Inner Courtyard of Margaret of Austria's palace at Mechelen
Inner Courtyard of Margaret of Austria’s palace at Mechelen

We don’t know anything about Anne Boleyn’s first few years. She wasn’t a royal princess so her early childhood and education are not documented in any way, but we know from the woman and queen that she became that her humanist father ensured she had the best education a Tudor girl could hope for. Anne could “sing and dance well”, she played the lute and other instruments,1 she spoke fluent French, she loved art and music, she appreciated the beauty of illuminated manuscripts, she had a keen interest in theology, she took an active role in Henry VIII’s annulment proceedings and in Henry’s building projects, and she was an intelligent and driven woman.

Frustratingly, we don’t even know when or where Anne was born – see Anne Boleyn’s Background and Birth – but it was somewhere between 1501 and 1507. The family moved from Norfolk to Hever Castle in Kent in 1505 and Anne would have been educated there, at home. It appears that Thomas Boleyn shared Thomas More’s views that daughters should be educated in the same way as sons, proper “learning” rather than focusing on virtue and domestic skills, so Anne, and her sister Mary, may well have been educated alongside George and had a tutor.2 George could speak Latin and Italian, as well as French, so perhaps Anne had some grounding in those languages too.

We don’t know what opportunities Mary Boleyn was given, but Anne Boleyn was able to spend her formative years on the continent. Thomas Boleyn had been sent to the court of Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries in 1512 to act as an envoy to her father Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and to conclude an alliance between England and the Empire against France. Thomas became so friendly with Margaret that they had a wager on how long the negotiations would take and he also secured a place for Anne at Margaret’s court. A place in Margaret’s court was highly sought after by royal and noble families in Europe, and this was an amazing opportunity for the young Anne Boleyn, who was dispatched to the Low Countries in the summer of 1513.

Belgian historian, Ghislain de Boom, described Margaret’s palace at Mechelen (or Malines in French) as “un école d’éducation princière et un centre de haute civilisation” (“a princely school and a centre of high culture/advanced civilisation”), and so it was.3 Her court was visited by the likes of Erasmus, and other well-known Humanists, and was known for its superb library which contained poetry, missals, historical work and work by authors such as Christine de Pizan, who was known for challenging mysogyny and the stereotypical views of women, as well as the works of Boccaccio, Aesop, Ovid,Boethius and Aristotle. Margaret was a patron of the arts and her court was also known for Margaret’s collections of paintings by masters such as Jan van Eyck, illuminated manuscripts and music books. She surrounded herself with men of letters, poets and painters. Margaret also enjoyed the tradition of courtly love, which was “an integral element in chivalry, the complex of attitudes and institutions which was central to the life of the Tudor court and elite”.4

Margaret assigned Anne a tutor named Symonnet to help her improve her French and Anne would also have learned many other skills, such as deportment, conversation, dance and music. Hugh Paget quotes Jane de Longh (author of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands), as saying of Margaret’s court, “The nobles and ladies of her court reflected the influence of the taste and preferences of their mistress. They made music, wrote poetry, composed and recited at this little court in the quiet and seclusion of Malines.”5

Anne Boleyn’s love of fine art, music, poetry and illuminated manuscripts obviously had its beginning at Margaret’s court. Margaret had many examples of the new style of Flemish illumination, as well as older masterpieces, she had a vast collection of chanson, masses and motets by composers who Anne was later known to have loved, and her palace was also full of colourful tapestries and beautiful fabric. Eric Ives writes of how “in later life Anne was excited by fabric and colour”, a love sure to have started in the Netherlands.6 When she was queen, Anne was the patron of artist Hans Holbein the Younger, just as Margaret was patron to top artists on the continent. Margaret’s palace at Mechelen also affected Anne Boleyn’s taste in architecture. Whitehall Palace, the palace that Anne and Henry rebuilt, was a recreation of what Anne had seen in Mechelen.7

Anne Boleyn’s time at Margaret of Austria’s court had a number of “important consequences”:

  • It was the foundation of her knowledge in French and “other courtly accomplishments” which is why she came to be picked by Mary Tudor in 1514 to serve her.
  • The skills she learned in Mechelen, which were then developed in France, probably made her “a not unworthy consort” for Henry VIII.
  • Her time in Mechelen may have had an effect on the development of music and art in England. The Flemish style of music became popular and Hugh Paget points out that the Boleyns were patrons of Gerard and Lucas Hornebolt, “to whom we are indebted for the founding of the art of the miniature portrait in this country.”

It is clear that this climate of culture rubbed off on Anne Boleyn and it is no wonder that Henry VIII saw Anne as a fitting queen consort and mother of his children. She had been educated with princes and princesses, she had style and culture, she was highly intelligent and she could talk to him on his level and discuss the things he loved. She was a Renaissance woman and he saw himself as a Renaissance prince.

