Sunday, January 25, 2009

Question from Maureen - Evidence for the birth date of Anne Boleyn and early education

There have been arguments ad nauseum about the birth year of Anne Boleyn. I'm a member of the "1499 to 1502" faction because an earlier date is better substantiated: her appointment as maid of honor in 1514, her handwriting that year (, and remarks by her contemporaries that she was about "20 years old" when she returned to England from France in 1522.

The 1507 faction always presents arguments that she "could" have written a long and nearly flawlessly written letter in adult handwriting in her second language when she was seven years old, that Henry VIII "would" have preferred someone younger, and that Margaret of Austria's remark in a letter that Anne conducted herself well for someone her age (without mentioning what that age was), substantiates a 1507 birth year, presumably because age seven is "young", whereas age 11 is not. Not good enough for me.

When you bring up the handwriting and the fact that you won't find a modern 7-year-old who can write that well, the primary argument is that Anne Boleyn was very smart.

I'm a member of Mensa, and I could not write that well at age seven. I conducted an informal poll of other Mensans on the Mensa forum, and they couldn't either. So, even if Anne were a genius, it's unlikely that she had the mechanical ability to write like an adult at age seven.

The second most common argument always that the Tudors taught their children more strenuously than we do today. I can't comment on that because I simply don't know. I've never found anything on the subject of Tudor tutoring methods.

So, I would like to present a challenge. Has any Tudor historian ever attempted to replicate the teaching methods employed by the Tudors to produce a "super child" who could write a long letter with nearly flawless penmanship (spelling wasn't standardized in French in those days, so that wouldn't count) in her second language at age seven? Do they know what those teaching methods were?

If these methods were so effective, why are educators not employing them now?

If they replicate those methods, and researchers can consistently produce genius children just from using Tudor teaching methods - or even use those methods on children who have been identified as "geniuses" before the experiment and produce results similar to Anne's letter in 1514 - it would provide substance to the arguments for a 1507 birth year.

And if they cannot, that might settle the argument once and for all.

Has someone ever conducted this experiment, and if so, what was the conclusion? And if not, would someone be willing to try? Or to at least define and describe Tudor tutoring methods? I've never seen anything that went into detail about the precise methods they used when they taught their royal children, and I'd be interested in knowing what they find.


  1. I have to say I'm rather charmed by this scenario of Sir Thomas Boleyn with his very own Infant Phenomenon, whom he determines to exhibit before the crowned heads of Europe...

  2. There are a number of advice manuals from sixteenth century England that guided tutors in their work, most famously Roger Ascham's The Scholemaster and Thomas Elyot's translation of Plutarch's The Education or Bringing Up of Children. Many of them are available in modern printed versions.

    Pedagogical (educational) theorists differed on their methods, some favoring frequent and vigorous physical correction and coercion, others (especially Ascham) favoring coaxing, praise, and rewards. All employed memorization and repetition, which are still used today.

    But I have to say that the perception that writing a lengthy letter in a second language at age seven is evidence of a "super child" or "genius" is extremely anachronistic and devoid of cultural awareness. It is true that exceedingly few American children today could write a "flawless" letter in a second language at that age, but we live in a predominantly mono-lingual country where other languages are very rarely taught to young children. When children are taught a second language at an early age, they pick it up much more readily and far more accurately than do older children or adults, or so studies have shown.

    And Anne Boleyn had the good fortune to receive instruction in French by means of "total immersion," enabling her to learn that language far more rapidly than she would have done otherwise. That method ("total immersion") is still used widely to teach people languages rapidly today.

  3. I suspect that if any one today tried to replicate the pedagogical methods of Tudor elites, they would be thrown in jail for child abuse.

    The question posed is really more about the history of childhood than the history of education. In the 16th c. childhood was viewed quite differently. The first clue is the dressing of small children as mini-adults. The idea that children should have 3 or 4 hours of leisure to allow their imagination to develop is a distinctly new concept and would have been very foreign indeed to Tudor elites.

    A significant amount of tutelage employed rote memorization and endless repetition.

    Feats of memorization, or extremely neat handwriting are less an indication of a genius child as the result of such techniques. At age 7 I had impeccable hand writing. This was the result of spending 2 hours a day practicing in a school we would today consider out-of-date. (Now of course, I can barely read my own hand writing)

    You might find it interesting to look at some books on the history of childhood, for example, Colin Heywood's book on the subject.

    I would add to phd historian's list of advice manuals Vives work designing a curriculum intended for Princess Mary, Catherine of Aragon's daughter.

  4. I am a member of the post-1505 faction, favouring 1507. We have to bear in mind as well that she would have been wearing the costume of the 1510's, thus completely changing her mechanical ability from the shoulder downwards. It's also erroneous to state that the letter was flawless - it is absolutely riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes. It shows no trace of originality in tone, suggesting it was dictated, but it is littered with childish mistakes. But, unlike Paget and Ives, I would also state that I don't think the letter from 1514 is the most important part of the debate. In terms of probability, it is almost unthinkable that NO-ONE would have queried how a woman aged 31 or 32 could be trumpetted as the perfect putative mother for a future heir to the throne. When Henry married Katharine Parr in 1543, there was no suggestion she would bear him children and when she did become pregnant at the age of about thirty-five in 1547, with her fourth husband, questions were raised about whether or not she would even survive childbirth. Katherine of Aragon had her last pregnancy at 32, exactly the age proponents of the 1501 date of birth would have us believe that Anne Boleyn first became pregnant. I think that stretches credulity and makes other explanations about Boleyn's childhood letter more plausible as a result.

  5. Gareth makes several good points. I would have to agree with his analysis that the letter in question seems a bit formulaic, as though it were dictated or at least written out in advance and then copied over again for sending.

  6. I also favor the 1501 date. I am intrigued as to why exactly, especially considering the advances made by studying the Romanov remains in Russia, no one will uncover Anne's bones and give us hard facts about her, as well as a proper burial, as I've read on this site that her bones were mixed in with others' as they remodeled the church. It's very upsetting.


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