George Boleyn’s Sexuality

Posted By on April 13, 2012

George Boleyn's signature

"Thys boke ys myn, George Boleyn. 1526"

Following on from her recent and popular article “Being George Boleyn”, Clare Cherry examines the myths surrounding George Boleyn’s sexuality. Over to Clare…

One of the most asked questions about George Boleyn is with regards to his sexuality. What I regularly see time and again is the comment that there were rumours he was either homosexual or bisexual. The suggestion that George may have had same sex relationships has become so widespread that people are obviously led to believe that there must have been rumours during his lifetime or/and immediately following his death. Can I say once and for all that this was not the case.

We have no evidence whatsoever to suggest there were rumours relating to George Boleyn’s sexuality until the theory was put forward by historian Retha Warnicke1 in the 1980s. The suggestion of George’s sexuality stems solely from Warnicke’s thesis in which she also theorised that the cause of Anne’s fall was due to her miscarrying a deformed foetus in January 1536. There were no rumours of George’s sexuality during his lifetime or at the time of his death. None of the men charged alongside Anne were charged with buggery, which is a myth that has also come about in the last thirty years or so, and which is sadly repeated in some works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that people regularly take it as fact.

Firstly lets look at the reasoning behind Warnicke’s theory. She based it on four premises:-

1. A poem entitled ‘Metrical Visions’ by George Cavendish who had been the gentleman usher to Cardinal Wolsey.

2. George’s scaffold speech.

3. The fact that George lent/gave a book to Mark Smeaton which was a satire on marriage

4. The likelihood is that the marriage of Jane and George Boleyn was childless

If we take them one in turn, then the last two are easier to deal with. Firstly the fact that George and Jane’s marriage would appear to have been childless. To suggest that a childless marriage automatically means that the husband’s sexual preferences lead elsewhere is a theory which would have many twenty-first century husbands reaching for a shotgun! Childlessness is a sad situation even today with IVF treatment readily available. That Jane hated her husband because of his sexual leanings is also completely unfounded. We have no evidence to suggest their marriage was unhappy or that Jane hated him, let alone that she hated him because he preferred men.

Then we have Warnicke’s suggestion that the fact George lent a satire on marriage to Mark Smeaton meant they were probably lovers. This is the sole piece of evidence she puts forward to support her theory and I find that rather a leap of imagination. George certainly owned the book because he wrote in it, ‘Thys boke ys myn, George Boleyn 1526’. Thomas Wyatt also wrote in it so clearly it did the rounds of a number of different courtiers who probably viewed it as a titillating bit of fun.

Cavendish’s poem and George’s scaffold speech are, to an extent, intermingled. Cavendish’s verses are about the men and women who were executed during the reign of Henry VIII. He writes as if from the mouths of the people who died. In George’s case Cavendish’s has him say:-

‘My life not chaste, my living bestial
I forced widows, maiden I did deflower.
All was one to me, I spared none at all,
My appetite was all women to devour
My study was both day and hour,
My unlawful lechery how I might it fulfil,
Sparing no woman to have on her my will.’2

He goes on to say:-

‘Alas! To declare my life in every effect,
Shame restrains me the plains to confess,
Least the abomination would all the world infect:
It is so vile, so detestable in words to express,
For which by the law, condemned I am doubtless,’

Despite the fact that the first verse only refers to alleged womanising, Warnicke’s theory works on the premise that when Cavendish refers to George’s unlawful lechery and bestiality he is actually covertly referring to homosexual activity. Again, to me that seems to be a massive leap of imagination. In any event, the words Cavendish uses are not solely used to describe George. In Cavendish’s other verses he uses the same phraseology. He has Thomas Culpepper warning his fellow courtiers of their bestiality, and in his verses regarding Henry VIII he also talks of Henry’s unlawful lechery. Cavendish isn’t talking about homosexual activity, he is talking about adultery.

Warnicke also suggest that in the second verse referred to above Cavendish is suggesting that the crime George is saying he is too ashamed to confess is buggery. However, if you read the whole verse it says he is too ashamed to confess the crime for which he was condemned. He was condemned for incest with his sister, not buggery, and it is incest with his sister which he never confessed to, either in court or on the scaffold.

That leads me on to George’s scaffold speech. His scaffold speech was lengthy, but within it is the following section:-

‘And I beseech you all, in his holy name, to pray unto God for me, for I have deserved to die if I had twenty (or a thousand) lives, yea even to die with more shame and dishonour than hath ever been heard of before. For I am a wretched sinner, who has grievously and often time offended; nay in truth, I know not of any more perverse sinner than I have been up till now. Nevertheless, I mean not openly now to relate what my many sins may have been, since it were no pleasure for you hear them, nor yet me to rehearse, for God knoweth them all.’3

Despite the fact that in the sixteenth century it was considered an honourable death for the convicted man to accept death as deserved, Warnicke theorises that George is obviously covertly referring to homosexual activity. Once again, this is not obvious to me, and yet again I think it’s a massive leap of imagination to suggest so.

