The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Four – The French Influence

Queen Claude by Corneille de Lyon

As I said in Part Three, it wasn’t just the Renaissance culture of her surroundings which influenced the young Anne Boleyn, she was also heavily influenced by the women she saw and spent time with in France. Let us look at some of the amazing women she met in France…

Claude of France

Claude was the eldest daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany, who Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, described as “the most worthy and honourable queen that has ever been since Queen Blanche, mother of the King Saint-Louis, and very sage and virtuous”1. In his chapter on Anne of Brittany, Brantôme wrote of how “she was the first queen to hold a great Court of ladies”, a “noble school for ladies” where “she had them taught and brought up wisely; and all, taking pattern by her, made themselves wise and virtuous”2.

Claude was the heiress of the Duchy of Brittany and also to the throne, but, as I explained in Part Three, Salic Law prevented her becoming the Queen of France when her father died, instead she became queen by marrying Francis, Duke of Angoulême, who became Francis I of France.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett writes of how Claude “was from her birth delicate, plain and lame”3, and it is said that she was slightly hunch-backed, being a sufferer of scoliosis. Brantôme describes Queen Claude of France  as “very good, very charitable, and very gentle to all, never doing any unkindness or harm to any one either at her Court or in the kingdom”4 and it is clear that she followed her mother’s example by running a virtuous and learned court. The virtuous, pious and kind Claude would have been a role model to Anne and I’m sure that Anne must have thought back to Claude’s behaviour as queen when she herself became queen, albeit in England, in 1533.

Claude’s husband, Francis I, was brought up at the Royal Château Amboise and he was often there during his reign (as well as Fontainebleau and the Louvre), living a life full of banquets, balls and tournaments. In 1515, Leonardo da Vinci was invited by Francis I to live and work in Clos Lucé which was connected to the Royal château by an underground passage. Queen Claude preferred nearby Château Blois, which Francis had renovated for her, and this is where Anne would have served her royal mistress.

Claude had seven children, including Henry II, King of France, but died in 1524 at the tender age of 24. Brantôme declared that Claude’s husband, Francis I, gave her “a disease that shortened her days”, meaning syphilis, but it is not known for certain although it was rumoured that the King’s death in 1547 was due to syphilis. It seems that after it had lost its pious queen the French court slid into debauchery.

Louise of Savoy

Louise of Savoy was the mother of Francis I and Marguerite of Angoulême (later Marguerite of Navarre), and the daughter of Philip II, Duke of Savoy, and Margaret of Bourbon. Louise, an intelligent, ambitious and politically astute woman, ensured that Francis and Marguerite had a Renaissance education and after the death of her husband, Charles of Orléans (cousin of Louis XII), she moved to the French court with her children, a move that was responsible for her son, Francis, becoming one of the King’s favourites and ensuring his succession to the throne. Louis XII gave Louise the royal château at Amboise where she brought up Francis and Marguerite.

Louise acted as Regent for Francis whenever he was away and, along with his sister Marguerite of Angoulême, was the most powerful woman at court, particularly in the early years of Francis’s reign. Between them they ran Francis’s court for him. Louise was serving as Regent in 1515, when Anne Boleyn was at the French Court, and Anne would have seen this strong, politically active woman run the country.

Marguerite d'Angoulême

Marguerite of Angoulême

Brantôme’s chapter on Marguerite of France and Navarre is full of praise for the “perfect beauty”, the “rare princess” and a woman who “was full of majesty and eloquence… full of charming grace in gay and witty speech” and “a queen in all things”5, but who was Marguerite of Angoulême and Queen of Navarre?

Marguerite was the daughter of Louise of Savoy and Charles of Orléans, Count of Angoulême. Her mother, Louise, brought up her two children, Marguerite and her younger brother Francis, together, giving both of them an excellent Renaissance education, but, according to Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Marguerite soon outstripped her brother “in her knowledge of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and in her easy grasp of modern languages.”6 But it wasn’t just education that Marguerite was passionate about, she also had “genuine religious fervour” and was passionate about the New Religion. As well as being known for her patronage of the arts, Marguerite is also known for her work “Le miroir l’âme pécheresse”, the same poem which Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, later translated as a gift for her stepmother, Catherine Parr. This wonderful literary work is a mystical poem which combines evangelical protestant ideas with Marguerite’s idea of her relationship with God as a very personal and familial one. In her poem, Marguerite sees God as her brother, father or lover. The editors of “Marguerite (Queen, consort of Henry II, King of Navarre): Selected Writings” say this of “Le Miroir”:-

“In addition to the obvious intimate familiarity with biblical literature, the poem follows closely the reformist views Marguerite learned from her mentor/confessor, Guillaume Briçonnet. Here we find all the essential earmarks of the devotio moderna, with its heavy emphasis on personal piety, exaggerated self-deprecation, preoccupation with death, and total dependence on divine grace for salvation”.7

You can read both the original French version and a translation of Le miroir at Google Books – click here. It is a beautiful piece of writing, very moving and obviously written from the heart, and it shows the depth of Marguerite’s faith and her personal relationship with God her Father.

