Thank you to author and “Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford” Facebook page owner Danielle Marchant for sharing this guest article with us today, the anniversary of the executions of Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn. Over to Danielle…
January and February are usually not the best times of the year and this year has already been exceptionally sombre. It’s only one and half months into the New Year and already a whole list of high-profile people have died since late December, including David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan and Lemmy Kilmister. As us amateur historians know, quite a number of historical figures died around this time of year. In fact, in February, there is an infamous week dubbed “Execution Week” where the anniversaries of many executions fall, including those of Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, Queen Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. January is also where Catherine of Aragon’s death anniversary falls. Five centuries after her death, a festival and special mass takes place every year in her memory at the place of her burial, Peterborough Cathedral. Later in the year, when Anne Boleyn’s death anniversary comes around on 19th May, there are always flowers laid on her burial spot in the Tower of London’s St. Peter ad Vincula Chapel.
When a celebrity dies, or when people commemorate someone who has been dead for centuries, I often see the odd comment on the internet asking “Why are people mourning for those that they didn’t even know? What have they ever done for you?” Yes, it’s an interesting point. None of us have ever been down the pub with Anne Boleyn, or have gone shopping with Catherine of Aragon. We didn’t actually know them as people. There are two types of people we’re dealing with here. There are those in the public eye that were alive in our generation and died recently – for the purpose of this article, I will call this group “Recently Deceased (RD)”. The second group is those that were alive centuries ago and died centuries ago, so we never actually lost them at some point, but we feel the need to still commemorate them and keep their memory alive – for the purpose of this article, I will call this group “Long time dead(LTD)”. However, I do believe that what the public experiences with both groups is the same. None of us knew Catherine of Aragon, but, five centuries on, people still visit her tomb and pay tribute with pomegranates, the pomegranate being her badge and representing fertility. This, together with witnessing the enormous sense of loss being expressed via social media for the RD, shows that there is no doubt that this grief and need to commemorate is very real, as if it was our own friends or relatives.
With the RD, they were alive in our generation, but then we lost them. With the LTD, even though they were already dead in our generation, you could argue that in some ways they have been brought back to life again through historical fiction and non-fiction biographies. We have got to know them through books and TV, and have followed their life story, right up to the end. If it was a tragic end, such as on the scaffold, we demand an explanation into what went horribly wrong, in the same way as we would if a friend or relative died suddenly. The experience is similar to that of following a fictional character in a book, or TV show – we follow their story, then, they get killed off and everyone becomes shocked and angry. The only difference is that the LTD was a real person and it is as if they have been brought back to life, but then lost again.
Taylor Glenn, who is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London, recently wrote an article about public reaction when a celebrity dies. Taylor referred to the term “Mourning sickness”, a rather derogatory term coined to refer to the modern world’s response to the death of celebrities. There are two camps of people – those that express their mourning via social media and those that ridicule and belittle them. However, she explained that the psychological theories about the stages of grief and loss that were written some time ago can’t be applied neatly to the modern world, especially in the way we share and take in information. Also, the theories don’t take into account the psychological connections we have with people whom we have not met, but who have still affected us profoundly through their lives and work.
It’s not difficult to see that the loss of the RD, or the need to keep the memory alive of LTD, is profound on the public and is simply due to the huge influence they had on people’s lives. Many grew up listening to Bowie’s records – they were the soundtrack to good memories from their youth. Many people would tune in to the radio to listen to the friendly voice of Terry Wogan, which made it impossible for the listener to feel miserable afterwards. In his speech to his listeners after leaving Radio 2 in 2009, he held back tears, thanking his listeners “for being my friend”. He said to them “you’ve allowed me to share with you. When you tell me how important I’ve been in your lives, it’s been very moving – you’ve been every bit as important in mine”. Many felt like they had indeed lost a friend.
The same goes for many historical figures. Even though she lived in the 16th century and died ages ago, many women have felt sympathy for Catherine of Aragon when reading about the struggles in her life. They have heard about the way that Henry VIII wanted to end their marriage of 15 years due to lack of a male heir, despite the fact that they had a healthy daughter, the Princess Mary. At the same time, they have heard about her strength and determination to fight her cause and still recognize herself as Henry’s true wife and Queen. They have drawn great inspiration from this – they themselves may have experienced an “Aragonesque” episode in their own lives and may have drawn some strength from her story. This definitely helps to explain the widespread admiration and the need to pay tribute on the anniversary of her death. Keeping her memory alive means something to people, to them it is just as important as keeping the memory alive of a close friend or relative.
