The Tudor Society

Live chat transcript – Natalie Grueninger – The early life of Anne Boleyn

Thanks to all who came to our live chat with Natalie Grueninger over the weekend. We had a great time discussing the early life of Anne Boleyn including things like her birth date. Thank you Natalie, and also a big congratulations to Ceri for winning one of Natalie's books.

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  1. R

    Hello, thanks for this transcript, I missed the talk because I haven’t been very well over the weekend and today. I missed Natalie’s talk. The problem with Anne’s early life is that she is absent from history as are most women, because they simply were not important. It is also a very sad fact that at this time people were too lazy to record officially or unofficially their kids births. Many baptisms were recorded in parish records which have since been lost or destroyed. Anne was not important enough to be noted in any public record as a Princess would have been. I am not being funny here, it is how it was then. None of the children of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard have a date of birth, so historians have to make a judgement based on extant evidence.

    The 1507 date is perfectly acceptable as Anne would have been fifteen or sixteen at the time of her public debut at Court in 1522 at the Pageant where she played one of the virtues. However, if we have to believe Anne was seven when she became a companion to go to France with Mary Tudor who was seventeen to marry Louis XII, this is stretching the imagination. A young lady may be honoured as a Maid of Honour from nine, but most were similar in age to their mistress. Older Ladies and those from the Higher Nobles were Great Ladies and the Boleyn’s were not higher nobility. We would also have to stretch the imagination even more to accept that a six year old was educated enough to go and serve one of the most sophisticated women in Europe, Margaret Regent of the Netherlands. This makes no sense at all to me.

    Thomas Boleyn was very well known and well connected and was serving in France as an Ambassador and had also become acquainted with the Archduchess. It is very possible and there is a partial letter which suggests that she agreed for his daughter Anne to come for her education. It is hardly likely that she would be impressed by a six year old and her Court was designed to teach young women the more sophisticated things in life as a finishing school did in the twentieth century. It is more probable that Anne was a talented but raw young girl of thirteen or fourteen. There is no evidence that she was to enter the nursery and sending a six year old out of the country was unheard of. She may go to another household, in England, with a view to marriage in the future, but not abroad at such an age, unless she accompanied a royal bride of the same age.

    We also have more evidence from Anne’s father. He wrote a letter or note in which he talked about his wife and early years of his marriage to Elizabeth Howard which is believed to have taken place around 1498/9. He states that every year she brought him a child and he was making references to this around 1505. This means that Mary, Anne and George had to have been born by 1505 or thereabouts. Another two sons are also believed to have been born who later died young. One was called Thomas and another Henry and they have tomb stones in a family Church. The discussion made the very good point that with Anne it is either 1501/2 or 1507 are accepted, when in fact she could have been born at any time inbetween or even as late as 1508, which has also been mentioned. Nobody seems to have any real idea which order the three surviving siblings were born in and an on going debate exists on whether Mary or Anne was the eldest based on who was married first. It was normally traditional for girls to be married in order of birth, but other circumstances came into the equation as well. Anne was exceptionally bright it seems and her mother, not her father, would have suggested arrangements for her marriage be delayed after her education had been completed.

    In their book on George Boleyn Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway believe that he was the youngest, born in 1504/5, but I have to admit, I am baffled as to why he has to be the youngest as he could just as easily be the oldest or the middle. In the book they have an excellent discussion on this, but I will recommend people read for themselves, no spoilers. There is certain internal clues in letters, first years at court and so on that can point to a logical order of Mary, Anne, George, all being close in age and in that order, but it is not conclusive and most authors just have to go with the best instincts available.

    Anne went from one sophisticated court to another, the Court of Queen Claude, the virtuous and highly educated Queen of Francis I, whose patronage of the highest arts and classical male education was renowned. It was here from the age of 15 to 22 that Anne learned the classical teachings, the newest dances and music, languages, the new learning of the early French reformers, probably also theological ideas and unusually rhetoric. It was this which made her stand out on her return to England, with the original intention of marriage to James Butler, Earl of Ormonde. It was this which made her shine and her actions were those of a mature and well educated woman, not a teenage girl. It is here we get one final piece of extant evidence pointing to a birthday around 1501/2, which is written in her own hand. Anne sent home a letter to her father from France which is much discussed. She apologies for her French being not so good, although she has been learning for two years. Now young Royal and even noble women are known to have learnt classical Latin and be expected to repeat phrases as young as two or three as Princess Mary Tudor was expected to do this and Elizabeth was also. However, there is a vast difference in learning the equivalent of our ABC and being able to write an expressive letter in French, which would not be normal for the ten years old daughter of an English knight. There are other phrases in the letter and the hand writing style that show this could not even have been dictated to a girl of six or seven. Most people agree the letter was written when Anne was about ten or twelve. This puts her in the service of Queen Claude aged 14 at least.

