The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Three – Anne Boleyn Goes to France

Queen Claude of France

As I wrote in “The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Two – The Court of Margaret of Austria”, Anne Boleyn was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries in 1513 to finish her education. However, she only remained at Mechelen for around 15 months because, in August 1514, Anne Boleyn’s name was on the list of attendants chosen to accompany Mary Tudor to France for her marriage to King Louis XII.

Anne Boleyn Summoned to France

On the 14th August 1514, Thomas Boleyn1 wrote to his great friend, Margaret of Austria, asking her to release Anne and send her back to England with a chaperone sent by him. It seems that Anne had been chosen due to her fluency in French and, as Thomas Boleyn wrote to Margaret, it was a request that “I could not, nor did I know how to refuse.”2 Although it is clear from Thomas Boleyn’s letter that Anne had been chosen to attend the new Queen of France, the records are not exactly clear as to which Boleyn girl travelled to France with Mary and where Anne joined her new mistress. Eric Ives writes of how the list of ladies paid  for the period October to December 1514 shows the name “Marie Boulonne”, but not Anne, so it may be that Mary Boleyn attended Mary Tudor on her crossing to France, for the wedding which took place on the 9th October 1514 at Abbeville, and that Anne caught up with the royal party in Paris when Mary was crowned queen on the 9th November. Ives hypothesises that Margaret of Austria may not have got Thomas Boleyn’s letter in time to send Anne home to England, because she was visiting the islands of Zeeland at the time, so Anne travelled directly to France.

What we don’t know for sure is whether the “Madamoyselle Boleyne” mentioned by King Louis XII in his “Names of the gentlemen and ladies retained by the King (Louis XII.)3 to do service to the Queen” refers to Mary or Anne, but what we do know is that Anne Boleyn did, at some time, arrive in France to serve the new queen.

On the 1st January 1515, less than 3 months after his marriage to his 18 year old bride, the 52 year old Louis XII died. It was said that he had been worn out by sexual relations with his younger wife. Louis had no son and Salic Law prevented his daughter, Claude, from becoming queen so when it was clear that Mary Tudor was not pregnant, Claude’s husband, who was also Louis’s first cousin’s son, Francis, inherited the throne and became Francis I of France.  Mary Tudor had never wanted to marry the ageing Louis XII as she had already set her heart on Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, so when her brother, Henry VIII, sent Brandon to bring her back home to England, she followed her heart and married Brandon in secret on the 3rd March 1515 in France. Although this was an act of treason and Henry VIII was furious, he eventually forgave the couple and they were officially married on the 13th May 1515 at Greenwich Palace, having been fined for their disobedience.

Even though Anne Boleyn was one of Mary Tudor’s attendants, she did not travel back to England with Mary in 1515, but, instead stayed on in France and served the new queen consort, Queen Claude. How and why, we just don’t know, but it’s possible, as Ives ponders, that the 15 year old Claude had taken a liking to Anne when she had served her stepmother and so offered her a place at her court when Mary returned to England in April 1515. Claude and Anne were of a similar age and Anne was fluent in French, and it is possible that Anne had acted as an interpreter between Claude and Mary Tudor. Anne went on to serve Queen Claude for seven years and, as Eric Ives points out, it is a period of Anne’s life which we know relatively little about.

Tour d'Anne Boleyn

The French Legends and Traditions Regarding Anne Boleyn

French tradition links Anne Boleyn with Briare, a town on the river Loire, and also the village of Briis-sous-Forges where there is even a tower called the Tour d’Anne Boleyn. According to one French website4, this tower is the only remaining part of a medieval castle which was once stayed in by Anne, before her marriage to Henry VIII, because her parents were friends of Du Moulin, the owner of the castle. This story is backed up by the work of French historian, Julien Brodeau (1654)5, who wrote that Anne Boleyn was educated in the home of nobleman Philippe de Moulin de Brie, a relation of her parents.

