Five hundred years ago, Anne Boleyn returned from France to her native England, and to the court of King Henry VIII. She was no longer the innocent teenager who had been sent to the continent by her ambitious father, she was now a confident and accomplished young woman, and soon to be in the service of the queen, Catherine of Aragon. Her years in France had changed Anne, not least because of the influence French royal women had on her.
To begin with, when Anne arrived in France at the end of 1514, she was not taken to the court of François I – who ascended the throne on January 1, 1515 – but to that of his predecessor, Louis XII. He had been married to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and Anne was part of his household as lady-in-waiting. But when Louis died unexpectedly, Mary returned to England with her lover, leaving Anne’s position in France uncertain as a new dynasty began under Francis I of House Valois-Angoulême.
The new king had married Louis’ daughter, Claude de France, a fragile princess of only 14 years old when they formalized their union in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She had become Duchess of Brittany shortly before when her mother died, and the marriage ensured that the duchy would remain independent while being a close ally of France; for 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 Navarre – influenced Anne Boleyn’s perception of royalty as a whole. Undoubtedly, they all helped shape his attitude towards the Queen. At the court of François, remarked Marshal Gaspard de Saulx-Tavannes, “women were everything, even generals and captains”, which went hand in hand with the king’s adage that “a court without women is like a year without spring.
But who were these women who quietly ran the show, and what were the lessons they directly or indirectly taught an impressionable and enthusiastic 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 daughters born to Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who survived to infancy, out of at least 14 pregnancies. Her sister, Renée, was only a child when she met Anne Boleyn, but Anne is thought to have grown fond of her, which led to a friendship with Claude herself.
Claude was not known for her beauty, being short in stature and suffering from scoliosis which gave her a hunched back. However, this does not prevent a columnist from remembering her as a “pearl of a woman”.
She gave birth to seven children – four of whom reached adulthood, including the future Henry II. Claude was the perfect example of humility, and Anne certainly learned to use humility to her advantage, especially when it came to pleasing men and obeying to get what she wanted.
Louise of Savoy: the strategic queen
Louise’s level of devotion to her son was admirable: she was “an exemplary guardian of Francis’ interests”, according to historian Katherine Wellman. She was always found by his side and continued to act as a major political adviser. In many ways, she was the most devoted and perfect mother a prince could hope for.
Yet she was driven not just by her son’s well-being, but had a personal ambition to wield power. His own life and upbringing are far from idyllic. Born in 1476 into a noble family, which, although linked 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 d’Angoulême.
Living with Charles also meant living with his longtime mistress, but the marriage produced two children: Marguerite in 1492 and François two years later. With this, Louise’s whole life found a new purpose – the upbringing, protection and upbringing of her children.
It was once Francis became king that his true desire for political power was revealed. Louise established herself as a court politician, twice serving as regent. She helped negotiate Francis’s release from captivity after he was captured by the enemy while campaigning in Spain, and took the lead with the Treaty of Cambrai, the so-called ‘ladies’ peace’ which ended the war between France and the Holy Roman Empire.
Throughout, Louise was unwavering in her devotion and motherly love for her son. This was reportedly noticed by Anne Boleyn, who in turn showed the same signs of love to her own child, Elizabeth.
Marguerite de Navarre: the learned queen
The French woman who probably had the greatest influence on Anne Boleyn was Marguerite. The poet Clément Marot describes her as having “a woman’s body, a man’s heart and an angel’s head”. In other words, she was the archetypal Renaissance princess.
Born on April 11, 1492, Marguerite grew up in the shadow of her brother François – with whom she maintained a close relationship despite many differences, including religion – and her mother. But taking that backseat actually allowed her to enjoy greater personal freedoms and pursue her own interests: writing, reading, and learning as much as she could.
For Anne Boleyn, she was a shining example of a woman exemplifying the importance of being properly educated, and not just in areas deemed appropriate to their gender, 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 on her second marriage, to Henry II of Navarre in 1526. Later in life she established 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. If Anne was not present at 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 subjects. Such discussions sparked Anne’s interest in humanism.
A sign of this influence was the work of Marguerite Mirror of the Sinful Soul (Mirror of the Sinful Soul), which some historians believe they found in Anne’s personal library. The poem was then given to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, who translated it and gave it as a gift to her mother-in-law, Catherine Parr.
Marguerite, Louise and Claude may have been very different from each other, 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 him during his seven years in France. A combination of their styles – modest, strategic and scholarly – undoubtedly helped to create her own style of queen seen during her time as the second wife of Henry VIII.
Estelle Paranque is a historian in royal, royal and diplomatic studies, and assistant professor of modern and public history at the New College of the Humanities at Northeastern. His next book is Blood, Fire and Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de’ Medici (Ebury, 2022)