Anne Boleyn’s Education and Life at the French Court

Château de Blois

In 1522, a young, sophisticated woman arrived at the English court after spending most of her life in two continental courts. Intelligent, educated, and stylish beyond the typical English lady, Anne Boleyn dazzled the court and set herself on a path that would lead to the heights of power before her life was tragically and unjustly cut short.

Elizabethan portrait of Anne Boleyn, possibly derived from a lost original of 1533-36
Drawing of Queen Claude (École française, 16th century)

This article will explore Anne’s education and experiences as a young girl in service to Queen Claude, wife and cousin of the young, flamboyant King François I of France. Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, was a successful diplomat who strove to give his youngest daughter the best education possible, and he arranged for her to stay in France, for he likely considered the Tudor court to be behind the more progressive and more cultured continental courts. There are disagreements over Anne’s date of birth, but this debate is beyond the scope of this article. For this article and in my books, I’m assuming that Anne was born circa 1507.

When Anne entered the household of Queen Claude in 1515, the young queen was only 16 years old. Claude had a sister, Princess Renée of France, who was 3 years younger than Anne. Taking into account Anne’s young age, her responsibilities likely centered on providing companionship to Princess Renée while polishing her court manners and skills with the hope of making a respectable marriage. Anne would have also joined the deeply pious Queen Claude and the other maids of honor in prayer several times each day. It is interesting to note that during the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Princess Renée confirmed to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (the English ambassador to France) that she had personally known Anne.

Because of her almost annual pregnancies, Claude spent most of her time in confinement at Châteaux d’Amboise and de Blois. Despite the young queen’s sequestered lifestyle, Anne would have been exposed to the rich cultural milieu of the early French Renaissance. Beyond honing her skills in the French language, she would have learned court dances, been instructed in singing and musical instruments, and she would have had first hand experience in seeing and hearing the great works of contemporary artists, musicians, and authors.

Illuminated manuscripts were of particular interest to Anne. She must have seen Queen Claude’s Book of Hours. A tiny, jewel-like manuscript, it was made for Claude in 1516, and her coat-of-arms appears on 3 different folios. The diminutive size reflected the fashion of the French court at the turn of the 16th century, and it provided the perfect frame for the artist’s characteristically detailed brushstrokes. In this book, there are numerous references to Claude, including abundant royal motifs, mottos, and emblems. Anne’s own illuminated manuscripts, which she ordered years later, have some elements which we see in Claude’s book (currently housed in the Morgan Library & Museum, NYC, USA). For example, one of Anne’s Book of Hours is richly illustrated: the borders of each leaf are painted, front and back, with scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints.

Queen Claude’s tiny Book of Hours
Queen Claude’s tiny Book of Hours
Gabriella Wright as Claude of France in the ShowTime “The Tudors”
Gabriella Wright as Claude of France in the ShowTime “The Tudors”

Queen Claude adored music, especially sacred compositions, and she often invited composers and singers to her chambers to perform for her. Anne must have heard the singing and musical performances of Claudin de Sermisy and Clément Janequin, notable composers of French chansons in the early 16th century. Clément Marot, whose many chansons were put to music by Sermisy, often visited Claude, so Anne would definitely have met him. Therefore, Anne was exposed to a wide range of sacred and secular music, as well as masses, Requiem masses, motets, magnificats (canticles or Songs of Mary), and Lamentations. One manuscript in the collection of the Royal College of Music, England, contains an early 16th-century choir book that includes 39 Latin motets and 3 French chansons by Franco-Flemish composers.  It was prepared for Anne Boleyn because one composition depicts a falcon, which Anne used as her badge. The songbook contains chansons of Sermisy, Janequin, and a few others.

Anne’s instruction in the visual delights of fashion would have been focused on those times when she (along with the queen’s other ladies) accompanied Claude to significant events such as the journey to greet a triumphant François after his victory at the Battle of Marignano (1515), the pilgrimage to Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (the alleged tomb of Mary Magdalene), and Claude’s coronation at the Basilica of St Denis on the 10th of May 1517.

A particularly infamous event was the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520, just outside Calais. Eric Ives writes about this event:

“She [Claude] wore cloth of silver over an underskirt of cloth of gold and rode in her coronation litter of cloth of silver decorated with friars’ knots in gold, a device which she had taken from her mother. Her ladies rode in three carriages similarly draped in silver and, no doubt, were dressed to match the queen.”

In her early teens at the time, Anne must have been among these ladies. No longer a child, yet not fully a woman, she was likely at an age when dressing in sumptuous French fashions would have not only been memorable, but also influential on the development of her personal style. Her exquisite manners, her majestic allure, and her impeccable style, which she had begun to develop in the Low Courtiers and honed in France, later helped Anne attract the attention of King Henry VIII.  Every time she accompanied Queen Claude at festivities, she danced with the grace of a swan.  King François is known to have said something that might refer to Anne:

“Venus was blonde, I’ve been told: Now I see that she’s a brunette!”

King François loved everything Italian and aimed to make France the center of an unparalleled artistic revival. From the beginning of his reign, François patronized many illustrious artists such as Andrea del Sarto, Jean Clouet, and many others. An interesting consideration when discussing Anne’s education in France is the speculation that she would have met an elderly Leonardo de Vinci. François and Leonardo developed a close relationship.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to Francesco Melzi, c 1515-18

Leonardo da Vinci relocated to France in 1516 and spent his last years there. Leonardo brought to France some of his celebrated works such as the Mona Lisa, Saint Anne, and Saint Jean Baptiste (they are now kept in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France). As he was an old man suffering from rheumatism, Leonardo painted little, but he still actively worked for his new patron and created elaborate decorations for celebrations and plans for new architectural projects. The Maestro was a scientist, an artist, and a man with diverse interests ahead of his time. His home in France was Château du Clos Luce located close to Château d’Amboise.

