12 March 1539 – Death of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Father of Anne Boleyn

Mar12,2014 #Thomas Boleyn

Thomas Boleyn brassOn 12th March 1539, just under three years after the executions of two of his children, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire died at Hever Castle, the Boleyn family home, he was in his sixties.

Thomas’s servant, Robert Cranwell, wrote to Thomas Cromwell on 13th March to give him the news:

“My good lord and master is dead. He made the end of a good Christian man.”1

Thomas was laid to rest in a tomb in the local church, St Peter’s Church, Hever. His tomb still survives today and is topped with a beautiful memorial brass showing Thomas dressed in the full robes and insignia of a Knight of the Garter, including the badge on his left breast and garter around his left knee. His head is depicted resting on a helmet surmounted by his daughter’s falcon badge and his feet rest on a griffin. The inscription on his tomb reads:

“Here lieth Sir Thomas Bullen, Knight of the Order of the Garter, Erle of Wilscher and Erle or Ormunde, which decessed the 12th dai of Marche in the iere of our Lorde 1538.”

Notice that his date of death is given as 1538 because the Tudor new year started on 25th March, Lady Day, and not 1st January.

Thomas Boleyn Brass Sketch

In April 1539, Henry VIII paid 16l. 13s. 4d. to his chaplain, William Franklyn, Dean of Windsor, “for certain oraisons, suffrages and masses to be said for the soul’s health of th’erle of Wilts, late deceased”, which is evidence that Thomas was back in favour at his death.2

If you visit Hever Castle then do make sure that you also visit St Peter’s Church, which is situated on the green just outside the main castle entrance. It is a lovely church and is usually open. There, you can see Thomas’s beautiful brass memorial, a 15th century brass for Margaret Cheyne, a simple brass cross memorial to Henry Boleyn, infant brother of Anne Boleyn, a painting by Tintoretto, a Tudor fireplace, and a stained glass window depicting the arms of the Boleyns (the three bulls).

You can read more about Thomas Boleyn in my article In Defence of Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn.

St Peter's Church, Hever
St Peter’s Church, Hever

Notes and Sources

  1. LP xiv. Part 1, 511
  2. LP xiv. Part 2, p309

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15 thoughts on “12 March 1539 – Death of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Father of Anne Boleyn”
  1. I wonder if he died of a broken heart. The stress of 1536 must have had an impact on his health…it would have anyone’s I expect. Thanks!

  2. Hi Claire

    I wonder if you know whether Thomas Boleyn was close to his grand-daughter Elizabeth l and whether they saw each other often? She would have been about six years of age at the time of his death.

    1. It’s a good question. In my humble opinion it would not be in Henry’s character to approve of any contact between Eiizabeth and her maternal grandfather. Following Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry wanted memories of Anne Boleyn obliterated and certainly none passed to his precocious child Ellizabeth who might be tempted to ask of her mother.

  3. Yes,, RIP Sir Thomas. I believe he was a far better father to his children than has been portrayed throughout history. He may not have been ‘father of the year’ in modern times, but he provided well for and procured excellent educations for his daughters as well as his son & heir George, and behaved far better than their kinsman Norfolk in those awful days leading up to his children’s’ murders. I cannot imagine what it would be like to find yourself working for someone who had the power to strike your head from your shoulders at any given time.

  4. What a life he led! Of course, the execution of two of his children must have broken his spirit as well as his heart. There would be no place in your thoughts free of the horror.

    Does anybody know when the New Year was changed from 25 March to 1 January?

  5. I do not think that initially Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn were any more ambitious for their daughters and son doing well at court than anyone else connected to the royal household. They were aware of the changes in the King’s relationship with his Queen and I think they saw an opportunity to move Anne into a position to get herself noticed and encouraged her to go as far as she could to influence Henry. When it became clear that Henry and Anne were more than just a mistress relationship and something deeper they took full advantage and got behind Anne and her aim to be Queen. The situation with Mary was different, she had been the King’s mistress for a brief period and had been there at a time when he was not looking to marry an English woman. By the time Henry was in love with Anne, he had taken his steps into the divorce, so was considering a second wife to give him a son.

    Anne had aroused his passions and was probably coached by her parents and moved into positions to gain access to the King more often. Henry had stayed over at Hever and was a visitor there on several occasions. Thomas Boleyn was a constant star at the English and French courts and worked hard for the King who rewarded his skills and talents. He was well known at the court from the start of the reign and seems to have been pretty indespensible to the King. His daughter was well educated and he wanted her to do well. George was also fairly talented and Henry seems to have appreciated his company. Mary was not as well educated but must have had some education and certainly charm and generosity to commend her. She too had been in France and must have learned what was needed to be the wife and the daughter of an English Knight. All women of standing learnt how to dance and sing and be graceful and to run a household. They were not merely decorative: they had to take charge when the man was away and if they had a house and estates; this was the woman’s domain. Anne learnt a lot more and her education was one of the reasons the King was attracted to her.

    It is believed that sometime between 1527-1529 Anne suggested to the King that she could be his wife and bare him sons and he was looking at this proposal with some interest and committment during this latter period. I think that Thomas would certainly have given Anne advice about how to handle the King, even if he was not all that keen on the idea of her becoming Queen to start with. I do think the Boleyns were ambitious and that they grew more so as opportunities began to be realised. As the time became more certain that Anne would one day be Henry’s wife, I would assume that they would take steps to make their own position stronger, pushing Anne on, coaching her, working behind the scenes, getting rid of others who stood in the way, such as Wolsey, and the dramas have made much of this; with Thomas Boleyn shown as a bully in the Tudors.

    I do not believe that he is the bully he is shown in the Tudors, where he is actually quite disrespectful, demanding and abusive to Anne, choking her at one point and demanding to know what she did to kill her baby at one time. But I do believe he and his family were ambitious and took full advantage of the King and his relationship with Anne, but then the same could be said for the Seymours and their promotion and coaching of Jane Seymour. The court was the place to get noticed and to make fortunes, it was also a hot house of plotting and intrigue and the competing families were often putting their daughters and sons forward to gain what they wanted; the Boleyns just took it a bit further as the King was obsessed with Anne.

    When Thomas Boleyn had to witness and oversee the trial and execution of his son and daughter there is some evidence that he was actually distraught. He was not going to pretend that he wanted to see his children executed. Yes, he also had a sterner side, such as when he cut Mary off without support as she married William Stafford without his leave, a man much below her in status. But this was indicative of the role of a Tudor father. Thomas must have been shocked that Mary had taken things into her own hands in the first place, finding her own second husband; although widows did have more rights than other women; but she should have married someone more worthy who could keep her in a decent status and who had a good living as far as the Boleyns were concerned. Thomas saw Mary as a disobedient daughter, and as Anne was now Queen, she had defied convention and not sought her permission to marry. As a member of the royal family and as a lady of the chamber she had to wait for leave to marry and this also angered both Anne and her father. He may seem mean and stern to us, but we must remember the times that these girls lived in; and the conventions that social status demanded. Thomas Boleyn was just acting as he saw his role demanded, and within his rights as Mary’s father.

    By the time of his death in 1539 it is clear that he had began to have some role in the life at court. He was present at the christening of Prince Edward and gave a gift at the time. He also had the role of Earl and ceremonial role to play and that Henry paid something towards his funeral shows that he was partly in favour and contact with the King at that time. It is also said that other members of the nobility also missed the Earl and had memories of him and paid tribute to him when looking back at those who had been lost at the court later in the reign. Thomas Boleyn was a man of many talents, and I cannot think of him being anything like the pimping bully that TV likes to make him. Even if he did push Anne or Mary towards the King, the rest was most certainly up to them, and as Anne was not keen on the idea of being Henry’s mistress, it must have been Henry’s regular contact with her and repeated courtships and gifts that won her over, and not the boldness of her family.

  6. I think Thomas Boleyn suffers from our tendency to judge things in terms of our standards of what constitutes a good parent, rather than the standards of his own time. For example, to our modern standards, it is inconceivable that Thomas Boleyn continued to serve Henry VIII after the judicial murder of two of his children. Yet, it was common to continue to serve the king after the judicial murder of your relatives …. John Dudley served Henry VIII, when Henry’s first act as king was beheading John’s father; Margaret Pole served the Tudors loyally for years, when Henry VII beheaded her brother, etc. I don’t think he is a candidate for “father of the year” — letting Mary and his only grandchildren suffer until Henry pressures him does not speak well of him — but he certainly does not deserve a lot of the bad press that he has received..

  7. While I can understand we can not really judge anyone who lived so far back in time with todays standards ,I still can not like this man Thomas Boleyn.It was the way 500 yrs ago to “advance”your sons and daughters upwardly and naturally through the royal court,the higher you rose the higher your family went too,Istill can not understand how Thomas Boleyn was back in court to witness prince Edwards christening and even bestowed a gift to the new prince while his son and daughter lay murdered ,I would have thought he would have disappeared somewhere in complete breakdown over this,did this man feel nothing ,no feelings at all over their murder,just can not get this at all,sorry but I just do not like this man

    1. I think he owed it to his surviving family to dust himself down and get back to court, he still had a wife to provide for and also Mary would inherit from him. Families just had to cope and put aside their personal feelings towards the King, which must have been so hard to do.

  8. How about this for an idea: he knew his
    Children had blown it. Anne came back from
    France thinking she was better than her
    Family – she was raised among princesses
    And started to believe she was one. Once
    She was pregnant, she spoke in an insulting way
    To her father, who may well have taken issue
    With her for having intercourse with Henry
    While he was legally wed elsewhere and she rubbed
    It in later. And by his own admission, George
    Was a sexual predator.

    So no, he would not have been happy that his
    Children were executed, but he very well may
    Have seen that they brought it on themselves
    Through arrogance and unrestrained criticism
    Of their king (and ridiculing the king’s sexuality
    And thus right to rule, put the whole court in
    Danger.). Thomas was as ashamed as he was
    Emotionally distraught.

    Might not be true, but this view is as potentially
    Valid as the one where he is just a villain.

    1. I made an error above – George did not admit to being a predator – that he was a rapist was commented upon by others.

  9. Heads would roll for perceived infractions so it would have been expedient to do whatever necessary to keep your head attached to your neck.

  10. Anne’s goal then was to break from the ideology of the church. She was cunning, manipulative, knew how to take power and keep it. Henry only got rid of her bc he didn’t want to go through another 7 yrs to wait to read, in hopes of a male hare before it was too late for him. The only reason Henry established the church of England was to freely marry Anne.Jane Seymour was actually a cousin of Anne’s. As were most nobles close relation

    1. No, that wasn’t her goal at all. She was a Catholic. I own the same books she was reading by the French reformers who were non-schismatic and looking to reform the church from within. They wanted the church ton get back to the authority of scripture and to reform abuses.

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