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Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn

Anne and Elizabeth: As a Child, What was Elizabeth Told About Her Mother?

Turn on the final episode of Season 2 of The Tudors, and you will watch a very sad scene of a young Elizabeth realizing that her status in the world has fallen. As Lady Margaret Bryan reorganizes the household to accommodate Elizabeth’s new position in the world, she notes, “The world is a slippery place, my Lady. If you would take my advice, for what it’s worth, find a rich man to marry who is too stupid to know anything about politics. Then, perhaps, unless you die in childbirth, which is likely, or the plague, which is almost inevitable, then you’ll be happy.” Little Elizabeth looks studiously on, as if she takes every word to heart.

Whether or not Anne’s fate influenced Elizabeth’s later marriage decisions is difficult to confirm, although mere circumstance is more than enough in this case to suggest possibility. Just as intriguing, however, is the theorization of what young Elizabeth was told at her mother’s death. Certainly, in real life she realized that something momentous had occurred. Children much younger than the age of three realize when patterns are broken; for example, my seven-month-old son was one day completely perplexed when a stranger in the grocery store line would not return his eager little smile. He waved his hand, finally received their attention and smiled his biggest grin, and was disappointed to find the person resume their reading of a magazine. He crinkled his brow and looked at me as if to say, “What is up with HER?” Of course he expected the woman to open up when he grinned at her. He had never been in a social situation where everyone in the room did not fawn over him, let alone not smile.

Now, imagine you are a child of almost three, whose every cry, whim, and snuffle has been tended to without haste. You are addressed as “My Lady Princess,” and people acknowledge your presence when you enter a room with a special gesture that is reserved only for you. Suddenly, it is taken away, and it is connected with your mother’s prolonged absence. What do you make of that?

According to at least one account, Elizabeth viewed it with great perplexity. “How haps it governor,” it is claimed she asked Lady Bryan, “yesterday my lady Princess, today but my Lady Elizabeth?” The little girl likely learned very quickly that her mother was not to be spoken of, at least in the King’s presence. As quickly as possible, the King’s workmen set to the task of removing the intricately carved, painted, and embroidered “Hs” and “As” that had once been intertwined with one another throughout the royal households. Physical representations and reminders of Anne, if any existed, were removed. A few would survive, but a majority of the images that might have reminded Elizabeth of her parents’ former relationship were eradicated. What she had to remember of her mother came from the people who knew Anne, and what a motley crew they were! From Henry who declared he had been deceived and tempted by witchcraft, to Mary, the half-sister whose own mother was placed aside for Anne, to foreign envoys who would not give Elizabeth the time of day due to her bastard status, the little girl was certain to have been bombarded by negative representations of her mother. If she believed Anne to be a whore, temptress, witch, or worse, she certainly had a crowd to confirm the opinion.

But what of positive representations of Anne Boleyn? Within the Anglican Church, a person’s godparent was to see after the child’s spiritual well-being, to make certain that they were steadfastly raised in the ways of the faith. It was not just an honor to be named a godparent; it was a duty that was to be faithfully carried out should anything happen to the child’s parents. Elizabeth’s godparents were Thomas Cranmer and the Duchess of Norfolk. Certainly, Thomas Cranmer expressed his astonishment to Henry when Anne was brought up on charges of treason. In fact, as we have discussed in other notes, his expression of overt disbelief of the charges against Anne could be viewed as a roundabout way of criticizing what happened to her. Cranmer was in no position to publicly disagree with the King, but he did not have to trumpet his condemnation of Anne in the years after the fact, least of all in front of her daughter.

Likewise, in her final days Anne sought Matthew Parker to look after Elizabeth’s spiritual needs. Elizabeth evidently took his guidance to heart, as she sought him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury when she took to the throne. Parker was the type of moderate Elizabeth sought in her quest to find a middle-path in the Catholic-Protestant divide, but it is likely that Parker’s connection to her mother and to herself as a young girl played a role in her decision as well.

Religious instructors with a connection to Anne were not the only ones to surround Elizabeth in her formative years. Her governess, Katherine Ashley was married to Sir John Ashley, a cousin to Anne. He likely joined Elizabeth’s household before 1540, and could have provided a positive representation of Anne. Likewise, Elizabeth’s future stepmothers could possibly have provided positive representations of her mother. Anne of Cleves, who was Henry’s wife for only about half a year, had a great fondness for Elizabeth. Elizabeth possibly visited Anne of Cleves at the home she was given upon her escape from Henry – Hever Castle, the former home of Anne Boleyn. Being Anne Boleyn’s cousin, Katherine Howard also carried a close connection to Elizabeth’s mother. Their meetings were likely few and far between, and Katherine’s subsequent execution likely brought back old feelings of dread for Elizabeth, but for a short time, there was a possibility of a positive connection. Finally, there was Catherine Parr, the stepmother to whom Elizabeth gave a carefully composed translation of  Marguerite of Navarre’s “The Glasse of the Synnefull Soule.” Anne Boleyn, as many of you know, once served under Marguerite, and many scholars argue that the young English girl was greatly influenced by the influential Queen.

At this point in our series, the extent to which Elizabeth was influenced by both positive and negative accounts of Anne is still a bit of a mystery. We will tackle Elizabeth’s possible thoughts on Anne tomorrow. For Wednesday, I will put forth the theory that gifts given to Elizabeth when she was queen can tell us as much about Elizabeth’s thoughts on her mother as her actual words. On Thursday, we will look at Elizabethan views of Anne and Elizabeth, and we will spend the weekend looking at various images and pop-culture videos related to the pair. As always, be certain to add your thoughts about the relationships I discussed above. There are several other obvious connections to be made between Elizabeth and those who had a connection to Anne, but I would love to see and discuss the connections that we might make as a group! Share away!

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