Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford – Guest Post

Posted By on June 3, 2011

"The Lady Parker" a portrait once thought to be Jane Boleyn (nee Parker) but which is probably Grace Newport, Jane's sister-in-law

"The Lady Parker" a portrait once thought to be Jane Parker but which is probably Grace Newport, Jane's sister-in-law

Today we have a guest post from author and historian, Julia Fox, who wrote “Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford” and who has just released Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana Queen of Castile: Katherine of Aragon and Juana Archduchess of Burgundy.

I was fortunate enough to meet Julia, and her husband John Guy, on our recent Executed Queens Tour and I have to admit to giving her quite a grilling on Jane Boleyn as I too believe that Jane, like her husband and sister-in-law, has been maligned by history and popular fiction. You can read my review of Julia’s book on Jane over at our review site – click here, but here is Julia’s guest article on Jane.

Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford

by Julia Fox

Let me nail my colours to the mast: I believe that when Anne Boleyn knelt before the Calais swordsman on that May morning in 1536 she was entirely innocent of the charges levelled against her. She had committed neither adultery nor incest. And because she was innocent, so was each and every one of the five men accused with her. Their deaths, and hers, were totally unjust. Over the centuries, Anne and her fellow victims have been ably defended. So they should be. Therefore, because like everyone else, I abhor injustice, I am happy to champion the cause of another maligned woman: Anne’s sister-in-law, George’s wife, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.

People think they know about Jane and don’t like what they think they know. Who can blame them? Allegedly, she bore false witness against George and Anne, so bringing about their deaths together with those of Norris, Brereton, Weston and Smeaton, and was then handsomely rewarded for her lies. So when she herself was executed for keeping watch while Catherine Howard met Thomas Culpepper, she deserved all she got. Nemesis had caught up with her, the deaths of the innocent were avenged at last. It’s a satisfyingly moral story. But is it true?

I confess that until I started researching Jane’s life, I had always thought it was. So many books said so, they couldn’t all be wrong. Yet, as the poet Thomas Wyatt once pointed out, saying something a thousand times doesn’t make it true if it isn’t. With that in mind, I decided to approach Jane with a fresh eye, put legend to one side, and go back to that most basic of things: the evidence. I determined to root out every reference to Jane that I could find, and that meant going back to the original handwritten sources safeguarded in record offices around the country. It took some doing, for Jane is an elusive quarry, but in the process I was able to place her at the Field of Cloth of Gold for the first time; I found she financed a scholar at King’s College, Cambridge; sensationally, I discovered a document which she signed and which has lain neglected in the archives for almost five hundred years but which enabled me to recreate her marriage settlement, date her wedding and prove that, far from being mad she had finally negotiated a respectable financial settlement for herself long before her involvement in the Catherine Howard scandal. More crucially, I was able to challenge the accusations made about her and to work out how and when it was that she became demonised as the woman who callously brought her own husband and sister-in-law to the scaffold.

The closer I examined the sources, the more myths began to disappear thick and fast. Far from her being chief witness for the prosecution at the Boleyn trials, the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, tells us of his surprise that there were no witnesses at the trials at all. He had no reason to lie, every reason to gloat, if Anne’s own sister-in-law had actually spoken out against her. George did say that he was condemned upon the evidence of ‘one woman’ but did not accuse his wife; Chapuys never named her as the betrayer (I know as I’ve read every despatch he sent back to Charles V); she was not named, as some have suggested, in the report of an unknown Portugese gentleman (again, I’ve read what he said and Jane isn’t mentioned, he merely refers to a ‘woman’ whose name he does not give); Thomas Cromwell doesn’t name her either, speaking airily and vaguely about women in Anne’s chamber being unhappy about the queen’s behaviour (and surely he, like Chapuys, would have shouted Jane’s name to the rafters had she been his star informant).