Nicholas Sander, writing in the reign of Elizabeth I, wrote that Anne Boleyn was sent to France at the age of 15 after she had “sinned first with her father’s butler, and then with his chaplain” and was placed “under the care of a certain nobleman not far from Brie”. Sander also writes that “soon afterwards she appeared at the French court where she was called the English Mare, because of her shameless behaviour; and then the royal mule, when she became acquainted with the king of France”6, which makes me wonder if he was confusing Anne with her sister, Mary Boleyn, who was the mistress of King Francis I and who was, apparently, referred to by the King as an “English Mare” and “una grandissima ribalda, infame sopra tutte” (a great and infamous wh*re).

Alison Weir, in one of her recent talks on Mary Boleyn, quoted historian Sarah Tytler (1896) as saying that Anne Boleyn went to a convent school at Brie to finish her education. However, Weir wonders if historians have confused the two Boleyn girls and hypothesises that the Boleyns, upset at Mary’s bad behaviour at the French court, could have entered her into a French convent for educational purposes.

Eric Ives writes that the link between Anne Boleyn and Briare could have some foundation because “the town was well placed in relation to the movements of the court of Queen Claude, where Anne’s duties kept her.”7 Claude was constantly pregnant, giving birth to seven children between 1515 and 1523, and she tended to spend her pregnancies in the Upper Loire area, at Amboise and her palace in Blois, and Anne would obviously have accompanied her there.

The French Court

Eric Ives writes of how “waiting on the queen of France could not have been markedly different from waiting on the regent of the Low Countries, and it is clear that Anne continued to soak in the sophisticated atmosphere around her.”8 He quotes Lancelot de Carles, “she knew perfectly how to sing and dance… to play the lute and other instruments” and Nicholas Sander, who, in his book “Rise and Growth of the  Anglican Schism” said of Anne “She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth, amusing in her ways, playing well on the lute, and was a good dancer. She was the model and mirror of those who were at court, for she was always well dressed, and every day made some change in the fashion of her garments.”9 It is clear that Anne had learned music, dance and style during her time in France.

Queen Claude's Prayer Book

I mentioned in Part Two that Anne Boleyn’s love of illuminated manuscripts had begun at the court of Margaret of Austria, who had a vast collection of them, but if it began in the Low Countries it blossomed in France because Queen Claude also loved illumination, as is clear when we examine her Prayer Book and Book of Hours from 1517. Roger Wieck, curator of the Morgan Museum, has done a wonderful video about Queen Claude’s prayer book, where you can see the exquisite illuminated pages – see

Anne Boleyn went on to have her own illuminated manuscripts and books and they were made in the Renaissance style, which had been popular in France and used by Claude, rather than the style she had seen in the Low Countries. Like Margaret of Austria, Claude was also an art lover (she was a patron of the miniature) and Eric Ives comments that as Leonardo da Vinci settled at Cloux, near Amboise, in 1516, it is likely that Anne met him. In the Low Countries and in France, Anne was surrounded by art and culture, she couldn’t help but be influenced by this amazing experience.

Some people seeking to blacken Anne Boleyn’s name say that Anne must have been influenced by the loose morals and sexuality of the French court, but we have to remember that Anne Boleyn was serving Queen Claude, a woman known for her piety and a woman who was often away from court due to her annual pregnancies. Anne was serving in a morally strict household, not one of scandal. As well as her day-to-day duties, as a maid-of-honour, Eric Ives writes that Anne may well have accompanied Claude and her mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy, on their journey to Lyons and Marseilles to welcome back Francis I in October 1515 after his victory at the Battle of Marignano in Italy. While the women were in the area, they went on a pilgrimage to Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume to see the alleged tomb of Mary Magdalene. The story behind this tomb is that on the 12th December 1279 a sarcophagus proclaimed to be that of Mary Magdalene was found in the crypt. It was said that Mary Magdalene had fled the Holy Land on a boat with neither rudder nor sail, landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and then travelled to Marseilles where she converted the locals. According to legend, she retired to a cave in the mountains of Sainte-Baume later in her life and was buried in Saint-Maximin. The basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume was built in the late 13th century and early 14th century and the crypt was consecrated in 1316.

