“Some little show of nail”: the health of Anne Boleyn

Mariel Tishma
Chicago, Illinois, USA

 

Anne Boleyn. Unknown English artist. Late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1533-1536. National Portrait Gallery.

Of all the wives of England’s King Henry VIII, the most well known is Anne Boleyn. She is the woman who, one way or another, caused the split between Henry and Catherine of Aragon – and the split between England and the Catholic Church. She has been declared a martyr, a witch, a hero, a snake, and a feminist icon. Despite her reputation, aspects of her health and appearance remain a mystery.

Following Anne’s death, it is reported that Henry destroyed numerous portraits of her, leaving only copies of paintings that may not be of the queen at all.1 Most sources agree that she had dark hair and eyes, that she was tall, and that she had a darker complexion. It was also believed she was unattractive, with a prominent goiter and six fingers on one or both hands. These beliefs have even created a supposed “syndrome” indicating a link between goiter and polydactylism. But is any of it true?

Historians today say it is not. Most of the remaining documents describing Anne Boleyn were produced after her death, and many by those seeking to ruin her reputation. Few of these documents were produced by people who had actually known the queen during her lifetime.

Her primary detractor, Nicholas Sander, said she had a large “wen” that she hid with high-necked dresses, as well as a protruding tooth and the infamous sixth finger on her right hand. Sander was a Catholic scholar, and his writing on the Anglican schism was intended to counter pro-Anglican writing, particularly John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments. Considering Anne’s essential association with the schism in England, it is not surprising she did not fare well in his writing.2

Writing a biography of his friend and employer Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, George Cavendish said that Anne had an extra nail, not an entire finger, and that it was hidden well. He also stated that instead of a goiter she may have had small moles on her neck. Wolsey was closely involved in the chaos surrounding Henry and Anne. Cavendish was at court during the same period and may have had brief encounters with the royal pair, but his purpose in writing was focused on clearing the Cardinal’s reputation. Improvement of Anne’s image was likely to reduce any shadow cast on Cardinal Wolsey by their association.3

Other sources describe her hands as “well-shaped” and make no mention at all of polydactylism.4 Later, an excavation was conducted at the site where the queen was reportedly buried, and when the skeletons found were examined, none showed signs of an extra digit.5 Assuming that Anne’s body was among those discovered, and that those who described her multiple fingers and goiter had the explicit aim to skew perception of her, it is doubtful she had either condition.

Further, it is doubtful that Henry VIII would have been so enamored with Anne – waiting six years for his divorce — if she had an imperfection as large as an extra finger. In his time “even a discolored spot on a fingernail” was a bad omen, and with the king’s quest for a healthy male heir, Anne would not have met his requirements if she were as unattractive as reported.6

What about the link between goiter and extra fingers?

Two sources claim a connection between these conditions, the first written in 1953 as a chapter on congenital anomalies7 and the second an editorial essay in MD magazine in 1974. Both label it as the syndrome of Anne Boleyn. One study examining goiter in Panama did find a regional prevalence of polydactylism, but the connection seems to exist nowhere else.8 The syndrome is mentioned only in the writings from 1953 and 1974.9 Dr. Felix Marti-Ibanez, author of the 1974 article, uses the previous work as a spring board into a broader discussion of the health of Henry VIII, but he nonetheless perpetuates the connection.10

Consequently, it is not fair to conclude that Anne Boleyn represented a famous case of an undiscovered syndrome – as neither syndrome nor extra fingers seem to exist.

This does not mean Anne Boleyn’s health is without interesting notes. In June of 1528 she contracted sweating sickness,11 which periodically swept through the English population until its last epidemic in 1551.12 Little is known about the English sweating sickness except that it was highly contagious and had a high mortality rate – around 30-50%.12

Symptoms consisted of chills and tremors followed by high fever, weakness, and profuse sweating. The disease ran its course exceptionally fast, and at the time the best treatment was confinement to bed for 24 hours.13

When one of Anne’s maids contracted “the sweat” Anne and her attendants were sent to Hever to wait out the sickness in quarantine. Henry VIII was worried for her health, and perhaps more so that he might contract the sickness himself,14 as the sweat seemed to have some preference for young men of noble blood.15

But Anne would recover16 and would then go on to make her mark as queen and mother to Elizabeth I, who would bring England into its golden age.

