Monday, January 14, 2013

A Queen in Shadow – a peek back through time at Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth.

Judith Arnopp

The Hever Portrait
The subject to Anne Boleyn’s true physical appearance has been discussed time and time again in books, blogs and journals, yet it is a subject that remains endlessly fascinating, the varied opinions and theories almost as intriguing as the woman herself. 

Almost instantly recognisable, Anne Boleyn’s portrait graces thousands of book covers, mugs, tea towels, key rings…her face is everywhere. But is it really her face that we are seeing? Do the portraits show us what was Anne really like?

I don’t intend to hold a full debate on the portraits here but none we have are contemporary and the closest  are copies made of likenesses painted in her life time. 

National Portrait Gallery portrait

After her execution it wasn’t wise to have representations of a fallen queen gracing one’s walls so during the remainder of Henry’s reign and the years of Edward and Mary’s rule, her face and many artefacts belonging to her, slipped away. It wasn’t until her daughter, Elizabeth, ascended the throne that Anne became acceptable again and the demand for her image increased. As a consequence most extant images were worked long after her death – some as late as the 17th century. 

The likenesses attributed to be her range from softly pretty to plum ugly as do the textual descriptions. Opinions of Anne Boleyn depended enormously upon the political stance and agenda of the author and as a consequence the documentary evidence is as varied and unreliable as the pictorial.

Due to her efforts for religious reform and the displacement of Catherine of Aragon, Anne was never a favourite of Spain or the Catholic faction and this is clear from some of the descriptions of her. Roman Catholic Nicholas Sander saw her as: ‘…rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat. In this she was followed by the ladies of the court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth.’

Very nice of him to go to the trouble of saying so. And the Venetian ambassador was scarcely more flattering in his account.

‘Madame Anne is 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 in fact has nothing but the King's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful - and take great effect on those who served the Queen when she was on the throne. She lives like a queen, and the King accompanies her to Mass - and everywhere.’

The Nidd Hall Portrait
It is quite clear that she was not a ravishing beauty although of course, what is considered beautiful today is vastly different to that favoured in the 16th century. If you look at the line-up of Henry’s wives, the ‘Flanders Mare’ of Henry’s stable, Anne of Cleves, was by today’s standards, rather pretty.   

In a society that favoured delicately complexioned blondes, Anne’s dark hair and olive skin were far from fashionable and neither did her slim, small breasted (‘not much raised’) figure fit the current vogue for voluptuous women.

But most descriptions, even the most unfavourable, agree that Anne possessed expressive eyes and a vivacious wit and it must have been those attributes that captivated the king. Which, for once I think, speaks  rather well of Henry in that he was able to see past contemporary ideals to what lay beneath. Shame it didn’t last.

The only truly contemporary image we have of Anne is a badly damaged portrait medal that nevertheless bears some resemblance to the Anne we see depicted in later portraits.  From this we can deduce that we can come quite close to discovering a likeness to the real woman. 

Elizabeth I while still Princess Elizabeth
The medal was struck in 1534 with Anne’s motto, ‘The Most Happi’ and the initials ‘A.R’ – Anna Regina, so we can be quite sure that it is her. These medals were usually struck to commemorate a great event, often a coronation but since the date does not tie in with this, Eric Ives believes that it was more likely to have been intended to mark birth of Anne’s second child in the autumn of 1534 that she miscarried. This theory also explains why few copies survive.

Other portraits include the familiar Hever portrait and the one at the National Portrait Gallery as well as some sketches by Holbein which receive varying degrees of certainty from the experts. The Nidd Hall portrait shows an aging Anne which is closer to some of the less favourable documented descriptions discussed previously. Another rather touching artefact is the Chequers Ring, a jewel removed from the finger of Elizabeth I on her death bed and found to contain the image of herself and her mother, Anne.

The Drewe Portrait of Elizabeth I

Of course we can never know the extent of Elizabeth’s attachment to her mother but some documented incidents point to a curiosity about her. Although Elizabeth was just two years old when Anne was executed and is not likely to have had strong memories of her, there were those around her who had known Anne and would have been able to keep her memory alive. If Elizabeth was satisfied that the image bore a likeness to her mother then I think we can be fairly confident too.

The recent (and not so recent) discussions of Anne’s appearance have led to the assumption that she and her daughter bore a close resemblance. Apart from Elizabeth’s colouring which was auburn and Tudor in origin, there are likenesses to Anne, especially in the earlier portraits before Royal iconography began to overshadow Elizabeth’s personality. The dark eyes are particularly similar.

Margaret Beaufort -  Great grandmother to Elizabeth I
I spend a lot of time looking at paintings of historical figures and recently with the matter of Anne and Elizabeth at the forefront of my mind I came across a painting of Margaret Beaufort. Of course, I had seen it many times before but for the first time it struck me that Elizabeth did in fact come to closely resemble her great grandmother in her later years. I suppose it should come as no surprise that there is also a look of Henry VII,  Elizabeth’s grandfather.  Perhaps there is  more Tudor in Elizabeth than we thought, after all.

More information about Judith's novels and essays can be found on her website:

Her novels include: Peaceweaver, The Forest Dwellers, The Song of Heledd and The Winchester Goose and are all available in paperback and on Kindle. Click here for her UK Amazon author page: 
and her for her US Amazon author page

Photos from Wikimedia commons.


1 comment:

  1. The debate continues into modern times - look at the new portrait painting of the Duchess of Cambridge - is that a true likeness? I think not!


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