Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn: the Tudor queen’s undying love for her mother

March 16, 2024

One of the oldest and most precious artefacts in the collection at Checkers, It’s a tiny, exquisitely crafted ring, which opens to reveal two portraits: Elizabeth I & her mother, Anne Boleyn

Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn: the Tudor queen’s undying love for her mother

The Chequers ring, held in the collection of the prime minister’s country residence (Photo by Flickr)

Elizabeth’s love of expensive and elaborate jewellery was well known, yet her most cherished possession was this comparatively simple piece, which she kept with her until the day she died. It is a poignant symbol of the private reverence with which she held her late mother throughout her long life.

Mother and daughter

Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I were two of the most famous women in British history, their stories as familiar as they are compelling. We all know of Henry VIII’s obsessive love for Anne, turning to bitter disappointment when she failed to give him a son, and her bloody death on the scaffold three years after being crowned queen.

And we recall Elizabeth’s turbulent path to the throne, followed by her long and glorious reign – a ‘Golden Age’ of overseas adventurers, Shakespeare and Spenser, royal favourites and the vanquishing of the Spanish Armada, all presided over by the self-styled Virgin Queen.

May be an image of ring

Elizabeth barely spoke of her mother, and it’s commonly assumed that she thought about her even less. This is quite understandable: Elizabeth was less than three years old when the Calais swordsman severed her mother’s head at the Tower of London on 19 May 1536. Even while Anne lived, Elizabeth had seen little of her, instead experiencing the traditional upbringing for a royal infant, established in a separate household far removed from her parents at court.

Elizabeth I: “dearest father”

By contrast, Elizabeth couldn’t say enough about Henry VIII. “She prides herself on her father and glories in him,” observed Giovanni Michiel, the Venetian ambassador to England during the reign of Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I. The many references that she made to her “dearest father”, and the way in which she tried to emulate his style of monarchy when she became queen, support this view.

The truth, though, is both more complex and more fascinating. Exploring Elizabeth’s actions both before and after she became queen reveals so much more than her words. From these, it becomes clear that she not only revered her mother but spent the rest of her long life – and reign – trying to rehabilitate Anne’s reputation.

Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn: the Tudor queen’s undying love for her motherA c1546 portrait of a young princess Elizabeth, who attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of her mother, Anne Boleyn (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty)

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s relationship

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in secret in January 1533, even though his marriage to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, had not yet been dissolved. There was good reason for his haste: Anne was already pregnant. She was crowned amid spectacular pomp and pageantry in June, and in August she and the court travelled to Greenwich Palace for the birth.

“The seventh day of September, being Sunday, between three and four of the clock after noon, the queen was delivered of a fair lady,” reported the chronicler Edward Hall. After all the turmoil through which the king had put his country in order to marry Anne, this was a humiliating disappointment.

On visiting his newborn daughter for the first time, Henry remarked that: “You and I are both young and, by God’s grace, boys will follow.” It was less an observation than a command. Anne was not an obviously maternal woman. Her forthright, ambitious and occasionally vicious nature was more suited to the political arena than the royal nursery. But Elizabeth’s birth seemed to change all of that.

What was Elizabeth I And Anne Boleyn's Relationship Like? | HistoryExtra

Anne Boleyn, the mother

From the beginning, Anne lavished affection upon her newborn infant and could hardly bear to be apart from her. “Day and night she would not let this daughter of hers out of her sight,” observed a contemporary chronicler. “Whenever the queen came out in the royal palace where the canopy was, she had a cushion placed underneath for her child to sit upon.”

On visiting his newborn daughter Elizabeth for the first time, Henry VIII remarked that: ‘You and I are both young and, by God’s grace, boys will follow’

As royal tradition dictated, though, at the age of just three months Elizabeth was established in her own household at Hatfield, 20 miles from the court in London. Thereafter, she seldom saw her mother. Although Anne visited when she could, court business demanded her presence – not to mention the pressing need to produce a male heir.

  • Read more | The birth of Elizabeth I: everything you need to know

But the queen made sure that her daughter was surrounded by Boleyn relatives. She also sent regular gifts to Hatfield, such as made-to-measure satin caps and dresses. These gifts came to an abrupt end in May 1536.

In January that year, Anne had miscarried for the third time. Henry had long since tired of her, and had already lined up Jane Seymour as his third wife. It was down to his ruthlessly efficient chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to rid him of his second.

As the vultures at court circled, Anne busied herself with ordering pretty clothes for her infant daughter. These appear in a list of expenses that still survives in the National Archives, providing a poignant glimpse into the care Anne took over her daughter’s attire. Her last thoughts were of Elizabeth.

