Genealogists, historians and researchers have been discussing Anne Boleyn’s roots for centuries and today there still does not seem to be a complete agreement over the origins of the Boleyns. I am no genealogy expert, but I’ve been researching the Boleyns for years now and this article is a presentation of my findings and a discussion of the various theories. Apologies for the length, it’s all rather complicated.

A Fabricated Family Tree?

In his 19th century biography of Anne Boleyn, Paul Friedmann accused Anne Boleyn of fabricating her family tree in December 1530:

“Anne became daily more overbearing. The latest Anne’s exploit in her honour had been the fabrication of the wonderful pedigree, in which good Sir William Bullen the mercer was represented as the descendant of a Norman knight. Though these pretensions were laughed at, and though Anne’s aunt the duchess freely told her what they were worth, she was nowise abashed.”1

This accusation was based on a letter written by Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, in which he reported the Duchess of Norfolk scoffing at Anne Boleyn’s family tree.2 However, no details of the family tree were given and Chapuys is the only source for this claim. We also know that Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Norfolk, was no friend of her niece at this time so may well have made fun of anything that Anne did. There were plenty of reasons for the Duchess to dislike Anne and her rise at court:

  • Anne’ relationship with Elizabeth (Bess) Holland, the Duke of Norfolk’s mistress. When Anne became Marquis of Pembroke in 1532, two years later, Bess was appointed as one of her ladies.
  • The Duchess was “hypersensitive about her status”3 and Eric Ives writes of how she had previously “clashed with Queen Katherine by claiming she took precedence over the duke’s step-mother, the dowager duchess” and yet “now her niece went ahead of both of them!”.4 The Duchess was the eldest daughter of the late Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, a man who’d been the premier peer in England.
  • Anne Boleyn and the Duchess had clashed over the marriage of the Duchess’s daughter, Mary Howard, and the King and Anne’s idea that Mary should marry Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son.5 An argument between Anne and her aunt nearly led to the Duchess being banished from court.
  • The Duchess supported Catherine of Aragon and even sent Catherine a secret message hidden in an orange.6

It is little wonder that “by Christmas 1530 the duchess’s Stafford blood could not resist some acid comments on the upstart Boleyns.”7

But perhaps we need to take Chapuys’ words with a healthy pinch of salt. Chapuys saw Anne as the King’s “concubine” and did not like her, his loyalty lay with Catherine of Aragon. Also, in his report, Chapuys says “Lon ma dict que la duchesse…”, i.e. “Someone told me that the duchess…”, so it was second hand information at best.

The French Connection

We don’t know exactly what was on this family tree and who was responsible for it, but many believe that the Boleyns did in fact originate in France. Joanna Denny wrote of the Boleyns as “an upwardly mobile family originating from the English-held territories in France”,8 noting that “Baldwin de Bolon came from Boulogne, which in the Chronicles of Calais is spelt ‘Boleyn’.” In the 17th century, Julien Brodeau wrote:

“Si l’on remonte plus haut, on trouuera que la famille des Boulens vient de France, & est bien plus ancienne. L’ay un tiltre du Samedi apres la S. Martin 1344, de Baudonin de Biaunoir, Sire d’Avesnes proebe de Peronne, qui nomme entre ses hommes de fief Vautier de Boulen.”9

Here, Brodeau is saying that the Boleyns were an ancient family from France and that there was a Walter de Boulen who held land in Peronne, in the Picardie region of northern France, in 1344. He went on to say that the family were linked, by marriage, to the family of “Moulin, Seigneurs de Fontenay en Brie”, hence the links with Brie, or Briis-sous-Forges, where a tower called the Tour d’Anne Boleyn still stands today.

Friedmann, however, was sceptical of the Boleyn’s links to France, calling the idea “fantastic” and writing that “all that is really known of Anne’s origin is that her great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, was a wealthy London merchant. He was elected alderman, and in due time arrived at knighthood and the dignity of Lord Mayor.” But in my reading and research on the Boleyns I have found that most historians and genealogists do believe that the Boleyns had their origins in France, with some believing that they were descended from the Norman Counts of Boulogne and others believing that they came over later as merchants.

The Counts of Bolougne

Those who believe that the Boleyns descended from the Counts of Boulogne say that the Counts came over in the 11th century with the Norman invasion and settled in Martock, Somerset, and parts of Surrey.10 It is alleged that Simon de Boleyne (or de Boulogne), then moved to Norfolk and records show that he held lands in the Salle area in the mid 13th century. Salle is, of course, just a few miles from Blickling, where it is thought that Anne Boleyn was born, and St Peter and St Paul Church, Salle, is the resting place of Geoffrey Boleyn (d.1440) and his wife, Alice, Anne’s great-great grandparents.

