Anne Boleyn: Queen of England and a Fashion Icon
Anne Boleyn is a legendary figure in England’s history and also one of the most controversial. Her life and her death are symbols of inspiration, discussion, and admiration.
Many elements of her life have been explored; by historians and people interested in the life of those who built the pillars of the world we enjoy today. But Anne Boleyn was more than the Queen Consort of King Henry VIII, More than the Mother of The greatest Monarch that England ever had, Elizabeth I; more than the victim of a tyrant; she was also an icon of her days; in fashion, glamour, style and strong temper. Nicolas Sanders; author of many myths about Anne Boleyn was only true in his words when he said that: “She was unrivalled in the gracefulness of her attire, and the fertility of her invention in devising new patterns, which were imitated by all the
Anne Boleyn was a woman with a very special sense of style; based in an immaculate point of view. This only gave more life to her unique place among the ladies of her days, because Anne Boleyn was not the usual type of English girl of the 1500’s. Anne’s skin was tanned, sometimes described as olive toned; deep and beautiful black eyes, of middle stature, elegant long neck and a slim body figure. Compared with the pale, blond and blue eyed girls of court, Anne was indeed the center of attention in those days; even when she was not the perfect beauty, she used her charmed and exotic beauty to capture the King and change History.
During her time before become Queen of England; Anne Boleyn was admired for her style of fashion; always different, her designs were always spectacular; clean and with a great taste; centered in the glamour of the French Fashion. Anne Boleyn’s favorite color was green, and her favorite jewel, were pearls; she made sure to always have those two favorites in her designs.
Anne Boleyn was sent to France in 1515 and there she was observing how the fashion developed. When she returned from France in 1521/1522 she was considered to be more like a Frenchwoman than an Englishwoman. Anne was fond of French fashion and she manifested it almost all the time. She favored French hoods rather than heavy and unflattering English gable hoods. For Anne, elegance and beauty were the most important elements in her attire.
Before Anne Boleyn became Queen of England, she was Henry VIII’s fiancée and he often showered her with magnificent gifts. From gowns, tapestries, furniture and jewels; the King treated Anne as she was already his consort. Henry’s Privy Purse accounts have survived for the years 1529-32 and they reveal what Henry was buying for Anne. Professor Eric Ives writes that “much of the expenditure went on clothes”.
These are only some of the expenses from king’s Privy Purse:
December 1530: ‘In the same day paid to Adington the skynner for furs & furrying of
My Lady Anne gownes”
May 1531: ‘Crimson clothe of gold for my Lady Anne Rocheford’
June 1532: ‘twelve yards of black satin for a night gowne for my Lady Anne’
Anne Boleyn and Henry enjoyed hunting and this activity required a special costume and accessories. Henry presented Anne with hunting gloves, dresses and her own set of arrows. Of course, The King also gave Anne fine horses as well.
In September 1532 Anne Boleyn was made Marquis of Pembroke in her own right and of her offspring. This was a magnificent ceremony and an occasion for Anne to shine even more than she already used to: This is an account of how beautiful Anne looked that day: “There, her hair about her shoulders and her ermine-trimmed crimson velvet hardly visible under the jewels” (Eric Ives, “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”,)
In 1532 Henry VIII purchased a beautiful black satin nightgown for Anne. Back then nightgowns had the role of modern day dressing gown and it was a common practice to receive guests that way.
Anne Boleyn charmed Henry VIII not only with her exotic beauty, but also with her elegance, and she proved to him that she was able to shine in his court more than a crown on rubies. She was admired by the ladies at court; imitated and followed in her style of fashion. Even before she was formally Queen of England, Anne Boleyn already looked like one.
On her coronation day in June 1533 Anne Boleyn looked very beautiful; this is an account of what she was wearing that day:
“going under a rich canopy of cloth of gold, dressed in a kirtle of crimson velvet decorated with ermine, and a robe of purple velvet decorated with ermine over that, and a rich coronet with a cap of pearls and stones on her head; and the old duchess of Norfolk carrying her train in a robe of scarlet with a coronet of gold on her cap, and Lord Burgh, the queen’s Chamberlain, supporting the train in the middle.”
