Anne Boleyn and the Art of Flirting in Royal Courts

I have written about courtly love traditions before.   Today I want to focus on a specific element of courtly love tradition.    Flirting was something well groomed and intelligent courtiers were expected to participate in.   There were rules to how to flirt without offending the strict traditions of the royal courts! Flirting would happen most often between one married and one unmarried courtier.   One figure who learned the art of flirting, and utilized it to her advantage was Anne Boleyn!    She is also a prime example of pushing flirting too far, as this was part of what lead to her tragic downfall.

When spending time in the court of Margaret of Austria, she would learn much about what was expected of her as she grew up.   She was given access to all sorts of books, often great works (some even by female writers, such as Christine Pizan, whose books it is known Margaret of Austria owned).    Anne became fluent in French while living there.    She also would have been in attendance during a visit made to Margaret by Henry VIII and Charles Brandon (it should be noted that Anne was very young, most likely her early teens, during this visit and did not attract the attention of the king).   This visit had Charles Brandon paying court to Margaret in traditional courtly love games (and flirting).    Anne would have seen by example how a cultured woman would react to such attentions.

Flirting was about being perceived as open to a possible extramarital affair, without it ever becoming something truly sexual.   These rules were instilled in her in her teenage years, and she was also taught to use her wiles to play the game of love without sacrificing her virtue.    Certainly seeing her sister, Mary, at the French court when they were both there showed Anne the danger of fully giving yourself to a courtly lover.   Mary Boleyn gained the titles “Mistress of Kings” and “Great and Infamous Whore” based on her bedding first Francois I of France, and then Henry VIII!    Mary is a prime example of the pressure of both royal suitors and her own family who desired to see her enthrall them (and how it can go wrong).    She ended up just being married off, and likely bore at least one bastard of Henry VIII, but he never recognized Mary’s daughter as his.   

Anne saw this happen first with Francis, and then with Henry, and saw a different path.   She became cultured and intelligent and witty.   She used all of this in her flirting, and famously juggled flirting with Henry himself and Thomas Wyatt (the poet that was in love with her, but who she could never marry, given he already was married).    There was an exchange during a game of bowls where Wyatt used a token known to have been Anne’s to measure (to prove he had won) angering the king.   Anne had to calm Henry down by explaining Wyatt had taken the token, and it was not given willingly.    Whether or not she actually gave him a love token, or it was merely a way to calm down her royal paramour is unclear.

What is clear in this situation is that Anne knew how to calm her courtly lovers down.   Anne and Henry were likely one of the longest courtly love games in Tudor history!   Their story was, of course, not a mere game but a story of marrying for love.    They fought hard and long (for about seven years), to gain the ability to marry.   The relationship of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII is one that literally changed the history of a country.

Anne’s downfall being, in part, because of her flirting is rooted in the fact that when they married she continued her courtly love flirting.   This was expected of a queen, however, Anne felt growing paranoia in her position in Henry’s heart (given his affairs during their marriage).    Her role shifting from favorite to wife was a difficult transition (and she feared being truly replaced).   This led to her being not careful enough in her flirting in the last months of her reign.

I have said before, in past posts, that the romantic in me believes that Anne and Henry truly loved on another.   I do truly believe this, and I also believe that Henry was not the one at the crux of her downfall!   Instead I feel that it was Thomas Cromwell, who was at the crux of Anne’s downfall.    Cromwell plotted to get Anne out of the way by accusing her of high treason (and used her flirtation as a jumping off point).   Henry VIII, by all accounts, still believed Anne could bare him a son, and was not ready to end things.   I also feel that his fragile ego would not have allowed him to be shown as a cuckold, unless he believed it true!

In conclusion, flirting was both a way of asserting your power at court, and could be a danger if done incorrectly during the Tudor era (or any courtly love era)!   I hope you have enjoyed reading my analysis of flirting in the Tudor court.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Anne de Boleyn à la Tour de Londres, dans les premiers moments de son arrestation by Édouard Cibot.   I found the image on

Further Reading