RIP George Boleyn, Lord Rochford

Posted By on May 17, 2010

The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

14 thoughts on “RIP George Boleyn, Lord Rochford”

  1. Heretic says:

    George and Anne had a truth faith, indeed, the very same faith that sent the Cathar people to their extermination by Rome in the Middle Ages. This heresy, an unspoken truth that someone as politically dexterous as Eleanor of Aquitaine knew could bring down the Vatican (she threatened the pope of her day to do so), curiously enough does involve a very unconventional tale concerning siblings. In light of Anne and George’s purely spiritual relationship, they could go to their wrongful deaths knowing that they shared a belief in a good God indeed, and that some crowns are indeed eternal.

  2. Eliza says:

    I’m looking forward for your posts on George, Claire!

  3. Patty says:

    Like yourself, I am an avid Anne Boleyn supporter. My desire to learn about this intriguing person and time period is absolutely insatiable. I have spent countless hours reading books, surfing the web, and watching videos to gain more knowledge of this amazing woman. In doing so, I have sadly neglected poor George Boleyn. I am a faithful viewer of Showtime’s The Tudors (which initially sparked my interest in learning more about the Tudor period). I love this program and it has become a household rule to not disturb me between 9pm-10pm on Sunday nights….lol. I know that the show is enriched with some inaccuracies to make for “good TV”, but have come to realize that it is pretty true to history. My question for you is, just how far off is the show when it comes to George Boleyn? The Tudors has portrayed him as a cunning, immature, bisexual man who rose at court because he was Anne’s brother. Again, I understand that writers are trying to appeal to today’s audience, but how far off are they? Who was George Boleyn, really?

  4. Brenda says:

    Wow – after 474 years and George can still come alive for us – well done.

  5. Blanca says:

    when i read this, first i thought that George and Anne were unlucky to die so young and in that way, that they could have had a longer live full of new achivements and glory since they were so brilliant, but then i realized that George and Anne died in the way they wanted to die, with honor and loving God as much as they could, i think they achieved almost all they wanted when they were alive, including glory, and they will always be rememberd as 2 importat and interesting figures in history because all the events arround them (trues, lies, myths, death, love, etc ), are the ones that will perpetuate their glorious lives in our minds and our interest to know more about them.
    Congratulations this site is wonderful!

  6. HannahL says:

    To Claire and Clare, thanks for a great article! I’m looking forward to Claire’s articles and Clare’s book on him (if I were actually saying this out loud, things might get confusing!). Does anyone have any suggestions as to reading material on George? Much as I love Anne, I would love to find out more about George as he is so often overshadowed.

  7. Anne says:

    It is exciting to know that Clare Cherry is writing a book about George Boleyn. Gareth Russell seems to have discovered a lot more detailed information about George than I’ve ever read before, so it appears George’s history has been a relatively untapped area for popular and scholarly research. So many unfounded suppositions have already been made regarding hypothetical specifics of George’s “syyneful” behaviors. It looks as if his amazingly self-deprecating attitude is due to a sincere, spiritually-inspired critical self-judgment, more than by any “evell” behavior recorded by objective witnesses of his time, even his enemies. His final statement was, truly, a great opportunity for preaching, and for displaying the humility and tolerance and respect for others that are unmistakable hallmarks of the spiritually sincere person. He took his faith seriously, and left some clues for us in his words. It required exceptional courage and intelligence to navigate the bloodthirsty time and circumstances in which the two siblings prospered so remarkably for a time. They must have both been convinced that God had a special hand in their fates. So I am sure George searched his heart deeply to try to understand the reasons for his fall, in order to help himself and others. Clearly, he put his predicament to wrong choices, rather than blaming God or (openly, at least) the King. These two extraordinary siblings were acutely aware of their places in history, certainly knew their enemies had won that battle, and figured that there would be great interest in who they really were and what they stood for, down the road. We who are looking into their lives from such a distance must take heed of Anne’s final words, to judge the best of her case, which in a very important respect, is George’s as well.

