Anne Boleyn’s youth: how her years on the continent made her a match for Henry VIII

Amy Licence explains how the future English queen’s youth in royal courts on the continent made her a Renaissance woman – but perhaps one for whom England wasn’t quite ready

Anne Boleyn, second wife and queen consort of Henry VIII

In May 1513, a young English girl stood on the deck of a ship cresting the waves of the English Channel. She may have been as old as 12, or as young as seven, but Anne Boleyn already understood that she had an important international role to play.

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As the daughter of a leading diplomat to the court of Henry VIII, her father Thomas Boleyn‘s connections had offered her an opportunity that was both thrilling and terrifying for one so young. She had left behind Hever Castle, her home set amid the rolling Kentish countryside, in favour of the perilous seas, and a new mistress and court in a distant land. As it happened, this would be the making of her.

It is often assumed that we know little about the years Anne spent in the courts of the Netherlands and France, between 1513 and 1521. Yet this is not entirely the case. Sources do exist that make it possible to follow her trail and understand the influences that contributed to her allure. Those eight long years coincided with the formative period of her adolescence and education: Anne left England as a child and returned as the polished, sophisticated europhile who captured the attention of Henry VIII. As a girl, Anne was plunged deep into the world of the Renaissance, which contemporary inventories, letters and accounts help reveal.

Marvels in Mechelen

Anne’s first destination was the court at Mechelen of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, a journey that could take several days, depending on tides and the weather. With her father, Thomas Boleyn, already across the Channel, a guardian was appointed to accompany his daughter. Claude Bouton, Seigneur de Corbaron, was then aged around 40, with a distinguished record of service to the Habsburgs, one of Europe’s principle ruling dynasties. Bouton had become Captain of the Guard and Master of the Household to Margaret’s brother Philip, then his son, Prince Charles.

Anne was in safe hands. Bouton’s years of service and status at the Burgundian court guaranteed his chivalric conduct: such a man would not have been entrusted with the task if there were any doubts about his character. Anne’s guardian was also a poet of considerable reputation and enlightenment, having composed his Éloge des Femmes (In Praise of Women). He is also cited as the possible author of the moral work Miroir des Dames et de Mademoiselles.

Arriving in Mechelen, Anne found a dazzling city being refashioned along Renaissance lines. Margaret’s newly built residence, known as the Hof van Savoye, was situated only a few streets to the west of the town centre. Its inner courtyard was a dazzling mix of patterned red brick, tall, narrow stepped gable-ends, and long windows. There were archways and steps, sloping roofs, colonnaded walks and flower beds. Improvements had been made as recently as 1507, giving Anne a taste of the latest in northern Renaissance architecture and interiors; it has been suggested that she was so impressed that she included some of its features when Whitehall Palace was being planned in the early 1530s.

Anne was in good company at Mechelen. She was educated alongside future royalty, as Margaret’s young Habsburg nephew and nieces – Prince Charles, grandson of the emperor, and his three sisters, Eleanor, Isabel and Mary – were all in residence. During her stay, Anne would have had access to Margaret’s extensive library. An inventory of its contents compiled in 1516 includes the beautiful illuminated manuscript of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berri, a number of Bibles, St Augustine’s The City of God, the Lives of the Saints and The Golden Legend, Froissart’s Chronicle, the lives of Titus Livius and Julius Caesar, Seneca’s Letters, Aristotle, Ovid, Boethius, Ptolemy, Alexander the Great, and many more.

Anne was certainly spoiled for choice when it came to reading matter. She would also have been unable to avoid Margaret’s imposing art collection, hung on the walls of the palace, representing figures from European royalty, the Bible, and history. Among them were Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ of 1434, Juan de Flandes’ ‘The Marriage Feast at Cana’ of 1501–04 and at least one work by Hieronymus Bosch. The walls of the Hof van Savoye were also adorned with tapestries depicting scenes from Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, based on the 1405 work celebrating 200 admirable women. This became a favourite of Anne’s, who possibly commissioned a set for herself – they are recorded as being in the collection of her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, in 1547.

The 'Arnolfini Portrait', painted by Jan van Eyck. It was one of many treasures that Anne would have had access to at the court of Margaret of Austria
The ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, painted by Jan van Eyck. It was one of many treasures that Anne would have had access to at the court of Margaret of Austria (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There were exotic items in Margaret’s household, too: portraits of men and women in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese dress and, among Margaret’s possessions, a tunic and pearls from India, a dead bird of paradise wrapped in taffeta, branches of coloured coral and tapestries from Turkey and Morocco. These influences, stemming from a formidable mentor, placed the young Anne firmly in the European humanist Renaissance, at a stage of her life when her opinions and tastes were being decisively formed.

Anne gained a perspective beyond the narrow focus of an island nation: specifically, while abroad, she developed a European picture, even a world picture, so far as the world was then known. Perhaps in a quiet moment she poured over Margaret’s mappa mundi, looking at all the different continents, including the newly discovered Americas.

Bound for France

After around 18 months in Mechelen, Anne was recalled to France due to the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Mary to Louis XII of France. Her own sister, Mary Boleyn, had been part of the bride’s entourage, but it appears that Anne arrived later, only experiencing a few short months in the new royal household prior to Louis’s death. While the Dowager Queen Mary and her sister Mary Boleyn returned to England, Anne entered the service of Claude, the new French queen, wife to the cultured and urbane Francis I.

