Boleyn or Bullen – The Spelling of Boleyn and the Myth that Anne Boleyn Changed It

Posted By on November 27, 2013

Anne Boleyn SignatureIt has been claimed, on various occasions, that Anne Boleyn ‘frenchified’ her name by changing it from ‘Bullen’ to ‘Boleyn’, making it less common and more ‘upmarket’ – “Anne Boleyn” versus “Nan Bullen”. This is a myth, however, and is actually to do with the fact that there was no standardized spelling in England at this time.

In his research of records going back to the 13th century, Rev. Canon Parsons, author of the journal article “Some Notes on the Boleyn Family”, found the name “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.”

The name is also spelled various ways in documents/artefacts from Henry VIII’s reign, in reference to Thomas Boleyn, George Boleyn and Anne Boleyn. Here are just a few examples:

  • Henry VII’s funeral 1509 – Thomas listed as one of the Lords as “Th. Bolan”. (LP i. 20)
  • Letter from Anne Boleyn to her father, Thomas Boleyn, while she was at the court of Margaret of Austria c. 1513 – The letter was written in French and was signed “Anna de Boullan”.
  • Preparations for the coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon 1509 – references to “Sir Thomas Boleyne” and “Dame Elizabeth Bolen”. (LP i. 81, 82)
  • Commissions of the Peace 1509-1514 – Thomas listed as “Sir Th. Boleyn” and “Sir Thos. Bulleyn”, and his brother listed as “James Bulleyn”.

  • In the Accounts of Revels 1510, Thomas Boleyn is listed as “Sir Th. Boleyn”. (LP ii. p1501)
  • Letter from Young, Boleyn (Thomas) and Wingfield to Henry VIII – refers to “Sir Thomas Boleyn” and his wager with Margaret of Austria. (LP i. 1350)
  • Letter from Margaret of Austria to her father,Emperor Maximilian, 1512 – Refers to Thomas as “Sieur de Boulan”. (LP i. 1437)
  • In a list of the royal household December 1516, Thomas Boleyn’s brother James is listed as “Sir Jas. Bullaygne” in the list of Knights for the Body. (LP ii. 2735)
  • In a record regarding the christening of Princess Mary in February 1516, Thomas Boleyn is listed as “Sir Thomas Boleyn”. (LP ii. 1573)
  • Francis I refers to Anne Boleyn as the daughter of “Mr. Boullan” in a letter in 1522. (LP iii. 1994)
  • Anne is referred to as “Mistress Anne Boleyn” in the Revels accounts showing the expenses for the Shrovetide joust of 1522. (LP iii. p1559, Miscellaneous Revels 1519)
  • Anne is referred to as “Sir Thomas Boleyn’s daughter” in negotiations for her to marry James Butler. (LP iii. 1011)
  • Letter from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII, Summer 1526 – Anne signed it Anne Bulen
  • George Boleyn’s inscription in a book, dated 1526 – Signed “George Boleyn”
  • Letter from Anne Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey, June 1528 – Signed “anne boleyn”
  • Inscriptions on the brass cross memorials to Thomas Boleyn the Younger and Henry Boleyn, at Penshurst and Hever – Both refer to the boys being sons of “Sir Thomas Bullayen”. However, their father’s tomb has the name spelled “Bullen”.
  • “Geo. Bulleyn” made “squire of the Body” in 1528. (LP iv. 4993
  • 1533 summons for George Boleyn to attend Parliament – “Fiat for writs of summons as follows :—i. Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, to be present in Parliament this Wednesday. Westm., 5 Feb. 24 Hen. VIII.” (LP iv. 123)
  • Mention of the King’s ships, “the Anne Boleyne” (LP iv. 2751) and the “Mary Bullen”. (LP iv. 6138)
Thomas Boleyn brass

Inscription on Thomas Boleyn’s brass memorial

George Wyatt, grandon of Thomas Wyatt, the Poet, spelled the name “boleigne” in his biography of Anne, so there’s another version of the name. I could go on and on finding different variations throughout Letters and Papers etc., as I could with Cromwell (Crumwell), Carey/Carew, Seymour and many other surnames. What I always find funny when reading Tudor documents is that the same word or name can be spelt two different ways in the same sentence, that’s how ‘unstandardized’ the spelling was!

As I have mentioned before, we know that the city of Boulogne in France was written as “Boleyn” in the Chronicles of Calais and various other documents, so it may be that the family name “Boleyn” had its origins there – see my article “Anne Boleyn’s Family Tree” for more on this.

