Anne Boleyn's Body

I read that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand, and even had specially tailored gloves to hid the deforminity. Furthermore, I also read that she had three breasts.

What truth is there to this?

You’r sh*tting us, right?

The Master Speaks–

For the first time ever, I need to disagree with The Master.

I have studied the life of Anne Boleyn in much detail. The only accounts of her “deformities” are recorded many years after her death. For a king as squeamish as Henry VIII, who divorced Anne of Cleves because her breasts were slack, a third finger would have sent him screaming into the night.

Anne Boleyn had many enemies at court. Many bitchy letters were written during her lifetime describing her person and her faults. It’s highly unlikely that her enemies would have failed to remark on such a glaring flaw as an extra finger in an era in which such deformities were seen as marks of the devil.

The “third nipple” which is more commonly appologized away as a “wen” on her neck is also false. There’s no way she could have hidden it in an era of low-necked gowns, and again, enemies who were happy to remark on any flaw in Anne would have gleefully reported it.

There are simply no contemporary accounts of any deformities. It wasn’t until years after her death when Anne Boleyn’s reputation became more tainted with witchcraft did the stories of the “wen” and the sixth finger appear.

I should’ve searched the archive. To think, I thought I’d seen all the columns. Perhaps this could be moved to “Comments…”? Lissa’s assertions prove very interesting…

Off to “Comments.”

That’s twice in one night I’ve moved something there. Woo, I feel all tingly!

The problem with this line of argument is that one contemporary source does mention some sort of disfigurement on her neck. An unidentified observer at her coronation in 1533 claimed that, ‘She wore a violet velvet mantle, with a high ruff of gold thread and pearls, which concealed a swelling she has, resembling goitre.’ (Letters and Papers, foreign and domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII (1862-1932), VI, p. 266.) This source is a very hostile one and it is perfectly possible that this was a malicious falsehood, but you cannot claim that there was no one at the time who was spreading that particular rumour.

I am not expert on the subject, and most of what I’m going to say is conjecture; however:
I would assume that this is all rumor. The reason for my assumption is that Henry VIII would have most likely had his choice of the ladies. What would Anne have had to offer him? She wasn’t a grand lady until he granted her and her family titles. She didn’t provide political ties to another country. She wasn’t as fertile as her sister (who I’m pretty sure gave the king a son, which bore the name of her husband instead of the king’s). There must have been others much more wealthy. Therefore, something must have made him choose Anne; my guess would be that he must have been wildly attracted to her and she refused to be solely his mistress. I would seriously doubt that she could have attracted him with such major deformities in a court filled with beautiful women throwing themselves at his feet (or into his bed).

Sorry to bring this up so long after your post . . . I didn’t see it until now.

You’re right. I should have said there was no * credible * contemporary reports.

IIRC, the letter you quote was written by the Spanish ambassador, (I think it was Mendozza at the time, or maybe Chapuyes–I can’t remember right now) or one of his assistants. You are correct that the source is a very biased one. He has been discounted by historians because he often reported rumor as concrete fact, and his hatred for Anne was intense. Any snippet which might show her in an unfavorable light was reported by him with malicious glee. As one author dealt with the quote above: “If her ruff concealed it, how did he know it was there?”

At the time, low-necked dresses were the fashion, and Anne had women who dressed and bathed her, as most wealthy women did. It would have been difficult, if not impossible to conceal a goiter. When she was in the Tower, she was attended by women carefully selected because she did not like them, nor they her. These women reported every word she spoke, and every movement she made. Had a deformity been apparent, they would have reported it in a heartbeat, because deformites were seen as the mark of the devil, and it could have only helped to “prove” that Anne was evil.

Remember that Henry rejected Anne of Cleves because her breasts were slack. He never would have been attracted to Anne if the rumors were true, because, as I said, such flaws were seen as stemming from either the sins of the bearer, or the sins of their parents, in which case, he would not want to marry her in case they were passed to any potential children.

Whatever it was, the document was not an ambassadorial report. It has been suggested that it might have been written by someone in Chapuys’s circle, but that is pure speculation, resting as it does only on the fact that it ended up in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels. As the identity of the author is unknown, his or her bias is inferred only from the internal evidence. Its importance is not that it proves that Anne did have something wrong with her neck but rather that, as this rumour was clearly circulating at the time, the argument from silence can never be very convincing. Despite what you seem to assume, the surviving personal correspondence from the period is actually very limited, a point often not obvious from books on the subject as historians naturally make much use of those letters that do exist.

Incidentally, neither Mendoza’s or Chapuys’s diplomatic reports are ‘discounted by historians’; what they do is read them critically, as any good historian knows that even the most hostile of sources can contain accurate information.