 

End Note

Title quote from: George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, 2nd Edition. accessed via the Internet Archive (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827), 424, https://archive.org/details/lifeofcardinal00cave/page/n8.

 

Works Cited:

  1. Susan Bordo,The Creation of Anne Boleyn” A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), xi.
  2. Nicholas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, trans. David Lewis. 1877 ed., accessed via the Internet Archive (London: Burns and Oates, 1877), 25.
  3. George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, 2nd accessed via the Internet Archive (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827), 424, https://archive.org/details/lifeofcardinal00cave/page/n8
  4. Paul Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History. 1527-1536, accessed via the Internet Archive (London: Macmillan and Co., 1884), 49, https://archive.org/details/anneboleynachap00friegoog/page/n5.
  5. Doyne C. Bell, “Queen Anne Boleyn” in 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 Queen Anne Boleyn, (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1877), 26.
  6. Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 3rd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 246.
  7. Isidor Greenwald, “The Supposed ‘Syndrome of Anne Boleyn’ (Goiter and Polydactylism),” Bulletin of the History of Medicine volume 38, no. [3] (May-June, 1964): 271, Accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44447065.
  8. Nevin S. Scrimshaw, “INCAP studies of endemic goiter and its prevention,” Food and Nutrition Bulletin volume 31, no. [1] (2010): 113, Accessed June 28, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/156482651003100111.
  9. Isidor Greenwald, “The Supposed ‘Syndrome of Anne Boleyn’”
  10. Felix Marti-Ibañez, “The ‘Anne Boleyn’ Syndrome,” 11.
  11. Paul Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History. 1527-1536, 72.
  12. Paul Heyman, Christel Cochez, Mirsada Hukiĉ, “The English Sweating Sickness: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?,” Acta Medica Academic volume 47, no. [1] (2018): 103, Accessed June 28, 2019, DOI 10.5644/ama2006-124.221.
  13. Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 80.
  14. Paul Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History. 1527-1536, 72.
  15. Paul Heyman, Christel Cochez, Mirsada Hukiĉ, “The English Sweating Sickness: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?,”105.
  16. Paul Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History. 1527-1536, 73.

 

Bibliography:

  1. Bell, Doyne C. “Queen Anne Boleyn” in 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 Queen Anne Boleyn. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1877.
  2. Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn” A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
  3. Cavendish, George. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey2nd ed. accessed via the Internet Archive. London: Harding and Lepard, 1827. https://archive.org/details/lifeofcardinal00cave/page/n8.
  4. Friedmann, Paul. Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History. 1527-1536. accessed via the Internet Archive. London: Macmillan and Co., 1884. Digital. https://archive.org/details/anneboleynachap00friegoog/page/n5.
  5. Greenwald, Isidor. “The Supposed ‘Syndrome of Anne Boleyn’ (Goiter and Polydactylism).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine  vol. 38, no. 3 ((May-June, 1964): 271-275. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44447065.
  6. Heyman, Paul, Christel Cochez, Mirsada Hukiĉ. “The English Sweating Sickness: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?.” Acta Medica Academic vol. 41, no 1. (2018): 102-116. DOI 10.5644/ama2006-124.221.
  7. Marti-Ibañez, Felix. “The ‘Anne Boleyn’ Syndrome,” (October, 1974): 11-16. Print.
  8. Sander, Nicholas. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism. Translated by David Lewis. 1877 ed.  accessed via the Internet Archive. London: Burns and Oates, 1877. https://archive.org/details/riseofschism00sanduoft/page/n5.
  9. Scrimshaw, Nevin S.. “INCAP studies of endemic goiter and its prevention.” Food and Nutrition Bulletin  vol. 31, no. 1 (2010): 111-117. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/156482651003100111.
  10. Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

 


 

MARIEL TISHMA currently serves as an Executive Editorial Assistant with Hektoen International. She’s been published in Hektoen International, Bloodbond, Argot Magazine, Syntax and Salt, The Artifice, and Fickle Muses. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in creative writing and a minor in biology. Learn more at marieltishma.com.

 

Summer 2019  |  Hektorama  |  History Essays