The Age of Anne Boleyn – Wendy J. Dunn
At time of canvasinge this matter so,
In the courte (newe entred) theare dyd frequent
A fresche young damoysell, that cowld trippe and go,
To synge and to daunce passinge excellent,
No tatches shee lacked of loves allurement;
She cowlde speake Frenche ornately and playne,
Famed in the cowrte (by name) Anne Bullayne
At the birth of Anne Boleyn, if a seer had predicted her important role on the stage of English History, I feel certain her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, would have scoffed. Her father likely planned for a future where one of his daughters, surviving the perils of infancy and childhood of this period, achieved a marriage strengthening Boleyn’s own status at court, but never a future as the crowned Queen of England, consort of Henry VIII.
Later in his life Earl of Ormonde and Wiltshire, Thomas Boleyn — or Bullen as they called the family then — was but a knight at the time of Anne’s birth. A son of a man whose own father, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, stood even lower on the rungs of English society — a self-made man who became a Mayor of London and gained an heiress, the daughter of Lord Hoo and Hastings, as his wife (Warnicke 1989, p.8).
Thomas Boleyn, ambitious for his family, continued building upon what his grandfather first built and rarely — that is, until his daughter Anne had the misfortune to miscarry the King’s son in 1536 — missed a step to raise his family higher in the Tudor hierarchy. Indeed, Thomas Boleyn had done well enough for himself when he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of Thomas, Duke of Howard, head of a prolific family, with bloodlines stretching back to Edward I, through his second marriage to Margaret of France.
At Anne’s birth, Sir Thomas Boleyn — with his daughter’s future as mother to one of England’s best-loved monarchs hidden from him — had no reason to leave documentation about the date of her birth. This being the case, history shrouds in its deepest shadows the truth of Anne’s birth year, as indeed the place of her birth. Both have long been fodder for lively debate amongst Tudor historians. My reason for entering this fray is a belief that the arguments for Anne’s birth in 1507 are much stronger than the other suggested years of 1502 or 1501, or as early as 1499.
For many historians, the crux of the matter appears to revolve around Anne Boleyn’s sojourn over on the continent. Thomas Boleyn, using the contacts he made abroad during his time as a successful diplomat, sent Anne first as a fille d’honneur at the court of Margaret of Austria. After a brief stay in Burgundy, Anne’s father arranged for her to go onto France, perchance to join her sister Mary as attendant to Mary Tudor, the youngest surviving sister of Henry VIII, for her marriage to Louis XII of France. * Because the first sojourn occurred in 1514, historians have argued that Anne Boleyn must have had reached either the age twelve or thirteen, usually the youngest ages considered for a fille d’honneur.
I believe Retha Warwicke, in her ‘Rise and fall of Anne Boleyn,’ argues an excellent case that Anne Boleyn was only seven on her arrival at Margaret’s court. Not only does she cite the example of Anne Brandon, six-years-old in the same time period as Anne Boleyn, placed also in Margaret’s care but In addition, she cites a letter from the Regent to Thomas Boleyn. This letter comments how Anne was “so well spoken and so pleasant for her young years” (Warnicke 1989, p. 12).
These words imply Anne was younger than twelve or thirteen, because it is extremely unlikely that the Regent would have commented on her ‘young years’ if Anne had neared or reached her teenage years. In this period, though admittedly not a common occurrence, girls of twelve were of marriageable age as well as have their marriages consummated. They were unlikely to be regarded in their ‘young years.’
There is even a letter that Anne herself wrote to her father, in obviously immature handwriting, during her stay with the Regent, in which Anne blames her mistakes and poor penmanship on the fact that this letter was the first she had written by herself (Warnicke 1989, p. 15). Surely by twelve or thirteen this would not likely be the case.
We also have evidence pointing to what happened to Anne after her arrival in France. That Anne made the acquaintance of Renée of France (Warnicke 1989, p. 21), the French Queen’s young sister, born 1510 (Britannica Online 2009), who was still in the Royal nursery, shows us that Anne was not an active member of the licentious court of François of France. Rather, because of her extreme youth, Anne spent her first years in France in the nursery of the Royal children, at the court of Claude, the Queen and consort of François. Where François’ court had a reputation for ‘free-living,’ if not depravity, his wife’s household was deemed almost as good as a good convent. Thus, was very suitable for a young, gently bred girl, especially if she was to be returned to her family not as ‘spoiled goods, ‘ but with all her prospects of achieving a good marriage still in place. That called for her reputation and her ‘virginity’ to be still intact.
