Today we have a guest post from Clare Cherry looking at the two families affected by the events of April and May 1536 and how they are viewed by people today. Thanks, Clare!
The Boleyns and the Seymours
The Boleyns came from humble beginnings. They were social climbers and upstarts who used their daughters to gain power and wealth. Anne went on to become queen after her single-minded pursuit of the throne, following which her father and brother gained prominence at court due to her position as queen. They were a family who would stop at nothing to realise their ambitions, including murder.
The Seymours’ daughter, Jane, married Henry VIII in 1536…
Hang on a minute, where’s the abuse? Where are the insults?
The Boleyns have been demonised by writers of fiction and non-fiction for centuries. Contrast that with the Seymour family, who have received nothing like the bad press that the Boleyns have. So why are the Boleyns demonised to a far greater degree than the Seymours?
Thomas Boleyn and John Seymour
Both families were ambitious, although perhaps no more so than the majority of courtiers who surrounded Henry. Is the Seymour family lineage questioned? Were they commoners, social climbers and upstarts? The Boleyn and Howard lineages are far more impressive than that of the Seymours, with both Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn coming from aristocratic backgrounds. Yet it is the Boleyns who are accused of being social upstarts while very little is mentioned of the Seymours’ background.
Both Thomas and John had highly successful careers long before the King married their daughters. Yet in Thomas’ case that is very often overlooked. Thomas is accused of pimping his daughters to the King for advancement of himself and his family, and although there is no evidence of that, he has been vilified for it throughout history. Has John Seymour suffered the same vilification? Admittedly John cannot be accused of profiting from his daughter’s marriage. He died in 1536 and it’s hard to gain preferment when you’re dead!
Perhaps Thomas’ court career and popularity with Henry pre Mary and Anne is deliberately overlooked. After all, it doesn’t fit in with the carefully constructed story does it?
Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour
Anne is accused of pursuing Henry with a single-minded determination to be queen. She withheld sexual relations with Henry until she got what she wanted. Alternatively she was used by her family by being pushed into Henry’s arms in order to obtain favours for the Boleyns and the Howards, albeit doing so willingly.
Jane, on the other hand, is seen as merely a woman who allowed herself to be used by others, specifically her brothers and the anti-Boleyn faction.
Anne withheld sexual favours from Henry in order to lure him into marrying her, which seems a rather risky strategy to me if marriage was her aim bearing in mind Henry was not known for his patience!
Jane withheld sexual relations with Henry due to either her virtue or/and because she was advised to do so on the ground it had worked in the past. Jane’s character may have allowed her to be used by others, but what about Anne’s? Anne fled to Hever when Henry started to show an interest in her. Did Jane flee to Wolf Hall? A number of facts are conveniently overlooked because they don’t fit in with people’s pre-conceived perceptions.
Jane did not make waves during her short reign, whereas Anne’s position as queen only came about due to the break with Rome, which caused huge upheaval throughout the land. And of course Jane died in childbirth giving birth to the long awaited Prince, and without giving Henry enough time to get bored of her, whereas Anne died as a convicted, though innocent, traitor. There is also the fact that Anne replaced the popular Catherine whereas Jane replaced the unpopular Anne. Do you think any of that may have something to do with the different perceptions of the two women!?
I am not trying to knock Jane or criticise her in any way. I’m only making the point that the general bias against the Boleyn family creates double standards.
George Boleyn, Edward and Thomas Seymour
George Boleyn has taken a dreadful battering in the last thirty years or so, mainly in fiction. Edward and Thomas Seymour have fared far better, yet it is them, and not George, who pushed their sister towards the King. This, at least, is an allegation rarely levelled at George.
George’s court career, much like his father’s, is often overlooked as is the fact he was a popular courtier before Mary and Anne even arrived at the English court. The Seymour brothers, particularly Edward, reached dizzying heights at court following their sister’s marriage to Henry, but they are not criticised for this. It is of course true that Edward was a highly capable man, and certainly both brothers had longer careers than the unfortunate George Boleyn. Of course they did because they lived a damn sight longer.
It is difficult to understand why George Boleyn has been so vilified, when it is recognised that he was innocent of the charges levelled against him. Again, I am not trying to knock or criticise the Seymour brothers, particularly Edward. He was an ambitious and capable man, just like George Boleyn. Edward was lucky enough to have lived long enough to make more of a political impact than George, but I cannot accept that as justification for the demonising of one over the other.
Perhaps, once again, presenting an accurate portrayal of George Boleyn does not fit in with the picture of the Boleyns that so many authors and film makers try so hard to project.
- Thomas Boleyn and John Seymour were both successful courtiers prior to their daughters catching the King’s eye, Thomas even more so.
- Thomas cannot be proved to have manipulated his daughters towards the King, whereas both Edward and Thomas Seymour were prepared to use their sister.
- Anne did not actively encourage Henry’s advances, and in fact she fled to Hever to avoid them.
- The Boleyns and the Seymours were similar creatures. They were ambitious courtiers whose daughter/sister happened to catch the King’s eye and ended up marrying him. Neither family should be applauded for it or vilified for it.
And yet the Boleyns continue to be demonised. Why? It was perhaps understandable in the sixteenth century due to religious upheaval and the Boleyns’ fall. As we all know, history is written by the victors. But why does the vilification continue? Is part of it because the Boleyns continue to fascinate us, whether we love or hate them. Put simply, for good or bad, they stand out.
In many ways the two families were similar, but in many other ways there was a world of difference between the Boleyns and the Seymours. Are we fascinated by the Seymours? Compared with the Boleyns most of us would say no. Both families were competent courtiers who had highly successful careers, and like Anne and George, both of the Seymour brothers ended their lives on the scaffold. Yet they pale into insignificance compared to the continuing appeal of the Boleyn siblings.
The Seymours received no fame for their poetry and music, and neither are they referred to in the same sentence as the Renaissance. Likewise they are not remembered for their complex, and often contradictory personalities. George and Anne’s relationship continues to fascinate us all these years after their deaths, not because we think they were guilty of incest, but because we love that they were close and had a loving sibling relationship. Anne was complex, outspoken and uniquely Anne, with her imperfections which add to her allure rather than detract from it. In a man’s world she was a force to be reckoned with. The coup against the Boleyn family, and Anne and George’s response to their destruction is, and will always be, remembered. The Boleyn family, love or hate them, had a magnetism and charisma that has survived the centuries. The Seymours are unable to compete with that on any level, which is why they fail to fascinate us in the same way as the Boleyns do. They may not be demonised in the same way that the Boleyns are, but likewise they will never be able to captivate us in the same way either. Perhaps, after all, the Boleyns would consider that to be a fair exchange?