Undergraduate Dissertation Chapter – Portrayals of Anne Boleyn in Portraits and Literature

Portrayals of Anne Boleyn

“I have never had better opinions of woman than I had of her” – Thomas Cranmer

Anne Boleyn was an unpopular Queen. As Eric Ives said, she was ‘perhaps a figure to be more admired than liked’.[i] She has been portrayed in many different ways: through plays, portraits, biographies written through religious eyes and through the eyes of the man who loved her, and killed her.

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.

With Anne Boleyn living her life largely in the public spotlight, there was a ‘calculated distance between the public persona and the inner self’.[ii] This in itself poses a problem as Anne did not want to show weakness in the face of her enemies so it is unlikely that the surviving contemporary evidence portrayed who Anne Boleyn really was; it more likely shows the face that she wanted the public to see – the Queen rather than the woman.

Stephen Greenblatt expands on this idea and says that there was a widespread idea in sixteenth century England that the self could be fashioned, but that it was constrained due to family, state and religious implications; these imposed a rigid and disciplined order on society as a whole.[iii] In reference to Anne Boleyn, state implications were particularly important, but also religious implications, as Anne was widely known as having reformist tendencies. Greenblatt’s arguments will be examined in this chapter.

This chapter will argue that Anne Boleyn’s public image has been altered and distorted by modern interpretations of contemporary sources, such as Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. But, historians often dismiss evidence to suit their own purpose. Hence Anne Boleyn is seen, now more than ever, with hindsight, as it is very difficult to get to the heart of the real Anne, when the contemporary sources we do possess are being analysed by people who have no real knowledge of the times she lived in.

Anne Boleyn’s Portraiture and Appearance

Anne as Queen

There are very few contemporary images that survive of Anne Boleyn. One is in the ring worn by her daughter, Elizabeth I (Figure 1), and the other that we can be sure of is a portrait medal of 1534 (Figure 2). However, the medal has been put in doubt as an image of Anne because the sitter wears a gable hood, which Anne was known to have despised. However, the face shape is clear and it echoes the descriptions given of her and is very similar to her daughter’s face.[iv] It shows an oval face, a pointed chin and defined cheekbones. This facial image is similar to the one shown in Elizabeth I’s portrait ring. G.W. Bernard suggests that the fact that the ring was Elizabeth I’s does not necessarily mean that the other portrait in the ring, aside from hers, was that of her mother, Anne Boleyn.[v] It is difficult to imagine who else the other lady in the ring could be. It could be a subtle hint from Elizabeth of her feelings about her mother; that Anne was innocent of the charges laid against her in 1536. This ring is also possibly where the National Portrait Gallery and Hever Castle portraits derive from as the images are very similar.

Josephine Wilkinson acknowledges that none of the surviving portraits of Anne Boleyn are contemporary, but likely copies of a lost original.[vi] The portraits at Hever Castle, (Figure 3), and the National Portrait Gallery

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

(Figure 4) are very similar but with slight differences. The Hever Castle portrait shows Anne holding a Tudor Rose, symbolising her connection to the royal house. The portrait from the National Portrait Gallery seems to show more of Anne’s ‘charm and vivacity’ than the Hever Castle portrait.[vii] This is because she seems to have a bolder gaze; in the Hever Castle portrait, Anne does not seem to be looking at the artist, rather to one side, but she is looking directly at the artist in the National Gallery portrait, showing more of her spirit. It has been claimed, however, that these two portraits were actually copies of an original portrait of Mary, Queen of France, and later wife of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, not of Anne.[viii] However, this does not seem to be correct, because the ‘B’ pendant the sitter wears was said to represent Brandon, but why would she distinguish herself from the royal house and why does it look very similar to one Anne was said to have?[ix] Bernard’s queries make sense, and it seems that these portraits are in fact Anne Boleyn. The John Hoskins miniature is likely to be Anne Boleyn, as it is very similar to the above two paintings. On the back of the miniature is written ‘from an ancient original’.[x] This suggests that there was once a contemporary portrait of Anne in this style. However, Ives suggests that there was a full-length portrait of Anne owned by Lord Lumley in 1590 and that it existed as late as 1773.[xi] This could possibly be a lost Hans Holbein portrait of Anne, which the widely accepted images of her are based off.

Many portraits of Anne are different in style and the sitter looks like a different person in most portraits identified as her. Looking at the miniature by Lucas Horenbout (Figure 5) and the portrait at Nidd Hall, Bradford (Figure 6), we can see more of a resemblance to Jane Seymour than we can to Anne (Figure 7). This is because the sitters wear gable hoods and lack Anne’s defining pointed chin, defined cheekbones and oval face. Joanna Denny agrees with this interpretation, adding that the miniature has been dated to between 1528 and 1532, too early for Anne as Queen. [xii] However, by this logic, it also rules out Jane as the sitter. However, Antonia Fraser identifies the miniature as ‘plausibly’ the ‘only contemporary likeness’ of Anne Boleyn.[xiii] In the Nidd Hall portrait, the sitter wears a brooch of a single pearl drop hanging from an AB initial. Historians often take this as evidence that the sitter was Anne. However, Denny says that the AB initial was changed in copies of this portrait after 1618 to a square-cut jewel.[xiv] This was possibly because the portrait resembles Jane Seymour a lot more than it does Anne Boleyn. Hence, we can safely dismiss these two portraits as images of Anne.

Hans Holbein, Henry VIII’s renowned painter, would most likely have painted Anne at some point during her tenure as Queen. If such a painting was completed, it no longer exists. There are two sketches in existence by Holbein, supposedly of Anne, but these are ‘unconvincing’.[xv] Alison Weir also describes them to be of ‘doubtful authenticity’ and it was not first identified as Anne until 1649 which was too late to be proven.[xvi] The two portraits do not seem to be of the same woman; they are too different. One of a sitter wearing a gable hood (Figure 8) is unlikely to be Anne because, again, Anne disliked gable hoods. The second Holbein sketch (Figure 9) shows a woman in what looks like a nightgown, with an informal headdress. Eric Ives says that there is evidence in this portrait to link it with the Wyatt family, although he does not say what this evidence is.[xvii] Bernard suggests that the sketch could be unfinished and so the sitter could have been Anne but Holbein was adapting it for finishing later.[xviii] Ives points out that, compared to the image of Anne on the 1534 portrait medal, it would seem that she sat for neither of the Holbein drawings. [xix] Otherwise surely a better likeness would have emerged.

The portraits can give us a clue to Anne’s appearance and what might have made her so attractive to Henry VIII. From the portraits that we can be almost entirely sure to be Anne Boleyn (National Portrait Gallery, Hever Castle, Elizabeth I ring and the Hoskins miniature) it seems that Anne was an unconventional beauty with a French gloss, after a childhood spent in France, and huge amounts of confidence. It was perhaps this which drew Henry to her. Given Anne’s image in the portraits, we can see why he was attracted to her: she was unusual. Other things which may have attracted him to her were her pride in her appearance and her ‘preoccupation with glamour’, as well as her intellectual interests in theology and Renaissance art.[xx] This would have been a huge difference from Katherine who, although educated, was educated in female things like embroidery, rather than intellectual pursuits. The main appeal to Henry would have been in Anne’s ‘vivacious personality’ as she had a fiery temper, was fiercely independent, and loved to debate with him.[xxi] It was these things which set Anne up as the complete opposite to Katherine of Aragon, which may have been the main pull for him. Katherine was getting old and her many pregnancies had made her lose her appearance (Figure 11). In contrast Anne was young, vibrant and beautiful. She would also be able to give Henry more children, which was a dynastic advantage. It could also have had something to do with the fact that she rejected his advances, which no woman had ever done before.

Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII

Anne as Mother

William Shakespeare's 'Henry VIII' (1623).
William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’ (1623).

William Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII could be biased, because he began writing it in the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, so did not want to upset her by portraying her mother as a temptress who seduced her father away from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. This could also explain why Shakespeare did not write anything about the events after the birth of Elizabeth. This was Tudor propaganda, to an extent trying to rehabilitate Anne’s ruined image. However, Shakespeare’s main intention was probably to portray Elizabeth as England’s saviour, and not focus on the reputation of her mother, hence why Anne Boleyn appears in the play so little. However, it does give us a very different view of her, and how others viewed her.

Shakespeare’s work was probably quite controversial, as this was the beginning of Anne Boleyn’s reintroduction into the public sphere. The audience sees and hears very little about the Break with Rome and Anne’s role in it (discussed later in this chapter), or of any of the religious controversies which were flourishing at the time. Possibly Shakespeare thought that this was too controversial. All of the characters who are eliminated in the play obstruct Henry’s marriage to Anne, and so the birth of Elizabeth. The fall of these major characters in the play is important, not only to the play as a whole, but in foreshadowing Anne’s own fall, although it is not shown.[xxii] None of those who were eliminated in the play seemed to be entirely guilty, possibly veiling Anne’s own innocence in what she was later accused of.

What we do see of Anne Boleyn in the play seems to disagree with the historical record. The play often portrays her as timid, and not wanting the honours which were bestowed on her; for example, the Marquisate of Pembroke. But it does seem to echo the relationship between them ‘from a blushing handmaid to his Highness’.[xxiii] This relationship is echoed in the love letters which Henry and Anne exchanged, in which Henry sees himself as Anne’s servant.[xxiv] They both felt as if they were unworthy of each other. However, the public only saw Anne as unworthy of Henry and this is possibly where her negative public image derives from; the public were disgusted when Henry divorced Katherine of Aragon.

