coronation mantle

Appearance & Likeness

“By the time of her coronation in 1533, one hostile observer would be reporting to the court at Brussels that Anne’s crown did not fit, and she was badly disfigured by a wart, and that she wore a violet velvet mantle with a high ruff to conceal a swelling in the neck, possibly a goitre. Some writers have taken this seriously, although much of it is wilful misrepresentation. The crown was quickly taken off her after the actual crowning, but this was because it weighed seven pounds. For the rest of the ceremonies Anne wore a crown specifically made and weighing only three…As for the high collar, Anne wore the required coronation surcoat with a mantle of ermine, although the material seems to have been purple velvet and not white cloth of gold. If the style was the same as the surcoat and mantle her daughter wore at her coronation in 1559, then the neck was high. The need to conceal a goitre is malevolent embroidery.

“George Wyatt, writing at the end of the century to contradict Sander, and having access to some genuine family traditions of his own about Anne, was compelled not only to accept her ‘beauty not so whitely as clear and fresh, above all we may esteem’, but to admit that

…there was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which yet was so small, by the report of those that have seen her, as the work master seemed to leave it on occasion of greater grace to her hand, which, with the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and and was usually hidden without any blemish to it. Likewise there were said to be upon some parts of her body, certain moles incident to the clearest complexions.

A minor malformation of one fingertip thus seems very probably, and so too one or two moles, possibly on the chin…”

…not that she was ever a ravishing beauty. Lancelot de Carles did call her ‘beautiful and with an elegant figure’, and a Venetian reporting what was known of her in Paris in 1928 described her as ‘very beautiful’. Yet John Barlow, one of her favorite clerics, when asked to compare Anne to Elizabeth Blount…replied that Elizabeth ‘was more beautiful’, although Anne ‘was very eloquent and gracious and reasonably good looking’. Simon Grynee, a professor of Greek at Basle whom Henry VIII employed to canvass Swiss opinion as to the validity of his marriage to Katherine, was similarly cautious (and also not entirely persuaded to her morals): ‘young and good-looking’ was his verdict. The Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, was even less certain, though he clearly knew of no goitres or ‘large wens’: ‘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’. Henry, as we shall see, saw nothing wrong with Anne’s breasts, but the overall evidence of these less prejudiced observers hardly suggests compelling physical attractiveness. All reports agree that Anne was dark…when her daughter Elizabeth was born it was remarked how fair she was, taking after her father rather than her mother. A feature of which Anne herself was clearly proud of was her hair. A good deal of comment was caused by her wearing her hair down for the coronation procession through London, but again this was simply in accordance with established etiquette. Anne, however, had also worn her hair down for the entirely unprecedented ceremony where she was created marchioness of Pembroke.

“Looks only tolerable, but a splendid head of dark hair and fine eyes – this was the impression Anne Boleyn made on her contemporaries, but it would be good to have some pictorial evidence. Here the past has not been kind. The painter coming into prominence at the English court was, of course, Hans Holbein the younger, but no painting of Anne by Holbein is known to have been made, and certainly none has survived. Two of his drawings are alleged to be of her: one in the set of his drawings in the royal collection at Windsor and the other formerly at Weston Park and now in the British Museum. The Windsor drawing carries the legend ‘Anna Bollein Queen’ in eighteenth-century lettering; the Weston Park drawing, in a hand dating from the first half of the seventeenth century, has the Latin legend: ‘Anne Bullen was beheaded, London 19 May, 1536′. The names on the Holbein drawings at Windsor are said to have derived originally from Sir John Cheke, Edward VI’s tutor, and since Cheke had known Anne, the identification might appear to have authority. However, the Cheke story is suspect – several of his supposed identifications are demonstrably incorrect – and there is evidence on the ‘Anna Bollein’ to link it with the Wyatt family. Moreover, the sitter is in evident deshabille, and why should any such likeness of the queen be commissioned? It is also the case that when both Holbeins were in the collection of the earl of Arundel int he late 1630s, the Czech artist, Wenceslaus Hollar, chose to engrave the British Museum drawing in preference to the one now at Windsor. Why Hollar selected that as likeness of Anne it is impossible to say; either he had advice or the Windsor drawing had not yet been claimed as ‘Anne’.

“One firm contemporary likeness of Anne Boleyn is a single specimen of the portrait medal struck in 1534; it carries her motto, ‘The Moost Happi’ and the initials ‘AR’ – Anna Regina. Such a piece can only have been prepared on royal authority. The common assumption is that the medal was struck to mark Anne’s coronation, but the date makes that improbable. Between Anne’s coronation and a 25 March start to 1534 was ten months. The more likely occasion is the expected birth of Anne’s second child in the Autumn of 1534, and her miscarrying would explain why multiple copies do not survive. Unfortunately the nose has been badly damaged, perhaps deliberately, so that its value as a likeness is impaired. Nevertheless, the shake of the face is clear – long and oval with high cheekbones, much the sort of face that her daughter Elizabeth was to have, according to some painters. Given the condition of the medal, it is impossible to go further than that, but it cannot be said to inspire confidence in the British Museum likeness endorsed by Holler and still less the Windsor example. Judged by the medal, Anne sat for neither of the Holbein drawings. 

