The Death of Thomas Boleyn – 12 March 1539


On this day in history, 12th March 1539, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond, and father of Queen Anne Boleyn, died at Hever Castle, aged around 62. His servant, Robert Cranwell, wrote to Cromwell the next day to inform him of his death:-

“My good lord and master is dead. He made the end of a good Christian man. Hever, 13 March.”1

Henry VIII ordered masses to be said for his soul, a clear sign that Thomas was back in favour at his death, and Thomas was laid to rest in the family church, St Peter’s Church at Hever. You can still see his tomb there today. It is decorated by a magnificent brass which shows him dressed as a Knight of the Garter and above his right shoulder sits his daughter Anne’s falcon crest and at his feet there is a griffin. His son, Henry Boleyn, is buried nearby, his tomb marked with a small cross on the stone floor.

You can find out more about Thomas Boleyn in my article “Thomas Boleyn, Father of Anne Boleyn”.

Notes and Sources

  1. LP xiv. 511
  2. LP xiv. 950

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16 thoughts on “The Death of Thomas Boleyn – 12 March 1539”
  1. RIP Thomas Boleyn.

    I used to think that he was a really cold man, now I don’t know what to believe about him. Maybe he wasn’t as calculating and scheming as some people think. But still I can’t understand how he could see Henry in the eye when he knew that he killed his children. Couldn’t he just retreat in the country, he really had to remain in court and serve Henry?

  2. I also have been led to believe that he was a gold digger in Henry’s court. Maybe in one of your new books you could cover this infamous man. Bring to light the truths as to how he truly felt about the execution of two of his children and the pimping of another. What kind of father would do that and what kind of mother would have allowed it?? Maybe you could cover Elizabeth Boleyn also. I went to St. Margrets Chapel near Westminster Abbey but could not find her grave. She is there is she not???? I know the BBC series, “The Tudors” which all of us are very familiar with, made him out to be a demon. I think Charles Brandon saw him for what he was and a few others, but maybe they were all in favor of his downfall only to enrich their raising even further up in Henry’s court. Sometimes I wonder if Henry really ever thought he had true friends?????

    1. He will play a big part in my book on The Boleyns but there is no evidence that he pimped out his daughters. The Blount family were not rewarded when Bessie was Henry’s mistress so there would be no reason for Thomas Boleyn to expect that he had anything to gain from his daughters’ relationships with the King. He was a favourite at court before Mary’s affair with Henry and rose due to his own talents. He was known for being the best French speaker at court, was on very good terms with Margaret of Austria and was a skilled diplomat. We don’t know that much about Elizabeth Boleyn but she acted as Anne’s chaperone while Anne was being courted by the King, so she was there for her daughter. Elizabeth Boleyn was laid to rest in the Howard Chapel of St Mary’s Church in Lambeth, which is now a garden museum.
      See for a bit more on Thomas.

  3. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn, thanks to a lack of detailed primary sources, come across as totally enigmatic to us. As Eliza points out in her post, how was it possible for Thomas to still serve his King, knowing that that King had put his son and heir (as well as the carrier of the family name!) to death, as well as his daughter? Did it grieve Thomas to know that he would have no grandchildren to carry on the Boleyn name? Sure, there were Mary’s children Catherine and Henry, as well as Anne’s Elizabeth, but none of them would have been used the surname Boleyn, which was the main reason sons were so desperately wanted by noble families.

    The Duke of Norfolk excused Thomas Boleyn from serving on the jury which convicted Anne and George. Was Norfolk afraid that Thomas, as their father, knowing them so well, would give irrefutable evidence that the charges against them were nonsense? Karen Lindsay, in “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” stated that Norfolk didn’t need to worry that that “miserable opportunist would risk defending his children,” but I wonder if the opposite could have been true, which is why Norfolk did keep Thomas off the jury. Since the Howards were so closely tied to the Boleyns, it is possible to state the Norfolk was doing his best to cover his heinie so the entire Howard family didn’t lose everything. That he had to sacrifice his brother in law’s children, oh, well. Thomas Howard IS documented as a very ambitious, cold fish, while that cannot be stated for certain about Thomas Boleyn.

    Though we know parent/child, husband/wife, sibling/sibling other/family relations were treated FAR differently in Anne’s time from ours, I wonder how much has NOT changed? Maybe that would be another article for you, Claire – what was different in family relations in Anne’s time and what has NOT changed in all that time between families.

    1. Your last idea is great, miladyblue! Some things we now consider “normal”, weren’t viewed as such in the 1500’s and vice versa. But, really, wasn’t the love of a parent for a child always stronger than self-preservation?

      1. I agree with you, Eliza! I have known people who have taken great risks to protect their children, up to and including things that put their own lives on the line.

        However, we are still kind of operating in a “fog” of our modern perceptions – we modern people can’t really wrap our heads around the concept an arranged marriage, where the wife was literally bartered to the best match, regardless of whether she and her husband actually loved one another, or even knew one another.

        It is the same “fog” with regards to other familial relations of that particular timeframe – Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, didn’t seem to have any problems with abandoning Anne and George, even presiding over the jury that convicted them and sentenced them to death. He didn’t have that problem with the same thing with poor Kathryn Howard and Jane Boleyn a few years later.

        I get extremely angry with Henry for treating his wives in such a disgraceful fashion, but again, I am looking at him 500 some odd years later, through a thick modern fog. Our perceptions HAVE changed. We don’t treat women as property any more, and I can’t think of NORMAL parents who would sacrifice their own children to further their own personal ambitions. But could that have been business as usual in Tudor times?

        I would LOVE to see “Miss Claire Marple,” our fine historic detective who started this blog, take on this particular challenge, because part of the problem with the different (and sometimes WRONG) perceptions we have on the era, not to mention the major players is that most folks don’t really understand or know the customs/traditions of this timeframe.

