Friday, September 18, 2015

Anne Boleyn’s Jewelry

by Sandra Vasoli

Hever portrait of Anne
The image haunts us… the beautiful oval face; dark eyes gazing steadily toward the viewer; deep auburn hair parted smoothly and held by a French hood edged in pearls; black velvet gown lavishly trimmed with gold discs and pearls, the sleeves set off by russet marten fur. Her are hands visible, holding a single red rose – the long elegant fingers are unadorned. The only jewelry worn by the sitter is a golden chain made of circular links which is fastened behind her neck and neatly tucked into the bodice of her gown, paired with a pearl necklace: that pearl necklace! Perhaps the most famous string of pearls in the world: a double rope, large and lustrous, the longer length nestled in the wearer’s décolleté, the other a choker to which is fastened a pendant – a golden B. From the lower loop of the pendant hang three large pear-shaped pearls, attached by posts of gold.

The hypnotic portrait is Anne Boleyn: trend-setter and lover of beautiful clothing and jewelry; a woman whose flair and fashionable charisma attracted the lust and love of arguably the most powerful man in the world. At least that is what the world has come to believe, and if indeed the painting is a good likeness – what does it tell us about her style and image? What secrets did her wardrobe and jewelry casks hold? We study the portrait which today hangs in Hever Castle and pore over the other images which have been obviously taken from a source now lost to us, but all we know is what we see – the seductive and flattering dark gown set off by the chain of gold and the pearl and gold B. We are tantalized to imagine what else she might have owned and worn to create her special mystique - one which men found irresistible and women envied.

We can be sure, even though there remain no portraits to refer to, that Anne was the owner of jewels of all kinds. As her love affair with Henry VIII progressed, it is a certainty that the magnificent king took pleasure in seeing his beloved mistress model examples of his wealth and taste.

It is possible that Anne, unlike other royals and women of great wealth during her era, selected the pieces she wore with care and some restraint. We view paintings of other Renaissance women, loaded with gems and gold. Certainly, Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was never a model of moderation when it came to wearing and displaying her collection of jewels. In that regard it seems she took after her father, Henry, who was well known to love ostentation. Anne, on the other hand, perhaps understood the formula of enhancing her beauty and allure with just the right pieces, never more. Yet we know that she owned a fabulous assemblage of jewelry, as well as gold and silver plate and ornaments.

Henry employed several royal jewelers during the years in which he courted and was married to Anne. Morgan Phenwolf , a Welsh master, was paid a sum on 30 November, 1529 for four and three quarter ounces of ‘parys warke’, or Paris Work – a piece designed in the sought-after style of French treasures. On that same day, a payment was made to “John large jeweler for certeyne Jewellex…by the King’s grace”. Also noted with great frequency in contemporary records are the names of Cornelys Hayes, John Cryspin, John Langey, and other accomplished jewelers and goldsmiths. Henry regularly made large payments to these jewelers and goldsmiths for “such Jewelles as the king’s grace bought” of them. It is certain that these gentlemen were commissioned to create beautiful adornments for the Lady Anne.

The most fashionable pieces of the early to mid 16th century included such splendidly crafted items as pendants, especially those which depicted the wearer’s initials, studded in gems and pearls, and were highly sought after. Pendants were often worn on golden chains, but only the wealthiest of patrons could afford necklaces made entirely of sizable pearls from which to hang their ornaments. Anne’s were stunning in size, whiteness, and uniformity. (see photo of pendants )

Hans Holbein was not only an important court painter of likenesses, he also created many designs for jewels to be worn, and elaborate trinkets or decor which would be made of gold or silver, such as a silver gilt basin which Anne commissioned from Holbein as a gift to Henry in 1533. (photos of Holbein design ) Master Holbein must have designed many custom pieces for the Lady Anne.

Often, jeweled ornaments were worn on chains which girdled the wearer’s hips. These included miniature illuminated books, trinkets made from gold or silver, or pomanders which held perfumes. It is possible that a pomander, or a similar item, was taken from Anne by Sir Thomas Wyatt as a love token by a hopeful suitor. The story includes Henry becoming quite jealous and angry when Wyatt’s flirtatious action was discovered.