The Basilica of Mary Magdalene

Anne Boleyn would also have probably taken part in the coronation of Queen Claude at St Denis in May 1516 and her triumphant entry into Paris, and also her entry into Cognac in 1520. Queen Claude was also present at the banquet given in honour of the visit of the English diplomats sent to negotiate a marriage between the Dauphin and Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, at the Bastille on the 22nd December 1518, and also at the Field of Cloth of Gold in June 1520, just outside Calais. Claude was accompanied by her ladies at both events and it is likely that Anne would have been useful as an interpreter. Eric Ives writes that Queen Claude and her ladies made quite an impression at the joust at the Field of Cloth of Gold:-

“She [Claude] wore cloth of silver over an underskirt of cloth of gold and rode in her coronation litter of cloth of silver decorated with friars’ knots in gold, a device which she had taken from her mother. Her ladies rode in three carriages similarly draped in silver and, no doubt, were dressed to match the queen.”10

Ives also writes of how Queen Claude played the hostess when the two kings, attended by the gentlemen and ladies of the French and English courts dressed in masque costume, changed places. Anne must have been there and she must have seen her future husband, Henry VIII; however, it was Mary Boleyn, not Anne, who was catching the eye of the King at this time. Anne must have also seen her sister, brother and father at this event – a Boleyn family reunion. I wonder if they were impressed by Anne, if they even recognised the accomplished woman who stood before them. She was no longer a Kent country girl, albeit a courtier’s daughter, she was now an educated and cultivated Renaissance woman.

But it wasn’t just the Renaissance culture of France which had influenced Anne Boleyn and made her the woman she was when she returned to England in 1522, it was also the women she met and spent time with, women such as Louise of Savoy, Marguerite of Angoulême, Queen Claude, Renée of France and Diane de Poitiers. I will be writing about them in Part Four.

Notes and Sources

  1. The Youth of Anne Boleyn, article by Hugh Paget, p166
  2. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p27
  3. LP i.3357
  5. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Retha Warnicke, p 246
  6. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, Nicholas Sander (1585), p25-26
  7. Ives, p29
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sander, p25
  10. Ives, p32

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21 thoughts on “The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Three – Anne Boleyn Goes to France”
  1. Is it true that Queen Claude was in appearance deformed and therefore the eye of the King met those of Mary Boleyn who became active in the French court? Is there anything that leads us to believe that Anne also was active in the French court?

  2. Oh I can’t wait for Part 4! THis is SO good, Claire, Thank you! I love imagining what it must have been like for Anne while she was in France. How exciting everything must have been and how new. Imagine, being not yet 15 and serving a queen! Awesome!

  3. Hi David,
    I’ve actually just written Part 4 which has a section on Queen Claude. Some sources describe her as “lame” others as being hunch-backed because she suffered from scoliosis, however, I don’t think that her appearance had anything to do with Francis I’s behaviour, he slept around and it was rumoured that his death was due to syphilis. Claude was constantly pregnant, giving birth to 7 children between 1515 and 1523 so she was away from court a lot and her absence and her pregnancies were probably used by Francis as an excuse to take mistresses.
    Anne Boleyn, as one of Claude’s ladies, would have accompanied Claude to Amboise and Blois for her confinements so she was not “active” at the French court. Claude’s household was known for its strict moral standards and piety.

    1. Yes, Claude suffered from a rather severe form of scoliosis, wherein her vertebrae were permanently fused in a “C” shape. She undoubtedly did walk with great difficulty, and can you imagine being pregnant in that condition? Francis was certainly not an uxorious husband; unlike Henry, he understood that his marriage was a political bond, not a love match, and his duty was to sire heirs, not attend to his constantly pregnant wife – she had a house full of servants to do that. Francis adhered to the “rules”, as they were prescribed in those days; one “fell in love” with mistresses – either for a night or a lifetime – and romance was not to be wasted in a marital relationship. Romantic love and marriage were two completely separate issues.
      Henry, on the other hand, flouted convention by deliberately looking for love in marriage. He really was a rebel!

