History Versus Myth

Posted By on September 23, 2011

In “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (see, I don’t just read history books!), Galadriel says “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.”

When I heard that quote it really struck me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Those of you who listened to last night’s webinar on George and Jane Boleyn will have heard me talking about the “lost Boleyns” and the fact that they have been surrounded by myth, legend and downright lies, for so long that it’s hard to sort the truth from the myth, fact from legend. Even historians end up quoting from sources that are actually suspect and turn out to be fictional and we find whole theories based on myth rather than evidence.

The research that I have done over the past few months into the Boleyn family has shown me that you cannot take anything for granted, you just cannot believe what you read. Everything has to be double-checked and you need to go back to the original source to read it for yourself, rather than relying on someone else’s interpretation of it. A couple of examples I cited in last night’s webinar were:-

  1. The idea that George Boleyn was homosexual – The evidence used to back up this idea is George’s scaffold speech, where he emphasises his sinfulness, and George Cavendish’s Metrical Visions which uses “bestial” and “unlawful lechery” when describing George and his behaviour. However, Cavendish uses the word “bestial” to also describe Thomas Culpeper and the phrase “unlawful lechery” about Henry VIII! As far as his execution speech, I think that it’s reading far too much into a dying man’s words to say that his descriptions of his sinful life and nature mean that he was homosexual.
    Retha Warnicke wrote about the group surrounding Anne being a group of “libertines”, Philippa Gregory used Warnicke’s work when writing “The Other Boleyn Girl” and Alison Weir also references Warnicke, can you see how this idea has gone out of control without having any real basis?
  2. Jane Boleyn as the woman who gave evidence against George and Anne – Again, sources have been misinterpreted. Alison Weir states that Chapuys, a Portuguese source, Lancelot de Carles and Jane’s execution confession are all evidence of Jane’s betrayal of her husband and sister-in-law, but historian John Guy calls her out on that, stating that Chapuys and the Portuguese source never named the mystery woman, Lancelot de Carles was writing of Lady Worcester and Jane’s execution confession is a work of fiction by Gregorio Leti. Yet, still we see these sources being stated as evidence of Jane’s guilt.

Those are just two examples of theories based on rather shaky ground.

I’m lucky in that I have always been taught to question and challenge, and, yes, I can be rather annoying, like a dog with a bone! When I read a history book I am always turning to the Notes and Sources section to check the reference and then I go and check that source for myself and funnily enough it doesn’t always correlate to the author of the book’s theory. OK, it’s what I do as a full-time job but these past few months have made it even clearer to me that anyone who is serious about getting to the truth has to do this. In an age when primary sources can be found online it is actually relatively easy to do and so rewarding.

The more I browse online in the world of Tudor history, the more emails I receive, the more I see that it’s all like a game of “Chinese whispers” or “telephone”, a case of the real story being lost and getting twisted beyond recognition. It’s like High School, when vicious rumours, with no basis, get out of hand. We have to question, check, double check and then take into account bias.

What do you think? Have you ever read something and then checked the source and found it’s saying something different? I feel so strongly about this that I’m going to write a guide for students and history lovers on how to research a topic or historical person. Do you think that’s a good idea?

P.S. Thank you to all those who joined me on the webinar last night and for all the thank you emails I’ve received, I’m so glad you all enjoyed it and it really was a pleasure and honour to be able to speak on my favourite family, the Boleyns, to people who care about them just as much as I do.

35 thoughts on “History Versus Myth”

  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    I LOVED the webinar, first of all! Can’t wait for the next one! When I was doing research for AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, I found lots of contradicting evidence about the person of Lady Margaret Shelton. I hope to writing a full piece about this but that’s just one of the many mysterious ‘facts’ that I have gone a-chasing! It’s really interesting how things can get confused or fabricated.

    1. Claire says:

      Thanks, Anne, and thanks for your questions, I really enjoyed the webinar too. Sometimes I’m tempted to make up a really outrageous “fact” about an historical character and then see how long it takes to be spread and accepted!

