Anne Boleyn : the Rival of Venus?

Detail from Boticelli's 'Birth of Venus'

We can certainly say that Anne Boleyn was not considered beautiful in her times. Typical beauty at Tudor court had blonde hair, pale skin and blue eyes, and Anne had dark complexion, dark hair and enchanting ‘black eyes’. She certainly was not a typical ‘English Rose’ but she was different and interesting. In her book ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ Alison Weir states that ;

‘Even King Francis was smitten by the fascinating Anne, and wrote :

Venus était blonde, on m’a dit:

L’on voit bien, qu’elle est brunette.’[1]

‘Venus was blonde, I’ve been told: Now I see that she’s a brunette!’  I was always very curious about this quote, and I never came across the information that Francis I was actually referring to Anne Boleyn.  Dr. Susan Bordo’s recent article made me question this quote once again and I decided to immerse myself into the primary sources and books, to find out whether King Francis was referring to Anne Boleyn when speaking about Venus.

In her book Alison Weir does not cite the reference so it is really hard to get to primary sources. Weir only gives us a hint:

‘For the duration of her stay in France, see Herbert, and also Emmanuel von Meteren’s Histoire des Pays Bas: Crispin, Lord of Milherve’s Metrical History (1618) ; Epistre contenant le process criminal fait a lencontre de la Royne Boullant d’Angleterre by Lancelot de Carles, Clement Marot, and Crispin de Milherve (1545 ; included in La Grande Bretagne devant l’Opinion Francaise by G.Ascoli, Paris, 1927), Histoire de la Royne Anne de Boullant (MS. In the Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, before 1550) ; and Charles de Bourgevilles Les Recherches et Antiquites de la Province de Neustrie’ (1583).’[2]

In her book ‘Anne Boleyn: a young Queen to be’ Josephine Wilkinson states that :

‘In matters of dress her tastes were said to have been adopted by other ladies, although, we are assured, none looked so well as Anne, who was described as the rival of Venus[3]

The Birth of Venus, Boticelli

Unfortunately Josephine Wilkinson does not cite her reference. She moves on and quotes Agnes Strickland’s description of Anne Boleyn’s costume, so I immediately thought that I will find more information about Venus in Agnes Strickland’s ‘Lives of the queens of England’ but unfortunately there is no mention about Francis I’s quote.

For me personally the best source of informations about Anne Boleyn is her biography by professor Eric Ives : ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’. Prof. Ives does not refer to French king’s alleged quote about Anne Boleyn as Venus. However in Ives’s biography we found few connections between Anne Boleyn and Venus ;

-          In George Cavendish’s ‘The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey’ Cavendish writes about Anne ;

‘Thus passed the cardinal his life and time, from day to day, and year to year, in such great wealth, joy, and triumph, and glory, having always on his side the kings especial favour; until Fortune, of whose favour no man is longer assured than she is disposed, began to wax something wroth with his pro- sperous estate, thought she would devise a mean to abate his high port; wherefore she procured Venus, the insatiate goddess, to be her instrument. To work her purpose, she brought the king in love with a gentlewoman, that, after she perceived and felt the kings good will towards her, and how diligent he was both to please her, and to grant all her requests, she wrought the cardinal much displeasure; as hereafter shall be more at large declared. This gentlewoman, the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, being at that time but only a bachelor knight, the which after, for the love of his daughter, was promoted to higher dignities.’ [4]

-          During Anne Boleyn’s coronation there appeared a figure of Venus :

‘A child then capped what Paris had said by announcing that there was another reward prepared for Anne, the crown imperial, and hailing the queen as a demonstration of divine providence. The parting song to Anne concluded with the stanza:

The golden ball

Of price but small,

Have Venus shall,

The fair goddess,

Because it was

Too low and bare

For your good grace

And worthiness.’[5]

In Francis I’s quote about Venus, he says ‘Venus was blonde, I’ve been told: Now I see that she’s a brunette!’  . Although Anne Boleyn’s hair color is a matter of dispute, her admirer, Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote in one of his sonnets about mysterious ‘Brunet’. In her book ‘She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England’ Elizabeth Norton states :

‘This Brunet is obviously Anne Boleyn and Wyatt’s original final line for this poem refers to ‘Her that did set our country in a rore’. There is no doubt that this refers to Anne.’[6]

Also professor Eric Ives thinks that ‘Brunet’ must be Anne Boleyn.

Thomas Wyatt referred to Anne Boleyn as a 'Brunet'

So perhaps Francis I’s was referring to Anne Boleyn when he spoke about Venus being a ‘brunette’ but there is no evidence to back up this theory.  Perhaps he was referring to some other lady he was in love with, maybe he was speaking about one of his many mistresses?

Another possibility is that Francis I was referring to actress who played Venus in 1520 ;

‘Then in 1520 came the entry into Cognac of Queen Claude, with Anne Boleyn almost certainly in attendance. Claude was met by Mercury, who declared that the gods had come down to greet her, and her cavalcade encountered first Diana and her nymphs, and then Apollo, before being arrested by flames issuing from the forge of Vulcan. Next Venus arrived, followed by Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. At the city’s river bridge, Neptune appeared, escorted by dolphins, and when dusk fell, Pluto, Cerberus, Charon and the Furies.’[7]

I will ‘dig’ more about this matter and keep you updated, so stay tunes.


[1] Alison Weir, 6 wives of Henry VIII, p. 151

[2] IBID, Bibliography, p. 592

[3] Josephine Wilkinson, Anne Boleyn: a young Queen to be, p. 36

[4] George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, p. 30

Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p. 59

[5] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p. 227

[6]  Elizabeth Norton, She Wolves: The Notorious Queen of England, p. 189

[7] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p. 229

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3 Responses
  1. Areti says:

    How interesting! I think it’s weird when we say she was not considered beautiful for her my way of thinking someone’s beauty differs…for intance blonde women are described as the most beautiful..I won’t agree..there are many brunets,red haired etc.. much more beautiful than some blonde ones..

    • Sylwia says:

      I think it depends who is looking – for some people blondes are more attractive and for some – brunettes, redheads, etc. I don’t agree when some people say that Anne was not beautiful because she had dark skin & hair – I am sure that for many people she was still very attractive, because she was different. And … also, I do not believe that Anne Boleyn was the only one with dark look, I’m sure there were plenty of women with black hair, eyes and olive skin. But because of the idea of beauty, they were not that popular as blondes. I think that every woman is beautiful in her way :-)

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