  4. The information about the minature prayerbook is quite fascinating. It makes me wonder what symbols and prayers Anne selected or the artist contributed to honor her. I would love to see it someday!

  5. I also believe that Francis encouraged the marriage of Mary, and Brandon. With the marriage she could no longer be used against French interests. But she did smuggle out the Mirror of Naples, a large diamond. Francis was furious! Its also interesting how history has tried to paint both Boleyn girls with the same brush. If one was loose, then so must be the other. But Anne was different then her sister, that is why she the younger of the two was sent abroad. And why Queen Claude kept her. Claude kept a respectable court. And Mary showed that she was not.

  6. I loved this article, Claire!!! I can’t wait for the next one!! These years must have been really important in Anne’s life, they made her the woman she was. She became as much French as English.

    About Mary Boleyn: Did she manage to become known as infamous wh*re just in the 3 months she was in France? She must have slept around a lot to gain that reputation so fast!

  7. I was under the impression that Claude and Francis kept separate courts at separate palaces a few miles apart; meeting regularly, of course, but that Anne being at Claude’s court wasn’t the same thing as being constantly in the presence of the more licentious court of Francis. Is this correct or not?

    1. Francis had ADHD of a sort, and found it hard to sit still; his progresses, unlike those of the English court, were virtually year-round. Claude was constantly pregnant, so traveling was a much slower and more arduous business. By the time her entourage caught up with Francis’, he was on the move again. He really was a selfish lout. No wonder she died so young.

  8. Thank you Claire , I’m thoroughly enjoying this series. It’s filling in all the gaps for me.
    It’s does appear that the two girls were being mixed up. Anne was being educated and Mary was servicing both kings. I find it hard to believe Anne would behave in such a way
    and then go onto to marry the Prince of Christendom. Guilt by association for simply being Marys sister seems to be how she received a questionable reputation 🙂 x

  9. There is a psalter said to have been Anne Boleyn’s shown at the following website, along with other interesting Tudor artifacts.

  10. If we accept the birth order of the Boleyn children with Mary as the eldest, followed by Anne and George (though when Anne and George came into the world is not clear) then we can speculate that Anne learned by example. Mary was described by an ambassador to the French court as a “very great wanton” and by Francis as an “English Mare” and a ” great and infamous wh*re.”

    These were NOT kind things to be labelled with, and Anne, watching her sister’s follies had to be influenced by that behavior – the perfect example of how NOT to behave. THAT is probably one of the main reasons she decided to be chaste. Mary was not chosen to serve Queen Claude as a lady in waiting, probably because of her infamous behavior. Since Anne and Claude were probably close in age, and Claude apparently took a liking to her, Claude probably decided to “save” her friend from her sister’s bad influence, and kept her close to keep her pious and chaste. The speculation that Anne had endeared herself to Claude as an interpreter is probably on track. She had a good reputation up to this point as a stylish, witty, kind and chaste woman, and this probably appealed to Claude. Someone who was simultaneously glamorous, kind, and pious.

    Anne was not known as “cruel” or a “shrew” until all the scandal surrounding Henry’s divorce of Katharine of Aragon hit the fan, calling her “wh*re” and “homewrecker.” Of course, her behavior toward Katharine and Mary both was atrocious, but Henry backed her into that corner.

    Claude’s life seems like a sad one. Here she was, a Princess of France, and instead of being Queen in her own right, ends up as nothing more than a royal brood mare to a notoriously unfaithful man who had no respect for her. There were examples around her, even of France’s enemy, Spain, of women who became rulers in their own right – Isabella and Juana, to name only two. Margaret of Austria, though she was answerable to the Holy Roman Emperor, was at least very powerful and influential in her father’s and later nephew’s kingdom.

