The Cultural Legend of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is a historical figure who has obtained legendary status.    This also means that she is a figure that has been misunderstood over the years, and one that it is near impossible to entirely pin point.    There is a question over whether we could ever truly know who she was.

We do not know her birth year for certainty.    Some historians claim her birth year is as late as 1507!   However, I am apt to believe that she was most likely born circa 1501.   I find this date most likely given her time spent at the court of Margaret of Austria, and the fact that Henry VIII spent so much time trying to gain the ability to marry her.    Margaret of Austria usually had young women about twelve to fourteen in her court, as a finishing school of sorts, and as a seven or eight year old Anne would have been much too young.    Of course, she then would go on to serve first Mary Rose Tudor, and later Queen Claude of France until 1522.    Yet again if she was born if 1507, she would have been too young at that point to be a lady in waiting.   

Henry and Anne were ever increasingly desperate to marry, given she was getting older.    If she had been only nineteen when she caught his eye in 1526, then she would still only be twenty-five in 1533 when they married.   That would be still more than young enough to have at least a decade of child bearing years!    If she was twenty-five in 1526, then she would be thirty-two in 1533 when they married.    This makes more sense based in the fact that at thirty-two she had more child bearing years, but not that many (especially by Tudor standards), making their increasing desperation to marry logical!

After her arrest and execution, Henry tried to have her removed from history.    His efforts were not entirely effective, of course, as he attempted to do that in such a rushed time frame.   His workers missed an entwined H and A in Hampton Court Palace, which can still be seen today.   Anne’s legacy can be seen in the ring that Elizabeth I wore, which had portraits of herself and Anne in a hidden locket compartment.    The portrait of Anne there is similar to the portraits we know to be of her.    The remaining portraits were not painted in her lifetime, as Henry destroyed those ones.    Elizabeth’s miniature in her ring is the image we have of Anne painted closest to her actual lifetime.

Anne became a legend starting in her own lifetime.    She was both famous and infamous at court for her style, and her ambition.   When Henry VIII fell in love with her, and she displaced Katherine of Aragon, Anne began to be seen as a concubine (to use one of Chapus’s terms).   Her fashion choices, and her Frenchness, became something that was imitated among other ladies at English court.    When she became queen after plotting for years with the king to get his divorce, it was clear she was a woman to be reckoned with.   It was Anne who gave Henry banned books, whose principles he greatly took to during his “Great Matter.”   Her downfall made her a martyr to Protestants, and an evil seductress to her detractors.    Her greatest legacy was her daughter, the future Elizabeth I!

In the 485 since her death (the anniversary just passed on May 19) she has gone through phases of being seen as a saint and as a sinner.    Each generation has had their own interpretations of her.    We see that in books(both fiction and non-fiction), plays, movies, and television shows about her.    Her story is iconic, but we still do not know so many important details about her.    

We do not even know what she looked like.   We know she had dark eyes, and olive skin.    We know she was not a traditional beauty (by Tudor standards), but that she was beguiling.    Her hair is described as dark, but modern historians have pointed out that there was no Tudor era word for Auburn (or dark red) hair.   This means that she could have had dark red hair (as I myself have, and I still get people questioning my hair color in dark light, since it shines truly red in sunlight), as such it was simply described as dark, or even brunette.    Anne having auburn hair makes the utmost sense given that both Henry and Elizabeth were redheads, and we know in order for a child to have red hair both parents need to have the MC1R gene (whether active or not).    If Anne had auburn hair she had an active MC1R gene, just like Henry did, making it logical that their daughter  was also red haired!

One thing is for certain, and that is the fact that Anne Boleyn is a legendary figure and cultural icon!    I hope you have enjoyed my analysis of Anne Boleyn’s cultural appeal.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is one of the covers of Susan Bordo’s book.   I found the image on

Further Reading

  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
  • Anne Boleyn by Amy Licence 
  • The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir
  • The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo (This is a phenomenal book on the cultural history of Anne Boleyn, if you wish to learn more about the subject!)
  • The Anne Boleyn Papers collected by Elizabeth Norton