  2. David says:

    Yes, I do think it is a very good idea that you to create a guide for history students to follow. Maybe we can weed out the facts that just do not apply because they have nothing to back them up…just facts that seem to be handed down from one writer to another and they all use them without question. I am sorry I did not have the opportunity to attend last nights webinar…..Congratulations on it being a success, that I never doubted….!! These people, these Boleyn’s, these Tudors can not defend themselves anymore….they are not here to do that so it is up to those of us who want to clear their names to protect them in their absence. How refreshing it will be when the truthful facts come to light and all will look at these historic characters in a different light……..I will practice what you put forward Claire and Tim in the future of my reading…it will become an enjoyable challenge….Thank You

  3. Cindy says:

    I do the same thing when i am doing research, Look at the sources used by the author. I have been working on a paper similar to yours for a couple of years. Ives is one of the authors who made me so disgusted with the way sources were twisted to meet the author’s needs/wants. I then started looking into other “trusted” authors and found many do not quote their sources correctly so the meaning is something different from the source’s meaning.
    It is these authors who change history and turn it into something like the “Other Boleyn Girl” or “The Tudors”. I have been looking at older movies about Anne and I feel they have it more right than the movies today. Do we blame the authors for twisting information so it looks as though they are giving us new information, OR do we blame the movie industry (Hollywood)? This also brings the another question to mind….Can we believe anything we read any more?
    I would very much like to ask some of these authors why they twisted the source they used. Just like with the birth date of Anne Boleyn. No one can say for sure when she was born unless they have a birh record of some kind and I would think that if there was one it would have been found and made known by now. We can say all we want that she was too young to go away from home when she was 7 BUT times were different then than they are today, and yet some send children awy to school at a young age today. They have nurses or nannys come in to take care of said children just as was done during Anne’s time with the upper class.
    This is a subject I could go on about for days! LOL
    I hope that with our discussion on facts we do not discourage people from reading. Yes read the book, watch the movie and enjoy it! BUT also know it is probably not 100% truth. The only way to find out the truth, I feel, is to hunt for it yourself.

    1. Adrienne Dillard says:

      What’s really funny is that I always thought Ives was really really good, at least that was what I had heard so I was super excited to start reading the Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. And for the most part, I am enjoying it, but every now and again, I read something that just doesn’t sit well with me. I just don’t have the time to go look it up as I am reading, but I am not really sure the picture he paints of her sits very well with me. I know she was ambitious, but sometimes he makes her sound really conniving and kind of like a hag and I don’t think that’s true at all. But then again we kind of have to draw our own conclusions about the personalities because everything we have for the historical record is biased unfortunately.

  4. LeTempsViendra says:

    Hi there,

    first of all thanks for the lovely article.
    But, are you suggesting that Jane Boleyn gave absolutely NO evidence against her husband and sister in law?
    I have always thought of her as one of the main accusers, after all Cromwell provided handsomely for her after her husband’s death and she was not happy in her marriage, was she?
    She’s an interesting persona, to be sure. I know she did not actually say this, but I’ve always loved the quote “…for I falsely accused him of loving, in an incestuous manner, his sister Queen Anne Boleyn. For this I deserve to die.”

    1. Amanda-Leigh says:

      Hey LeTempsViendra! May I suggest reading Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox. It’s a great read, and a great eye-opener about Jane. After reading it, I always feel my hackles raise when people suggest that she and George had a bad marriage, or that she helped convict Anne and George. For one, she was extremely poor after George died, Cromwell didn’t help her for a long while after George’s execution. And there is no record of her being unhappy in her marriage to George, or of her giving any evidence at all against Anne and George! This is definitely one of those things where someone decided to accuse her and it got carried away and blown right out of proportion. Like I said, check out the book…. you might find yourself championing Jane one day, too!

      Clare, thanks again for a great article. I did a paper on scapegoating and looked at a lot of historical books and in the back of the book, the quotes that they misuse, or facts that they throw in (Like PG in the Other Boleyn Girl where she says there’s no doubt Anne committed at least one murder… or something like that, since i don’t have my books handy right now). I think it’s so important if you’re going to take something as fact, to make sure it’s right! Which can be a little bit of a process, but so interesting! Thanks Clare!