Another confusion concerning Anne Boleyn is whether she was in fact the elder sister, rather than her evidently more scandal prone sister, Mary Boleyn. Before Anne’s involvement with the King, Mary briefly became mistress to King Henry VIII — some people from the period believed her son, Henry Carey, to be also the son of the King- perhaps after her marriage to William Carey. (The confusion continues even over the timing of Mary’s relationship with the King. Warnicke believes it occurred after her marriage with William Carey (Warnicke 1989, p. 34) while Antonia Fraser states it happened before (Fraser 1992, p. 101). Retha Warnicke also believes Mary to be the younger sister and only twelve at her marriage to William Carey, which I believe unlikely.
Sir Thomas Boleyn’s decision to send Anne rather than Mary to the Duchess of Burgundy offers some evidence Anne was the elder. It is possible that Sir Thomas Boleyn realised that his younger daughter, besides her obvious intelligence, had inherited his gift as a linguist — something his granddaughter, Elizabeth the First, also shared. His decision to send Anne rather than Mary to Burgundy could have been simply the result of a parent weighing up opportunities for their children, and deciding which child would benefit most from them. It is also possible he believed Mary was better placed at the court of Louis XII of France — which was influenced by a pious king. Later, Mary had a reputation for being rather free with her ‘favours’ (Fraser 1992, p. 101). François I, the king who succeeded Louis, remarked about her, per una grandissima ribala et infame sopre tutte.
During the reign of Elizabeth, members of Anne’s own family believed the Queen’s mother to be the younger sister, as shown when Mary Boleyn’s grandson attempted to claim the Earldom of Ormonde through the fact of his grandmother’s seniority. As Fraser comments, this seniority was not contested “although in the reign of Anne Boleyn’s daughter there were plenty who would have done so, if it had been untrue” (Fraser 1992, p.119) There is another a bit of evidence to sway my belief about how young Anne actually was during her time on the continent. Anne spoke English with a French accent until the day her husband and Thomas Cromwell found a legal way to murder her. An accent natural to our speaking voice is something usually gained at a young age. That Anne had a French accent on her return to England suggests strongly that she first came to the Continent as a child. Also, that Anne seemed so ‘French,’ another thing not making her popular, either with the English court or with the common people, implies that she had been away from her family and England during the important character developing years of her childhood. Supporting this view are the words of George Cavendish, loyal gentleman usher of Cardinal Wolsey. Cavendish wrote in his ‘Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, This gentlewoman, Mistress Anne Boleyn being very young was sent into the realm of France (Sylvester, R. S., D. P. Harding, et al.1962, p. 31).
Surely Cavendish’s choice of the words ‘very young’ tells us more than anything else that Anne was a child in France, and goes against the argument that, in 1527, Anne Boleyn first caught the King’s eye when she was at least twenty-six. Even in today’s world, we do not equate women of twenty-six as young girls. William Forrest—a supporter of Catherine of Aragon who was in England during her ‘divorce’ from the King — described Anne as a ‘fresh young damsel’ (Warnicke p. 56).
We also have Anne Boleyn’s own words to consider. Firstly, there is Anne’s letter written to the King after he arranges for her to be a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon, just after the fire of the king’s passion really started blazing bright. Anne writes at the start of this letter,
It belongs only to the august mind of a great king to whom nature has given a heart full of generosity towards the sex; to repay by favours so extraordinary artless and short conversation with a girl (Hanson, M. 2009).
History also documents Anne’s words just before the final downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. One night, Henry VIII supped with Catherine of Aragon, the woman he was working hard to divorce. Somewhat surprising to the King, he found Catherine of Aragon not prepared to be her usual companionable self, rather her antagonistic mood soon resulted in an argument. Henry then went to Anne Boleyn, hoping to receive some sympathy from his mistress, only to find Anne angry too. After saying that she feared he would one day return to Catherine, she went on to say:
I have been waiting long and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue, which is the greatest consolation in this world, but alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all (Fraser 1992, p.169).
