Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I

  • By Tracy Borman
  • Atlantic Monthly Press
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Allison Thurman
  • July 7, 2024

How the formidable pair brought reform to England.

Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I
Much has been written about Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth I. Often, the story of the near-legendary queen of England eclipses that of her deposed and beheaded mother, a woman often painted as “only” one of Henry VIII’s six unfortunate wives at best, an ambitious overreacher at worst. Even less is written of the women’s relationship with each other. The prevailing view is that Elizabeth seldom mentioned her disgraced mother in favor of emphasizing her status as her father’s heir. Yet in Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I, Tracy Borman masterfully corrects the historical record and highlights both women’s roles in the English Reformation.

The first half of the book is devoted to Anne’s life, shifting the focus from her marriage to Henry to her intellectual development at the French court during adolescence. There, the French king’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre, led a group of noblewomen advocating reform of the Catholic Church from within and exposed Anne to religious literature banned elsewhere. And in Margaret of Austria, Anne found a woman who embraced female scholarship and demonstrated that a woman could rule in her own right. Young Anne would take this knowledge back home with her.

Borman explores in depth Anne’s role as instigator of the Reformation. While Henry may have embraced the break with Rome — fueled by the annulment of his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, that cleared the way for him to wed Anne — for political expediency, Anne was genuinely pious and “well read in the scriptures.” She used her influence with her husband to promote both English and foreign evangelicals, finding refuge for them at court. Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cranmer, and several other reformists owed their bishoprics to her advocacy, and some of them held their positions well into Elizabeth’s reign.

It’s in the details Borman shares illustrating the mother-daughter relationship that this book truly shines. Elizabeth became the center of Anne’s life for the brief time she was in it, being kept at court by Anne for as long as Henry permitted. She even campaigned — unsuccessfully — to nurse her child herself, something unheard of among royalty. When Henry insisted on setting up a separate household for infant Elizabeth at Hatfield, Anne sent the child multiple tokens, often clothing, sparking a mutual love of fashion; Elizabeth would later use clothing to show status during her rule, just as her mother had.

Though royal parents and children at the time were often virtual strangers, Anne took care to make sure her kinswomen and allies were part of Elizabeth’s day-to-day life. Anne’s aunts ran the Hatfield household, Lady Margaret Bryan taking the place of honor as Lady Mistress. Retainers not connected to Anne by blood or marriage were drawn from courtiers in long service to the Boleyns. “Through these ties of kinship and acquaintance,” Borman writes, “Anne sought to ensure that her daughter was surrounded by positive influences and that she would grow up a Boleyn, not just a Tudor.”

Anne also passed on her devotion to the reformist faith. The man who took Anne’s ambitions most to heart was her chaplain, Matthew Parker. She “commended her daughter to his spiritual care and shared her hopes for Elizabeth’s education.” To his credit, Parker kept his promise to shepherd the girl to the end of his days.

Throughout her trial on fabricated charges, Anne strove to help her daughter in what limited ways she could. Her acceptance of the annulment of her marriage to Henry suggests that she reasoned Elizabeth’s prospects might be better if she were no longer the king’s legitimate heir. On the scaffold, Anne’s measured speech, in which she refused to condemn Henry and asked those who might contest her conviction to “judge the best,” were likely contrived to soften Henry’s heart toward their daughter.

It’s impossible to know when or how Elizabeth, only 2 years old when her mother was put to death, learned of Anne’s fate. Henry quickly removed Anne’s emblems from his palaces and forbade courtiers to speak her name. Even so, Borman finds provocative examples that hint at Elizabeth’s covert allegiance to her mother, including her choice to wear one of Anne’s pearl necklaces in a portrait, and her condemning (in a translation) of men’s adultery. Though Borman can only speculate on Elizabeth’s motives for these small rebellions, they are well-informed speculations and suggest Anne’s efforts to have some enduring influence on her daughter’s life succeeded.

When she became queen at age 25, Elizabeth was freed from the obligation to conceal her allegiances, but for reasons of political pragmatism and maybe personal reticence, she continued to show regard for Anne by action rather than words. She never legally contested Anne and Henry’s annulment, for instance, but upon ascending the throne asserted her right to be named monarch.

Further, all through her long reign, Elizabeth demonstrated the “greatest favour towards her maternal kin and supporters,” while dealing ruthlessly with the Tudors, though this may have been for political rather than personal reasons. Many of the Boleyn relatives who’d attended her as a child served her for life, as did their descendants. Elizabeth also rewarded the families of Anne’s allies. Notably, she showed great favor to the family of Henry Norris, the only one of Anne’s accused lovers to defend her to the last. Over the years, she restored the family inheritance and gave a knighthood and several prestigious ambassadorships to the executed man’s son.

But perhaps Elizabeth’s most significant and lasting tribute to her mother was completing the religious reformation Anne started. Protestant writers across England compared Elizabeth’s religious views to those of Anne with good reason. Elizabeth elevated many of the evangelicals who survived her mother, among them Latimer and the loyal Parker. The latter not only became Elizabeth’s first Archbishop of Canterbury but also authored her new religious settlement, which enforced uniformity while minimizing more controversial tenets.

Borman paints a picture of an affectionate relationship between Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I despite circumstances that might have prevented it, and demonstrates that Anne’s influence on her daughter cannot be underestimated despite how little time they ultimately had together. The two women, one from the grave and the other from the throne, restored Protestant power in England and helped make the English court the intellectual light of Europe.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Allison Thurman has a longstanding interest in 16th-century history and is currently editing her first novel, about the Elizabethan medium Edward Kelley. She lives in Gaithersburg, MD, with too many books and not enough swords.

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