      1. Claire says:

        Hi Amanda-Leigh,
        I went into Jane’s story in detail in my webinar last night, looking at the fictional Jane vs the Real Jane. Philippa Gregory, in the notes section of her books, says awful things about Jane and you’re right, she also says that Anne committed at least one murder:-
        “Anne had three miscarriages by the time of her trial, and she was not a woman to let something like sin or crime stand in her way—she was clearly guilty of one murder. I think if she had thought
        that Henry could not bear a son she was quite capable of finding someone to father a child on her. If she thought that, then George would have been the obvious choice.”
        Of Jane, she calls her “a horror” and says that she was responsible for the incest charge against George and Anne.
        Julia Fox’s book is excellent as she looks at the primary sources and questions the idea of Jane that many people hold.

      2. Adrienne Dillard says:

        I guess I need to go back and read that book. It was one of the first Tudor period books I bought and I was bored to tears with it. Maybe it’s because at that point I wasn’t as heavy into the research and nonfiction materials. I will have to give it a second look.

    2. Claire says:

      Jane was interrogated by Cromwell but he already had the evidence of Lady Wingfield’s correspondence with Anne and the testimony of Lady Worcester. We do not know what Jane said but we do know that the conversation she had with George re Anne confiding in her about Henry’s sexual problems came out at George’s trial. There is no evidence to support the argument that Jane made up the incest allegation.

      Jane wrote to Cromwell after George’s death to intercede with the King on her behalf and he did. The King then put pressure on Jane’s father-in-law, Thomas Boleyn, who then helped Jane. It is reading far too much into the situation to regard Cromwell’s help with this as a reward for her evidence, Jane was simply seeking help to get her jointure, to survive. Cromwell did help her to find a position in Jane Seymour’s household but she was a noblewoman from a good family and she knew Jane Seymour from serving together as ladies-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. Jane Boleyn had managed to escape being caught up in the fall of George and Anne, only questioned just like Anne’s other ladies, her reputation seemed unblemished. Lord Morley, Jane’s father, was also on Cromwell’s right side, sending him gifts such as a greyhound and copies of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and “History of Florence”.

      As far as her marriage is concerned, there is no evidence that the marriage was unhappy, we don’t know anything about the state of the marriage at all, just like we don’t know about the states of other marriages at the Tudor court. Jane wrote to George when he was in the Tower asking after him and promising that she would “humbly [make] suit unto the King’s highness”. George thanked her for her concern. There is no evidence at all to support the depictions of the Rochford marriage shown in fiction and on TV.

      She is an interesting character and I feel that she really is history’s scapegoat.

  5. Anne Barnhill says:

    I do think novelists can take some liberities, after all, they are writing FICTION! But I would never run against the facts I’ve discovered and I try very hard to be as accurate as possilbe. And yes, any fact can be twisted–it all depends on the point of view or the perception about it. So, to get at the ‘truth’ we have to get through a whole web of stuff surrounding each fact. I love the what if aspect of fiction. What if this or that had happened? Is it possible? Is it likely? that is, for me, where the imagination comes in and brings history alive.
    Did Jane say that (from LaTempe Viandra) from the scaffold? That would certainly implicate something! Love all this talk! Thanks.

    1. Claire says:

      Hi Anne,
      The scaffold confession of Jane was a work of fiction written by Gregorio Leti, contemporary eye-witness accounts do not have her saying that.

  6. Shoshana says:

    I love the idea of you creaing a guide on how to research! Many of us did not study history in school, our degrees are far from that of a historian and so our training is sadly lacking in many areas. We have often stumbled in the dark trying to figure out just how to proceed and in doing so, at least this is true for me, we ofen get frustrated and the results are we either never finish our project or we proceed with information that is lacking in accuracy. I have at least three essays I’ve been working on for years and do know where to search for information I need to finish my theories. I lok forward to the guide and to finally being able to research in a productive manner!