If she had been twenty-six at the start of her relationship with the King, Anne could not lay claim to being a ‘girl’ or having ‘spent’ her youth during the long years prior to her marriage to the King. It is also extremely unlikely that she could have lied about her age. Anne had too many enemies who would have delighted in telling the truth to the King.
Anne’s relationship with the twenty-year-old Henry Percy, later Earl of Northumberland, needs to be considered here too. This relationship, documented by George Cavendish and later brought up during the trial for Anne’s life, possessed all the hallmarks of ‘first love,’ both of them entering this relationship as if naïve about the control placed upon their lives in their society. There are potent hints suggesting that Anne and Percy may have pre-contracted themselves to one another, which would have put into question the legality of any future marriage entered by Anne and Percy (Fraser 1992, p.126).
Disregarding Percy’s loud protests that he had committed himself to Anne Boleyn, Wolsey broke up their relationship, Percy being married in quick haste to Mary Talbot. It was a marriage doomed to failure from the start. As for Anne and Percy? Because of their youth, this break-up apparently hit them both hard, making them never forget what had happened. Was it just a coincidence that the man leading the party to arrest Wolsey for treason was none other than Percy? And Anne said later that she rather had been Henry’s Countess (meaning Percy’s wife) than Henry’s Queen. When Anne received her death sentence, Percy, a judge at her trial, fainted.
In 1876, the Victorians extensively remodelled St. Peter ad Vincula, a chapel at the north-end of Tower Green. Part of the project involved repairing the floor, under which were found the remains of — amongst others — Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Jane Grey. Close to the choir chapel, they discovered a ‘beheaded’ woman’s skeleton under a paving stone. A medical examiner described the exhumed skeleton as having a “delicate frame with a small neck, “as one would expect of a skeleton belonging to Anne Boleyn, a female beheaded in her middle or late twenties. Admittedly, we cannot be certain that this age is correct, but they concluded these bones were indeed the bones of Anne Boleyn (Warnicke, pp. 235-6). As Katherine and Jane Grey, both also buried at St. Peter ad Vincula and also believed identified during these excavations, were teenagers (respectively, nineteen and sixteen) and executed before bearing children, I believe the differences between skeletons would have been apparent. I believe the bones found in 1876 were indeed those of Anne Boleyn.
So how do we briefly summarise Tudor society’s attitudes to ‘age’? Life was far shorter than now — with an average life expectation somewhere around forty years. However, just because life was brief does not mean people of the period automatically regarded those in their thirties as old. We have to keep in mind that life was much harder and people did age faster than what we see today in the Western world.
Mary Stuart, forty-four at her death, suffered with rheumatism for years prior to her death. After her execution, they discovered mostly grey hair under her wig. By his forties, gout already caused great daily agony to William Cecil, later crippling him as an old man.
Elizabeth, in her late thirties, whose constitution as Queen was generally sound, developed a painful leg ulcer, which caused one suitor to offend her by calling her ‘an old creature with a sore leg’ (Weir 1998, pp. 274-5). When Robert Dudley died at fifty-five, he was almost unrecognisable as the handsome, dark ‘Gypsy’ who had come as close as any man in marrying Anne Boleyn’s daughter. That same daughter, after her recovery from smallpox at twenty-nine, said to a deputation who petitioned her to marry and thus safeguard the realm with heirs of her body, “The marks they saw on her face were not wrinkles, but the pits of smallpox, and although she might be old, God could send her children as He did to St. Elisabeth” ((Weir 1998, p. 138). Keeping in mind the cadence of the time, I construe her response in that Elizabeth is referring to a time in the future, when would indeed be ‘old, ‘ but still the unspoken concern about the “delay of the ripe time for marriage”(Jenkins 1959, p. 175) is apparent. By thirty-seven, Elizabeth, no doubt seeking reassurance from her courtiers to the contrary, was indeed protesting that she was too old for marriage (Weir 1998, p. 216). We even have the utterance of her father to reflect upon, when he said: “I am forty-one years old, at which age the lust of man is not so quick as in lusty youth “(Fraser 1992, p.220). Thus, they, like us, were aware of ‘youth’ as compared to ‘maturity.’ With so many children and teenagers scythed down by the grim reaper, probably more so.