    Finally, there is the very dubious evidence of sexual activity while at the Court of France of both Mary and Anne. While there is no evidence that Anne was sexually active before marriage, let alone in France, it is highly unlikely that such rumours would even exist had the sisters been between 7 and 13 while they were there. While the age of consent was deemed to be 12,_it was frowned upon forcing a young woman into a sexual encounter until she was 14 at least. This was also considered to be something reserved for marriage. However, men and women didn’t wait and the King of France had a shocking reputation. He claimed Mary was his mistress, although he probably exaggerated. He is hardly likely to have done so had she been a mere child under twelve. For these rumours to have been taken at all seriously Mary would need to be at least fourteen in 1515 and her sister a year older or younger. Not that there is any evidence of sexual misconduct anyway, but the rumours for me confirm that Mary and Anne Boleyn entered the service of two Queens of France in their mid teens and were both twenty plus on their return home.

    The discussion also entered into the topic of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Wyatt. While there may not have been much to support the rumours that Wyatt was her lover, they were well known to each other. The families were neighbours and friends. Wyatt was an accomplished poet and he also wrote translations of classic and theological books and had a career as a diplomat. Anne was an admirer and there can be no doubt that Thomas admired Anne. His poems give hints of being dedicated to her, although some now doubt this. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk spread lies that Anne and Wyatt were still lovers and Henry banished his friend. There are other stories but it is now questioned as to whether or not the pair were lovers. If they were it was well over before Anne agreed to marry Henry. He appeared to foreswear his love in a poem and Anne said they were not involved. There is no evidence that anything went on afterwards and Wyatt may have been genuinely upset when Anne died because he knew she was innocent and worshipped her from afar. By the way, I don’t believe Anne was still in love with Henry Percy either, although I do believe she slept with him in the hope of marriage. When they were separated they gave everything up and Northumberland swore they were not pre contracted twice.

    1. C

      Yes, the birthdates of the Boleyn children are not known and it’s because births did not have to be recorded in the parish register at that time. We only know the birthdates of people like kings, queens, princes and princesses because of the fact that they were recorded by chroniclers and in dispatches from ambassadors. It is frustrating that birthdates did not have to be recorded. Even later in the Tudor period, we only know the baptism dates of some people but that does help because baptisms usually took place within a few days of birth.

      Just to clarify the point regarding the birthdate of George Boleyn. Clare and I put forward a date of about 1504 based on George Cavendish’s comment regarding the age of George when he became a member of the king’s privy chamber in 1529 and Eric Ives’ notes on Cavendish’s verse. This suggests that George was no older than 25 in 1525. This would fit in with Thomas Boleyn’s letter to Cromwell in which he states that that upon his marriage his wife gave him a child every year, a date of 1498/9 for the marriage of Thomas and Elizabeth, and the theories on the births of Mary and Anne. We suggest that Mary was born in 1499-1500, Anne in 1501, Thomas and Henry between 1502 and 1504, and George 1504-5. Of course, we don’t know.

      Although I find the 1507 arguments valid, the sticking point for me is Anne being kept on to serve Queen Claude in 1515. I just cannot see a girl of 7/8 being kept on by the new queen. Why would Claude take on such a young girl? Whereas a girl of 14, a typical age for a maid-of-honour, would make sense, and with her knowledge of French and English would be very useful.

      1. C

        I forgot to say, sorry to hear that you’ve been unwell. I hope you’re on the mend now!

        1. R

          Thank you, Claire, yes, I feel better today, but the snow was a good excuse for some catch up sleeping, blankets and a fire. Thanks for the explanation about George Boleyn’s age, makes perfect sense. He must have been the youngest because in one sense he appears to be the last one let out of the home into the court and he seems to be younger than expected to reach many of the posts at court for which you would need abilities because it is remarked upon. I believe that shows he was a remarkable young man, trustworthy, had many good qualities that stood out and was very talented. It also shows that Henry had confidence in him. For example, George Boleyn was chosen to present the complex theological and legal argument to Convocation regarding the Kings title as Head of the Church and helped with many attempts to present the arguments for the annulment to them as well. Given most members were elder statesman this could not be an easy task and I can imagine George practicing in front of the mirror, but he had the eloquence to do it and that was quite an achievement. Thanks again for your response and information and for asking.



  2. S

    What a blessing to be able to read the transcript, the comments…. to be able to enjoy and take in all the knowledge and history. Thank you!

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Live chat transcript – Natalie Grueninger – The early life of Anne Boleyn