Will the real Anne Boleyn please stand up?

Ugggghh, the eternal mystery that is what on earth did Anne Boleyn really look like. It's perplexed historians and fans alike for centuries. Does the famous National Portrait Gallery image show the real Anne, or perhaps the Hever rose portrait? Could the Nidd Hall or Lucas Horenbout miniature hold the key to Anne's true visage? The subject is not made any easier by the fact that not one portrait of Anne Boleyn looks exactly like another. In fact there is such variety in the features of the many portraits that one struggles for where to begin when looking for the truth. Just take these four portraits below, three of which I reference above. Beyond the obvious (the sitter is a woman, wearing Tudor clothing with two eyes, a nose and a mouth) there isn't actually much correlation in the features. Each face is different. The absurdly small mouth was a bit of a Tudor trend that I've never properly got to the bottom of, but I think we can say with confidence that her mouth would certainly have been wider than is depicted in the NPG and Hever portraits.

For those who may not know, despite her infamy, Anne Boleyn is the only one of Henry VIII's wives for whom an undisputed portrait from life exists. There is still a bit of a question mark over Catherine Howard, but most historians (this one included) accept the Hans Holbein miniature as that of Henry VIII's unlucky fifth Queen consort. All the images that we associate with Anne Boleyn are believed to have been painted long after she had died. In the immediate aftermath of Anne's execution, Henry VIII had her images destroyed and nearly all marks of her in his palaces removed - a separate story will be posted on this in due course. It was also no longer considered wise to display a portrait of the Queen in the home, so whilst her Howard and Boleyn relatives may have once proudly displayed their kinswoman at the family seats, in order to remain in favour with the King they were also taken down and likely destroyed.


Beyond physical portraits and drawings, only a few scant physical descriptions of Anne Boleyn exist and even they have to be approached with extreme caution. Perhaps the most widely known and probably accurate comes from a Venetian diplomat writing in 1528 - "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". During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Nicholas Sander, a Catholic Jesuit who was incredibly hostile to anything Boleyn related described 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 the right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin and therefore to hide it's ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat". I need hardly state here that the words of a man who vilified Anne Boleyn and wasn't alive at the same time as her can be considered canon. His belief that she wore high dresses covering her throat is also at complete odds with practically all portraits of the Queen. Sadly that's pretty much all we have as far as physical descriptions. I think it can be considered accurate that Anne Boleyn was at least what we would now call olive skinned, and likely had dark hair - Wolsey alluded to this when he called her 'the night crow'.


One thing we do have is the 'Moost Happi' medal that was struck in 1534 ahead of the anticipated birth of a son. Sadly this was the son that Anne Boleyn would miscarry at seven to eight months with devastating consequences. The medal does indeed show Anne Boleyn from life, but is very badly damaged. This can be seen below in it's original form, and the painstaking recreation that was made recently by stone carver Lucy Churchill.




The medal is certainly wonderful but does not provide a huge amount of clarity on what she truly looked like, in the way a contemporary portrait may. One thing it does show us is that she is wearing a gable hood. Anne is often cited as the woman who introduced the more fashionable French Hood to the Tudor court. Whether she did is impossible to prove, but she has certainly become synonymous with this particular bit of Tudor millinery. That she was depicted in a gable hood in the medal is certainly significant. It was inherently English. It was the symbol of the English Queen and Anne would have chosen this deliberately. It is well documented that at her execution she also wore the gable hood. Coincidence? I don't think so. I firmly believe this was a deliberate choice - she would die as she had lived, the Queen of England and her fashion choices on the scaffold would certify that position. Anyway, back to portraits...

