George Boleyn Sources by Clare Cherry

Posted By on December 7, 2011

A volume of The Lisle Letters

I’ve spent many hours over the last four or five years researching the life of George Boleyn, which is how I came to know Claire. I wrote the e-book on George which Claire published on her Fellowship site. I’m not an historian and don’t hold myself out as one, but although I hear time and again that there is very little extant information about George, that is not the case.

Obviously there is nowhere near the volume of information about George as there is about Anne, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind she became Henry VIII’s second wife and Queen. When I started my book on George it was because of the depictions of him which were totally at odds with the man I had discovered existed underneath the fictional portrayals. There has never been a detailed biography of his life and I initially thought that was because there was insufficient information about him. In fact my original intention was merely to produce a pamphlet dispelling the myths. Once I started digging I realised I was wrong and that there is a great deal of contemporaneous evidence that has just never been consolidated.

What I find extraordinary is that two biographies have been written about Mary Boleyn when in reality she is virtually absent from historical records, and much of what is written about her must, by implication, be supposition, yet George has no biography of his own. I think much of that has to do with the fact that it is female historians who tend to write about the more diverse historical personalities, which is fine except female writers tend to concentrate on female personalities.

I am tired of reading that there is very little information about George. That simply isn’t true. There is a wealth of information about George if you’re prepared to dig a bit. I’m an amateur and I’m sure, despite my best endeavours, that there is even more information about George that I haven’t found or that hasn’t been discovered yet. For anyone interested in George Boleyn, I relied on some of the following sources, a lot of which are primary, but some secondary:-

  1. Deux Gentilhommes-Poetes de la Cour de Henry VIII – The first biography of George was written by Edmond Bapst in 1891 and mainly concentrates on George’s foreign career and his poetry. The book also includes George’s cousin, Henry Howard. It is written in archaic French and unfortunately I don’t speak French so it took a long while to translate. For anyone who does speak French it is a great starting point and particularly interesting because it was written by a French author relying to a great extent on French sources.
  2. Letters and Papers of Henry VIII – Everyone knows about this primary source because Claire refers to it regularly. It is in twenty-one volumes and contains original letters and documents created during Henry’s reign. George features in LP regularly. His court career and diplomatic career can be charted from this amazing research material which is available online. His downfall and his distress for the people he owed money to and who owed him money and would have to pay it back to the King is also covered in detail through the letters of William Kingston. LP also details George’s interest in the League of Schmalkalden and includes letters written by him to Henry and the Duke of Norfolk.
  3. Metrical Visions – These were written by George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, and a whole set of verses are dedicated to George and his downfall. Again, it is available online. It is from this source that George’s reputation as a womaniser stems from, but it is also from this source that we understand how attractive and talented he was.
  4. Calendar of State Papers (Spanish) – Available online. George is regularly referred to by Chapuys in his dispatches. Again it helps chart George’s career, both in court and as a foreign diplomat. It also confirms that George was one of the most powerful and influential men in Henry’s court at the time of his downfall.
  5. Illuminating the Book, ed M P Brown and S McKendrick (1998) – James Carley’s wonderful article, ‘Her most loving and friendly brother sendeth greetings’ examines George’s translations for Anne and his exquisite dedication to his sister. Their joint commitment to reform has no greater champion.
  6. The Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII – Available online. These detail money paid out of the Privy Purse by Henry to his favourites. George features heavily, regularly receiving large sums for the hunt, winning at tennis etc. He was clearly very much the sportsman and loved hunting, particularly with hawks, the acquisition of which he actively perused with great vigour.
  7. Court Chroniclers, Raphael Holinshed, Edward Hall and my favourite, Charles Wriothesley – George does not feature heavily save for his fall, but they still form part of an important picture of his life and death. Wriothesley gives a version of George’s scaffold speech, although there are other primary sources which provide more detailed versions.
  8. Poetry – George was a renowned poet of the age and Bapst argues that he was one of the main harbingers of the Renaissance in England. Holinshed and Cavendish speak of George’s talent for poetry, but his work is also discussed in Nugae Antiquae, Tottel’s Miscellany and Horace Walpole’s Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors of England, Scotland and Ireland (1806)
  9. The Lisle Letters – These are my personal favourite extant records. They contain a number of George’s letters. They provide details of his foreign diplomatic career and six missions to France, but also his position as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Governor of Dover Castle.

