The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Two – The Court of Margaret of Austria

In May 1512 Thomas Boleyn was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria at Mechelen in the Low Countries as an ambassador. Although he had to return to England shortly after he had arrived, for further consultation with the King and council, he was back in Brussels by the end of June and it is thought that he stayed there until the following April or May.

It seems that the intelligent and ambitious Thomas Boleyn made an impression on Margaret. Retha Warnicke writes of how in August 1512 the two were on such good terms that Margaret playfully bet Thomas that her father, the emperor, would allow them to conclude their negotiations within ten days. If Thomas won the bet then Margaret would give him a “courser of Spain” and if Margaret won then Thomas would give her “a hobby”. Warnicke points out that “as she had asked for a hobby from him, she surely had some personal knowledge of his family, for he was an heir general of the Irish earldom of Ormond and hobbies at this time were usually associated with that country.”1

Thomas Boleyn was not just ambitious for himself, he was also ambitious for his children, and he recognised that Margaret’s court, which Eric Ives describes as “the Mecca of aristocratic and princeley behaviour”2 was the ideal place to send his highly intelligent and precocious daughter, Anne, for he had plans for her to serve Margaret’s sister-in-law, Catherine of Aragon and for that she would require good French and continental manners. Eric Ives also describes Margaret’s court as “Europe’s premier finishing school” and the cultural heart of Europe, a place where Anne Boleyn could finish her education with Margaret’s Hapsburg nephews and nieces and the children of “the elite of Europe”. If Margaret agreed to accept Anne, then Anne would be mixing with the future rulers of Europe in a true Renaissance Court, what an opportunity!

The Court of Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria was born in 1480 and was the daughter of Maximilian of Austria (Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor) and Mary of Burgundy. In 1482, when she was just two, her father made the Treaty of Arras with France and Margaret, his only daughter, was promised in marriage to the Dauphin, Louis XI’s son Charles. To prepare her for being the Queen Consort of France, Margaret was sent to be educated in France. The marriage never took place, with Charles choosing to marry Anne of Brittany instead, and Margaret went on to marry John Prince of Asturias, the only son of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, in 1497. John died after just six months of marriage and the pregnant Margaret gave birth to a stillborn daughter two months after his death. In 1501, Margaret married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, but he died three years later. Margaret vowed never to marry again and spent the rest of her life in mourning, wearing black.

A young Margaret of Austria

In 1507, Margaret’s father appointed her as Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, the regent for her six year old nephew, Charles, the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Although Charles did rebel against her when he came of age in 1515, and took her title of governor away for 4 years, he appointed her as governor again in 1519 when he realised what an asset she was. In this position, Margaret was one of the most powerful women in Europe.

Spending the formative years of her life in France had not only made Margaret fluent in the language but also very French in her ways. She was also highly educated and was accomplished at music and poetry. Belgian historian, Ghislain de Boom, described her palace at Mechelen (Malines in French) as “un école d’éducation princière et un centre de haute civilisation”3, “a princely school and a centre of high culture/advanced civilisation”, and so it was. 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 Margarets’s collection of paintings by masters such as Jan van Eyck, her collection of illuminated manuscripts and her collection of music books. She surrounded herself with men of letters, poets and painters. Margaret also enjoyed the tradition of courtly love, which Eric Ives describes 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”4.

Anne Arrives at the Habsburg Court

What better place to send your daughter to finish her education than the court of the most powerful and influential women of Europe, a court known for its culture. Thomas Boleyn took advantage of his close relationship with Margaret and asked if it was possible to send his daughter to her. Although places at Margaret’s court were highly sought after, and Anne was no European princess, Margaret agreed and Anne Boleyn was dispatched to the Low Countries in the summer of 1513. At the time, as Hugh Paget points out, it appeared that Thomas Boleyn would be sent back to the Habsburg Court but this did not happen. In an undated letter to Thomas Boleyn, shortly after Anne’s arrival, Margaret wrote:-

“I have received your letter by the Esquire 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 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.”5

Although some historians use these words as evidence that Anne was seven, not 12, in 1513 because Margaret refers to “her young age”, I think that Margaret is simply expressing her delight that Anne is so precocious and intelligent, seeing as she was a year younger than the usual age for a girl to be appointed “demoiselle d’honneur”. It is evident from Margaret’s letter that she is impressed by Anne and that she is looking forward to showing Thomas Boleyn Anne’s progress at a future date.

