I thought I’d start my series of articles on the fall of Anne Boleyn by looking at Jane Boleyn (also referred to as Jane Parker and Lady Rochford), wife of George Boleyn and the woman who is known for telling Thomas Cromwell that George and Anne Boleyn had committed incest. But what exactly was her role in Anne Boleyn’s downfall and should she be blamed in this way?
I have already considered Jane Boleyn’s role in the fall of Anne Boleyn in one of my posts on George Boleyn – see George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Part 2 – so some of the information here is also in that post, but it’s great to have the opportunity to look at Jane’s role and her personality in more detail.
The Jane Boleyn of Fiction
Many people’s opinions of Jane Boleyn are based on novels like “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Boleyn Inheritance” or TV shows like “The Tudors”. If we are to base our opinions of Jane Boleyn on those and other fictional portrayals then we would conclude that:-
- Jane and George Boleyn’s marriage was unhappy and loveless.
- Jane was treated badly by her homosexual/bisexual husband and that he even raped her and forced her into “deviant” sexual acts.
- Jane was jealous of the close relationship between George and Anne Boleyn.
- Jane hated George (and/or Anne) and was motivated into lying about him and Anne by her hatred and jealousy.
- Jane was a voyeur, meddler and mad with jealousy.
Who was the Real Jane Boleyn?
In Georgian and Victorian times when sympathies swung towards Anne Boleyn, historians felt that Jane Boleyn had got her come-uppance when she was executed for her involvement in Catherine Howard’s affair with Thomas Culpeper. One historian, C.Coote, wrote:-
“the infamous lady Rochford… justly deserved her fate for the concern which she had in bringing Anne Boleyn, as well as her own husband, to the block.”
Many present day historians also see Jane Boleyn as a nasty piece of work and someone who gave false evidence against George and Anne. Lacey Baldwin Smith, in “Catherine Howard: The Queen Whose Adulteries Made a Fool of Henry VIII”, says of Jane:-
“the lady was a pathological meddler, with most of the instincts of a procuress who achieves a vicarious pleasure from arranging assignations.”
In “The Lady in the Tower”, Alison Weir writes of how Jane Boleyn had “a talent for intrigue” as not only was she involved in Catherine Howard’s affairs in 1541 but she also plotted with Anne Boleyn in 1534 to remove the King’s mistress and replace her with Madge Shelton, Anne’s cousin and a Boleyn sympathiser.
Even Jane’s contemporary George Cavendish had no great opinion of Jane, writing in Jane’s voice:-
“Withouten bridle of honest measure,
Following my lust and filthy pleasure,
Without respect of any wifely truth,
Dreadless of God, from grace also exempt,
Viciously consuming the time of this my youth.”
(George Cavendish in “Metrical Visions”)
George Wyatt, son of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt who had been friends with the Boleyn, said of Jane:-
“wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood”
and 17th century historian P Heylin said that Jane had an “inveterate hatred” of Anne Boleyn because her husband enjoyed his sister’s company more than hers and because Anne had superior social skills. It would have been natural for Jane to have felt in Anne’s shadow with Anne being queen and always being the centre of attention with her sex appeal, intelligence and flirtatious nature.
However, historian Julia Fox, author of “Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford”, has a very different opinion of Jane Boleyn. Fox writes of Jane’s friendship with Anne and makes the point that there is no evidence that George and Jane’s marriage was not happy and successful. The fact that they were childless and that the marriage was arranged does not necessarily mean that they were unhappy.
Fox also writes of how William Foster, a scholar, wrote warmly of Jane, describing her as the “most special patroness” of his studies. The fact that Anne Boleyn chose her sister-in-law to help her get rid of Henry’s new mistress in 1534 and that she later confided in Jane about Henry’s erratic sexual prowess suggests that the women were close, rather than being enemies or just tolerating each other.
What was Jane’s Role in the Coup Against the Boleyns?
Whatever our opinion of Jane and her character, did she actually give Cromwell crucial evidence against the Boleyns? Did she lie about Anne and George’s relationship and could she be held accountable for their deaths?
Eric Ives in his biography of Anne Boleyn, “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, writes of Jane Boleyn:-
“It was she [Jane] who had told the Crown of Anne’s remarks about Henry’s sexual capacities, and according to de Carles, Rochford said to his judges, “On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgement.” A foreign visitor to London in May 1536 wrote of “that person who more out of envy and jealousy than out of love towards the king did betray this accursed secret and together with it the names of those who had joined in the evil doings of the unchaste queen”. The lost journal of Antony Antony also referred to the role of Lady Rochford and probably included words to the effect that “the wife of Lord Rochford was a particular instrument in the death of Queen Anne.””
Ives continues to back this up with the words of Bishop Burnet, a man who was not alive at the time but who had access to primary sources in the 17th century. Burnet claimed that Jane Boleyn “carried many stories to the king or some about him” and gave evidence “that there was a familiarity between the queen and her brother beyond what so near a relationship could justify.” However, any contemporary primary sources that gave evidence of Jane’s involvement in the fall of Anne Boleyn are now lost and Ives certainly does not hold Jane accountable for Anne’s downfall.
In “The Lady in the Tower”, Alison Weir writes of how Jane Boleyn was Thomas Cromwell’s best informant and that “the evidence against Lord Rochford was said to have been laid soley by his wife of twelve years, Jane Parker.” Weir backs this up with four main sources:-
- Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who, in his biography of Henry VIII in the seventeenth century, wrote of Jane being the “particular instrument” in the falls of both Anne and George Boleyn.
- The dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador.
- An anonymous Portuguese account from the 10th June 1536 which refers to “that person who, more out of envy and jealousy than out of love towards the King, did betray this accursed secret, and together with it the names of those who had joined in the evil doings of the unchaste Queen”.
- Lancelot de Carles – De Carles reported that “a single woman” gave the most damaging evidence against Anne and George, but de Carles hinted that this woman was Lady Worcester, not Jane Boleyn. Weir and some other historians think that he was confused, as Jane was interrogated at the time.
- Jane’s confession at the block on the 13th February 1542 that she had falsely accused her husband of committing adultery with his sister Anne Boleyn.
Alison Weir may be right, Jane Boleyn may have been instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn and the execution of George Boleyn. She may well have been jealous and spiteful but is there any evidence that she definitely 100% told lies about them to Cromwell?
Historian John Guy, husband of Julia Fox, is critical of Alison Weir’s sources and her opinions. Regarding Chapuys and the anonymous Portuguese gentleman’s evidence, Guy writes:
“Chapuys, she[Weir] says, tells us that Jane had divulged the “accursed secret” in a letter. The Portuguese gentleman, she says, also identified Jane. Knowing sensational discoveries when I see them, I went to check for myself. Chapuys said no such thing. Only the Portuguese gentleman mentions an “accursed secret”, and he merely talks of “that person” who disclosed it: he doesn’t name anyone.”
Then, regarding Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s words, Guy writes:-
“Weir makes much of the fact that Lord Herbert of Cherbury wrote in his Life and Reign of King Henry VIII in 1649 that “the wife of Lord Rochford [ie Jane] was a particular instrument in the death of Queen Anne”. She thinks he was quoting from a lost chronicle of Henry’s reign and cites the notes left by a late-17th-century don who’d been mugging up on Anne’s fall. But Weir is mistaken, although I had to go to Oxford to be sure. Like all good historians, the don cites his sources, so we know that he’d been reading a dozen or so works, among which were the now lost chronicle and Herbert’s own book. His note about Jane is taken from the latter — it even comes complete with the page number.”
Regarding Jane Boleyn’s execution confession, Guy writes that that Jane’s confession is a forgery and the work of Gregorio Leti, a man know for making up stories and inventing sources. Concerning de Carles, John Guy points out that there is no historical evidence to say that this woman was Jane Boleyn and that de Carles may well have been right in thinking that it was Lady Worcester.