The major triumph of Anne Boleyn in the play is spoken about by two unnamed gentlemen – the coronation in act four, scene one. In this way, Shakespeare cleverly interposes what the people think of their new Queen, although this does not seem to match the historical record either. Historians accept that Anne was a very unpopular Queen at the time. Many of Henry’s closest friends were against the marriage, but they had to participate in the coronation or suffer Henry’s displeasure.[xxv] However, several prominent nobles did refuse to attend. These included Lord Stafford (son of the executed Duke of Buckingham), the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, and the Marquess of Exeter.[xxvi] In the play, however, the two gentlemen call Anne ‘the goodliest woman’, they say that she had ‘all the royal makings of a Queen’ and that ‘such joy [they] never saw before’ in the people.[xxvii] This seems contradictory to the historical record because the people never really supported the divorce, or Anne as Queen and the coronation procession was allegedly almost silent and quite dull.[xxviii] Shakespeare has obviously used some artistic license in his portrayal of Anne Boleyn.

The Duke of Suffolk in the play seems to have supported Anne’s marriage to the King, but in real life, he opposed it. Anne had alienated him by 1530 so Suffolk had gone to Henry with tales of her supposed involvement with the poet Thomas Wyatt before she came to court.[xxix] However, in the play, Suffolk seems to support her marriage, calling her ‘a gallant creature and complete in mind and feature’ and he believed that her marriage to the King would have led to a memorable blessing on England.[xxx] The words ‘gallant’ and ‘complete’ suggest a splendid young woman, perfect and accomplished, while the blessing Suffolk mentions is likely a veiled reference to Elizabeth I, her daughter and the future Queen. In this way, Shakespeare portrays Anne Boleyn in his play King Henry VIII as the maker of the modern world, because Elizabeth’s Golden Age opened up a new world. Her public image is slightly retrieved because it was Anne who gave England Elizabeth.

Religious Reputation

Anne as Figurehead

When looking at the influence of Anne Boleyn’s religion on her public image, we need to understand the differences between Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical. Key Roman Catholic teachings are transubstantiation (turning the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into his blood), and the Holy Trinity, which is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.[xxxi] Reformers wanted to get rid of the corruption and reduce the wealth of the Church, but they are essentially Catholics in theology and doctrine. Protestants, on the other hand, adhere to the theological views that emerged from the sixteenth century Reformation. Their key belief is in justification by faith, which means that you can earn a place in heaven simply by believing, and not by good works, as Catholics believed.[xxxii] Evangelicalism is similar to Protestantism, but it did not really exist until the seventeenth century. It bases its teachings primarily on the Gospels, compared to Protestantism and Catholicism which put more emphasis on the Bible.[xxxiii] These definitions will persist through this section.

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke 1545.
Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke 1545.

It will be argued that Anne Boleyn was neither Catholic or Protestant or an evangelical, but a reformer of Catholicism, with some Protestant leanings when it suited her. Because of these Protestant leanings, her public image has suffered, although she was more Catholic than Protestant. Bernard argues that Anne revealed in the Tower and through her belief in good works ‘a deeply conventional Catholicism’.[xxxiv] It is not known how much of an influence Anne actively had on the Break with Rome, but Henry was not severing the connection with Rome for religious or theological reasons, but for personal reasons – he was in love with Anne.[xxxv] It can be said that she was Catholic at heart, but when the Pope got in the way of her ambition, she turned to new Protestant ideas in order to achieve her goals. What gives us the clue to Anne’s true religion was the manner of her death. When in the Tower after her arrest, Anne requested that she have the sacrament placed in her room so that she could pray for mercy, and after her trial she wanted to be shriven, again a very Catholic and conventional measure.[xxxvi] Anne’s religion was a calculated affair which affected her public image negatively, although it should not have, and which she adapted to her own purpose.

However, Maria Dowling argues that Anne was an evangelical and she says that Archbishop Cranmer was careful during her fall to distance their cause from her so that the ‘radical ground’ gained by her time in power would not be lost.[xxxvii] Bernard ascertains that John Foxe, author of the Book of Martyrs, believed that Anne’s so-called practise of ‘pious evangelical reform’ automatically disproved the charges of adultery against her, because a Queen and a religious woman like her could never have done such a thing.[xxxviii] He uses this as a reason why Anne was a Protestant or evangelical, but his argument is flawed as women of all religions have cheated on their husbands, and husbands on their wives. Foxe’s arguments are weak and, as it did not even exist in the period, we can easily dismiss the so-called evidence for Anne Boleyn being an evangelical.

