Wild rumors and speculation have always surrounded the life of Anne Boleyn, the young noblewoman who became King Henry VIII’s second wife in 1533 only to be cast aside and beheaded three years later. But among the many mysteries concerning the doomed queen, perhaps the most unusual is the claim that she had six fingers on one of her hands. The story of Boleyn’s extra digit most likely originated in a book by the Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander. Writing a few decades after Boleyn’s death, Sander notes that the young queen “…had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers.” He also claims the she had an unsightly cyst on her neck, which she tried to hide by wearing dresses and jewelry that covered her throat.
Sander’s description later wormed its way into Boleyn mythology, but its reliability has often been called into question. Sander never saw Boleyn in person, and critics argue that it’s unlikely that such a seemingly ugly woman would have captured the affections of a would-be playboy like Henry VIII. More importantly, Sander had a personal vendetta against Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, whose religious policies had forced him into exile. In the medieval era, moles and other bodily imperfections were often viewed as signs of devilry and witchcraft, so Sander may have painted an unflattering picture as a way of denigrating both Boleyn and her royal offspring.
Few reliable paintings of Boleyn exist today, but most evidence shows that she was far from the wretch described by Sander and her other detractors. People who actually met her described her as everything from “reasonably good-looking” to “beautiful,” but none—including her enemies—referenced an extra finger. George Wyatt, a biographer who spoke to Anne’s former attendants, noted that she did have several moles and an extra nail on the little finger of her right hand, but no sixth digit. This account was later reinforced in the 19th century, when a doctor exhumed Boleyn’s supposed burial site at the Tower of London. Of the several bodies examined, none—including the corpse believed to be Boleyn—showed any sign of an additional finger.