  7. WilesWales says:

    Thank you, Claire! When your book comes out please let me know, and I’ll gladly be one of the first buyers. My major in European History with an emphasis on the Reformation was done the old way (thankfully you go so much detail) – pulling indexes and abstracts year by year, photocopying the sources listed there or asking for an interlibary loan, etc. Then cross referencing the peer reviewed/refereed articles with books and with each others (with some of the sources not being right) and finding new ones for what seemed like papers galore. I even wrote one on “The Defense of Anne Boleyn,” and have been fascinated by her since the BBC series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and also “Elizabeth R” in 1968 with Glenda Jackson and that was when I was eight. Gregory is not only not worth laughing, joking or discussing, as she is not even a joke, Weir’s sources have been spotted more and more recently which does not surprise me in the least.

    The first I ever heard of George Boleyn being homosexual was in Julia Fox’s book on Jane Parker. I did know the he was beheaded on the alleged count of incest with his sister, Queen Anne, which was high treason, and she, too, as one of the many false accusations, for which she was executed on that May morning in 1536.

    I just finished a book on Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy, and he seems to be right on the money. Also, thank you for spelling Chapuys the right way.

    I cannot say how very, very much I not only admire your work, and this site, but also for your acute attention to detail and then going from that detail to the next until you find a concrete and correct answer to even the smallest of things. You are what hisorians, archeologists, researchers, and interpreters of history are! I appreciate your work more than I can say! Thank you!!! WilesWales

  8. Emily says:

    I think writing a guide is a fabulous idea! Before my fascination with Anne began, I never realized how much “revisionist history” is really out there, despite writing numerous research papers in my college years. For example, I was recently browsing the history section of a local bookstore that was going out of business, searching for any Tudor books they might have left. One of the books I picked up was a medieval/renaissance book by an author named William Manchester (just to clarify, I didn’t buy it, but I thought about buying it just so no one else would)! There were only ten or so pages where he discussed Anne, but even in my relatively limited knowledge of her life (I am by no means a historian), I discovered so many inaccuracies! He mentioned the deformed fetus, implied she had been secretly married to Percy, said she was tried for witchcraft, and also stated that George & Anne were executed on the same day, with Anne going first! He also goes on with this ridiculous story that Anne would drop a handkerchief in front of a man, which was her way of inviting him to her bed…if he picked it up, it meant he accepted her invitation…and that Henry finally witnessed that & she was arrested shortly thereafter. What?!? Oh, and in his brief mention of Jane Seymour, he states that she restored Mary to the line of succession, and that Jane was one of the only “true ladies” of the time. He does concede that some of the charges against Anne may have been false, but that sworn testimony stated otherwise. What bothers me about this is that the book presents itself as a history book…in the history section of the bookstore…and when I was a student, I probably would have taken this information at face value. Now I know better, of course, but so many others still don’t!

  9. Bess Chilver says:

    I’ve frequently come across this. And just as bad is books which take one tiny “fact” and interpret it completely out of context. “Horrible Histories” is guilty of this.

    It would help if TEACHERS of history didn’t use wikipedia as their go-to sources for history.

    It would also help if schoolchildren and students were genuinely taught to think critically about what they read. In theory they are supposed to be taught this skill but in practice teachers don’t manage to instil that thought process early enough. Net result is we have two or even three generations of people where the vast majority of them do not THINK about what they see, read or are told.

    Example I heard today at Dover Castle when sitting in The Thomas Becket Chapel: Visitors come in and see all these beautiful stone carving and stained glass. The carvings around the door and windows and the vaulted ceiling date back the 1100s. Visitor said knowledgably to her companions “They didn’t have any tools to do all that in them days”. (As my husband whispered to me “Of course they didn’t. They used their teeth and fingers!”)

    1. Claire says:

      Good old wikipedia!
      I agree with you, everyone should be encouraged to question things, after all, it’s natural for us to do that, that’s why all kids go through the infuriating “why? why?” phase when they’re little. This questioning and curiosity seems to be squashed rather than nurtured.
      That comment you heard made me chuckle but what’s worse is when you hear some tour guides saying stupid things!
      Yes, as much as I love Horrible Histories it is guilty. I remember my kids calling me into the room because Anne Boleyn was mentioned and they were saying that she was Protestant, I then explained to my children that it wasn’t strictly true as nobody was a full-blown Protestant in the 1530s. My poor kids!

