12 March 1539 – Thomas Boleyn dies at Hever Castle

Mar 12, 2018 #Thomas Boleyn

On this day in history, 12th March 1539, Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, died at Hever Castle, the Boleyn family home. He was about sixty-two years of age. His servant, Robert Cranwell, wrote to Thomas Cromwell of Thomas’s death:

“My good lord and master is dead. He made the end of a good Christian man. Hever, 13 March.”1

John Husee recorded in a letter to Lord Lisle that King Henry VIII ordered masses to be said for the soul of his former father-in-law who had served him as a diplomat, Comptroller of the Household and Treasurer of the Household.2 Thomas had fallen from royal favour following the falls and executions of two of his children, Queen Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, losing his office of Lord Privy Seal to Thomas Cromwell in the summer of 1536. However, he had managed to regain the king’s favour by helping to put down the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion in late 1536. It had even been rumoured, following the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1538, that he would marry the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas3

Thomas was laid to rest at the family church, St Peter’s, Hever, which is situated on the green just outside Hever Castle. His tomb is topped by a beautiful brass memorial depicting Thomas dressed as a Knight of the Garter (he’d been invested in 1523). Above his right shoulder sits his daughter Anne’s falcon crest and at his feet, there is a griffin. The inscription 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.”

Note: Thomas Boleyn died before Lady Day, 25th March, the start of the Tudor calendar year, so that is why he is recorded as dying in 1538.

The spelling “Bullen” is a variation of Boleyn. There was no standardised spelling in Tudor times and you can read more about the various spellings of Boleyn in my article Boleyn or Bullen – The Spelling of Boleyn and the Myth that Anne Boleyn Changed It.

Thomas Boleyn was a gifted man, a Renaissance man, a loyal royal servant and a man who had an amazing career. You can read more about him in the following articles:

and in our Thomas Boleyn category.

Notes and Sources

Photos: copyright Tim and Claire Ridgway 2010.

  1. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, XIV Part 1, 511.
  2. LP xiv. 950.
  3. LP xiii. Part 1. 1419.

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21 thoughts on “12 March 1539 – Thomas Boleyn dies at Hever Castle”
  1. This is a man I have a lot of sympathy and respect for. Unlike some I do not believe he encouraged or even approved of Henry’s designs toward his daughter Anne. He knew the king’s volatile personality and what could possibly happen. Unfortunately he was right. He lost his children Anne and George to the axe, became estranged from his daughter Mary and fell out of favor at court and his wife died not too long after. How he continued on and worked his way back up to Henry’s favor after such calamities is a wonder. I am so glad the King showed him such great respect upon his death. I truly believe he was a good man who did right by his family. May He rest in peace.

