Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen

Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen

by Tracy Borman


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A source of endless fascination and speculation, the subject of countless biographies, novels, and films, Elizabeth I is now considered from a thrilling new angle by the brilliant young historian Tracy Borman. So often viewed in her relationships with men, the Virgin Queen is portrayed here as the product of women—the mother she lost so tragically, the female subjects who worshipped her, and the peers and intimates who loved, raised, challenged, and sometimes opposed her.

In vivid detail, Borman presents Elizabeth’s bewitching mother, Anne Boleyn, eager to nurture her new child, only to see her taken away and her own life destroyed by damning allegations—which taught Elizabeth never to mix politics and love. Kat Astley, the governess who attended and taught Elizabeth for almost thirty years, invited disaster by encouraging her charge into a dangerous liaison after Henry VIII’s death. Mary Tudor—“Bloody Mary”—envied her younger sister’s popularity and threatened to destroy her altogether. And animosity drove Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots into an intense thirty-year rivalry that could end only in death.

Elizabeth’s Women contains more than an indelible cast of characters. It is an unprecedented account of how the public posture of femininity figured into the English court, the meaning of costume and display, the power of fecundity and flirtation, and how Elizabeth herself—long viewed as the embodiment of feminism—shared popular views of female inferiority and scorned and schemed against her underlings’ marriages and pregnancies.

Brilliantly researched and elegantly written, Elizabeth’s Women is a unique take on history’s most captivating queen and the dazzling court that surrounded her.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553806984
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2010
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 781,013
Product dimensions: 6.96(w) x 11.28(h) x 1.65(d)

About the Author

Tracy Borman studied and taught history at the University of Hull in England and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1997. She has worked for various historic properties and national heritage organizations, including Historic Royal Palaces, the National Archives, and English Heritage. She is now chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust and is a regular contributor to history magazines, such as BBC History Magazine, and a frequent guest on television and radio.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Giovanni Michiel, the Venetian ambassador to England during "Bloody" Mary Tudor's reign, noted with barely concealed distaste that the Queen's younger sister, Elizabeth, "is proud and haughty...

although she knows that she was born of such a mother."1 Clearly he, and many others like him at the Marian court, believed that the Lady Elizabeth ought to be ashamed of being the offspring of Henry VIII's disgraced second wife, the infamous Anne Boleyn-variously referred to as "the concubine" and "the whore." After all, Mistress Boleyn had usurped the place of the rightful queen, Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon. Her subsequent alleged infidelities had led to her downfall and execution, and to her only child, Elizabeth, being declared a bastard. Little wonder, then, that the Venetian ambassador marvelled that this child should grow up apparently either oblivious to or, worse, not caring about the scandal of her mother's past. Surely she ought rather to hide herself away in perpetual shame at being the daughter of an infamous adulteress? Yet here she was, displaying all the traits with which Anne had so beguiled her male courtiers-not to mention King Henry himself. And her coal-black eyes were an uncomfortable reminder that for all her Tudor traits (most notably her abundant red hair), she was very much her mother's daughter.

Yet the common view of Elizabeth that has developed over the centuries since her death is that she had little regard for Anne Boleyn, preferring to gloss over that shady side of her history and instead boast about the fact that she was the daughter of England's "Good King Hal." "She prides herself on her father and glories in him," remarked one observer at court.2 The many references that she made to Henry VIII, and the way in which she tried to emulate his style of monarchy when she became queen, all support this view. By contrast, she is commonly believed to have referred directly to her mother only twice throughout the whole of her life, and neither of these references is particularly significant or revealing. Unlike her sister, Mary, she made no attempt to restore her mother's reputation when she became queen, either by passing an act to declare Anne's marriage to Henry lawful or by having her remains removed from the Tower and reburied in more fitting surrounds. One might therefore be forgiven for concluding that Elizabeth was at best indifferent toward, and at worst ashamed of, her mother. Far from it. It would be her actions rather than her words (or lack thereof) that would betray her true feelings.

Anne was the second of three surviving children born to the ambitious courtier Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk. A combination of shrewd political acumen and advantageous marriages had transformed the Boleyn family from relatively obscure tenant farmers into titled gentry with a presence at court. Thomas's marriage to the Duke of Norfolk's daughter had served him well, both politically and dynastically. "She brought me every year a child," he noted, and even though only three of these survived into adulthood, there was the vital son, George, to carry on the family line. The two daughters, Mary and Anne, might prove useful in the marriage market.