Over the next six years, the young English woman came to understand the dynamic of a royal marriage that was based upon mutual respect, despite the obvious incompatibility between Francis and Claude. Anne saw behind the scenes in the queen’s bedroom, in terms of sexuality, bodily functions, illness, pregnancy and childbirth. She saw how Claude endured the presence of Francis’s many mistresses, and the upper hand she retained by bearing the king’s children. Anne learned that delivering an heir was the trump card in any royal marriage.

Claude’s primary residence was the Chateau of Blois, where the wall carvings featured her personal devices of the ermine, knotted rope, full Moon and the swan pierced by an arrow. When Anne arrived there for the first time, probably early in 1515, she would have found a fairytale castle of a style and scale she had never experienced before. While Margaret’s Burgundian court had echoed aspects of the northern Renaissance, it was still very much Low Countries in style, while the influence of Italian architecture had made its way into France in the late 15th and early 16th century. Over the coming years, Francis redesigned Blois further, introducing a grand central staircase inspired by the architecture of the Vatican in Rome, and laying out ornamental gardens. He brought the garden designer Pacello da Mercogliano to France from Italy to create the terraced formal gardens at both Blois and his own home, at Amboise.

On the walls at Blois, Anne saw painted and woven images presenting the anatomical, realistic and balanced ideal of the Renaissance, with their dark backgrounds and chiaroscuro (contrasts between light and dark) focus, often set indoors, with glimpses out through open doors and windows. Yet Queen Claude’s was a specific, female, maternal, representation of the Renaissance. One work she owned was Sebastiano del Piombo’s ‘Visitation’, depicting St Elizabeth visiting the pregnant Virgin Mary. Painted in 1518, it hung in Claude’s bedchamber, but it is not a romantic image: the weary set of Mary’s features bear a realism that would have been familiar to Claude through her own experiences, undergoing three pregnancies and severe ill-health by the age of 19.

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From left to right: French regent Anne de Beaujeu; and Catherine of Aragon. (Photos by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/DeAgostini/Imagno/Getty Images)

Anne may well have witnessed the delivery, in 1517, of the tiny prayer book commissioned by Claude, full of dazzling miniatures, so small it can be held in the palm of the hand, and a companion volume, a book of hours. Less than three inches tall and 2.5 inches wide, the prayer book’s diminutive size was a mark of its value; perhaps Anne had the opportunity to glimpse its jewel-like colours, depicting the Passion of Christ, or read the story of St Christopher and those of St Nicholas and St René, who were responsible for restoring dead children to life.

Pregnancy had delayed Claude’s coronation, but Anne finally got to witness the event in 1517. Seven sites of pageantry had been created in Paris, along Claude’s route. Francis had hired Pierre Gringore, the most famous Parisian poet, actor and playwright of his day, who had recently composed a mystery play about Louis XII, but was also known for his satires on the papacy. Claude was carried into Notre-Dame Cathedral in a litter draped with cloth of silver, clad head to toe in jewels. Under Notre-Dame’s gothic vaulting and great rose window, she was anointed and made her promises. Anne would then have accompanied her to the banquet held afterwards in her honour at the nearby Palais du Justice.

Lessons in queenship

One of the messages that Anne would have absorbed from the day’s proceedings was that blood mattered. Claude may have possessed the desirable qualities of being virtuous, chaste and good, but she was no match for Francis physically, culturally and intellectually. Yet none of this mattered in the face of her pedigree, as the pageantry and symbolism was designed to prove.

Claude’s personal qualities, even her very identity, were far less important than her ability to unify France. The women whom Francis entertained in private may have been beautiful and witty, but that alone did not qualify them for queenship. It would be a long journey, beginning a decade later, for Anne and Henry to overturn this status quo.

During her time at the French court, Anne is likely to have met the most important artist of her time: Leonardo da Vinci. Francis had invited the polymath into his service in 1515, housing him in the grounds of Amboise. One surviving sketch Leonardo made of the chateau shows the array of little roofs and walls in faded sepia. Anne may well have been resident in one of those rooms while the artist sat and drew, perhaps perched just inside one of the windows that were traced by the master’s pen.

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of the royal palace at Amboise (Photo by Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of the royal palace at Amboise (Photo by Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In Claude’s company, ushered through his secret passage by Francis, Anne is likely to have seen such works as the ‘Mona Lisa‘, and heard them spoken of by their creator. She may also have attended Leonardo’s funeral in 1519.

It is difficult to know exactly what effect the culture, ceremony and experience of northern Europe had upon Anne Boleyn, but there is no doubt that it did have an impact. The francophilia she later displayed, permeating her style, air, conversation and polish, leaves little doubt that her time on the continent was a defining period in her life. As the epitome of everything French and fashionable, Anne’s exposure to Renaissance culture gave her an exotic edge upon her return to England.

Anne returned to England in late 1521 or early 1522. The rest of her story is well known. She was a European Renaissance woman who dared to sit upon the English throne, at a time when English notions of queenship were limited and inflexible.

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Amy Licence is an author, journalist and historian. Her books include In Bed With the Tudors (Amberley, 2012)

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This content first appeared in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed