The Palace of Mechelen, Belgium
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Mechelen was the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands or the Low Countries (roughly present day Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg). The Palace of Mechelen was built as a residence for Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and in the summer of 1513 it became the home of Anne Boleyn.
The 12-year-old English girl was sent to the Habsburg court in Mechelen as one of 18 maids of honour – a position vied for among the elite of Europe, and secured by Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, during his first diplomatic posting in 1512.
At Mechelen, alongside Europe’s future rulers, Anne learnt to speak and write French, and was educated about the culture of a Renaissance court. She participated in dancing, hunting, tournaments and festivities, all the while surrounded by the greatest philosophers, artists, poets and musicians of the time.
Under the watchful eye of the meticulous regent, Margaret, the future Queen Anne developed her taste in art, music and books, as well as her sense of aesthetics and style – traits that would later set her apart from her English counterparts.
Anne proved herself a fast learner – she quickly mastered the strict rules and conventions of the game of courtly love, and excelled in deportment and conversation.
At the impressionable age of 12, Anne was heavily influenced by Margaret and her court. Both had a profound influence on the woman Anne was becoming, and on the queen she would one day be.
Hotel de Cluny, Paris
In 1514, shifting political alliances meant that Anne Boleyn was recalled from the Habsburg court and placed as a lady in waiting to the new queen consort of France, 18-year-old Mary Tudor. Presumably, Anne’s command of the French language and her familiarity with the culture were seen as valuable assets.
The 52-year-old King Louis XII died on 1 January 1515 after only a few months of marriage. His successor was his 20-year-old cousin and son-in-law, Francis.
In the weeks following the death of Louis, the new French king kept a close eye on Mary Tudor, eager to learn whether or not she was pregnant with an heir to the throne. He sent her to the Hotel de Cluny to spend six weeks in seclusion.
Anne accompanied her mistress during part of her stay, and may have witnessed the arrival of Charles Brandon, whom Henry VIII had sent to France to negotiate with Francis I for Mary’s return. But before long, Brandon, who it seems harboured a secret love for Mary, as she did for him, found himself married to Henry’s sister!
Mary’s attendants, including Anne, watched as these dramatic events unfolded, as Henry’s wilful sister married beneath her, for love, and how after much grovelling – and a few bribes – Henry welcomed the pair back to England with open arms.
As expected, Brandon’s rivals condemned the match, and there was talk among Mary’s ladies of her flagrant violation of royal wedding etiquette. This, and Anne’s knowledge of an earlier scandal involving Charles Brandon and Margaret of Austria, appears to be the root of Mary Tudor’s dislike of Anne in later life.
Chateau de Amboise, France
Anne Boleyn entered the household of Francis I’s wife, the 15–year-old Queen Claude, after Mary Tudor and the Duke of Suffolk returned to England in April 1515. She would stay with Claude for nearly seven years, largely at the royal palaces in the picturesque Loire Valley, attending the queen during her almost annual pregnancies.
At Amboise, perched on a promontory overlooking the Loire River, Anne continued to refine the skills she’d acquired at Mechelen, and immersed herself in all that a sophisticated Renaissance court had to offer.
She met visionaries like Leonardo da Vinci, who lived at Cloux, just outside of Amboise, and was exposed to the thinking of French reformist writers like Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples and Clément Marot, who would inspire Anne’s interest in religious reform. It’s also during her time by Claude’s side that Anne acquired a taste for illuminated manuscripts decorated in the Renaissance style, the likes of which, as queen, she would later own.
Chateau de Blois, France
Blois was the childhood home of Francis I’s wife, Claude, and a favourite residence of the queen. Its proximity to the Chateaux de Romorantin and Chambord, both owned by Claude’s mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy, meant that the court occasionally lodged there as her guests. This exposed Anne to another powerful female role model.
In 1515, Francis I embarked on a refurbishment program at Blois and began the construction of a new wing in the Renaissance style. It’s likely that Anne saw the wing under construction, and admired the vibrant and opulent interiors that would later characterise her own royal apartments at palaces like Greenwich. Furthermore, Anne played an active role in many of her future husband’s building projects, likely drawing inspiration from her time in France.
By the time Anne left for England in around 1521, Claude had given birth to five children, two of which were boys, with a sixth child (Charles) on his way. This would have served as a powerful reminder for Anne that a queen’s primary role was to bear sons.
