Although she claimed to have been born Anna Harriette Crawford in Caernarfon, Wales, recent investigations discovered no record of the birth, and it is now thought that her Welsh blood was limited to one grandparent. The official version of her story says that at the age of fifteen, she travelled to India to live with her mother, who had remarried after the death of Anna's father, an army captain, in action. She had spent the intervening years at boarding school and staying with relatives. It is now thought that she may have been born in India, of mixed-race parentage, and that her maiden name was Anna Edwards.
It was in India that she met and married (at the age of seventeen) Thomas Louis Leonowens (or Leon Owens), another army officer, who was her escape route from the domestic tyranny imposed by her stepfather. All did not go as hoped, and after the death of their first child, they set out for home, and eventually settled in London, where they brought up two healthy children, Avis and Louis. The latter was, of course, to become famous as a character in the story of Anna's stay at the Siamese court.
When her husband was posted to Singapore, Anna once again travelled to the colonies, this time with her children in tow. Their fortunes rapidly changed for the worse. After participating in a tiger hunt, her husband collapsed with heat exhaustion and she was left a widow, an impoverished one since her own family's money had been lost in the throes of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. She had never before needed, or planned, to work outside the home, but the only way she now had of supporting herself was to become a teacher. She opened a school for the children of officers. Though successful, it could not support the family financially, and thus she came to the momentous decision to accept an offer made by the Siamese consul in Singapore and become governess to the children of the King of Siam, S.S.P.P. Maha Mongkut.
It may be concluded that the opening scenes of the famous films based on the life of Anna Leonowens, in which the young "English" widow arrives in the strange eastern city of Bangkok amongst people whose way of life is a complete mystery to her, are highly misleading. Anna Leonowens knew the Far East well - at the age of only twenty-seven, she had already lived in India, Australia and Singapore. Of course Siam was new to her, but there must have been as much about it that was familiar as there was of the unknown. This is not to say that there was nothing frightening about some of the experiences she and her young son faced.
The reasons for her decision to send her daughter to school in Britain, whereas her son travelled with her to Bangkok are not clear, though no doubt the position of women in the royal palace where she was going would not have been such as to allow her children to be treated equally. At around the time of her arrival, the King's eldest son, Chulalongkorn, was to be elevated to the position of Crown Prince, whilst his eldest daughter was enduring quite a different ceremony, that of the tonsure. It is no wonder that she made such a fuss about the delay in fulfilling the King's promise to provide her with a house of her own. With sixty-seven children and numerous wives, it was hardly likely that the King and his ministers would take much notice of a woman, albeit a European woman who was responsible for the education of the King's children. King Mongkut, however, was a learned and cultured man, who was breaking new ground for Siam simply by having the idea of educating his wives and children.
It has been said that Anna Leonowens, in her memoirs of 1870, exaggerated the importance of her role in the King's court, and suggested that she had a greater degree of influence than she could possibly have done in reality. However, it was the peculiarity of her situation that led to her story capturing the interest of a nation, and if many of the episodes featured in the films and plays about her stay in Siam do not reflect real life, this is no more than can be said about many other dramatisations of the lives of people even less worthy of note. It is debatable whether the true story of her time in Siam, which lasted only five years, would have become the subject of a film, a musical, and even a television series, if it had been told with literal truthfulness either by Anna herself or by those who re-told it later. In fact, it is largely based on some short stories she wrote. The secret of its success almost certainly lies in the very idea of a lone Western woman being accepted in an exotic Eastern royal court, and the fact that she was there to work rather than as a lady of leisure adds to the interest audiences have felt in Anna as a person.
The King himself was a complex character. Educated and intelligent, he was nevertheless tightly controlled by his own upbringing and native traditions. He may have felt a certain degree of respect for the European woman - indeed, must have done, otherwise he would not have entrusted the education of his children to her - but it would be wrong to imply, as do the various dramatisations of the story, that he treated her as an equal. The torture and execution of the girl, Tuptim, watered down for film viewers, illustrate only too clearly how foreign Siamese ideas of justice and religion were to those prevalent in Victorian Britain, let alone those in vogue in the 20th century. Anna's departure from Siam was not, as popularly thought, anything to do with the King's death, and he did not plead with her to remain. However, she was in the process of negotiating to return to his court when he was taken ill and died.
That the King had some regard for Anna is indicated by the fact that she and her son were both mentioned in his will, though they never received the legacy. The young King Chulalongkorn, elected according to Siamese tradition to succeed his father, made many reforms, including the abolishment of the practice of prostration before the royal person. Anna's teaching of him cannot be given complete credit for this, but it would be surprising if she had not had some influence on him. By this time she was already contributing articles based on her experiences to the "Atlantic Monthly", which were later expanded into two volumes of memoirs which earned her immediate notoriety, despite the stilted manner in which she wrote. She became personally acquainted with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book whose anti-slavery message had not been lost on some of Anna's pupils in Siam. She visited America, Russia and other European countries, and eventually met King Chulalongkorn again when he visited London in 1897, thirty years after she had left Siam. He himself expressed his debt to her on that occasion.
It was only after Margaret Landon's "novelisation" of the original Leonowens memoirs that the story of Anna and her stay in Siam became popular. It was quickly made into a film which took liberties with the plot, and the musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein followed not long afterwards, making even more drastic changes. Revived many times on stage, it has remained a favourite of the theatre-going public, and the actresses who have played the part have never given a hint of Anna's Welsh origins.
In 1867, Anna went to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where she became involved in women's education, was a suffragette and one of the founders of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.