Thank you so much to author and historian Elizabeth Norton for writing this guest post for us…
It is often assumed that Anne Boleyn was named after her great aunt, Anne St Leger, the sister of her grandmother, Margaret Butler. Anne was given an important Boleyn family name, however, and her great-grandmother, the earliest recorded Anne Boleyn, was one of the family’s most prominent and socially important ancestors.
The Boleyn family first emerged in the late fourteenth century at Salle in Norfolk. An Emma Boleyn, noted in a court roll in 1377, is the first recorded Boleyn woman. Otherwise, nothing is known of her life. Later Boleyn women of Salle are more vivid: Alice, the wife of Geoffrey Boleyn of Salle, is commemorated in a fine brass in the parish church – a church that her husband helped to build. The couple had at least three children who survived to adulthood: Cecily, who is remembered in a brass at Blickling in Norfolk, Thomas, who was a scholar of some note and, their younger son, another Geoffrey, who became a hatter in London.
Geoffrey II’s first wife was named Dionise, although nothing more is known about her. She was not the mother of any of his known children, although a Dionysius Boleyn, who appears as a benefactor to Queen’s College, Cambridge, may well have been her son. Dionysius was listed alongside Geoffrey II, Geoffrey’s wife, Anne, and his brother, Thomas, implying a family link. The similarity of his highly unusual name to Dionise’s is suggestive. If he was Dionise’s son, he did not live to succeed to his father’s considerable wealth.
Although a respectable trade, Geoffrey did not remain a hatter for long, entering the prestigious Mercers’ Company in 1435, indicating that his business affairs had, by then, taken on a more general trading capacity. He quickly became active and prominent in the company. By 1443, he had been appointed as one of its wardens. In 1449, he sat in parliament for the first time and, in 1457, he reached the pinnacle of his career when he became Lord Mayor of London. Geoffrey made a vast fortune as a merchant, purchasing the manor of Blickling in Norfolk from Sir John Falstolf in order to be able to present himself as a gentleman. He also sought an appropriate gentlewoman as a second wife.
Anne Hoo was the only surviving child of Sir Thomas Hoo and his second wife, Elizabeth Wynchingham. She was born in 1425 and was, thus, around twenty years younger than Geoffrey. The date of her marriage does not survive although, since Anne and Geoffrey’s eldest son, Thomas, turned 21 at some point between 1463 and 1466, he must have been born between 1442 and 1445, when Anne was aged between seventeen and twenty. Girls in Anne’s family tended to marry early, with two of her much younger half-sisters marrying in their early teens. One, confusingly also called Anne, was widowed before she turned fifteen, while a second, Eleanor, had married by the age of thirteen or fourteen. Anne’s marriage to Geoffrey could therefore conceivably have occurred as early as 1436 or 1438, particularly as she was then potentially a very great heiress.
At the time of her marriage Anne was her father’s only surviving child, although his third marriage later produced three daughters (all born after 1448). If Geoffrey hoped for financial profit for the Boleyns, he was to be unlucky: Anne’s father died so indebted that his chosen executors refused to act and his third wife brazenly made off with all the goods that she could carry before they were confiscated to pay creditors. As a testament to her strong-will and tenacity, it was Anne who succeeded in getting the most out of the bankrupt estate, taking her claims to the Chancery courts following her father’s death in 1455. She was the driving force behind this, with the court documents naming her as the lead claimant, flanked by her half-sisters. While her uncle claimed the family’s hereditary lands, she succeeded in negotiating a settlement in 1474 to ensure that her own eldest surviving son, William Boleyn, was named as his heir, in preference to the claims of her half-sisters.
The marriage between Anne and Geoffrey was socially unequal. Although prosperous, Geoffrey was no gentleman, and he would have been required to pay a considerable sum to marry Thomas Hoo’s heiress. Anne’s father was created Lord Hoo and Hastings by Henry VI in 1448, when his daughter was 23 years old, although he had previously been made a knight of the garter. The Hoo family was an old one, having lived in Sussex since at least the reign of Edward II in the early fourteenth century. Family members had begun to come to prominence as royal servants in the reigns of Edward III and his two successors, with Anne’s own father serving as chancellor of France for thirteen years for Henry VI.
