Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn: the Tudor queen’s undying love for her mother
The Virgin Queen lionised her “dearest father” in public, despite a childhood in which she was made illegitimate and neglected by Henry VIII. Yet, writes Tracy Borman, examine what Elizabeth did – as opposed to what she said – and it’s evident that her sympathies lay with her mother, Anne Boleyn...
One of the oldest and most precious artefacts in the collection at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, is also among its smallest. It’s a tiny, exquisitely crafted ring, fashioned from mother-of-pearl and embossed with rubies and diamonds, which opens to reveal two portraits.
One depicts Elizabeth I; the other is thought to be of her mother, Anne Boleyn, the most famous – and controversial – of Henry VIII’s six wives. When closed, the two portraits almost touch, face to face, mother to daughter.
Elizabeth’s love of expensive and elaborate jewellery was well known, yet her most cherished possession was this comparatively simple piece, which she kept with her until the day she died. It is a poignant symbol of the private reverence with which she held her late mother throughout her long life.
Mother and daughter
Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I were two of the most famous women in British history, their stories as familiar as they are compelling. We all know of Henry VIII’s obsessive love for Anne, turning to bitter disappointment when she failed to give him a son, and her bloody death on the scaffold three years after being crowned queen.
And we recall Elizabeth’s turbulent path to the throne, followed by her long and glorious reign – a ‘Golden Age’ of overseas adventurers, Shakespeare and Spenser, royal favourites and the vanquishing of the Spanish Armada, all presided over by the self-styled Virgin Queen.
Elizabeth barely spoke of her mother, and it’s commonly assumed that she thought about her even less. This is quite understandable: Elizabeth was less than three years old when the Calais swordsman severed her mother’s head at the Tower of London on 19 May 1536. Even while Anne lived, Elizabeth had seen little of her, instead experiencing the traditional upbringing for a royal infant, established in a separate household far removed from her parents at court.
Elizabeth I: “dearest father”
By contrast, Elizabeth couldn’t say enough about Henry VIII. “She prides herself on her father and glories in him,” observed Giovanni Michiel, the Venetian ambassador to England during the reign of Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I. The many references that she made to her “dearest father”, and the way in which she tried to emulate his style of monarchy when she became queen, support this view.
The truth, though, is both more complex and more fascinating. Exploring Elizabeth’s actions both before and after she became queen reveals so much more than her words. From these, it becomes clear that she not only revered her mother but spent the rest of her long life – and reign – trying to rehabilitate Anne’s reputation.
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Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s relationship
Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in secret in January 1533, even though his marriage to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, had not yet been dissolved. There was good reason for his haste: Anne was already pregnant. She was crowned amid spectacular pomp and pageantry in June, and in August she and the court travelled to Greenwich Palace for the birth.
“The seventh day of September, being Sunday, between three and four of the clock after noon, the queen was delivered of a fair lady,” reported the chronicler Edward Hall. After all the turmoil through which the king had put his country in order to marry Anne, this was a humiliating disappointment.
On visiting his newborn daughter for the first time, Henry remarked that: “You and I are both young and, by God’s grace, boys will follow.” It was less an observation than a command. Anne was not an obviously maternal woman. Her forthright, ambitious and occasionally vicious nature was more suited to the political arena than the royal nursery. But Elizabeth’s birth seemed to change all of that.
Anne Boleyn, the mother
From the beginning, Anne lavished affection upon her newborn infant and could hardly bear to be apart from her. “Day and night she would not let this daughter of hers out of her sight,” observed a contemporary chronicler. “Whenever the queen came out in the royal palace where the canopy was, she had a cushion placed underneath for her child to sit upon.”
On visiting his newborn daughter Elizabeth for the first time, Henry VIII remarked that: 'You and I are both young and, by God’s grace, boys will follow'
As royal tradition dictated, though, at the age of just three months Elizabeth was established in her own household at Hatfield, 20 miles from the court in London. Thereafter, she seldom saw her mother. Although Anne visited when she could, court business demanded her presence – not to mention the pressing need to produce a male heir.