Anne’s last act for her daughter

Having been condemned on trumped-up charges of treason, adultery and incest, Anne gave a speech on the Tower scaffold. This feisty, outspoken queen might have been expected to rail against the injustice of her fate. Instead, she had nothing but praise for her estranged husband, and meekly accepted that she must die. This was all for her daughter, whom she hoped Henry would now look upon kindly.

She may also have had Elizabeth in mind when she added a plaintive plea: “If any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.” (In other words, if anyone subsequently looked into her actions, she hoped they would judge them fairly).

  • Read more | Anne Boleyn’s final battle: Tracy Borman reveals Henry VIII’s final ‘kindness’

“Why governor, how hap it yesterday Lady Princess and today but Lady Elizabeth?” Anne’s daughter demanded of her governor, Sir John Shelton, shortly afterwards. Even at only two years and eight months old, this precocious young girl quickly realised that something was badly amiss.

Elizabeth I’s troubled youth

Her parents’ marriage had been annulled before Anne’s execution, so Elizabeth was now illegitimate as well as motherless. No longer a princess and heir to the throne, her household was drastically reduced, her father the king wanted nothing to do with her, and soon her Lady Mistress was begging Cromwell to order new clothes for the child, because she had outgrown all of those that her late mother had sent.

For the rest of her childhood, Elizabeth was neglected by her father, especially after the birth of his “precious jewel”, Edward, in 1537. Although she could have had few, if any, memories of her late mother, it was during those years that Elizabeth developed a fascination with Anne. While the rest of the kingdom remembered the king’s second wife as the “concubine” and “great whore”, Elizabeth grew to revere her mother’s memory.

Elizabeth was now illegitimate as well as motherless. No longer a princess and heir to the throne, her household was drastically reduced, her father the king wanted nothing to do with her

When, around 1545, Henry VIII commissioned a portrait of his family, the 11 or 12-year-old Elizabeth took the daring step of wearing her mother’s famous ‘A’ pendant when she sat for the artist. She knew that her father wanted no reminders of the woman whom he had condemned for adultery and treason, but her feelings for Anne were too strong to be ignored.

This small act of rebellion was one of the earliest illustrations that, when it came to her mother, Elizabeth’s actions spoke louder than her words.

Reigns of Edward VI and Mary I

During the brief reign of her half-brother, Edward, Elizabeth was able to give full expression to the Protestant beliefs that her mother had instilled in her. Anne had been a passionate advocate of religious reform and, just before her death, had appointed her chaplain, Matthew Parker, as her daughter’s spiritual guardian. (Elizabeth later made him her first archbishop of Canterbury.)

When her half-sister, Mary, came to the throne in 1553, though, Elizabeth’s faith plunged her into danger. She was suspected of involvement in a rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt the following year, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

  • Watch | The Tower of London: Anne Boleyn’s place of triumph and terror

The psychological torment of being a prisoner in the same apartments as her mother was profound. Years later, she recalled that she had been so convinced that she would meet the same fate as Anne that she had asked if she, too, might be beheaded with a sword.

Thanks, in part, to a lack of evidence against her, she was released (albeit being placed under effective house arrest) on 19 May 1554, the anniversary of her mother’s execution.

Elizabeth I’s coronation

Elizabeth came to the throne upon Mary’s death four years later, in 1558. At last she could begin in earnest the work of rehabilitating her mother. But, given that her Catholic subjects viewed her as an illegitimate heretic, she still had to be discreet about it.

She chose not to have Anne’s remains moved from the Tower chapel to a more fitting place of royal burial, knowing that this would court controversy – literally, digging up a past that was best forgotten. Neither did she have the dissolution of her parents’ marriage overturned, or challenge her mother’s conviction.

Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn: the Tudor queen’s undying love for her mother

The badge adopted by Anne Boleyn as queen featured a falcoln alighting a tree stump on which roses bloom. (Photo by Alamy)

When it came to her coronation, though, Elizabeth pulled out all the stops. This lavish spectacle was closely modelled on her mother’s, and Anne was very much in evidence throughout. One of the pageants lining the processional route was entitled ‘The uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York’. On each level were large statues of Elizabeth’s ancestors: Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on the lowest tier, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn on the middle, and Elizabeth seated in majesty at the top.

This was the first time in more than 20 years that Anne had been publicly – and positively – represented. Her falcon badge was proudly displayed throughout the procession, too, and Elizabeth decorated her palaces and possessions with the same emblem.