As you can see, the world of historical sources is a minefield and I’m not having a dig at Alison Weir in any way as I respect her and love “The Lady in the Tower”, I’m just suggesting that we don’t know the truth about Jane Boleyn and her involvement in Anne Boleyn’s fall. Julia Fox, Jane’s biographer, writes:-
“By the time he got round to interviewing Jane, Cromwell’s dossier was getting thicker…Jane Rochford found herself dragged into a maelstrom of intrigue, innuendo and speculation. For when Cromwell sent for Jane, he already had much of what he needed, not only to bring down Anne and her circle, but to make possible the king’s marriage to Jane Seymour… The questions to Jane would have come thick and fast. There is no word-for-word transcript of what they were, but the record of the trials of both Anne and George give us a plethora of clues. How often did George and Anne meet? Who was present on these occasions? Were they ever totally alone? Did he ever go into her bedchamber? Was she in bed at the time? Was he ever alone with her? How did they behave when they were together? What did they talk about? Did either of them speak about the King?… Faced with such relentless, incessant questions, which she had no choice but to answer, Jane would have searched her memory for every tiny incident that occurred to her. This was not the moment for bravado and, in any case, the arrests had been so sudden and unexpected that there was no time to separate out what testimony might be damaging, what could be twisted… Jane had not been quick to tell tales, but she had buckled under the pressure of relentless questioning… She had repeated to Cromwell Anne’s indiscretion about Henry’s sexual inadequacies…And it was her weakness under interrogation that gave her future detractors – happy to find a scapegoat to exonerate the king from the heinous charge of callously killing his innocent wife – the ammunition to maintain that it was her evidence that had fooled Henry and destroyed Anne and George. She had repeated Anne’s secret to her own husband, which in itself implies a relaxed rather than a failed union, and she had confessed the same to Cromwell. However, she had done no more than that.”
Perhaps Fox is right, perhaps Jane simply told the truth and her words about Anne and George’s relationship were twisted by Cromwell to give him ammunition against the Boleyns. It would be easy for a scared young woman to repeat Anne’s words and then regret doing so later when she realised how they could be used against the Queen. The fact that Jane sent a message via Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, asking how George was and saying that she would “humbly [make] suit unto the King’s highness” for him shows that she was concerned for her husband. George responded by saying that he wanted to “give her thanks” and in a letter wrote “for I think I [may not] come forth till I come to judgement” which Fox takes to mean that he knew that he needed Jane’s aid if anyone were to listen to his case before his trial.
Julia Fox also points out that Jon Hussee, in a letter to Honor Lisle, wrote that three women had accused Anne Boleyn of infidelity: “the lady Worcester, Nan Cobham and one maid mo[re]”. Hussee did not name Jane Boleyn, which seems strange if she was such a key witness.
While it seems clear that Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, told Cromwell that Anne had spoken to her of Henry VIII’s sexual problems, a matter that came out in court when George Boleyn was handed a piece of paper detailing this and then unwisely read it out, it is not at all clear that Jane Boleyn accused her husband and her sister-in-law of incest or gave Cromwell any evidence of this whatsoever. It is easy to pin the blame on Jane Boleyn when you see her as the spiteful meddler of fiction and television, but could it be that we are maligning her in the same way that history has maligned Anne Boleyn and her brother George?
It is so easy to judge people and I do like the saying “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”. We don’t know what pressure Jane was under when she was interrogated and she may well have been in fear of her life. As I said earlier, Jane may well have spoken first and thought later, she may have gabbled hysterically like Anne did in the Tower. Who knows? Whatever Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, said to Cromwell it would have been most likely twisted and the success of the cases against Anne and George did not hang on Jane’s evidence. As Julia Fox points out, Cromwell had a whole dossier of information before he even spoke to Jane, and Anne and George had already been arrested. The fall of Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction was a done deal whatever Jane had to say.
I guess that what I am saying is that I’d like to give Jane Boleyn the benefit of the doubt and I certainly don’t feel that she was responsible for either Anne’s death or for George’s death, that responsibility lies firmly with the person who framed them and let them be executed on false charges, whether you think that was Cromwell or Henry VIII.
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII – Found online at British History Online
- “Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession” by Elizabeth Norton
- “The Lady in the Tower” by Alison Weir
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives
- “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Retha Warnicke
- “Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford” by Julia Fox
- “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir – a Sunday Times Review by John Guy”