George Boleyn: Saint or Sinner

Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway consider whether George Boleyn was a saint or sinner…

One of the most maligned Tudor characters over the last thirty years has to be George Boleyn. The strange thing is, that after spending a number of years researching his life, we have no idea why. The primary sources do not suggest that George was the wife-beating, raping, manipulative man fiction and TV often make him out to be, unless we’ve overlooked something in our research.

Was George a saint?

Absolutely not, but was anyone back then? Come to think of it, is anyone nowadays?

Was he a sinner?

Of course he was, isn’t everyone? But was he any different to other men at court? Well, make your own mind up.

We have trawled the records for any evidence which shows George in a negative light, and this is what we have come up with:

George Cavendish

George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher, portrayed George as a womaniser in his poetry entitled ‘Metrical Visions’. He wrote:

“My lyfe not chast, my lyvyng bestyall
I fforced wydowes, maydens I did deflower
All was oon to me, I spared non at all
My appetit was all women to devoure
My study was bothe day and hower
My onleafull lecherey, how I myght it fulfill
Sparyng no woman to have on hyr my wyll.”1

But then he also wrote of Henry VIII in similar terms, writing:

“My lusts to frequent, and have of them experyence,
Sekyng but my lust of onlefull lecherye,”2

Henry VIII had mistresses, as well as numerous wives, so why would his closest friends be any different? They spent their entire lives keeping up with their royal master. If George was a womaniser, then he was no different to most other male courtiers, save for being more discreet than Henry. There was no other person who commented on George’s womanising during his life or after his death, and no scandal ever surrounded his marriage to Jane. Although fiction often portrays George’s marriage to Jane as unhappy, there is actually no evidence to prove it and their childless state was more likely down to them experiencing problems. It was, after all, Jane’s duty to provide a Boleyn heir whether she liked her husband or not. There is actually more evidence to prove that they were happy, e.g. Anne confiding in Jane about Henry’s impotence problems and Jane telling George, than there is to prove that they were unhappy.

Thomas Wyatt

Poet and courtier Thomas Wyatt knew George Boleyn well and in his poetry about the executions of the five men on 17th May 1536, he wrote of George’s pride:

“Some say Rochford had thou not been so proud,
For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan.
As it is so, many cry aloud
It is a great loss that thou art dead and gone.”3

There is little doubt that George had the Boleyn pride. He was handsome, intelligent, raised to great heights at an early age, and he was brother-in-law to the King of England. We can’t possibly argue that his character wasn’t tinged with arrogance, but this arrogance or pride didn’t stop people crying aloud at his death and seeing it as “a great loss”.

Chapuys never commented on George being particularly arrogant, save for saying that George was proud of his reformist views and couldn’t help but discuss them in public. In fact Chapuys was prepared to admit that George was always polite and courteous towards him, and showed him “fort grosse chiere” (great cheer),4 and that was coming from a man who really didn’t like the Boleyns.

Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador

Chapuys wrote at Catherine of Aragon’s death that he believed that both George and Thomas Boleyn were wishing Mary would join her mother:

“No words can the joy and delight that this King and the promoters of his concubinate have felt at the demise of the good Queen, especially the earl of Wilshire, and his son, who must have said to themselves, What a pity it was that the Princess had not kept her mother company.”5

This is often interpreted as Thomas and George saying that this was what they wished for. In fact, that’s not what Chapuys said. Chapuys quite clearly says that they “must have said to themselves”. It is Chapuys believing that this is what they wanted, and that is very different to George and Thomas actually saying it.

Chapuys also wrote that George and Norfolk had criticised Anne Shelton for showing Mary too much respect, and that she should be treated like the bastard she was:

“The duke of Norfolk and Anne’s brother lately reprimanded her for behaving to the Princess with too much respect and kindness, saying that she ought only to be treated as a bastard.”6

This is unpleasant for sure, but on whose instructions were these orders given? Does anyone seriously think that Norfolk and George travelled to Hatfield of their own volition to give these orders regarding the King’s daughter?

George as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports

There is a reference to George in his role as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 15357 which gives the impression that he had been too heavy handed in handing down a sentence to a father and son, Robert and James Justyce, when his authority in court had been challenged. This suggests he had been too zealous in implementing his authority, but there is no suggestion of any wrong-doing.

There do not appear to be any other primary source references describing George in negative terms, so why has he been turned into a monster? He appears to have been a womaniser, like most of his contemporaries. He was proud, with a touch of the Boleyn arrogance. He supported the King, his sister and his niece over Catherine and her daughter. That’s it.

So what about sources which show him in a favourable light:-

George’s Correspondence

Some letters written by George have survived. Some are formal, like letters to the King, and some are informal, written to friends. They give us a wonderful insight into his character. In particular, one which always makes us smile was written while he was on his first embassy in France. He was coming to the end of his time there and wrote complaining that his friends back home were too busy enjoying themselves to find the time to write to him. He goes on to say that he was due to return to England shortly, after which he may not find the time to write either! There is also a series of rather panicked letters from George to Lord Lisle, the Duke of Norfolk and the King regarding the visit of Philippe de Chabot, Seigneur De Brion and Admiral of France. George had been chosen to meet the Admiral and escort him from Dover to London, which was no easy task, when the Admiral’s train consisted of over 350 horses. George’s letters clearly show his concern over the travel arrangements.

There is of course also the wonderful dedication to Anne attached to his translations for her. Written with affection, humour and a large dollop of false modesty:

“To the right honourable lady, the Lady Marchioness of Pembroke, her most loving and friendly
brother sendeth greetings.