  10. WilesWales says:

    Wikipedia should be forbidden to be used as a source for anyone at any edcuaitonal level. I was watching during the Casy Anthony trial on Headline News. The announcer was an attorney he talked briefly (that’s all that can be said about it), about he is listed in Wikipedia and they have numerous errrors on there about him! He said he tried to get in touch with them via phone, email, etc. many times about these errors, and they still haven’t fixed them. He said, “Whatever, I can’t fight with them anymore because no one has called or gotten in touch with whom to fight. So, if they want to go to Wikipedia, let them!” Now, that’s sad! Thank you, WilesWales

  11. Rachel McNeil says:


    I think this is an excellent idea, I am currenly reading Henry VIII’s last victim bby Jessie Childs, and I just know that I will want to find out more about Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. I am so keen on Tudor history now, that I am thinking about taking up a online history course etc. So I would find an article/ book like this really useful and fascinating.

    Keep up the good work on the Boleyns, I have every faith that you will manage to get to the bottom of it, and give all the historians a run for there money! lol



  12. Ann Russell says:

    Last night during the webinar, I was thinking about a comment posted by a friend of mine on the History Police Facebook group. They were discussing Phillipa Gregory and she posted “Does she know the police are after her?’ I really enjoyed last night. I imagine it was like when I was doing my Six Wives of Henry VIII group. I actually had people who wanted to hear me talk about English history. I would be interested in hearing opinions about the 1970s BBC series that I used as my basis.

  13. Anyanka says:

    I use Wikipedia as a quick reference only.

    But worse than Wiki are the “History” sites that look like C&P homework essay. Those are riddled with errors. Jane’s dowery consistin of the income from several castles and Henry riding from North London to Wiltshire on the day Anne was executed. I stareted threads over at the forums on those 2 “facts”.

  14. Anyanka says:

    Conservapedia is even worse with regards to history…

    re Anne Boleyn

    She was executed by sword rather than the cleaner-cutting axe to indicate the extremity of her crimes, and her head was displayed to the public for three days rather than the normal one

  15. Sharon Hutchinson says:

    I will never forget what one of my history professors taught us. When you read something that is stated as fact-either in the newspaper, books etc.-he said to ask yourself the following:

    1) Who is writing the information? What are his/her credentials?

    2) WHY are they writing it? For political reasons? For sensationalism? To impress someone?

    His remarks have stuck with me through all these years. So your discussion about taking historical “facts” on face value is very pertinent. Your approach to historical study would have made my professor very proud!

  16. Esther Sorkin says:

    I don’t mind too much when fiction writers get it wrong, but historians should be more careful. For example, Chapuys said that George was convicted “without confession or due proof”; apparently, at the trial, Cromwell said that the witnesses said things in depositions (which are now lost). Since evidence from George’s wife would seem much stronger than evidence from a third party, Cromwell could well have a motive for attributing things to Jane that she didn’t say … or twisting what she did say. I don’t think this is much of a basis for a historian to conclude that Jane is guilty of much .

    The transformation from history to myth isn’t always a bad thing, though. In Mattingly’s book on the Spanish Armada, he notes how the myth (David vs. Goliath, etc.) “raised men’s hearts in dark hours, and led them to say to one another, “What we have done once we can do again.” Insofar as it did this, the legend of the defeat of the Spanish Armada became as important as the actual event — perhaps even more important.”

  17. lisaannejane says:

    I have warned my nieces not to rely on Wikipedia for school reports. Whenever anyone says we live in the age of information, I tend to think of it as the age of misinformation. Check your sources carefully, know what their bias is, and know how old the information is. In college I made it a point to never miss a class so I would know what biases the professor had. So it was useful to know that one professor hated with a passion the Crystal Cathedral and called it a cheap version of Gothic architecture so I could avoid mentioning it in my finals. I would try to find at least three different authors who supported an idea I had and also find at least one who had the opposite view to show why that view was not valid. I would check the date of the book to find out how current the information was and keep in mind how much has been discovered since then. And a good bibliography was very helpful. If the author made a fact and could not back it up, then that was a sign to find another research book.

