21 January 2013

Myths & Misconceptions: The Six Fingers of Anne Boleyn

(Yes, it should be the 11 fingers of Anne Boleyn. But six sounds better. It's a theme.)

Anne Boleyn and her 10 fingers
The Tudor era is chock full of historical urban legends—Henry VIII writing Greensleeves, Katherine Howard dying "the wife of Culpepper", the list goes on—but one of the strangest is the myth that Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger on one hand. Even today you can find this legend listed as fact on the web and in popular trivia; it's only recently that the Wiki page on polydactyly was updated to list Anne's sixth finger as "rumored" and "likely not the truth". Where did such an odd legend come from? Is there any evidence it could have been true?

The tale of the sixth finger goes back to Nicolas Sander, a Catholic priest who wrote the anti-Protestant chronicle The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism in 1585, half a century after Anne's death. To say he was biased is an understatement; his account includes all sorts of wild allegations, including the claim that not only was Anne sleeping with her brother George, but that she was actually King Henry's daughter! His physical description of Anne begins like so:
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.
Sander was the first to publish this rumor, but he did not invent it—Margaret More Roper (daughter of the executed Sir Thomas More), who lived in Anne's lifetime and had even more reason to hate her, lamented in one of her letters all the grief and trouble caused by the King "all for the love of a brown girl with a wen on her throat and an extra finger". Margaret died in 1544, just 8 years after Anne, so the story was around either during Anne's reign or in the years just after her death.

Margaret Roper:
not Anne's BFF
The first biography of Anne Boleyn was written by George Wyatt, grandson of Anne's former suitor Sir Thomas Wyatt, in the late 1500s. He was a fervent Protestant, and by the time of his book Anne had become a martyr in Protestant England; so where Sander did his best to demonize her, Wyatt did his best to canonize her. (This can be surmised by the full title of his biography, Extracts from the Life of the Virtuous, Christian, and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne.) His description admits a flaw on one finger:
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, that with the tip of one of her other fingers might be and usually was hidden without any least blemish.
So on one side we've got an extra finger, and on the other side we've got a wonky fingernail. Which is more likely to be the truth?

In Tudor England, physical abnormality was believed to be evidence of inherent depravity. Henry VIII was notoriously phobic about corruption and disease; it's almost impossible to believe he would have chosen a "defective" woman to bear his coveted royal heir. A lumpy nail could be overlooked in the throes of infatuation—an entire extra finger, not so much. And if he had, it would have been much more widely gossiped about than one mention in a private letter. Eustace Chapuys, who gleefully reported all the juiciest gossip about Anne, never once mentioned an extra or misshapen finger; if she'd had one, he would have delighted in describing it. And when Anne's skeleton was exhumed and studied in 1876, there was no mention of any extra or deformed fingers; in fact, her hands were described as "delicate and well-shaped […] with tapering fingers".

So did Anne Boleyn have a sixth finger? Signs point to no. It's much more likely she had a wart on one finger, or possibly a clubbed nail or knob of overgrowth (onychogryphosis)—unsightly enough to be hidden with her famous bell sleeves, but not enough to be considered an actual deformity. If you're trying to portray someone as the witchiest witch who ever witched, though, an unnatural number of appendages makes a great start, especially when added to a laundry list of defects (including a mannish Adam's Apple, keratosic skin, and that whole incest thing). This bit of Tudor lore has likely persisted for so long simply because it's so weird—to the Tudor mind it made perfect sense, but to the modern mind it seems an odd way to slander someone. Because fortunately, in these educated times, we've evolved past the prejudice of using physical differences to make villains seem more evil.

Oh wait.

Sander, Nicolas - The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism
Weir, Alison - The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Wyatt, George - The Life of Queen Anne Boleigne

Wiki Commons (portraits)
www.aveleyman.com (screencaps)

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin. Her next two novels are due in 2013. She's been a reviewing member of the Historical Novel Society since 2007 and a contributor at Unusual Historicals since 2011.