There is little doubt that Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn was the ‘Grand Passion’ of his life. But Henry was a King, only the second of his dynasty, desperately in need of a son to secure the succession of his crown. To turn his kingdom upside down to achieve his marriage with Anne Boleyn, he must have felt confident of her ability to bear children, and healthy children at that. Cardinal Wolsey attempts to wave a French princess under his King’s nose turned sour because Renée of France, like her mother before her, had a physical defect, which resulted in her walking with a limp and caused expression of doubts about Renée’s suitability to bear children (Warnicke 1989, p.63). But such a woman also would not have appealed to Henry, who took great pride in not only his physical appearance, but that of his children, too. Early in 1528, Wolsey wrote to the Pope defending the King’s choice of Anne because she was likely to have children (Warnicke 1989, p. 77), which suggests a young Anne Boleyn.
Katherine of Aragon was only thirty-two when brought to bed of her last child, a still-born daughter, it seems very unlikely that the King would place his hopes and faith in the ability of a twenty-eight-year-old woman to give him sons.
Anne Boleyn came from a class that married young in England (Harris 2002, p.56), though admittedly not as young as did princesses of the time, often married not long into their teenage years, after infant or childhood betrothals. Anne’s own mother married by the time she was seventeen, her sister Mary probably married William Carey in her teenage years. Anne herself would have expected to be wed by her very early twenties, the ‘ripe time’ for marriage. In 1519, aged only thirty-three, Catherine of Aragon was described as “the King’s old deformed wife” (Fraser 1992, p.76).
Of course, by then, Catherine – in ten years of marriage- had given birth at least six times, resulting in only her daughter Mary surviving beyond the first weeks of infancy. Grief and the constant strains of pregnancy can swiftly age any woman. But Anne Boleyn had, physically and psychologically, a great deal to cope with, too. On the day of her execution, a witness said Anne Boleyn ‘never looked more beautiful.’ Before she died, when she removed her pearl encrusted coif to replace it with a simpler head covering, Anne Boleyn revealed her black hair to be as black as ever. Do these descriptions gel with a woman of thirty-six, decidedly middle-aged by the times — who been through the terror of imprisonment, a trial for her life, months of fear and uncertainty while her husband and his ministers plotted to get rid of her, and a tragic second miscarriage barely four months before her death? I don’t believe so.
Whenever there is confusion about something from the past, I believe it best to seek ‘voices’ from the time, to discover whether there are voices from the past that can help untangle the confusion. Sometimes the voices are silent, leading us to conjecture, but with the question of Anne Boleyn’s age there are enough ‘voices’ that do speak. And not only the voices I have put forward already . Only a couple of years before her marriage to the King, Anne was described as ‘young’ (Fraser 1992, p.171). William Camden wrote in his Annuals Anne Boleyn’s birth date as being 1507. Jane Dormer — Lady in waiting and confidante to Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary Tudor – believed Anne Boleyn not quite twenty-nine when she died (Ives 1986, p.3). Mary Tudor had many valid reasons to hate Anne Boleyn as the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and was in the perfect position to be aware of Anne’s true age.
I want to end this investigation by comparing two portraits. Two portraits depict two women aged around twenty-seven years, one Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, painted by Holbein and the other his daughter Mary, by the artist Master John. The two portraits show women with shadowed eyes, lines etched all around, skin- especially around Mary’s mouth and Jane’s chin—losing it elasticity, clearly women who are both fast losing the freshness of youth.
There is a third portrait to consider—a drawing by Holbein believed to depict Anne Boleyn during her brief time as Queen. It is evident is that this woman is not much older than that shown in the portraits of Jane Seymour and Mary Tudor. It is a portrait of a woman who has not reached her middle thirties.
* Scholars dispute whether Mary Boleyn actually attended the eighteen-year Queen, but I think why not? Sir Thomas Boleyn clearly had the necessary skills to develop a network of influential friends. I also believe his ambitions were such that he would have done all in his power to place both daughters in positions where they could improve the status of the Boleyn family at court and abroad.
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