Anne Boleyn passed her love for fashion and elegant style to her household. All her ladies in waiting were dressed in the French fashion with no exceptions; the strict designs of her gowns represented her status as queen. Delicate dresses, sometimes adorned with pearls were used by her ladies. Only Anne’s mother, the countess of Wiltshire was the only member of Queen’s that used the English Fashion style on a daily basis; this was understandable since she was raised at the English court since she was five years old, and her French influence was limited; but for formal occasions; she followed the dress code of her daughter.
Although many documents from Anne’s time as Queen were destroyed, luckily there is an account of Anne Boleyn’s expenditure for clothes in period from January to April 1536:
“This tells of Anne buying gowns in tawny velvet with black lambs’ fur, in velvet without fur, in damask, and in satin furred with miniver; a russet gown in caffa (heavy silk), two in black velvet, one in black damask, one in white satin and a second with crimson sleeves; a gown in purple cloth of gold lined with silver, and new carnation satin from Bruges to insert into the sleeves of a gown of tissue. There were eight nightgowns, two embroidered and another in russet trimmed with miniver; and three cloaks – of black Bruges satin, of embroidered tawny satin and of black cloth lined with black sarcenet – while Arnold the shoemaker had eight lots of black velvet to make shoes and slippers. Thirteen kirtles included white satin and white damask, black velvet embroidered and crimson satin ‘printed’, with matching sleeves.”
In Henry VIII’s inventory there were at least two pairs of sleeves for women (very important part of the gown) identified as belonging to Anne:
‘one of white satin embroidered over with purled gold acorns and honeysuckles tied with ten pairs of aiguillettes of gold’ and the other ‘of cloth of gold embroidered with a great trail of purled gold with honeysuckles tied with ten pairs of aiguillettes of gold’.
Queen Anne was a woman who was totally in love with jewels; and she used them in her wardrobe too. Here is an account of how the Queen mixed her passion for fashion with her love for jewels:
“Such as the nineteen diamonds set in trueloves of gold which Hayes supplied in January 1532, along with twenty-one rubies and twenty-one diamonds set in gold roses and hearts.
Anne cared not only for her own fashionable look, but she also supplied her almost three year daughter Elizabeth with elaborate gowns. Professor Eric Ives described how in three months period Anne supplied her daughter with:
“a gown of orange velvet, kirtles of russet velvet, of yellow satin, of white damask and of green satin, embroidered purple satin sleeves, a black muffler, white ribbon, Venice ribbon, a russet damask bedspread, a taffeta cap covered with a caul of gold”.
Anne, apparently, was especially fussy about her daughter’s caps; one made of purple satin required at least three journeys to Greenwich to get it right”
Anne Boleyn had an exquisite taste for jewels; she shared that taste with her husband, who gave Anne many gifts. Many were symbolic pieces of jewels that formed an important part of the rituals of Courtly Love. In the year to May 1532 Cornelius Hayes’ bill included three dozen items of jewelry for ‘Mistress Anne’, costing almost 100 pounds. The largest item is a girdle of crown gold billed at £18 10s.4d. It is believed that Henry VIII spent a huge fortune with Anne in jewels than he did with any other of his wives; only Katherine Howard is a little closer to Anne on that range of jewelry spending.
But in 1536; the life of Anne Boleyn changed for the worst; a miscarriage of a male child; the presence of Jane Seymour and the increment of enemies guided Anne to an undeserved and cruel death. She was lost, she was devastated, but she never lost her dignity or her pride, and less her desire to shine as she used to when she was free and ruled England alongside King Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn certainly knew the rule ‘dress to impress’. Fashion was a part of demonstration of power and wealth. Anne knew that perfectly well. When on 2 May 1536 three men came to tell Anne that she was accused of adultery, she was allowed to return to her chambers for lunch. But the first thing she did after returning to her rooms was to get changed into a new dress. She was probably aware that she will be arrested and she wanted to look every inch a Queen. She chose a splendid gown of crimson velvet with a cloth of gold kirtle.
On her trial Anne Boleyn wore “a gown of black velvet over a petticoat of scarlet damask and a small cap sporting a black-and-white feather”
Anne Boleyn wanted to show her enemies that she was as strong as she always was; that she was a Queen in right and virtue’ and that she had nothing to fear; her elegance, her exquisite style accompanied her to that stressful moment; giving the message that she was still, even in the darkest hour; the Queen of England.
