‘Lucy Churchill’s brilliant achievement has brought us as close to the real Anne Boleyn as we shall ever be able to get.‘
Professor Eric Ives, OBE.
Author of ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy’.
‘Through meticulous research Lucy Churchill has created an authentic replica of the medal of Anne Boleyn, as it would have looked originally. A must for anyone interested in Anne Boleyn!’
Author of ‘The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn’.
Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, was beheaded at his command on the 19th May 1536. Though much has been written about her since then, very few indisputable facts about her life remain. Even her date of birth and her appearance is the subject of speculation. The paintings of her that are still in existence, were painted during Queen Elizabeth’s reign and cannot be relied upon as a true record. There are two sketches by Holbein that were subsequently labelled with her name, but this increases the confusion as they depict two very different sitters.
The only undisputed portrait of Anne Boleyn is on a 38mm lead disc, is in storage at the British Museum. Known as ‘The Moost Happi medal’ it was made as a prototype in 1534, in anticipation of the birth of a male heir. However, the pregnancy was unsuccessful and the commission was abandoned. Anne’s position as Queen of England became less assured thereafter.
Although the medal is acknowledged as the only contemporary portrayal of Anne Boleyn, its value is often overlooked. The softness of the lead has allowed some of the details to be compressed and eroded, especially those areas which were the most raised such as her nose and forehead. Historian G.W.Bernard states that “the medal is consequently not that helpful as an indication of her appearance” (1).
My interest in Anne Boleyn had grown over the last few years, since having chanced on a biography of Henry VIII. Initially I was appalled by the seeming awfulness of his second wife, and was motivated to research her character in greater depth. I found the available evidence to be tantalisingly contradictory, and desperately wanted to know more.
My professional background is as a stonecarver, specialised in making carefully researched reconstructions for restoration projects. I looked at images of the medal and saw that though damaged, it still held a wealth of information. Out of my own curiosity, I decided to rebuild these features and thereby give a face once again to Anne Boleyn.
I was given access to the medal at the British Museum and, wearing protective gloves, I was able to examine it under close magnification. I recorded my observations in detailed notes and annotated sketches. I felt very privileged to be so close to an object which may have been handled by Anne herself, and was extremely excited by my findings.
Back in my workshop I scaled up a front-on photograph of the medal to four times its original size. I traced every visible detail to make a layout which then gave me the accurate dimensions to work from. Using a needle I pricked along every line in the layout to transfer the design onto a wax disc, and modelled the different contours of relief form based on my notes and sketches.
It was a technically difficult task. I needed strong light to work by and this caused the wax to soften. This meant that the areas that I had already completed were vulnerable as my hands hovered above, working on a different area. This problem was resolved by putting the model into the freezer every time the wax became too soft. I was full of admiration for the skill of original artist who worked on a smaller scale, without decent lighting or magnification.
With great care I took the wax model to leading mold-maker, Steve Cole of Articole Studios, so that it could be recreated in a more durable material. He coated it in silicon rubber to make a negative form from which further copies could be cast with great accuracy.
When I saw the first plaster copy I fretted over minor details and decided to rework these. Keeping the original plaster prototype, I got Steve to make a second copy which I then refined using tiny engraving tools. From this a second mold was made and cast. The features of the second version were more delicate, but refining them gave the medal a Classical appearance. I decided to stick with the first version as the immediacy of the modelling was closer in spirit to a 16th century artifact.
The medal considered in a wider context.
Having studied the medal in great depth at the British Museum, and reconstructed the details myself, I recognised elements in the medal depicted in paintings of the other wives of Henry VIII. The best comparison is Holbein’s portrait of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour. Within Holbein’s portrait we can see the same diagonally woven cloth of the headdress that is in the medal. The sequence of jewels on the gable hood, and in the necklace is the same. The necklace is also depicted in portraits of his subsequent queens (2).
The fact that the details of the queens attire appear to have been reproduced so precisely in the ‘Moost Happi medal’ suggests that the portrait was made with considerable skill and attention to detail. My view is that, despite the damage to some parts of the portrait, it retains a wealth of information. That the costume is so well depicted suggests that the features of the face are likely to have been equally well observed.
One could argue that the medal sculptor might have had longer access to the costume than to the queen herself. However, Anne Boleyn was known to have been fastidious about the presentation of her image (3), and I do not believe that her features would have been recorded carelessly.
In summary, we can deduce that Anne Boleyn clearly had a long face with high cheek bones, and a prominent chin. Though Anne Boleyn wasn’t considered a beauty in her time, the medal presents an image of strong and sensual femininity.
Individually made bronze resin copies of my reconstruction are available to purchase through my website: www.lucychurchill.com.
Elements of the costume worn by Anne in the Moost Happi portrait medal can be found in the following paintings:
1-3: Catherine of Aragon.
(NB: the pattern of the jewels on the billiment of the gable hood, the top two depictions of the jewels bordering the dress, and the cross, here worn as a brooch).
2: Left, The ‘Nidd Hall’ portrait of Anne Boleyn, which might be a reworked painting of Jane Seymour.
(NB: the necklace).
3: Right, Jane Seymour.
(NB: the jewels on the gable hood billiment, dress adornment and the necklace).