As their romance progressed, Henry lavished Anne with more elaborate, more costly, and very conspicuous jewels. In preparation for their trip to Calais, France, in November of 1532, a suite of jewelry was prepared for Anne to take with her, wear, and demonstrate her importance as Henry’s intended wife. A demand was made of the ousted Queen Katharine of Aragon that she return her Crown Jewels to the king. The demand was met by Katharine with outrage; however, in the end Henry had his way, and the jewels were reclaimed, with many of them being melted down or the gemstones reset for Anne. Amongst these stones were 18 table-cut rubies, probably from Burma, as these were known the world over to be incomparable in deep blood-red colour and clarity.
In that same year, 1532, there are a slew of records indicating that Henry went on a buying spree to bedeck his Anne with stunning jewelry. In a short span there are no less than 36 recordings of purchases of gold and gemstones, mostly commissioned from Cornelis Hayes. There were several pendants designed by Holbein; one with the romantic cipher of an H and an A intertwined. (see Holbein pendants ). Anne owned many rings, and we know today that there was a diamond ring with that same H and A cipher, perhaps a part of a lovely diamond parure designed by Holbein and executed by Hayes. In the inventory of Henry VIII’s belongings there is a record of a small golden tablet, set with a diamond, emeralds and pearls, upon which had been imprinted the monogram H A. It must have been a long-forgotten relic of the great love Henry once bore for his second wife.

It seems that Anne Boleyn’s pearl drop necklace was a favorite of hers. In several paintings she is depicted wearing that particular design. The question of what happened to those pearls is a compelling one. Perhaps they were recommissioned and sold as material for other jewelry, for another noble lady. It’s even possible that Henry may have been so angry and distraught that he had them destroyed, wanting to blot out his most intimate reminders of Anne, as he evidently did. Or just perhaps they were kept by someone who cared for Anne and her daughter Elizabeth. It’s possible that the necklace was given to Elizabeth as a memento of her deceased mother. And just maybe those very same pearls were worn by Elizabeth as she sat for her portrait as a thirteen year old (see painting of Elizabeth ). It’s a lovely thought.

Even more imaginative, yet entirely possible, is that Elizabeth, in an unspoken tribute to her mother, had the pearls preserved to be ultimately set in what we know and see today as the Imperial State Crown. It is said that embedded in this crown are three pearls which at one time belonged to Elizabeth I. The current Queen Elizabeth II tells us of this in a short video she recorded regarding the magnificent Crown.

I like to believe that those iconic pearls, by which we instantly recognize Anne, remain - quietly and secretly - overseeing some of the most special moments of Britain’s monarchy, today and for years to come.

• Antique Jewelry University,
• Nicolas, Nicholas ed., The Privy Purse Expences of King Henry the Eighth, Pickering, London, 1827.
• Brewer, J.S, ed., Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic, British History Online, London, 1920.
• Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.


Sandra Vasoli, author of Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower, earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and biology from Villanova University before embarking on a thirty-five-year career in human resources for a large international company.

Having written essays, stories, and articles all her life, Vasoli was prompted by her overwhelming fascination with the Tudor dynasty to try her hand at writing both historical fiction and non-fiction. While researching what would eventually become her Je Anne Boleyn series, Vasoli was granted unprecedented access to the Papal Library. There she was able to read the original love letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn—an event that contributed greatly to her research and writing.

Vasoli currently lives in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two greyhounds.

To enter a giveaway to win Anne Boleyn's Letter from the Tower by Sandra Vasoli, please leave a comment below with your contact information.


  1. Such a great article Sandra. I'm wondering how the pearls survived Oliver Cromwell and his crushing of the Monarchy?
    Can't wait to read your new book Sandra. Thank you.

  2. Sounds wonderful! It's definitely going on my must read list :)

  3. I love Tudor jewellery! I have some replicas of my own... And of course I'd love to win this book.

  4. If Henry had demanded jewels back from Catherine and had them redesigned, he probably did the same with Anne's.What it must have been like to see all these pieces in person! Fascinating article and thank you for the giveaway.

  5. So interesting. Such a great read. Sandra.

  6. So interesting. Such a great read. Sandra.

  7. Oops forgot to give my contact info,, thanks again for the great article.

  8. Totally fascinating woman, always wanting to know more and more about her.

  9. A fascinating little video! The Queen in the video is much younger than now, too - wonder when it was filmed?

    I'm not surprised to learn that Anne was a woman of elegance and taste. She was also intelligent. That may be what got her killed. Henry didn't like women who argued religion with him- or anything else!

  10. It is an amazing painting. Such a great post thank you.


  11. Great article thank you!


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