In “The Battle Abbey Roll”,11 the Duchess of Cleveland writes of how the lineage of the Counts of Bolougne (Eustace I, II and III) continued in England after the Norman invasion. She writes of how Pharamus de Boulogne “held lands in England of the Honour of Boulogne, which then consisted of 112 knight’s fees” and that “in the Liber Niger we find Herebert de Buliun holding half a knight’s fee of Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk; and William de Bolein holding one fee in York and one in Lincoln”. She goes on to say that the name ‘de Boulogne’ became “Bouleyn or Boleyn”.

“The Norman People and their Existing Descendants in the British Dominions and the United States of America”,12 under “Boleyn – Queen Anna Boleyn”, records how Anne was “lineally descended from John de Boleyne of Sall, living 1283, whose father Simon purchased lands in Norfolk by fine 1252” and also records that “In 1165 Herebert de Buliun held half a knight’s fee from Roger Bigod, E. of Norfolk (Lib. Niger). At the same time William de Bolein held 1 fee in York and 1 in Lincoln; which shows that there were then two branches of the family in England. Accordingly, in the preceding generation, Eustace and Simon de Bologne, brothers of Pharamus de B., are mentioned in a charter of the latter (Mon. Ang. i. 583).” It goes on to say that the Counts of Boulogne were “descended from Angilbert, a Frank noble, who m. Bertha, dau. of the Emperor Charlemagne, and before 790 was created Duke of the maritime territory afterwards styled Ponthieu” and that Eustace I of Boulogne was the ancestor of the Boleyn family.

There are many efforts in ancestry groups and pages online trying to establish the connection between the Boleyns of Salle and the Counts of Bolougne, and the general consensus is that Pharamus de Bolougne was the father of William de Bolein/Boleyne, who, in turn, was the father of the Simon de Boleyne who held lands in Norfolk c1252 and whose son, John de Boleyne of Salle is mentioned in 1283 (see next section – Some Notes on the Boleyn Family).

Some Notes on the Boleyn Family

In 1935, “Some Notes on the Boleyn Family” by the Rev. Canon W. L. E. Parsons, Rector of Salle, was published in the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society’s journal.13 Parsons used a variety of primary sources, including the Court Rolls of the manors of Salle and Stinton, and contemporary wills, to try and establish the roots of the Boleyn family.

The earliest evidence he could find for Boleyns in the Salle area was regarding John Boleyn and William Boleyn in the 13th century. A John Boleyn was mentioned in 1283 in the Register of Walsingham Abbey and there is a record of the Prior of Walsingham suing William Boleyn of Thurning, and Prior’s Bailiff in Salle, for an account and John Boleyn acting as a surety.

The next Boleyn that Parsons could find was Nicolas Boleyn of Salle who was accused of theft in either 1318 or 1338. A Court of Rolls entry mentions him in 1333: “Nicolas Boleyn for damage done to pastures and trees of the Lord: he is ordered to repair the bank between the Lord and Nicolas.” Another John Boleyn then comes up in the records, firstly in 1333 and then regularly after the Black Death, which he fortunately survived. The mentions include John paying “the Lord” fines and rent, serving on a a jury of a coroner’s inquest in 1363 and being fined for trespass in 1369. It appears that he died sometime shortly after 1369 and his lands were passed to a “Thomas Bulleyn of Salle”, who is thought to be his son. Thomas is mentioned at various time in the records including he and his wife, Agnes, appearing on a list of indulgences granted by Pope Boniface IX and the following record in the Court of Rolls in 1399: “Thomas gave to Geoffrey his son one messuage in Salle without leave.” It is believed that he died around 1411.

Then, we have the first Geoffrey Boleyn of Salle, son of Thomas. His first mention after 1399 is in 1408, in relation to timber for the building of the church at Salle. It appears that he had some involvement in the building of the church and we know that his father left money for the glazing of a south aisle window. There are a number of mentions of Geoffrey in the records in relation to his landholdings, trespass, fines paid and the selling of barley and oat straw for thatching. According to the Survey of Stinton Manor 1430-40, Geoffrey held twenty-three pieces of land but it appears that he was a tenant farmer, rather than the lord of the manor. He died in 1440 and was laid to rest in Salle Church. His brass has the inscription “Here lie Geoffrey Boleyn, who died 25th March, 1440, and Alice his wife and their children: on whose souls may God have mercy. Amen.” His children included Cecily, who was buried at Blickling; Thomas, a priest and Master of Gonville Hall, Cambridge, from 1454-72, who also served the King by attending the Council of Basle; and Geoffrey, Lord Mayor of London. Interestingly, Parsons found a piece of evidence from the 1463 de Banco Rolls linking Thomas the priest with Nicolas Boleyn and establishing the family tree:

“Thomas Boleyn, clerk, seeks against William Doreward and others, the Manor of Calthorpe, called Hookhall, as his right and inheritance in which William, etc. have no entry, except after the disseisin which Bartholomew Calthorpe, Kt., made to Nicolas Boleyn, kinsman of the said Thomas, who is his heir. Thomas says that Nicolas was seized of the Manor as of fee and right in the reign of Edward III. And took the explees, and from the same Nicolas descended the right to Thomas as son and heir, and from Thomas to Geoffrey as son and heir, and from Geoffrey to this Thomas, who now seeks as son and heir.”