“A number of paintings from the later sixteenth century are claimed to be of Anne. They survive from sets of ‘Kings and Queens of England’ which Elizabethan and Jacobean gentry liked to have in their houses to demonstrate loyalty. There are two patterns which clearly represent separate traditions. The one best known at the time…depicts Anne in a gable hood with a single necklace of pearls and a cross decorated with rectangular stones. In a painting in this pattern…Anne wears a brooch in the form of a single drop pearl hanging from the monogram ‘AB’ in gold. The alternative pattern – and the one commonly reproduced today – has Anne in a French hood with a gold letter ‘B’ hanging from a pearl necklace. Several examples survive…Neither pattern, however, can be regarded as authoritative since neither is earlier than fifty or sixty years after Anne’s death or linked to the portrait medal, either directly or via a common ancestor. 

“There is, however, a resolution of this pictorial game of ‘find the lady’. The key is an Elizabethan ring belonging to the Trustees of Chequers…the ring itself is mother-of-pearl, the shank is set with rubies and the bezel carries the monogram ‘E’ in diamonds. It was previously in the posession of the Home family, having, it is said, been given from the English royal treasures by James I to the then Lord Horne. The head of the ring is hinged and opens to reveal two enamel portraits, one of Elizabeth circa 1575 and one of a woman in the costume of Henry VIII’s reign, wearing a French hood. The portrait is minute…but not only is Anne by far the most likely woman of the previous generation to be thus matched with Elizabeth, the face mask is quite clearly the sitter in the Hever and National Portrait Gallery printings. Two important conclusions follow. First, the late Elizabethan ‘Kings and Queens’ image of Anne is pushed back some twenty years. Even more significant, that image must have been accepted in Elizabeth’s court as a likeness of the queen’s mother. Elizabeth herself could obviously have had no clear recollection of Anne’s face, but others around her had known Henry’s second wife well. 

“How does the Chequers enamel compare with the 1534 medal? There is a forty-year interval between them and the head-dresses are different, but the sitter is evidently the same - long, oval face, high cheekbones, strong nose, and a decided chin: a face of character, not beauty. There is thus an authenticated sequence for Anne Boleyn, comprising the medal, the Chequers enamel, and the Hever/NPG pattern.

“With such a tiny ring it is hard to be certain, but between it and particularly the National Portrait Gallery example there seems to have been a prettying up and a loss of spirit. Fortunately, the sequence also has the effect of corroborating a seventeenth-century miniature in the collection of the Duke of Bucceleuch and Queensberry. Charles I had this copied as ‘Anne Boleyn’ by John Hoskins the elder…and it is now endorsed ‘from an ancient original’. How ‘ancient’ it is impossible to say. Although the relationship to the examples in the NPG pattern is evident, these were only thirty years old or perhaps less. It is more likely that Hoskins had access to an earlier image of the kind from which the NPG image originated. A full-length portrait of Anne was owned by Lord Lumley in 1590 and existed as late as 1773. Could it even be that Hoskins’ source was or was derived from a Holbein painting now lost? Speculation apart, the Hoskins is important because it preserves what a highly talented seventeenth-century miniaturist made of the image, and though again further softened, it is the best depiction of Anne we are likely ever to have, failing the discovery of new material. Portrait medal – Chequers ring – Hever/NPG pattern – Hoskins miniature: the chain is complete. We have the real Anne Boleyn.

“…Establishing a reliable image for Anne Boleyn only accentuates the evidence of contemporaries that her attraction was not outstanding natural beauty. What, then, explains her power? In the first place she radiated sex. The heir of Northumberland would try to break a six-year-old engagement for her; Sir Thomas would become passionately involved; and it was the inability of a Flemish musician to stand the heady atmosphere around her that would help bring Anne to destruction. As for Henry, the king’s own letters show how explicit was his desire…”

“That Anne was aware of her attractiveness to men seems obvious. While in France her place beside the retiring queen would have kept her away from most of the notorious licentiousness which flourished in Francis I’s own household. Nevertheless, Anne cannot have been made aware of her power during such visits as Claude did make to a court which was much more explicitly erotic than those at London or Brussels…days after her death de Carles waxed lyrical about her expressive eyes…

“Yet sexuality was only part of Anne Boleyn’s attraction. What made her stand out was sophistication, elegance, and independence, in fact the continental experience and upbringing which we have explored…

“France and Queen Claude, and, one might add, Margaret of Austria: these had made the difference. There were other foreign ladies at the English court. Some, now aging, had come over with Katherine of Aragon, but among the English there was nobody with a tithe of the continental polish of Anne Boleyn. One of Wolsey’s servants who had known her remembered how she stood out among the other women at court for ‘her excellent grace and behavior’. A less than enthusiastic Protestant writer of the next generation told how’ albeit in beauty she was to many inferior, but for behavior, manners, attire, and tongue she excelled them all, for she had been brought up in France.’ A Catholic account of the same period stressed that ‘she was in the prime of her youth’, and as well as her musical abilities ‘had her Latin and French tongue’…Even the recusant tradition remembered her elegance and gave her credit for it, if for nothing else: ‘She was the model and the mirror of those who were at court, for she was always well dressed, and every day made some change in the fashion of her garments. But as to the disposition of her mind…’

“Anne Boleyn had style, and continental style at that. George Wyatt might look back and write of ‘the graces of nature graced by gracious education’, but Carles declared at the time: ‘no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman’.”