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George Boleyn: Saint or Sinner

Posted By on October 12, 2012

Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway consider whether George Boleyn was a saint or sinner…

One of the most maligned Tudor characters over the last thirty years has to be George Boleyn. The strange thing is, that after spending a number of years researching his life, we have no idea why. The primary sources do not suggest that George was the wife-beating, raping, manipulative man fiction and TV often make him out to be, unless we’ve overlooked something in our research.

Was George a saint?

Absolutely not, but was anyone back then? Come to think of it, is anyone nowadays?

Was he a sinner?

Of course he was, isn’t everyone? But was he any different to other men at court? Well, make your own mind up.

We have trawled the records for any evidence which shows George in a negative light, and this is what we have come up with:

George Cavendish

George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher, portrayed George as a womaniser in his poetry entitled ‘Metrical Visions’. He wrote:

“My lyfe not chast, my lyvyng bestyall
I fforced wydowes, maydens I did deflower
All was oon to me, I spared non at all
My appetit was all women to devoure
My study was bothe day and hower
My onleafull lecherey, how I myght it fulfill
Sparyng no woman to have on hyr my wyll.”1

But then he also wrote of Henry VIII in similar terms, writing:

“My lusts to frequent, and have of them experyence,
Sekyng but my lust of onlefull lecherye,”2

Henry VIII had mistresses, as well as numerous wives, so why would his closest friends be any different? They spent their entire lives keeping up with their royal master. If George was a womaniser, then he was no different to most other male courtiers, save for being more discreet than Henry. There was no other person who commented on George’s womanising during his life or after his death, and no scandal ever surrounded his marriage to Jane. Although fiction often portrays George’s marriage to Jane as unhappy, there is actually no evidence to prove it and their childless state was more likely down to them experiencing problems. It was, after all, Jane’s duty to provide a Boleyn heir whether she liked her husband or not. There is actually more evidence to prove that they were happy, e.g. Anne confiding in Jane about Henry’s impotence problems and Jane telling George, than there is to prove that they were unhappy.

Thomas Wyatt

Poet and courtier Thomas Wyatt knew George Boleyn well and in his poetry about the executions of the five men on 17th May 1536, he wrote of George’s pride:

“Some say Rochford had thou not been so proud,
For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan.
As it is so, many cry aloud
It is a great loss that thou art dead and gone.”3

There is little doubt that George had the Boleyn pride. He was handsome, intelligent, raised to great heights at an early age, and he was brother-in-law to the King of England. We can’t possibly argue that his character wasn’t tinged with arrogance, but this arrogance or pride didn’t stop people crying aloud at his death and seeing it as “a great loss”.

Chapuys never commented on George being particularly arrogant, save for saying that George was proud of his reformist views and couldn’t help but discuss them in public. In fact Chapuys was prepared to admit that George was always polite and courteous towards him, and showed him “fort grosse chiere” (great cheer),4 and that was coming from a man who really didn’t like the Boleyns.

Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador

Chapuys wrote at Catherine of Aragon’s death that he believed that both George and Thomas Boleyn were wishing Mary would join her mother:

“No words can the joy and delight that this King and the promoters of his concubinate have felt at the demise of the good Queen, especially the earl of Wilshire, and his son, who must have said to themselves, What a pity it was that the Princess had not kept her mother company.”5

This is often interpreted as Thomas and George saying that this was what they wished for. In fact, that’s not what Chapuys said. Chapuys quite clearly says that they “must have said to themselves”. It is Chapuys believing that this is what they wanted, and that is very different to George and Thomas actually saying it.

Chapuys also wrote that George and Norfolk had criticised Anne Shelton for showing Mary too much respect, and that she should be treated like the bastard she was:

“The duke of Norfolk and Anne’s brother lately reprimanded her for behaving to the Princess with too much respect and kindness, saying that she ought only to be treated as a bastard.”6

This is unpleasant for sure, but on whose instructions were these orders given? Does anyone seriously think that Norfolk and George travelled to Hatfield of their own volition to give these orders regarding the King’s daughter?

George as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports

There is a reference to George in his role as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 15357 which gives the impression that he had been too heavy handed in handing down a sentence to a father and son, Robert and James Justyce, when his authority in court had been challenged. This suggests he had been too zealous in implementing his authority, but there is no suggestion of any wrong-doing.

There do not appear to be any other primary source references describing George in negative terms, so why has he been turned into a monster? He appears to have been a womaniser, like most of his contemporaries. He was proud, with a touch of the Boleyn arrogance. He supported the King, his sister and his niece over Catherine and her daughter. That’s it.

So what about sources which show him in a favourable light:-

George’s Correspondence

Some letters written by George have survived. Some are formal, like letters to the King, and some are informal, written to friends. They give us a wonderful insight into his character. In particular, one which always makes us smile was written while he was on his first embassy in France. He was coming to the end of his time there and wrote complaining that his friends back home were too busy enjoying themselves to find the time to write to him. He goes on to say that he was due to return to England shortly, after which he may not find the time to write either! There is also a series of rather panicked letters from George to Lord Lisle, the Duke of Norfolk and the King regarding the visit of Philippe de Chabot, Seigneur De Brion and Admiral of France. George had been chosen to meet the Admiral and escort him from Dover to London, which was no easy task, when the Admiral’s train consisted of over 350 horses. George’s letters clearly show his concern over the travel arrangements.

There is of course also the wonderful dedication to Anne attached to his translations for her. Written with affection, humour and a large dollop of false modesty:

“To the right honourable lady, the Lady Marchioness of Pembroke, her most loving and friendly
brother sendeth greetings.

Our friendly dealings, with so divers and sundry benefits, besides the perpetual bond of blood, have so often
bound me, Madam, inwardly to love you, that in every of them I must perforce become your debtor for want
of power, but nothing of my good will. And were it not that by experience your gentleness is daily proved,
your meek fashion often times put into use, I might well despair in myself, studying to acquit your deserts
towards me, or embolden myself with so poor a thing to present to you. But, knowing these perfectly to
reign in you with more, I have been so bold to send unto you, not jewels or gold, whereof you have plenty,
not pearl or rich stones, whereof you have enough, but a rude translation of a well-willer, a goodly matter
meanly handled, most humbly desiring you with favour to weigh the weakness of my dull wit, and patiently
to pardon where any fault is, always considering that by your commandment I have adventured to do this,
without the which it had not been in me to have performed it. But that hath had power to make me pass my
wit, which like as in this I have been ready to fulfil, so in all other things at all times I shall be ready to obey,
praying him on whom this book treats, to grant you many years to his pleasure and shortly to increase in
heart’s ease with honour.”8

Wonderful!

George the Voice of Reason

When Anne ranted about putting the Princess Mary to death it was her brother who sensibly, if perhaps somewhat nervously, advised her that it would insult the King:

“I am informed by a person of good faith that the King’s concubine had said more than once, and with great assurance, that when the King has crossed the sea, and she remains gouvernante, as she will be, she will use her authority and put the said Princess to death, either by hunger or otherwise. On Rochford, her brother, telling her that this would anger the King, she said she did not care even if she were burned alive for it after.”9

George, it seems, was the voice of reason.

George the Poet

George was an acknowledged court poet. Clare has previously written an article about his poetry, so we won’t go into detail here, but his earliest biographer, Edmond Bapst, argued that George Boleyn, along with Henry Howard was one of the harbingers of the Renaissance. See George Boleyn the Poet.

George the Reformer

George was passionate about reform, in the religious sense. Again, Clare has already written an article about this – see George Boleyn, Religion and the Reformation to find out more.

