Anne Boleyn (by Robert White, after a drawing said to be of the queen by Hans Holbein)
Inscribed 'Born 1507. Married Nov. 14, 1532. Gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth Sept. 7, 1533. Beheaded May 19, 1536'
The birth date of Queen
Anne Boleyn remains controversial. While sources from the late 16th and early
17th centuries have stated that she was born in 1507, modern scholarship has
favoured an earlier date instead. The art historian Hugh Paget, in particular,
had proposed 1501 as a more plausible year based on Anne's time at the Hapsburg
court of Margaret of Austria in the Netherlands. Anne must surely have been
about the age of 12 in 1513 when she went abroad, Paget argued, as that was
supposedly the required age to be in service to the archduchess.
re-evaluation of Paget's reasoning, as presented here, casts doubt that Anne was born in 1501. The
obligatory age of courtly service is questionable, as was Anne's purpose for
being at the Imperial court in the first place. She was most probably not
engaged as a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Austria, but was rather boarded at
the Hapsburg schoolroom with other 'enfants
d'honneur'. Furthermore, evidence of Anne being listed as a maid-of-honour
is actually incorrect. She was confused with another young lady.
There are also overlooked
statements provided by Roger Tywysden, the nephew of Anne's first biographer
George Wyatt. Shortly before his death in 1624, Wyatt had entrusted his notes
about the late queen to his relative. Tywysden transcribed his uncle's work,
which clearly stated - and confirmed - that Anne was born in 1507, rather than
When Anne Boleyn was
executed on May 19, 1536, she left no indication how old she was at the time of
her death. During Henry VIII's courtship of her beginning in around 1526, there
were various descriptions of Anne as a 'young' woman (1), but none of these
have been helpful in pinpointing her age.
It was not until the
early 17th century that attempts were made to establish the year of her birth.
In 1615, the antiquarian William Camden published his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha ad annum
salutis - a biography of Anne's daughter Elizabeth I - in which he
empathically stated that Anne was born in 1507 ('Anna Bolena nata M.D. VII').
(2) This date was supported by the recollections of Lady Jane Dormer, made
before her death in 1612, that Anne was 'not 29 years of age' when she was
William Camden (by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)
However in 1649, Lord
Herbert of Cherbury, in his book The Life
and Reign of King Henry the Eighth, was certain that Anne was born earlier.
He claimed (though on what authority he did not say) that Anne, 'coming to the
age of 15', was 'deflowered by some domestics of her father' and was thus sent
to France in 1514 because of her bad behavior. That said, Herbert believed
that Anne was born 'about or before 1498'. (4)
A date prior to 1507
was also accepted by later historians such as Agnes Strickland (who thought
1501 based on her interpretation of Herbert's book) and by Paul Friedmann.
Friedmann opined 1503-1504, or even earlier as 'she may have been rather older,
for women so vain as Anne generally give themselves out for somewhat younger
than they are.' As well, Friedmann referred to a portrait type, supposedly of
Anne by Hans Holbein no less, where her age is given as 27 in 1530. (5) However, this
painting of 'Anna Regina' was actually of another
Anne - Anne of Hungary, wife of Ferdinand (the future Holy Roman Emperor and brother of the other future emperor, Charles V). Nevertheless, the circa 1501 date was also argued for by historian J.H. Round in
accordance with Friedmann. (6)
Anne of Hungary (by Robert Cooper after Hans Maler)
The 1501 date was
raised again by art historian Hugh Paget in more recent times. In 1981, he
argued - with much persuasion - that Anne Boleyn was born in that year as
opposed to 1507. Paget pointed out a
letter written by her to her father Sir Thomas Boleyn from the Netherlands where
Anne had gone to reside with the regent Margaret of Austria in 1513. As such
appointments were supposedly only given to girls of age 13 to 14, Anne must
have been born in 1501, Paget proposed. Also, he claimed that Anne's name
appeared in a list of Margaret's servants. So apart from being in the Low
Countries to improve her French, she was also in service to the archduchess as
a lady-in-waiting. (7)
However, a reassessment
of Paget's arguments questions whether the age of about 12 was actually a
requirement at the Hapsburg court, and that contrary to his identification
of Anne as an attendant of Margaret of Austria, she was actually not there.
Margaret of Austria (left) with her aunt Kunigunde of Austria (by Gaspare Oselli and Francesco Terzio)
According to Anne's
letter, she was grateful to her father, in his role as envoy to the Imperial court in the Netherlands, for sending her to Margaret
of Austria and she would do her best 'to continue to learn to speak good
French.' (8) She also made mention of how she looked forward to speaking to
'the queen'. This has been taken to mean Katherine of Aragon in England, but as
Anne had newly arrived in the Low Countries and would presumably stay there for
awhile, she probably meant Margaret, whom she mistakenly referred
to as 'the queen' rather than 'the archduchess' or 'the regent'. Given that
Margaret was appointed governor of the Hapsburg Netherlands by her father
Emperor Maximilian I (until her nephew Charles of Ghent - later Emperor
Charles V - came of age) and entrusted with great powers, it is likely that the youthful Anne confused her
Eleanor of Austria, Charles of Ghent, and Isabeau of Austria (by an Unknown Artist)
But how young was she?
Was she about 6 or about 12? The argument for the latter was that to be in
service to the Hapsburgs, one had to be about 13 or 14. Paget pointed to a
letter (dated January 13, 1512) from the Emperor Maximilian to his daughter
where he asked Margaret to place the niece of the courtier Don Diégo de Guevara who was of that age in
her household. (9) This has commonly been assumed that she was to be a servant
to the archduchess. But a closer reading of the letter shows that the emperor
was asking that the girl be placed with his 'most dear and much loved girls' his
granddaughters: Eleanor (the future Queen of France), Isabeau (the future Queen
of Denmark), and Mary (the future Queen of Hungary) at the regent's court in
the city of Mechelen (Malines). It is not certain that Don Diégo's niece was
meant to a demoiselle d'honneur to
the three girls who were about her age. Rather than as a maid-of-honour, perhaps
she was meant to be a live-in companion to them and was to finish her education
with them as well. That she was being sent to Mechelen having reached the age
of 13 or 14 might have been a proviso on the part of her family rather
than the emperor.
Map of Mechelen (Malines)
The Court of Cambrai is indicated in red. The Court of Savoy (with its interior gardens) is indicated in green.
The Court of Cambrai (the Keizerhof) (by an Unknown Artist)
The Court of Savoy (by an Unknown Artist)
Anne Boleyn's own
statement to her father that she was at her French lessons implies that she
was in the Hapsburg schoolroom rather than in service to Archduchess Margaret.
This was the opinion of historian Retha Warnicke who supported 1507 as Anne's
birth date. Warnicke had also noted that Anne Brandon, the daughter of Charles
Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was sent to the Imperial court at age 7, as was his
ward, Magdalen Rochester, at age 8. (10)
What Anne also wrote to
Sir Thomas Boleyn implied she had little engagement with her hostess Margaret. Anne
stated that since her arrival, she had written a number of letters to him in
French under her tutor Symonnet, and this was the first one composed by herself
without her teacher's help. This would mean that some weeks or even months had
passed. Furthermore, she had still yet to converse with 'the queen' (here taken
to mean Margaret of Austria). Anne did
meet the regent when she first arrived in the Low Countries, as the archduchess
described her as being 'of such good address and so pleasing in her youthful age'
when she was presented to her by the Imperial envoy Claude de Bouton. (11) But
this audience appeared to have been brief, and then Anne was packed off to her
lessons. That she was not with Margaret indicates that she was not in constant
attendance upon her as a lady-in-waiting should be.
Castle Tervuren (by Jan Brueghel)
Then where was Anne? Her
letter to her father came from La Veure (Tervuren) where Margaret of Austria
liked to spend her spring and summer holidays with her young charges, her three
nieces and her nephew at Castle Tervuren. (12) Most likely, Anne had met
Margaret briefly upon her arrival overseas, perhaps in Brussels, where the
archduchess was negotiating the marriage of her niece Isabeau to the King of
Denmark. (13) She was then sent off to La Veure to be with the Imperial children. It is known that they were there, as a teenage Charles accidentally shot
and killed a local with his crossbow there that spring on Pentecost Monday, as
his aunt regrettably reported to her father the emperor. (14)
In the fall, Anne and
the Hapsburg children were taken to Margaret's palace in Mechelen. The archduchess's
headquarters was the Court of Savoy. But if Anne was in the schoolroom as a little girl, rather than in service as it is argued here, she would mostly
likely have been lodged in the Court of Cambria directly across the street with
Charles of Ghent and his sisters. There she would have shared lessons with the
other enfants d'honneur; sons and daughters of
the international elite invited to live and learn at the Imperial court. (15) Anne, as
the child of an important man, the Ambassador of England, would have been welcomed
into this circle.