But the queen made sure that her daughter was surrounded by Boleyn relatives. She also sent regular gifts to Hatfield, such as made-to-measure satin caps and dresses. These gifts came to an abrupt end in May 1536.
In January that year, Anne had miscarried for the third time. Henry had long since tired of her, and had already lined up Jane Seymour as his third wife. It was down to his ruthlessly efficient chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to rid him of his second.
As the vultures at court circled, Anne busied herself with ordering pretty clothes for her infant daughter. These appear in a list of expenses that still survives in the National Archives, providing a poignant glimpse into the care Anne took over her daughter’s attire. Her last thoughts were of Elizabeth.
Anne’s last act for her daughter
Having been condemned on trumped-up charges of treason, adultery and incest, Anne gave a speech on the Tower scaffold. This feisty, outspoken queen might have been expected to rail against the injustice of her fate. Instead, she had nothing but praise for her estranged husband, and meekly accepted that she must die. This was all for her daughter, whom she hoped Henry would now look upon kindly.
She may also have had Elizabeth in mind when she added a plaintive plea: “If any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.” (In other words, if anyone subsequently looked into her actions, she hoped they would judge them fairly).
“Why governor, how hap it yesterday Lady Princess and today but Lady Elizabeth?” Anne’s daughter demanded of her governor, Sir John Shelton, shortly afterwards. Even at only two years and eight months old, this precocious young girl quickly realised that something was badly amiss.
Elizabeth I’s troubled youth
Her parents’ marriage had been annulled before Anne’s execution, so Elizabeth was now illegitimate as well as motherless. No longer a princess and heir to the throne, her household was drastically reduced, her father the king wanted nothing to do with her, and soon her Lady Mistress was begging Cromwell to order new clothes for the child, because she had outgrown all of those that her late mother had sent.
For the rest of her childhood, Elizabeth was neglected by her father, especially after the birth of his “precious jewel”, Edward, in 1537. Although she could have had few, if any, memories of her late mother, it was during those years that Elizabeth developed a fascination with Anne. While the rest of the kingdom remembered the king’s second wife as the “concubine” and “great whore”, Elizabeth grew to revere her mother’s memory.
Elizabeth was now illegitimate as well as motherless. No longer a princess and heir to the throne, her household was drastically reduced, her father the king wanted nothing to do with her
When, around 1545, Henry VIII commissioned a portrait of his family, the 11 or 12-year-old Elizabeth took the daring step of wearing her mother’s famous ‘A’ pendant when she sat for the artist. She knew that her father wanted no reminders of the woman whom he had condemned for adultery and treason, but her feelings for Anne were too strong to be ignored.
This small act of rebellion was one of the earliest illustrations that, when it came to her mother, Elizabeth’s actions spoke louder than her words.
Reigns of Edward VI and Mary I
During the brief reign of her half-brother, Edward, Elizabeth was able to give full expression to the Protestant beliefs that her mother had instilled in her. Anne had been a passionate advocate of religious reform and, just before her death, had appointed her chaplain, Matthew Parker, as her daughter’s spiritual guardian. (Elizabeth later made him her first archbishop of Canterbury.)
When her half-sister, Mary, came to the throne in 1553, though, Elizabeth’s faith plunged her into danger. She was suspected of involvement in a rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt the following year, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The psychological torment of being a prisoner in the same apartments as her mother was profound. Years later, she recalled that she had been so convinced that she would meet the same fate as Anne that she had asked if she, too, might be beheaded with a sword.
Thanks, in part, to a lack of evidence against her, she was released (albeit being placed under effective house arrest) on 19 May 1554, the anniversary of her mother’s execution.
