Anne Boleyn’s wen, projecting tooth and witchcraft charges

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about “witch-craze” that swept through Europe during the Early Modern period (from about 1480 to 1750) so expect to see more witchcraft-related posts here. How about a “witchcraft week”? Sounds good to me!

As you recall, Anne Boleyn’s name is often linked to witchcraft. Some historians, like Retha M. Warnicke, believe that accusations of witchcraft were attached to Anne Boleyn’s name; some, like Eric Ives believe that there is no link between Anne’s fall and accusations of witchcraft whatsoever. Many books, Nora Lofts’s for instance, state that Anne’s witchcraft is an undisputed fact. Where does it all stem from?

Sander's "De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani"

Sander’s “De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani”

In my previous article from this series I have written that although some contemporaries mentioned witchcraft in relation to Anne Boleyn, we cannot be sure that she stood accused of it during her trial in May 1536 because the whole trial documentation is not available to us today. Consequently, we cannot be sure that Anne Boleyn was not accused of witchcraft.

One thing that is really interesting to me personally is that so many misconceptions about “Anne the Witch” stem from misinterpretation of Nicolas Sander’s The Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism. But some historians and researchers got carried away in their assertions that Sander was trying to portray Anne Boleyn as a witch. In her article Anne Boleyn and the Charge of Witchcraft, Claire Ridgway writes:

“So, where does the whole witchcraft charge come from if it was not mentioned in 1536? Well, I think we can put some of the blame on the Catholic recusant Nicholas Sander, who wrote “Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism” in 1585, while in exile during the reign of Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn’s daughter. In his book, Sander describes Anne Boleyn as having “a projecting tooth”, six fingers on her right hand and “a large wen under her chin” – very witch-like!” 

Sander, however, never wrote that Anne Boleyn had “a large wen” under her chin; he remarked that she had “something swollen under her chin but what, I do not know” (“sub mento etiam succrescebat turgidum nescio quid”). Word “large” manifestly does not appear in original Latin account, it was added by translator. Word “turgidum” used in the Latin original may suggest “swelling” and not a “wen”. But even if Sander was writing about “large wen”, it would not indicate that Anne was a witch. Joanna Denny suggested that the large wen from Sander’s account was “thought to be a witch’s teat on which an incubus or demonic male spirit could suck” [1] but this is an erroneous statement. The witch’s teat was not a swelling or tumour, but a permanent mark or scar, hidden from view somewhere on the woman’s body [2]. Because the witch’s teat was hidden, during the height of witch-hunts women were often stripped off their clothes and their intimate parts were examined, since it was a common belief that the witch’s teat was hidden somewhere on genital area, anus or breasts.[3] Therefore, Sander’s description of some kind of swelling under Anne’s chin is not an implication that Anne was a witch.

What about a “projecting tooth”? Translation makes it sound as if it was a visible defect, but in the original Latin version Sander remarks only that the tooth under Anne Boleyn’s upper gum was “a little prominent” (“cui dens unus in superiore gingivo paululum prominebat”). Translator – again – did not faithfully translate the original. And in any case, “a little prominent” tooth was not a mark of a witch.[4]

Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery

Of course, there’s also Anne’s infamous sixth finger. Here, the original Latin account clearly states that Anne had a “sixth finger on her right hand”. Historians usually depend on corroboration and Anne’s sixth finger does not appear in primary sources , so there’s a good chance that Sander was misinformed. George Wyatt, although not contemporary, mentioned that Anne had “a little show of a nail” on one of her fingers; a far cry from Sander’s sixth finger! So we can safely conclude that Anne Boleyn did not have six fingers on her right hand.

Anne Boleyn from Nicolas Sander’s description is definitely not a witch; Sander was probably well aware of what a “witch” looked like since “witch-craze” was already rife at the time when he was writing The Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism. Apart from “witch’s teat”, physical characteristics such as red hair or bent posture were usually associated with witchcraft; Sander wrote that Anne Boleyn had “black hair” and black hair was not an indication of witchcraft at all.

[1] Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen, p. 16.

[2] Michael C. Thomsett, The Inquisition: A History, p. 107.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Nicolas Sander, De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani, p. 15.

[5] George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, p. 430.

236 Comments

  1. Claire Ridgway
    Sep 24, 2013

    A wen is a swelling, so the translation is fine. David Lewis, the 19th century translator of Sander’s work did a fantastic job. I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at.
    I never said that Sander was trying to say that Anne was a witch but Sander is the source that authors/historians like Lofts and Warnicke have relied on for backing up their ideas of Anne because of the physical description of Anne and his report of her miscarriage, which has become very twisted. He makes Anne sound like Nanny McPhee!

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      Sander honestly admitted that “he did not know” what was this mysterious “swelling” whereas David Lewis added a word “large” that does not appear in Sander’s original. Adding words that are not in the original isn’t a “fine” translation. I’m baffled that an 1877 translation is still in use.

    • TudorGirl
      Sep 24, 2013

      Claire, I enjoy reading your posts on The Anne Boleyn Files, but I’m confused a little at the moment. Quote from your article says:

      “In his book, Sander describes Anne Boleyn as having “a projecting tooth”, six fingers on her right hand and “a large wen under her chin” – very witch-like”,

      So you did say that Nicholas Sanders portrayed Anne Boleyn as witch and now you’re saying that you didn’t say it. Confusing!

    • Austenworld
      Sep 24, 2013

      Lewis didn’t translate Sander’s doubts about the swelling and he even added an extra word (“large”). Does it really sound like “fantastic job” to you, Caire?

  2. Amy Devera
    Sep 24, 2013

    Utterly fascinating……. I love this stuff….. I have watched the other Boleyn sister and The Tudors multiple times….. of course they are enhanced for dramatic effects- I love the real details you provide and share!

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      Thank you Amy!

  3. Jessica
    Sep 24, 2013

    That is interesting! I knew about the wen and the sixth finger but not about the projecting tooth. I will look at her portrait in a different way, especially her mouth. It may give her some charms! Norah Lofts is the first writer (well among those I read or intend to read) that used this detail. Or I do not remember some of my readings! So many books I read lol

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      I wonder if this swelling under Anne’s chin was a symptom of some kind of illness? It’s all so interesting!

  4. Claire Ridgway
    Sep 24, 2013

    @TudorGirl, you have to read the article to get what I was saying. I was saying that his description, which makes Anne sound like Nanny McPhee and what we think of as a witch, has been used and twisted by authors/historians to argue that Anne was a witch. Sander never made out that she was a witch, just as he never made out that she miscarried a monstrously deformed baby.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      TudorGirl is right, it’s confusing. You argued that Sander’s description portrays Anne as “witch-like” and now you’re revoking your statement.

  5. Sarah Joy
    Sep 24, 2013

    I’ve always believed that Henry VIII would not have got into a relationship with Anne had he known she had a 6th finger. Being deeply religious as he was i’m sure he was aware of the superstition that this would indicate someone evil. He would have seen it at some point, during sexual activity for example, even if she had kept it covered. Henry would not have made her Queen had she had any indicators of being evil or a witch. So therefore, it was just her enemies trying to taint her name. That is my belief anyway.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment! :-)

      • Sarah
        Oct 18, 2013

        You’re welcome. Thank you for your wonderful blog and book!

  6. Claire Ridgway
    Sep 24, 2013

    Sander, in the original Latin, talks about something swollen growing up under her chin and says that Anne tried to cover this “deformity”. He does call it a deformity. Regarding the tooth, Sander describes it as jutting out/overhanging from the gum a bit, so I think Lewis’s word “projecting” is fine. I don’t think Sander would have mentioned it if he didn’t see it as a defect.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using a translation from 1877 as long as you take into account the way 19th century people spoke/wrote. The original can also be accessed to compare, as long as you know Latin or know somebody who does.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      Exactly, “something swollen” and not a LARGE wen. “LARGE” does not appear in the original! I can’t believe you’re denying this simple fact, especially that, as you say, “the original can also be accessed to compare”. So let’s compare, shall we?

      Sander’s original work says: “sub mento etiam succrescebat turgidum nescio quid” – “something swollen under her chin, what, I do not know”
      David Lewis’s translation says: “There was a large wen under her chin”

      Where’s Sander’s doubt about the precise nature of the swelling? Where’s the word “large”?

      “Deformita” used in Latin original does not necessarily indicate that it was a “deformity” since this word can also be translated as “ugliness” – and here, Lewis correctly translated this word.

  7. Claire Ridgway
    Sep 24, 2013

    It’s not confusing if you read the whole article, which you have kindly linked to, but if it is then I apologise, I certainly wasn’t accusing Sander of making Anne out to be a witch. I said it was “witch-like” meaning to us today. I did a mock-up picture of my site of the Hever rose portrait with the protruding tooth, six fingers etc. It’s the picture his words evoke in our minds and the way that they have been used, not the words themselves.
    Lewis has translated the unknown bit really because he calls it a wen, which is a swelling of unknown origin. He doesn’t call it a goitre or tumour.
    Translations of books don’t tend to be word for word, as that doesn’t really work, especially with Latin, they tend to be more of a paraphrase. It also depends on the audience for a translation, whether it’s meant to be true to the original style or written for a modern audience, in Lewis’s case, 19th century. Translation is quite an art.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      I know, I’m working in translations myself and I realize that it can be a daunting task to find exact words, especially when we take language differences unto consideration. In my perception, Sander’s doubts about the precise nature of this swelling should be translated or at least inserted into footnote to explain that he wasn’t sure. Adding a word that did not appear in original is pretty confusing and casts a shadow of doubt on entire work.

    • TudorGirl
      Sep 25, 2013

      Your comment does’s make sense, Claire. In the article quoted above you haven’t mentioned Nanny McPhee at all; but then I googled it and found your article on ‘Anne Boleyn, Nanny McPhee and Nicholas Sander’ and you haven’t written that Sander’s book has been used and twisted by authors/historians to argue that Anne Boleyn was a witch! I read both of your articles twice now and there’s no such statement. Sylvia has just pointed this out in this article and I find it fascinating, because it’s interesting and I haven’t seen such interpretation anywhere else. It seems to me as if you are trying to say that you knew that already and yet no such statement is to be found in your article.

  8. Claire Ridgway
    Sep 24, 2013

    You have to read ahead in the Latin to understand why Lewis uses “large” in that sentence, to the bit where he describes it as a deformity, or “ugliness” as you point out, that Anne hid. If it was small then I don’t think Sander would use “deformitatis” and talk about Anne hiding it with clothing.
    I still think the word “wen” conveys the fact that Sander did not know what it was, but we’ll have to agree to disagree over that. I don’t think it casts doubt on the whole work though. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it was translated in a time when Latin was taught in schools in England, rather than just at a more academic level, and Lewis having a MA would have had expertise in it. Edward Rishton of Brasenose College, Oxford, also would not have put his name to a book that was not credible. Obviously we still have to be cautious as everyone makes mistakes, but I don’t think we should cast doubt on the whole book. That’s only my opinion though.
    It is wonderful, though, that we still have access to the original, it would be a shame if that was missing.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      I have to politely disagree. Sander clearly remarked that he was not sure about the nature of this swelling and that remark is missing in the translation. He never wrote that it was “large” and I think it should have been clearly emphasized. “Deformita” isn’t always a large deformation, it may be also an “ugliness” as correctly translated by Lewis.
      Yes, it’s great that we do have everything online, it’s so easy to check these sources!

  9. Eliza
    Sep 24, 2013

    I do not believe that Anne used witchcraft to capture Henry’s attention nor that she was deformed. If she had a projecting tooth etc Henry would never choose her to be the mother of his children and future heirs. This is anti-Anne propaganda,

    • Sylwia
      Sep 25, 2013

      Eliza, no one says that Anne was deformed – I actually argue that ‘large wen’ never existed. And I’m definitely not making a case that Anne used witchcraft. Read carefully before you post.

      • Eliza
        Oct 11, 2013

        I was just stating my opinion, didn’t say you believed that! :-)

  10. Carrie
    Sep 24, 2013

    Henry was supposed to have said he was bewitched by Anne. That why he spilt from Rome tp marry Anne and make her queen .
    Henry wanted a son to rule as he didn’t want all of his farthers hard work to go to waste . Their had only been kinds up untill Mary 1st.. So Henry needed to get rid of Anne. So made up cap. As well ad cromwell.plus the sectors had their eye on the crown . Henry was played. Buy other whom aimed high. Anne chouse to play and lost only down to the fact that she didn’t have a son.
    But going bk to Henrys grandmother Elizabeth who had his mother Elizabeth. That another story of witch craft . That does make sence .