In spite of the social disparity and the considerable age gap between the couple, the evidence suggests that they became close, with Geoffrey displaying a good deal of affection for his wife in his Will. At least five children were born to the couple: Thomas, William, Isabel, Anne and Alice. In addition to this, Geoffrey forged bonds with members of Anne’s family, making a bequest in his Will of an annuity to ‘Dame Joanne Hoo my cousin, nun of the house of Barking’ who can be identified as a kinswoman of his wife’s. In return, he asked specifically that Joanne pray for his soul.
Geoffrey died in London in 1463. He left a very detailed Will, written only shortly before his death, in which he placed a good deal of trust in Anne. He decreed that there should be little ceremony made for his funeral save that there should be ‘a dinner to my wife and to my brother Master Thomas and to my executors and such other friends and neighbours as my said wife, my brother and executors will call unto them’.
Geoffrey left Anne a wealthy widow, bequeathing her a significant share of his goods and chattels, including one half of his silver plate. In an age where married women were not permitted to hold any property personally he significantly left Anne all her own clothes, ornaments and jewels, a bequest which, while it seems natural to modern eyes, was not something that all fifteenth century husbands would have condescended to do.
As well as providing for his wife and making sizeable donations to charity, his children were not forgotten. Geoffrey’s sons, Thomas and William, each received the sum of 300 marks, while the daughters, Isabel, Anne and Alice, were given the substantial sum of 1000 marks. In addition to this, Anne Hoo and her brother-in-law, Thomas Boleyn, were given the discretion as to how the remaining half of Geoffrey’s silver was to be divided between the five children. The bequests were all conditional on them either reaching the age of twenty-five or marrying, a common enough provision where large sums were involved. Significantly, although Anne was not appointed to act as trustee for any of her children, she was given considerable control over their futures, with Geoffrey declaring that:
‘I will and ordain by this my testament that none of my foresaid children be married within his age of twenty-five years without the will and assent of Anne my wife, her mother, and of my brother Master Thomas and of my executors or of the more part of them, so that the same Anne my wife while she standeth sole [i.e. unmarried] and my said brother be of the same more part. And if any of my said children be married against the form aforesaid, or be governed in otherwise than by the will and assent of her said mother while she standeth soul, and of my said brother and of my executors or of the more part of them in form aforesaid, I will and ordain that then the bequests by me abovemade to such of my said children as happen to be married or governed contrary to my Will aforesaid rehearsed be utterly void and of none effect’.
To hammer home the point, Geoffrey declared that such forfeited sums should be used charitably for the good of his soul. As a final proof of Geoffrey’s affection for his wife, she was the first named executor to his Will, which was proved on 2 July 1463, only eight days after it was drafted. She remained a widow until her own death.
Anne was left with considerable responsibility for her children, who were all minors when Geoffrey died. Her eldest son, Thomas, succeeded his father and had reached his majority by 1466. He proved short-lived, dying in April 1471. In his Will he asked to be buried with his father in London, leaving his mother as his executor and asking her to use his funds to provide for his soul’s health. The trust shown by young Thomas in Anne was later echoed by her second son, William’s, desire to be buried close to her. Her second daughter, Anne Boleyn Heydon, inherited a silver and gilt bowl with a cover which bore the arms of the Hoo family from her mother, something which she treasured all her life, eventually passing it on to her own granddaughter: a testament to the close relationship between Anne and her daughter and namesake.
There is one incident in Anne’s life which stands out, bringing her character out with a particular vividness. In November 1454 Geoffrey had made strenuous efforts to obtain one of Sir John Falstolf’s wards in marriage for one of his daughters. This came to nothing and, when Geoffrey died in 1463, his daughters were all unmarried. Anne was able to find solid, gentry-status husbands for her two eldest daughters, Isabel and Anne. The marriage of her youngest daughter, Alice, was more troublesome.
