In celebration of Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday and this week’s International Women’s Day, I thought it would be good to look at Anne Boleyn as a mother.
Anne Boleyn was not the only victim of the fall of the Boleyn faction in May 1536, five men were also executed, but there was also a small, two year old girl who was a victim of the brutal events. It is amazing to think that this little girl who was made illegitimate and who was banished from court for a while, went on to become a great monarch. Not only did Anne Boleyn’s daughter become Queen of England but she became “Gloriana” and “The Virgin Queen”, and her reign was known as “The Golden Age”. Anne, if she could look down from Heaven, certainly had the last laugh!
Anne did not have much chance to be a mother, that opportunity was taken away from her, and, as a mother, I can only imagine the fears and worries that must have eaten away at her during those days imprisoned in the Tower – fears for Elizabeth’s safety and future, worries about her child growing up without a mother, concern that Elizabeth would be told that her mother had committed treason and adultery, grief that she would never see her little girl grow up into a woman…
But what was Anne like during the two years and eight months that she was a mother?
Anne Boleyn and Motherhood
David Starkey, in “Six Wives”, writes of how Anne Boleyn gave birth just twelve days after taking to her chamber. On the 7th September, between 3 and 4am, Anne gave birth to a little girl, which must have been a huge blow to her parents who were expecting the baby to be a son and heir. However, the couple seemed to bounce back – Henry VIII named his daughter Elizabeth after both her grandmothers and was soon busy arranging a lavish, public christening for the 10th September. After the christening, Elizabeth was taken back to Anne but then the Princess’s own nursery staff took control of the baby, as was royal protocol.
If you’re a parent, you will know how wonderful, if not exhausting, those first few days are with a new baby. The complete awe you feel when you look down at your newborn, the complete fulfilment you feel as they suckle…it is a wonderful time but Anne, as Queen, was deprived this. Elizabeth had her own staff, headed by Lady Margaret Bryan, and a wet nurse to suckle her. Both David Starkey and Tracy Borman write of there being a story that Anne wanted to breastfeed her daughter but “was only prevented from doing so by Henry’s selfish desire for a good uninterrupted night’s sleep!” and, as Starkey says, “Refusing a wet-nurse would have been a characteristically unconventional gesture on Anne’s part” but he points out that this story is from a fictionalised account by Leti and is therefore without basis.
In Alison Sim’s “The Tudor Housewife”, she writes about a book on midwifery published in 1540, “The Byrth of Mankynd” by Richard Jonas (a translation of a book by Eucharius Rosslin):-
“It recommends that a woman should feed her own child, ‘for because that in the mothers bellye it was wonte to the same and feede with it’, but few wealthy mothers took his advice. They wanted to get pregnant as many times as possible and suckling their own child helped prevent this. It is no doubt because of this that the book goes into some detail on selecting a wet-nurse. The child was believed to develop some of the mother’s characteristics as it fed from her, so it was very important that the wet-nurse should have the right temperament.”
So, if there is any truth in Henry VIII not allowing Anne to breastfeed perhaps it is more to do with making sure that she can get pregnant again quickly, rather than inconvenience. It was Anne’s duty to get pregnant quickly and give him a son.
Whatever, the truth about Anne’s wish to suckle her own child, and go against the usual royal protocol and tradition, Anne was quite clearly pleased with and proud of her litle girl. In “Elizabeth’s Women”, Tracy Borman writes of how courtiers were often embarrassed by Anne’s displays of affection for her baby and that she loved to have Elizabeth next to her on a cushion, rather than shut away in a nursery. Elizabeth’s removal from court to her own household at Hatfield on the 10th December 1533 must have been a huge wrench for Anne. Even though it was just a few miles away, Anne would not be expected to visit her daughter very much but would be expected to get on with her queenly duties and leave Elizabeth’s upbringing to Lady Bryan and her staff.
Two years later, in January 1536, the two year old Elizabeth made an appearance at court. Henry VIII celebrated the death of Catherine of Aragon, his former wife, by proudly parading around court with his small daughter. We can only imagine how happy Anne must have felt to be able to spend time with her daughter, but her happiness was not to last long as she “miscarried of her saviour” (J E Neale) on the 29th January, the day of Catherine’s funeral. As her husband spent more time in the company of ladies like Jane Seymour, Borman writes of how Anne threw herself into being a good mother to Elizabeth, taking advantage of Elizabeth being a court by playing with her, dressing her up in the finest clothes and just simply spending time with her little girl after a long separation, delighting in her and loving her. With hindsight, we can see how precious they days were to both Anne and Elizabeth, as we know how the story so tragically ends. It is good that mother and daughter had this time of bonding and perhaps Elizabeth did have some hazy memories of that time.
Just three months later, we have the poignant scene of Anne, with little Elizabeth in her arms, pleading to Henry to listen to her:-
“Never shall I forget the sorrow I felt when I saw the most serene Queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a little baby, in her arms, and entreating the most serene King your father in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed the King was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well.” (Words of Alexander Aless to Elizabeth I, during her reign.)
It is thought that Anne was trying to explain her argument with Henry Norris, to entreat Henry to listen to her and understand that she did no wrong. Whatever the truth of what this scene was about, Anne’s appeal to her husband was not successful and she was taken to the Tower just a few days later, never to see her husband or daughter again. Anne’s final speech at her execution showed no defiance, which would threaten the safety and wellbeing of her daughter, but instead showed the submissiveness which was expected of a convicted traitor. Anne’s last act as a mother was to bite her tongue, to accept her punishment and to protect her beloved daughter.
How I wish that the scene from “Anne of the Thousand Days” had really happened, the one where Henry visits Anne Boleyn in the Tower and where she yells at him:-
“But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she’s yours. She’s a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can – and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”
Unfortunately, there is no record of Henry VIII visiting Anne Boleyn in the Tower and these words are completely fictional, but I love them anyway and perhaps we can say that Anne’s blood was well spent in that her daughter did become Queen, against all odds.
We don’t have enough evidence to give us a clear picture of what Anne was really like as a mother but she was unconventional in other aspects and was a fierce friend to those she loved, so I can imagine her wanting to buck royal convention, do things her way and be a loving, hands-on mother. What do you think?
- Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
- The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim
- Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman