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Her Fair Neck Round About: Anne Boleyn’s Collars And Necklaces

January 16, 2013

Ever since I posted about Anne Boleyn’s hanging sleeves and the history surrounding them, I’ve been getting hits from a startling number of searches along the lines of “Anne Boleyn high necked dresses”, which obviously found that post because of the quote from Nicolas Sander, in which he said that Anne wore high-necked dresses in order to conceal a wen, and thereby she set a new fashion. There’s no truth to this — high-necked dresses were still a generation or two away, and would be associated with Anne’s daughter, not Anne herself.

Whether Anne herself actually had a wen is impossible to say, especially when we consider that what an admirer calls a beauty spot a detractor may enhance into something less pleasant — it certainly didn’t detract from Thomas Wyatt’s admiration of her “fair neck,” and Chapuys never passed on any comments about it. Neither, centuries later, did Agnes Strickland have anything to say about a wen, and yet in fiction it often turns up with the sixth finger in tandem, possibly because its status as a potential “witch’s mark” makes it hard to resist. And as with the sixth finger, Anne often tries to cover it up. In Blood Royal (1988) the young Anne wears a “collar of silver filigree”, and later Mary shortens the chain of a necklace she gives to Anne, in order to discreetly cover the wen. Anne also wears “a jewelled collar” in Sow The Tempest (1962). In Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) an embarrassed teenage Anne borrows a “deep pearled collar” from Mary Rose Tudor during her time in France; “the pearls were set on in tiny bands on black velvet” we’re told, making it clear that this collar is the kind more like a choker necklace, and not necessarily attached to any other piece of clothing.

Sometimes the leap is made and her neckwear is described as being a choker — the term tends to appear in more recent works. The Anne of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn refers to “my choker” which hides the brown spot on her throat, and the Anne of The Boleyn Wife (2007) is described as habitually wearing “a choker of velvet, precious gems, or pearls”. In Reap The Storm (1998) the description is a little vaguer — “she was clever enough to wear beads and ribbons in such a way that [the mole] could not easily be seen,” which sounds like she was making her own jewelry.

In one book, Anne doesn’t try to cover up the mole — and it’s just as well, since this one is actually on her face. In The King’s Damsel (2012), Anne’s picture is painted in a deck of playing cards.

The painted figure had a long neck, a long oval face, dark hair and eyes, high cheekbones, a wide mouth, and a strong, determined chin — all of Lady Anne’s most distinctive features except the tiny mole on one side of her chin. Although the artist had omitted it in an obvious attempt to flatter his subject, I suspected that Lady Anne would not have minded if he’d included it. I had heard the king call it a beauty mark. His Grace seemed as enamored of the tiny flaw as he was of every other part of her.

Anne may well have worn a collar at some point, though she wouldn’t have called it that — according to Herbert Norris (p. 120) “Jewelled collars, when worn by ladies, were referred to as carcanets.” The drawings which depict these collars or carcanets show them as lying at the base of the throat, not standing or concealing the throat in any way. Any woman wanting to hide an unsightly mole on the neck would be best advised to wait until the 1550s, when frills first started to become ruffs, and high-necked clothing became fashionable again.

But what about the fictional Annes? For once, they conform entirely with history, whatever Sander might have had to say about it. I have never once seen a fictional Anne who wore high-necked dresses, not once. Why they didn’t catch on as a way to hide the wen, I can’t say — perhaps because a gold or jewelled collar seems more beautiful or romantic than a high-necked dress, which has about it a whiff of over-modesty and decorous drawing-room behavior. Or perhaps the ubiquitous portrait of Jane Seymour, not to mention the various portraits of Anne herself, has made it hard to imagine fashionable 1530s women wearing anything that varied much from her template. In any case, let us be thankful that, with everything else she’s endured, Anne has been spared the indignity of wearing a ruff.

From → Essays

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