing more. An intelligent, strong woman who made mistakes, and had personality flaws just like any other person. But she was a woman who changed history.


  1. My Aunt used to work as a researcher at the British Museum. She has seen records from the time of Queen Victoria documenting that workers in the Tower opened Anne Boleyn's coffin and indeed found that she had an extra finger on each My Aunt used to work as a researcher at the British Museum. She has seen records from the time of Queen Victoria documenting that workers in the Tower opened Anne Boleyn's coffin and indeed found that she had an extra finger on each My Aunt used to work as a researcher at the British Museum. She has seen records from the time of Queen Victoria documenting that workers in the Tower opened Anne Boleyn's coffin and indeed found that she had an extra finger on each

  2. This is why there is SO MUCH bull scrap repeated over centuries ... BECAUSE of people like you that either have no sense what so ever or delibertly like to pass false information on. There is no evidence that her grave was opened much less of they even know the exact location of where her body was placed in the Tower. And even if she did have a 6th finger...?? That must mean she is the devil right? To even care that much about a extra finger is ridiculous especially for the 21st century where we know all to well a deformity is a deformity and the malady wouldn't have made her any different of a person .

  3. Actually, you are both wrong. The Victorians did uncover what they thought were her remains, along with other executed persons, during a restoration of the St. Peter ad Vincula chapel in the late 1800s (1876 I think). The examiner stated quite definitively that the skeleton thought to be Anne did NOT have a sixth finger. There is an article about this on this site that is quite good, and explains the whole situation.

  4. There is a very old book from the time which details all above and three female skeletal remains were found. There was a young woman, discounted as she was far too young and an older woman over 60, believed to be Margaret Pole, who was 69 when she was executed. A third woman, identified as Anne was about 28 to 30 or so by their measurements. The lady had long fingers, not a sixth finger, had long bones, was slender and her neck bones were slightly long and elegant. The remains were sealed in a new lead box, with a new pine box outside, labelled and reburied with a ceremony. The alter and beautiful tiles we see today mark their place of rest. The Victorians did not have DNA, did not have a CT scanner, did not know about strontium analysis or how to age people correctly and did not have the advantage we have. They used measurement for identifying people. However, all of this means they may not have identified Anne at all. The approximate age makes it very possible that it is Anne and this was the area of her burial. The Victorians did measure very accurately, but the positive identity cannot be made 100% with no DNA or a coffin bearing her name. Unknown is correct. There is a link to the article on the Anne Boleyn files somewhere. Also if anyone is a member of the Tudor Society, Claire did a video talk on this from the original report.