The argument about Anne of Cleves’s breasts is a particularly weak one, as Henry’s comments are all-too-obviously those of a middle-aged man trying to pass the blame for his own non-performance in bed. These were an excuse, not an honest comment on his own feelings about her appearance. Given his failing sex drive, it is also unwise to make assumptions about what he would have found unattractive in the late 1520s on the basis of what he said he found unattractive in 1540.

Henry may well have been reluctant to select a wife on the basis of her ‘flaws’ but, then again, he may not. There is no evidence one way or the other as to whether he shared the belief that deformities were a mark of sin. You’re making one speculative assumption on the basis of another. You may also be underestimating the overriding sexual impulses of the still-virile Henry at the time he fell for Anne. Personally, I have no difficulty at all imagining a Henry on heat ignoring the odd extra fingernail or particularly large mole.

While no one claims that the evidence for Anne Boleyn’s ‘deformities’ is particularly strong, the considered view of most recent academic historians who have addressed the question has been that there is probably something in the stories. The only significant dissenting voice has been Retha M. Warnicke in her book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge University Press, 1989), and her work remains highly controversial. As her critics have pointed out, she dismisses the work of Nicholas Sander, the Catholic polemicist who made the most extreme claims about Anne’s appearance, and yet the central argument of her book rests on information derived only from him. And that remains the problem with Sander - everyone can agree that he was extremely biased but, equally, everyone, including Warnicke, also thinks that he sometimes got things right.

**

Considering, as far as I know, this to be the only contemporary written report of the rumor, it’s hard to say how widespread the rumor actually was. It’s entirely possible that the author heard a whisper from one person, and wrote as if the whole court was discussing it, or perhaps did not even mean to imply that it was widespread, but we interperet it as such.

Remember that at the peak of Henry’s passion for Anne, speaking against her almost guaranteed a loss of the king’s favor, which was every coutier’s nightmare. If a courtier had reported to Henry that Person X was spreading rumors about his beloved, Henry would have exploded in rage. Rumors were dangerous to spread.

It also stands to reason that if the rumor was widespead that it would have been recorded by other writers, if not in letters, in diaries (though they were not popular yet) or by more common folk, such as merchants and the like, who watched closely the court’s comings and goings and gossiped about what was going on the way we do today with our celebrities. Yes, the surviving documentation is somewhat limited, but Anne Boleyn was one of the most hotly debated and reviled personages of the age.

Also, Anne had served in the French court before returning to England, where the same lack of bodily modesty with one’s servants applied. It is interesting to note that no rumors of any deformities are present in the French court, even back when Anne was just Mistress Boleyn, grandaughter of a nobody.

**

This is true. What historians do is compare different accounts, consider tha author’s bias, and make a judgement as to what is most likely to be true. Some sources are more reliable than others.

**

It appears that Henry was dissatisfied with Anne of Cleves even before the wedding night. Sir Anthony Browne reported that Henry was “struck with dismay” upon his first sight of Anne. Lord Russel, his close friend, said that “he never saw His Highness so marvellously astonished and abashed as on that occasion.” Henry told Cromwell immediately after meeting Anne “I like her not.”

Now, Anne of Cleves was no raving beauty, but neither was she a dog. It was only after Henry made his displeasure clear that other courtiers began to say that they, too, thought she was ugly. In reality, she was a woman of “middling beauty” who dressed badly according to English eyes, and who was solemn and did not have the charming graces that Henry demanded in a bride. Their wedding night was the final straw. Her body odor and droopy breats were a turn-off.

He was plenty lusty when it came to Katherine Howard, the wanton little cutie. His public caresses led observers to say that he loved her far more than the others. Though at Anne Boleyn’s trial, there was an accusation of impotence, no one questioned his virility during the marriage to Katherine Howard-- quite the contrary, though he did fall ill a few times. Any impotence may have been occasional, and not necessarily a continuing problem until Henry’s later years. During the seperation from Anne of Cleves, Henry claimed he had nocturnal emmissions and felt himself able to “do the act with another.” While it’s unlikey a man such as Henry would publicly admit to impotence had he been afflicted, it is still intirely possible that he just wasn’t attracted to her.

**

Yes, but the question lies in whether he would have been attracted to her in the first place if she had such an obvious deformity that it could be seen from a distance. It’s true that we cannot assume that Henry shared the same predjudices as his age, but Henry the theologian certainly would have been exposed to the idea.