However, there were other valuable lessons to be learnt in France: Anne was a witness to Claude’s unhappy marriage and philandering husband. One can only speculate as to what effect this had on Anne’s own views about love and marriage, but one thing is for certain – the elegant and accomplished young woman who returned home from France in 1521 was no man’s pawn. The court poet Lancelot de Carles observed: “She became so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a Frenchwoman born.”
The Royal Chateau de Blois, Loir-et-Cher, France. © Travel Pictures / Alamy
Palace of Beaulieu (New Hall), Essex
In the summer of 1527, Henry VIII stayed a month at the Palace of Beaulieu, surrounded by his closest friends and relations, including Anne’s father and uncle. On this occasion, there was one notable absence – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He was away on embassy in France and would return to find that his power – and favour – had greatly diminished, and that Lady Anne Boleyn was a force to be reckoned with.
Henry spent much time behind closed doors with Anne’s father (then known as Lord Rochford); Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, Henry’s boon companion; Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk; and his favoured cousin, Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter. All would prove themselves Wolsey’s adversaries and, for the most part, support Henry’s bid to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
It’s difficult not to see Anne as being part of these discussions, or, at the very least, present during them. If we believe George Cavendish’s writing in the 16th century, Wolsey’s enemies had joined forces and engineered his absence from court so that they might have “convenient leisure and opportunity” to turn the king against his cardinal, and he names Anne as their “chief mistress”.
This gathering would prove to be climactic for Anne – and for England. By the end of the year, her relationship with the king would no longer be a secret, and she would become Henry’s acknowledged ‘consort-in-waiting’.
In June 1532, Henry VIII bestowed upon his future wife, Anne Boleyn, the manor of Hanworth in Middlesex. Located close to Hampton Court Palace, the moated manor house, surrounded by fine parks and gardens, had been extensively embellished and refurbished for Anne’s use.
In this luxurious residence, dressed in the latest Renaissance fashion, Anne hosted a dinner for Henry in September 1532, to which she invited the French ambassador, Giles de la Pommeraie. Anne must have been feeling euphoric, as she’d only recently been elevated to the title of Marquess of Pembroke – an honour never before held by a woman, and one that came with lands worth £1,000 per year.
Soon she would travel to Calais to meet Francis I, as Henry’s intended wife. Her future looked as bright and shiny as the jewels (recently stripped from her predecessor) adorning her sumptuous gown.
While Anne, Henry and the ambassador dined, carpenters at the Tower of London were busy adding a new roof and floor to the Queen’s Great Chamber, and making repairs to the dining chamber and a bridge in the Queen’s Garden, all in preparation for Anne’s forthcoming coronation.
Royal Palace of Hatfield, Hertfordshire
A short distance from the present Jacobean Hatfield House in Hertfordshire once stood the royal palace of Hatfield, where Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, was sent to live in December 1533 when she was just three months old. It was the little princess’s own private household, managed by a staff of nurses, courtiers and tutors.
As one household rose, another fell. At this time, Elizabeth’s now-illegitimate half-sister’s household was dissolved, and Lady Mary was forced to join her infant sister at Hatfield.
In the spring of 1534, Queen Anne made the 20-mile journey from London to visit her beloved daughter. It’s easy to imagine how her joy at seeing Elizabeth again must have been marred by the obvious tension that existed between Lady Mary and her ‘step-mother’.
During the visit, Anne extended a hand of friendship to Mary, promising to welcome her and reconcile her with her father if she would only accept her as queen. Mary’s response caused outrage, as she stated that she knew no queen but her mother (Catherine of Aragon), but would be grateful if ‘madame Anne de Bolans’ would intercede with her father on her behalf.
Regardless of the rebuke, Anne attempted once more to be gracious, but Mary remained unmoved. In the end the queen departed Hatfield vowing to “bring down the pride of this unbridled Spanish blood.”
Natalie Grueninger is editor of On the Tudor Trail, a website about Anne Boleyn and life in Tudor England. She is also co-author of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn (Amberley, 2013), a comprehensive guide to the palaces, castles and houses associated with Henry VIII’s second wife. The paperback edition is due to be released on 15 April 2015. Click here to find out more.