Anne of Bohemia
Queen of England, 1382-1394
"A gentle voice for mercy"
One of England's least-known queens, who married one of its most infamous kings, was known as "Good Queen Anne." One might be forgiven for thinking she earned the epithet because of the stark contrast of her character with that of her husband, who was far from good.
In 1382, Richard had been king of England for just three years, since the death of his father, King Edward III. Now he was fourteen and learning to make his own decisions with or without his council's approval. He married Anne, daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Bohemia, in order to cement an alliance between England and Bohemia. Like all his Plantagenet forebears, he knew a monarch's first duties were to make a diplomatically advantageous marriage and to produce an heir to the throne.
For both countries, this was a ploy in Europe's efforts to resolve the Western Schism, a messy situation with rival popes in Rome and Avignon. Bohemia, a key kingdom in the sprawling Holy Roman Empire, was loyal to the pope in Rome. By allying with Bohemia, England would be snubbing the pope in Avignon, a step that would strengthen its position vis-a-vis France, its perpetual enemy.
Anne, of course, had no say in all this.
Nobody has described Anne as beautiful, but contemporaries deemed her gentle, well educated (she spoke three languages) and of "goodly person." As any fifteen-year-old girl would be, she was dazzled by the prospect of a golden crown and fashionable gowns. After the grand wedding in Westminster Abbey in 1382, she entered enthusiastically into her new life, a life of ritual, pageantry, ostentatious display of jewels and finery, and royal progressions around the kingdom.
Anne and Richard, from all the evidence, became genuinely fond of each other. Anne proved an ideal consort—not presuming to govern, but generally complying with Richard's decisions and endeavoring to make him happy.
This must have taken some doing, since he was petulant, unpredictable and vengeful. His enemies included members of his court, powerful barons who led Parliament, and eventually large swaths of his subjects. He was quick to condemn men to dreadful deaths. Even before he was married he had successfully put down the Peasants' Revolt, when serfs demanding their freedom occupied London. Richard the boy-king confronted them with bravery and initiative, but once the rebellion was quashed, his vindictiveness and perfidy prevailed. He revoked the charters he had signed. Shortly before Anne arrived, many a head was still impaled on the spikes of London Bridge, many a tree was festooned with bodies.
But the Londoners, eager to welcome their new queen, spruced up their city. Riding through streets bedecked with flags, she was escorted by gorgeously clad nobles and cheered by enthusiastic throngs. Anne, who had expected to find herself in a dour, uncultured land, was charmed.
Of all the royal palaces and castles, the young couple preferred Sheen Palace on the Thames, just seven miles upstream from Westminster. Since 1299 it had been a favorite with English monarchs when "wearied of the citie," as the chronicler wrote. Richard and Anne were the first to make it their main residence.
Anne became quite popular with the English people, who liked her kindness and generous spirit. She became well known for her pleas for mercy on behalf of the condemned. She persuaded Richard to pardon many who took part in the Peasants' Revolt.
She also confronted the "Merciless Parliament" and its rambunctious leading barons. In 1388 five of the king's closest advisers were arrested, an act which Richard contested before a panel of judges. When they sided with the king, Parliament arrested the judges as well and sentenced them to death. Anne pled for their lives and they were exiled to Ireland instead.
Shortly thereafter, Sir Simon Burley, Richard's tutor, mentor and oldest friend, was accused of treason. Burley was a father figure to both king and queen and they were outraged when Parliament decreed he should be drawn and quartered, the most barbaric and long-drawn-out punishment. Anne fell on her knees and wept, oblivious of her dignity as a queen, but to no avail. Richard himself could do no more than persuade the barons to change the sentence to beheading.
After twelve years of a childless but loving marriage, Anne succumbed to the plague in 1394 and died at Sheen Palace. Richard was heartbroken. Utterly distraught by his grief, he had the palace destroyed.
The English people were also deeply affected. As a chronicler wrote, "This queen, although she did not bear children, was still held to have contributed to the glory and wealth of the realm. . . . Noble and common people suffered greatly at her death."
Learn more about Anne of Bohemia:
The Last Plantagenets, by Thomas B. Costain. Doubleday, 1962
The Plantagenets: the Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones. Penguin Books, 2014
Lives of the Queens of England, Vol. I, by Agnes Strickland. London, 1857