However, Eric Ives argues that Anne was a Protestant because of her links with known reformers like Edward Fox, Hugh Latimer and John Hilsey.[xxxix] On the other hand, G.W. Bernard refutes Ives’s arguments by saying that many writers of Anne as a reformer, such as John Foxe and William Latymer, were trying to influence the religious outcomes in the country, and so it was not to their benefit to portray Anne as a conventional Catholic.[xl] However, this does not necessarily show Anne’s Protestant fervour because she rewarded anyone who helped her to achieve the throne, whether Catholic or Protestant. Thomas Freeman does say that Foxe’s arguments do not prove that Anne was an evangelical or a Protestant as there were other reasons for many of her actions – her charity and piety can be seen as ‘good public relations’ and her support of evangelicals and reformers can possibly be seen as her building a power base.[xli] Freeman’s arguments against Foxe are sound, and so Bernard’s arguments gain more credit and they seem to be more likely to be true. In this way, Stephen Greenblatt’s theory that there was a ‘calculated distance between the public persona and the inner self’ seems to be correct.[xlii] Anne’s interior beliefs were conventional and Catholic, whereas her exterior seems to be Protestant, or at the very least radical reformer, because it was what would suit her ambition the best.

Why so many portrayals?

Anne Boleyn was such a complex woman, and so little survives about her, that it would be impossible to have just one portrayal. Depending on whether you like or hate her, it invokes a bias towards her and her public image. Her image has been hotly debated in the 500 years since she first caught Henry’s attention, and ongoing debates mean that interest in her image will not likely dissipate in the foreseeable future.

What really drove Anne Boleyn’s image was the sense that the self could be fashioned.[xliii] Anne had tried to fashion her own public image, but she could only do that for as long as people were amenable to her. It was her fall which has truly shaped her image, as it engulfed the entire court and her reign changed the face of the English monarchy forever.


Figure 1

Ring worn by Elizabeth I carrying her mother’s image.

Figure 2

Portrait medal of 1534.

Figure 3

Hever Castle Portrait

Figure 4

Anne Boleyn

Figure 5

Lucas Horenbout Miniature.

Figure 6

Nidd Hall Portrait

Figure 7

Jane Seymour

Figure 8

Hans Holbein Sketch.

Figure 9

Anne Boleyn

[i] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p. xv

[ii] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) p. 68

[iii] Ibid, p. 1

[iv] Ives, Life and Death, p. 42

[v] G.W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (London: Yale University Press, 2011) p. 198

[vi] Josephine Wilkinson, Anne Boleyn (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011) pp. 52 – 53

[vii] Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Random House, 1997) p. 152

[viii] Bernard, Fatal Attractions, p. 199

[ix] Ibid

[x] Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn (Chatham: Piatkus Books, 2008) p. 21

[xi] Ives, Life and Death, p. 43

[xii] Denny, Anne Boleyn, p. 22

[xiii] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Phoenix Press, 2002) p. 151

[xiv] Denny, Anne Boleyn, p. 22

[xv] Ibid, p. 18

[xvi] Weir, Six Wives, p. 153

[xvii] Ives, Life and Death, p. 41

[xviii] Bernard, Fatal Attractions, p. 197

[xix] Ives, Life and Death, p. 43

[xx] Ibid, p. xiii

[xxi] Weir, Six Wives, p. 151

[xxii] William Shakespeare, King Henry VIII (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 26

[xxiii] Shakespeare, Henry VIII, p. 126

[xxiv] J.O. Phillips (ed.) Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn (Boulder, CO: Merchant Books, 2009) p. ii

[xxv] David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2010) p. 63

[xxvi] Fraser, Six Wives, p. 240

[xxvii] Shakespeare, Henry VIII, p. 176

[xxviii] Ives, Life and Death, pp. 177 – 178

[xxix] Weir, Six Wives, p. 231

[xxx] Shakespeare, Henry VIII, p. 149

[xxxi] Charles Taliaferro & Elsa J. Marty (eds.), A Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) p. 43

[xxxii] Ibid, p. 187

[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 81

[xxxiv] G.W. Bernard, ‘Anne Boleyn’s Religion’, HJ, Vol. 36 (1993) pp. 1 – 20, p. 20

[xxxv] Bernard, Fatal Attractions, p. 95

[xxxvi] Ibid, p. 123

[xxxvii] Maria Dowling, ‘Anne Boleyn and Reform’, JEH, Vol. 35 (1984) pp. 30 – 46, p. 46

[xxxviii] Bernard, ‘Anne Boleyn’s Religion’, p. 4

[xxxix] Eric Ives, ‘Anne Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England: the Contemporary Evidence’, HJ, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1994) pp. 389 – 400, p. 390

[xl] Bernard, ‘Anne Boleyn’s Religion’, p. 2

[xli] Thomas Freeman, ‘Research, Rumour and Propaganda: Anne Boleyn in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’, HJ, Vol. 38 (1995) pp. 797 – 819, p. 819

[xlii] Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 68

[xliii] Ibid, p. 1

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