  4. How horrible it must feel! To work under the king that just had your son and daughter executed…. Just sayin…

  5. Claire,Iagree that Thomas was not a pimp,but he sure did get plenty of titles when Mary was bedding the King,and many more when Anne before and after Anne became the Queen,giving favors to the King meant getting rewards weather man or women.That was how one could live well and not be a popper,the more Thomas gave to the King the more money,titles land ect.I really disliked the fact ,that he was on Annes trial, as a judge as well as Norforlk , however you had to save your own head to,but I never heard anything about how Annes mother delt with her children being put to death?Have you ?

  6. I agree that things were much different then with family, but I am wondering if in Thomas Bolyen’s heart and deep in his soul, the grief of the loss of his childrem has a bit of something to do with his death only 3 years later?

  7. Has anyone mentioned that Thomas Boleyn, like his son George, risked his life in smuggling reformist books into England? That is not the action of a “I’m only in this for the money” kind of man.

    We truly know next to nothing about Thomas’s relationships with his children. I would be careful not to take The Tudors as an authority on the matter! (God forbid!) As for continuing to serve the king, did anyone have a lot of choice? Thomas had already lost two children; I’m not sure risking his own head would have done much good in this case, as it couldn’t bring them back.

  8. I remeber you virtual tour of the sons, Thomas and Henry Boleyn, and how you deciphered, and with such class, showed how that cross of Henry Boleyn was exactly that. Now I know, in relation to, that is, about where you are speaking, Claire. I will have to read up on how he got back into the King’s good will in less than three years after his innocent daughter and son were executed under prejudgment. He even had to answer at trial that Anne and George “were issue of his body.” Maybe Lady Rochford had something to do with it, who knows. Henry, I believe, was still in mourning for Jane Seymour at this time as well. This was definitely before Anne of Cleves became his “sister,” and Catherine Howard entered the picture, and subsequently, before Lady Rochford and Catherine were beheaded circa. 1541-1542.

    I do, however, now know that father and son are buried together with Anne’s mark on his tomb! Dear Anne, what a triumph! Thank you, WilesWales

  9. Whether some think Thomas Boleyn sacrificed his children for his own ambition, and others think he achieved recognition through his own hard work and ability, then gained added favour because of the Kings short interest in Mary, then Henrys full-on passion for Anne, and became swept up by the whole situation, I think we all agree that we have to remember that this happened nearly 500 years ago, and things were sooo different then..but are they? There are still cultures out there that have arranged marriages, where women are the property of first, their fathers, then their husbands, who are dictated to how they behave and dress,with little or no control over their lives. These cultures will also turn their back on family members if they bring what they consider to be ‘shame’ on them, not caring what happens to them afterwards, in some cases administering extreme punishments. Please don’t think I am criticising other peoples cultures, as that is not my intension, but these ways are not far different from the medieval/Tudor times, and to agree with what miladyblue wrote above ‘how much has NOT changed’.

    Thomas may have become more cold and calculating as Anne rose higher and higher, (I doubt there was a man at that court who wouldn’t have grasped the chance if it had been presented to them), and when you get to the top of your game you have to fight hard and fast to stay there. But when these people at the top started to fall I would think the only thing that governed them then was abject fear…a powerful emotion that may make you do things that you wouldn’t do in normal situations…living under a regime where the only way you can save your life is by accepting the fact that your family forgo theirs is a hard and terrible concept for us to imagine and accept.

    Those few years Thomas lived after those terrible events, I am sure would have haunted and caused him great mental anguish every day, pushing him quicker to his own death.
    Punishment, some may think, for the things he might have done. I, myself can’t condemn him, so I hope he is at peace now.

  10. The fact that he remained serving so close to Henry after he killed his daughter, his heir and bastardized his granddaughter, speaks volumes to me. You could say he didn’t have a choice – but he did. He had plenty to go on and live a quiet country life. Yet he stayed in court and spent his last years doing his best to please a cruel, murderous king. It’s hard for me to believe he had any true remorse or regrets for the deaths of his children, or that he cared at all, for that matter…

  11. What a wonderful website I have found today! Thank you. This will keep me interested for years to come.

    I made my pilgrimage to Hever again this summer and it’s even more magical a place to me. To look out of Anne’s little bedroom window and to imagine the innocent child seeing much the same all those years ago brings the tragedy of her life right into focus.

    A question I have though is concerning the date of Thomas’ death. The plaque at Hever Church indicates 1538 and not 1539. Was this a “typo” on the part of the brass works?

    Here’s a copy of it:

    Please let me know if you can clear this up and thank you again

    Anthony Smith (Adelaide)

    1. Hi Anthony,
      Thank you, I’m so glad that you found the site and that you like it.

      The confusion over the death date has been caused by the fact that the Tudor new year started on 25th March, Lady Day. In Tudor terms, Thomas Boleyn died in 1538 because he died on 12th March, before the year 1539 started on 25th March. We, however, date the new year from 1st January so we have to change the dates of births/deaths that took place in the Tudor era between 1st January and 24th March. By our timing, Thomas Boleyn actually died in 1539 because we have 1539 starting on 1st January, not 25th March. Does that make sense?

    2. In the 1950s, I made a rubbing of the brass plaque in the church at Hever which commemorates the death Anne Boleyn’s father. I still have it and it hangs in my dining room. I live in Adelaide, South Australia.

      The inscription is as follows;

      Here lieth Thomas Bullen Knight of the Order of the Garter Erle of Wilscher and Erle of Ormunde wich decessed the 12 dai of Marche in the iere of our Lorde 1538

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