Robin Hood and Maid Marian – Anne’s ancestors, Fulk FitzWarin and Maud le Vavasour, are thought to have partly inspired the legend.

Thank you so much to Beth Tashery Shannon for writing this article for The Anne Boleyn Files. I started corresponding with Beth when I was researching Anne Boleyn’s family tree and the roots of the Boleyns, and she was so helpful. Beth’s article follows on from my articles Anne Boleyn’s Family Tree and Boleyn Myth 1 – Anne Boleyn’s Arms are Evidence that Anne was Ashamed of Her Boleyn Roots

Some writers make much of the contrast between Anne Boleyn’s ‘noble’ maternal pedigree and her ‘mercantile’ paternal ancestors. Others try to push her entirely into one of these categories or the other. The reality is far more interesting. This brief description is just intended to provide a glimpse of the richly textured background of the Boleyn family and the larger kinship group within which they moved.

Academically-minded readers may feel this post should have citations, but early genealogy generates reams of discussion at every point, and I have cribbed no one researcher’s particular discovery. Those curious about the kinds of questions and documentation involved will find in the links below a good sampling. Meanwhile, here is a general picture of the female ancestry of Thomas Boleyn, and why, though it includes grounds for pride, Anne’s foregrounding of her Howard heritage made sense.

Anne Boleyn’s most prestigious ancestry certainly came thought her mother. Elizabeth Howard belonged to the ducal house of Norfolk, which enjoyed that honor by direct heir-to-heir descent from Thomas of Brotherton, a son of Edward I and his second queen, Marguerite le Hardi (Capet) of France. But Thomas Boleyn’s marriage with Elizabeth Howard was no mésalliance. They were distant cousins, sharing some illustrious ancestors. It was the most successful of a series of Boleyn ‘marryings up’ typical of the aspirations of a large, upwardly mobile sector of Tudor society. It was a patriarchal society and emphasized paternal lines (or, in the absence of sons, heiresses), yet by Anne’s generation the upstart element in the Boleyn pedigree was thin and her paternal cousins were an influential network holding substantial property and power in south-eastern England and along the Welsh borderlands.

Anne’s great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn (d. 1463), merchant and Lord Mayor of London, married the first Boleyn wife of whom we know much. She was Anne, daughter of Thomas, Baron Hoo, who fought with Henry V at Agincourt. This Anne Hoo should not be confused with her half-sister Jane (a.k.a. Anne), and was the step-daughter, not daughter, of the royally descended Eleanor Welles. Her mother’s exact identity is debated (Elizabeth Wynchingham of Norfolk? Elizabeth Echingham of Sussex?), but the Hoo family had cousins among the gentry and nobility of the south-eastern counties and beyond: old land owning families of the social status to which the Boleyns were gaining entry. The Hoos were also descendants, and cousins, to the influential FitzWarins of Shropshire, one of the warrior families that had long guarded English interests on the Welsh border. Through Anne Hoo, Anne Boleyn’s ancestors include Fulk FitzWarin and Maud le Vavasour, contemporaries of King John who are thought to have partly inspired the legend of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

The surviving son and heir of Geoffrey Boleyn and Anne Hoo was Sir William Boleyn of Blicking, Norfolk (d. 1505). He was created Knight of the Bath by Richard III and under Henry VII was High Sheriff of Kent (1489) and of Norfolk and Suffolk (1500). His wife, Anne Boleyn’s paternal grandmother, was Margaret, daughter of Thomas Butler 7th Earl of Ormond (d. 1515) and Anne Hankford. Thomas Boleyn’s mother was hardly the salty old farm woman depicted in some recent fiction. Ormond was an Irish earldom, but the Butlers were of the English ruling class, holding extensive property in England and intermarrying with the English nobility as well as the Norman-Irish.

Anne Hankford, for instance, was the daughter of Richard Hankford of Devon and Buckinghamshire (and a widower of a FitzWarin of the above-mentioned family). Anne Hankford’s mother was his second wife, Anne, daughter of John Montague 3rd Earl of Salisbury (d. 1400). This Anne’s mother (is it any wonder why Thomas Boleyn gave a daughter the name Anne?) was Margaret Monthermer. Of this ancestor the Boleyns were surely aware, since Margaret Monthermer was a granddaughter of Princess Joan of Acre, and she a daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. So that through Anne Hankford the Boleyns had a line of descent from the same king as did the Howards; in fact Princess Joan was senior to her half-brother Thomas of Brotherton. But through maternal, non-heiress, descent from Joan of Acre (so called because she was born in Acre, Palestine while her parents were on crusade) came no dukedom. Therefore, the Boleyns’ royal descent through Joan conferred less prestige than the Howards’. As a note of interest, Joan’s marriage with Ralph Monthermer was a love match. Before the death of her first husband, Gilbert de Clare, Ralph was a squire of their household. Plantagenet royal ladies got away with marrying for love more often than most people now realize: Joan of Kent, Elizabeth daughter of John of Gaunt… Mary Tudor’s marriage to Charles Brandon was not so untraditional, and neither was Henry’s anger, followed by acceptance.

The Butlers of Ormond had held power in Ireland since Theobald ‘le Botiller’, Lord of Preson, Lancashire, was created Chief Butler of Ireland by Henry II. That king planted a new nobility, loyal to him, in Ireland as an attempt to control it. Theobald’s wife was the same Maud le Vavasour (of Maid Marion fame) who later married Fulk FitzWarin. So, ‘Marion’ was multiply Anne Boleyn’s ancestor with each of her husbands (hmm… Anne was supposedly pretty good with a bow and arrow…). Butler ancestors more recent to Anne include more of those hardy Welsh border warriors: Beauchamp of Abergavenny, Roger Mortimer of March, who with his lover Queen Isabella had Edward II murdered and briefly ruled England in all but name, and through Mortimer and his wife Joan de Geneville the French crusader de Lusignans and Jean de Brienne, King of Jerusalem with his first wife Berenguela, Infanta of Castile. Speaking of crusaders, Anne’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Butler, just possibly also descended from Balian of Ibelin (but as often, fiction has slighted the women; the real Balian’s wife and mother of his children wasn’t Sibylla but another ex-queen of Jerusalem, the Byzantine princess Maria Comnena).

Finally, and not least, Anne’s Butler ancestors included the FitzAlan earls of Arundel. The Arundels (as this family was often styled), even more than the Howards, provided the glue of kinship that joined the infrastructure of what we usually call the Norfolk affinity. Arundel Castle is in Sussex, but the FitzAlans originally came from Oswestry, Shropshire. In origin they were more of those keepers of the Welsh border, whose tentacles had spread to other parts of England but whose Shropshire mining wealth still had importance. Ties between the Norfolk, Kent and Sussex end of this kin and those still living along the Welsh border were kept strong by continual intermarriage. William Brereton, for instance, belonged to Anne Boleyn’s extended circle of kin along the Welsh border – an affiliation that combined fatally with Brereton’s conflicts of interest with Thomas Cromwell when Cromwell considered who it was in his best interest to get rid of along with Anne.

Through the FitzAlans of Arundel, Anne’s paternal ancestry included another line from Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Princess Isabel who married Humphrey de Bohun 4th Earl of Essex. Also through the FitzAlans, Anne descended from Eleanor, daughter of Henry Monmouth, Duke of Lancaster. Eleanor’s great-grandparents were King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence (the parents of Edward I). Again, in strictly genetic terms, Anne’s father’s royal ancestry might be considered equal to her mother’s. But it was not reinforced by the status of titles the lion’s share of property holdings as was the Norfolk line. Those who criticized Anne’s Pembroke arms for blazoning female, non-heiress descent (Elizabeth Howard was not the Howard heir, Thomas Duke of Norfolk was) would have had even more bones to pick had she foregrounded her direct, but non-heir, Boleyn royal descent. Yet, in that era when the gentry and aspiring gentry carefully compiled their pedigrees and jealously guarded against bounders, Anne would have been fully aware of her Boleyn royal ancestry. She would have taken pride in it.

The jealousy with which the gentry guarded their rights to their arms suggest the drive behind some of the criticism of Anne’s coat arms, I think. It was sour grapes. Anne’s strains of royal descent through the Boleyn wives did not set her apart. When the Boleyn men married ‘up’, they achieved what most men in that society aspired to. So did many other successful merchants and lawyers throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was a common means of upward mobility in that era. Had Anne bragged about her father’s remote, maternal, royal and ducal ancestry, many at court might have retorted, “Me too, so what?” But they didn’t get to use the Plantagenet arms.

But as Marquis of Pembroke, Anne was considering the claim on the throne of any son she might have. So, no doubt, was Henry VIII, who as Claire notes, permitted Anne’s display of these arms. The emphasis on her Norfolk and Rochford heritage proclaimed the background best calculated by the reckoning of her age – and probably by ours, still – to bolster her children’s claim to nobility and royalty through her as well as through the king. Had Anne and Henry never achieved marriage, it still would have proclaimed nobler blood for any son of theirs than could be claimed for Henry Fitzroy.

Further Reading

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