Anne Boleyn was one of the most controversial and captivating women of the Renaissance. For a time, she wielded a surprising level of influence over the volatile King Henry VIII, and her significance as the mother of one of England’s most important monarchs, Elizabeth I, cannot be denied. This article explores how Anne’s education and experiences in the court of France during her formative years both enabled her to ascend to the heights of power while simultaneously setting the stage for her tragic death.
Her father, Thomas Boleyn, had sent her to the continental courts at a young age to ensure that she received an excellent education. Initially, she was in service to Margaret of Austria. In 1514, Thomas asked for Anne’s release so she could join her elder sister, Mary, who was a lady to Princess Mary Tudor (Henry’s younger sister). Princess Mary had married the recently widowed French monarch, Louis XII.
Louis XII’s death in early 1515 ushered in a new era in France. His successor was his young, handsome, and flamboyant cousin, King François I of France, who had been raised in accordance with Renaissance humanism. The Boleyn sisters remained in France and entered the household of Queen Claude, François’s gentle and benevolent queen. Claude spent most of her time in seclusion at Châteaux d’Amboise and de Blois because of her annual pregnancies.
Despite her position as Queen of France, Claude had little interest in affairs of state. She abdicated such matters to two women whose extraordinary roles in governing France would have left an enduring impression on a young girl as Anne matured into adulthood.
These two women, Louise de Savoy, the king’s mother, and Marguerite d’Angoulême, his sister, along with François, held the reins of power and were glorified by poets as “The Holy Trinity.” Marguerite and Louise performed many official roles at court because Queen Claude did not like public life. Intelligent, superbly educated, and a gifted writer, Marguerite proved to be a capable negotiator of court politics and foreign relations from her early youth. The warm, charismatic Marguerite was widely respected and praised, and as a frequent participant in the Royal Privy Council, she was involved in royal decision-making to a significant degree.
Queen Claude and Marguerite d’Angoulême had an affable relationship. They corresponded regularly, and Claude spoke highly of her sister-in-law in the presence of her ladies. We can also assume that Claude favored Anne Boleyn a great deal because she filed a complaint in 1522 about Anne leaving France. This suggests that Anne would have heard much about Marguerite from Claude, and it’s likely that the young Anne was truly impressed with Marguerite’s extraordinary influence.
Although there are no contemporary records suggesting that Anne had any personal contact with Louise de Savoy, she would have been fully aware of the incredible role of the monarch’s mother in the political matters of the French kingdom. Louise was immensely devoted to King François, whom she called, “My son, my Caesar!” From his ascension to the throne until her death in 1531, Louise dominated the politics of France and court life and wielded great influence over her son’s decisions. Like Marguerite, the intelligent and well-educated Louise possessed personal charisma, inner strength, and a formidable aura. Louise acted as regent in the king’s absence and often presided over the Privy Council meetings. It was not a secret at court that Louise was the queen in all but name, while the second queen (in terms of her influence) was Marguerite d’Angoulême.
Anne Boleyn was a precocious girl observing two women whose extraordinary power at court would have been at odds with the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. In particular, noble women were expected to exhibit all the idealized characteristics of femininity while living as dependents under the authority of their fathers and husbands.
Unlike his predecessors, King François welcomed the active participation of his female relatives in state affairs, trusting them more than others. Anne would have learned that Louise and Marguerite ruled French international affairs. Either from Claude or from other sources, Anne must have known that Louise and Marguerite helped the monarch fill a number of lucrative and powerful posts, including financial, military, and judicial offices, the ranks of his household servants, and even the prelacies of the realm after the Concordat of Bologna of 1516.
Would Anne have been amazed by these women executing such responsibilities? Or would the adolescent girl have believed that royal women naturally performed such exalted duties? Given her innate boldness and perhaps even her taste for adventure, it is no wonder that Anne attempted to perform similar roles in England during the time when Henry VIII was still enamored of her.
In 1522, Anne Boleyn returned to England an exotic diamond dressed in French fashions. Her skills in dancing, singing, and the art of flirting were unparalleled. Anne was charming and intelligent, but she was also headstrong. Well-versed in literature and the arts, she was capable of original thinking.
Her brilliant qualities attracted King Henry’s attention in the middle of the 1520s, but ironically, they later played a crucial role in Anne’s downfall from his good graces. Before Henry’s decision to set his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, aside, Anne probably had no ambitions to become the Queen of England, but once it became a real possibility, Anne embraced her destiny. After all, she had witnessed Louise and Marguerite masterfully holding the reins of power in their hands. If others could accomplish so much, then why couldn’t Anne?
During Henry’s long courtship of Anne, he had listened to her opinions and gladly engaged in debates with the entrancing young woman. But he had also valued Catherine’s intelligence and education in the early years of their marriage. When she aged and failed to give him a son, he had lost interest in her. Anne was far younger than Catherine, and he believed she could provide him with a much-desired Tudor prince.
Anne’s astonishing rise to the throne following Henry’s divorce from Catherine and the country’s separation from Rome, emboldened Anne to see herself as another Louise de Savoy and Marguerite d’Angoulême.
I’ve always perceived Anne as an early feminist who endeavored to realize her potential despite the boundaries of Tudor society. She was not born into a royal family, although she had some royal blood (she was descended from King Edward I of England and from Hugh Capet through the Howard family). Even without Catherine’s illustrious bloodline and family connections, Anne was prepared to climb to the acme of power. Most likely, she believed that Henry really loved her (in my opinion, Henry was incapable of genuine affection), so she assumed that being the keeper of the king’s heart would allow her to rise to the throne. I also have no doubt that Anne sincerely loved Henry aside from her ambitions.
From the time of her youth at the Valois court, Anne had owned a French bible and other religious reform books. As the trade in such books was illegal, Anne surreptitiously imported them, and her brother, George, smuggled books from the continent during his diplomatic trips. Her books included works by Tyndale, John Calvin, and Simon Fisher. Some of her debates with Henry had focused on corruption in the Catholic Church.
Anne Boleyn was a more fluid person in religion than most people realize. Although some proclaim her the voice of the English Reformation, this is not exactly true as her religious beliefs fell in the middle of the religious spectrum. Her dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church encouraged Anne to seek to end Church abuses, but she never entirely abjured Catholic doctrines. Anne made the best of Henry’s desire to get her into his bed and used her power over the obsessed monarch to introduce some reforms into England. Despite the break with Rome, Henry remained a Catholic.
Anne was never a conventionally quiet and obedient wife. After her failure to produce a Tudor prince, Henry tired of her interference in his affairs. In international relationships, Anne favored an Anglo-French alliance due to her adoration of France and after King François had promised to support her union with Henry (although François later reneged on his word, fearful of antagonizing the Pope). Until the very end, Anne strove to influence Henry’s decisions.
When evaluating the standards of Tudor and Renaissance society, Anne’s explicit resistance to the traditional paradigm becomes clear. Many people admire her intelligence and courage. However, few realize that Anne’s understanding of women’s opportunities was formed in France as she observed remarkable Renaissance women such as Louise de Savoy and Marguerite d’Angoulême. The examples of these ladies encouraged Anne to defy the conventional belief that the life of a woman was determined from her birth with little room for her to select her path.
The question becomes whether Anne fully realized that, no matter how much authority was wielded by Louise and Marguerite, and despite their disregard for the conventions of the time, the ultimate source of power at the French court was always King François. Tragically, Anne perhaps misjudged just how far she could emulate the influence of these women, considering that King Henry’s character was nearly the opposite of King François in every measure.
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Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville