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.

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