Detail from Thomas Boleyn's brass memorial
Detail from Thomas Boleyn’s brass memorial
This article was inspired by lots of comments I received on The Anne Boleyn Files Facebook page yesterday after I posted a link to Suzannah Lipscomb’s article 2013 BBC History Magazine article Why did Anne Boleyn have to die and a link to my article Why I think Henry VIII was Responsible for anne Boleyn’s downfall. There were quite a few comments blaming Thomas Boleyn or the Duke of Norfolk or the Boleyn family for Anne’s downfall because they “prostituted” Anne for their own greed and ambition.

The intention of this article is not to criticise anyone who holds the view that the Boleyns used their daughters in that way, it is simply to argue that the historical evidence does not back up that view. The picture of a greedy and ambitious Thomas Boleyn and his like-minded brother-in-law, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, pimping out Mary and Anne Boleyn to the King for their own gain makes for good fiction, but it does not appear to be an accurate depiction. I have been researching the Boleyns for over five years now and the primary sources paint a very different picture of Thomas Boleyn to the one we see in fiction and on TV.

There’s no doubt that Thomas Boleyn was an ambitious man, and that he was ambitious for his children too. He gave Anne the fantastic opportunity of receiving an education at the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen and then was able to get her and her sister chosen to attend Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, in France. These were amazing opportunities for a courtier’s daughter and the humanist Thomas Boleyn seems to have been similar to Thomas More and Sir Anthony Cooke in believing that daughters should receive the type of education which was usually reserved for sons. Boleyn was definitely a Renaissance man who embraced new ideas, such as humanism and the new religious views which were sweeping through Europe. Of course, such an education, and foreign travel to boot, along with her family’s wealth and connections, and her father’s closeness to the King, would have made Anne quite a catch in the marriage department and that’s what every Tudor man wanted for his daughter: a good marriage.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Fiction would have us believe that Boleyn and Norfolk pushed Mary Boleyn into the King’s bed to earn his favour, but that is just fiction. We know absolutely nothing about Mary’s relationship with the King, only that they had a sexual relationship at one point. We don’t know when it happened, how long it lasted, how the King noticed Mary, how they felt about each other… no details at all. So how can we blame Boleyn and Norfolk for pimping Mary out to the King? Well, we can’t. We don’t even know Thomas Boleyn’s feelings about the affair, we just know that Boleyn and Mary were not close in 1528 when the King had to intervene with Boleyn on Mary’s behalf to provide for her financially after she was widowed. You could read anything into that – Boleyn saw Mary as the ‘black sheep’ of the family due to her affair, or he didn’t see her as his responsibility, or he was just slow at helping her.

With regards to Anne, we don’t know exactly when Henry VIII noticed Anne and started courting her, but it appears to have been around 1526 and after negotiations for a marriage match between her and James Butler, a relation on her father’s side, had fizzled out. Again, we have no evidence of any involvement from Thomas Boleyn or the Duke of Norfolk in getting the King to notice Anne or of them doing anything to manipulate the situation in any way. There is, in fact, evidence that Thomas Boleyn was not keen on the idea of Anne marrying the King. Chapuys reported in February 1533, before he had heard news of the King’s marriage to Anne:

“I must add that the said earl of Wiltshire [Thomas Boleyn] has never declared himself up to this moment; on the contrary, he has hitherto, as the duke of Norfolk has frequently told me, tried to dissuade the King rather than otherwise from the marriage.”1

Chapuys went on to say:

“Shortly after the Duke [Norfolk] began to excuse himself and say that he had not been either the originator or promoter of this second marriage, but, on the contrary, had always been opposed to it, and tried to dissuade the King therefrom. Had it not been for him and for the father of the Lady, who feigned to be attacked by frenzy to have the better means of opposing it, the marriage would have been secretly contracted a year ago; and for this opposition (the Duke observed) the Lady had been exceedingly indignant with the one and the other.”2

So, the Duke of Norfolk gave Chapuys the idea that he and Thomas Boleyn were against the marriage and that Anne had been cross with them about it. This does not support the idea of poor little Anne being pushed into marriage with the King against her will.