Even in the last day of her life; Anne Boleyn decided to leave this world shining like the Queen she was. She woke up before the sun appeared in the sky; she said her morning prayers; and according to the ladies that attended her; she looked so calmed and composed; that sometimes it felt unreal. She was reconciled with her fate; but she was determined to carry her pride with her towards the end.
When she walked out the Tower of London; she looked immaculate in her black damask gown lined with fur, mantle trimmed with ermine and English gable hood. She wore also a crimson kirtle.
Every part of Anne’s gown had its meaning: Although through her life Anne favored French hoods, on 19th of May she wore English gable hood; on the last day of her earthly life she wanted to accent that after all she was wholly English, and the Queen till the end.
Ermine fur was reserved for the Royal family: Anne emphasized the fact that she was dying every inch a Queen; Crimson kirtle probably had a meaning as well crimson was associated with Christian martyrs and thus Anne used it to emphasize her innocence. Years later Mary Queen of Scots will do exactly the same thing by wearing a scarlet bodice and petticoat on the day of her execution.
Anne Boleyn was a fashion icon until the end of her days; and she will always be remembered for that aspect of her life. Although there is no surviving portrait of Anne by Holbein we know that Henry VIII designed for Anne a pendant with ‘a central stone and the initials ‘H’ and ‘A’ intertwined’ He also designed a shield with the same cipher.
After Anne’s death in 1536, a wooden desk containing pieces of Anne’s jewelry was inventoried. The items included a diamond ring with the ‘HA’ cipher, another diamond ring with the cipher and the text (in Latin), ‘O Lord make haste to help me,’ Among other items of Anne’s jewelry inventoried was a brooch with ‘RA’- standing for ‘Regina Anna’ – in diamonds and other items with ‘HA’.
Historians have many theories of what happened to the rest of Anne’s jewelry. One traditional painting has Anne wearing three strands of pearls across the bodice, a necklace of rubies and pearls, a choker and matching pendant and a brooch made up of the letters ‘AB’ in gold with a drop pearl. Eric Ives believes that the pearls are so similar to those worn in the earliest portraits of Elizabeth as to suggest that her daughter may have been allowed some of her mother’s jewelry.
There are other theories as to what actually happened to Anne’s famous necklace with the gold B. Some people believe that it went back to the Crown after her downfall and was broken down and reset for Jane Seymour. Others even believe that some of the pearls are in the crown of Elizabeth II! Unfortunately, of Anne’s personal jewelry, none has survived to be identified.
But there is an account of events that has raised many theories and speculations. It is based on the facts that King Henry VIII repurchased items that belonged to Anne after her execution. For example; Henry repurchased from Thomas Trappers a gold bowl ‘having Queen Anne’s sapphire upon the top of the cover’ and his post-mortem inventories included a dust bowl of gold (for blotting ink) with a crown on the lid and ‘H’ and ‘A’ in. Eric Ives goes on to describe how Henry also kept a tablet of gold bearing the monogram ‘HA’ set with small emeralds, pearls and one diamond. In the words of Eric Ives, ‘it suggests vividly what has been lost’ and for me raises the question of why did Henry repurchase some of Anne’s items?
This question has been discussed among historians; some of them believe that Henry VIII wanted to keep some of the good memories of his years of love with Anne; others, simply say that he was living with an intense feeling of guilt; knowing that he murdered an innocent woman only for his desire of a male heir. Some people laugh at this theory, considering that Henry VIII was a man that saw no impediment in removing people from his path when his desires were not accomplished; but; we must remember that Anne and Henry, no matter the hidden purposes in the beginning; lived an intense love, a passion like no other known at that time; those memories for sure never abandoned the mind of Henry.
The feeling that he was trying to keep memories of Anne are stronger when you see the fact that Henry kept those items intact; he did not send them to be changed, melted or broke them to assemble another; he kept them as when he gave them to Anne. Did Anne still have a place in the King’s heart after all that had happened between them? Or was it that he simply liked those pieces? I guess we will never know; but what we will always know is that Anne Boleyn was a woman who left a mark in the history of fashion… a mark what will never be forgotten and always be admired.
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004. Eric Ives
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. David Starkey.