These are just some of the documents in which George Boleyn features. In other sources he may only have a passing mention but when you have enough passing mentions, combined with the above, then put together you have a picture of a remarkable young man.

Was George a hanger-on who gained prestige and honour as a result of his sister? I don’t believe so. George was a little boy when he was first introduced to Henry and had served Henry for all of his adult life and much of his childhood. The King loved him and trusted him. These words form part of his instructions on one of his later diplomatic mission to France:-

‘First the Kings Majesty, knowing the approved wisdom fidelity and diligence, which is and ever hath been in the said Lord Rochford, with the propence good will mind and heart to serve his Graces contentment and pleasure, hath now appointed the said Lord Rochford, as one whom his grace specially loveth and trustith.’

I am not an expert on George Boleyn, I just did the best I could, because no established historian had written about him, and I felt that he deserved it. I would love a ‘respected’ historian to write a biography on George. In the meantime the fact that George has never been the subject of his own detailed biography does not mean there is little information about him. All it means is that the substantial information which exists has never been brought together for easy reference.

Note from the other Claire

I can highly recommend this list of sources given by Clare as I use them on a regular basis. Many of them are available online:-

  • Letters and Papers, Privy Purse Expenses and Calendars of State Papers – Available at British History Online
  • Various chronicles, Deux gentilhommes-poetes and Tottel’s Miscellany can be found at archive.org
  • Horace Walpole’s Letters are available at Project Gutenberg
  • Project Gutenbery, Google Books and Archive.org are wonderful sources for old books and manuscripts
  • The Lisle Letters – Although there is an abridged version of these available as one book or online – The Lisle Letters: an Abridgement – I found it hopeless for proper research and so purchased the full six volume set from Abe Books. Very expensive (they’re huge) but a brilliant investment.

24 thoughts on “George Boleyn Sources by Clare Cherry”

  1. Sabrina says:

    I wrote my dissertation on Anne & George, and found if anything there were too many sources! You’re certainly right in pointing out that it is a mistaken assumption to say there is little material about him – although detailed information on George is difficult to find, the frequent mentions do build up a fairly substantial picture of his personality and his role at court. I especially love the dedication in the work George translated for Anne as a gift. Considering how many of his actual words we have, I too am surprised there is no attempt at a biography.

    The only source I would be reluctant to use for research is Deux Gentilhommes-Poetes de la Cour de Henry VIII. My two main reservations are how many centuries after the events it was written, and the fact that with authenticity doubts come a real need to be a native speaker of the tongue it was written in or a modern version of it (and I’m horrific at French).

    Even among contemporary English sources there are substantial discrepencies for some events (i.e George’s execution) so I would be very wary of approaching a relatively modern French account of his life.

    1. Clare says:

      Hello Sabrina,

      I agree with you about Bapst being merely a secondary source, but the reason I pointed to him and why I found him a useful aid is because he refers to primary sources that I may not necessarily of considered.

      1. Sabrina says:

        Absolutely – I hope in the future there are more accessible translations of foreign source material, besides the obvious ones like the Calendar. Although, there is a lot of fun to be found in trying to trace obscure documents that aren’t well-documented I suppose!

        1. Jeffrey says:

          Sabrina;

          would there be any way I could read your thesis? I’d greatly enjoy learning your perspectives on the brother-sister story.

  2. Esther says:

    Clare and/or Claire:

    Do you know if any biographies of George are in the pipeline? If not …. please count on me as a purchaser if either (or both) of you should write a more recent biography.

    1. Clare says:

      Hello Esther,
      I’ve written a biography which is in the form of an e-book on the Fellowship site. I don’t think Claire will mind me telling you that she is working on a book about the whole Boleyn family which will include a large section on George, and I’ve no doubt it will be brilliant.

    2. Claire says:

      Clare has written a biography and has published it as an e-book for members of the Fellowship. I’m working on a book on the Boleyn family and after that hope to do a biography of George.

