History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

The three French queens who inspired Anne Boleyn

Sent to France for seven years as a teenager, Anne Boleyn grew into the woman that would catch Henry VIII’s eye and become his queen. Her role models and influences at the French court included the wife, mother and sister of the king, three very different women each with different life lessons, as Estelle Paranque explores…

A portrait of Anne Boleyn
Published: March 3, 2022 at 9:25 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Five hundred years ago, Anne Boleyn returned from France to her homeland of England, and the court of King Henry VIII. No longer the innocent teenager who had been dispatched to the continent by her ambitious father, she was now a confident, accomplished young woman, and shortly to be in the service of the queen, Catherine of Aragon. Her years in France had changed Anne, not least due to the influence that the French royal women had on her.

Advertisement

For a start, when Anne had arrived in France in late 1514, she was not taken to the court of Francis I – who ascended the throne on 1 January 1515 – but to his predecessor’s, Louis XII. He had been married to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and Anne was part of her household as a lady-in-waiting. But when Louis had unexpectedly died, Mary had gone back to England with her lover, leaving Anne’s position in France uncertain as a new dynasty began under Francis I of the House Valois-Angoulême.

The new king had married Louis’ daughter, Claude of France, a fragile princess of only 14 when they made their union official at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She had become Duchess of Brittany shortly before on the death of her mother, and the marriage ensured that the duchy would remain independent while still being a close ally to France; to some, almost an annex territory.

Yet, even though Claude became queen when Francis took the crown, she was overshadowed by two other women in her husband’s life: his mother Louise of Savoy, and his sister Marguerite of Angoulême.

These three women, who all bore the title of queen – that of France or of Navarre – influenced Anne Boleyn’s perception of royalty as a whole. Undoubtedly, they all had a hand in shaping her attitude to queenship. At Francis’s court, remarked Marshall Gaspard de Saulx-Tavannes, “women were everything, even generals and captains,” which went along with the king’s own adage that “a court without women is like a year without spring”.

But who were these women quietly running the show, and what were the lessons that they directly or indirectly taught an impressionable and eager Anne Boleyn?

Claude of France: the humble queen 

Born in 1499 as the eldest daughter of Louis XII of France, Claude was one of only two girls born to Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who survived to childhood, out of at least 14 pregnancies. Her sister, Renée, was only a child when she met Anne Boleyn, but it is believed that Anne became fond of her, and so that led to a friendship with Claude herself.

Claude was not known for her beauty, being short in stature and suffering from scoliosis that gave her a hunched back. This did not, however, prevent her from being remembered, by one chronicler, as a “pearl of a woman”.

A depiction of Claude of France
A depiction of Claude of France, eldest daughter of Louis XII of France. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

She gave birth to seven children – four of whom reached adulthood, including the future Henry II. Claude was the perfect example of humility, and from her Anne certainly learned how to use humility to her own advantage, especially when it came to pleasing men and showing obedience in order to obtain what she desired.

Louise of Savoy: the strategic queen

Louise’s level of devotion to her son was admirable: she was “an exemplary guardian of Francis’s interest”, according to historian Katherine Wellman. She was always found by his side and went on to play the role of a major political advisor. In many ways, she was the most devoted and perfect mother that a prince could hope for.

Yet she was driven not solely by the wellbeing of her son, but had personal ambition of wielding power. Her own life and upbringing and been far from idyllic. Born in 1476 into a noble family, which, although related to the royal line, had no real prestige or money, she was forced to marry at 11 years old. Her husband, a man 17 years her senior, was Charles of Angoulême.

Louise of Savoy
Louise of Savoy, a strategic queen who had great influence on Anne Boleyn while the future queen of England lived in France. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Living with Charles also meant living with his long-term mistress, but the marriage did lead to the births of two children: Marguerite in 1492 and Francis two years later. With that, Louise’s whole life found a new purpose – the education, protection and upbringing of her children.

It was once Francis became king that her true desire for political power was revealed. Louise asserted herself as a politician at court, twice serving as regent. She helped negotiate Francis’s release from captivity after he was taken by the enemy during a campaign in Spain, and took the lead with the Treaty of Cambrai, the so-called ‘Ladies’ Peace’ that ended war between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

All the while, Louise was unwavering in her devotion and maternal love to her son. This would have been noticed by Anne Boleyn, who, in turn, showed the same signs of love to her own child, Elizabeth.

Marguerite of Navarre: the erudite queen

The French woman who probably had the greatest influence on Anne Boleyn was Marguerite. The poet Clément Marot described her as having “the body of a woman, the heart of a man, and the head of an angel”. In other words, she was the archetypal Renaissance princess.

Born on 11 April 1492, Marguerite grew up in the shadow of her brother, Francis – with whom she had a close relationship despite many differences, most notably regarding religion – and mother. But taking this backseat actually allowed her to enjoy greater personal freedoms and develop her own interests: writing, reading and learning as much as she could.

A depiction of Louise of Savoy and Marguerite de Valois
A depiction of Louise of Savoy and Marguerite de Valois. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

For Anne Boleyn, she was a shining example of a woman illustrating the importance of being properly educated, and not just in the fields deemed appropriate for their sex, such as music and embroidery. Marguerite was a true champion of humanist and reformist ideas, and a generous patron of the arts.

She became queen of Navarre upon her second marriage, to Henry II of Navarre in 1526. Later in life, she created a literary circle for women to discuss philosophy, literature and religion, and gave her royal protection to artists, scholars and those seeking reform in the church. While Anne was not present for the meetings of Marguerite’s literary circle, there is no doubt that the future queen of Navarre had influenced the teenager by showing her interest in these topics. Such discussions sparked Anne’s own interest in humanism.

A token of this influence was Marguerite’s work Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul), which some historians believed it was found in Anne’s personal library. The poem was later given to Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, who translated it and offered it as a gift to her step-mother, Catherine Parr.

Marguerite, Louise and Claude may have been very different from one another, but they all rose to the top of the French court and established themselves on their own achievements, which inspired a young Anne Boleyn. They all had different life lessons to teach her during her seven years in France. A combination of their styles – modest, strategic and erudite – unquestionably helped create her own style of queenship seen during her time as Henry VIII’s second wife.

Advertisement

Estelle Paranque is a historian in queenship, royal and diplomatic studies, and assistant professor in early modern and public history at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern. Her upcoming book is Blood, Fire and Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici (Ebury, 2022)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content