This piece of evidence shows that this line of the Boleyns were descended from Nicholas Boleyn, not the John Boleyn who also appears in the records in the 1330s, and that they weren’t just holders of land under the Lord, they owned the manor of Calthorpe “as of fee and right”. The manor of Calthorpe later belonged to William Boleyn (d.1505) so it appears that the Boleyns did have right to it.

The next Boleyn is the man who is credited as bringing the family to prominence: Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, successful merchant and Lord Mayor of London. Geoffrey was favoured by Sir John Fastolf and travelled with him to London. There, he became a wealthy merchant and important subject of King Henry VI. He married into the nobility, by marrying Anne, daughter of Lord Hoo and Hastings as his second wife (his first was called Dionise); he served as Sheriff of London and also of Middlesex; he bought Blickling manor from Fastolf, although it took him a while to pay for it because he also lent the King £1246 to pay for the expedition to France; and he became Lord Mayor in 1457. He died in 1463 and was buried in the Chapel of St. John, the Church of St. Laurence, Jewry, London. Unfortunately, the church was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire. His children included Alice, who married Sir John Fortescue; Isabel, who married William Cheyney; Anne, who married Sir Henry Heydon of Baconsthorpe; Thomas, who died in 1471; and William, who married Margaret Butler, daughter of the Earl of Ormond. William was made a Knight of the Bath during Richard III’s coronation celebrations and served as Sheriff of Norfolk from 1500 to 1501. He died in 1505 and was buried in Norwich Cathedral.

According to Parsons, William and Margaret Boleyn had a large family:

  • Anne, who died in 1479 shortly before her fourth birthday.
  • Anthony, who died in 1493.
  • Thomas (born c. 1477), who married Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Surrey.
  • William, who became a priest.
  • James, who married Elizabeth Wood.
  • Edward, who married Anne Tempest.
  • Alice, who married Robert Clere.
  • Margaret, who married Sir John Sackville.
  • Anne, who married Sir John Shelton.

Blomefield14 adds a John, who died in 1484, and Jane, who married Sir Phillip Calthorp of Norwich.

On his father’s death, Thomas Boleyn inherited the manors of Blickling, Calthorpe, Wikmere, Mekylberton, Fylby, West Lexham, Possewick, Stiffkey and, of course, Hever Castle. Thomas Boleyn was the father of Anne Boleyn, so we finally arrive at Anne in the family tree.

Parsons concluded that the Boleyns, like the famous Pastons, were “of somewhat humble origin” and that it was the second Geoffrey, a “Dick Whittington”, who “established the position of the family financially by successful trade, and socially by marriage with the nobility.” This view is disputed by other, though:

“The family of Boleyn was of Norman extraction. They were possessed of manors and lands at Salle and the adjacent villages in the 12th century. Among the Blickling evidences there is a deed, 1280, with the Boleyn seal attached, retaining enough to show that they bore then the same arms as were afterwards used by this family.
I presume that this will settle the question as to the ‘gentility’ of the Boleyns.”15

In “Annals & Antiquities of the Counties & County Families of Wales”, Thomas Nicholas, in writing of the lineage of Williams of Abercamlais, records:

“Among the companion knights of Bernard [Norman knight Bernard de Neuf Marché] was one who had probably come from the neighbourhood of Boulogne, for he went by the name de Boulogne, or Bullen, but it is uncertain whether his Christian name was Richard or Thomas. Opinion seems to be in favour of the latter.
Sir Thomas de Boulogne, or Bullen (from one branch of whose descendants Anne Boleyn, mother of Queen Elizabeth, derived), was rewarded for his services with a lordship in Talgarth.”16

Whereas Frederick Lewis Weis et al.17 believe that Anne’s name “came into England much later with merchants from the Boullonnais.”

Ralph Boleyn

Some genealogists add a Ralph Boleyn to the Boleyn family tree and Sylwia Thrupp writes “The records of the skinners’ company fraternity of Corpus Christi show the entrance of a Raulyn (Ralph) Boleyn in 1402 and of a Bennid de Boleyn, Lombard, in 1436”.18 It is hard to see how he fits in to Anne’s family tree, though, so perhaps he was from one of the other branches.