  8. Tudorrose says:

    Well I have to say that George Boleyn was a very religious man of his day just as his sister had been, His whole familly, The whole country along with the rest of the world were of the times, Religion played a big part in the Tudor era hence in all and each of their lives, It was something that they strived for, Lived for and died for. I beleive that in Georges speech he is answering to god, for the sins he has comitted but one thing that had always baffled me is what sins exactly, I just came to the conclusion that he may have been repenting for his homosexual activities or he had been been, Hence so brainwashed by his interrogation, His opposition that is why and as a result he just went what ever way the wind took him as he must have been aware of what laid in store for him, Hence what his fate would be, He may have been even though he pleaded not guilty to the crimes against him unlike Mark Smeaton who had pleaded guilty at the time, He may have been just as scrupulous as he in the fact he thought he was deserving of what was going to happen to him even though he just like rest were obviously not. Also I noticed that some of his words in his speech were repeated on more than one occasion and repetitive to say the least, Perhaps the reason for this is due to the fact that he did not have a big vocabulary or he just did that out of sheer fear whilst he stood upon the scaffold awaiting execution.He is also the same as his sister in the fact that he spoke without thinking too, Hence what he said at trial, Reading aloud what he was told not to say out loud.

  9. lisaannejane says:

    I agree with Claire that George was a typical courtier of the Tudor era and probably indulged in gambling, drinking, and womanizing as much as any other man. I may be wrong, but I sense that George was suggesting that if he did more spiritual acts than just reading about them, he may have averted such a fate. I think he is warning people to keep their life in balance and not to focus on a political career more than developing your spiritual life. Perhaps we find him so interesting is that his life reminds us of our own ambitions and what we would do to achieve them. I have to constantly remind myself that I am not just a teacher but also a friend, daughter, sister, and amateur historian. I’m not sure that living 10 years in the spotlight was part of George’s plan – again, just my opinion but I don’t think any of the Boleyn faction meant it to end like that, with so many tragic deaths.

  10. miladyblue says:

    Excellent article, Claire and Clare – I’m with HannahL, this could be confusing, were we to speak this aloud.

    I’ve never known there was more than one version of George’s execution speech, interesting that the witnesses report slight variations.

    George was making a more or less last confession, that he was a sinner, worthy of death, NOT that he had committed such crimes as buggery or incest. To even acknowledge those false charges would have been beneath his dignity. It probably would have threatened those he left behind that he wanted to protect (including his niece Elizabeth) had he let his anger or resentment at such perfidy show in his last words.

    Anne and George both seem to suffer from a mutual affliction – they were brilliant, intelligent, talented, and doomed to be perpetually misunderstood after being viciously slandered. I hope this blog goes a long way toward clearing up the nonsense heaped upon these two by their enemies.

    The most frustrating aspect has to be all the gaps in understanding due to the lack of records – Cromwell must have been busy, taking any kind of positive spin away. The court chronicles, showing either sibling in a positive light are suspiciously incomplete or absent, leaving us with speculation to fill in the gaps. Thankfully here, the speculation is toward the positive rather than the negative.

  11. Lauren says:

    I LOVE GEORGE!!! I’m so glad you’ll be focusing on him!!!! thank you for remembering him xxx

  12. Anne Barnhill says:

    I’m happy to know Clare is writing a book about George–he is, indeed, quite fascinating. I think he and Anne were very close in intellect and spirit, fun-filled and ambitious and yes, loving the power that came as they approached the throne. The one I cannot get my mind around is that George’s crazy wife!! I can’t figure her out. What a wicked woman!

