George Cavendish and George Boleyn
Posted By Claire on February 17, 2017
Thank you to Clare Cherry, co-author of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat for writing this guest post on George Cavendish and his poetry, Metrical Visions, which has been used by some historians and authors to paint a rather black picture of George Boleyn.
If you don’t know, George Cavendish was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s gentleman usher and was the author of The Life of Cardinal Wolsey and Metrical Visions, poems or laments written in the 1550s about the falls of prominent Tudor people.
Over to Clare…
Old George Cavendish seems to have been a puritanical little man, and as a poet he makes you want to slash your wrists. But where would George Boleyn detractors be without him? Lost at sea is my guess. Cavendish adored Cardinal Wolsey and hated the Boleyns and their faction. His Metrical Visions are a set of verses about those who died as traitors during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son (who really was a chip off the old block). He puts words into their mouths, and where it comes to the Boleyns and their friends, who died for sexual offences, he really goes to town in wanton character assassination. He has George Boleyn say:
“My life no chaste, my living bestial;
I forced widows, maidens 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.”
Now let’s get a bit of perspective here. For a start, George didn’t actually say these words; Cavendish did. So when George regurgitates them in works of fiction it would appear that the author has got a bit confused. These words, and George’s scaffold speech in which he admits to being a wretched sinner deserving of death, have led to fanciful theories that he was homosexual, that he raped women and abused his wife. A bit of a stretch you may think, but not for Boleyn haters who will use any old excuse to have us believe they were monsters.
Without Cavendish, I think it highly unlikely George’s scaffold speech would be interpreted in the way it has been. Good old Cavendish! What would Boleyn haters do without him!
Of course, if Cavendish knew that George Boleyn had homosexual relationships and that he was a rapist and wife abuser, then everyone would have known it. Odd it was never mentioned by anyone, whether during George’s lifetime or at his trial, or by enemies following his ignominious death. Strange that. But perhaps that’s a little bit too logical for some writers to grasp.
If we take Cavendish as literally as some people seem to, then George was having sex on an hourly basis. He must have been knackered.
Good old Cavendish goes on to say:
“My lust and my will night in alliance
And my will followed lust in all his desire.
When lust was lusty, will did him advance
To tangle me with lust where my lust did require.
Thus will and hot lust kindled me the fire
Of filthy conscience, my youth yet but green
Spared not my lust presumed to the queen.”
“And for my lewd lust my will is now shent
By whom I was ruled in every motion.” etc etc etc etc….deary me how that man goes on.
But hang on a minute, he’s not having George Boleyn say this. Oh no, he’s talking about “Weston the wanton”, as he so nicely calls twenty-five-year-old courtier, innocent Francis Weston. Actually, in his verses about Francis he mentions ‘lust’ 11 times. Maybe Cavendish was just jealous that everyone was getting something he was missing out on.
As for Anne Boleyn, he has her say, “My life of late has been so abominable” and talks of her “Unjust desires”.
Then he moves his venom onto Jane Boleyn having her say: “Following my lust and filthy pleasure”, and then calling her a “Woman of vice insatiate”.
Is there any evidence that Anne was actually guilty, or that Jane was a lustful whore?
No, so Cavendish can’t really be taken seriously as an unbiased, accurate source.
To add to the fun he then goes on with:
“My lusts too frequent, and have by them experience,
Seeking but my lust of unlawful lechery;
So that my wilfulness and shameful trespass,
Doth all my majesty and nobleness deface.”
He also speaks of “Poisoned lecherous offence.”
Is he talking about George, Francis, Anne or Jane?
No, these are his verses about Henry VIII. Is he suggesting with the words “shameful trespass” that the king was a rapist? Highly unlikely, don’t you think? Is he suggesting with the words “unlawful lechery” that the king had homosexual relationships with his courtiers? Again unlikely.
So why do some writers take Cavendish’s verses at face value when he refers to George Boleyn, but not when he writes about Henry VIII?
You don’t suppose it’s out of a cynical desire to paint George Boleyn in a bad light do you, in the same way as Thomas Boleyn and Jane Boleyn have been for centuries? Surely not!
You can read Metrical Visions for yourself at https://archive.org/stream/lifecardinalwol02singgoog#page/n89/mode/2up.
If you’re interested in learning more about George Boleyn then you can watch the “George Boleyn Interviews” playlist of videos on YouTube – click here – and read George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat.