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.
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.
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).
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.
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.