George was certainly fascinated in religious debate and he held true to his religious ideals, and his passion for reform, right up to his death. On the scaffold he told those watching that he had been one of those who had done the most to have the word of God made accessible to all of the people of the realm and historian Eric Ives wrote of how George “spoke the language of Zion” in this speech. His zeal for reform was clearly not a fad or a political manoeuvre, but something which was very important to him.

George Boleyn’s Career

George was a competent courtier, politician and diplomat, and you can find out about his impressive career in the article George Boleyn’s Career. His diligence in his duties and his loyalty to the King were recognised by Henry who described him as one, “he especially loveth and trustith”.

George’s Concern for Others

While imprisoned in the Tower of London, George was troubled by concern for those who may suffer from his death. As Claire explains in her book “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown”:

“He wasn’t afraid of dying, but he was afraid that his debtors would not be paid and that those who owed him money would end up getting into trouble if they had to pay the King instead. So worked up was George that Sir William Kingston wrote to Cromwell twice, firstly saying “The said Lord desires to speak with you on a matter which touches his conscience” and then reiterating it in a second letter:“You must help my lord of Rochford’s conscience”. One person George was concerned about was a monk who, with Cromwell’s help, George had got promoted. The monk had paid George £100 and owed a further £100, but the Abbey had now been “suppressed”. The monk had no way of paying George back and George was worried that the Crown would demand the payment. Kingston begged Cromwell to step in and help George.”10

George’s Demeanour at His Trial and Execution

Every report we have of the trial of George Boleyn confirms the courage, dignity and calmness of his defence. His impressive defence was compared to that of Thomas More and it was reported that “several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted”. The chronicler Charles Wriothesley wrote of George at his trial:

“he made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, but never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended.”11

On the scaffold, George followed the protocol of the age and admitted he was a sinner deserving of death. It is so sad that this courageous and honourable speech has been twisted into something negative. At the time he was greatly admired for it and it was widely reported throughout England and Europe.

Conclusion

Was George Boleyn a saint? No of course he wasn’t. He had the same faults as most other typical courtiers of the age he lived in. Was he a sinner? Yes, partly, as are most of us, and certainly as were the majority of Henry’s court. He was ferociously ambitious, successful and cocky with it. He was also intelligent, gifted, had a real commitment to reform, was hard working and diligent in his duties, witty, courageous and honourable in the face of adversity and showed genuine concern for those who would suffer from his death.

Having researched George’s life in depth, we are both bewildered by George Boleyn’s treatment at the hands of fiction and some non-fiction. Too often, he is portrayed as, amongst other things, a rapist and wife abuser, a man who would have sex with anything that moved, a coward, a weakling, a pathetic smirking fool, a layabout, and/or pompous ass. Yet there is nothing that we know about George which shows him as any of these things. So where on earth did all this come from? Perhaps the fevered imagination of those who need a villain, and why not choose a man who was found guilty of incest? It makes him an easy target, despite the fact he was innocent. The mere charge muddies the water, and makes him fair game.

If we are willing to fight for Anne Boleyn and the way that she has been treated unfairly by fiction, then surely we need to fight for the brother she loved so much. Isn’t it time that we let history tell George’s story, rather than believing fiction?

Notes and Sources

  1. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey Vol. II, George Cavendish, p20
  2. Ibid., p153
  3. V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei, Thomas Wyatt
  4. LP x. 699
  5. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Part 2, Note 9
  6. LP vii. 214
  7. The Lisle Letters Vol. II, p480-481, Letter from Sir Richard Dering to Lord Lisle
  8. MS 6561, fol. iv. MS 6561, fol. 2r.
  9. LP vii. 871
  10. The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, Claire Ridgway, p195
  11. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Charles Wriothesely, 39

Comments on
"George Boleyn: Saint or Sinner"

28 Responses to “George Boleyn: Saint or Sinner”

  1. Ann says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I shudder with disbelief and annoyance whenever I see these negative so far from the truth protrayals of George. A novel waiting to be written.

