George Boleyn’s Career by Clare Cherry

Posted By on September 25, 2012

George Boleyn’s signature on a letter to Henry VIII

Today we have a guest post on George Boleyn, brother of Anne Boleyn, by Clare Cherry, who feels, as do I, that George does not get the attention her deserves, or, rather, the wrong type of attention! Over to Clare…

In dramas about the tragic Anne Boleyn her brother is more often than not a bit part player. He is rolled out at the end in order to die. Until then he is usually nowhere to be seen. When he is allowed a more active role he is depicted as a hanger-on who plays up to his position as Henry’s brother-in-law. His career is almost entirely overlooked, save for the suggestion that he got where he was solely due to Anne’s influence. He is either an unpleasantly arrogant individual or rather pathetic. Either way his career is certainly not referred to as anything to celebrate for his own worth. So let’s set the record straight.

George Boleyn had a remarkable court career for a man who was only about 31/32 when he was judicially murdered. He was introduced to Henry VIII at the age of 10 and quickly afterwards became Henry’s page. In other words, George came to Henry’s notice way before the King’s relationship with either Mary or Anne Boleyn began. By the time the Boleyn sisters came to court, George was already well established. He was popular with the King and regularly hunted with him and competed with him at cards, tennis and archery. Henry liked him.

The extent of George’s positions are set out in summary in three paragraphs below, but in reality each is worthy of an article by themselves.

Foreign Diplomat

George was born c.1504, and was therefore only 25 when he was appointed Ambassador to France in October 1529. Was he appointed the role at such a tender age because of his relationship to Anne? Probably. But was he incapable of undertaking the role. No. He was popular and respected at the French court. The intelligence and force of his discourse was praised by Jean Du Bellay in a dispatch, and he seems to have had a good relationship with the French King. Henry had cause to be pleased with him.

George undertook a total of 6 embassies to France between October 1529 and July 1535. His first mission took place from October 1529 until February 1530. His role was to secure positive findings of French academics for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He was successful in convincing Francis of the strength of his arguments and in encouraging him to put his support behind Henry’s case in persuading the theologists of the French universities to back the English King.

He was later chosen to inform Francis of Henry’s marriage to Anne, travelling to France in March 1533; a particularly tricky mission bearing in mind Henry had sworn to Francis the previous September that he would not marry Anne without Papal backing.

Later that same year it was George who travelled to France in order to attend a meeting the Pope was due to have with Francis, travelling with his uncle, the Duke of Norfolk in May 1533. When the Pope passed a decree of excommunication on Henry, Norfolk sent George back to England with the news.

In April 1534 George was back in France to urge Francis to take similar measures against the Pope as had been taken in England. It was a step too far by Henry, and Francis rebelled against the English King’s bombastic attitude.
Then in July 1534 George again travelled to France to cancel a meeting Anne and Henry were due to attend with Francis and his sister, the reason being because of Anne’s pregnancy.

Finally, in May 1535, George was sent on the impossible task of attempting to negotiate the marriage of the infant Elizabeth to the son of the then hostile Francis I. A task which Cromwell had excused himself from in the knowledge it would fail.

The state papers have a substantial amount of additional information regarding these embassies, but this is just an overview of George’s role. The point is that Henry would never have appointed George Boleyn as his ambassador to France, and would never have sent him time and again on delicate missions had he not have been completely confident in him, irrespective of Anne.

Politician

George was active in the Reformation Parliament from 1530 until his death. He was chosen by Henry to argue the case for supremacy in front of Convocation on 10th February 1531. Not bad for a 26/27 year old.

His involvement in The Schmalkalden League was another area which is worthy of interest, as was his political support of Cromwell. When George died Cromwell lost his most powerful supporter in the Lords, a fact which was overlooked in Mantel’s recent fiction.

George was formally called to Parliament in February 1533, at which stage he became a peer in his own right, and Lord Rochford was no longer a courtesy title. During his time in Parliament his attendance was prodigious. In fact, in the 1534 sessions his attendance was greater than that of any other Lord.

Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Governor of Dover Castle

In June 1534 he was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Governor of Dover Castle. That was not merely a sinecure, as was his position of Governor of St Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam), it was a position which he took an active role in.

It’s now merely a ceremonial position (the Queen being the current occupant), but in the sixteenth century the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was the Crown’s agent in the major English ports along the south coast. He was responsible for the return of all writs to the Crown, along with the collection of taxes and the arrest of criminals. He exercised admiralty jurisdiction along the southeast coast. It was the most powerful appointment in the realm.

Correspondence and dispatches passing between England and Calais frequently refer to George in his capacity as Lord Warden.

Summary

George Boleyn was far from the man depicted in fiction. He was his own man; a force to be reckoned with in his own right. He was proud, forceful and intelligent. He would be spinning in his grave at the way he is depicted nowadays. His career and his reputation have been forgotten, and only a shell of the man he was remains. But with sites like this, and Claire’s determination for justice, hopefully the rot can be stopped, and the truth will come out rather than reliance on the fiction.

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