Evidence for Anne going to Mechelen

It has been suggested that Anne Boleyn didn’t actually go to Margaret of Austria’s court, but there is plenty of primary source evidence to provde that she did.

The first piece of evidence is an extract from Margaret of Austria’s letter to Thomas Boleyn in which she thanks him for entrusting her with his daughter:

“J’ai reçeu vostre lettre par l’escuyer Bouton qui m’a présenté vostre fille que m’a esté la très bien-venue, et espère la traicter de sorte que aurez cause vous en contenter; du moings tiens que à vostre retour ne fauldra aultre truchement entre vous et moi que elle; et la treuvc si bien adressée et si plaisante suivant son josne eaige, que je suis plus tenu à vous de la m’avoir envoyée que vous à moi.”8

Translation from Eric Ives’ “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”:

“I have received your letter by the Esquire [Claude] Bouton who has presented your daughter to me, who is very welcome, and I am confident of being able to deal with her in a way which will give you satisfaction, so that on your return the two of us will need no intermediary other than she. I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.”9

This extract appears in the note section of Correspondance de l’empereur Maximilien Ier et de Marguerite d’Autriche, sa fille, Gouvernante de Pays-Bas, de 1507 à 1519, Tome Second and is an extract from a letter written by Margaret of Austria to Thomas Boleyn. It quite clearly mentions “votre fille” (“your daughter”). Although, as Hugh Paget points out, the full letter is now not traceable in the Lille Archives, the editor of the 1839 edition of Correspondance de l’empereur Maximilien Ier et de Marguerite d’Autriche, sa fille, Gouvernante de Pays-Bas, de 1507 à 1519 quite clearly refers to the extract being part of a letter from Margaret to Thomas Boleyn. He does not cast any doubt on who the letter was written to, so the original letter must have been clearly marked and obvious from the rest of the content that it was from Margaret to Thomas.

The editor of Correspondance de l’empereur Maximilien Ier… refers to Anne Boleyn’s name being mentioned in a list of eighteen “filles d’honneur” who served Margaret. The reference given is Chronique métrique de Chastellain et de Molinet: avec des notices sur ces auteurs et des remarques sur le texte corrigé and the name “Bullan” does appear on this list, although there is no first name given:

“Aultre plat pour les filles d’honneur et aultres femmes ordonnés par Madame de manger avec elles que sont XVIII, assavoir:-
Mesdames de Verneul, Waldich, Reynenebourg, Bréderode, d’Aultroy, Hallewyn, Rosimbos, Longueval, Bullan, les II filles Neufville, Saillant, Middelbourg, Cerf, Barbe Lallemand et la mère.”10

Another piece of evidence to support the theory that Anne Boleyn was sent to Margaret’s court is Anne’s letter to her father. The original French can be read in the appendix of Philip W. Sergeant’s The Life of Anne Boleyn11 and also viewed at, but here is Sergeant’s translation:

“Sir, – I understand by your letter that you desire that I shall be a worthy woman when I come to the Court and you inform me that the Queen will take the trouble to converse with me, which rejoices me much to think of talking with a person so wise and worthy. This will make me have greater desire to continue to speak French well and also spell, especially because you have so enjoined it on me, and with my own hand I inform you that I will observe it the best I can. Sir, I beg you to excuse me if my letter is badly written, for I assure you that the orthography is from my own understanding alone, while the others were only written by my hand, and Semmonet tells me the letter but waits so that I may do it myself, for fear that it shall not be known unless I acquaint you, and I pray you that the light of [?] may not be allowed to drive away the will which you say you have to help me, for it seems to me that you are sure [??] you can, if you please, make me a declaration of your word, and concerning me be certain that there shall be neither [??] nor ingratitude which might check or efface my affection, which is determined to [?] as much unless it shall please you to order me, and I promise you that my love is based on such great strength that it will never grow less, and I will make an end to my [?] after having commended myself right humbly to your good grace.

Written at [?Veure] by

Your very humble and very obedient daughter,

Anna de Boullan.”

There have been various theories as to where Anne was writing the letter from, with some arguing that the word “Veure” was actually Hever, or that it meant the fifth hour (5 o’clock), but Hugh Paget argued that it was “the French version of the name of the royal park at Brussels”, the place where Margaret of Austria visited during the summer months. Margaret’s father Maximilian I signed various letters from “au Château de la Veuren” and referred to “nostre chasteaul de La Veuren”, “our castle of La Veuren”, in a letter written to Margaret in June 1512 and in a time with no standardized spelling, Anne could well have been referring to “Veuren” when she wrote “Veure” or may well have missed the “n” off the end.

