The Easter Queen

On the Saturday before Easter, 1533, Anne Boleyn attended high mass in the Queen's Closet at Greenwich Palace. She was dressed in a sumptuous gown of cloth-of-gold and bedecked with jewels.

Sixty ladies attended her. Lady Mary Howard, soon to be the wife of the king's bastard son, carried the train of her gown. (Lady Mary's mother - the highest-ranked noblewoman in the land - refused to do so, and so the duty fell to her daughter.)

Those attending mass that morning must have known something was stirring. Anne was always a fashionable dresser, but she prefered her clothing to be simple and striking, which suited her better. (The Earl of Bedford, John Russell, once wrote of Anne, "... the richer she was apparel'd the worse she look'd.") Her choice of clothing on this day was unusual enough for the ambassadors to remark on it in their dispatches.

The retinue of sixty ladies was also a very pointed statement. At the height of her power, Queen Katharine of Aragon had about thirty women in her household, about the same number that had accompanied Anne to visit France only a few months earlier. The number of attendants a person had sent a strong message about their power, wealth, and prestige.

It must have been quite a spectacle to see this long parade of the highest-born and wealthiest noblewomen in the land, all dressed in their best, glittering with jewels. People must have been whispering to their neighbors about why the Marquess of Pembroke now had twice as many attendants as the woman who was still nominally queen, Katharine of Aragon.

Anne entered the Queen's Closet, a balcony-style room positioned above the main chapel, usually near the altar. The term "closet" may imply to modern readers a smaller space than it really was. It was a side chapel  attached to the monarch's private chambers for private religious services, open on one end so the king or queen could view the services in the main chapel below. It had a wood screen across the front of the balcony that gave privacy to the occupants but allowed them to watch the service below.

The service began and the attendees might have just shrugged and settled into worship. The display would leave them talking, of course, guessing as to its meaning. They could have decided it was simply another instance of Henry honoring Anne Boleyn.

But then, the priest directed the worshipers to pray for God's servant Queen Anne.

I wonder if the audience gasped. Did they whisper frantically to their neighbors, asking one another if it was true, or perhaps just a slip of the tongue? Was Anne Boleyn really just called the Queen of England?

Rumors had been swirling for weeks. Word of their "secret" wedding in January was spreading, and Anne and Henry were living together as man and wife. Anne had expressed - loudly - to Thomas Wyatt that she was craving apples and the king said it must be because she was pregnant. The king had also quietly instructed his council the day before that Anne was to be given all of the titles and honors of queen. For those in the know - and that was pretty much everyone - Anne's elevation to the throne wasn't exactly unexpected, but it was still shocking, considering there had been no formal ruling on his marriage to Katharine of Aragon.

Why did Henry and Anne decide to declare that Anne was queen at Easter? The first reason was likely because Anne suspected she was pregnant. Princess Elizabeth was born on September 7, and it seems she may have been a bit premature, or Anne miscalculated her due date. She was probably conceived around mid-to-late December. By Easter, Anne - watching eagerly for any signs an heir was on its way - would likely have been confident in her pregnancy. It was time for the final stage of their plan.

The second reason was the symbolism of Easter itself. It was the beginning of a new year (which began March 25, Annunciation or Lady Day,) a time of year associated with fertility, renewal, and hope. It was the most sacred time of the year for Christians of the era, and so to a woman who believed God had called her to the throne to reform the church in England, announcing her elevation at such a time would have seemed very appropriate.

After the service was over, Anne emerged from her closet with the sixty ladies of her entourage behind her, and the court bowed to her for the first time as queen. After seven long years, it must have been a moment for her to savor.

Was Anne Boleyn happy as she created her new court, and began the work of appointing the bishops who would begin the formation of the Anglican church? In those few short months between the Easter announcement and the birth of Elizabeth, everything must have seemed blessed by God. I hope she was. For there were great trials in store for her in the coming years.

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