Saturday, 26 March 2011

March 26th, 1533: Anne Boleyn's first public appearance as Queen

"High flying, adored
What happens now, where do you go from here?
For someone on top of the world
The view is not exactly clear
A shame you did it all at twenty-six.
There are no mysteries now;
Nothing can thrill you, no-one fulfill you.

High flying, adored
I hope you come to terms with boredom.
So famous so easily, so soon
It's not the wisest thing to be!

You won't care if they love you,
It's been done before.
You'll despair if they hate you
You'll be drained of all energy
All the young who've made it would agree."
- High Flying, Adored from the musical Evita by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice (1976)

"And the king loved her more than all the women, and she had favour and kindness before him above all the women, and he set the royal crown on her head, and made her queen instead of Vasthi. And he commanded a magnificent feast to be prepared for all the princes, and for his servants, for the marriage and wedding of Esther. And he gave rest to all the provinces, and bestowed gifts according to princely magnificence."
- The Book of Esther, Chapter II

There are moments in our lives so momentous and which we have waited for so long that when they finally happen, it is difficult to believe it. For Anne Boleyn, the twenty-sixth day of March in 1533 must have been one such day. After six years of waiting, of being the King's love but not his wife, first lady but not queen, and after months of secretly being a married woman, she was at long last to be publicly presented as Queen of England and Lady of Ireland. At the same time, throughout the kingdom, she would be publicly prayed for in church services as a member of the royal family for the first time. 

To Anne Boleyn's increasingly providentialist mind, what was happening today was unquestionably God's Will. A few years earlier, a Venetian diplomat in London had been taken aback by the depth of Anne's certainty in regarding her elevation as divinely ordained. That was not too unusual, however, in a society which was apt to see the hand of God directly involved in most things; Anne's fascination with the story of the Biblical queen Esther was slightly more idiosyncratic. To Anne and her supporters, the parallels seemed self-evident: a young virgin is chosen by a mighty monarch from amongst his own subjects to replace his haughty and arrogant foreign queen. Later in her career, when Anne's luck had changed, she was to draw great comfort (and perhaps far too much inspiration) from the story of Esther's valiant struggle against the corrupt politics of her husband's chief minister, Haman. 

How long Anne had been married before she and Henry reached the decision that it was time to publicly present her is still a matter of debate. The usual date given for their marriage is January 25th of that year, but strong evidence from both sides of the aisle places their marriage to the Feast of Saint Erkenwald, meaning November 14th of the previous year. Whether it was the more traditional January date or the more likely November service, the news had been kept secret until the King and his advisers could be sure of securing a positive, or at the very least an obedient, reception to Anne's first official appearance as Katherine's replacement. Why March 26th was chosen is equally uncertain, although pragmatism could very well have played a part in the decision. Anne was, by now, two months pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth and the government could have wanted to make sure that she was presented as the King's consort before she began to show a baby bump - although that may be reading too much into things; given the inexactitude of Tudor medicine it's very possible that Anne herself did not yet know that she was pregnant with her first baby. 

A more probable reason to explain why March 26th was picked was because it was Paschaltide. It was the holiest of seasons in the Christian liturgical calendar and the High Mass being celebrated at Court that day would have been attended by almost anybody and everybody who mattered in the Tudor polity. Easter was also the traditional season of new beginnings and, only the day before, England had technically marked the beginning of the new legal calendar year which, prior to 1752, began on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th.) In terms of symbolism, there could hardly have been a better occasion to unveil Anne for the first time as queen consort.

As Anne entered the chapel at her husband's side, there was no hint of nerves. She was serenely confident, at least on the outside. An audience was never something Anne Boleyn had a problem with. Who knows what she was really feeling as she stepped into a room packed not only with people who had worked feverishly to make this day possible, but also with people who had worked with equal vigour to prevent it. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to London, remarked that upon seeing Anne occupying the Queen's chair at Mass, the assembled courtiers did not know whether "to laugh or cry." Chapuys, however, was not present and he got his information from the Marchioness of Exeter, who emphatically was on the "cry" side of the debate. The ambassadors from France and Milan reported a much more positive reaction from Henry's courtiers, many of whom were either personally in favour of Anne's elevation or simply relieved that all the confusion of the past few years had (apparently) been quelled. 

Always conscious of the power of the visual, no-one could deny that Anne Boleyn looked every inch the queen as she swept majestically through the rainbow coloured puddles of light created by the stained glass windows. Her ears, head, throat, wrists, waist and fingers glittered with pieces hand-picked by the queen from the royal jewel collection and she wore an elaborately pleated gown of golden silk, specially made for the occasion and seeded with diamonds and pearls. As she processed through the bowing crowds and clouds of incense, she was followed by sixty immaculately dressed maids of honour, headed by her beautiful young cousin, Lady Mary Howard, who had the honour of carrying the Queen's train. 

Reaching her seat, Anne Boleyn sank into a deep curtsey as the officiating priest began the Mass with the blessing of the altar. A few moments later, head bowed, she spoke aloud with the congregation her first public words as Queen of England: "Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculórum. Amen." Given the appalling gradient of tragedy which was soon to overtake her but the comfort she would find in religion during it, those words were all at once cruelly ironic and deeply appropriate. 

NB. 'Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculórum. Amen,' translates from liturgical Latin into modern English as, 'As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.'


  1. I've linked to this from Facebook but I think that Anne's first public appearance as queen was actually on Easter Saturday 1533, the 12th April. Catherine of Aragon was not informed of the decision to 'demote' her until the Wednesday of Holy Week and Henry had ordered his council to recognise Anne as queen on Good Friday (11th).

  2. Hi Claire. And thanks. Initially I was confused, because the three books I have here give the date as the 26th and as Easter Saturday. However, another gives the April date. Which leads me to think maybe it's an O.S. vs N.S. thing?

  3. Interesting start! I never thought of Evita Peron and Anne Boleyn as having anything in common.

  4. Hi Gareth,
    I did wonder that after I'd commented. I've always worked on the April date because of Ives and also The Ambassadors painting. It's confusing!
    Great article as always!


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