However, Hugh Paget was
certain that Anne was with the archduchess as a lady-in-waiting as he referred
to a list of the regent's staff in which a 'Mademoiselle de Bullan' (obviously
Anne Boleyn) appeared. (16) However, this was a 19th century misreading. The
lady's surname was actually 'de Bulleux'; she being a relation of one Hugues de Bulleux who served Margaret of Austria. Also, this list was actually compiled in 1525, long after Anne had left the Netherlands. (17)
Roger Tywsden (by an Unknown Artist)
Going back to Anne's
age, there is also the statements given by Roger Tywsden to consider. Tywsden
(1597–1672) was a nephew of George Wyatt (1553–1624) who had written a
biography of the tragic queen in the late 16th century. By his own account,
Tywsden received his uncle's manuscript, from which he did a partial
transcription in 1623. Among Tywsden's marginalia were significant statements
saying that when Anne was 'not above 7 years of age, Anno 1514' she went to
France, and that 'Anne was born 1507'. (18) Wyatt, from whom these notes were
derived, had reliable sources in the form of two ladies who had personally
known Anne at Henry VIII's court. (19)
Memorial Brass of Thomas Boleyn (The National Monuments Record)
With these all factors
taken into consideration, there is a good argument that Anne Boleyn had gone to
the Netherlands at an earlier age than supposed. That she was deemed too young
is a modern conception, and Sir Thomas Boleyn seemingly had no qualms about
sending her abroad as a little girl. The invitation from the Archduchess
Margaret was too good to pass up, and Boleyn was not going to lose the
opportunity by waiting till Anne was older. He was ambitious for her as he was
1. Examples given in
Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing, 2004, p. 40, p. 45, p. 52, p. 63.
Camden, Annales Rerum
Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha ad annum salutis M.D.LXXXIX, 1615, p. 2
3. Henry Clifford, The Life of Jane Dormer,
Duchess of Feria, (transcribed by
Canon E.E. Estcourt and edited by Rev. Joseph Stevenson). London: Burns and
Oates Limited, 1887, p. 80.
4. Edward Herbert (Lord Herbert of Cherbury), The Life and Reign of King Henry the Eighth,
London: printed by Mary Clark for Ann Mearn, 1683, pp. 286-287.
5. Agnes Strickland, Lives of the Queens of
Blanchard and Lea, 1856, IV, p. 124. Paul Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History, 1527-1536, London:
Macmillan, 1884, II, p. 315.
Round, The Early Life of Anne Boleyn: A
Critical Essay, London: Elliot Stock, 1886.
7. Hugh Paget, 'The Youth of Anne Boleyn', Bulletin of The Institute of Historical
Research, Volume 54, Issue 130, 1981, pp. 162-170.
Ridley, The Love Letters of Henry VIII, London: Cassell, 1988, p. 31.
9. M. Le
Glay, Correspondance de l'empereur
Maximilien Ier et de Marguerite d'Autriche, sa fille, gouvernante des Pays-Bas, de 1507 à 1519, publiée d'après les
Manuscrits originaux, Paris: Jules Renouard et Cie., 1839, II, pp. 81-82.
M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 12-17 and p.
259, note 17.
11. Philip W. Sergeant, Anne Boleyn, London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.,
1924, p. 27.
12. As for the other siblings, Ferdinand (the future
Holy Roman Emperor) did not join the court in Mechelen till later, and Catherine
(the future Queen of Portugal) stayed in Spain.
Glay, Correspondance, II, p. 157.
Glay, Correspondance, II, pp.
15. For the enfants
d'honneur, see Samuel
Mareel, (editor), Renaissance Children:
Art and Education at the Hapsburg Court (1480-1530), Tielt: Lannoo
Publishers, 2021, pp. 18-19.
16. M. Le
Glay, Correspondance, II, p. 461,
note 2. See also Le Baron de Reiffenberg (editor), Chronique métrique de Chastellain et de Molinet, avec des notices sur ces auteurs et des remarques sur le
texte corrigé, Brussels: J.M. Lacrosse,
1836, p. 154 (but corrected as 'Bulleur' on p. 156).
correct name of Mademoiselle de Bulleux appears in the direct transcription
Margaret of Austria's household
ordinance found in Le Compte E. de Quinsonas, Materiaux pour servir à l'histoire de Marguerite d'Autriche, Duchesse de Savoie, Regente des Pays-Bas, Paris: Delaroque Frères, 1860, III, p. 282, p. 293, p. 295, p. 298, p.
313, and p. 314.
Twysden, An Account of Queen Anne Bullen: From a MS. in the Hand Writing of Sir
Roger Twysden, Bart., 1623, (edited by Robert Triphook), London, 1808, p.
3, p. 14, and p. 15.
19. George Wyatt, ‘Some
Particulars of the Life of Queen Anne Boleigne’ in George
Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (edited
by S.W. Singer), second edition, London: Printed by Thomas Davison for Harding
and Lepard, 1827, p. 422.
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