Friday, September 7, 2012

Tall Tales of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is arguably the most famous of Henry VIII's wives. She's one of the few queens of England that most people can name who never reigned in her own right. 

When pressed most people can list a few things about her:

1) She was a wife of Henry VIII.

2) She had six fingers.

3) She had red hair.

4) She was executed for witchcraft. 

For once, they're not all wrong! Just... three out of the four. 

The Moost Happi medal, to commemorate the son that never was.

She was a wife of Henry VIII

Yes, yes she was. She was the second wife of Henry VIII. Technically she married Henry VIII before his marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled, so for a very short time she was the second wife in a bigamous marriage. Once the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII was annulled, Anne became his only wife. 

Signature of Anne Boleyn, the queen. 

She had six fingers

Sorry, but no. This myth didn't start cropping up until about 50 years after her death You can thank Nicholas Sanders for that particular myth. His nickname in England was actually "Dr Slanders."[*

In reality, had Anne had any physical deformities, they would have been talked about. They would have been talked about a lot. Queen Catherine had been extremely popular, and Henry VIII marrying Anne wasn't exceptionally thought well of at the time. And during those times, nothing was said about her other than that many people thought her a bit plain to look at compared to her sister Mary. 

The Venetian ambassador wrote in 1532, describing her as, "'not one of the handsomest women in the world.  She is of middling stature, with a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful..." [**]

She had red hair

This one is a mix-up between Anne and her daughter Elizabeth. As you can see from her portrait at the top, Anne had dark brown hair (though it was sometimes described as black), while Henry  VIII had red hair. Elizabeth inherited her hair from her father. 

She was executed for witchcraft

Remember Mr Nicolas "Slander" Sanders? Yep, this one is all on him again. Never once did witchcraft come up during Anne's trial.[***] What did come up were charges of adultery, incest, and treason. Her favorite musician  Mark Smeaton was arrested and tortured until he confessed to having an affair with Queen Anne. Her brother George was also accused of having sex with her, hence the accusation of incest. 

For a queen to have committed adultery against the king was by default treason. Both Anne and George were executed, despite a complete lack of evidence. In reality, it's very unlikely that Anne was guilty of anything other than failing to produce a son. 

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