So, it’s not a case of Anne Boleyn being a snob by changing her name from “Bullen” to “Boleyn”, it’s all down to Tudor spelling, or the lack of it.

Notes and Sources

  • 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
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII

28 thoughts on “Boleyn or Bullen – The Spelling of Boleyn and the Myth that Anne Boleyn Changed It”

  1. Sonetka says:

    Interesting — what was Anne’s name doing in the Revels accounts for 1519, just out of curiosity? I thought she was overseas at that time.

    1. Claire says:

      That’s just what the accounts are called in L&P, they cover the shrovetide joust of 1522 too. I think I’ll go and add that in so it doesn’t cause confusion.

  2. Amanda F. says:

    Most people spelled things according to how they sounded, so of course there are going to be many variations. My own family’s surname was spelled in about four different ways in the last 300 or so years. 🙂

    1. Heather Copeland says:

      I found a painting hanging in one of the castles in England that spells it has Bullen. Then underneath that reads “after Bolbein”. I’ve yet to see that spelling or the explanation of that. Any ideas?

      1. Little Nellie says:

        More likely it’s after “HOLBEIN”, court painter of the time. (“After” meaning in the style of).

    2. Marilyn K, says:

      Her ancestors were the Counts of Boulogne so he French roots were authentic. It is the Saxonish Bullen that does not seem valid, to me, but understandable after the scandal the later descendants wanted to be incognito so they stuck with Bullen or Bolyen.

  3. Miladyblue says:

    If I didn’t know any better, I would say that my dearest friend in the world was in charge of recordkeeping at the time. She wrote letters to me, when she lived out of state, with the same word misspelled at least 4 different ways. Her motto has always been, “Creative spelling is a prerequisite for creative writing.”

  4. Carolyn says:

    Interesting article Claire. I may have mentioned on here before that I believe I am a direct descendant of Edward Boleyn, youngest brother of Anne’s father Thomas, but have never been able to trace a death or will for him to prove the connection. This article has reminded me that I am going to have to extend the search to cover all the known variations of the surname and you’ve given plenty to work with.

  5. Tresa says:

    I find it very interesting that even the person themself would spell their name differently. You would think they would at least have some standardized form even when others spelled it phonetically.

    1. Hans van Felius says:

      I have a deed mentioning a father and four sons. All their names are spelled differently in the deed. But even more confusing, they all signed with different spelling, but some of them not with the spelling of their actual name in the deed…
      As to changing of names… one family among my English ancestors were the Duncombe family in Buckinghamshire. Duncombe, Duncomb, Duncumbe are some of the variations in England. When my ancestor Jeremy Duncombe moved to the Netherlands, the name changed from that to Dancomb, Domcomb, Donckam, Donckom, and ultimately to Donken, which is the name of the Dutch branch living now…
      Takes an awful lot of wildcards to find the name in Dutch databases!

      I guess for most persons spelling was not important, probably more important was that people understood who was meant.

  6. A very useful reminder, Claire. For family researchers like Carolyn and me, the key to making accurate connections is historical awareness. Unquestioningly applying modern assumptions to people of other eras leads to gaping blunders. As you’ve shown, our understanding can be very much affected. It’s not trivial that spelling didn’t become standardized until the nineteenth century, that regional dialects affected it, and that people often varied the spellings even of their own names. (Just try searching the National Archives site if you’re not aware of this!) Likewise, that the connotations of some titles and words–“servant” and “indenture” are examples–were different in the early modern era than they are now. And that many laws and social customs have changed. To approach Anne Boleyn and her contemporaries with any relevance, learn about their society. The difference between “reformer,” “Protestant” and “Puritan,” for example. It isn’t so daunting. Social history and local history are fun, often better than a soap opera! Kudos to the Anne Boleyn Files for doing its part toward furthering this kind of understanding.

    1. Hans van Felius says:

      Amen!

  7. kipper says:

    Just for interest sake, on Henry Carey’s tomb in Wesminster Abbey it is spelt ‘Bullen’. Henry Carey was Mary Boleyn’s son and died in 1596.

    1. Claire says:

      And “Bulleyne” on his sister’s tomb in the abbey!

