A Singularly Fine Education: Anne Boleyn at the Court of Margaret of Austria

To celebrate the release of her novel, The Falcon’s Rise: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, Natalia Richards has written a fabulous article about Anne’s early years in the court of Margaret of Austria.  This time in Anne’s life is so fascinating, yet often overshadowed by her tumultuous relationship with another monarch: Henry of England.  In The Falcon’s Rise, Natalia takes a deeper look into these formative years, exploring the ways in which the indomitable Margaret shaped the woman Anne came to be.  And now, over to Natalia:


Portrait of Anne Boleyn (1507-36), Second wife of Henry VIII of England, 1534Exactly when Anne Boleyn travelled across the Narrow Seas (as the English Channel was then called) to the court of the regent, Margaret of Austria, is not entirely certain. However, we do know from a letter written by Margaret to Anne’s father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, that it was sometime during the year 1513 when Anne – if we take her birth around 1500 – was just thirteen-years-old. Thomas had visited the regent the previous year whilst on a diplomatic posting, and it is likely an agreement was made at that time to take his daughter, Anne, as one of Margaret’s eighteen ‘filles d’honneur.’ Why he did not send his eldest daughter, Mary, we cannot be sure, but we do know it was Anne who went. Such placements in noble households were not unusual. However, to succeed in getting one’s daughter accepted at the most dazzling court in Europe was, and her father must have been held in high esteem by the regent. Did he worry about his daughter residing at a foreign court? Possibly, but he knew Margaret was a strict chaperone and that his daughter would be well cared for. Anne herself must have felt excited at this chance of a lifetime, but she will have understood that she was going for no other reason than to be educated in such a way as to allow her to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. Of course, such a placement might later result in an advantageous marriage for Anne, one that would further enrich the family fortunes, and with their hopes high, Anne left her home at Hever Castle, in Kent. So, who was Margaret of Austria, and where was her court?

Margaret of Austria Van OrleyMargaret was born in Brussels on January 10th, 1480 and had married twice. When her brother, Philip the Fair, died unexpectedly in 1506, the now widowed Margaret was appointed Governor-General of the Netherlands by her father, the Habsburg archduke, Emperor Maximilian. However, as a woman, she was not free to act as she wished. It was a man’s world – and accepted as such – and Margaret had to defer to her father and the Secret Council in all matters of state. By 1509, she was given further power as regent and managed to govern with some skill, remaining beloved by those who knew her. No longer choosing to be in the marriage game she became known as La tante de l’Europe and this happily excluded her from dynastic matchmaking. Being a widow proved of great benefit, for it enabled her to concentrate on the important task of serving her people, rather than herself. Aware of the importance of image, Margaret first had herself painted as a virtuous widow in 1510 and later portraits continued this theme. Of course, she took an interest in the marriages of her brother’s children. With Philip the Fair’s death and the mental illness of her sister-in-law, Joanna of Aragon-Castile, she also bore the title of ‘Gouvernante’ to the thirteen-year-old Prince Charles of Castille (who later became Emperor Charles V) and his younger sisters, Eleanor and Isabel.

Margaret’s court – the Hof van Savoyen – was based in Mechelen or Malines (as it was called in French) about eighteen miles south of Brussels. Situated on the borders of Flanders and Brabant, Mechelen was the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands and had, for decades, attracted dynamic merchant entrepreneurs. During the height of Burgundian influence, the Low Countries became the political and economic centre of Northern Europe and artists thrived in the flourishing cities of Bruges and Ghent. By the time Anne was born, Mechelen was one of the most successful, cosmopolitan places in the Netherlands, attracting the social elite. It also enticed people from different cultures, and to encourage them to settle, the city assisted these immigrants in purchasing houses. The council understood that by bringing certain skills with them, such as weaving, they could only benefit the city, and it soon grew in wealth.

Engraving of Mechelen

Anne was escorted to Mechelen by Esquire Claude Bouton, Captain of the Guard to Charles, Prince of Castile. We do not know if Anne sailed from Dover to Calais or Dover to Antwerp, but it was probably the first time she had ventured far from home. The sea was often perilous, but Anne landed safely on the continent where she continued, probably by barge, along the River Dilje, the short distance to Mechelen. What she thought of her new surroundings can only be surmised, for the landscape would have appeared very different from the rolling countryside of her home in Kent. Here a dense network of natural waterways, crowded with river traffic, wound their way through the flat land. On nearing Mechelen itself, Anne would have been confronted with the great tower of St Rombout’s church as its carillon of bells rang out the hour.


Anne entered the bustling city through one of the twelve city gates, and, on disembarking, would have observed the tall, narrow, townhouses, cobbled streets, and church spires before her. As she walked further into the city, she would have passed the Schepenhuis where the Great Council of Mechelen resided. At the Grote Markt – a large meeting place for traders and pilgrims – she might have stopped and bought a gift for the regent, such as lace. Further on, she would have admired the elaborate, Burgundian buildings of the Town Hall, the Cloth Hall, and the Belfry.