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  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    Great article! George was certainly a competent servant of the king, better than competent. He had his father’s example to follow in diplomacy and hard work and was smart enough to emulate it. We can’t know much about his marriage, though Jane’s character reveals itself over time. Thanks!

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  3. margaret says:

    i cant decide on george and would not even try to guess what he was like ,but im sure that not everything was written down and recorded and maybe a lot of vital information was hidden away and unspoken ,so i cant decide about george no more than i can decide about anne either.

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  4. Sonetka says:

    Good post! However, I’d have to disagree that George’s portrayal in fiction has been largely negative — in fact, this is a very recent trend. For the 450 years or so before “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Tudors” his portrayal in plays and novels usually aligned pretty closely with the descriptors you used: witty, courageous, honourable, hardworking and committed to reform. Which aspects were emphasized, of course, depended on the fashions of the time, but usually he comes off looking pretty good. Even in the few portrayals where he’s a dupe, he’s still a noble dupe. Often his playing around or any negative character traits are attributed to his (supposedly) miserable marriage to Jane Parker. (If you don’t mind my self-linking, I wrote about George Boleyn’s portrayal in fiction just the other day here: https://anneboleynnovels.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/george-boleyn-viscount-rochford-god-knoweth-all-my-sins/).

    [Reply]

    Sonetka Reply:

    And I meant to add, that I agree he’d make a GREAT lead character for a novel (surprisingly, such a novel seems not to exist yet, though they seem to have been written about everyone else!)

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  5. Eliza says:

    I think the fact that George was thinking of the people he owed money to, just hours/days before his death speaks volumes about his character,

    I find the close and loving relationship between Anne and George really heartwarming. They seem to have been so alike. I loved his dedication to Anne, lovely and intelligently chosen words!

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  6. Dawn 1st says:

    You are right he was no worse than anyone else at the tudor court, and probably a lot better than many.
    He was another court ‘Peacock’, handsome, educated, well dressed with friends and family in high places. A prime target for spiteful and malicious gossip then.

    And this continues today, as you say all this must stem from the false accusation and his execution for incest… seems to have set him up for speculation and exaggeration bordering on pure fantasy, a character that can be moulded into whatever the author, film and TV industry want him to be, its a shame that he is always put in a bad ‘light’. I wonder if he had a good sense of humour, he would have needed one then, and he certainly would now, if he could see how he is portrayed…

    One good thing though, as they say there is no such thing as Bad Publicity, all this adverse writing about George has brought him to the fore-front and makes people such as yourselves determined to find out the truth about him, then all the fiction will be put into its real context, ‘imaginary narrative’. Great stuff, Clare and Claire…

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  7. Daniela says:

    I agree. George Boleyn is forever portrayed in a negative light by film producers and in books. Yet he was a man of his time, ambitious, intelligent, charismatic, popular and he must have felt very protective of his sister, Anne, knowing she had accomplished what she did. I would think he must have been extremely proud too. A fabulous article, thank you.

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  8. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Clare,Claire,What a great read!Was george a saint most likely not,with that said we have all sinned at ,one time or another know one is perfect.Should he be declared a saint know. THX Baroness

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  9. Denise Hansen says:

    Great posting. I agree that that the maligning of George Boleyn in fiction is a more recent trend. I love the way his relationship with Anne is portrayed in the classic “Brief Gaudy Hour” – and the wonderful scene where he boldly (and pehaps recklessly) reveals Henry’s impotence during his trial. So George – the wit, the touch of arrogance and the loyalty to Anne.

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  10. Bev says:

    Wonderful ! George Boleyn fascinates me as much as Anne, I do wish a book would be written about him – a fair book! I detest the way he has been portrayed in some fictional books and films/tv.

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  11. Kandace says:

    Wonderful article, ladies!

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  12. Anne McCord says:

    Yes! It is so gratifying to have George’s character rightfully rehabilitated as well as Anne’s. I’m sure there is nothing she would have appreciated more. Lovely service, ladies!