Geoffrey had had considerable business dealings with the Paston family of Norfolk, who, like the Boleyns had prospered after rising from peasant stock. While there was some rivalry between the two families, it was the Boleyns who outstripped their Norfolk rivals. In the 1460s the family was headed by Sir John Paston and his younger brother, another John. With little inheritance, the younger John wanted a wealthy bride, with his choice falling on Alice Boleyn.
Sir John Paston went in person to speak with Anne in March 1467 to discuss the possibility of the match. He found a woman fully in control of her deceased’s husband’s affairs and unmoved by his pleas, writing to give his brother the disappointing news that:
‘As for my Lady Boleyn’s disposition to you-wards, I cannot in no wise find her agreeable that ye should have her daughter, for all the privy means that I could make, insomuch I had so little comfort by all the means that I could make, that I disdained in mine own person to common [i.e. speak] with her therein’.
The best that Sir John could obtain from Anne, who was seeking a more prestigious husband for her daughter, was that she assured him that ‘what if he [younger John] and she [Alice] can agree I will not let it, but I will never advise her thereto wise’. This was hardly approval from the prospective mother-in-law, although it does show some degree of indulgence in Anne as a mother that she was prepared to allow Alice to make her own choice, particularly given the power that Geoffrey’s Will gave her in relation to her daughters’ marriages.
Anne’s words did not dissuade the young man, in spite of the fact that she was negotiating another marriage for her daughter at that time with a man named Crosseby. Soon after her meeting with Sir John Paston, she returned home to Norfolk with her daughter. She was overtaken on the road by Sir John’s letter to his brother in which he advised him to continue in his pursuit of Alice, both by seeking out and charming the mother, as well as taking more immediate steps to win the daughter herself. According to Sir John, who had fully weighed up his brother’s advantages:
‘Ye be personable, and peradventure your being once in the sight of the maid, and a little discovering of your good will to her, binding her to keep it secret, and that ye can find in your heart, with some comfort to her, to find the mean to bring such matter about as shall be her pleasure and yours, but that this ye cannot do without some comfort of her in no wise’.
Both brothers had high hopes that the younger John would win Alice’s affections, although Sir John finished by counselling his brother that ‘bear yourself as lowly to the mother as ye list, but to the maid not too lowly’.
The younger John was not as forthcoming as his brother wished and, instead, the following month wrote to complain that he could not possibly speak to the formidable Lady Boleyn unless his brother came home and accompanied him. His timidity cost him a meeting with Anne, who, on her return to Norfolk, travelled to Norwich for the week after Easter, accompanied by both her married daughter, Anne Boleyn Heydon and her youngest daughter, the desirable Alice. This was a missed opportunity for John, who was then at Caistor and claimed not to have been aware of the visit until it was too late. According to reports of Anne’s servants that reached the younger John, ‘she had none other errand to the town but for to sport her; but so God help me, I suppose that she wend I would have been in Norwich for to have seen her daughter’. Given Anne’s earlier response to young John’s suit, this seems unlikely. He did not receive another opportunity and Anne took no steps to promote the match. She later married her daughter much more satisfactorily to a knight: Sir John Fortescue.
The first Anne Boleyn died in Norfolk in 1485. She was buried in Norwich Cathedral with her grave marked by a memorial brass. Sadly, her memorial has been moved since the sixteenth century and all that survives is the outline of a woman on the re-positioned stone. Guides in the cathedral are happy to point out the remains of the monument to ‘their Anne Boleyn’ when you visit.
Anne Hoo Boleyn, who continued the family’s social rise following the death of her husband, was remembered by her descendants as the ancestor who first provided the Boleyns with links to the nobility. In my research for my forthcoming book, Boleyn Women, she stands out as one of the most vibrant, and fascinating, early members of the Boleyn family and it is fitting that her great-granddaughter, Queen Anne, received her name. This article is based on Boleyn Women and the references for this article can be found in the notes section there. Alternatively, you can contact me directly at email@example.com for further information.