After a short walk, she would have arrived at the gleaming, white, Brabant stone of the palace of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of King Richard III and King Edward IV. The Duchess of Burgundy had cared for Margaret of Austria when the girl’s mother, Mary of Burgundy, had died. Now the duchess herself was dead. The regent’s palace was situated opposite that of Margaret of York, between the Keizerstraat in the north and the Vooghtstraat in the south. Extended through the acquisition of private dwellings, it’s development was financed entirely by the wealthy city of Mechelen. However, although considered a palace, to Margaret of Austria it was primarily her home, and on the first floor, a vaulted chamber, or cabinet, housed her treasures. Her apartments were situated in the west wing and as time passed, she favoured smaller, more intimate cabinets where she could escape from state affairs. Other chambers included the Main Chamber, the Festive Hall, the Reception Hall, and the Treasury. Each demonstrated the elegance of the Burgundian style. Outside, Margaret and her ladies could take the air or read in the pretty, enclosed garden.

Palace of Margaret

When Anne was first introduced to the regent, she appears to have made a good impression, for Margaret immediately wrote to Thomas Boleyn:

‘… I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.’

As a young filles d’honneur Anne was placed under the daily care of the mère de filles. She had no particular duties as such, but was expected to be helpful and polite at all times – perhaps walk the many dogs surrounding the regent, or play with the birds in Margaret’s aviary. Most importantly, she must improve her French under the ever-watchful eye of her tutor, Symonnet, who served in the ducal household. Margaret herself did not speak English, but since Thomas Boleyn was considered the best French speaker at the English court, it is possible that Anne understood something of the language before she arrived. But she was not yet fluent and she wrote to her father that she would ‘persevere in speaking French well.’

We do not know if Anne was educated with the royal children in the palace schoolroom. She would have seen them at festivities, but perhaps she was too busy to take much notice of them, for there would have been much for her to learn in those heady, summer months.

Anne of France – or Madame la Grande as she was known – had once been in charge of the young Margaret of Austria’s education. In her ‘Lessons for my daughter,’ Anne of France advised her daughter, Suzanne:

‘Be careful not to be dull, sad or pensive, and do not be one of those who out of pride or disdain, do not talk to people.’

This applied to all of Margaret’s young demoiselles and no matter how daunting, the young Anne Boleyn would have been expected to make polite conversations with diplomats and guests at banquets and functions. Interestingly, the regent herself had been just thirteen when she first came to Mechelen from France and she would have understood Anne’s initial apprehension. Concerning the court, Suzanne was reminded that: ‘You should have eyes to notice everything, yet to see nothing… please all others according to their rank, honour them appropriately, especially those who have great influence.’ In other words, a young maid must be discrete and polite. On the subject of dress, Anne of France advised: ‘Always make sure you dress as well and neatly as you can because, in the eyes of the world, you must understand that it is unseemly and distasteful to see a young girl or a woman who is nicely dressed but untidy.’

She continued: ‘I counsel you not to wear anything outrageous, either too tight or too trailing, nor should you resemble those women who think they are very fashionable when their clothing is low-cut and very tight, and they attract attention.’ Anne Boleyn must have taken heed of this advice, for later, in France, her unique style was much commented on, and she devised fashions which the other ladies copied.

Learning to be confident, discrete and dress tastefully were all very well, but of greater importance to Anne was the fact that she found herself in a court that was, quite simply, the cultural centre of Europe. Margaret was an active patron of the arts, collecting and maintaining a large number of artworks as well as retaining several artists at her court. She employed sculptors such as Conrad Meit and Pietro Torrigiani, and her palace was something akin to an enormous museum. In her cabinets, she displayed, among many things, rare corals, board games, powder-horns, tapestries, rosaries, astrolabes, salt sellers and – a stuffed bird of paradise, wrapped in taffeta and placed in a box. Proud to show off her collection, there can be no doubt that Anne would have seen some of these exquisite curiosities and gained a considerable breadth of knowledge and appreciation of fine things.

Palace of Margaret of Austria

However, the thing that impressed visitors most – including the scholar Erasmus who studied here, and Albrecht Dürer, artist and printmaker – was Margaret’s library. The library was situated in the southern wing on the same floor as her reception room, with around twenty portraits of her family, through blood or marriage, hung on the walls. There Anne would have seen a painting of King Henry VII by Michiel Sittow – once considered as a future husband for Margaret – for the regent fully intended dynastic relationships to be seen by the court and visitors alike. He held a carnation which was the traditional symbol of marriage. Gerard Horenbout, a Flemish miniaturist at this time, was appointed to Margaret’s court in 1515, and his son, Lucas, later worked at King Henry VIII’s court, painting Anne herself. As well as portraits, there were busts, over four hundred manuscripts, maps, genealogies, and prints – some velvet-bound books, no doubt, chained to the desk due to their cost. Margaret was a great collector of books and enjoyed the writings of Aristotle, Livy, and the letters of Seneca, as well as romances such as The Round Table, or Merlin. Since Bruges was a trading centre where rare manuscripts and printed books were sold, these would have made their way to her collection. Anne’s love of French books may well have begun here as she familiarised herself with the works of the medieval French author, Christine de Pizan, who is best remembered for defending heroic and famous women in The Book of the City of Ladies.