In her article, Taylor Glenn suggested that the adverse response to those that openly mourn is a Western cultural attitude. It goes against the “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude, where you just pick yourself up, dissimulate and act like nothing has happened. This expression of mourning is seen as a burden to them. However, the reality is grief “does not fit into a neat little box any more than it fits into convenient, predictable stages.” This expression of collective grief is profound because it is a reminder of our own mortality.
Five centuries after her execution, the shockwaves resulting from Anne Boleyn’s sudden and brutal demise are still probably just as profound as they were back in 1536. We have all got to know Anne gradually as a person through the sources that are still available. We’ve learned about how exceptionally clever she was as a young girl, particularly with language, so much that she spent her youth in the French court, which in itself would have been an amazing accomplishment at the time. Then, when she returned to England, she stole the heart of a King Henry VIII and, as they say, the rest is history. The King risked everything for her, including excommunication, something not to be overlooked in what was a society dominated by religion. Anne was raised from being a knight’s daughter to the Queen of England. You could say, she was living the dream. Then, it went horribly, tragically wrong. Anne would have been no more than in her mid-thirties at the time of her execution in May 1536. Her sudden demise is probably one, or even the most, debated about in history. It’s almost as though those that knew her at the time, together with today’s generation that has followed her life story right up to the very end, have felt a sense of anger and disbelief at what had happened.
There’s a need for answers – why did it happen and who was responsible? The late, great historian Eric Ives once said that Anne Boleyn was the other woman in his life and you could well believe this from reading his fantastic biography on her, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, focussing in great detail on Anne’s rise and fall, and the need for answers regarding what happened. Anger and the need for answers are very characteristic of the grief process. Even though Anne was a long time dead before all of us were born, and we didn’t actually lose her at some point, the fact that we have got to know about her through the history books, or historical fiction, and followed her life story, right up to its tragic end means that she’s almost been brought back to life and lost again. We
demand an explanation of what went horribly wrong. Not only is the fall of Anne Boleyn a reminder about our own mortality, it is also a reminder of how vulnerable we can be. In Anne’s story, we see how those around her ultimately betrayed her. There are many people who can probably relate to this experience, who have experienced a “Boleynesque” episode in their life when they have felt betrayed by so-called friends, family, work colleagues, or people who were supposed to protect them. This is probably why they feel that they can connect with Anne and her story. Anne’s story isn’t just her story; it’s a human and universal story.
For the last five years, I have done much research into the Boleyn family, particularly Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Jane has often been portrayed in historical fiction in a negative way, as a jealous woman who hated her husband George and who was envious of Anne. Jane has also been accused of leading Queen Catherine Howard astray, before eventually meeting the executioner herself on 13th February 1542. As I have got to know the real Jane through my research, I have gradually realised how much she has been wronged by historical fiction; she is in fact the victim, not the perpetrator. Jane was a scapegoat in the vicious Tudor politics of her time.
It has often been put forward in fiction that it was Jane who accused Anne of having an incestuous relationship with Jane’s husband, George Boleyn. In addition to the inflated accusations of multiple-adultery and plotting King Henry VIII’s death, the charge of incest helped to seal Anne’s tragic fate, sending her to the scaffold with George. However, this isn’t completely accurate. Actually, it is a fact that Jane was not the lady-in-waiting that had accused Anne of incest; the accusation may have come from another lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Browne, Lady Worcester, who has been described as the “first accuser of the Queen”.
In fact, we have proof that Anne and Jane were quite close. The main reason for interrogating Jane in 1536 was not because of alleged incest, but due to a delicate conversation that she had had with Anne over the King’s impotence. Jane and Anne were close enough for Anne to confide in her about the King. Jane then went onto to repeat this conversation with George. Withholding this information would have been treasonous for Jane, so when she was interrogated, unless she wanted to join Anne and George in the Tower, she had absolutely no choice, but to give this information to Thomas Cromwell.
Jane’s marriage to George has often been portrayed in fiction as an unhappy one. The reason behind this relates to George’s ownership of the book Tourmens de Mariage (The Lamentations of Matheolus) – a book which was a satire on marriage and which has been used as proof that the marriage was unhappy. This was because George later on gave the book to court musician Mark Smeaton, leading to conclusions being made by historians such as Retha Warnicke that George and Mark were lovers. This together with the lack of children in the marriage and the accusation of incest has made historical novelists and scriptwriters have a field day, embracing the idea of George and Jane being an unsuitable match and, going further, depicting George as violent and cruel to Jane. However, it’s only when we look at the facts that we realise that the fictional representation of Jane and George’s marriage couldn’t be further from the truth.
On 4th May 1536, Jane sent a message to her husband who was now imprisoned in the Tower of London. He had been taken to the Tower on 2nd May, the same day as Anne. Jane was not allowed to send him a personal letter, or even visit him, so instead she had to send a message for Sir William Kingston, the constable of the Tower, to give to George. We know what her message was because Kingston reported this in a letter to Thomas Cromwell. The letter was found in a collection of damaged documents that had, thankfully, been saved from a fire at Ashburnham House, Westminster, in 1731. In the letter, Kingston reports to Cromwell that Jane asked after George and promised that she would “humbly (make) suit onto the King’s highness” for him. George was very grateful for the message and his response was he wanted to “give her thanks”. The possibility of Jane petitioning the King and the Council would have brought George some comfort. With his trial looming – it eventually took place on 15th May – George asked Kingston when he would see the Council. He then broke down and said “for I think I (may not) come forth till I come to my judgement”. This has been interpreted as meaning that if it wasn’t for Jane’s help, he knew that no one would listen to his side of the story before his trial; not even George’s own uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and own father-in-law, Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who were both at George’s trial. In reality, Jane, no matter how much she would have wanted, would have not been able to have petitioned on George’s behalf to the King at this stage.
The information in this letter is quite extraordinary. It gives us a different image of Jane and George’s marriage. Unlike George’s parents, Jane did not abandon him when he was in the Tower. Also, he acknowledged her message – he did not ignore it, or insult her in response, he was grateful and thanked her for it. I think this alone speaks volumes about their marriage and suggests that it may not have been the hateful union that it has often been portrayed as.
One more fact that helps to dispel the myths about Jane and George is what happened at Jane’s execution. On 13th February 1542, according to popular myth, Jane made references to Anne and George Boleyn in her final speech, indicating her guilt in the alleged part she had played in their downfall. This is not true, however. According to an eyewitness Ottwell Johnson at her execution, she made no such speech. As Julia Fox explains, Johnson’s account means that we can reconstruct Jane’s speech as something like:
“I have committed many sins against God from my youth upwards and have offended the King’s royal majesty very dangerously, so my punishment is just and deserved. I am justly condemned by the laws of this realm and by Parliament. All of you who watch me die should learn from my example and change your own lives. You must gladly obey the King in all things, for he is a just and godly prince. I pray for his preservation and beseech you all to do the same. I now entrust my soul to God and pray for his mercy.” (Julia Fox, 2007)
There is not one mention of Anne and George. Despite this, however, the treatment towards Jane at the time of her husband’s execution on 17th May 1536 was appalling; not only was Jane not allowed to send to George a personal letter, or even visit him, but she would also have had very little advance warning – or even no possible warning at all – of George’s execution because contacting the wife of a “traitor” was not considered important. In addition, William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, would have told George the night before, but only confirmed the actual hour with George early in the morning of the day itself.
Jane’s negative posthumous reputation has also been the result of the common idea that she led Queen Catherine Howard astray. Again, this is another idea that lays all of the blame solely on Jane, but ignores other factors which lead not only to Catherine’s execution, but also to Jane’s on the same day: 13th February 1542. Jane survived Anne Boleyn’s fall, but when it came to Catherine Howard her survival luck within the Tudor court – appropriately once described by historian David Starkey as “a bear pit” – just simply ran out.
Of course, it was very unwise of Jane to become involved in Catherine’s affair with Thomas Culpeper behind King Henry VIII’s back, but I think that this was a situation that was well out of Jane’s control. Catherine was the queen – and far too young and untrained to be a queen at that. I don’t think Jane really had a choice and that she was just obeying her Queen.
Catherine fell in love with someone near her own age, unlike the King who was old enough to be her grandfather and whom she was coerced into marrying, all in the name of Howard family ambitions. You only have to read Catherine’s heartfelt love letter to Culpeper to see how difficult it may have been to keep the young lovers apart:
I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.
Yours as long as life endures,
One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it.”
It’s not difficult to see from this love letter alone that it may have been impossible for Jane to keep them apart. Jane was Lady of the Bedchamber, the highest ranking lady-in-waiting serving Catherine, and was also Catherine’s kinswoman and confidante. Jane was pulled into this affair, arranging their secret meetings. The longer it went on, the more involved she became.