In all I have counted around 30 portraits or drawings supposedly depicting Anne Boleyn. As I mention above, finding common threads that link them all is achingly difficult. In some she is depicted as having an oval face, arched orbital ridge, with high cheek bones and a small mouth. In others her face is more round, with a slight double chin and a straight orbital ridge. Eric Ives, a pre-eminent historian who wrote what is considered by many to be the Anne Boleyn Bible - "The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn" wrote that there is "a resolution of this pictorial game of 'find the lady'" with the central key to solving the mystery being the Chequers locket ring which was owned by Elizabeth I. After her death this ring was discovered and inside it are two portraits, one of Elizabeth herself, and another of a woman who greatly resembles the NPG/Hever Rose portraits. Ives believes this woman to be Anne Boleyn, and when lined up against the Moost Happi medal, NPG portrait and a 17th century miniature from John Hoskins which was said to be a direct copy of an "ancient original" he concludes "the chain is complete. We have the real Anne Boleyn". Please see these four images lined up below.

I don't disagree with Eric Ives as far as his conclusion that we have a chain of similarity in the images. Equally however, the similarities are not strong enough to tell us exactly what she looked like. Whilst the oval face and high forehead are all fairly similar, the nose is very different in the NPG, Hoskins and Chequers ring images, although perhaps I am just being pedantic.


There are several other images which some claim to be of the queen. Two drawings attributed to Holbein which sit in the Windsor Castle Royal Collection and the British Museum respectively are often said to be of Anne Boleyn. David Starkey has made the case for the Windsor image seen below on the left to be of Anne Boleyn, taken from life. His primary evidence for this sits in the inscription at the top left 'Anna Bollein Queen' which some believe was written by Sir John Cheke, Secretary to King Edward VI and a man who knew Anne Boleyn from life. Sadly we cannot prove that it definitely was Cheke who wrote this, and further more, several inconsistencies and errors on Cheke' part have since been corrected by modern historians. Starkey also believes that the casual attire of the sitter in the portrait points to it being Anne Boleyn, as no one but somebody at the very top of Tudor society would have been depicted in a state of relative undress.



​The image on the right is the British museum drawing I reference above. It bears a striking resemblance to some of the portraits said to be of Anne Boleyn, and despite being an unfinished drawing, there is something more believable in this image than the NPG or Hever Rose portraits to my mind. The features are more human, more realistic - certainly the lips are a more normal size in any case! The inscription of Anne Boleyn was added to this drawing in the seventeenth century. Some believe it was drawn in 1534 at the start of Anne's second pregnancy. I am inclined to believe that this might just be a true likeness.


There are of course several other portraits floating around which carry the name Anne Boleyn against them. One of the more well known is a miniature by Lucas Horenbout. It shows a round faced woman with a very slight double chin, high forehead and decided nose. Like the British Museum drawing, there is something more believable in the features of this sitter, but they are so at odds with the other portraits of Anne that it's difficult to marry them up. There is however another image which has come to light in recent years which is known as 'The Somerley' portrait. It is housed at Somerley House in Ringwood and is believed to have been painted by Luca Penni (1500-1556), an Italian painter who resided in France. Luca was therefore alive at the same time as Anne Boleyn and it's just possible that if the Somerley image is Anne Boleyn, that it was painted when Henry and Anne visited Calais in October 1532. This trip was of course an enormous success for Anne, as she was presented formally to King Francis I of France as Henry's Queen in waiting. The portrait shows a woman in formal Tudor attire with what appears to be leopard fur sleeves. Only the very height of Tudor nobility were known to wear fur, and the leopard was Anne Boleyn's secondary heraldic symbol after the falcon. Recently it struck me that the face in the Horenbout miniature and the sitter in the Somerley Portrait have a LOT in common, in fact I would go so far as to say they depict the same woman. Please see below.


It may not be immediately obvious, but I noticed common links in the faces which can most evidently be seen in the below close up I put together.