The ambitious and manipulative Thomas Boleyn of The Tudors series
The ambitious and manipulative Thomas Boleyn of The Tudors series
People often say that Thomas Boleyn’s rise at court was due solely to his daughters’ relationships with Henry VIII, but that is also far from true and, again, only happened in the realms of fiction. Thomas Boleyn was an important enough man in Henry VII’s reign to be chosen to escort Margaret Tudor, Henry VII’s daughter, to Scotland to marry King James IV in 1503 and he received a whole host of grants and offices before either of his daughters could have become involved with Henry VIII.

Even if you take 1519 as a likely date for Mary Boleyn’s affair with Henry VIII, which would fit in with Elizabeth Blount’s pregnancy and Mary Boleyn’s marriage to William Carey in 1520, Thomas Boleyn was already an important man and a man in favour – he was the English ambassador at the French court, he was a member of the Privy Council, he owned over 20 manors, he’d acted as a canopy bearer at the christening of Princess Mary and Queen Margaret of Scotland’s official carver for the forty days of her visit to England, he’d served as Keeper of the Exchange at Calais and the Foreign Exchange in all English ports, and that’s just picking a few things from his early career at court. In his thesis on Thomas Boleyn, William Dean said: “One cannot, as some have done, simply attribute Boleyn’s advancement to Henry’s preferment of his daughters up to this point. Granted, a case may be made for this influence later, but Henry had no history of doing generous things for his mistresses, much less their parents. It is more likely that Henry recognised ability and past service and rewarded Boleyn for it” and I agree with him wholeheartedly.3 Thomas Boleyn was a talented man and certainly had no need to pimp out his daughters for favour and advancement, he already had both.

One person on Facebook commented that unless she saw hard evidence that Thomas had nothing to do with it and that he did not profit from the marriage of his daughter to Henry VIII then she would have to disagree that Thomas was a wonderful person. Well, it’s hard to prove a negative but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and see them as innocent until proven guilty. We have no evidence that Thomas forced his daughters into their relationships with the King so surely he should be given the benefit of the doubt. As for him being a wonderful person, I don’t think I could ever argue that because I don’t know enough about his personality. He certainly had very good relationships with those around him and was well respected by the likes of Margaret of Austria (she made a wager with him and offered Anne a place at her court), the French royal family, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VII, Margaret Tudor and Henry VIII. What we can say is that he was talented, hardworking and had an incredible career.

As for him abandoning his son and daughter to their awful fates in 1536, we don’t know what happened there either. We know that he was on the commission which tried William Brereton, Henry Norris, Francis Weson and Mark Smeaton, and which of course prejudiced Anne’s trial, but he would have had little choice in that. There’s no evidence that he did anything to try and save Anne and George, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t write to Cromwell or the King, it just means that we don’t have the letter. He would, however, have known from experience that there was no hope for them, and retiring to Hever to be with his wife may have been the most sensible thing to do at that time. He lost his office of Lord Privy Seal in June 1536 but he did what all families did when they had been tainted by treason and lost loved ones to the executioner, he dusted himself off, put his surviving family first and went about proving his loyalty to the King. He helped put down the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion in late 1536 and had managed to climb back enough into the ing’s favour to be present at Prince Edward’s baptism in October 1537. Historian Eric Ives describes how he diligently went to Order of the Garter functions, even lending Thomas Cromwell, his chain and best Garter badge at one point, and how he was back at court by January 1538.4 It was even rumoured in July 1538, following the death of Elizabeth Boleyn in the April, that he was going to marry Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece!5 Does that mean that he forgot what had happened to his children? Did it mean that he was heartless? No, of course not, we cannot know how he felt about any of it, he was simply a man of his time and he would have known that his family’s survival depended on him moving on, just as the Stafford, Dudley and Howard families did.

Thomas Boleyn died on the 12th March 1539 at his home, Hever Castle, aged around sixty-two. He was laid to rest in a tomb in the family church of St Peter’s in Hever, Kent, and Henry VIII ordered masses to be said for his soul, showing that Thomas was truly back in favour with the King at the time of his death.6

If we defend Anne Boleyn and give her the benefit of the doubt, because the evidence does not support the idea that she was guilty, then can’t we extend the same courtesy to her family? It’s all too easy to paint her as the victim of an ambitious and manipulative family, but that surely is doing a disservice to all of the Boleyns. Anne’s innocence does not have to be at the cost of her family’s reputation.