  2. Sir Thomas Boleyn was intelligent cautious and had a good deal of common sense, he was thought highly of by both Henry V11 and Henry V111, the Boleyns were what the old nobility called upstarts, they were the new men at court, from rather obscure beginnings in a norfolk country dwelling his ancestor Sir Geoffrey Boleyn left the leafy landscape for London with all its bustling population and grimy sooty buildings, and in truth Dick Whittington fashion, became its Lord Mayor, after completing his apprenticeship as a hatter and a liveryman, he married into the nobility by taking as his wife Anne, daughter of Lord Hoo and Hastings, in a path very like his own his descendant Thomas Boleyn also married well Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, his career at court flourished down to his skill at languages and he became a trusted diplomat and was knighted and inherited the title Earl of Ormonde and later Earl of Wiltshire, he also became father to several children, having a fertile wife, sadly some of them died but three survived, one became a talented musician and poet and another became queen, another made her name in a rather notorious fashion by allegedly sleeping with the King of France and later which is a fact King Henry V111, he rose further than his ancestor and like him, died safely in his bed, but not before he had seen the rise and fall of his daughter, from holding the title queen consort to a disgraced wife, from seated in a chair of state next to the King to lonely chambers in the tower, from kings darling and mother of the future Queen Elizabeth to a condemned prisoner, tainted and shamed for ever, her daughter no longer her fathers heir but merely a kings bastard, history has been unfair to Sir Thomas Boleyn, he has been called a pimp who pushed his daughters into the Kings bed, cared nothing for their feelings but glorifying in their brief fame, he has been called a not very clever man who only achieved his posts at court because of them, when he was very intelligent, he has been branded heartless for abandoning his son and daughter to their dreadful fate when there was nothing he could do, his ghost is said to walk the earth for a thousand years since Anne died, in penance for agreeing to sit at her and her brothers trial, one can imagine the gloomy dining room at Hever after both his children had died, where once there had been gaiety and laughter, the sound of music playing, the chatter of animated voices, now there was merely silence with him and his wife facing each other down the length of the long oak table, the servants standing nearby pensive and sad the days of merriment over, but being the kind of man he was he lifted himself up from the depths of despair with the kind of zeal maybe reminiscent of his ancestor and returned to court where he had to serve the new queen, his career was something he was determined to renew, he had held important positions at court and could do so again, his children were dead and his granddaughter a bastard but he had been a valuable servant to both kings of England and Henry V111 had ever been grateful to those who served him well, he was at the christening of the baby prince Edward, one can imagine him railing against fate that it was not Anne who was lying in her birthing chamber receiving congratulations instead of Jane Seymour, had she only gives the King a son her life would not have ended so brutally, everywhere he went at court he was reminded of her, and his clever talented son they had both dazzled the court like colourful strutting peacocks, now they both lay in unmarked graves the awful charge of incest tainting their memory, the last years of his life were quiet, he may have visited his daughter Mary and her family even though she had been a source of disappointment to him and his wife, but she was all they had left now and she was his sole heir, his wife died roughly a year after their children she may have suffered from consumption, now known as tuberculosis and he must have felt he had nothing left to live for, the fact he was well thought of by members of his household is apparent in the statement his servant gave after his demise, Henry V111 also did not forget him and had masses sung for his soul, the brass memorial on his tomb is beautiful and a deserved tribute to a man whom history has maligned in more ways than one, in the quiet solitude of an ancient church he lies in peace not with his wife however, who quiet possibly chose to lie with her relatives in the family resting place at Lambeth, here was a man who gave us Englands most notorious queen consort, and was the grandfather of Elizabeth 1st, may he rest in peace.

  3. Thomas Boleyn man of talent and long service to the crown and it showed his tenacity and value that he was able to find favour again for a short period and he was obviously well thought of by Henry, even at the end, because of this service and his past connection to his family. I am very surprised that he was rumoured to be connected to Margaret Douglas, but the woman was rumoured to be going to marry a few people and had two “marriage” encounters with two Howard brothers, Charles and Thomas, one of whom ended up in the Tower, their marriage annulled, so anything is possible. However, having lost his dear wife, Elizabeth not very long before, it was probably unlikely and a dangerous match to be avoided, given the recent fall of his own son and daughter. Thomas had attended and taken part in the baptism of Prince Edward, showing he was a courtier first and foremost, because this was his bread and butter. A man in royal service could not simply go and do something else, although his transferable skills would have been valued at any noble court. Today he could think stuff the King I will get on a plane and my skills will be used at some international corporation or as a business specialist or the UN or some other international peace organizations. With royal permission he could have found service at the imperial court even then, but he was out of favour. He couldn’t just leave the country, not without permission, for it would make him suspicious and he was living in a time of wars in Europe and Kings playing against each other. The break from Rome also made things more difficult and he was not a young man either. His value as an Ambassador would depend on Henry and his foreign policy in any case so he had to regain favour for to become useful again. This was only ever now at the sunset of his life going to be at home at Henry’s Court, where he belonged. It was his way of providing again some dignity for his wife and surviving adult daughter and for himself. He was a man of long service to the crown, he was a pragmatic man, he accepted the way things were and he did the right thing, beyond the grief and anger he must still have felt for the brutal death of Anne and George. I believe Thomas Boleyn has been unjustly condemned for returning to court, but in reality, what else was he meant to do, for even those who fell from grace have to eat? No, he thought of the family he had left and became back into the service of the King and life went on. He would never reach the dizzy heights of the 1520s and early 30s, but his last two years made him relatively comfortable and enabled him to have a dignified last career and end to his life.

