Welcome to the Tudor history taster course.
In this short course we will look at Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. We will attempt to determine truth from fallacy in the documents we have at our disposal.
In this taster you will :
- Look at varying primary sources
- Identify bias in historical sources
- Gain an introductory understanding of the myths surrounding Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn remains one of the most fascinating English Queens in history despite only having reigned 3 years. However, Henry VIII’s desire to eradicate all trace of Anne from his life in 1536 after her execution has meant that there are very few images of her that survive today. As a result, we rely heavily on written descriptions of her appearance.
A report from the Venetian ambassador in 1532 described Anne as being,
“Not the handsomest woman in the world”
And that she had:
“A middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth…and her eyes are black and beautiful.”
Considering that a typical beauty of the Tudor court would have had pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair, we can see that Anne would not have been considered an English Rose. Indeed her sister, Mary, was considered the beauty of the Boleyn family.
The portrait below is perhaps the most well known image of Anne Boleyn. However, this is believed to be a copy of an original that was either destroyed or hidden at the time of Anne’s death. Historians agree that this portrait is the most authentic picture of Anne that we have.
I am sure that we have all heard the tales of Anne Boleyn being witchlike with 6 fingers and a mole on her neck that she covered up with her high collars and chokers. These suggestions seem to stem from a piece written by Nicholas Sander:
“Anne Boleyn was 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.”
-The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585)
Let’s examine the author a bit more closely:
• Sander was born in 1530 and so it is unlikely that he would have ever met Anne Boleyn who was executed in 1536. Hence it is unlikely that the description of Anne is accurate.
• He was a Catholic in exile under Elizabethan rule and likely blamed Anne Boleyn for the reformation of the Church in England.
Although it is impossible to state for definite whether Anne had a physical deformity or not, it seems unlikely that Anne would have been chosen as lady in waiting for Katherine of Aragon and for Margaret of Austria or at the French court where beauty was expected and demanded. Neither does it seem likely that King Henry VIII, who could have married any lady he desired, would have chosen someone who wasn’t beautiful. In fact we know that Anne had a number of suitors at Court including Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Sir Thomas Wyatt, Court poet.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is a hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
The poem is believed to be a direct comment of Henry VIII’s infatuation for Anne, her character, and her increasing importance at the Tudor court. The line “Noli me tangere” is translated from Latin as “do not touch me”. And “For Ceasar’s I am” refers to the fact that Anne was now in Henry’s sights and, therefore off limits for everyone else!
As an aside Wyatt was sent on a mission to Italy in 1527. This was perhaps an attempt by Henry VIII to get rid of a love rival.
Anne’s manner and personality.
We have read about Anne Boleyn lacking morals and of her ill treatment of Princess Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon.
‘Your Majesty must root out the Lady and her adherents…. This accursed Anne has her foot in the stirrup, and will do the Queen and the Princess all the harm she can. She has boasted that she will make the Princess her lady-in-waiting, or marry her to some varlet.’
Letters of Eustace Chapuys (Spanish Ambassador) to King Charles V (1533)
‘The King’s Grace is ruled by one common stewed whore, Anne Boleyn, who makes all the spirituality to be beggared, and the temporality also.’
The Abbot of Whitby (1530)
‘If it be true that is openly reported of the Queen’s Grace… I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman than I had in her; which maketh me to think that she should not be culpable… Next to Your Grace, I was most bound to her of all creatures living… I wish and pray for her that she may declare herself inculpable and innocent… I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel.’
Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury to Henry VIII on Anne’s arrest (1536)
End of Course Summary:
Well done! You have now completed this taster course. We hope you have enjoyed it and found it stimulating and enjoyable.
In this session you have:
- Looked at varying primary sources
- Identified bias in historical sources
- Gained an introductory understanding of the myths surrounding Anne Boleyn