You can see a list of Thomas Boleyn’s grants, offices and titles between 1501 and 1521 in my article In Defence of Thomas Boleyn.

On this day in history…

  • 1514 – Marriage of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and Louis XII of France – click here to read more.

Notes and Sources

  1. Span. Cal. iv. ii.1048
  2. Span. Cal. iv. ii.1077
  3. Sir Thomas Boleyn: The Courtier Diplomat, 1477-1539, William Hughes Dean, Ph.D., West Virginia University
  4. Eric Ives (2004) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 353
  5. LP xiii. Part 1. 1419
  6. LP xiv. 950

Related Post

17 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn – The Boleyn Family’s Meal Ticket?”
  1. In that time the daughters did married off for power etc to her father. If you look at all the Queens of England 90% and more were married off for the better of their country of birth, Henry the VIII was I think one of the first Kings to not to do this with 4 of the women he married.
    So yes I don’t see a reason why it could not have happened, but he courted her as he did Jane, so I think he married her for two reasons, the first he wanted a male heir, second he loved her. He got rid of her due to the male heir .

  2. Thank you for the interesting post.

    I did have a question regarding Chapuys’ letter …”Had it not been for him and for the father of the Lady, who feigned to be attacked by frenzy to have the better means of opposing it, the marriage would have been secretly contracted a year ago…”

    What do you think he means when he says Thomas Boleyn feigned to be attacked by frenzy? According to this, it sounds like Thomas pretended to be hysterical one day so he could say whatever he wanted about how he opposed the marriage. The word “feigned” is interesting to me. I wonder too, if Norfolk wasn’t just planting these ideas (of Norfolk and Thomas being opposed to the marriage) in Chapuys’ head in order to placate Chapuys and, in turn, the Emperor. Norfolk was crafty at playing all sides.

    1. According to a manuscript of 1719, there was a plaque set into the floor of the chancel of St Mary-at-Lambeth that read “Here lyeth the Lady Elizabeth Howard, sometime Countess of Wiltshire”. The church was rebuilt by the Victorians but it is possible Anne’s mother’s remains are still there. The remains of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard’s mutual step-grandmother, Duchess Agnes, probably still lie beneath the Howard Chapel, which is now used as the cafeteria for the Garden Museum that now occupies the deconsecrated church.

  3. Hear hear. Well said, Claire. I can’t believe that people are still throwing about this old chestnut after all your work which clearly indicates the contrary.

  4. I read that line about “frenzy” to be about Anne, that she threw a fit to oppose her father and her uncle’s mutual opposition. It was her frenzy opposing their opposition to the marriage. Elizabethan syntax is often labyrinthine, and was often taken down by a secretary from dictation, so critical commonplace idiomatic stresses are missing.

    I think it’s always important to recall that Anne was a pain in the butt to those that opposed her, that somewhere she’d learnt a kind of high-handed self-assertion (perhaps born of her zeal for religious reform and consequent grandiosity) which made her the center of whatever universe she found herself in, regardless of the boys’ club that usually dominated that society. That’s part of why she was so disliked. It’s realistic to remember that she was probably highly unpleasant at times. She probably would’ve demanded the kind of excessive tithing from this very website that might’ve destroyed it. Charisma she probably had, but being happy was her goal, not being nice. If you want nice, if you want parental loyalty, I think Katharine of Aragon’s your gal.

  5. Great article. IMO, it is an insult to Anne and Mary to imply that Thomas and Norfolk made such critical decisions for them. Mary’s second marriage showed her independent streak … and Anne’s behavior (while married to Henry) certainly demonstrated that she had a mind of her own. However, I can understand some of the confusion — it is difficult to realize what good male relatives would do in Tudor times because it is so different from what we now expect of good male relatives.

    1. I agree that there is little to back up Norfolk as the man behind Katherine Howard’s being attracted to the King, but some authors believe that it is a natural assumption to make as he was the head of the Howard clan and in a position to present her to the King. However, Katherine came to court in 1539 to be a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves, so Henry may have found her attractive at any point if he had have become familiar with her while she was in her mistresses company. I have heard that she was presented to Henry at a dinner at the house of Bishop Stephen Gardiner who Henry liked to dine with on a number of occassions, and kept a good table. Norfolk may have put the idea forward to bring Katherine to the King’s notice, but it seems to be a mystery as to how she really found herself as the attention of the King. I know that you have done a lot of research in this area; I don’t buy the dramatic portrayal of Norfolk and the Dowager Duchess scheming and pimping Katherine; but they may have placed in such a way that Henry noticed her rather than any other lady. Do we have any real information about the early meetings of Henry and Katherine?

  6. I really respect and appreciate your writing this article, Claire. It is indeed an oft-believed theory and has evoked a lot of sympathy for the Boleyn children, as well as animosity towards Norfolk and Sir Thomas. It seems nobody with an association to the name ‘Boleyn’ is safe from some form of slander down the ages – apart from the lovely young man my mother was going to marry, thus making her name Anne Boleyn. Kudos on more excellent and well-rounded research.

  7. Great article thank you for sharing As you I don’t think her father used her or Mary to further his own advancement She was such a strong person I don’t think they could make her do something she didn’t want to do Think there will always be conflict about Anne on what her family did or didn’t do

  8. Very interesting post,Claire and I do agree but what bothers me is that at this point in Henry’s reign who wouldn’t consider their daughter marrying him icing on their cake?Despite Chapuys” words some how I doubt Thomas discouraged her.Power at court was the name of the game,I suppose and what could possibly have given him more?It’s just really hard to imagine he didn’t want it to happen.

  9. I think possibly Anne was encouraged.Manipulated,no.I think she was too strong willed for that.So,I tend to agree with the article.But I also believe Thomas Boleyn was ambitious and the ultimate ambition for any courtier was to be as close to the power as possible.What better way to achieve that then to help make one’s daughter a queen?Even though he publicly made it known otherwise who’s to say what he thought or did privately?

  10. To Mrsfiennes:

    We know that Anne became a Queen, but could one know it beforehand? Even to an ambitious man who was only a commoner, it would have seemed an impossibility – as it indeed was for many years. Thomas Cromwell, if anyone, know the risks as Henry’s Council was against.

    Of course, there was one example: Henry’s maternal grandfather, Edward IV, married a commoner, Elizabeth Woodiville, but he was not married. For some reason, nobody has accused her father of pimping. It is simply assumed that after she became a Queen, her family naturally made use of her position.

    It is interesting that both Anne’s and Elizabeth’s mothers nobles (latter even a Royal duchess) who married commoners. So perhaps it was they who nursed their daughters’ ambition to have a higher status they themselves had lost.

  11. The Boleyns were ambitious, they were servants of the crown, officials in royal service and courtiers, ambition was a pre requisite for their success and should not be thought of in modern negative terms. The family position of royal service, Sir Thomas Boleyn being an ambassador and courtier put him in the favour of the King. Regular attendance at court allowed Thomas Boleyn to be in a position to introduce his daughters to Henry and for them to achieve a place in the service of Queen Katherine. Anne Boleyn had a continental education and this made her attractive to Henry with whom she had some things in common as a result.

    Without going into the history of Anne and Henry’s long love story, Henry obviously fancied her, by 1525/6 their relationship was underway and history being made. Whether Thomas Boleyn gave history a push or not Henry made his choice. Henry found Anne fascinating, she promised Henry a son, he was determined to make her Queen. However Queen she was made and the Boleyn fortune must have seemed made. I don’t think Anne was the Boleyn meal ticket, nor do I accept the Gregory premise that Anne and Mary were innocent victims of ambitious parents, dangling them before the King for sex to promote the family fortunes. Thomas Boleyn did benefit from the marriage of Anne to the King, of course he did, the entire family did, father and mother, brother of the Queen, it speaks for itself that the family profited. However, with the fall of Anne, her family also shared in that her fall in the most spectacular and tragic manner. George literally shared her fate, both being set up for adultery, incest and treason, both beheaded. Thomas Boleyn lost his home and status, only gaining some favour when he stood as Godfather to the Prince Edward in 1537, the son and heir Anne had failed to provide.

    George Boleyn and Thomas Boleyn had been given land, titles and status due to the relationship between Anne and Henry, but Thomas Boleyn was a talented man, so was George Boleyn, so it could be argued that the family may have been rewarded for their services as well and that although unlikely to have risen as high had Anne not become Queen. All this was lost with Anne and George’s trial and execution

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