The Destruction of the Boleyn Family
Posted By Claire on May 23, 2017
Thank you to Clare Cherry, co-author of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat for writing this guest article for us today.
Over to Clare…
In 1536 five members of the Boleyn family had their lives destroyed, or at the very least fundamentally damaged. Anne and George were put to death on trumped up charges of incest, adultery and treason. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn lost a daughter and their son and heir. Thomas also lost his court position, career and reputation. Jane Boleyn lost her husband and social position. She later went on to lose her life.
Ever since Anne Boleyn first caught the eye of the king, and since he first started chasing her around the country, the Boleyn family has been vilified. They were alleged to be ambitious social climbers, Thomas pimped his daughters to the highest bidder and so on and so on. The vilification obviously increased when Anne was accused of adultery and incest, and of plotting to kill the king. All of the charges we now know were nonsense, as did many people at the time of her fall. But human beings just love kicking a person when they’re down. So anyone who was jealous of the Boleyns, or who hated religious reform of which they were spearheads, or who were loyal to Catherine of Aragon and Mary used every opportunity to defame them. When Henry decided to ditch Anne using every foul method available to him, their enemies, or should that be rivals, must have been rubbing their hands together in glee.
But before the king’s infatuation with Anne, the Boleyns were a respectable family, no different to any other prominent Tudor family. They were in the employment of the king, and they were loyal subjects. Thomas was a successful and respected courier, politician and diplomat, and his young son, George was to follow in his footsteps.
Yes, they were ambitious, like every other courtier at Henry VIII’s court, but I think only failures see ambition as a character flaw. Thomas, and later George, were highly intelligent and capable men. Their successful careers would have elicited no comment, other than perhaps envy, had Henry not wanted to marry Anne. But he did want to marry her, so what were the Boleyns, or indeed anyone else for that matter, supposed to have done? They had to get the king what he wanted. That included not only the Boleyns, but also Cardinal Wolsey, Charles Brandon, Thomas Cromwell and everyone else in Henry’s employ, whether they were happy to accept Nan Boleyn on the throne or not. If you didn’t like it, tough!
The Boleyns were no different to any other prominent Tudor family, save for the fact that they had two daughters who caught the eye of the king, and the fact that their two bright stars were murdered on false charges of treason. Without that, Thomas and George would be remembered as two successful courtiers in the same way as Thomas Wyatt, Francis Bryan, Nicholas Carew, Charles Brandon, etc. are. They played their cards in the same way as all of these men, just as the Seymour family did, the Howard family did and all of the other members of Henry’s court.
Children in the playground say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. As adults, we understand the fallacy of that phrase. Bones can be repaired, but words are the most dangerous weapon we possess, and a damaged reputation can often be irreparable, as is the pain caused.
In the sixteenth century, reputation and honour were vitally important. Anne and George Boleyn were accused of incest. To two proud people, the horror of that would have been palpable. It’s why George Boleyn died on the scaffold saying he was dying with more shame and dishonour than had ever been heard of before. Yet so often we don’t even consider these people as human beings. We say what we like about them because it’s easy. They died so long ago it’s hard to think that they actually lived. It’s why some authors can be so cavalier when characterising them in their fiction. To all intents and purposes, they’ve become caricatures on a page to be used and abused at will.
We know all this, but still, Thomas is vilified for pimping his daughters, when there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that he did. The evidence we do have shows him to have been opposed to the marriage. Anne is still seen by many as the wicked witch who connived and manipulated her way to the crown and put aside the righteous Catherine of Aragon while doing so, despite doing everything in her limited power to spurn his attentions. Even Elizabeth Boleyn’s virtue has recently been questioned by one historian. And then there are Jane and George Boleyn. Jane has been vilified for years for being the source of the incest allegation despite no evidence to prove she was. Why let the lack of evidence get in the way of a good story?
We don’t seem to have come very far in the last five-hundred years. In fact, it gets worse. George Boleyn largely escaped vilification following his death. It’s only been in the last thirty years or so that certain fiction writers have started to take cheap shots at him. Suddenly he’s become a rapist, a wife abuser, a thug and a sneering idiot. It’s all become so boringly predictable and lazy.
Even George Boleyn’s talent for poetry has been used against him with callous manipulation. In Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies we have Thomas Cromwell suggesting that George only wrote poetry so that he could stick his cock in as many women as he could (Mantel’s obscenity, not mine). Does what we know about George Boleyn, rather than the fiction written about him, lead anyone to believe that this vile quote is deserved?
If the king had not moved heaven, earth and religion to marry Anne, then Thomas and George would have continued to have successful careers and be remembered as respected and competent courtiers. George would have kept his head intact and probably have died a natural death. Cavendish would never have written libellous verse about him, and his honour and reputation would, therefore, have remained intact, along with his head. No one would, five-hundred years later, be keen to paint Elizabeth Boleyn as a trollop. As for Jane Boleyn, no one would allege that she falsely accused her husband of incest, which would have the knock-on effect that no one would be accusing George of wife-abuse. Their marriage would not elicit any comment at all because it elicited no comment at the time. As for Anne, she would have married a successful courtier, and no one would ever have heard of her. The Boleyns would always have been keen religious reformers, but they would have had no power to do anything about it, and they would have been sensible to have put up and shut up.
It was not just Anne and George who fell in 1536. The whole family was brought down with them, and for what? For being unlucky? For being in the wrong place at the wrong time? For having a paranoid cruel tyrant for a king who wanted to remarry without impediment? It certainly wasn’t for being guilty. A loyal servant to the king had his career stripped from him. Parents lost two of their children in the most tragic circumstances that can be imagined, and a wife was left widowed. Two innocent young people lost their lives and their honour on the foulest and most callous charges which could be conceived. What happened to the Boleyns was not deserved. What did they possibly do to deserve what happened to them? They were destroyed in 1536. Why do we feel the need to keep destroying them over and over again?
Clare did a video talk on George Boleyn for Anne Boleyn Day 2017 and you can click here to watch it. Claire Ridgway did a video talk on Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn and you can click here to watch it.
Clare Cherry lives in Hampshire with her partner David. She works as a solicitor in Dorset, but has a passion for Tudor history and began researching the life of George Boleyn in 2006. She started corresponding with Claire Ridgway in late 2009, after meeting through The Anne Boleyn Files website, and the two Tudor enthusiasts became firm friends. They co-wrote George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat. Clare divides her time between the legal profession and researching Tudor history. Clare has written guest articles on George Boleyn for The Anne Boleyn Files, Nerdalicious.com.au, and author Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn website.
About George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat:
George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King.
This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother. Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway chart his life from his spectacular rise in the 1520s to his dramatic fall and tragic end in 1536.
George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat is divided into three sections – Beginnings, Career and Influence, and End of an Era – and topics include:
– George Boleyn’s poetry
– Personal attributes and social pursuits
– George’s marriage to Jane Parker
– The Reformation Parliament and the League of Schmalkalden
– George the Diplomat
– The fall of the Boleyns, arrests and trials
– The aftermath of their fall
– George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield, and the Clonony Castle Boleyns
The biography is fully referenced and includes chapter notes, bibliography and useful appendices.
Find out more about the book at getbook.at/george-boleyn
Picture: Jane Boleyn in “The Tudors” series; Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl movie; George and Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl movie; George Boleyn in Bring Up the Bodies.