Heritage

Anne Boleyn's Lost "B" Necklace Is One of the Great Jewelry Mysteries

It may have inspired Balenciaga's buzzy show this weekend, but what actually happened to the pearl necklace that belonged Henry VIII's doomed second wife?
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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No one really knows what Anne Boleyn actually looked like. After she was executed in 1536 (for treason, incest, adultery—anything, really, that Henry VIII could think of to rid himself of her so he could marry Jane Seymour), all the portraits of Boleyn were destroyed.

Try as Henry VII might have to erase her from history, the legend of Anne Boleyn lives on—as does the mystery of her necklace.

Our idea of Henry VIII’s second wife comes largely from a 17th-century portrait—thought to have been recreated from an earlier work—that hangs in Room 1 at the National Portrait Gallery in London. There she is a young and attractive woman, wearing a heavily embroidered bodice, and a significant amount of jewelry, most notably a pearl necklace with three drops from which suspends a golden initial “B.” And try as Henry VII might have to erase her from history, the legend of Anne Boleyn lives on—as does the mystery of her necklace.

It was the first thing I thought about when I saw the B charms hanging from heavy metal links on the models at the Balenciaga show in Paris yesterday. Did a scandalous 16th century British Queen inspire one of the most talked about shows in France? Doubtful—the initial necklace has influence far and wide—but that B (for Balenciaga, not Boleyn, to be clear) did send me down a jewelry mystery rabbit hole. It’s one of the most intriguing of jewelry history questions: Where Is It Now?

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Henry VIII, circa 1540 when he was about 50 years old (and four years after Anne Boleyn was executed.)

The simple answer: no one really knows. But that has never stopped a jewelry sleuth. And Henry and Anne’s whole courtship begins and ends on a jewel. One of Henry VIII’s first love letters to Anne came with a gold bracelet. There was a picture of him inside. During their marriage he lavished her with jewelry—several diamond and gold bracelets, rings and pendants with their entwined initials, and anything he could wrestle away from Catherine of Aragon, including, reportedly, a stash of legendary rubies.

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Their love also ended on a jewel. Legend has it that Anne discovered Henry’s affair with Jane Seymour when she spotted a locket around Jane’s neck at court. Inside? A picture of the King himself. Jane seemed to take pleasure in torturing Anne by opening and closing the locket repeatedly anytime they were in the room together.


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Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife.

But because of the portrait, and perhaps because of that gleaming golden initial, it is Anne Boleyn’s “B” necklace’s fate that has most intrigued historians and Boleyn biographers. They have reported many theories, but have recovered no pearls.

It is believed, and hoped, that some of Boleyn’s jewelry was stashed away by loyalists and held for her daughter Elizabeth I. An “A” necklace in an early portrait of The Virgin Queen seems to support this claim. The majority of Anne’s treasures, however, are believed to have been melted down or sold off, as was custom.

There is a persistent rumor that a handful of the pearls from the B necklace remained with the Crown and that they now are among the stones in the Imperial State Crown, set innocently enough against the Black Prince’s Ruby and the Stuart Sapphire. Which would mean of course that, try as he might, Henry could not erase Boleyn from history: the Imperial State Crown anointed Elizabeth II at her coronation.

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A circa 1600 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, known as the "Coronation Portrait," shows her majesty wearing the gold clothes she wore at her coronation in 1559 and holding the orb and scepter, symbols of her authority.

Though perhaps that was Henry’s plan all along. There is strong evidence that he himself bought back several treasures associated with Anne’s court, several of which were adorned with jewels and emblazoned with their entwined initials. It’s a side of Henry VII we don’t often think about—perhaps there was inside of him some regret, or at least, a fond remembrance.

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Or maybe he wanted the sapphires.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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Stellene Volandes
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