Elizabeth I’s coronation
Elizabeth came to the throne upon Mary’s death four years later, in 1558. At last she could begin in earnest the work of rehabilitating her mother. But, given that her Catholic subjects viewed her as an illegitimate heretic, she still had to be discreet about it.
She chose not to have Anne’s remains moved from the Tower chapel to a more fitting place of royal burial, knowing that this would court controversy – literally, digging up a past that was best forgotten. Neither did she have the dissolution of her parents’ marriage overturned, or challenge her mother’s conviction.
When it came to her coronation, though, Elizabeth pulled out all the stops. This lavish spectacle was closely modelled on her mother’s, and Anne was very much in evidence throughout. One of the pageants lining the processional route was entitled ‘The uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York’. On each level were large statues of Elizabeth’s ancestors: Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on the lowest tier, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn on the middle, and Elizabeth seated in majesty at the top.
This was the first time in more than 20 years that Anne had been publicly – and positively – represented. Her falcon badge was proudly displayed throughout the procession, too, and Elizabeth decorated her palaces and possessions with the same emblem.
Five objects that embody the bonds between Elizabeth I and her ill-fated mother...
1. The “triumphant” bed
Among the largest items that Elizabeth inherited from Anne Boleyn was “the rich bed of estate” in which Anne gave birth to her, described as “one of the richest and most triumphant beds”. It was said to have formed part of the ransom of the Duke of Alençon following his capture by the English at the battle of Verneuil in 1424, and was possibly a nod to Anne’s time at the French court during her youth. Elizabeth later showed off the bed to one of her suitors, the Duke of Anjou and Alençon, and quipped that he might recognise it.
2. Anne’s falcon
The falcon was Anne’s most famous emblem, and Elizabeth used it to decorate many of her palaces and possessions. Although Henry VIII destroyed most of the falcons made during Anne’s lifetime, one of them recently turned up at auction. Carved from oak and beautifully gilded, the crowned falcon rests on a bed of Tudor roses. It was one of 150 commissioned by Henry to decorate Hampton Court, and is a rare survivor of Anne’s queenship.
3. A Book of Hours
Elizabeth inherited a large number of books from her mother. The oldest is an exquisitely illuminated Book of Hours from the mid-15th century. Anne inscribed it: “Le temps viendra/je Anne Boleyn” (“The time will come/I Anne Boleyn”). Between the words “je” and “Anne” she inserted a small drawing of an armillary sphere – a model of objects in the sky used as an emblem by both Anne and her daughter.
4. A gilt cup
A beautiful silver-gilt cup with the Boleyn falcon sitting proudly on top was made for Anne in 1535. After her death it passed to her daughter, who later gifted it to her physician, Richard Master, who had served her from the beginning of her reign. In 1563, Master gave it to St John the Baptist Parish Church in Cirencester, where it is still on display.
5. The Chequers ring
The most famous of Elizabeth’s keepsakes of her mother is embossed with rubies and diamonds, and opens to reveal two portraits. One is of Elizabeth I; the other depicts a woman widely thought to be Anne Boleyn. The ring is one of the few surviving pieces of jewellery known to have been worn by Elizabeth.
Boleyns in the private household
The new queen also found more practical ways to honour her late mother. In appointing the men and women who would serve her, she prioritised her Boleyn relatives.
This was particularly apparent in her private household, where almost all of the most prized positions went to her maternal relatives and supporters. The Careys, descendants of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, were especially prominent. Foremost among them was Lady Katherine Knollys. Katherine was the daughter of Mary Boleyn – and was, therefore, Elizabeth’s first cousin.
In appointing the men and women who would serve her, she prioritised her Boleyn relatives. This was particularly apparent in her private household, where almost all of the most prized positions went to her maternal relatives and supporters
But it was rumoured that Katherine was the result of a relationship between Mary and Elizabeth’s father, Henry – which would have made the two women half-sisters. One contemporary claimed that the new queen “loved Lady Knollys above all other women in the world”.
Katherine and her family certainly reaped the rewards of their royal connection. Her husband, Sir Francis, was admitted to the privy council and appointed vice-chamberlain of the household, as well as captain of the halberdiers. Her daughter, Lettice – who may have been among Elizabeth’s household at Hatfield for a time – also secured a place in the privy chamber.
Whenever one of Elizabeth’s Boleyn relatives died in service, she replaced them with their sons or daughters, so she was surrounded by Boleyns throughout her 44-year reign. She also favoured those families who had supported her late mother.
Sir Henry Norris, son of the courtier of the same name who had been condemned for adultery with Anne and who had defended her on the scaffold, enjoyed a host of prestigious honours and promotions. He was created Baron Norris of Rycote and made English ambassador to France.
His wife, Margery, became one of the queen’s closest companions; Elizabeth gave her the affectionate nickname ‘Crow’, because of her dark complexion. Elizabeth made it clear that the Norrises enjoyed her favour as a direct result of their connection to her mother. She told Sir Henry Norris that his father had “died in a noble cause and in justification of her mother’s innocence”.
Troubles with Henry’s side of the family
By contrast, Elizabeth showed no mercy towards her paternal relatives. She twice confined to the Tower her cousin Lady Margaret Douglas (daughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister Margaret) for scheming to align her family more closely with the throne. This included secretly arranging for her elder son, Henry, Lord Darnley, to marry Elizabeth’s most deadly rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Elizabeth’s treatment of Katherine and Mary Grey, granddaughters of Henry’s younger sister Mary, was even more harsh: imprisoned for marrying without the queen’s permission, they died miserable and alone. And, of course, she had Mary, Queen of Scots, granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, beheaded in 1587.
“I will have but one mistress here, and no master!”
As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, she became ever more her mother’s daughter. Even during her sister Mary’s reign, the Spanish ambassador had remarked that Elizabeth had “many characteristics in which she resembled her mother”.
Sir Robert Naunton, who wrote an account of notables at Elizabeth’s court, believed that the queen had inherited all her best traits from Anne. “Her mother was… as the French word hath it, more debonaire, and affable, virtues which might well suit with majesty and which descending as hereditary to the daughter did render her of a more sweet temper… the atrocity of her father’s nature being allayed in hers by her mother’s sweet inclination.”
Like Anne, Elizabeth did not conform to the social conventions that made women subordinate to men in almost every aspect of their lives. Instead, she was determined to command her own destiny, famously declaring: “I will have but one mistress here, and no master!”
It might be stretching the point to claim that Elizabeth chose to be a Virgin Queen because she had been psychologically damaged by her mother’s execution on the orders of her father, but Anne’s tragic fate had certainly made her alive to the dangers inherent in royal marriage.
Elizabeth’s devotion to her late mother endured to the end of her own life. In January 1603, she moved to Richmond Palace, her “warm box”, to which she could “best trust her sickly old age”. As she had throughout her life, Elizabeth kept her maternal kin close. Among them was Philadelphia Scrope, daughter of Mary Boleyn’s son, Henry Carey.
On 24 March 1603, between two and three o’clock in the morning, Elizabeth “departed this life, mildly, like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree”.
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According to tradition, Lady Scrope opened the window of the bedchamber and dropped a sapphire ring to her brother, Robert Carey, who was waiting below. The ring had been given to her by King James VI of Scotland, who had instructed her to send it to him as a sign that the Tudor queen was dead and that he was the first Stuart king of England (as James I).
Elizabeth’s story had started with the Boleyns, and it ended with them, too. The Boleyn coat of arms was proudly displayed throughout Elizabeth’s funeral procession on 28 April. Later, Anne’s falcon badge was added to her daughter’s magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey.
To the very end, Elizabeth had honoured her mother’s scaffold plea to “meddle” in her cause – and, as always, had “judged the best”.
You can listen to Tracy Borman discuss the relationship between Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn on the HistoryExtra podcast.
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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