Although Marguerite’s work was condemned as heresy, Fawcett writes of how Marguerite “never became a Protestant, and never separated herself from the Communion of the Church of Rome; the coarse violence of some of the manifestations of the Protestant movement disgusted and partially alienated her” but “she never wavered from the position she took up all through the years… of the protector of the new learning and the humble devotee of a religion which was pure and undefiled.”8 Couldn’t those same words be used to describe Anne Boleyn? I think so. Both women had a true faith, religious fervour, and were passionate about reform and new ideas, but they did not want to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. They wanted to reform the Catholic Church.

Fawcett goes on to describe German reformer, Philip Melancthon, as “a reformer after Margaret’s own heart, gentle and moderate, desiring to reconcile rather than to estrange; earnestly working for the reform of the Church from within so as to prevent the disruption of Christendom”9 and again I think of Anne Boleyn and wonder if she was influenced by Marguerite’s views and her faith.

But what was Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Marguerite?

We actually don’t know for sure. We know that Marguerite was influential at the French Court, sharing power in the early years of her brother’s reign with her mother, Louise of Savoy, so Anne Boleyn would have certainly met her. Some, including Herbert of Cherbury, have wondered whether Anne Boleyn actually served Marguerite as a lady-in-waiting, but there is no evidence of that and, according to Eric Ives10, Anne’s name does not appear in the “Comptes de Louise de Savoie et de Marguerite d’Angouleme” (the accounts), which you would expect if she was employed by Marguerite, and in 1522, on her departure from France, Anne was described as one of Queen Claude’s ladies. However, we have evidence that there was definitely some kind of relationship between the two women, two letters from Anne to Marguerite. In July 1534, instructions were given to Anne’s brother, Lord Rochford:-

“1. Rochford is to repair to the French king with all speed, and in passing by Paris to make the King’s and Queen’s hearty recommendations to the queen of Navarre, if she be there, and say that the Queen his mistress much rejoices in the deeply-rooted amity of the two kings, but wishes her to get the interview deferred, as the time would be very inconvenient to her, and the King is so anxious to see his good brother that he will not put it off on her account. Her reasons are, that being so far gone with child, she could not cross the sea with the King, and she would be deprived of his Highness’s presence when it was most necessary, unless the interview can be deferred till April next. Rochford is to press this matter very earnestly, and say that the King having at this time appointed another personage to go to his good brother, the Queen, with much suit, got leave for Rochford to go in his place, principally on this account.
2. That there was nothing she regretted at the last interview so much as not having an interview with the said queen of Navarre; and she hopes she may be able to come to Calais with her brother in April next, if the interview be deferred till then.”11

In September 1535, another message was sent to Marguerite saying that “The Queen[Anne Boleyn] said that her greatest wish, next to having a son, is to see you again”12

These words could simply be flattery and good diplomacy, but to me they sound like Anne was intimate with Marguerite, that they shared a friendship and that Anne was saddened to miss seeing Marguerite in 1534 and was really missing her in 1535.

Renée of France

Renée of France

Renée of France was Queen Claude’s younger sister and a woman known for her heretical beliefs. Millicent Garret Fawcett writes that Renée “partly through the influence of her cousin, Margaret of Angoulême, afterwards Queen of Navarre, and partly through that of her friend and governess, Madam de Soubise, was very favourable inclined to the reformed religion”13 and that when she became the Duchess of Ferrara she gathered around her “some of the most famous men and women of thought and letters in Europe”, people like Bernardo Tasso, Clément Marot, John Calvin, Rabelais, Vittorio Colonna (a friend of Michel Angelo), Lavinia della Rovere (great niece of Pope Julius II) the great Capuchin preacher Bernardino Ochino, and many more. Renée also used her power and status to protect reformers from persecution.

During her time in Ferrara, Renée was actually arrested as a heretic, although she escaped with her life after recanting and receiving the Eucharist at mass. However, after the death of her husband, the Duke of Ferrara, in 1559, Renée was able to return to her home country of France. In December 1560, her nephew, Francis II, died and the power of the Catholic Francis, Duke of Guise, was broken, enabling Renée to provide Protestant worship at her estate in Montargis. Her castle became a refuge for Protestants and she earned the praise of John Calvin himself for her efforts for the cause. Renée died on the 12th June 1574, aged 63 at her home in Montargis.

As the sister of Anne Boleyn’s mistress, Queen Claude, she is bound to have come into contact with Anne, and Retha Warnicke writes that Claude’s constant pregnancies meant that she, and therefore Anne, were “frequently in residence near Renée.”14 Warnicke is also of the opinion that Anne shared Renée’s schoolroom lessons, but if we believe that Anne was one of Claude’s ladies then she certainly would not have shared lessons with a princess. However, Renée was intimate enough with Anne to refer to their childhood friendship with Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador to France, during the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I.

Diane de Poitiers

Diane de Poitiers was the daughter of Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier and Jeanne de Batarnay, and was an intelligent girl who was given a Renaissance Humanist education. She served Anne de Beaujeu, the eldest sister of Charles VIII of France, and while she was married to Louis de Brézé, seigneur d’Anet, she served Queen Claude and then Louise of Savoy. She was known for her beauty, intellect and wit, and also, later for being Henry II’s mistress. It is not known whether she and Anne Boleyn were close, but it is possible seeing as they both shared a love of learning and music, and they both served Queen Claude. Can you just imagine being a fly on the wall when Anne and Diane discussed art and music?


When you look at the education and experiences Anne had on the continent, and the women she mixed with from 1513 to 1522, you can understand why she had strong Reformist views, why she stood out at the English Court, why she caught Henry VIII’s eye and why he deemed her a worthy consort and mother of his children. Anne Boleyn had received a princess’s education, she had mixed with royalty and met Renaissance men and women, and she was an intelligent and ambitious woman. She was on Henry VIII’s wavelength, they understood each other and had shared interests and passions. I don’t believe that Anne seduced Henry or that she cast some kind of spell on him, or that she manipulated him into marriage, I believed that their relationship was a true meeting of minds and that they fell in love. What do you think?

Notes and Sources

  1. Illustrious dames of the court of the Valois kings, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, the 16th century historian and biographer, p24
  2. Ibid., p30
  3. Five Famous French Women, Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1905), p58
  4. Brantôme, p219
  5. Brantôme, p166
  6. M.G.Fawcett, p70
  7. Marguerite (Queen, consort of Henry II, King of Navarre): Selected Writings (Bilingual Edition) edited by Rouben Charles Cholakian, Mary Skemp, p73
  8. Fawcett, p81
  9. Ibid., p84
  10. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p32
  11. LP vii.958
  12. LP ix.378
  13. Fawcett, p251-252
  14. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Retha Warnicke, p 21


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11 thoughts on “The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Four – The French Influence”
  1. Thank you Claire for part 4!
    I agree with you about the meeting if souls and minds between Anne and Henry. Anne was certainly more “Queen consort material” than Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr. I dare say that she was even better than Anne of Cleves, because she was far more educated than her.

  2. I am with you…true love. I believe that in Anne, Henry found an exceptional intellectual match. There had to be more than lust that sustained that seven year drought waiting for The Great Matter to be resolved.

  3. I think it was love that drew Henry to Anne but it was much more than that. They were both highly intelligent, ambitious people. They shared a love of the Arts, Music, and Dance.

    She was a very attractive young woman and her years at the French Court had given her a panache that would have made her stand-out, and that would have caught Henry’s attention. I think she was a very proud person and that may have been one of the reasons for her downfall.

    Thank you for a very interesting series.

  4. Another great article–thanks! I think Anne was the love of Henry’s life, even though he pined away publicly for Jane Seymour at her death. When Elizabeth wanted to meet Anne of Cleves, Henry refused, telling her that her own mother was so different from ‘that woman’ that Elizabeth shouldn’t even wish to see Anne of Cleves. I think he loved her and she came to love him after his heroic struggle to marry her. What happened? Ah, that is the elemental mystery! I think Anne was proud and made the mistake of trusting in her lover, giving him too much, then trying to rule him. He balked and that breach gave others the chance to do away with her. She was his match–I will never understand how he could go from Anne to Jane–mind-boggling!

  5. These wonderful articles have really developed and rounded Anne’s character for us all. Anyone with access to these can now see how she was so much more than just ‘the 2nd wife who met a tragic end.’ The early decades of her life would have been full of education and development, making for a remarkable and multi-dimensional personality.

    You have really filled in the gaps and shown us a deeper side to Anne. I have learnt allot. I agree with the others, they were in love and each others match. He knew it, he fought so hard and risked so much for her. He could have had any woman but he chose her. For the life of me I still cant work out why he murdered her !!!!!