A stopped clock is right once a day, as well. I have read Warnicke myself, and she does have some interesting theories, but I still think that the bulk of the evidence rests with Anne not having any obvious deformities. The evidence to the contrary is unreliable, and spotty at best. Sander was only nine years old when Anne died, and he never even saw her in person, and the originator of the sixth finger, a biographer of Thomas Wyatt who states that she had a “little show of nail” on the side of one finger never met her either. Detached contemporary descriptions by people who had no reason to fabricate one way or the other mention no deformities at all.

This sums up the basic misconception at the heart of your position. If you know of any diaries or correspondence ‘by more common folk, such as merchants and the like’ recording the latest court gossip, I’m sure that Tudor historians would be delighted to hear from you, because, so far as they’re aware, such documents do not exist from the 1520s and the 1530s. The surviving sources for Henrician court gossip are very limited. One cannot even assume that they ever existed in large numbers.

But there are no ‘detached’ contemporary descriptions. Indeed, there are only a handful of contemporary sources that say anything at all about what she looked like. Those are the few quotes routinely wheeled out by her biographers. Given the paucity of sources of the type that would contain such descriptions, this thinness of the available evidence is just what one would expect. Moreover, none of those descriptions can be considered unbiased. All of them were trying to put some sort of spin on what they’re saying, not least because flattery was less risky than criticism.

With so little to go on, the fact that the witness from 1533 directly anticipated one element of the descriptions later given by Sander and George Wyatt is very striking. This is just the sort of detail that tends to impress historians that particular sources are connected, however indirect that connection might be. By far the simplest explanation is that the rumour had existed in the early 1530s, that the witness in 1533 had heard it and that it was still current later in the century for it to have been picked up by Sander and Wyatt. The only surprising thing is that there is so much evidence for the rumour’s existance.

The ‘originator of the sixth finger’ was Sander, not George Wyatt, and Sander claimed that it was literally a sixth finger. Historians would have probably have dismissed this were it not that Wyatt mentions the extra fingernail. And Wyatt is actually a rather good source. That he never met Anne is irrelevant. He was writing at a time when they were plenty of people still around who had done so and, as he was the grandson of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the son of the leader of the 1554 rebellion against Mary, he was well-placed to meet them. Most historians think that he put some effort into researching his biography (he did write about his grandfather elsewhere but it’s the biography of Anne that’s the important one) and so give his claims due weight. Few think it sensible to dismiss his evidence out of hand. Although he did not put it in quite those terms, Cecil was echoing that consensus.

**

There are actually quite a few surviving documents from that era about the court, more so than any court before. I listed a few of them in the paragraph below.

As to the common man’s recollections, I retract. For some reason, Samuel Pepys floated through my mind, and even though he’s not of the same era, I had a dim recollection of seeing a diary of a servant . . . but a dim recollection is all that I have. For some reason, it’s also stuck in my mind that there was a diary of the Countess of Shrewsbury as well.

**

We have descriptions of Anne’s appearance from John Barlow, one of Anne’s father’s former chaplains who espoused the opinion that Anne was not as pretty as Bessie Blount.

We also have the letter of the Venetian ambasador who wrote in 1532 that “Madame Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide moth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English King’s appetite and her eyes which are black and beautiful and take great effect.” This account is not very flattering, and it seems that had she been afflicted with a wen or sixth finger, he would have at least mentioned it in passing, considering that he had already been less than generous with his praise, a bit more detail wouldn’t have done any harm. Later, the same chronicle describes her as looking like a “thin old woman” when Henry began to lose interest.

Lancelot De Charles also praised the beauty of her eyes, but mentions no deformites. We also have accounts from The Spanish Chronicle (written before 1552) Nicholas Harpsfield (c. 1557), Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Bayonne, Eust ache Chapuys (who referred to Anne as “the Concubine” and would have no trouble in being honest about her appearance), the letters of William Brerton, not to mention the various accounts of her coronation, and execution (at which time her neck would have been exposed for all to see.) These sources are not detailed descriptions, but describe enough that if an obvious defect was apparent to the casual observer, they would have most likely noted it.

Just speculation, but as much hatred as Mary Tudor had for Anne Boleyn, I’d suspect that if the sixth finger were real, Mary would have mentioned it at some point because it would have further illustrated Anne’s immoral character. Even if Mary didn’t hold the idea that deformity= sin, she would have known that the concept was in the minds of some of her courtiers.

**

It’s entirely possible that the sources were plagrarizing one another. (God knows, historians do it today.) With only one contemporary source mentioning the rumor, and then other parroting it after her execution when Anne’s reputation had been tainted by witchcraft, it doesn’t necessarily mean that during her lifetime everyone was discussing it. Most likely, it took on a whole new life after her death.

