Sunday, May 18, 2014

Will the Real Anne Boleyn Please Stand Up.

by Judith Arnopp

Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery
I am often told that readers are fed up with Tudors.  They know the stories, they’ve heard it all. The need for Tudor novels is over. But the reading public doesn’t seem to believe that. Since I first became an author of historical novels the most recurrent question has been, “Have you written any Tudor books?” 

It seems to me that the reading public, both in England and especially overseas, cannot get enough of Henry and his wives. I think the reason for this is not just the glitz and the danger of Henry’s court; it is the many different interpretations we can put upon the stories and the people that inhabit them. There are more explanations for what went on than there are stars in the skies, and there are novelists enough to encompass them all. Added to that of course is that new generations are emerging all the time; a new batch of people who know nothing about the Tudors.

Anne Boleyn remains the number one favourite; the wife that everyone loves to read about. She has been depicted in many different ways; a schemer, a witch, a victim, a whore. She has been demonised by some novelists, and sanctified by others but how close to we ever come to the real Anne? We can never really know the truth about her, we can only piece little snippets together to make up a shadow of the real woman. That is what makes history, and enigmatic figures like Anne, so irresistible. Anne Boleyn was, and still is, a fascinating woman who deserves after all this time a fair reappraisal of her life and death.

In his nonfiction book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives,  now sadly passed on, reveals a credible figure. He has done the hard work for us, demolishing many of the myths that in the space of several centuries have solidified into fact, and illustrating that what remains is an intelligent, ambitious, but God-fearing woman who happened to win the love of a king. 
It is refreshing to discover that perhaps Anne was not a scheming witch with a penchant for sleeping with half the court, (her brother included). Nor was she a woman who gave birth to a monster and plotted the death of the king. Ives’ research reveals someone more sinned against than sinning, and a woman whose mistakes were human ones. Anne was a queen who failed to produce an heir, and a woman who fell foul of the King’s most powerful advisers.  The woman that emerges from Ives’ research is the Anne Boleyn that walks the pages of my novel The Kiss of the Concubine.

To be honest, the real Anne is so obscured by myth and legend that we know much less about her than we think we do. We are not even sure what she looked like. We think of her as dark haired and thin but the familiar portraits we see of her are not contemporary; the originals were lost long ago. Experts disagree, but the oldest 17th century portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery is likely to be a copy of an original, and is favoured by Eric Ives as being the one that comes closest to a real likeness. 

There are several written descriptions from her contemporaries and, while none rate her as a great beauty, none remark upon any physical failing either. The fact that she doesn’t emerge as breathtakingly beautiful is refreshing, and illustrates that Henry may have been more taken with the personality within, than with an alluring or fashionable face and figure.

Brantome, a courtier from France, wrote in his memoirs that Anne Boleyn was ‘the fairest and most bewitching of all the lovely dames of the French court.’ (Weir, p. 151) And Lancelot de Carles stated that she was beautiful with an elegant figure and was ‘so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a Frenchwoman born.’ (Weir, p. 151)

This is praise indeed, perhaps a little too flattering to be true, and many eyewitnesses agree that her looks were unfashionable and not to every one’s taste. As Francesco Sanuto, a Venetian diplomat, illustrates with his description of Anne as  ‘Not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, a bosom not much raised and eyes which are black and beautiful.’ (Ives, p. 40)

It is only after her death that the really detrimental reports begin to emerge. Writing in the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholic supporter, Nicholas Sander, describes Anne 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 person uncovered.” (Ives. P.39)

 attributed to John Hoskins [Public domain]
But, although there are common factors when it comes to colouring and bone structure in all these descriptions, I think we can dismiss the idea that she was seriously disfigured in any way. The 16th century was a superstitious time and the characteristics described here all point to witchcraft. It is a clear attempt by Sander to demonise the former queen. Even had the king not been superstitious, I cannot image Henry VIII, who had the pick of the court ladies, finding a woman disfigured in this way to be even remotely attractive, let alone spend seven years of his life trying to get her into his bed. You can read a more in depth look at Anne’s appearance on an earlier blog I wrote for the English Historical Fiction Authors here.

Anne was accused of adultery, incest, high treason, and plotting to kill the King, and she died for those crimes. Yet none of these charges would stand up in a modern day courtroom. Eric Ives states that it can be proved that she was elsewhere on at least twelve of the occasions when she is supposed to have been committing adultery. The only actual ‘confession’ came from her musician Mark Smeaton, who we believe was subjected to torture in the Tower. Although Anne’s sister in law, Jane Rochford, gave evidence against Anne and her husband, George, she later retracted it in February 1542 before she herself faced execution for her involvement with Katherine Howard’s downfall.

While Anne was imprisoned in the Tower, Henry had his marriage to her annulled on the grounds of his former relationship with Anne’s sister, Mary. This made their daughter Elizabeth illegitimate. In truth, this should also have made the charge of adultery invalid, but this was Tudor England when justice was anything but just.

So, those are the bare facts. We can assume Anne was dark, and had attractive eyes and an oval face. We know she was intelligent and witty; even her detractors credit her with that. We know she was pious and refused to be Henry’s mistress, holding out until he promised marriage. That could make her a schemer, but equally it could make her chaste. During her marriage to Henry she tried and failed to produce a son, suffering several miscarriages and providing the king with just one daughter, later to become the greatest queen that has ever lived, Elizabeth. We also know that Anne worked in tandem with Cromwell and others toward church reform, and we also know that at a later stage there was a disagreement between them, and Anne’s downfall followed swiftly after.

Most novels of Anne I have read (but I confess I haven’t read them all) hold Henry alone to blame for Anne’s downfall. They show him as falling out of love with Anne, and place Jane Seymour as the sinister ‘other woman’ whose presence at court and her influence over the fickle king makes Anne’s fall inevitable. There is little evidence to suggest this and perhaps there were other reasons; perhaps another agenda came into play. Perhaps it was politics and not passion that killed her.

In writing The Kiss of the Concubine I have worked closely with the writing of Eric Ives and other prominent Tudor historians to come up with a less clichéd reason as to why Anne Boleyn had to die on that bright May morning in 1536.

Further reading

Lispcombe, Susannah, 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, 2009.
Fraser, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1992.
Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004.
Weir, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2007.
Weir, A. Mary Boleyn, 2011.
Weir, A. The Lady in the Tower,2009.
Fox, J. Jane Boleyn, 2007.
Denny, J. Anne Boleyn, 2007.


Judith’s other work (click on the link for more information)


  1. Thank you Jessica. I am glad you enjoyed it. Anne Boleyn is fascinating in so many ways, we feel we know her very well but I am not sure we really do. :)


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