At the start of this article I said that Cavendish’s verses and George’s scaffold speech are, to an extent, intermingled. If you read this section of George’s speech, and then you read Cavendish’s verses, there is a direct correlation. There is a very good reason for that. In his verses, Cavendish is attempting to interpret George’s scaffold speech. Cavendish’s interpretation was that the sins George was referring to were adultery and womanising. In the twentieth century Warnicke reinterpreted Cavendish’s interpretation to suggest he was referring to buggery. On the Wikipedia page I added a piece indicating that I believe this creates a paradox. Two pieces of evidence are used to argue that George Boleyn committed buggery, and each one relies on the other for existence, thereby creating a circular argument; hence the paradox.

What Warnicke never explained is why, if rumours of George’s sexuality had been so prevalent at court that Cavendish knew about them, George was not charged with buggery and why no evidence of it exists. Why also would Cavendish have merely insinuated it when he had every reason to shout it from the rooftops, as did other Boleyn enemies such as Chapuys. Apparently Cavendish knew about it, yet it remained completely secret. To me that is simply not credible.

Warnicke’s theory as to George’s sexuality has been picked up by Alison Weir in ‘The Lady in the Tower’, but historians such as Ives, Loades, Starkey and Bernard dismiss it out of hand. If this theory had merely lived on the pages of two non-fiction books then it would probably not have gained a great deal of credence, and would have eventually been dismissed due to lack of evidence.

But then there was a book published entitled ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ which had a huge impact and was extremely popular. In it the author chose to incorporate Warnicke’s theory and fictionalised George having an affair with the courtier, Francis Weston. The book is fiction, but irrespective of that the seed was sown for the majority of historical fiction which followed, including the highly successful programme, ‘The Tudors’, in which George was also portrayed as a wife abuser and rapist. Because the theory has been repeated time and time again in fiction it has gained acceptibility and credibility by repetition, because surely if something is repeated often enough then there must be some substance to it? So the theory becomes treated as fact without really knowing the truth of what that theory was based on.

Back to Claire (Ridgway)

Thanks, Clare!

I agree whole-heartedly with Clare’s comments here on the whole homosexual/bisexual theory and would just like to add the following points:-

  • There is no evidence that Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton or Mark Smeaton were what Warnicke terms as “libertines” either.
  • The only evidence for the deformed foetus is Nicholas Sander writing in 1585. He wrote that Anne miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh”,4 but then he also wrote that she had six fingers, a wen and a protruding tooth! He was six years old in 1536 and was a Catholic in exile during Elizabeth I’s reign so wanted to blacken the names of Elizabeth and Anne. Chronicler Charles Wriothesley and Anne’s enemy, Eustace Chapuys, write of Anne miscarrying a male child of around 15 weeks in gestation.
  • The satire that Warnicke mentions George lending Mark Smeaton was a translation by Jean Lefèvre of Mathieu of Boulogne’s 13th century satirical poem “Liber lamentationum Matheoluli”, or “The Lamentations of Matheolus”.The poem is an attack on women written by a man betrayed by one. In the poem, Mathieu likens women to basilisks – refers to “a chimaera with horns and a tail” and “ the mother of all calamities”, and writes of how “all evil and all madness stem from her”. What Warnicke does not mention is that this poem was widely circulated amongst scholars in Europe and that it “quickly became one of the most seminal examples of medieval antifeminist and antimatrimonial discourse”.5 It has been suggested that Chaucer6 knew of this poem, and drew on it heavily for “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue”, and that Christine de Pizan was inspired into refuting it in her “Cité de Dames”.7 It was probably something that was being discussed by George, Wyatt, Smeaton and other members of the Boleyn circle, and is not evidence of a love affair between George and Smeaton.

It is time to put this myth to bed, as it were, and to remember George for his accomplishments instead.

Notes and Sources

  1. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII, Retha Warnicke, p214-216
  2. Metrical Visions, p22, in The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, George Cavendish, Volume II
  3. Gruffudd’s Chronicle, NLW, MS 3054D, part ii, fol. 511r
  4. “The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism”, Nicholas Sander, p132
  5. Gender, Rhetoric, and Print Culture in French Renaissance Writing, Floyd Gray, p17 and 18
  6. Matheolus, Chaucer, and the Wife of Bath, Zacharias P. Thundy, in Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives
  7. Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women, Florence Percival, p 106
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