    In his life Thomas Boleyn had served as an Ambassador in France, had controlled the Royal Household, had served four Kings, had a successful marriage to Elizabeth Howard, sister to the Third Duke of Norfolk, in whose family, he and his brother had begun their career of service under the First and Second Dukes, had been among those to have the honour to escort Princess Margaret, sister to Henry Viii to her marriage in Scotland, had military service, had been interested and involved in new learning, had risen to be a central figure in the divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
    and finally his daughter Anne rose to be Queen. The spectacular fall and brutal deaths of his daughter and son George had broken him and his loss of Elizabeth, his beloved wife must have broken his heart further. His inner strength shows he could come back and, difficult as it must have been to serve the man responsible for their innocent deaths, he did so bravely and his courage and loyalty were remembered by his King. Henry was still a very devout man and he had masses said for his soul and honoured him.

    Rest in peace, Thomas Boleyn, man of service, talent, father,husband and loyalty.

    1. In those days they had to endure and just carry on the best they could, their very lives were ruled by the King,unbearable though it must have been for Thomas he had no choice but to serve his King the best he could, it was the only way to survive, wether or not his death several years later was partly caused by grief we do not know, he was in his early sixty’s when he passed away, and as Claire mentions in her wonderful video that was a good age for Tudor times, we do not know what he died of, but the fact both him and his wife did not survive long the deaths of their children does tell us they had both lost the will to live as mentioned, Thomas was not a young man well past middle aged by Tudor standards, he should have been enjoying a peaceful existence well secure in the knowledge that his daughter was queen and being able to see his granddaughter grow up, as it was unlike his early brilliant career when his family basked in the warmth of the Kings graces he knew he would never recapture that glory again, to serve the man who had condemned his children to death, to see him going about the court with Jane Seymour on his arm must have been awful but it shows his strength of mind, however as we know he did not live long after, having buried his wife he must have felt so alone, whatever he felt about Cromwell we can only imagine but he could not treat him with animosity, one wrong word he would be sent to the block also, speaking about his early married life he told Cromwell Elizabeth had fallen pregnant every year, we do not know how many children they had lost but it was normal for children to die young in those days, without vaccinations and the knowledge of hygiene, they had a son Thomas who must have been older than Mary and he too died young, but he survived babyhood, then to have three children grow up and to rise so high only to lose it all we can imagine the very real depression he and his wife suffered, but they were not the only families who lost loved ones to the scaffold, the Duke of Norfolk for one, who lost his son the Earl of Surrey, the Pole family who lost Lady Margaret Pole just because Henry V111 could not get her son who was out of the country, the family of Sir Thomas More, whose daughter daringly took her fathers head from its place on Tower Bridge and took it home with her, the Duke of Buckingham who really only lost his head some say because of his Plantaganet blood, also Cromwell himself, who had a family and whose spectacular rise and fall echoed that of the Boleyns, all these people had wife’s husbands, children nephews and neices, siblings, also not forgetting the men who died with Anne, Weston Brereton, they too had families and Norris, their grieving relatives had to pick up the shattered remnants of their lives and carry on the best they could.

      1. Making peace with the monarch who had your family killed was standard procedure at the time. Henry VII had Edward of Warwick beheaded on (probably) false charges; his sister Margaret (later Countess of Salisbury in her own right) served the Tudors loyally (until she disagreed with Henry VIII over religion). Edmund Dudley was executed by Henry VIII at the beginning of his reign … his son John would serve Henry. Mary Tudor beheaded Lady Jane Grey; her sisters Katherine and Mary would become two of the queen’s ladies.

        1. Yes indeed. Gregory Cromwell also remained loyal and received his father’s titles after Thomas Cromwell was executed. It was standard practice indeed, but also a matter of survival and good sense. Henry Vii eventually executed Warwick because he was no longer convenient and to get rid of another claimant, most likely under Spanish pressure. He even set him up along with Perkin Warbeck to escape so as he could use that as an excuse. Although not retarded like Leanne de Lisle says based on Hall, he nevertheless had no real idea what on earth he had done because he was so isolated from the outside world. Cruel times and people did what it took to stay of the chopping block.

  4. Lovely article. I always felt he was misjudged.

    Regarding the various spellings of the surname. Would we presume the actual pronunciation the family used would be Bullen?

