Anne Boleyn is often portrayed as uniquely ambitious and self-determined in a time when women were expected to be obedient and dutiful. However, she had some interesting role models in her youth, both women to emulate, and those whose lives were object lessons.

Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands.

Margaret offered prestigious positions in her court to young gentlemen and ladies, scions of Europe’s noble families. Thomas Boleyn had impressed Margaret while on diplomatic missions to her court and she offered one of his daughters a maid of honour position at her court in Mechelen, in what is now Belgium.

Margaret of Austria

Thomas and his wife Elizabeth Howard had two surviving daughters. The dates and even order of birth of the Boleyn children are uncertain but it seems likely that Mary was the elder. If this is the case, Thomas must have seen more promise in Anne than Mary as custom would otherwise have dictated that the older girl took up the opportunity in the Netherlands.

In her earliest letters home, Anne showed a good grasp of French, which was to become fluent. She was a quick learner though and her language skills improved. She thrived at Margaret’s court where she witnessed real power wielded by a charismatic, intelligent woman. Margaret was interested in humanism and was very well educated. She was a successful ruler who held the regency of the Netherlands intermittently throughout her life. The influence of Anne’s early exposure to a powerful, political woman can hardly be overestimated. Margaret defied the expectations of Early Modern womanhood. With three marriages over by the age of twenty four and no surviving children, Margaret had retired from the royal marriage market in defiance of her father, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who had seen no reason that his daughter’s marital career should not continue apace.

Margaret held the respectable position of a widow which traditionally allowed women a degree of freedom their never-married contemporaries did not have. She was entrusted by her father with the regency of the Netherlands for her nephew who would eventually succeed her father as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. She proved to be an able and successful ruler, bringing prosperity to the Netherlands through commercial treaties with England which were favourable to her country’s cloth merchants.

Margaret of Austria

The bright, impressionable young Englishwoman at Margaret’s court could not have failed to be inspired by what she saw there.

Queen Claude of France

In 1514, however, Henry VIII’s sister Mary was betrothed to the king of France, Louis XII, and Anne was sent to Paris to wait on her. Thomas Boleyn had also secured a place in the new queen’s retinue for his elder daughter, Mary too. Louis died only three months after the marriage, reputedly worn out by his exertions in the bedchamber. Anne and her sister remained in France as ladies-in-waiting to the new queen of France, Claude.

The contrast between Margaret of Austria and Queen Claude could not have been more striking. Louis had no surviving sons and so Claude, as the eldest surviving child, was his heir. However, in France the Salic Law prevented a woman from inheriting her father’s land and so Claude could not become queen in her own right. She was duly married to her cousin, François, the heir presumptive with a view to her becoming queen consort.

François was one of the great figures of Early Modern Europe and totally eclipsed his diminutive wife. Claude and François were married for ten years during which time Claude was almost continually pregnant, producing no less than seven children. She dutifully followed her husband’s relentless wandering round France and died at the age of twenty-five, exhausted. Claude, though, fulfilled the contemporary ideal of womanhood and queenship: she produced five children who survived, including three sons; she lived chastely (although it would seem unlikely that she had the time or the energy to be unfaithful) and she turned a blind eye to her husband’s constant philandering.

She is remembered with a plum which was named after her (a greengage is une reine claude or une bonne reine in France).

Claude of France

As much as Margaret of Austria was an inspiration, Claude was a warning to Anne. Claude was a perfect illustration of the potential fate of a dutiful wife. During his wife’s perpetual pregnancies, François was neglectful and preferred to spend his time in the embraces of other women. In fact, the king surrounded himself with attractive, witty young women, preferring female company to that of his male courtiers. It would seem likely that King François would have found his wife’s young English attendant as fascinating as her compatriots did on her later return to England. Anne, however, would not have risked her marriage prospects in England with a dalliance with the notoriously philandering king of France had he shown interest in her.

Marguerite of Navarre

As well as Queen Claude, Anne seems to have come under the influence of François’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre. As much as the king neglected his dutiful wife, he lavished attention on his brilliant elder sister. He even turned a blind eye to her increasing sympathies with the ideas of religious reform sweeping the kingdom. John Calvin had fled his native France and remained in exile in Switzerland. His ideas on reform of the Church were widely, if secretly, imported into France and fed the growing population of Huguenots, the colloquial name given to French Protestants, which troubled the king. France’s relationship with the Holy See had been unique and frequently strained for centuries and while François was a great pragmatist in religious matters, he would not countenance a full schism and therefore took measures to restrict Huguenot religious freedom. His legacy of religious ambivalence was one which Catherine de’ Medici would have to tackle some thirty years later.

Marguerite of Navarre

The indulgence of her brother was a safeguard for Marguerite who was not only a patron of humanists in France and her small Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, but also a writer herself. Her mystical, devotional work, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul), was a popular, radical work in her day. Indeed, in years to come Anne’s daughter, the princess Elizabeth, would translate it as a New Year’s gift for her last stepmother, Catherine Parr. Elizabeth may even have worked from Marguerite’s original manuscript which she reputedly gave to Anne. Anne, although no author, would similarly come to rely on Henry’s protection with her choice of radical books.

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9 Responses to Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn

  1. […] Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn […]

  2. […] Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn | Harlots, Harpies and …Anne Boleyn is often portrayed as uniquely ambitious and self-determined in a time when women were expected to be obedient and dutiful. … […]

  3. […] In 1499, Claude of France was born. I wrote a bit about her here. […]

  4. […] challenging re-examinations and reinterpretations of some of the wives of Henry VIII, most notably Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. However, our picture (literally at times) of Anne of Cleves, short-live wife […]

  5. Brooklyn Hester says:

    Hello, I am doing a college project on Anne Boleyn and I cannot find one decent portrat of Anne as a child. Can you help me?!

    • Gillian says:

      Hi. I’m guessing you mean a painted portrait (as opposed to a written account). I’m afraid that if there were any paintings of the young Anne, they have not survived. We have very few likenesses of her. I suspect some were destroyed after her disgrace. The portraits of her which survive are mostly later copies of originals like this very famous one in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Eric Ives discusses likenesses of Anne in his book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn which you may find helpful. My guess would be that any pictures of her as a child would be much later (Victorian or later) and based on imagination rather than fact. We don’t even have portraits of her daughter Elizabeth as a child- she is thirteen in the earliest surviving painting.

      Hope this is helpful!

  6. jane says:

    Thanks a lot for your very interesting blog about Anne Boleyn and Marguerite of Navarre.

    I have been fond of books about her for long time.

    The latest one I have read is sold on Amazon. The ebook is entitled “Anne Boleyn’s Secret Love at the Court of Francis I”. It is translated from French into English by Alice Warwick from a book written in the XIXth century.

    In a few letters written by Anne Boleyn to her convent friend Anne Savage, you will learn about her early life as a maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor then to Queen Claude.

    The portrait of young and witty Anne Boleyn is passionate. I hope you will enjoy reading about her complete training in music and in the art of conversation at the sumptuous Court of King Francis I.

    http://www.amazon.com/Anne-Boleyns-Secret-Court-Francis-ebook/dp/B00JCJAM4O/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1396175818&sr=1-1

  7. […] at the Court of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria‘. Acesso em 30 de Março de 2014. ‘Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn‘. Acesso em 30 de Março de […]

  8. […] was well-educated, outspoken, grew up under some of the most independent women in Europe, and helped to light the fire that would change the course of religion in England and the world […]

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