Courtly love, Flirtation and the Fall of Anne Boleyn – Part One

Posted By on March 2, 2010

After a February full of anniversaries of key Tudor events, I thought it would be good to get back to my original theme and series of articles looking at the possible reasons for the fall of Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction.

Anne Boleyn’s fall is hot news at the moment with the recent publication of Alison Weir’s “The Lady in the Tower” and the newspaper reports regarding G W Bernard’s “Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions” (due out April), in which Bernard is thought to argue that Anne Boleyn was guilty of some of the charges laid against her.

The articles published with rather inflammatory headlines like “Anne Boleyn DID have an affair with her brother: The poem that ‘proves’ the adultery of Henry VIII’s queen”, “Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery, new biography claims” and “Poem provides evidence that Anne Boleyn had numerous affairs” have caused Anne Boleyn fans all over the world to dust off their Eric Ives biographies and leave comments on newspaper websites arguing Anne’s case. They have stirred us up, made us get out our soap boxes and, more importantly, revisit Anne’s fall and ask ourselves “what did happen? Why did she fall?”

I’ve already covered the following potential reasons for Anne’s fall:-

  • Anne’s miscarriages
  • Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford
  • Incest and adultery

but today, in this two part series, I want to pose the question “Did Anne Boleyn’s climate of courtly love and flirtation lead to her downfall?”

Archduchess Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria and Courtly Love

Anne Boleyn was sent to the court of Burgundy, the Habsburg court of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, the Regent of the Netherlands, at the age of around 12 and it was here that she not only learned about art, music and dancing (as well as French), she also learned about the great tradition of courtly love.

In “The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn”, Josephine Wilkinson writes:-

“Of all the themes [used in pageantry] that might be used, the perennial favourite was the interaction between men and women within the context of courtly love. This was the time of a great revival of the chivalric romances and their motifs…However, courtly love, like any other “game” had its own rules and conventions which it was important not to break. As she learned all that would make her irresistible to many men, Anne also acquired, or perhaps polished, her sense of high morality.”

Later in her book, Wilkinson writes of how Anne’s youth was guided by Margaret of Austria and that “Margaret had also taught Anne the art of flirtation, to accept and manage the playful – and the not so playful – attentions of men.”

Eric Ives also writes of Margaret of Austria’s influence on Anne:-

“The Regent Margaret was a meticulous chaperone. Deportment and conversation had to be correct at all times, and Madame, as Margaret was called, kept a specially strict eye on the maids of honour, forbidding gossip and any by-play with the pages or gentlemen of the court. Adept as she was herself at the game of courtly love, in her household it was to be played according to the conventions. It was an attitude Anne was to imitate when she had maids of honour of her own…Protection lay in a quick wit and a ready confidence…It was a lesson that Anne Boleyn learned quickly and never forgot. It carried her to the heights of courtly success only to betray her in the end, when faced by men to whom the measured conventions of Margaret of Austria meant nothing.”

But what on earth was courtly love?

The Courtly Love Convention

Eric Ives describes courtly love as “an integral element in chivalry, the complex of attitudes and institutions which was central to the life of the Tudor court and elite”, “a defence against boredom and vice” and a way “to constrain gender relationships within an accepted convention”. He goes on to say:-

“The fictions of courtly love were based on the same ideal which deposed men to attend the king: service. The courtier, the “perfect knight”, was supposed to subliminate his relations with the ladies of the court by choosing a “mistress” and serving her faithfully and exclusively. He formed part of her circle, wooed her with poems, songs and gifts, and if she was gracious enough to recognise the link he might wear her favour and joust in her honour. He might have a wife at home, but that was a separate life. In return the suitor must look for one thing only, “kindness” – understanding and platonic friendship…To twenty-first century eyes conditioned to see normal relationships between men and women as active sexually, such a convention appears repressive, but it worked well enough to regulate gender relations acceptably.”

Definitions of courtly love from other sources include:-

  • “A medieval European conception of nobly and chivalrously expressing love and admiration. Generally, courtly love was secret and between members of the nobility.” – Wikipedia
  • “Since at the time [11th and 12th century] marriage had little to do with love, courtly love was also a way for nobles to express the love not found in their marriage. “Lovers” in the context of courtly love did not refer to sex, but rather the act of emotional loving. These “lovers” had short trysts in secret, which escalated mentally, but never physically.” – Wikipedia
  • “The romance of Courtly Love practised during the Middle Ages was combined with the Code of Chivalry. There were strict rules of courtly love and the art of courtly love was practised by the members of the courts across Europe during the Middle Ages. The romance, rules and art of courtly love allowed knights and ladies to show their admiration regardless of their marital state.” From http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/courtly-love.htm
  • “Courtly Love is the celebration of sexual love between men and women” – http://www.richeast.org/htwm/Courtly/Courtly.html
  • “According to A Natural History of Love (1994), the hero of the poems, the knight-lover, sings the praises and seeks the favor of a lady according to a well-defined ritual. The lady is ordinarily his superior socially and is nearly always presented as a paragon of beauty and virtue. The knight offers his song and his service in the hope of winning his lady’s regard, her “grace,” and perhaps ultimately her love. Final success (or the promise of it) produces the perfect joy that the lover seeks. The troubadour concentrates on this joy as a goal. It generates the excitement of the chase.” – http://www.richeast.org/htwm/Courtly/Courtly.html

Anne Boleyn and Courtly Love

If we consider these definitions of courtly love and Anne’s experience at the court of Margaret of Austria, we can see that Anne’s household was what Greg Walker, in his article “Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn”, desribes as “an arena for the “masquerade” of courtly love”. Walker goes on to describe the climate of Anne’s household:-

“an environment in which amorous poetry and music, and a good deal of more or less formal flirtation was an accepted part of the culture. Poets praised the queen’s beauty, musicians wrote ballads and sonnets for her, and gentleman callers sighed and treated her as if she were the light of their lives – for this was the way to secure patronage and reward, and, provided it was not pursued too ardently, to win the favour of the king.”

So, it looks like flirtations, love sighs and men dangling on every word that came out of the Queen’s mouth was what was expected. The men of Anne’s circle were meant to be in love with the Queen, they were meant to flirt with her and pander to her very need, that was the convention. So, how did all of this come to be used against the Queen?

Read Part Two tomorrow to see how the convention of courtly love was used to bring down this iconic Queen Consort.

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