Whether it was actually adultery is also a debatable point. According to David Starkey, Catherine’s alleged affair with Thomas Culpeper was probably far more innocent and may have simply been a case of two young people staying up all night talking to each other.
There is also a theory that maybe Catherine was encouraged to have the affair to increase her chances of having a son. This idea is not based on historical fact; this is really the product of one of Philippa Gregory’s novels. However, it’s probably not that far from the truth. After all, Catherine needed a son to keep her place as queen safe, especially after what had happened to her cousin, Anne Boleyn. Henry apparently had impotence problems – as Anne had once told Jane before. Also, considering Henry’s age and ill-health at the time, Jane, Catherine and Thomas may have arrogantly thought that he wasn’t long for this world and that they would get away with it. If Catherine’s position wasn’t safe, neither was the position of those related to her, including Jane.
Ultimately, Catherine, Culpeper and Jane lost the gamble and were eventually found out. Jane felt the King’s full wrath along with Catherine and Thomas. Understandably, when Jane was arrested in November 1541, she suffered a nervous breakdown. However, the King was determined to make a public example of her. He sent his own doctor to ensure that she spent her last Christmas getting better and to be in a fit state to meet the executioner in the New Year. How thoughtful of him.
As a result of all this, when looking at Jane’s story, I often feel a sense of injustice over Jane’s mistreatment and demise. This is a woman who lived five centuries before me, whom I have never met, but I feel like I have got to know about her through the historical sources. This sense of injustice inspired me to write “The Lady Rochford Saga”, in which I have tried my best to retell her story as accurately as possible, through her eyes, and to try to convey what really happened. I am not suggesting that she was a saint, I just believe that she was a product of her time and no more scandalous than her Tudor counterparts – and in Jane’s defence, some of them were up to a lot worse than her. She wasn’t in control of the events and politics that happened around her and she did what she had to do to survive in the Tudor court. It seems obvious to me that a huge lie has been created about her through historical fiction. I am trying to somehow correct this. The sense of injustice I feel for Jane is just as much as I would feel for a close friend. It’s inexplicable and every time the anniversary of her death comes around, I believe it’s important to keep her memory alive and make sure that people hear her side of the story, as if she was a close friend.
In her article, Taylor Glenn believed completely that we do have the “right” to grieve over someone we don’t know – “The day we feel we cannot grieve for a hero is the day we need to question how we are approaching grief in general.” Criticism of collective grief is a reflection on society’s general attitude to mortality and shows the need for personal grief to be treated in a more uncensored way. Those that tut at people expressing grief over celebrities and historical figures, in my opinion probably don’t fully understand it, or just want to brush it under the carpet. Also, they don’t understand what it means to be human. This kind of collective grief is a very good example of how many people show that they have the capacity to feel empathy with, relate to, feel inspired by, or even feel anger and injustice for other people, whether they knew them personally or not. And I think that that is a very positive thing. You only have to watch the news for five minutes to realise that the world needs a lot more empathy, rather than apathy, and that it would probably be a far better and fairer place for it.
I am an independent author from London, UK. I am currently working on Part 3 of “The Lady Rochford Saga”, due for release Winter 2016. Both “Part 1: Into the Ranks of the Deceived” and “Part 2: Tourmens de Mariage” are available to download now via Amazon:
Visit my pages at https://www.facebook.com/TheLadyRochfordSaga and at http://danielleliannem.wix.com/janeboleyn .
Sources and suggested reading
Images: “The Lady Parker” – thought to be either Jane Boleyn or her sister-in-law, Grace Newport, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery, unknown artist. Catherine of Aragon, by Lucas Horenbout.
- http://standardissuemagazine.com – “Mourning Sickness or Collective Grief” by Taylor Glenn.
- Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford – Julia Fox, Phoenix, 2007.
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn – Eric Ives, Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
- Catherine of Aragon – Henry’s Spanish Queen – Giles Tremlett, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2011.
- Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions – G.W. Bernard, 2010, Yale University Press.
- George Boleyn – Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat – Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway, MadeGlobal Publishing, 2014.
- Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy – Joanna Denny, 2008, Piatkus Books Ltd.
- Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII – David Starkey, Vintage, 2003.
- Hanson, Marilee. “Queen Catherine Howard to Master Thomas Culpeper” http://englishhistory.net/tudor/letter/queen-catherine-howard-master-thomas-culpeper/, February 4, 2015.