Today we have the special treat of an article on George Boleyn by Clare Cherry who has been researching George for many years. Thanks, Clare!
I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be George Boleyn throughout his short but eventful life.
He was born into a life of great wealth and prestige. His father was a highly respected courtier and diplomat. George himself was attractive and intelligent to the extent that his ‘great wit’ was later commented on in poetry. He was, therefore, not only born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was also born lucky. He was the only surviving son and heir. He represented the Boleyns’ future, and a promising future at that.
Yes, there would no doubt have been pressure placed upon him to succeed, but he had bred into him the confidence which would have alleviated that pressure by the knowledge of his own abilities.
Good looking, gifted and rich. It is difficult to imagine a better start in life for a young boy who had pride and ambition instilled in him from birth.
He was introduced to Henry VIII’s court at the tender age of ten and was an instant hit, being appointed one of Henry’s pageboys shortly afterwards. He had charm and charisma to add to his other attributes. His wit and humour made him popular, and life must have seemed extraordinarily easy. He was a talented sportsman and later discovered a propensity for poetry. He was made for great things, to be a courtier in his father’s footsteps, a trusted adviser to the King. He had a charmed life.
And then, in the mid 1520s, his sister Anne caught the King’s eye. For the first time in his charmed life the Boleyns greatest asset was usurped. As Anne’s position as queen consort became established George was no longer the most important Boleyn sibling. He took second stage to a sibling, and a woman at that.
How did he cope with the transition? It is a testament to his character and his affection for Anne that throughout the late 1520s and through into the mid 1530s he exhibited nothing but love and support to the sister who had taken his limelight. Of course it was in his interests to do so, but every position of power and authority bestowed upon him from then on would be questioned by enemies and rivals.Was he awarded a Viscountcy on his own merits? Was he appointed ambassador to France at the age of twenty-five on his own merits? Was he appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports at the age of thirty on his own merits? For a proud young man with ‘great wit’, that must have been hard to take.
His life, after Henry became attracted to Anne, certainly changed. It is hard to say how his career would have progressed without that happening, but I don’t doubt that he would have been highly successful in any event. Whether George Boleyn felt his life changed for the better once Anne’s own destiny was established is only something he could answer.
What it did mean was that, with Anne’s influence over Henry and Henry’s desire to marry her, George’s commitment to religious reform had a far greater chance of success. For that alone he had reason to support her rise. But whether he was content with being the powerful brother of the queen consort, or whether his pride would have preferred recognition in his own right without the ‘brother’ tag is again something only he could answer. The ‘brother’ tag certainly made his life even easier. Into the mid 1530s his charmed life continued. He held roles of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports from June 1534 onwards, he was a politician and a leading light in the Reformation Parliament and was also a busy diplomat attending a total of six embassies to France.
Irrespective of being the queen’s brother he never sat back on his laurels, and the evidence we have indicates he was highly active in the roles appointed to him, and highly thought of by Henry. He worked hard and diligently in defiance of those who may have questioned his abilities. He was too proud not to do so. He may have taken his personal abilities and attributes for granted, but he does not appear to have taken his position as Henry’s brother-in-law for granted, and that is a credit to him. He wanted recognition in his own right, and I think that shows in his scaffold speech.
Life carried on for George Boleyn as it always had, with a charmed existence, until 2nd May 1536. Waking up that morning, just like any other morning, but this time walking straight into a nightmare. Nothing, during his thirty-two years of life, could possibly have prepared him for the horror of that moment, or the horror of the dreadful, shameful and completely unfounded allegations laid against him.
He had shown great strength of character throughout his life and career, but he had never needed the degree of character required to get him through this ordeal. How on earth could anyone who had lived a life such as his possibly cope with what he needed to cope with?
He initially wept with the shock, horror and shame of it all. But did he crumble? Did he give up? No, he walked into court with his head held high and destroyed the prosecution case with his wit and courage, in a trial considered to be one of the most sensational of the sixteenth century. And when he was condemned did he rail against the sentence? No, he accepted it with the dignity which was expected of him. When he faced death did he show fear. Yes, but only for those who may have suffered as a result of his death. On the scaffold did he show weakness. No, he gave an impassioned speech before submitting to the axe.
Those last fifteen days of George Boleyn’s life, compared to the previous thirty-two years, were so completely opposite that it’s hard to imagine anything more diverse. Yet in death he showed what he had always been made of; strength, wit, courage and determination. However, whatever had gone before was, to modern eyes, lost in the final act. For that reason alone, perhaps the greatest tragedy of being George Boleyn is that, as far as history views him, his death became his finest scene.