We know that Anne Boleyn was a “demoiselle d’honneur” or “fille d’honneur” at Margaret’s court because she is listed in a list of eighteen “filles d’honneur” at a dinner in the Baron of Reiffenberg’s “Chronique Métrique de Chastellain et de Molinet”:-

“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.”6

Margaret assigned Anne a tutor, 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.”7

Margaret of Austria’s Influence on Anne Boleyn

The stylish and cultured Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn’s love of fine art, music, poetry and her love of 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 full of colourful tapestries and beautiful fabric. Eric Ives writes of how “in later life Anne was excited by fabric and colour”8, a love sure to have started in the Netherlands, and she was the patron of artist Hans Holbein, just as Margaret had given her patronage to top artists on the continent.

Eric Ives also points out that Margaret of Austria’s palace at Mechelen also affected Anne Boleyn’s taste in architecture. He describes how the southern face of Margaret’s palace, which Anne would have known in 1513, was built out of patterned local brick, in a style similar to Hampton Court Palace. Ives notes that “Anne’s own palace, Whitehall, would be begun in the same style”, what Anne saw at Mechelen “would be recreated for her beside the Thames twenty years later.”9

Hugh Paget writes of how Anne Boleyn’s time at Margaret of Austria’s court had a number of “important consequences”10:-

  • 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 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 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. There is no way that Thomas Boleyn had any inkling in 1512 that his daughter would one day be queen, or that Margaret of Austria groomed Anne to be Henry VIII’s consort. In 1512, Henry VIII had only been married to Catherine of Aragon for three years and was perfectly happy, anticipating that he would be married to Catherine for the rest of his life and that they would, in time, have a son and heir. But what Thomas Boleyn did do was to give his daughter the best chance of obtaining an appointment as a queen’s lady, and he was successful. Anne was chosen to serve Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister and Queen of France, in 1514, and then Queen Claude, Francis I’s wife, in 1515. Anne had spent only a year at Mechelen, but that year had a dramatic impact on her and what she learned at Margaret’s court was built on in France.

Don’t forget to read Part One – Beginnings.

Notes and Sources

  1. “Anne Boleyn’s Childhood and Adolescence”, article by Retha Warnicke, The Historical Journal, Vol.28, No. 4, Dec. 1985
  2. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p18
  3. Ghislaine de Boom, “Marguerite d’Autriche-Sauoie et la Pré-Renaissance” (Paris and Brussels, ig35), quoted in “The Youth of Anne Boleyn”, article by Hugh Paget, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research , LIV (1981)
  4. Ives, p68
  5. Ibid., p19
  6. Baron of Reiffenberg’s “Chronique Métrique de Chastellain et de Molinet”, p154
  7. Hugh Paget
  8. Ives, p24
  9. Ibid., p23
  10. Hugh Paget

Other sources:-

  • “Correspondance de l’Empereur Maximilien I et de Marguerite d’Autriche”, Volumes I and II
  • Margaret of Austria, Wikipedia page
  • “The First Governess of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria”, Eleanor E. Tremayne, for photos of the interior courtyard of Margaret’s palace (p273) and details of her library.

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22 thoughts on “The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part Two – The Court of Margaret of Austria”
  1. This whole year near Margaret definately had a huge impact on Anne. Thank you for explaining all so well to us, Claire!

    Anne was lucky to have this opportunity. Was it because of her intelligence and charisma that her father chose to send her over there and not the older Mary?

  2. Thanks Claire for these articles of Anne’s early life! It is such a great thing to find out things about Anne’s childhood and youth! It’s very exciting! For her time she had a great luck to be educated in that way.How many articles will follow? 🙂

  3. Such a ‘finishing’ education overseas and in such a highly cultured environment would certainly go some way to explaining just why Henry was so patient and dedicated to the wooing of Anne. The qualities and accomplishments that she gained there were part of what made Anne special and were what Henry clearly valued – he could, after all, have any woman he wanted as a mistress at that time – but Anne gave him something extra: the intelligence, the good company and lively conversation of a valued companion.

  4. What a great article and very informative. I find these early years so fascinating and indeed, this cosmopolitan experience did serve to prepare Anne to become a Queen. I think she tried very hard to run her court in much the same way. I wonder why Henry became a bit of a lout once she married him. But then, I’ve seen such changes now, once people tie the knot. Something in the psyche, I guess. Great article Claire! Can’t wait for more!

  5. Great article! Along with all the accomplishments Anne’s education gave her, I’ve often wondered whether Henry also valued her experience as an insider at two such important foreign courts. She knew Margaret, must have known Charles V too, by sight even if they never spoke to each other, and she must have had valuable insight into both their characters. And if this was not enough, she would then have come to know Francis I of France and his very highly educated sister, Marguerite de Navarre. There could have been few people at Henry’s court who could boast such a wide and important range of aquaintances! She must have had a very shrewd grasp of the way in which the three different courts operated.