Our friendly dealings, with so divers and sundry benefits, besides the perpetual bond of blood, have so often
bound me, Madam, inwardly to love you, that in every of them I must perforce become your debtor for want
of power, but nothing of my good will. And were it not that by experience your gentleness is daily proved,
your meek fashion often times put into use, I might well despair in myself, studying to acquit your deserts
towards me, or embolden myself with so poor a thing to present to you. But, knowing these perfectly to
reign in you with more, I have been so bold to send unto you, not jewels or gold, whereof you have plenty,
not pearl or rich stones, whereof you have enough, but a rude translation of a well-willer, a goodly matter
meanly handled, most humbly desiring you with favour to weigh the weakness of my dull wit, and patiently
to pardon where any fault is, always considering that by your commandment I have adventured to do this,
without the which it had not been in me to have performed it. But that hath had power to make me pass my
wit, which like as in this I have been ready to fulfil, so in all other things at all times I shall be ready to obey,
praying him on whom this book treats, to grant you many years to his pleasure and shortly to increase in
heart’s ease with honour.”8

Wonderful!

George the Voice of Reason

When Anne ranted about putting the Princess Mary to death it was her brother who sensibly, if perhaps somewhat nervously, advised her that it would insult the King:

“I am informed by a person of good faith that the King’s concubine had said more than once, and with great assurance, that when the King has crossed the sea, and she remains gouvernante, as she will be, she will use her authority and put the said Princess to death, either by hunger or otherwise. On Rochford, her brother, telling her that this would anger the King, she said she did not care even if she were burned alive for it after.”9

George, it seems, was the voice of reason.

George the Poet

George was an acknowledged court poet. Clare has previously written an article about his poetry, so we won’t go into detail here, but his earliest biographer, Edmond Bapst, argued that George Boleyn, along with Henry Howard was one of the harbingers of the Renaissance. See George Boleyn the Poet.

George the Reformer

George was passionate about reform, in the religious sense. Again, Clare has already written an article about this – see George Boleyn, Religion and the Reformation to find out more.

George was certainly fascinated in religious debate and he held true to his religious ideals, and his passion for reform, right up to his death. On the scaffold he told those watching that he had been one of those who had done the most to have the word of God made accessible to all of the people of the realm and historian Eric Ives wrote of how George “spoke the language of Zion” in this speech. His zeal for reform was clearly not a fad or a political manoeuvre, but something which was very important to him.

George Boleyn’s Career

George was a competent courtier, politician and diplomat, and you can find out about his impressive career in the article George Boleyn’s Career. His diligence in his duties and his loyalty to the King were recognised by Henry who described him as one, “he especially loveth and trustith”.

George’s Concern for Others

While imprisoned in the Tower of London, George was troubled by concern for those who may suffer from his death. As Claire explains in her book “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown”:

“He wasn’t afraid of dying, but he was afraid that his debtors would not be paid and that those who owed him money would end up getting into trouble if they had to pay the King instead. So worked up was George that Sir William Kingston wrote to Cromwell twice, firstly saying “The said Lord desires to speak with you on a matter which touches his conscience” and then reiterating it in a second letter:“You must help my lord of Rochford’s conscience”. One person George was concerned about was a monk who, with Cromwell’s help, George had got promoted. The monk had paid George £100 and owed a further £100, but the Abbey had now been “suppressed”. The monk had no way of paying George back and George was worried that the Crown would demand the payment. Kingston begged Cromwell to step in and help George.”10

George’s Demeanour at His Trial and Execution

Every report we have of the trial of George Boleyn confirms the courage, dignity and calmness of his defence. His impressive defence was compared to that of Thomas More and it was reported that “several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted”. The chronicler Charles Wriothesley wrote of George at his trial:

“he made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, but never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended.”11

On the scaffold, George followed the protocol of the age and admitted he was a sinner deserving of death. It is so sad that this courageous and honourable speech has been twisted into something negative. At the time he was greatly admired for it and it was widely reported throughout England and Europe.

Conclusion

Was George Boleyn a saint? No of course he wasn’t. He had the same faults as most other typical courtiers of the age he lived in. Was he a sinner? Yes, partly, as are most of us, and certainly as were the majority of Henry’s court. He was ferociously ambitious, successful and cocky with it. He was also intelligent, gifted, had a real commitment to reform, was hard working and diligent in his duties, witty, courageous and honourable in the face of adversity and showed genuine concern for those who would suffer from his death.

Having researched George’s life in depth, we are both bewildered by George Boleyn’s treatment at the hands of fiction and some non-fiction. Too often, he is portrayed as, amongst other things, a rapist and wife abuser, a man who would have sex with anything that moved, a coward, a weakling, a pathetic smirking fool, a layabout, and/or pompous ass. Yet there is nothing that we know about George which shows him as any of these things. So where on earth did all this come from? Perhaps the fevered imagination of those who need a villain, and why not choose a man who was found guilty of incest? It makes him an easy target, despite the fact he was innocent. The mere charge muddies the water, and makes him fair game.

If we are willing to fight for Anne Boleyn and the way that she has been treated unfairly by fiction, then surely we need to fight for the brother she loved so much. Isn’t it time that we let history tell George’s story, rather than believing fiction?

Notes and Sources

  1. The Life of Cardinal Wolsey Vol. II, George Cavendish, p20
  2. Ibid., p153
  3. V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei, Thomas Wyatt
  4. LP x. 699
  5. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Part 2, Note 9
  6. LP vii. 214
  7. The Lisle Letters Vol. II, p480-481, Letter from Sir Richard Dering to Lord Lisle
  8. MS 6561, fol. iv. MS 6561, fol. 2r.
  9. LP vii. 871
  10. The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, Claire Ridgway, p195
  11. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Charles Wriothesely, 39

Related Post