With art, music, rare books and manuscripts at her disposal, it is not hard to see how Anne’s future tastes might have been formed. But she must also have been influenced by the fact that Mechelen was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its time, with an unusual tolerance to new ideas. This extended to religious discontent and during Anne’s time with the regent there were already complaints in Mechelen that the Low Countries were being robbed financially to pay for the extravagances of the pope in Rome. The regent must have been aware of such discussions, as would her ladies. Of course, Anne may have been too young for these views to have any effect, but perhaps the seeds for her later opinions were sown.

The daily round of dancing, music, and entertainment would have been delightful for a girl of Anne’s age, a heady concoction to absorb. Margaret also loved composing and listening to music, and Anne would have enjoyed listening to the finest musicians of her day. Ideally, a young woman must be able to play an instrument, and from Anne’s later skill on the lute and other instruments, it is possible she learned how to play here at Mechelen.

But Anne was soon to realise that being a ruler was not all about wearing fine clothes and owning the finest objects that money could buy. It would have been part of her education to understand the political situation in Europe and converse intelligently. Being at the centre of politics, Margaret herself had had to learn how to exercise diplomacy, patience, and wisdom – not easy matters when dealing with the politics of the time. Of course, where Margaret went her maids followed, and Anne was likely to have been present when the regent entertained the young King Henry VIII at Lille, to celebrate his victory over the French, at Thérouanne. It was a relaxed celebration but politics always came first, and although Margaret herself might have been pro-English, maintaining amity between her father, the Emperor, and King Henry was no easy matter. As it happened, Margaret handled both with aplomb and it would have been an interesting encounter for Anne to observe.

Map of 16th century Mechelen

Anne spent only a year at the court of Margaret of Austria, before joining her sister, Mary, at the French court. But what an extraordinary year she experienced. As to her progress, Margaret would, no doubt, have watched with interest. What she thought of the girl who went on to set all Europe in a roar we do not know. But whatever her opinion, she did not live long enough to see la pettite Boulain crowned queen, or hear of her tragic end, for Margaret died in 1530, at the age of fifty. Perhaps it was as well she did not know what became of the little girl who held so much promise, the little girl ‘so bright and pleasant for her young age.’ The girl who captured the heart of a king.


Bonner, Shirley, Harrold, Fortune, Misfortune, Fortifies One. Margaret of Austria, Ruler of the Low Countries, 1507-1530. 1981.

Correspondance de L’empereur Maximilien 1er et Marguerite d’Autriche 1507-1519. (New York, reprinted from a copy in the New York Public Library.)

Eichberger, Dagmar, Women of Distinction – Margaret of York, Margaret of Austria (Davidsfonds/Leuven, Brepols Publishers, 2005.)

Eichberger, Dagmar, Lisa, Beaven, Family Members and Political Allies: The Portrait Collection of Margaret of Austria Author(s) The Art Bulletin, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Jun., 1995), pp. 225-248
(Published by College Art Association.)

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, (Blackwell Publishing, 2004.)

Jansen, L, Sharon, Anne of France, Lessons for my daughter. (Published by Boydell and Brewer, 2004, Cambridge.)

Ridgway, Claire, The Anne Boleyn Collection II, (MadeGlobal, 2013)

Maps courtesy of Filip Devroe, Antiquariaat SANDERUS, Gent – Belgium.

Thank you so much, Natalia, for stopping by!  The Falcon’s Rise is out now and you can find it HERE.  Follow Natalia on her WEBSITE or FACEBOOK.


NatalilaAs a curator and historian for over 30 years, Natalia has worked in many museums as well as for the History Channel USA as researcher, coordinator and interviewer on the award winning production ‘Secrets of War.’ Her personal passion has been the study of the Tudors, particularly Anne Boleyn and the court of King Henry VIII. The Falcon’s Rise is her first book and part two, ‘The Falcon’s Flight’, is now in production, as of August 2019. In her spare time, Natalia loves travelling, rambling and visiting historic houses, as well as constantly reading and researching the Tudor period. She spends her time between Derbyshire and Chelsea, in London.


The day before her execution, Anne Boleyn’s mind wanders back to the journey that changed her life…Falcons Rise

Born into the Boleyn family in rural Norfolk, obscurity looms, but when Anne’s father, Thomas, moves the family to Hever Castle, in Kent, to further his own interests, the family’s fortunes take a turn for the better. Thomas secures a place for Anne’s sister, Mary, at the prestigious court of Margaret of Austria, but fate has other plans, and Anne ends up taking her place.

At thirteen, Anne yearns for adventure. However, unused to curbing her outspoken tongue and youthful curiosity, she discovers that life at Margaret’s court is not quite how she’d imagined. Experiencing love, loss, jealousy and fear, she soon realises that her future happiness lies in her own hands – and that she must shape her own destiny…

The Falcon’s Rise is the first part of a two-part series, beginning the journey with the young Anne Boleyn growing into the woman who captured the heart of a king.

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