    Sadly, there are too many “probablys” and “maybes” and “apparentlys” but since there was little information kept on Claude besides her piety and her multiple pregnancies, all we have is speculation.

    I agree, it does sound like Nicholas Sander mixed Anne and Mary up – deliberately maybe? What is known of Mary’s time in France is that she was the “wanton” and I would not be surprised if she were the one who had sinned with the butler and the chaplain (!!) and ended up in a convent for educational purposes, to keep her away from temptation. Thomas Boleyn could NOT have been pleased that his daughter was known as a “mare” and an “infamous wh*re” especially considering that reflected badly upon him. Two chaste daughters, with their continental education, they both would have been valuable in the marriage market, raising the family fortunes that much higher. Anne might have been under a lot of pressure, not only from Claude, but her own family, to behave.

    I still think, however, that Anne was smart enough to learn from her sister’s reckless behavior and mistakes.

    Something that occurs to me, if Nicholas Sander mixed up the sisters later, during Elizabeth’s reign, could someone like Thomas Cromwell have done so deliberately, much earlier, and Anne went to her death because of documented illicit sexual activity that her sister had done while in France? How easy would it have been, especially since ALL of Anne’s champions were accused with her, to change the name in the rumors from Mary to Anne, especially since it was clear at this point that Henry wanted to be rid of Anne.

    Gads, Claire, I LOVE this site and your work on Ms. Boleyn!

  11. I have a certain amount of sympathy for poor old Mary Boleyn. I don’t believe she was the innocent that Gregory portrays her as, but there isn’t that much evidence to suggest she was the wh*re which she is often depicted as either. Francis I made derogatory comments about her, but let’s not forget that he also made them about Anne, and I certainly don’t believe those comments to be accurate. She may well have been Francis’s mistress, although there’s no conclusive evidence of that, but unless more evidence comes to light I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt as to her behaviour generally whilst in France.

  12. I think the truth about the notoriety of Mary Boleyn lies somewhere between the extremes as neither Great wh*re nor chaste. Anne, on the other hand, probably did learn how to modify her own behavior so as not to emulate her sister’s. Though we really won’t ever really know about her years in the French court, it is certain that she served under a chaste, modest and pious Queen Claude and was most probably learning to behave as a public and very proper French lady.

    Claire, excellent work on this series. Thanks also for the link to Queen Claude’s prayer book at the Morgan, which I will now plan to visit in the future. Her mother’s prayer book (Anne of Bretagne), I discovered, is also in their collection ( and I can’t wait to see that as well.

  13. I love the stories about Anne’s early life! It is too bad we can’t get a more detailed look at how Anne was raised in the french court. It would say so much about how she attracted Henry’s eye. I think she is the most fascinating woman of that time. However, I wonder what made her so outspoken in her later life with Henry.

  14. Ana, I think you make a good point about Mary Boleyn. I doubt she deserved such an undesirable reputation. No mater what time you live in, there are always people who like to gossip and make stories more interesting than they really are.

  15. I’ve just finished reading Catherine de Medici by J Plaidy so it’s nice to see where Anne Boleyn’s place was in the French court and who she met!

  16. Again, what is the evidence for Anne in France at the court of Queen Claude? I know that her father served as Ambassador and was in France and had contacts. But it is her sister Mary who was picked by Mary Rose to go as her maid to France. Anne may have come later to join the household at the court but even that does not make much sense. There were gentlewomen and noble ladies who went to France and other European courts for a finished education and this makes sense as Anne did have a polished education. I think she came to France a year or two later when Claude was having children to add to her expanded household and that she spent most of her time being educated before her sister caught the eye of King Francis and was later sent home. It is clear that at some point in the early 1520s that the sisters were no longer needed in France and came home. Anne also may have returned as when she came to court in 1523-1526 she had obviously come fresh from the French court and it was this that caught the eye of Henry VIII and others. There is no evidence that she was at the Field of the Cloth of Gold and even if she was she would have been one of hundreds of young ladies in the back ground, hardly noticeable.

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