  13. Hello and thank you for the very interesting website. I am not in particular a fan of Anne Boleyn, but an amateur historian of the middle ages. I have read quite a bit about Henry 8 and his wives with a curiosity to discover what I can about their thought processes, difficult as that may be. I believe that Anne had to die for many reasons. Henry needed to be respected and feared for his power and, at this point in history, was beginning to show paranoia along with, quite possibly psychosis. He had raised Anne up from nothing and she failed to love up to his expectations. I do not believe any of the wives could, save Jane Seymour due to the birth of Edward. Cromwell, as the ruthless manipulator and politician he was, saw the need to be rid of Anne and the Howard faction. I don’t see Henry as blind to the truth, just easily manipulated and mentally unstable.

    Anne did have a hand in her demise if only because of her personality. She was controlling, entitled, and a manipulator herself. Henry did not appreciate a shrewish woman with a sharp tongue. Anyway, I believe Cromwell took advantage of the opportunity to get rid of his enemies. Too bad Anne and company died, but I believe she was dead as soon as she married Henry.

  14. Rachel says:

    What a wonderful article, and I’m so excited that Clare Cherry is writing a book on George (it boggles the mind that we already have one bio of Mary Boleyn – not to be disrespectful, but I find her the least interesting of the Boleyn siblings – with another from Weir on the way, yet no books about George or, for that matter, their father Thomas). He was clearly a brilliant, engaging, loyal and honourable man; his relationship with Anne reminds me a bit of Robert of Gloucester and his unfailing loyalty to his half-sister, the Empress Matilda. His skill as a politician made him a real threat to those plotting to bring down Anne, which was why he had to go.

    George has been grossly maligned in popular culture recently – I found that depiction of him in “The Tudors” raping his wife from behind on their wedding night incredibly offensive, and by all accounts Weir has picked up on this theme in “The Lady in the Tower”, although more cautiously. Aside from being based on no historical evidence whatsoever, this notion that he was some sort of pansexual nymphomaniac seems more indicative of the prejudices of the person writing about him, rather than the man himself. Even if he was bisexual (and in the unlikely event that he was, far from being the immature man-tart of fiction, he must have been very discreet about it, because no contemporary source indicates even a fraction of a hint), so what? I suspect had he been attracted to other men, whether he acted on it or not, it would have been something that would have caused him a great deal of angst, because he was so devoutly religious. And as you rightly point out, Cavendish is hardly an unbiased source; for all we know, his reputation as a philanderer could come down to only a few women. And I have to say, while one may not like the idea of his infidelity, can we really blame someone stuck in an arranged marriage which had turned out to be miserable, in an era where a divorce or an annulment was not an easy thing to do?

    “She was controlling, entitled, and a manipulator herself.”
    Linnea: that description certainly fits how her opponents chose to see her, I agree. However, I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of her personality – she was far more complex than that. I find it interesting that such terminology is so frequently used to describe Anne (“schemer” is a favourite word used by her detractors), whereas you could conceivably apply those words to the behaviour of so-called “good Queens,” at times, but no one does. Everyone is capable of manifesting those traits to a degree. Catherine Parr also had a bit of a fiery temperament, by all accounts, yet she is never described in the negative terms that Anne is.

    Anne could certainly be short-tempered and vindictive under stress (but hey, so can I!), but also demonstrated intense loyalty, compassion and integrity. Probably it is true to say – especially if you subscribe to the political coup theory, which does make sense to me, although I don’t buy the notion that Henry was cheerfully oblivious and passively went along with it – that she had something of a hand in her demise; had she not clashed so violently with Cromwell, perhaps he would not have moved against her, and perhaps she would have had the opportunity to restore herself in Henry’s favour. That said, I think it demonstrates her sense of honour – she was not prepared to stand by and be silent when she saw something going on (the distribution of church revenues into the treasury, rather than for charitable purposes) that she did not agree with. That takes guts. Irrespective of her personality traits, had she not miscarried her son in 1536, her position would have been unassailable.

    The Boleyns weren’t saints by any stretch – nor would we want them to be, that’s what makes them interesting – but they were both absolute class acts, as their final speeches demonstrate.

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