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**The ‘originator of the sixth finger’ was Sander, not George Wyatt, and Sander claimed that it was literally a sixth finger. Historians would have probably have dismissed this were it not that Wyatt mentions the extra fingernail. And Wyatt is actually a rather good source. That he never met Anne is irrelevant. He was writing at a time when they were plenty of people still around who had done so and, as he was the grandson of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the son of the leader of the 1554 rebellion against Mary, he was well-placed to meet them. Most historians think that he put some effort into researching his biography (he did write about his grandfather elsewhere but it’s the biography of Anne that’s the important one) and so give his claims due weight. Few think it sensible to dismiss his evidence out of hand. Although he did not put it in quite those terms, Cecil was echoing that consensus. **
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Can’t take any short cuts with you, can I?

Sander’s account was written in 1585, and Wyatt’s was written in the 1590’s. You’re correct that while Sanders wrote that Anne had six complete fingers, Wyatt claimed that it was just “a little show of nail.” (Remember that Wyatt’s book was a response to Sander’s.) He honestly may not have known any different. If rumors flourished after her death, related as fact, he may have accepted the idea of some sort of hand deformity, but wanted to soften it as much as possible. But Wyatt also claimed that Anne had a prominent Adam’s Apple and “small moles” all over her body. There would have been no praise of her long white neck if it had been marred by an unsightly Adam’s Apple. His account is largely sympathetic, but flawed in some ways. Wyatt based his biography off of “family tradition” and the reminices of one of Anne’s serving women, Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche, who may have also served Jane Seymour. (As to how close they were, the only instance I can recall is when Anne lent a book to Lady Zouche.)

Sander’s account was by far the more vindictive, and quite a few of his assertions are dubious at best. He even goes so far as to claim that Anne was raped by one of her father’s servants at age seven. Margaret Roper, daughter of Thomas Moore also parroted the sixth-finger claim, but considering Anne was the reason her father was beheaded, one can understand a little bias. (BTW, I made a mistake earlier when I said there were no French court members who repeated the rumor: one of Anne’s serving women came forward with the tale of a “swelling” on Anne’s neck, and said that Anne was covered in warts.)

Out of all of the authors in my collection of Tudor biographies the only one who gives credence to the rumor, and that is Carroly Erickson, whose books, IMHO are neither well-researched or written. If you know of any others, please let me know, as I’d like to read them. (Unfortunately, most books on the Tudors now available are “pop” biographies.)

As I said, ‘there are only a handful of contemporary sources that say anything at all about what she looked like’. Almost of all of them are very general. True, they might have been expected to mention deformities on the scale alleged by Sander, but then no one is suggesting that Sander’s description is literally true. Everyone agrees that he was, at best, exaggerating. The real issue is whether Wyatt’s description of a deformed finger and some moles was accurate. (If it is, then it is only fair to acknowledge that Sander was only exaggerating.) It is not at all obvious that these sources would have mentioned them. In the case of her moles/goitre/wen/whatever, contemporaries would have been more likely to comment on her skin condition if it had been perfect.

As you note, the most detailed of the descriptions is that by the Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto. But Sanuto was not a disinterested bystander. The central aim of Venetan foreign policy at that date was to seek allies against Charles V. Henry’s marital difficulties was their big chance. Sanuto’s description comes from his account of the meeting between Henry and Francis I, a meeting which Anne had promoted and which the Venetians welcomed as consolidating the Anglo-French alliance against the Empire. The Venetians also hoped to use her as a means of gaining Henry’s ear. Sanuto was Chapuys in reverse. If anything, he was trying to be nice about her.

The most detailed discussion of all the issues is that by Eric Ives, whose biography of her remains the best of them. (It remains to be seen whether David Starkey’s forthcoming book on all six of the wives supercedes it.) Ives concludes that ‘A minor malformation on one finger-tip thus seems very probable, and so too one or two moles, possibly on the chin…’. My guess is that Cecil’s comments were largely drawn from him.

Thanks! I was not aware that there was another “Six Wives” book forthcoming. I’m looking forward to it!

One last note: Anne Boleyn’s body was exhumed in the 1876, and her remains placed in the crypt, along with Katharine Howard’s. No deformities of the hand were noted, so if any were present in life, they could have only been deformities of the soft tissue.

I don’t necessarily agree that the only comments on her skin would have been if it were perfect. After all, the Venetian ambassador commented that she was “swarthy,” and I think he would have also mentioned a mole on her chin, if present. Any moles would have to have been able to be concealed beneath her clothing.

Unfortunately, Amazon.com lists Ives’ books as being out of print, and oddly enough, says that Starkey’s upcoming book is for “Young Adults.” This may be a mistake, because the editorial reviews are for Antonia Fraser’s “Six Wives.” Do you know anything about this?