By Sandi Vasoli
In 1513, a young girl of about 12 or 13 years of age boarded a ship in Dover, England, to make a crossing into France and the European continent. The journey, to join the court of Margaret of Austria, would provide the young woman with an education that very few English noblewomen were privileged to have. Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary were the daughters of a Sir Thomas Boleyn, a cultured and well-to-do courtier in the service of the magnificent King Henry VIII. Sir Thomas had carefully made arrangements for both Anne and Mary, and expected that the learning and the comportment they would be taught in the European capital of Brabant would equip them to make splendid marriages, and to bring honor to their families once they returned to England.
In Margaret’s court there were children of illustrious nobles from across Europe, and Anne was to become one of Margaret’s filles d’honneur, young ladies who would learn French and manners, and associate with the elite on the Continent.
Anne remained in the Palace at Mechelen for between one to several years. During this time, she endeared herself to the Regent, the Archduchess Margaret. Anne was an avid student of French, and quickly became fluent. She learned the subtle skills of conversation and conduct befitting a lady. She also began an unofficial study of such things as architecture, textiles, personal beauty and style, and humanism. She was so adept at French that when Mary Tudor, the sister of the English king became betrothed to King Louis XII of France, it is probable that Anne was sent, along with her sister Mary, from the Low Countries to the French Court to assist Mary Tudor with translation and adjusting to life as the new French Queen.
Thus began Anne’s stay in France – first serving Mary, then in the service of Queen Claude – for possibly seven years. This formative period in Anne’s life allowed her to become immersed in the highly refined culture of France and the French court. She met and associated with many people who were instrumental in the development of the Renaissance, including Marguerite d’Angoulême – a woman whose brilliance and presence appear to have been extremely influential to Anne – renowned Christian humanists, musicians and painters – even perhaps Leonardo da Vinci, who stayed at the court of François I and Claude for a time.
Anne returned to England some time between December of 1521 and March of 1522, because in March her appearance is notated as a participant in an elegant court masque in Henry’s Palace of Placentia. Whether or not Henry took note of Anne on that evening, we do not know. However, over the next several years, Anne traveled back and forth between her parents’ estate, the manor of Hever in Kent, and whichever palace was being occupied by the King’s court.
By late 1526 or early 1527, however, it is certain that the lovely, graceful, and cultured young Anne Boleyn had become the object of King Henry’s fascination. It’s likely that other men had been entranced by Anne before the King, among them young Lord Henry Percy and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt; whether or not she returned their affections in kind we just do not know.
Why was she so incredibly attractive to men of taste and power? Clearly, Anne possessed that indefinable something which draws men in pursuit, and women in grudging admiration and then jealousy. Anne was sophisticated, elegant, and poised. She was intelligent and talented. And she understood the psychology of all things beautiful. As Anne established her place by the side of Henry VIII, she was able to exercise her skills in the many arenas of her talents. Truly, she was a prodigiously talented woman, as we look back on her from the vantage point of today. Not only was she an avid sportswoman, hunting, hawking, competing at bowls, archery and other outdoor pursuits (which she did well), but she excelled at the more typical female pastimes.
Anne, like other women, did needlework. Whether or not she enjoyed it we don’t know, but there is a piece of fabric from a suite of bedclothes which remains and is attributed to Anne and her ladies, and the craftsmanship is fine.
It is recorded that she played the lute beautifully, and also perhaps the virginals (an early type of keyboard instrument). She sang, and Anne and Henry enjoyed singing together. They also composed music together, which demonstrates a deeper knowledge of music than that required to merely sing prettily. Throughout her adult life, and especially as Queen, Anne acted as a patron to the talented musicians who served Court. Thomas Tallis, one of the most noteworthy of English composers, thrived during Anne’s time. Sadly, it is well known that Anne greatly enjoyed the music of the accomplished young musician Mark Smeaton, and her frequent requests for his music contributed to Smeaton’s being accused as one of her lovers in 1536.
Anne was also a serious patron of fine art. She shared a consistent working relationship with the brilliant Hans Holbein the Younger, who was in residence in the King’s and Queen’s court from the late 1520’s. He served as a court painter, executing primarily portraits, and from Holbein we know what many of the significant members of Court at that time looked like. It is likely that Anne directly commissioned Holbein to create one of his most acknowledged paintings, The Ambassadors. Highly symbolic, it represented the insurgence of the Reformed faith which was sweeping England in 1533. It is so unfortunate that no verified portrait of Anne by Holbein exists today. Surely there was one, probably only to be destroyed after her death.
One of Anne’s most significant accomplishments as a woman well ahead of her time was the partnership she shared with Henry as they, together, redesigned and reconstructed the former York Place, a residence of Cardinal Wolsey’s, into the magnificent palace they both called home – Whitehall. Henry, proud of his exceptional, beloved Anne, invited her to assist in developing the architectural plans for the refurbishment of the Palace. She did so, reveling in the fact that her rival, Katharine of Aragon, would never set foot over its threshold. Whitehall became a most spectacular royal estate, as did Hampton Court Palace. Anne’s influence was felt there as well.
Not only a woman of style, beauty and a keen intelligence, Anne Boleyn was a cultural icon, and her influence in these areas is felt today.
Meet The Author
Sandra Vasoli, author of Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower, earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and biology from Villanova University before embarking on a thirty-five-year career in human resources for a large international company.
Having written essays, stories, and articles all her life, Vasoli was prompted by her overwhelming fascination with the Tudor dynasty to try her hand at writing both historical fiction and non-fiction. While researching what would eventually become her Je Anne Boleyn series, Vasoli was granted unprecedented access to the Papal Library. There she was able to read the original love letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn—an event that contributed greatly to her research and writing.
Sandra Vasoli currently lives in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two greyhounds.
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