by Sylvia Barbara Soberton
Anne Boleyn spent seven years at the French court. She served as maid of honour to Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor, who married Louis XII in October 1514. Upon Louis’s death Mary hastily married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and left France. Anne, however, stayed at the French court and was employed as maid of honour to Claude of Valois, wife of Francis I.
Claude was not the only royal woman whom Anne met at the French court. In this article I am going to take a closer look at the women who inspired the young Anne Boleyn in France.
Queen Claude: A Pious Presence
Claude was born on 13 October 1499 as the daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. Louis and Anne had one more daughter together, Renee, but no sons. The Salic law in France prevented women from assuming the crown so when Louis XII died in January 1515 he was succeeded not by his daughter Claude but by his closest male kinsman, Francis I.
An eye-witness reported in 1518 that Claude was “small in stature, plain and badly lame in both hips” but was “very cultivated, generous and pious.” It is sometimes suggested that Claude’s court was run almost like a convent but there is no evidence to that effect. Quite the contrary; Claude was a patron of the arts, enjoyed reading romances and had a deep appreciation for poetry. In recent years, scholars drew attention to Claude’s personal faith, pointing out that she zealously supported Church reform and held similar religious views as Marguerite of Navarre, her sister-in-law, who was known as a religious reformer. Perhaps if she lived longer, Claude would have been recognised as a religious reformer and shared a similar reputation as Marguerite.
Louise of Savoy: Diplomat & Regent
Louise of Savoy, Francis I’s mother and Claude’s mother-in-law, was a formidable presence at court. Louise’s influence over her son was Anne Boleyn’s first lesson in how a powerful woman could rule. “She always accompanies her son and the Queen and plays the governess without restraint”, reported one of the observers who was clearly impressed with Louise’s personality and appearance.
Despite the fact that she was with Claude almost all the time, Louise never took precedence over the Queen, observing correct etiquette on all occasions. At the same time, she was usually present when the Queen received foreign dignitaries. Although herself not a crowned queen (she was a countess and later duchess of Angouleme), Louise was treated as such by foreign ambassadors and other ruling families who recognised her key role at court and often referred to her, incorrectly, as “Queen Mother.”
Louise served as regent during Francis I’s absences and proved to have been a strong, political force to be reckoned with on the political stage of Europe.
Marguerite of Navarre: The Renaissance Woman
Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, was Francis I’s sister. Born on 11 April 1492, Marguerite was well-educated, pious and erudite. She wrote poetry and enjoyed music and dancing but also felt a deep spiritual connection with God. In 1534, Anne wrote to Marguerite that her “greatest wish, next to having a son, is to see you again”, hinting at a close connection rather than a casual acquaintance. It is likely that the music book known as MS 1070, currently preserved at the Royal College of Music in London, was a gift from Marguerite to the young Anne.
Although Marguerite had her own separate household with ladies-in-waiting who served her, she frequented Francis I’s court and shared an exceptionally close bond with Queen Claude. Anne had a lot in common with Marguerite; both shared a love of music and dancing and were keen patrons of religious reformers. Anne’s original stance on reform was inspired by Marguerite, who sought the correction of major abuses within the Church. Both women believed in making the Bible available to everyone in the vernacular and thus encouraged its translation.
Anne de France: Regent and writer
Anne de Beaujeu was a French princess and regent, the eldest daughter of Louis XI by Charlotte of Savoy. She was the sister of Charles VIII, for whom she acted as regent during his minority from 1483 until 1491. During the regency she was one of the most powerful women of late fifteenth-century Europe, and was referred to as “Madame la Grande”. The English ambassador recorded in April 1516 that the King’s mother “and my lady of Bourbon [Anne of Beaujeu] bear the rule”.
Anne Boleyn was certainly acquainted with Anne of Beaujeu’s book Lessons for My Daughter, a medieval best-seller and a manual for girls. Anne of Beaujeu advised her daughter Suzanne and the successive generations of young girls to “devote yourself completely to acquiring virtue”. She also advised that a young woman should guard her chastity and “avoid all private meetings” with men because women were often judged and gossiped about even if such meetings were innocent. Perhaps this is why Anne Boleyn refused to become Henry VIII’s mistress in 1526.
As Anne Boleyn returned to England and began making her own mark on the Tudor court, she carried with her the lessons of Claude’s piety, Louise’s political astuteness, Marguerite’s zeal for reform and Anne of Beaujeu’s shrewdness in diplomacy. Armed with this unique blend of influences, Anne Boleyn navigated the intricate web of Tudor politics with grace and determination, leaving an indelible impact on the court and shaping the course of English history.
About the Author
Sylvia Barbara Soberton is a writer and researcher specialising in the history of the Tudors. She is best known for The Forgotten Tudor Women book series, which concentrates on shifting the perspective from famous figures like Henry VIII’s six wives to the lesser-known, but no less influential, women of the Tudor court.
Sylvia has written ten books to date, and her newest titles include Ladies-in-Waiting: Women Who Served Anne Boleyn and Medical Downfall of the Tudors: Sex, Reproduction & Succession. Her ground-breaking research on the women who served Anne Boleyn was profiled in Smithsonian Magazine, The Express and History of Scotland Magazine. Sylvia is a regular contributor to the Ancient Origins website and magazine. She also talks about her books and research on podcasts such as The Tudors Dynasty, Not Just the Tudors, Talking Tudors and many more.
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