The date of Anne's birth was not recorded, but it is estimated at being around 1500 or 1501.3 From the outset, she and her sister, Mary, were groomed to make marriages that would boost their family's aristocratic credentials and enable Thomas to move further up the political ladder. Anne soon emerged as the more intelligent of the two girls, and her father noted that she was exceptionally "toward" (an adjective that would later be applied to her daughter, Elizabeth), and resolved to take "all possible care for her good education." As was customary for girls at that time, Anne received a good deal of "virtuous instruction," but it was in the more courtly accomplishments of singing and dancing that she really excelled. She played the lute and virginals with a skill beyond her years, and also became adept at poetry and verse. The more academic subjects of literature and languages completed her education, and by the age of eleven, she could speak French extremely well.

All of this was quite typical of the education received by other girls of her class, but in 1512 an opportunity arose to set herself apart from her peers. It was in this year that her father was appointed ambassador to the Regent of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria. Margaret's court was renowned for being the most sophisticated and prestigious in Europe, an ideal training ground for young aristocratic men or women who wished to enhance their social standing. Thomas used his skills in diplomacy and charm to persuade the archduchess to take Anne under her wing. And so, at the tender age of twelve, Anne set sail for the Netherlands. She was quick to absorb the full range of skills expected of a court lady. By all accounts, Margaret was delighted with her and wrote how "bright and pleasant" she was for her young age.

But it was in France that Anne's education in court life reached its zenith, and her experiences there would have a profound effect upon her character and demeanor. This time, Thomas Boleyn used his political contacts to secure places for both Anne and her elder sister, Mary, in the household of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who had recently been betrothed to the aged King Louis XII. The Regent Margaret was sad to lose this lively and engaging addition to her court, but Anne shared her father's ambition and was delighted at the prospect of serving Henry VIII's sister, a renowned beauty. She travelled straight to France from the Netherlands, arriving there in August 1513. It was to be a brief service, however, for Louis died just three months after the wedding (some said the exertion of satisfying his young bride had led to his demise), and Mary caused a scandal by marrying her brother's best friend, Charles Brandon, in secret, before hastily returning to England. Anne had acquired a taste for life in France, however, and so remained there after Mary's departure, transferring her service to Queen Claude, wife of the new king, Francis I.

Her sister, Mary, preferred the diversions on offer at the king's court, which was one of the most licentious in Europe. Francis was even more notorious a philanderer than his great rival across the channel, Henry VIII, and it was not long before the alluring Mary Boleyn caught his eye. She proved so easy a conquest that he nicknamed her his "English mare" and "hackney," whom he had the pleasure of riding on many occasions. By the time she returned to England, her reputation had preceded her, and, never one to be outdone by his French rival, Henry VIII also took her as his mistress. Like Francis, he quickly tired of a bait so easily caught.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to her sister, Anne was earning a reputation as one of the most graceful and accomplished ladies of the queen's household. She thrived in the lively and intellectually stimulating French court and developed a love of learning that continued throughout her life. Among her closest companions was Margaret of Navarre, sister of Francis I, who was regarded as something of a radical for her views on women, and she encouraged Anne's interest in literature and poetry. It was here that Anne also developed a love of lively conversation, a skill that would set her apart from the quieter, more placid ladies at the English court when she made her entrée there.

So entirely did Anne embrace the French manners, language, and customs that the court poet, Lancelot de Carles, observed: "She became so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a French woman born." Another contemporary remarked: "Besides singing like a syren, accompanying herself on the lute, she harped better than King David and handled cleverly both flute and rebec."4 Anne was particularly admired for her exquisite taste and the elegance of her dress, earning her the praise of Pierre de Brantôme, a seasoned courtier, who noted that all the fashionable ladies at court tried to emulate her style, but that she possessed a "gracefulness that rivalled Venus." She was, he concluded, "the fairest and most bewitching of all the lovely dames of the French court."5

Anne had certainly blossomed during her years in France. Her slim, petite stature gave her an appealing fragility, and she had luscious dark brown hair, which she grew very long. Her most striking feature, though, was her eyes, which were exceptionally dark-almost black-and seductive, "inviting conversation." But for all that, she was not a great beauty. Her skin was olive colored and marked by small moles at a time when flawless, pale complexions were admired. The Venetian ambassador was clearly bemused by Henry VIII's later fascination with her. "Madam Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world," he wrote, "she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English King's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful, and take great effect on those who served the Queen when she was on the throne."6 Even George Wyatt, who was to write an adulatory account of Anne during Elizabeth's reign, admitted: "She was taken at that time to have a beauty not so whitely as clear and fresh above all we may esteem."7 She also had small breasts, a large Adam's apple "like a man's," and, most famously, the appearance of a sixth finger on one of her hands.8 But it was undoubtedly her personal charisma and grace, rather than her physical appearance, that gave her the indefinable sex appeal that was to drive kings and courtiers alike wild with frustrated lust. Wyatt observed that her looks "appeared much more excellent by her favour passing sweet and cheerful; and...also increased by her noble presence of shape and fashion, representing both mildness and majesty more than can be expressed."9