In 1876, during the reign of Queen Victoria, emergency work was conducted on the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the grounds of the Tower of London. Anne Boleyn is buried there and her remains were dug up and examined at the time by Dr Frederick J Mouat, a Professor of Medicine in Victoria's court. Upon examining the skull, he described it as "well formed, with an intellectual forehead, straight orbital ridge, large eyes, oval face and a rather square full chin". To my mind, this description corroborates more with the Horenbout and Somerley portraits than the NPG and Hever ones, particularly the "rather square full chin". It is of course prudent to exercise some caution here as Victorian osteology isn't what it is today, but it's quite a significant comment to make and does seem at odds with the majority of the non-contemporary portraits of Anne.

There are three further images I want to mull over. The first I have struggled to find much information on other than to say that is is housed in Kentwell Hall. I first spotted it in the background of an Anne Boleyn documentary but couldn't find any sign of it online. I eventually managed to track down the documentaries producer, contacted her and she confirmed where the series was filmed. I contacted Kentwell and they kindly sent me a photograph of the portrait seen on the right, but couldn't tell me anything about it's past. As can be seen, the image is rather crudely done, with the pearl circlet around the upper billiment of the French hood appearing to square off on one side, but equally it appears to be very old (maybe therefore contemporary) and features a very prominent nose, not unlike that seen in portraits of Elizabeth I.


The second image came to light in 2017 and caused something of a stir in Anne Boleyn circles. At one time, a full length portrait of Anne Boleyn taken from life did exist and was in the collection of John, Baron Lumley. Lumley acquired it from his father-in-law Henry Fitzalan, close friend and will executor of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife. In 1590 Lumley created an inventory of his collection and labelled a portrait within as "a full length Anne Boleyn". The portrait was still in existence as late as 1773 when it was cut down from full length to head and shoulder length owing to damage caused by a fire. Historical novelist Richard Masefield believes that he has discovered the lost portrait and attributes it to Joos Van Cleve, a German painter known for his extensive work in the court of Henry VIII. Cleve painted a well known portrait of Henry VIII which is dated to the early 1530s. I believe the portrait is possibly a very good likeness of the Queen, with a lot of similarity between it and the British museum sketch clearly evident.


The final image I want to share fascinates me more than any other portrait from Tudor England. This first came to light a few years ago, when a portrait of Elizabeth I was x-rayed and the image of another woman was clearly evident underneath. Everything about this women suggests it is Anne Boleyn. The pose, the full mouth, the nose and the French hood all look a lot like other images of the Queen. It is my belief that beneath this image of Elizabeth lies a contemporary portrait of her mother. It's possible that Elizabeth made the rather romantic decision to protect an image of Anne Boleyn by having herself painted above it, uniting them and hiding a portrait of her mother in plain sight. Whilst Anne Boleyn's reputation improved immeasurably during the reign of her daughter, many ardent Catholics still loathed everything about her. They placed the breakdown of Henry VIII's marriage from Catherine of Aragon and split from the Catholic Church squarely on Anne's shoulders, so it's possible Elizabeth made the wise move to not overtly display images of her mother at court. This hidden portrait and the possible Van Cleve can be seen below.

What Anne Boleyn looked like has fascinated me for years and will no doubt continue to do so until a breakthrough is made and a contemporary portrait comes to light, if that ever happens! I would love nothing more than for her remains to be dug up again and given what we could describe as "The Richard III" treatment, with a full fascial reconstruction conducted, giving us a clear view on how she truly looked. Sadly that isn't going to happen any time soon and would undoubtedly be an unpopular move with many other Tudor fans. I myself think there is nothing better than knowing the truth, and given Anne's major impact on British history I find it outrageous that we are still debating her looks in 2020.


Of all the images I discuss above, my favourite is the most famous, the National Portrait Gallery image. I don't necessarily believe it's an accurate depiction but it's the one I immediately think of when I think of Anne Boleyn. As I have also said, the one that I find most fascinating is easily the final one, the "hidden" portrait. I am utterly convinced that it truly does depict Anne as she was from life, although I suspect the Holbein sketch in the British Museum is also an accurate depiction. Until further evidence comes to light we will just have to carry on wondering!


Written by Adam Pennington

14th November 2020.