  6. Thank you, I love articles about Margaret of Austria’s influence on Anne. Both are such fascinating women!

  7. I am loving the articles of Anne’s early life! There can be no doubt that Margaret made a huge impression on the young Anne since she carried the lessons she learned at Margaret’s court throughout her life.

  8. Hi, Claire.
    I’m facinating with your articles, I’m doing an 5000 words essay for college about Anne Boleyn and I found them very usefull for it. I have a question, in your sources you mention the letter from Margaret as Ibid., p19. Can you be more specific. And can I find a picture or the real document. I saw a video of David Starkey in which this letter appears.
    Thank you very much.
    Sorry if there are mistakes. I’m spanish and I try not make them.

    1. Sorry, the letter that appears in the video is not the Margaret one. Is the letter of Anne to his father.

    2. Hi Encarna,
      “Ibid” simply means “in the same place” so p19 of the reference before it, in this case p19 of the Eric Ives book. I have checked Ives’s own referencing and he has taken it from Hugh Paget’s article “The Youth of Anne Boleyn” in the “Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research”. I will email you more information on this.

      1. Paget says of this letter in his referencing:-
        “Correspondance de Muximilien et Marguerite, ii. 461 n. 2. Unfortunately this does not give the full text
        nor the date of the letter, which does not now appear to be traceable in the archives at Lille. I am
        indebted for this information to the Conservateur en Chef, Direction des Services d’Archives,
        Departement du Nord, Lille.”

  9. I do not believe that Anne Boleyn was at the court of Marguerite as her family was not influential enough or important enough to have such a prized position and there is no evidence for it. Margaret is not writing to Thomas Boleyn; there is no evidence that he is and she does not mention Anne or Mary by name. This letter could be about the daughter of any courtier or ambassador and it does not have historical significance. The tradition that Anne spent time at the most sophisticated court in Europe is just that a tradition.

    Please provide serious evidence if you believe to the contrary.

  10. I don’t understand what is meant by Thomas Boleyn at the time being heir general to the irish earldom of Ormond ,was there not some sort of argument over the earldom and at a much later date and also that is why anne was nearly married off to james butler to cement this ,Thomas Boleyn was granted this earldom when anne was in favour with henry and it was granted by henry ,this was I see one of the many perks that Thomas Boleyn was to get while anne was in favour.

    1. Piers Butler usurped the position and started styling himself Earl of Ormond when it actually belonged to Thomas Boleyn. Thomas Boleyn’s grandfather, Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond, died in 1515 leaving two daughters, one of whom was Margaret, Thomas Boleyn’s mother. Sir Piers, considered himself to be the rightful heir because Thomas Butler only had daughters, but the Ormond title was entailed to heirs general, not just male heirs, so it belonged to Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn. Thomas put forward his claim to the Earldom with the support of his King, Henry VIII, in 1515 long before Henry VIII was involved with either of his daughters.

      Regardless of the fact that the Boleyns and St. Legers were the rightful heirs to the title and lands, Sir Piers Butler, who was on the ground in Ireland, seized the estates and started styling himself Earl. He had the backing of the Irish Lords and people, but Thomas Boleyn had the backing of Henry VIII. It was a problem. A solution needed to be found to keep both the Boleyns and St. Legers happy, but also to keep the peace in Ireland; Piers could help the English government control the troublesome Irish factions. There were various court hearings, with Margaret and her sister Anne giving plenty of evidence that their father’s lands and titles belonged to them. The King and Wolsey tried to settle the matter in a way which would please all concerned, with a marriage match between Anne Boleyn and James Butler. A marriage match between Anne and James would mean that the earldom of Ormond would pass to James and Anne on Piers’ death and therefore be in the Boleyn and Butler family.

      To cut a very long story short (I go into detail on all the court hearings, negotiations etc. in The Anne Boleyn Collection II), the marriage negotiations eventually fizzled out, possibly because Thomas Boleyn was not happy with losing the title when it was rightfully his. The dispute was finally solved in 1528 when a deal was brokered which involved Piers Butler receiving fourteen of the Ormond manors on a thirty-year lease, and also being elevated to the peerage, in return for relinquishing the earldom of Ormond to Thomas Boleyn. Although this may well be because Henry VIII was involved with Anne Boleyn at this time, Henry VIII had been supporting Thomas Boleyn in fighting for the earldom since 1515.

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