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  13. Mary says:

    Claire, do YOU have any idea where all the negative stuff about George started. I thought you may have an idea with all the research and reading you have done.
    As for George and Anne I think they were very close because they were very good friends and knew they could trust each other with any trials, tribulations and happiness they confided with each other. I think all of us have that special someone be it spouse, sibling or good friend that we know we can share and be honest without being judged.
    mary

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    Clare Reply:

    I think it started with Warnicke’s theory of homosexuality back in the late eighties. Some bigoted fiction writers saw that as a negative against his character, after which he became fair game. With each book written about him his character became blacker and blacker. It came to a head with The Tudors who depicted him as a wife abuser and rapist. After that the floodgates opened. All very sad.

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    Sonetka Reply:

    Which fiction works are these? I’m trying to get as complete a collection as possible and the only ones I know of which have George being a really negative character are “The Other Boleyn Girl” “The Boleyn Wife/Vengeance Is Mine” (although there’s an unreliable narrator element there) and the TV series “The Tudors.” Admittedly “The Tudors” was a television juggernaut and probably left a pretty negative impression of him on the viewers who didn’t know much else about him. If you know of others, I’d really appreciate titles, since I haven’t found any and if they’re out there, I’d like to have them.

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    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Claire,I must agree this all started with Warnicke’s as well as the Tudors series,I remember asking you if George was homosexual,this is tish tosh!! He may have not been the best man,but he was’nt the worst of men.I think George was loayal to the King and Anne,aswell as his family and wish that some people would stop trashing the Family Boleyn.Surely they can find far worse people to trash talk about ,making George look like a evil sinner and his family to is plane wrong!In the time of Henry and Anne it was dog eat dog,Anne was pulled into his vortex as well as her family,when the King orders you to do his bidding ,you don’t say know,or you would suffer his wrath.We all make bad judgements and George was know different.I really wish the movie makers and authors that have not done there research would stop making these people look like sellf serving monsters!I so greatfull that you as a author and one who has done her RESEARCH can bring the truth to all.Thats your calling Claire thanks so much. Regards Baroness

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  14. margaret says:

    i have a question if someone can answer me please, i read that along with the arrests of anne and george also their mother and father were also arrested and georges arrest was on the charge of witholding information about annes supposed adultry,any of this true?

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    Clare Reply:

    Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn were never arrested. When George was arresested Chapuys wondered whether it was for failing to report his sister’s adultery. The incest allegation shocked everyone.

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  15. Anna Regina says:

    I love George but i am wondering if George and Jane did have a good matrimony why did she bear herself as a witness of incest between George and Anne?
    I am happy that you said that no one was a saint back then and we are still no saints because telling people that George was perfect would be a lie.

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    Baroness Von Reis Reply:

    Anna,George NEVER had any incest with Queen Anne,that was a made up story by Cromwell and the King, trumpt up lies to condem all,the King wanted out,what better way to ride yourself of a women noless a QUEEN,treason was always death,they new it. Kind Regards Baroness

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  16. Kirsty says:

    Thankyou for this article, I am very interested in George Boleyn as I too feel he has been shamelessly reviled for nothing more than being a loyal and devoted brother.
    I have been researching George for a while now and would appreciate any sources you may feel worth reading if it is not too much trouble,
    Thankyou, Kirsty

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  17. sue says:

    i have read everything on tudor history henry all wives but nothing can i find about george

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  18. BanditQueen says:

    George Boleyn obviously had some character flaws, but so did everyone and he was a man of intrigue and ambition, as was everyone at court: they were all on the make: that is why they are at the court in the first place. George seems to have been more reasonable than Anne, though and there is some evidence that when she had one of her rants against Mary or Catherine that George was the one who calmed her down. He could be self promoting and arrogant as well and there is some evidence that at times he was a bit of a bully and did not take rejection or being crossed very well. Having said this, the way he is portrayed in the Tudors is well of the mark. Is this some new fashion to have people who were not known to be homo or bio-sexual have these sorts of relationships? It seems we have to have the token homosexual relationship just for the sake of it and it is not good enough to invent or find a homosexual character, the writers have to pick on a historical person and turn them into one for political correctness.

    I have read the book by Joan Fox about Jane Boleyn and there is nothing to indicate that George raped her on their wedding night. Like most arranged marriages I am sure the wedding night was a complete hoot (I think not) as neither would have known the other all that well. The chemistry must have taken time to build up and I am quite certain that things did not go all that well at first. But that does not mean that George took his wife with violence. On the contrary, they seem to have had a quiet relationship and Jane seems to have advanced his career somewhat through her father’s own connections which were greater than the Boleyn’s. Lord Henry Morley certainly had money, and that was why Jane and George were married, but they did know each other and it is inconceivable that they would have been complete strangers on their wedding night.

    George rose quickly through the ranks and Henry seems to have been genuinely fond of him. He was also intelligent. But he also knew how to make enemies and it is a case that the Duke of Suffolk blocked his elevation to the Privy Chamber, voting against him for his own cousin instead. George Boleyn held a grudge for this, and as a result of a quarrel, it is suggested that Suffolk may have been one of the accusers against him, when he was charged with incest with Anne. The evidence for this is scant, but the quarrel was real.

    Finally, was he Anne’s lover? I doubt it. It is clear that as children they were close, but there came a point during the late 1520s when Anne made it clear that she no longer trusted George to keep her confidence. When he scolded her about her drinking and antics over Catherine and Mary, she is more likely to have resented him than made him her lover. Yes, they were reconciled and yes she spent much time with him, but what really was seen or not seen by her ladies in waiting? Anne and George may have acted with a bit too much tenderness and even flirted or were playful with each other, Anne may have turned to him when she needed comfort after a quarrel with Henry. Her seeing him in private may not have been a great idea, but if her ladies were indeed able to report what they later claimed, that they saw them both intimate together, then it is clear that Anne and George were not alone, were they? And the Queen acting thus with anyone with her ladies around is extremely dangerous and foolish. I am of the firm opinion that her relationship with George was nothing more than two overly close siblings, completely innocent and everything else was in the imagination of the beholder.

    [Reply]

    Louise Reply:

    I don’t understand the reference to there being evidence that George was a bit of a bully. What evidence?
    George and Jane knew each other well before they were married. Both of them had been at court since they were children.
    There is no evidence that George quarrelled with the Duke of Suffolk. His quarrel was with Francis Bryan. George was a member of the Privy Chamber from 1529, and there is no evidence that Suffolk tried to block it. George failed to be elected as Knight of the Garter in April 1536, which I think you may mean. Instead the position was given to Nicholas Carew.
    What makes you think that Anne no longer trusted George from the late 1520’s? There is absolutely no evidence that he scolded her or that she resented him. Where do you get that from?

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  19. Ricky says:

    does any one know where abouts in The tower of london george is buried,is there evidence of an interment within the chapel of st peters or was he buried on the green outside? the others executed with him,i read some where are buried in a pit outside,not sure this true either,many thanks.

    [Reply]

    Claire Reply:

    It is thought that Anne Boleyn was laid to rest next to her brother, George, so he would have been buried on the edge of the chancel of St Peter ad Vincula, near the North Wall. The rest of the men were buried in the Chapel’s graveyard and when the graveyard was built over the remains found were put in the crypt of the Chapel.

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  20. I believe, that as a brother, George HAD to protect his sister as much as he could.
    Even when brothers and sisters are not as close as these two were growing up, I think brothers are always right there to stand up for their sister. It is a very honorable thing to do, & despite any of the so called, “bad” things about this man…and every man has them….no one is perfect…….he loved his sister and his family, & would go to any lengths to see that they were safe. Even if it meant sacrificing his own life, which of course it did.

    [Reply]

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