      1. Claire says:

        Sorry, just realised that Clare had also replied!

  3. Anna says:

    Well done Clare, thank you 🙂 I’m really fed up with the way George is perceived and presented in all these junk history films and TV-series.

    1. Clare says:

      Thanks, Anna

  4. Robert Parry says:

    Really interesting. Thank you, Clare. There must be so much about this man that goes beyond the stereotype. A biography is certainly long overdue.

  5. Lauren says:

    George has been an obsession for me for quite a few years now. I just completed my dissertation on his life, and he is my PhD topic. My supervisor is pushing me to publish my work, and if everything goes well, I hope to!

    There are many sources to be found in France too, which I had not come across before.

  6. Anne Barnhill says:

    THank you, Clare and Cliare! I have the download on George and think you have unmasked the cipher and discovered the man. Good job–I don’t think you have to beat yourself up because you are not a ‘historian.’ In my book anyonw who does research on a subject they love and are obseessed with, becomes an expert–which you definitely ARE!! Thanks again!

    1. Clare says:

      Sorry Anne, I just saw this. Thanks for the kind words.

  7. Baroness Von Reis says:

    What I had read and heard was George and Anne where close as bothers and sisters should be,nor do I beleave that there was ever insest.In the Tudors he was gay but that may have not helped his fate either. Caire was he in fact gay? I’ve nothing against one can be whatever they choose,I no Sweeten was.Just orderd yet another Anne Brass painted nekless to match my ring can’t wait!! Next I’m going to Gowns for Renn Fair Hope ,your book is comming along well off to look at dresses.

    1. Claire says:

      There’s absolutely no evidence at all that George was gay or bi-sexual and there also is no evidence that Mark Smeaton was either. Retha Warnicke, in her book on the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, wrote of how she thought that all of the men executed with Anne in 1536 were known ‘libertines’ and committed buggery. She backed this up by quoting Cavendish’s versions of their execution speeches where they talk about their sin and, in George’s case, his “bestial” behaviour and “unlawful lechery”. What she doesn’t take into account is that people on the scaffold always confessed their sins and felt that they deserved to die and also that Cavendish used the word “bestial” when writing about Thomas Culpeper and the phrase “unlawful lechery” when writing about Henry VIII. Warnicke also believe that George lending Smeaton a book, which was an attack on marriage, showed that he had an unhappy marriage and that he and Smeaton could have been lovers. I don’t agree with this at all and I’m sure that if there had been any talk of homosexuality then this would have been brought up at their trials.

      1. Rachel says:

        Claire, I always found the reasoning “George gave Mark a book that was a satire on marriage ergo they must have slept together” to be a spectacular leap of logic. (If that reasoning was applied to me, for example … well let’s just say my life would have been much more interesting than it actually has been, because I’ve given a lot of people books in my time :D) If either George or Smeaton had been interested in men, they must have been VERY discreet, otherwise Anne’s enemies would have milked it for all it was worth. My view is that without evidence, that’s it – there’s no point even debating it, because there’s nothing to debate. As you said, there’s as much evidence of George or Mark engaging in same-sex relationships as there is of Henry VIII and Bishop Stephen Gardiner doing a Spice Girls routine in drag on Saturday nights, or of Jane Seymour really being a vampire.

        That said, I have no objection to people writing fiction with George/Mark as a subplot, so long as it’s handled respectfully and true as much as it can be to what we know of their personalities. Unfortunately it’s fast becoming a cliche. Just about every portrayal of Bisexual!George that I’ve seen/read has him as an obnoxious tart, with Smeaton being portrayed mostly as a drippy lovesick teenager. Disrespectful, unbearably tedious, and turns them into caricatures.

        As an aside, even if they had been sexually attracted to each other or any other member of their own sex, if you were speaking to them today and referred to them as homo- or bisexual, neither would have the faintest idea what you were talking about. The concept of sexual orientation didn’t exist then.

        I was very disappointed to see historians such as Derek Wilson and Robert Hutchinson buying into this – while they don’t go as far as to say George Boleyn was interested in men (thankfully), they’ve made throwaway comments like, “Smeaton, who probably was a covert homosexual” … They know this how? Does it arise from him being a musician, therefore creative, artistic bloke = gay? Weird.