    • Sylwia
      Sep 25, 2013

      Hi Carrie, I think that Henry did his research and knew that witchcraft accusations could result in a dissolution of marriage.

  11. Areti
    Sep 24, 2013

    First of all, nice article.I do not believe either, Anne was a witch.But,now that I read your article ,I am thinking of this.Anne perhaps had thyroid,so thus the swelling.The extra famous ‘sixth’ finger,perhaps Anne had something like a wart (Warts are caused by a viral infection, specifically by one of the many types of human papillomavirus).Projecting tooth,perhaps her teeth were not in perfect line.In conclusion ,Anne might had a compination of all these three,but it seems her haters just wanted to make them look worse.Destroy her image by using her ‘low’ characteristics against her.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 25, 2013

      Hi Areti :-) There is a theory that Anne Boleyn might have been ill but sadly, we will never know for sure. I think that hostile sources are capable of reporting the truth and shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed out of hand. When you take Sander under close scrutiny, he wasn’t even writing about ‘large wen’.

  12. Areti
    Sep 25, 2013

    * I posted a comment yesterday .Did it ever reach you? Thansks =D *

    • Sylwia
      Sep 25, 2013

      Yes, I just have to approve comments.

  13. Donna Parker
    Sep 25, 2013

    I find all of this so compelling & completely facinating, and I am in love with it all. I wish I could have a pile of books at the ready to soak up all information on the subject & fill my head happily with this historical enchantment ;)

  14. BanditQueen
    Oct 23, 2013

    A witch teat was a specific mark that may normally have been hidden from sight on the woman’s body, did not normally include normal swellings or moles or bruises as these were common and well known about. It was normally a mark or pretuding item that did not bleed and did not cause pain. Now the examiner used tricks to point some of these marks out. In the Salem Witch trials you see two matrons examine the accused lady for these marks and this is the normal procedure. Any marks are looked closely and the description in a book is consulted if it is strange. If the opinion is varied then it has to be marked down also. A closer examination is made if there are unusual marks to test if it gives pain or does not bleed when stabbed. The examiner used trick sharp pointed knives or probes to test the area and they of course retracted at the end; thus not even making contact with the mark or teat. So they could claim that it did not bleed with even the probe and the pain was not present as the probe end was false. Marks and unknown or unusual scares and so on inside the body; in the genital area were most suspect and this was indeed a place that was probed for such marks. Older women were more likely to have strange marks as they get skin inperfections connected to age and unfortunately to skin cancer as well. They also get more protruding moles that are different in colour than normal skin moles and also now we know these are also connected to benign skin tumours. They are common in some older people and would have been more of note in an age when living into old age was not as common as it is today. If the doctors did not know what these marks are they may have associated them with witchcraft. A documentary raised this in Salem and on the James VI trials in Berwick. If Anne had a giant swelling that never went down: that may also have seemed abnormal to some observors.

    But what is this about a protruding tooth? Where not all of Anne’s contemporary portraits destroyed and the later ones meant to be copies and not accurate?

    • Sylwia
      Oct 24, 2013

      Hi BanditQueen, nice to see you here! :-) )

      We have only one contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn and it is the medal struck in 1534. It’s partially damaged but it gives you a good idea of what did Anne look like. According to Sander, the swelling was visible but he had no idea what this swelling was exactly; the tooth was only a little prominent so it was probably visible only when Anne smiled.

      • BanditQueen
        Oct 27, 2013

        Thank you Sylvia for your information; I found this article fascinating. A lot of people have funny shaped teeth and you cannot tell unless they grin at you; so I would imagine a slight one would be only visible if Anne had a wide grin. Medels do give a good idea of what a person looks like: I have seen a few contemporary medels and coins of historic people and they are believed to be fairly realistic. Thanks again for a great article and a great blog.

        • Sylwia
          Oct 28, 2013

          Thank you! :-)

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