A Frenchman at the Court of Anne Boleyn

By Ives, Eric | History Today, August 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Frenchman at the Court of Anne Boleyn


Ives, Eric, History Today


Nicholas Bourbon was a humanist, poet and religious reformer, and a member of Anne Boleyn's circle. Eric Ives shows how his work throws new light on the Henrician Reformation.

The name of the poet Nicholas Bourbon the elder is unlikely to turn up in a game of Trivial Pursuits. Born in 1503 at Vandoeuvre in Champagne, he wrote in Latin and is remembered, if at all, because of his friendship with vernacular writers such as Francois Rabelais and Clemont Marot. In his day, however, Bourbon's verse enjoyed a European reputation. Never modest, he said of Lyons, his adopted city: `Mantua boasts of Virgil, Greece of Homer; the region of Lyons rejoices in Borbonius'.

What makes Bourbon interesting for British historians is that in 1534 he visited England and nearly fifty of his poems were written about England, addressed to Englishmen or were composed there. They appear in the third book he published, printed at Lyons in 1538 under the grandiloquent title Nicolai Borbonii Vandoperani Lingonensis Nugarum Libri Octo ac Auctore Rescens Aucti et Recogniti that is Eight Books of Trifles by Nicolas Borbonius of Lyons, the Vandoeuvrian, Recently Enlarged and Revised. As the response of a foreign, professional writer to sixteenth-century England, Bourbon's verse is unique, but his visit at the height of the early Reformation is also a useful reminder of the links between religious affairs in England and across the Channel. The connection with France is often overlooked, but should come as no surprise. It was, as Philip Sidney would say, the `sweet enemy'. Henry VIII spent almost a third of his time fighting or preparing to fight the French, but he also competed jealously with Francis I `his brother of France' over everything from palace decoration to the muscles of the respective royal legs. And where fashion could pass, so could ideas and individuals.

Early religious reform in France was noticeably moderate. The emphasis of its leaders, men like Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples and Guillaume Briconnet, bishop of Meaux, was on personal spirituality inspired by a direct engagement with Christ through a Bible shorn of medieval glosses and embodying the best of humanist scholarship. Their challenge was to put the gospel [Gk. evangelion] into daily practice, which makes `evangelical' a convenient adjective to describe the movement. It was a message which effectively marginalised the elaborate penitential machinery of shrines, relics, penances, rituals and so forth which preoccupied the late medieval church but many found it attractive. Francis I was not unsympathetic. His sister Marguerite was a notable evangelical and Bourbon was her client.

Nicholas Bourbon was the son of an ironmaster but he did not follow his father into the business. Instead he studied at the College de Troyes and by the time he reached thirty had become a recognised Latinist teaching in Paris. It was there in 1533 that he published his first book under the simple title Nicolai Borbonii Vandoperani Nugae. It was republished in 1538 as the first of the Libri Octo.

England comes into Bourbon's story because Anne Boleyn, the key evangelical figure at the English court, owed her evangelicalism to France. The most striking evidence of this is in the reformist books from French presses that she collected, a number of which still exist, including her copy of Lefevre's French translation of the Bible, published in Antwerp in 1534. Some were specially translated for her by her younger brother, the equally evangelical George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Nor was this mere book collecting. Louis de Brun, a French epistolographer, vividly described seeing Anne early in 1529, immersed in a French translation of St Paul's letters, almost certainly Lefevre's earlier version of the New Testament which conservatives in Parish had wanted burned. The origin of such interests was very probably the religious atmosphere of the household of Claude, the first wife of Francis I.

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