        Back to the topic of the original post, I definitely would welcome a proper biography of George Boleyn. The current fascination with Mary Boleyn is lost on me – I don’t understand how she merits one, let alone TWO, biographies, yet there is no detailed study of George or even Thomas Boleyn.

  8. Louise S says:

    Hi Clare and Claire,

    I agree with you that the accounts of George Boleyn’s character and role in the whole tragic episode do not make sense.

    I was wondering if you have any information on a short French prose version of George Boleyn’s final speech that is found in the appendix of Ascoli’s book La Grande-Bretagne devant l’opinion française (p. 273). Ascoli says that he found it in a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale and that Lancelot de Carles took inspiration from it, which would of course place it almost immediately after the executions. However I do not find Lancelot de Carles’ version of the speech to be particularly close, although it is poetry rather than prose. What is curious is that the speech reported in the Chronicle of Calais is almost identical except that it is in English. The version of the speech reported in the translation of the Portuguese gentleman’s letter in the Excerpta Historica is also very closely related to this text, although not so closely as the version in the Chronicle of Calais.

    It is a very sad and moving text and beautifully written. Even though it is prose I find it very poetic.

  9. Shoshana says:

    I have often wondered why there was so little written about George Boelyn, who obviously played a large part in Anne’s life and in Henry’s court. I have never tried to do extensive research believing most documents would be found on site but not that you have listed online sources, I am getting an idea or two! Thanks for the information; this site has brought me much joy and many hours of pleasure.

  10. Kimberly says:

    I believe when people or at least I say there is so little out there, I don’t mean that in the larger sense. I mean in comparison to others of the era. It just kills me that George is always a side character in someone else’s story. Anne’s, Mary’s, Henry’s etc. If you compare the materials from say Anne or Henry to that of George the ratio shows there is very little about George in comparison. It is one of the reasons I am writing about him first. I have found that if you dig and research there are many wonderful things to be found about George. It would indeed be wonderful if a non-fictional biography about George was written. As for respected, well I think that sometimes respect takes a backseat among researchers of the Tudor era. This era seems to evoke strong emotions in the people who love it and thereby are not as open-minded to another’s opinion. But I find it hard to say anything is absolute about people and a time almost 500 years ago. Even reading documents and letters, they were written by “people” and therefore are subject to error AND personal bias. At this time I am working on a fictional novel about him, as the MAIN character. I am using as many facts as I can find and then I am weaving a “story” around those facts, that part being the fiction. It is my hope to do him justice, because he deserves it!

  11. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Claire I agree with you theres no way Goerge nor Smeaton were gay,how ever there gay men just as there are to date, to bad may be they all would have live??Nothing agaiist gays,I have some wonderfull friends who are. Also remember Queen Elizabeth,1 and the Duke of Agieu from the french court she found him in a dress?? But it’s sad Goerge and Mark had to die as I well beleave that all where innosent of these crimes or should I say created crimes. Hope the books is going well! Looking forward to my Queen Anne Pendent.THX.

  12. Anne fan says:

    ‘…as there is of Henry VIII and Bishop Stephen Gardiner doing a Spice Girls routine in drag on Saturday nights.’

    Now there’s an image that will keep me entertained for days!

  13. NanBolyen says:

    Beautiful article! I cannot wait for George’s biography. He’s finally emerging from the shadows and fog!

  14. BanditQueen says:

    Is there any chance of Chair Cherry’s book on George Boleyn being published for sale to all members of the site? Is there any chance of any book on George or Thomas Boleyn other than The Boleyns by Elizabeth Norton in the near future? If there is all this information about George Boleyn’s diplomatic career and his letters, as well as his rise at court, then surely a biography would be fascinating to read. I know we can learn much from the sources and the many books on Anne, and of course Claire your wonderful site, but a proper biography with full commentary on George would not only be fascinating, but it would put some of the ridiculous extreme portrayals by fiction drama to bed once and for all. If he is not shown as a shadow of his father and sister, he is shown as a clown, and an overbearing bully: surely there must be something much more balanced and accurate out there on George Boleyn?

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