Anne Boleyn's allure, honed to perfection at one of the most sophisticated courts in the world, set her apart when she made her entrée into Henry VIII's court in 1522. Her father had secured her a position in Catherine of Aragon's household, and she swiftly established herself as one of the leading ladies of the court. While the women admired and copied her fashions, the men were drawn to her self-confidence and ready wit, but more particularly to her provocative manner, which made her at once playfully flirtatious and mysteriously aloof. George Wyatt later said of her: "For behaviour, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all."10 She had first come to notice in a court pageant organized by Cardinal Wolsey for the king on Shrove Tuesday 1522, in which she played the part of Perseverance-particularly fitting given the events that later unfolded.

Among Anne's suitors was the poet Thomas Wyatt, whose ardent expressions of love were hardly restrained by the fact that he was already married. Rather more eligible was Henry Percy, later sixth Earl of Northumberland, who grew so besotted with her that he tried to break a prior engagement in order to marry her. It was apparently some time, though, before Anne attracted the attention of the king himself.

The early relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn showed little sign of the intensity that it would later develop. The very fact that Anne had been at court for some four years before there was any sign of an attachment suggests that it was hardly a case of love at first sight. Rather, the affair appears to have developed gradually out of a charade of courtly love. By late 1526, all the court knew that Lady Anne was the king's latest inamorata. But this was very different from Henry's previous infidelities, for Anne proved to be the most unyielding of mistresses. She persistently held out against his increasingly fervent advances, insisting that while she might love the king in spirit, she could not love him in body unless they were married. It was a masterstroke. Perhaps having learned from the example of her sister, who had given way all too easily and had been discarded just as easily, Anne sensed that Henry would lose interest as soon as she had succumbed to his desires, so she kept her eyes focused on the main prize: the crown of England. It was an extraordinary goal even for one born of such an ambitious family, for Henry already had a queen-and a popular one at that. But Anne knew that he was tiring of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who, at forty, was some five years older than himself and now unlikely to bear him the son he so desperately needed. Anne, meanwhile, was in her midtwenties, with every prospect of fertility.

At first she rebuffed the king's advances altogether, refusing to accept either his spiritual or physical love. Henry complained that he had "been more than a year wounded by the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail or find a place in your affection," and begged Anne to "give yourself, body and heart, to me."11 He even promised that if she assented, he would make her his "sole mistress," a privilege he had afforded to no other woman. But Anne was determined to hold out

for more, and told him: "I would rather lose my life than my honesty...Your mistress I will not be." She proceeded to play the king with all the skill and guile that she had learned at the French court, giving him just enough encouragement to keep him interested but rebuffing him if he tried to overstep the mark. Thus, one moment Henry was writing with gleeful anticipation of the prospect of kissing Anne's "pretty duggs [breasts]," and the next he was lamenting how far he was from the "sun," adding mischievously, "yet the heat is all the greater."12

The longer their liaison went on, the greater Anne's influence at court became. She was constantly in the king's presence, eating, praying, hunting, and dancing with him. The only thing she did not do was sleep with him. As her status grew, so did her pride and haughtiness. She became insolent toward her mistress, Catherine of Aragon, and was once heard to loudly proclaim that she wished all Spaniards at the bottom of the sea. A foreign visitor to the court noted with some astonishment: "there is now living with him [the king] a young woman of noble birth, though many say of bad character, whose will is law to him."13 But Henry cared little for the resentment toward Anne that was building at court, and as his love for her drove him increasingly to distraction, he began to think the unthinkable: if marriage was the only way he could claim her, then he would seek an annulment from the Queen. This was precisely what Anne had been angling for, and she encouraged the king in his new resolve. It would take him almost six years to achieve it, and nobody could have predicted the turmoil that would ensue. Inspired by his pursuit of marriage to Anne, Henry would overturn the entire religious establishment in England, wresting the country from papal authority and appointing himself head of the Church. The religious, political, and social ramifications would be enormous, reverberating for decades and laying the foundations for discord in all of his children's reigns.

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