    This quote reminds me of them “You know that when I hate you, it is because I love you to a point of passion that unhinges my soul.” – Julie de Lespinasse

  7. Claire, excellent work on part 4 (as has been the case with the previous parts as well), but I have to say that this is by far my favorite part of the story. So much of Anne’s early education and her ideas for the future founding of her own course came from her association with Queen Claude and Marguerite d’Angouleme during her years at the French court. I would so love for a biography to be published paralleling the French and English courts during these Tudor years, naturally with the focus being Anne’s formation and the early roots of her Reformation ideas. I think it’s very important to understand where she was raised in order to comprehend the course of action she took when she returned to England and eventually became Queen Anne.

  8. I think that Anne Boleyn was most qualified (after Catherine ofAragon) to be queen . I am so glad bcuz thisi is such a largely unstudied time of Anne’s life and was so absolutely definitive in her character and thinking!

  9. Accepting on the balance and the probability that Anne met or knew either Marguerite or Queen Claude, both ladies were very sophisticated and had a great degree of what is called the higher learning or the classical education of Latin, Greek and other languages and of course the classical stories and the arts. Their influence on Anne cannot be proved absolutely but is very certainly deduced as she also loved these subjects and was a patroness of the arts and higher learning. It is not evidence of this by the mere fact that she had a beautiful Book of Hours, many great ladies had these. However, a closer examination of Anne’s Book of Hours and that of Claude and other ladies of the high renaissance periods, shows that they chose subjects that reflect scholarship as well as deep piety. Books of Hours were not just beautiful items that one had made or took to prayer, they were deeply personal items.

    They reflected the ideas that a person had, their beliefs and their desires for the afterlife. They were designed for their owners at their owners from an early age and they used them during the religious hours of the day and on special days of the year. Anne, Claude, Marguerite, Isabella de Este, Katherine of Cleves, are all ladies of higher learning and all had beautiful and personalised Books of Hours that reflected that learning. All of these women were also women of influence and ambition and all passed on that learning and understanding to others. In the case of Anne it was obviously her daughter Elizabeth picked up or inherited that deep inbuilt desire for learning.

    Elizabeth’s translation of the Mirror of the Soul by Marguerite is advanced for a child of her age. Was she 9 or 10 when she translated it? It is also on a subject that may have been considered unsuitable for a young girl or a young woman as it was a treatise on incest and the sinfulness of incest. Having said this the Mirror of the Sinful Soul is beautiful and it is remarkable for a child of Elizabeth’s years to be able to translate it, even with errors.

    It is clear that even without definitive evidence of Anne being at the court of Marguerite that she was influenced by her or her writing. Is it possible that the Mirror was widely circulated and published; in other words a best seller? Even if it had have been read at the court of England it must have been a tract that caused some disquiet for the religious authorities of the day due to its delicate nature. Books by women were not censored or forbidden but they were rare and not encouraged. But Henry encouraged both of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to learn and to translate books. Mary was the daughter and grand-daughter of two learned women: Katherine of Aragon and Isabella of Spain. Elizabeth was also befriended by another learned woman Queen Katherine Parr and both girls translated books and dedicated them to her.

    Anne was a woman who was bound to influence others as she was forward and confident and unconventional. She knew how to hold her own in the sexual hotbed of the English and French Courts. Once she made herself a hit with Henry the world of learning was opened up to her even further and it is clear that she influenced some of Henry’s opinions that led to him finding a way through the divorce himself. Anne and her family were patrons of the arts and that included the new learning. She somehow got a copy of the Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale and gave it to Henry. It was this that aided in his decision to break from Rome and set up the English Church so as he could have his divorce decided in England. To a man who already believed he was the anointed of the Lord, a book that says that kings and Emperors are answerable to none but God was like a gift from the angels. He lapped it up and it worked.

    So our Anne, directly or not influenced by the ladies of the European courts and their ideas influenced Henry and can be said, for better or worse, set in motion the English reformation. It could not have happened of course had she not married Henry and become Queen, but it is interesting to wonder what else she could have done had she not married him; would she have written her own book and become a lady renown for these works in her own right? Well, we may never know, but it is interesting to speculate none the less.

  10. Just seen this post, it’s interesting because most people only know that Anne Boleyn lost her head and nothing else, others that she was a floozy who was executed for adultery, what they don’t realise is how intelligent she was how learned and how many of her contemporaries admired her for these very qualities, had she lived today she could well have gone to university, travelled the world, maybe run her own company or enter into politics, maybe even become Prime Minister, I think had she not gone to France she still would have caused a bit of a stir at the English court for her wit and flirtatious manner but the years she had in France definatley gave her the ‘Edge’ on the other women, she had acquired their sense of dress and style, which is still apparent in French women today.

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