A Provisional Boleyn Family Tree

Here is a provisional family tree based on the sources already mentioned, but simplified so that it shows the direct line from Anne Boleyn back to the Counts of Boulogne. There is no way that we can prove that this tree is accurate at the moment as evidence is lacking.

Eustace I, Count of Boulogne (d.1049)
Eustace II, Count of Boulogne (c.1015/20 - c.1087)
Geoffrey de Boulogne (c.1060 - )
William de Boulogne (c.1085/88 - c.1129)
Pharamus de Boulogne, Seigneur de Tingrie (b. c.1103 - c.1183)
William de Boulogne (c.1151 - )
Simon de Boleyne, mentioned in 1253
John de Boleyne of Salle, mentioned in 1283
Nicholas Boleyne, active in 1330s (a John Boleyne also alive at this time)
Thomas Boleyn (d.1411) m. Agnes
Geoffrey (d.1440) m. Alice
Geoffrey (d.1463) m. Anne Hoo
William Boleyn (d.1505) m. Margaret Butler
Thomas Boleyn (c.1477 - 1539) m. Elizabeth Howard
Queen Anne Boleyn (c.1501-1536)

Boleyn – The Name

Anne Boleyn has, on various occasions, been accused of ‘frenchifying’ her name and changing it from ‘Bullen’ to ‘Boleyn’ to make it less common. This is a myth. In his research of records going back to the 13th century, Parsons found it “spelt variously – Boleyn, Buleyn, Bolen, Bulleyne, Boleyne, Bolleyne, Boyleyn, Bowleyne, Bulloigne, and the modern form Bullen” and concluded that “Boleyn was the most common of the mediaeval forms.” We also know that Boulogne in France was written as ‘Boleyn’ in the Chronicles of Calais, suggesting that the family name may well have had its origins there. There does not seem to be any record of any variations of the name before the Norman conquest.

Final Thoughts

We can’t know for certain where the Boleyns came from, so it is impossible to accuse Anne of fabricating a family tree. As for the idea that Anne fabricated her family tree because she was ashamed of the Boleyns and their merchant roots, there is no evidence that Anne was ashamed of the Boleyns. It is thought that she wore a B necklace – B for Boleyn – and why should she be ashamed of a family who had risen to such wealth and favour? Her family may not have been ancient nobles (we just don’t know), but they weren’t alone in that; the de la Pole family (the Earls and Dukes of Suffolk) descended from a merchant from Hull.

This article may have raised more questions than it has answered but that’s what history and genealogy is like. The more you dig, the more questions you have to answer! As I said, I am no expert on genealogy but I consulted many sources on the subject.

If you have any thoughts or information you want to share on Anne Boleyn’s family tree then please do share as a comment below.

Thanks go to Beth Shannon for allowing me to bounce ideas off her and for recommending books.


  1. Anne Boleyn, A Chapter of English history, 1527-1536, Paul Friedmann, London, Macmillan, 1884, p128
  2. EJ. Chapuis to Charles V., December 31, 1530, Vienna Archires, P.C. 226, i. fol. 109 , quoted in Friedmann
  3. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p141, Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 1: Henry VIII, 1529-1530 (1879), p368
  4. Ives, p141
  5. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 1: Henry VIII, 1529-1530 (1879), p762
  6. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 1: Henry VIII, 1529-1530 (1879), p819
  7. Ives, p141
  8. Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen, Joanna Denny, 2005, p26
  9. LaVie de Maistre Charles du Moulin, Julien Brodeau, p6
  10. Frank Bullen at
  11. The Battle Abbey Roll with Some Account of the Norman Lineages in Three Volumes, Vol I, Duchess of Cleveland, 1889, p27-29
  12. The Norman People and their Existing Descendants in the British Dominions and the United States of America, H.S. King & Co. 1874, p 164
  13. Some Notes on the Boleyn Family, communicated by The Rev. Canon W. L. E. Parsons, Rector of Salle, in Norfolk Archaeology or Miscellaneous Tracts relating to the Antiquities of the County of Norfolk, Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, Vol. XXV, 1935, p386-407
  14. An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, Volume 3, Francis Blomefield, p626, and An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk Volume 6, Francis Blomefield and Charles Parkin, London, 1805, p386
  15. The Family of Boleyn, Sylvanus Urban, The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXXII, N.S. (August, 1849), p155
  16. Annals & Antiquities of the Counties & County Families of Wales, Volume 2, Thomas Nicholas, 1872 p121
  17. Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came To America Before 1700, Frederick Lewis Weis, Walter Lee Sheppard, William Ryland Beall, Kaleen E. Beall, 2004
  18. The Merchant Class of Medieval London (1300-1500), Sylvia Thrupp, 1989, p325

Additional Sources Used

Related Post