It is well known that Anne Boleyn spent seven years at the French court, serving Queen Claude, the wife of François I, and the King’s sister, Marguerite of Valois. However, no contemporary French source mentions her, which is strange, given that the seigneur de Brantôme in his Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, written after 1589, states that she was 'the fairest and most bewitching of all the lovely dames’ at the French court. ‘When she sang, like a second Orpheus, she would have made bears and wolves attentive. She danced the English dances, leaping and gliding with infinite grace and agility. She invented many new figures and steps, which are yet known by her name; she dressed with marvellous taste and devised new modes which were copied by all the fashionable ladies at court; but none wore them with her gracefulness, in which she rivalled Venus.' Brantôme had spent his childhood, in the household of Marguerite of Valois, and may have got his information there or from others who had known Anne. But otherwise the records are mysteriously silent.
In vain, I looked for other evidence of Anne’s years in France. At length, I decided that it might be helpful to track, as far as possible, the movements of her mistress, the crippled, constantly pregnant Queen Claude, who imposed a strict, almost conventual, rule on her ladies and shunned the court whenever she could, preferring to reside in the palaces of Amboise and Blois on the Loire. There is no doubt that Anne Boleyn would have known these palaces well, and probably spent more time in the Loire Valley than she did in Paris. Yet it is likely that she travelled more widely in France.
On 14th September, 1515, during a campaign to win Milan, François I won the Battle of Marignano, being hailed as a second Charlemagne. Lingering in Italy, he saw Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of the last supper, and was introduced to the great artist himself, probably at Padua, where he offered him a position in France, that of ‘First Painter, Engineer and Architect to the King’. Leonardo was then over sixty, bald, long-haired and bearded, like a Biblical patriarch, and feeling his age, but he accepted, and made his way north to France, taking with him many of his works, including the Mona Lisa. In 1516, we find him installed, at the King’s expense, in a fine house, the manoir of Cloux (now the Château du Clos Lucé) near the Château of Amboise. Previously, Cloux had been a residence of Marguerite of Valois. The King himself visited his new protégé there, and Leonardo appeared occasionally at court.
In January 1516, François left Milan for France. Sometime earlier, Queen Claude had journeyed south to meet the returning hero, accompanied by Marguerite of Valois and the King’s mother, Louise of Savoy. Anne Boleyn would almost certainly have been in their train. On 13th January, the royal ladies were reunited with the King at Sisteron in Provence, and they attended him on his triumphal progress back through France.
François entered Marseille with 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 childrem, all in white, preceding him. Anne Boleyn probably watched the pageants and danced through the night with the other courtiers; she may have been among those cheering François the next day, as he joined in a battle of oranges, and perhaps she saw the rhinoceros that was presented to him, a gift from King Manuel of Portugal. Then it was on to Tarascon, and Avignon, where the King was received by the Papal Legate.
The court journeyed up the Rhône to Lyon, which François liked so well that he stayed there for three months, in which time Anne would have got to know the ancient Roman city well. In the summer the court was in Tours, and it was not until 21st August that it reached Amboise. By then, Leonardo was settling into his house nearby.
Although I knew nothing of it when I carried out my research, there has been speculation since the nineteenth century that that Anne Boleyn knew Leonardo, at least by sight, and it is probably well founded, for she was often at Amboise, and he had close links to the court. His house was connected by a tunnel to the Château of Amboise. Anne may even have seen the Mona Lisa. The scenes in my novel are imagined, but some are not improbable.
Despite paralysis in his right hand, Leonardo continued to sketch. He remained in France and died in the manoir of Cloux in 1519. There is no truth in Vasari’s story that he died in the King’s arms – François was at Saint-Germain-en-Laye on that day.
Mystery surrounds another place connected with Anne in France – the Tour Anne Boleyn at Briis-sous-Forges, south-east of Paris, which dates from c.1200. In 1790, the Almanac of Seine-et-Oise stated: ‘At Briis-sous-Forges, we see in this place the remains of the old castle where they claim was brought up the famous and unfortunate Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII of England and mother of Elizabeth I.’
In 1585, the Catholic writer Nicholas Sander, who was hostile to Anne and the source of many calumnies about her, had claimed that, after discovering that his fifteen-year-old daughter had had affairs with his butler and his chaplain, Sir Thomas Boleyn sent her to France, placing her, at the expense of Henry VIII, in the care of ‘a certain nobleman not far from Briis’. We know, of course, that Anne had been in the service of Margaret of Austria before she served Queen Claude, so the story is nonsensical. Sander, however, was not above fabricating scandals about her, even asserting that she was the bastard child of her mother and Henry VIII.
Yet there is other evidence connecting Anne with Briis. Jean Brodeau, the biographer of the great French jurist, Charles du Moulin (1500-1566), whose work was published in 1654, states that she was brought up in Briis-sous-Forges by an ancestor of du Moulin. If so, it must have been Philippe du Moulin (d.1548), Seigneur of Brie and cup-bearer to François I. There is a well-established local tradition that Anne Boleyn lived there in her youth - towards 1520, according to one account - and there is even a street named after her. It has been suggested that she may have lodged briefly at Briis on her way home from France, yet the tradition claims that she lived there for some time, and was even brought up there. Traditions, however, are not always reliable, but that in Briis goes back to the sixteenth century, and is documented as fact by other early historians: John Bale, in the sixteenth century, Bishop Burnet in the seventeenth, and David Hume in the eighteenth, as well as by several eminent French historians.
Philippe du Moulin is said to have known Sir Thomas Boleyn when the latter was ambassador to France from 1519-20. Nineteenth-century French historians made fanciful claims that Sir Thomas placed Anne, as a child, with Philippe du Moulin at Briis because her mother was having an affair with Henry VIII, and that Philippe promised to bring her up as a 'young lady of high quality'. Later, he is said to have presented her at court.
There are obvious problems with this version, which does not take into account the four years between 1515 and 1519, when Anne was already at the French court in the service of Queen Claude. Nor was she a child in 1518, but a young woman of marriageable age. Again, there is a tale of some scandal having been the cause of her being sent to Briis, although it is highly unlikely that her mother had had an affair with Henry VIII.
We might infer, therefore, that Briis had no connection with Anne Boleyn, and that it was her sister Mary who was sent to live there with a respectable noble family, after compromising her reputation at the French court – or to remove her from the unwanted attentions of the French King, whose mistress she may briefly have been.
This theory makes far better sense than any involving Anne. It explains the accounts of a scandal. Possibly, at Sir Thomas Boleyn's behest, Mary’s former mistress, Mary Tudor, Queen Dowager of France, was able to arrange for her to be taken into the household of the King's cupbearer. In the protection of a respectable family, her reputation could be preserved. It was not unusual for girls of good birth to be sent to live in a noble establishment to learn good conduct and complete their education. It may be that Mary stayed at Briis until a marriage was arranged for her, more than four years later, and that, in the wake of Anne Boleyn becoming Queen of England, people forgot that there had been two Boleyn sisters, and remembered only that one had lived at Briis - and thus the legend grew that it was Anne. We will never know the truth of the matter, yet the theory is credible.
And I have another, in the forthcoming e-short, The Château of Briis, in which I speculate that a marriage was mooted between Anne Boleyn and Philippe du Moulin...
Heather Teysko, from the English Renaissance History Podcast, interviewed Alison Weir on Anne Boleyn and her latest novel, 'Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession'. Listen to it here: