Today Tudor history lovers everywhere will be remembering the tragic end of Queen Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII who was executed on this day in 1542. Many will not remember that Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was also executed and some will agree with the sentiments of one tumblr “confession” which said “Jane Parker deserved her execution more than any woman Henry VIII put to the block”. She got what was coming to her, karma is a beautiful thing, she deserved it, she betrayed Anne Boleyn, she was a liar…blah, blah blah…
But I, for one, am giving Jane Boleyn the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion, Jane the monster, the liar, the voyeur, the jealous and spiteful cow, belongs to the realm of fiction and should stay there. The real Jane Boleyn is a bit of a mystery but deserves more than to be slandered by people who know nothing about her. Don’t you think?
The Jane Boleyn of History Books
But it’s not just the likes of Philippa Gregory (à la The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance) and Michael Hirst (The Tudors) who depict Jane as a “horror” – Philippa Gregory’s words, not mine – historians do too.
In “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn”, Alison Weir writes of how “most sources agree that the only evidence for incest would rest upon the testimony of Jane Parker, Lady Rochford” and that Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the 17th century biographer, described Jane “as the ‘particular instrument’ in the ruin of her husband and his sister “, basing his account on contemporary evidence: Anthony Anthony’s lost journal. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador; an anonymous Portuguese account; the writings of Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, and Jane’s execution confession all, according to Weir, back up the fact that Jane was the woman who gave evidence against the Boleyn siblings.
Weir goes on to write of Jane’s jealousy of the close relationship between George and Anne, the unhappiness of her marriage to George, the possibility that George had “subjected Jane to sexual practices that outraged her” and her resentfulness towards Anne over her banishment from court after she plotted with Anne to remove a lady from court, a lady who had caught the King’s eye. These reasons, along with her father’s sympathy with the Lady Mary, could, Weir theorises, have led to Jane’s betrayal of the Boleyns.
Lacey Baldwin Smith, Catherine Howard’s biographer, 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” and C.Coote said “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.”
So, people can be forgiven for judging Jane harshly, I suppose, when historians do too.
In Defence of Jane Boleyn
Jane Boleyn is judged harshly because many people believe that she betrayed her husband, George, and her mistress Queen Anne Boleyn by providing Thomas Cromwell with ‘evidence’ of incest. But did Jane betray Anne and George Boleyn?
No, I don’t believe so and I’m not the only one. Historian Julia Fox argues against this fallacy in her book on Jane, calling Jane “a scapegoat”, and her husband, historian John Guy, in a review of Alison Weir’s “The Lady in the Tower”, points out the following:-
- That Chapuys never named Jane Boleyn as the witness against George and Anne
- That the Portuguese source also did not name Jane, writing of only “that person”
- That Lord Herbert of Cherbury was not quoting from Anthony Anthony’s lost chronicle but from his own book
- That Jane’s execution confession was a forgery and the work of Gregorio Leti, a man know for making up stories and inventing sources.
- That Lancelot de Carles was talking about Lady Worcester, not Jane Boleyn
But what about George Boleyn’s own words at his trial? I hear you ask. Yes, at his trial, George, according to Lancelot de Carles, said:-
“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.”
But he doesn’t say “On the evidence of my own wife you are willing…”, does he? He says “one woman” and seeing as it was the Countess of Worcester’s conversation with her brother, regarding the Queen’s inappropriate relationship with her brother, that was the Crown’s main piece of evidence, then surely he was referring to her. When Jane wrote words of comfort to George in the Tower, he didn’t throw a hissy fit and write back telling her to go to hell, he sent his thanks. OK, he wouldn’t have known at that time that she had given evidence against him, but would she have dared to write to him if she had? Hmmm…
We have no concrete evidence that Jane did betray George and Anne or that she was the sort of woman who spied through keyholes and lied, and I don’t feel that we can question depictions of George and Anne without questioning those of Jane. She deserves to be defended too, I feel.
Jane Boleyn and Catherine Howard
But what about Catherine Howard? What on earth was Jane doing becoming involved in Catherine Howard’s adulterous liaisons with Thomas Culpeper? How can we defend her actions in 1541?
Well, I had a discussion with Julia Fox about Jane’s involvement in Catherine’s affair with Culpeper and Julia said that she had considered various theories but had ruled all of them out bar one. Jane didn’t need any money, she had been left well provided for by Thomas Boleyn, so she didn’t need any monetary persuasion to help the couple. There is no evidence that she was mad prior to her imprisonment in the Tower so it was not madness which drove her to recklessly help the couple betray the King. Julia Fox believes, therefore, that she was persuaded to help Catherine once and that she was then on a slippery slope heading in one direction. She’d done it once, so could not refuse again. We also have to take into account that Thomas Cromwell, the man who had helped her in the past, was dead and gone so she had nobody to turn to, nobody to confide in and to act as a go-between between her and the King. Jane was on her own with a dreadful secret which could cost her her head and she didn’t know what else to do apart from carry on helping Catherine and Culpeper. She had already incriminated herself so it got harder and harder to back out, so, instead, she just carried on and ended up digging her own grave.
Jane may have been guilty of stupidity, in not learning from what happened to Anne Boleyn and the five men in 1536, she may have been guilty of giving Cromwell evidence that Anne had spoken to her of the King’s impotence, but she was simply being honest. Anne confiding in Jane, and Jane passing the information on to her husband, speaks clearly of a close relationship between the three of them, not distance and jealousy.
We quite rightly defend Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn against those who have maligned them but isn’t it time we defended Jane too?
What do you think? Please comment and let me know.
You can read more about Jane Boleyn in Julia Fox’s article “Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford”.
Notes and Sources
- The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir
- Catherine Howard:The Queen Whose Adulteries Made a Fool of Henry VIII, Lacey Baldwin Smith
- The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir – a Sunday Times Review by John Guy
- Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
- The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory
- The Boleyn Inheritance, Philippa Gregory
- The Tudors, Showtime, written by Michael Hirst