    1. It’s hard to say. You’d think so with it being spelled “Bullen” so often, but then it was also spelled “Buleyn, Bulleyne, Boleyne, Bolleyne, Boyleyn, Bowleyne, Bulloigne” which suggest a longer “aine” sound as the second syllable. The most popular spelling seems to have been Boleyn but that doesn’t help us to figure out how it was pronounced then. Pronunciation was also very very different in Tudor times, with them having what we’d think of as a West Country or pirate type accent.

      1. Did not Anne say that her family were of French origin, possibly because she knew the older nobility used to sneer at the Boleyns humble origins? I believe she claimed the counts of Boulogne as her ancestors but there could be truth in it, knowing how surnames down the centuries altered somewhat, maybe Boleyn / Bullen is derived from Boulogne.

  5. Very well put, Christine, it was all they could do to survive and make a life for surviving family members. If your brother or parents lost their heads you had to restore the family honour and fortune and the way to do that was to show you are loya and get something back in return, such as the title or some property. I am glad he kept Hever until he died before it went to anyone else and then to the crown. It would be given to Anne of Cleves in 1540. It must have been very hard but it was a matter of survival.

    1. Thank you Bq, and I’d just like to add today Britain and the world lost a great man – Professor Stephen Hawking, my thoughts go out to his friends and family, he is dead but his brilliance lives on may he rest in peace also.

      1. I was so sorry to hear this. Certainly one of the most brilliant minds on the planet. His expertise will be sadly missed by everyone around the world. I learned much from him over the last decades.

        1. Yes a very sad loss for science and for the work with motor neuron disease which he showed could be managed with the right support and determination. He had a brilliant mind and was very inspirational. I would also like to add the loss of Ken Dodd will also be widely felt because his joy and laughter brought a bright spark to everyone. I went to several of his shows and he was brilliant. I add my voice to saddness. I had the loss of an uncle by marriage who was also in their late 80s over the weekend so we are all supporting my aunt at the moment. Norma is my godmother, my mum’s best friend but we call her aunt as she was a family member in every way, coming on holiday with us every year. It’s been a very odd week for people passing. I hope heaven is prepared for all these brilliant minds. It will be a lesser world without them.

        2. I’m so sorry about your uncle, BQ, that’s horrible news. I’m also sorry to hear about your aunt’s dementia. My thoughts are with you and your family.

          I felt so very sad hearing about Stephen Hawking’s death yesterday. He was such an incredible man, a huge inspiration and a great mind. He also didn’t take himself too seriously and was humble. Such a loss to our world.

  6. The last of the great comedians I grew up with Ken Dodd, The Two Ronnies, Bruce Forayth, Tommy Cooper who was my dads favourite, not forgetting Benny Hill they all had their own special something, before the days of this PC nonsense, the ones these days aren’t a patch on them, sympathies on your loss Bq, hope your aunts ok.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Sadly most days my aunt is not quite with us as she has the start of dementia so it hasn’t sunk in yet. She was much more in the moment yesterday when we visited. Arthur has ten brothers so one of his nephews is staying with her as is another friend they both used to go to visit for holidays has come to stay. She is in good health otherwise, so I think she will be alright with love and help.

      I remember all of those fine comedians and true entertainers, they knew what real humour was, not PC, but not vulgar or swearing either, just good comedy, laughing at life. There was something special and brilliant about them. I reckon heaven is full of laughter right now with all of those entertaining people. The angels will be falling off their clouds listening to their jokes. Thanks again. Take care.

  7. Thanks Claire, Christine and Michael, for your kind words and thoughts, I will pass them on to my Auntie Norma. Stephen Hawkins was a scientific scholar but he was also very accessible and easy to relate to. He will be missed I think by young and old.


    1. Yes everyone who knew him said what a great sense of humour he had, he never complained and he never boasted about his high 1Q either, he said those who do are losers, an extrodinary man who was loved and admired by many, to be struck down with mother nuerone at the age of 22 at the brink of such a promising career shows how cruel life is, but it is the mind which is what life is about as he so aptly showed, he deserves to be buried in Westminster Abbey really, but his family will no doubt want a quiet family funeral and where they can visit him easily, yes tell your dear auntie were all thinking of her God bless.

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