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THE ANNE BOLEYN COLLECTION
By Claire Ridgway
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"The Anne Boleyn Collection" brings together the most popular articles from top Tudor website The Anne Boleyn Files. Articles which have provoked discussion and debate. Articles that people have found fascinating. Written in Claire's easy-going style, but with an emphasis on good history and sound research, these articles are perfect reading for Tudor history lovers everywhere. Discover the real truth about the Tudors.
Did Anne Boleyn Have Six Fingers?
Along with blood-curdling ghost stories, tall tales and gory descriptions of botched executions, visitors to the Tower of London are sometimes told that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand. Allegedly, this was proved when the Victorian team who exhumed her body found her extra finger bones. But is there any truth in this, or is it simply another tall tale?
In his book “Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism” (1585), Catholic recusant Nicholas Sander gives a rather unflattering description of Anne Boleyn:-
“Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat... She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth, amusing in her ways, playing well on the lute, and was a good dancer.”
I’m always amused by the fact that she had a jaundiced complexion, six fingers and a growth under her chin but Sander still found her “handsome to look at”!
While this passage is often given as proof that Anne Boleyn had an extra finger on one of her hands, we have to consider the author, Nicholas Sander, and how accurate his description is likely to be. We have to take into account the following:-
That Nicholas Sander was a Catholic forced into exile by the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn. He was therefore rather biased!
That he was born in around 1530 and was therefore only 6 years old when Anne Boleyn died.
That other parts of his book are inaccurate. For example, he writes of a fifteen year old Anne Boleyn being sent to France because she “sinned first with her father’s butler, and then with his chaplain”. This simply could not have happened. At the age of fifteen, Anne was already in France, serving Queen Claude and had been on the Continent for three years. Sander also writes that Anne Boleyn was actually Henry VIII’s daughter and that she slept with Francis I before moving on to sleeping with her father Henry VIII!
We therefore have to take Sander’s description of Anne with a hefty pinch of salt.
But Sander is not the only source for the six fingers story. George Wyatt, grandson of Thomas Wyatt, the poet and courtier who was once in love with Anne Boleyn, wrote:-
“There was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which yet was so small, by the report of those that have seen her, as the workmaster seemed to leave it an occasion of greater grace to her hand, which, with the tip of one of her other fingers, might be and was usually by her hidden without any least blemish to it. Likewise there were said to be upon some parts of her body certain small moles incident to the clearest complexions.”
This description appeared in Wyatt’s biography of Anne Boleyn, “Life of Queen Anne Boleigne”, which was favourable to Anne and although it was not written until the turn of the 17th century it was based on accounts of those who knew her. However, “some little show of nail” is very different to a sixth finger!
Those two sources are the only 16th century mentions of Anne Boleyn having some kind of deformity or blemish on one of her hands. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, who was so hostile to Anne Boleyn that he always referred to her as “the concubine”, makes no mention of any deformities or a sixth finger, yet he surely would have reported this to the Emperor with glee! Even if Anne used long sleeves to hide her hand on a daily basis, she could not have kept it hidden all the time and especially not from Henry VIII. Would a king who was paranoid about disease, curses and the succession move heaven and earth to marry a woman who had six fingers? No, I don’t believe so. Moles and beauty spots he could handle but a sixth finger that could be passed on to his son and heir? No, not likely.
But what about the sixth finger that was found on Anne’s hand when the Victorians dug her up? Well, this is pure fiction, a tall tale told by the entertaining Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London.
In 1876, restoration work was carried out on the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, the resting place of three queens: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. The work was recorded by Doyne C. Bell, who describes himself as “Secretary to Her Majesty’s Privy Purse”, in his book “Notices of the Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, With an Account of the Discovery of the Supposed Remains of Anne Boleyn”. It had been planned to leave the chancel undisturbed because it was the resting place of prominent people, including the Tudor queens. However, the surveyor noticed that the pavement was sinking and this needed correcting.
Bell used historical sources and records to make a plan of the resting places in the chancel and it was decided that any remains found should be re-interred on the same spot and labelled. When the pavement was lifted in the area thought to have been the resting place of Anne Boleyn, the bones of a female were found at a depth of about two feet, “not lying in the original order, but which had evidently for some reason or other been heaped together into a smaller space.” The bones were then examined by Dr Mouat who confirmed that they belonged to “a female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions”. He went on to describe the woman, explaining that “the forehead and lower jaw were small and especially well formed. The vertebrae were particularly small, especially one joint (the atlas), which was that next to the skull, and they bore witness to the Queen’s ‘lyttel neck’.” Although the bones were mixed up, there were no further female remains at that spot. In a memorandum attached to the minutes of the 11th November 1876 committee meeting, Dr Mouat shared his report on the examination of the remains, commenting that “the hands and feet bones indicate delicate and well-shaped hands and feet, with tapering fingers and a narrow foot.” He had found nothing unusual on the hand bones and would certainly have mentioned an extra finger.
There is controversy today over whether the remains were actually those of Anne Boleyn, but an extra finger was not found with any of the remains exhumed in 1876.
We cannot say that Anne Boleyn definitely did not have six fingers, but it is highly unlikely. In an age of superstition, an extra finger would not have endeared her to the King or his court. It is more likely that she had a small and insignificant blemish on her right hand.
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