One person, though, does. George Wyatt, the grandson of the poet, accuses her in the eulogy of Anne which he wrote, according to Professor David Loades, late in Elizabeth’s reign or perhaps as late as 1605. But where are Wyatt’s sources? He said that his information came from a lady (unnamed) who had attended Anne both before and after she became queen, and a second lady (whom he says was of noble birth but is again unnamed) who was Anne’s contemporary, knew those involved and from whom he was himself descended. The former was identified in the nineteenth century – although upon what evidence we are not told – by Samuel Weller Singer as Anne Gainsford, who married the courtier George Zouche. If she is indeed Wyatt’s informant, she was dead before he was even born: in George Zouche’s will made in 1548, he mentions Ellen not Anne as ‘now’ his ‘well-beloved wife’, and Ellen would be his second wife. Therefore, George Wyatt, who was born in 1553, could never have spoken to Gainsford. Any information from her, assuming that there was any, must have come from Wyatt family traditions, and family stories are notoriously unreliable. As for the mysterious second lady, she would have been in well into her dotage or more likely dead by the time Wyatt was writing. So perhaps she too exists only in family stories. Historians deal in facts not guesswork. Wyatt’s accusation against Jane is both dubious and uncorroborated, a point confirmed when he goes on to contradict himself by saying that George was only condemned ‘upon some point of a statute’.

Just as intriguing is while Jane was to be castigated for her part in Queen Catherine’s downfall no one, in her lifetime, ever says she was responsible for Anne’s, other than by repeating to George incidentally what the queen had once told her about Henry’s occasional erectile dysfunction. And, significantly, two contemporaries, John Husee and Justice Spelman (who was on the bench at Anne’s trial) named two different women entirely. John Husee felt information had come from the Countess of Worcester; Spelman said it came from Lady Wingfield. One man, or both, clearly had it muddled, but neither mentioned Jane.

So how did she became the Wicked Witch of the West? When did accusations surface? What emerged from my research is that it started with John Foxe. In the 1576 edition of his Acts and Monuments (not, interestingly, in the 1563 version) he included a marginal annotation to his account of Catherine Howard’s execution in which he said, ‘it is reported of some that this Lady Rochford forged a false letter against her husband and Queen Anne her sister, by which they were both cast away’. Yet, before taking Foxe at face value, we need to think when and why he was writing: it’s an old cliché that history is written by the winners and by the time he was penning his work, Elizabeth, clearly a winner and a Protestant, was on the throne. Naturally, she must have come from spotless stock, so her mother must have been innocent and her father duped. Because she had proved herself a ‘bawd’ through her actions over Catherine Howard, Jane was a perfect scapegoat. From Foxe onwards (and remember that Wyatt was writing some twenty years later) she was fair game, appearing as the villain of the piece in the works of authors such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury in 1649, Peter Heylin in 1660, Gilbert Burnet in 1679. By the time we get to the eighteenth century, she’d become ‘scandalous’, ‘infamous’, ‘wicked’, and countless so-called scaffold confessions suddenly appear – in fact, of course, the only authentic eyewitness to her execution, Ottwell Johnson, who tells us what she said before the axe fell, says nothing whatever about a ‘confession’ concerning Anne and George.

In any case, she had no motive for bringing them down. There is no evidence of jealousy, as later writers suggest; that George was homosexual remains a decidedly unproven theory; the recent notion that he abused Jane would be laughed out of any half-decent courtroom as it rests upon no evidence whatsoever; the theory that Jane was Catholic, so was antagonistic to the attacks on the Church, were it true, would merely have placed her in exactly the same position as her father and so many others, all of whom understood the value of silence; and, moreover, she would have known that by speaking out against Anne and George she would not only place herself in danger for misprision of treason, she would make herself penniless since the property of a convicted traitor, from the largest estate to the meanest cooking pot, became the property of the king. Far from being rewarded, as some historians say, she had to beg for her most basic and rightful jointure money to be paid: it took her time to work her way back into the royal court, her financial security did not come until Thomas Boleyn granted her a decent settlement and he did that not because he was pressed by the king or by Cromwell, but because he suited him to settle his family’s affairs before he died.

Quite why and how Anne fell remains a matter of fascinating conjecture. But of one thing I am convinced: it was not because of Jane Boleyn. She too was framed.