  18. Melissa Reginelli says:

    Hi Claire and everyone. I’m a little confused about Jean Plaidy. Didn’t she also write as Phillipa Gregory? All I know, is that everything I’ve read written by the late Ms. Plaidy has been true in light of all the other books I’ve read about Anne Boleyn. I recently listened to a wonderful audiodisc, can’t remember the title or author (mea culpa, I have memory problems,anyway). The woman narrating was excellent. The take on the audiodisc was that Jane was apolgetic in her jealousy of her husband and Anne. The interesting part was that because she was Katherine Howard’s lady-in-waiting, she was driven absolutely coo-coo trying to keep Katherine out of trouble. Katherine was so immature and would not think before she spoke or acted. Jane’s last days were spent trying to have some sanity before dying. I understand that the poor woman lost her mind and had a nervous breakdown despite her efforts to calmly surrender to her death. And yes, your coming book regarding historical truth will be a bestseller because we can count on your “archeology” for truth. Albert Einstein said, in so many words, that “unthinking acceptance for authority is the greatest enemy of truth. Also, I loved the story of your dream, waking your husband and all that followed. We’re all better for it.

    1. Rachel says:

      Melissa, Jean Plaidy also wrote as Victoria Holt and Philippa CARR, I think.

  19. mariella says:

    Your idea of a guide for students and history lovers on how to research a topic or historical person is a fantastic one. Please go ahead!
    Thank you, and best wishes from Italy.

  20. Courtney says:

    Yes…its a great idea Claire. I have always been like you in the aspect that I never believe what I read…I always question it and research it myself…but would love any advice you can give me. I missed the webinar, but hope to be a member before the next one. Wow, I would love to have your job. People get annoyed with me too…my husband says, “why do you always question everything…just let it lye…and then ofcourse the glazed over eyes from my family & friends when I talk about the Boleyns, Howards, Tudors, etc…I love your website and am on it atleast 5 days a week…as well as the Elizabeth Files…When I am not on here, I am re-reading The Life & Death of Anne Boleyn – Eric Ives….Thank you for all you do!

  21. lisaannejane says:

    Sharon, I loved what your professor told you. It applies to current events as much as past Claire, I wish I had had some sort of guideline to go by when I was in college. It would have saved me a lot of time. I grew up in a house that was constantly questioning everything. Why was the US involved in Vietnam? Would communism prevail? My mom was positive it would die out and my natural father said it would take over the world. I guess our motto was to question everything. But that was also when authority in general was being questioned. I remember trying to understand Watergate and the missing tapes. So if you grew up knowing the president could lie, you learned to question anyone claiming to be an expert.

  22. Adrienne Dillard says:

    I would have to thank my college professor, Orville Butler, for teaching me those critical thinking skills. In his Historiography class, I had to write a paper and my topic of choice was all the inconsistancies in the listings of Titanic passengers. That was my first introduction to the fact that not all “historians” are correct. Ever since then, I have learned to think deeper and go further before ever accepting anything as fact. I think a paper like that should be required of every student in high school or college to teach them those much needed critical thinking skills and to learn that not all that is portrayed is correct.

    1. Madison says:

      THAT is an interesting topic to research! Did you publish this paper? I’d be very interested in reading it!

  23. Lucy says:

    I think your guide to researching is an excellent idea Claire!

    As you say, many sources are available to everyone now via the internet. It is very exciting and liberating – you don’t have to have studied at university or live in England in order to have an opinion. This access to data will no doubt yield many new discoveries as people with passion devote their time to studying the details.

    I sense that some accademics are scornful of amateur researchers but – ***if we do it in a careful and measured way, listing our sources and being clear when we venture into conjecture*** surely a fresh attitude and eye, combined with a passionate curiosity for the truth, can only be good?

  24. I. Ruth Cheronis says:

    Is there anyway I can learn your information about the Boleyns without having to tune into the webinar. I’m no good at computers, websites, etc. In fact I don’t even know what a webinar is. I learn by reading. Co you have this information on the Boleyns on a printed page? Please help me. I love learning about the Boleyns.

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, I’m doing transcripts of the talks too so that people can read them and I’m also putting my research and references on the Fellowship site so people know what I have based my thoughts on.

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