Little is known of Bracegirdle's early life. Her precise date of birth is a source of dispute due to conflicting records of her life. The daughter of Justinian Bracegirdle, variously described as a coachman or coach-maker, and his wife Martha (née Furniss), she was baptised in Northampton on 15 November 1671, although her tombstone says that she died at the age of 85 (suggesting that she was born around 1663). She was probably raised by actors Thomas and Mary Betterton from an early age, and it is speculated that she was the "little girl" referred to several times in playbills before 1688 for the Duke's Company, where Thomas Betterton was the big star. Her name first appears in the Lord Chamberlain's accounts in 1688 as a member of the United Company (into which the Duke's Company had by then merged), and a few of her roles in the following years are known through surviving manuscript cast lists. She played Semernia in Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter in 1689, a breeches role, a type of role she would often return to, and was by 1690 playing parts like Lady Anne in Shakespeare's Richard III and Desdemona in Othello. Soon, she had become one of the important members of the company and an audience favourite, indicated by the frequency with which she spoke prologues and epilogues.
Colley Cibber described Bracegirdle in his autobiography as she appeared in 1690, when he first joined the company at Drury Lane:
"She had no greater Claim to Beauty than what the most desirable Brunette might pretend to. But her Youth and lively Aspect threw out such a Glow of Health and Chearfulness, that on the Stage few Spectators that were not past it could behold her without Desire. It was even a Fashion among the Gay and Young to have a Taste or Tendre for Mrs. Bracegirdle… In all the chief Parts she acted, the Desirable was so predominant, that no Judge could be cold enough to consider from what other particular Excellence she became delightful."
Cibber was smitten. He describes his own highest acting ambition (never fulfilled) as a new and inconspicuous company employee to have been that of "playing a Lover with Mrs. Bracegirdle." In 1692, the "tendre" felt by both Captain Richard Hill and the actor William Mountfort, caused a celebrated tragedy. The jealous Hill and a gang of toughs led by the infamous Lord Mohun, attempted to abduct Anne and murdered Mountfort, her presumed lover, in the street. Hill made his escape from justice, but Mohun stood trial and was acquitted. Both died violent deaths years later.
^J. Milling, ‘Bracegirdle, Anne (bap. 1671, d. 1748)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 accessed 1 June 2012
^“Anne was baptized, probably as an infant, at St Giles, Northampton, on 15 November 1671 and was about seventy-seven when she died in 1748, rather than eighty-five, as recorded on her tombstone in Westminster Abbey.” J. Milling, ‘Bracegirdle, Anne (bap. 1671, d. 1748)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 accessed 1 June 2012
Highfill, Philip Jr, Burnim, Kalman A., and Langhans, Edward (1973–93). Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800. 16 volumes. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
Howe, Elizabeth (1992). The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.