In her letter, Anne also referred to “Semmonet”, who was quite clearly helping her with her French and, as Eric Ives points out, Symmonet was a member of “the ducal household”. We know this because there are various mentions of “Symmonet” in the correspondence of Emperor Maximilian and Margaret of Austria.12

The final piece of evidence for Anne Boleyn being at the court of Margaret of Austria is Thomas Boleyn’s letter to Margaret of Austria recalling his daughter, written from Greenwich on 14th August 1514:

“Ma treschiere et tres redoubtee dame dans sy humble cuer quil mest possible a votre bonne grace me recommande. II vous playra a savoir comment la seur du Roy mon maistre madame marie Reyne fyancee de France ma requyse davoir avecques elle ma fille la petitte Boulain laquelle ma tresredoubtee dame est a present avecques vous en votre court a laquelle requeste je nay peult ne sceut refuzer nullement sy est ma tresredoubtee dame que je vous supplie treshumblement quil vous plaise de donner et octroyer congiet a ma fille de povoir retourner pardevers moy avecques mes gens lesquelz jay envoyet devers vous a ceste cause ma tresredoubte dame je me tiens fort obligiet envers votre bonne grace a cause de la grant honneur que fait aves a ma fille et que ne mest possible a desservir devers votre bonne grace non obstant que je ne dezire aultre chose synon queje vous puisse faire auleun service agreable ce que jespere de faire encores cy en apros au plaisir de dieu auquel je prie ma tresredoubtee dame quil vous doinst lentier accomplissement de vos nobles et bon dcsirs escript desoubz mon signe manuel a la court royalle de Grynewiths en engleterre, le xiiii jour daoust anno xv et xiiii.
Votre treshumble serviteur, Sr Thomas Boleyn.”13

You may not understand the French, but Thomas Boleyn is asking Margaret to release his daughter, “la petitte Boulain”, into the care of the escort he had sent so that she could return to England to accompany Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, who was due to leave for France to marry Louis XII. There has never been any doubt cast on the authenticity of the letter.

Another thing that suggests that Anne Boleyn knew Margaret of Austria was Anne’s use of the motto “Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne” (Let them grumble, that is how it is going to be) which, as Eric Ives and Joanna Denny point out, was a play on Margaret of Austria’s motto “Groigne qui groigne, Vive Bourgogne!” (Grudge who Grudges, Long Live Burgundy).

There is no reason to doubt Anne’s presence in Mechelen and what an amazing opportunity for her. Of course, she was only there for just over a year and then she was off to France to attend Mary Tudor as she married Louis XII of France, but that’s another story.

(This article is based on a chapter from The Anne Boleyn Collection II and also an earlier article I wrote on this site.)

On this day in history…

  • 1503 – The formal wedding of Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland in the chapel of Holyroodhouse. The couple had been married by proxy on 15th January 1503 with Patrick Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell and Lord High Admiral of Scotland, standing in for James. Bothwell was the great-grandfather of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.
  • 1553 – Burial of Edward VI in a white marble vault beneath the altar of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. His grave was unmarked until a memorial stone was placed in front of the altar in 1966. The funeral service was performed by Thomas Cranmer, in keeping with Edward VI’s Protestant faith, so Mary I attended a private mass for her half-brother’s soul in the Tower of London. Click here to read more.
  • 1588 – Elizabeth I decided to accept the Earl of Leicester’s invitation and visit the troops he had gathered near Tilbury Fort to defend England against the forces of the Spanish Armada. Click here to read more.

Notes and Sources

  1. de Carles, Lancelot (1536) Épistre Contenant le Procès Criminel Faict à l’Encontre de la Royne Anne Boullant d’Angleterre, lines 55-57
  2. See A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg by John Guy for more on Thomas More’s views on education.
  3. Paget, Hugh (1980) “The Youth of Anne Boleyn”, quoting Ghislaine de Boom, Marguerite d’Autriche–Sauoie et la Pré–Renaissance (Paris and Brussels).
  4. Ives, Eric (2004) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 68.
  5. Paget.
  6. Ives, 24
  7. Ibid. 23
  8. Correspondance de l’empereur Maximilien Ier et de Marguerite d’Autriche, sa fille, Gouvernante de Pays-Bas, de 1507 à 1519, Tome Second, p461 Note 2
  9. Ives, 19
  10. Chronique métrique de Chastellain et de Molinet: avec des notices sur ces auteurs et des remarques sur le texte corrigé, p154
  11. The Life of Anne Boleyn, Philip W. Sergeant, Appendix D, p308
  12. For example 25th May 1510
  13. The Manuscripts of J. Eliot Hodgkin, Fifteenth Report, Appendix, Part II, page 30

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