As Amboise was one of Queen Claude’s preferred residences, it is highly likely that Anne saw Leonardo da Vinci during festivities where he presented his inventions to the courtiers. Leonardo designed decorations for the christening of the king’s eldest son and heir – Dauphin François, Duke of Brittany – at Amboise on the 25th of April 1519. As one of the queen’s ladies, Anne would have attended this event. Da Vinci’s original automation prepared for celebrations is lost, but the animal was recreated at Château du Clos Luce.

Rooms of Leonardo da Vinci at Château du Clos Luce, Amboise
Rooms of Leonardo da Vinci at Château du Clos Luce, Amboise, France
Château d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France
Château d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Anne would have witnessed the growing popularity of Italian Renaissance architecture. The towns of Amboise and Blois, which benefited from the court’s presence, became drivers of new cultural and architectural developments. A substantial part of Château d’Amboise was refurbished and decorated with a series of Italian frescoes, tapestries, and paintings depicting foreign cities, courtly love, outdoor activities, mythology, and scenes from chivalrous romances. As the François loved medieval chivalry legends such as ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ (‘The Death of Arthur’), ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’ by Chrétien de Troyes, the old Chanson de Roland, and so forth, many expensive tapestries and arrases, depicting such scenes, were either imported from Flanders or produced in France.  Anne must have been awestruck from the abundance of mythological decorations and ornaments on fireplaces and furniture.

Beginning in 1515, François commissioned the construction of a new wing at Château de Blois in a fusion of Gothic and Renaissance styles. The ruler commanded the Italian architect Domenico da Cortona, called Boccador, to build something spectacular.  The most striking feature is the polygonal external staircase tower, decorated with gargoyles, statues in niches, and antiquity-inspired ornamentations, which is admired by modern tourists at Blois.  I can imagine Queen Claude with her ladies-in-waiting, Anne among them, climbing this monumental and well-recognizable staircase. Anne must have witnessed the construction works and admired the elegance of the new wing – ‘The François I wing’ – at Blois.  The building of Château de Chambord began in 1519 in Sologne, but the works were finished in 1527, after Anne’s departure home.  Anne would have seen many architectural changes as they were under construction and some of them were completed, up to her departure for England in 1522.

A chamber with tapestries at Château d'Amboise
A chamber with tapestries at Château d’Amboise
The François I wing, Château de Blois
The François I wing, Château de Blois

Another important factor in Anne’s French education was the vast library at Château de Blois. King François had an enthusiasm for reading and book collecting, and he located his magnificent library at Blois, one of Claude’s favorite homes. According to the inventory of 1518, 1,626 manuscripts and printed volumes belonged to the collection. Apart from religious texts, hunting manuals, and romances, many classical texts in Latin were listed. Special agents worked for the monarch across Europe, buying rare books for him, including volumes in Greek and Hebrew. The library included precious and rare manuscripts such as: ‘The Tree of Battles’ (Arbre des Batailles) by Honoré de Bouvet, who had been Charles VI’s councilor; ‘The Bible of Poets” (La Bible des poëtes) by the Picardian poet Évrard de Conty, which had been written in 1401-02; and the mystical treatise ‘The Clock of Wisdom’ (Horloge de Sapience) by Henry Suso.  There were also copies of the official Chronicles de France.  The library had the original manuscript of ‘The Hundred Tales’ (The Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles), which is a collection of stories that had been narrated by people at the court of Philippe the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

Anne had an immeasurable passion for both reading and knowledge, and it is likely that she was given some level of access to the library at Blois, especially since Queen Claude was said to have been fond of the girl. Without a shadow of a doubt, Anne must have spent quite some time at the magnificent library at Blois when she had free time. Anne also appears to have been a member of Marguerite d’Angoulême’s intellectual circles. Marguerite was the king’s sister, and she wielded surprising influence during his reign. Supporting artists, humanists, evangelicals, and church reformers, Marguerite encouraged intellectuals to mingle and initiated discussions on various themes, for she adored Renaissance humanism and classics.

The François I wing, Château de Blois rooms inside
The François I wing, Château de Blois, rooms inside

Marguerite d’Angoulême had a friendly relationship with Queen Claude, and, thus, Anne would have known Marguerite both from her personal visits with Claude and her frequent correspondence with the queen. This would have exposed Anne to new religious ideas and humanism. Thanks to François and Marguerite, Neo-Platonism thrived in France. The humanist Jacques Lefevre d’Étaples translated the works of Plato and a series of Greek treatises ‘The Pseudo-Dionysius’ and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, dedicating them to Guillaume Briçonnet, who became a leader of the proposed church reform and the Renaissance of humanism in France.  Marguerite’s ideas were admired by the Neo-Platonists Étienne Dolet and Bonaventure des Périers, and by the Renaissance French writers Clément Marot and François Rabelais.  It was a time when Anne Boleyn had an explosion of intellectual activity.

In 1522, Anne Boleyn left France a unique woman, one who was far more educated than the typical English noblewomen. The Renaissance blossomed in France thanks to King François, Marguerite d’Angoulême, and their mother, Louise de Savoy. England largely remained a cultural backwater at the time, although King Henry VIII’s court was transitioning to a more sophisticated atmosphere. England would eventually become a true Renaissance nation during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn’s daughter. But first, Anne’s refined manners, exotic air, continental style, stellar education, and quick, intelligent mind would make her the brightest star at the English court, dazzling a king and eventually changing the course of history.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

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