Posted By Claire on May 17, 2010
I must admit to being nearly as fascinated by George Boleyn as I am by his sister because history has not been kind to him either and I enjoy fighting for justice and the truth! Over the next few weeks, I am going to be looking at just who George was, and who he wasn’t, and banishing some myths and challenging popular opinion.
Today, on the anniversary of George Boleyn’s execution on the 17th May 1536, I’d like to look at George’s execution speech and how it has been used in the past to back up the theory that he was a homosexual or bisexual libertine who had lived a wayward life and indulged in unnatural sexual acts.
George Boleyn’s Execution Speech
Although there are a few different versions of George’s execution speech (see 17th May 1536 -The Deaths of 5 Men and a Marriage Destroyed), the Chronicle of Calais version is widely accepted because it is similar in content to a Portuguese account. Here it is (italics are mine):-
“Christen men, I am borne undar the lawe, and judged undar the lawe, and dye undar the lawe, and the lawe hathe condemned me. Mastars all, I am not come hether for to preche, but for to dye, for I have deserved for to dye yf I had xx. lyves, more shamefully than can be devysed, for I am a wreched synnar, and I have synned shamefully, I have knowne no man so evell, and to reherse my synnes openly it were no pleaswre to you to here them, nor yet for me to reherse them, for God knowethe all; therefore, mastars all, I pray yow take hede by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the cowrte, the whiche I have bene amonge, take hede by me, and beware of suche a fall, and I pray
to God the Fathar, the Sonne, and the Holy Ghoste, thre persons and one God, that my deathe may be an example unto yow all, and beware, trust not in the vanitie of the worlde, and especially in the flateringe of the cowrte. And I cry God mercy, and aske all the worlde forgevenes, as willingly as I wowld have forgevenes of God ; and yf I have offendyd any man that is not here now, eythar in thowght, worde, or dede, and yf ye here any suche, I pray yow hertely in my behalfe, pray them to forgyve me for God’s sake. And yet, my mastars all, I have one thinge for to say to yow, men do comon and saye that I have bene a settar forthe of the worde of God, and one that have favored the Ghospell of Christ ; and bycawse I would not that God’s word shuld be slaundered by me, I say unto yow all, that yf I had followecl
God’s worde in dede as I dyd rede it and set it forthe to my power, I had not come to this. I dyd red the Ghospell of Christe, but I dyd not follow it; yf I had, I had bene a lyves man amonge yow : therefore I pray yow, mastars all, for God’s sake sticke to the trwthe and folowe it, for one good followere is worthe thre redars, as God knowethe.”
(The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540, edited by John Gough Nichols, page 46)
The Truth Behind the Speech
by Clare Cherry
Here I am going to hand over to George Boleyn avenger Clare Cherry who is writing a book about George and who hates the way that he has been maligned by historians, authors and on screen.
George Boleyn’s scaffold speech has been subjected to enormous speculation since his death. His contemporary, George Cavendish, theorised that when George said he was a wretched sinner deserving of death that he was talking about promiscuity with women. In the twenty-first century Retha Warnicke reinterpreted Cavendish’s poetry to theorise that he was actually suggesting George was speaking about homosexual activity. This was picked up by Alison Weir in ‘The Lady in the Tower’, but there is no evidence whatsoever for suggesting George was anything other than heterosexual, and clearly sexual relations with men were not what Cavendish was suggesting. So what was George talking about on the scaffold when he said he deserved death?
Yes, he may have partly been talking about his promiscuity, but then again he could have been talking about an amalgamation of supposed sins. Remember, the only source for George’s promiscuity comes solely from Cavendish, who was hardly an impartial witness. No doubt George was a womaniser, like most of Henry’s closest friends, but I think we may well have exaggerated this flaw over time, because no other Boleyn enemy felt his behaviour was base enough to comment on.
George was a typical man of his age, which meant he was capable of egotism, selfishness and ruthlessness. As a highly intelligent man he would have been acutely aware of his faults when he faced death. Although I certainly don’t believe he deserved to die, George did, and I think the reason why he believed this was actually because he was so deeply religious. Let me explain what I mean. George was dying a shameful and dishonourable death, but he was innocent of the crimes alleged against him, so why was God allowing this to happen to him? I think, in George’s mind, that the fact he was dying for a crime he hadn’t committed meant he deserved death more than if he was actually guilty. Because if God was allowing him to die this shameful death for a crime he hadn’t committed then he must surely be evil. If he wasn’t evil then God wouldn’t be allowing this to happen to him. That’s what I think the basis of his speech was about; he was trying to make sense out of what was happening to him and why.
I find it an enormous tragedy that an innocent young man went to his death genuinely believing he deserved to die simply because he so passionately believed that God couldn’t be wrong.
Likewise, his speech is incredibly honourable. He didn’t rally against injustice, and neither did Anne. In the sixteenth century it was not honourable to do so, and I don’t give a damn what certain historians would have us believe, Anne and George were honourable, right to the very end. Their submissive speeches were not just to protect their families, or in George’s case because he believed he deserved to die ; their speeches followed the etiquette of the day with admirable attention to detail. They were dying dishonourable deaths, but for them they could at least die in the knowledge they had faced death with honour. That would have been enormously important and of great comfort to the proud siblings.
Anne and George lived lives of extraordinary drama. Quite right too because they were both far too charismatic and dynamic to suffer mediocrity. They are talked about today because of the lives they led and the deaths they suffered. But they had ten years in the limelight, and I think those amazing people would rather have had those ten years in the sunlight than a lifetime in the shadows. They are also remembered for their incredible courage when facing death. Anne is always admired for this, and I feel very passionately that George’s courage, honour and very character should not be continually sullied by unsubstantiated speculation. As everyone who loves this site knows, he doesn’t deserve it.
Back to the other Claire!
I love Clare’s comment “I think those amazing people would rather have had those ten years in the sunlight than a lifetime in the shadows”, and I agree, George and Anne were ambitious and intelligent people who were well aware of the cost and risks associated with rising so quickly at court, but they went ahead and sought the limelight.
As far as George’s speech is concerned, like Clare I think he is simply following the expected format for an execution speech by recognising that he has been found guilty by the law and confessing to be a sinner who was deserving death. All Christians believe that we, as sinners, deserve death but that we can live eternally by accepting that Christ died for us, and we know that George believed in justification by faith. George was just following protocol but also taking his final opportunity to be a “settar forthe of the worde of God” and preach to the crowd.
I firmly believe that both George Boleyn and Anne Boleyn had a true faith and that that sustained them during those last days in the Tower of London. They knew that they were going to die but they also believed that they would be with their Maker in Paradise.