  8. Tudor Addict says:

    Wow. And I thought spelling was tough in this day and age…

  9. Joan McHugh says:

    Hi Clair, just curious, would the name “Boylan” be a variation do you know? It is very common in Ireland. Many thanks, J

  10. mrsfiennes says:

    That would be fascinating if Anne was descended from a norman count but the french merchant sounds more plausible since her great grandfather was a London merchant.

  11. Katie says:

    No standardized spelling was established in England during the Tudor reign. Most names were spelled phonetically, with little or no regard to consistency. Although Anne Boleyn was considered highly educated, she had virtually no reference to ensure the proper grammar, spelling, or punctuation of any texts she left behind. Thus, articles that survived Henry VIII’s destruction of her memory may be contradictory in terms of spelling. “Anna Bolina”,” Anne the Queene,” “Anna Regina,” etc. are in fact indicative of Anne’s place as queen of England.

  12. We did a brass rubbing of Thomas Bullen [a very long time ago] when I lived in England. The tomb was in sad disrepair.Sadlly delapadated with crumbling bricks where one could look inside the tomb. Has this state of affairs been remedied, and if so when? We also noticed the difference in spelling at Westminister Abbey. We had quite a nice collection of “spooks” as we referred to them. Interesting way to see England and learn the history of the brasses and the surrounding area. People were every so nice to us brass Americans and very good about booking us in for a “rubbing”. I took a class on British Kings and Queens while there and have been fascinated by Anne Boylen ever since. Thankyou Claire for another informative posting.

  13. Dawn 1st says:

    Stodart, Stodhart, Stodhard, Stothert, Studdert, Stoddard, Studart, Studdard, Studeart, Stiddart, Stodehart, are but some of the spelling of my maiden name Stoddart, which originates pre 9th century.

    So I would in imagine everybody will be in the same boat when it comes to the evolving alterations their surname has taken over the years.

    To presume that Anne changed hers to make her sound ‘grand’ was just another dig by those who thought of Anne in a negative way through time and look for every opportunity to debase her.
    It’s good to see that these myths are being aired and debunked…but I guess there will all ways be those that WANT to believe these falsehoods, but hopefully they will become less and less as time progresses.

    It seems that most surnames rise from a persons trade, location, geographical characteristics, colours or ‘son of’, etc.
    Mine comes from Stod; meaning Stud Farm, and a shortened form of Hierde; meaning herdsman, so basically keeper of the studs, which always makes my hubby smile… 🙂

  14. Tudor Rose says:

    Her spelling is good with a capital letter at the beginning of each sentence and at the beginning of her first as well as last name nice and neat. Her writing is better than some people of today just as good if not better than!

  15. Miranda says:

    Hi Clair. My name is Miranda Reed. I have a few questions for you. Um Do you know any websites that would let you find out who lived in irland going by the last name reed or griffith or Kelley? And if your wondering in what year 1500s maybe or 1800s. I just really want to know who my ancestors are.

  16. Shoshana says:

    LOL – I was stopped cold with the spelling of my fathers family. How many ways can you spell “Mrnustik”? It is so confusing and then I tried my mothers family because “Wolf” would be easier – not so. Wolf, Wolfe, Woulf, Woulfe, and other ways and all this in the 1800’s because the Wolf side of the family was Native American! I can only imagine what I’d find if the Wolf’s came from England!

  17. Eva says:

    Thank you for this. I am working on my family tree and had run into a dead end once I got as far back as early 1600s, late 1500s for the English side. Now I know to broaden my search a little with different spellings… Thanks!

  18. Anna says:

    Because you can’t blindly trust others to spell your name as you do. That’s why I reverted to my middle name years ago to get away from having to spell Tabatha every time I had to leave my name for something.

  19. Sonya says:

    Would it be far fetched for the Boleyn name be associated with Bolinger? I am researching and have (unconfirmed) information that my ancestry is through Mary Boleyn. I would love to hear from someone with knowledge on the subject. Many thanks and I am so enjoying the site.

  20. Colleen says:

    Today I visited Hever Castle her childhood home and it was spelled Bullen. Very interesting article. I’m from the States and have only seen it spelled Boelyn up to this point. If you are in England I highly recommend visiting.

  21. Banditqueen says:

    My own family surname has been spelt three or four different ways and the English definitely can’t pronounce it properly. It also depends on if you use the Scots or Gaelic. MacMahon, McMahon, even MacMaharn or Mahone or even M’cMahon. We use McMahon, but as you can imagine it has varied.

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