Friday 30 July 2021

The Modern Day Mystery of Anne Boleyn's 1534 Medal

Portrait Medal of Anne Boleyn, 1534 (The British Museum)


One of the few surviving artifacts of Anne Boleyn's 'thousand days' is a portrait medal of her made in 1534.

Cast in lead and measuring 38 mm in diameter, it presented Anne as Queen of England ('A R', that is 'Anne Regina') with her motto 'The Most Happy'. The medal was almost certainly made as a prototype in anticipation of the child she was carrying in the spring of 1534. But then in the summer, the pregnancy was entirely hushed up, and it is believed that Anne sadly had a miscarriage. As a result, the medal was never mass produced for distribution.

It has been suggested that because of Anne's unpopularity as queen, the medal was deliberately damaged  - the nose flattened and a side of the face scarred - after her fall. (1) In May 1536, Anne was accused of high treason and executed. Portraits of her would have been taken down and probably destroyed, and it is thought that the disfigurement which appears on the medal was part of this purge. However, evidence from the late 19th century suggests that no such harm had been done to the medal at that time, and in fact, the defacement - actually unintentional - was relatively recent.

The medal came into the collection of The British Museum through Edward Hawkins, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities from 1826 to 1860. It was later shown to George Scharf, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, in 1866 or sometime before. Scharf remarked that it was 'brought to my notice, a leaden medallion preserved in The British Museum. It is possibly a cast from a carving in hone-stone, or wood, and measures 1 1/2 inch in diameter; the sculpture in rather high relief... the face is turned slightly sideways, and rather looking up towards the left. The letters A.R. in the field, and the legend "THE MOOST HAPPI ANNO 1534," round the margin, show that this figure must have been intended for Anne Boleyne'. (2)

In 1885, the medal was included in the book Medallic Illustrations of the History of Great Britain and Ireland to the Death of George II by the late Edward Hawkins (he died in 1867) and edited by Augustus W. Franks, and Herbert A. Grueber. Hawkins, before his passing, described it as 'a bust of Anne Boleyn, three-quarters, l. (left), pedimental headdress, with a large veil at back, cross hanging from necklace, low dress and mantle over shoulders. In the field A.R. Leg. THE MOOST HAPPI. ANNO 1534... Probably cast from a carving in wood or hone-stone'. (3)

One of his editors, Grueber, who then wrote an exhibition catalogue about the museum's medals in 1891, had this to say - 'Anne Boleyn, 1534. Obv. Bust of Queen, nearly full face, towards l. (left), wearing coif with veil, &c., in field A. R. THE MOOST HAPPI. ANNO 1534. Reverse plain. Lead. Size 1.5. Cast'. (4)

Repeatedly, none of the writers made note of any damage to the medal. Hawkins in particular, who was very meticulous in including condition issues where necessary - for example: 'very much worn or rubbed' for a medal of Edward VI, a 'decay of the surface' (Elizabeth I), 'badly executed' (Mary Queen of Scots), and 'extremely course workmanship' (Charles I) - made absolutely no comment about the Anne Boleyn medal being in poor shape. (5) Likewise, Scharf, who was a great connoisseur of old portraits (particularly from the Tudor era) and who even liked to make his own sketches of them, said nothing as well. (6)


Portrait Medal of Anne Boleyn, 1534 (Woodcut from Edward Hawkins' Medallic Illustrations, 1885)


Hawkins' book included a noteworthy woodcut illustration of the 1534 medal with the sitter's face fully intact. (7) Interestingly, there was no disclaimer or indication whatsoever that the drawing of the medal was an artist's re-imagining of what it formerly looked like. By all appearances, it was a straight forward depiction of its current state at the time (before the soft lead was somehow later squashed). 

The unintended defacement of the medal would have occurred sometime between the exhibition of it in 1891 and 1920 when Sir George Francis Hill described it as 'so hopelessly battered about the nose that what may once have been an attractive portrait has become the most pitifully grotesque of caricatures'. This was apparently the first mention of any mutilation. (8)

In summary, observations about the medal, beginning in 1866, strongly suggest that the damage to the Anne Boleyn medal was not done in the 16th century, but much later.  It would seem that when George Scharf saw it, the piece was still in good condition and in 'rather high relief' as he stated. Regrettably, some accident must have befallen it between 1891 and 1920, and it appeared as it is today. (9)

Still, we can be grateful that the medal has survived at all despite its appearance, and that it was properly documented with a drawing showing what it looked like, thus preserving the features of the elusive Anne Boleyn. (10)




1, Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p. 42.

2. George Scharf, 'Notes on several of the Portraits described in the preceding Memoir, and on some others of the like character', Archaeologia, Vol. 40, Issue 01, January 1866, p. 88. Note: Scharf has used the older alternate spelling of  'Boleyne' here.

3. Edward Hawkins, Augustus W. Franks, and Herbert A. Grueber, Medallic Illustrations of the History of Great Britain and Ireland to the death of George II, Volume I, London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1885, p. 34.

4. Herbert A. Grueber, A Guide to the Exhibition of English Medals, London: Trustees of the British Museum, 2nd edition, 1891, p. 2.

5. Edward Hawkins et al, Medallic Illustrations, p. 58, p. 100, p. 121, and p. 367. The woodcut is on p. 4.

6. Interestingly, in his remarks about an image of the Lady of the Garter (from The Black Book of the Garter at Windsor Castle created in 1534), whom he accepted as Anne Boleyn (see note 2 above), Scharf opined how there was 'not much character in her countenance'. But with the 1534 medal, he had no comment at all about Anne's shortcomings (the very obvious damaged face), implying that the disfigurement was not there in 1866.

7. Edward Hawkins et al, Medallic Illustrations, p. 34.

8. George Francis Hill, Medals of the Renaissance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920, p. 151. After Hill's publication, awareness and interest in the medal waned considerably. It was not brought back to public attention until 1972 when Marie Louise Bruce reproduced a photograph of it in her biography of the queen (Anne Boleyn, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan).

9. My appreciation to The British Museum's Department of Coins and Medals for its correspondence with me. My tracking down the medal's history remains ongoing.

10. For additional observations of the 1534 medal, see sculptor Lucy Churchill's study of it and her physical reconstruction:


Saturday 24 July 2021

The Lygons and the Flytes

On May 31 1533, one Richard Lygon was created 'a Knight of the Sword' in the Tower of London in celebration of Anne Boleyn's coronation. 

His descendant was William Lygon, Lord Beauchamp (1872-1938), the model for Lord Marchmain in Evelyn Waugh's classic 'Brideshead Revisited'. His family home, Madresfield Court, inspired Brideshead.

Like Lord Marchmain who left his family to live with his mistress in Italy, Lord Beauchamp was exiled from England, though in his case for his same sex attractions.


William Lygon, the 7th Earl of Beauchamp at a  fancy dress ball in 1897.



Madresfield Court (Malvern, Worcestershire)

 The private family chapel at Madresfield Court.The Lygons were actually an  Anglo Catholic family, not Roman Catholic as depicted in 'Brideshead Revisited'.

Beauchamp's son Hugh Lygon (1904-1936) was the model for Lord Sebastian Flyte. 



 Hugh Lygon


Thursday 8 July 2021

A Podcast on The Portraiture of the 6 Wives of Henry VIII


It was a pleasure discussing the portraiture of Henry VIII's 6 wives with 'Talking Tudors' wonderful host Natalie Grueninger at: