The Incest Question by Clare Cherry
Posted By Claire on March 15, 2013
Today we have a guest article from Clare Cherry who has been researching the Boleyns, in particular George Boleyn, for many years. Thanks Clare!
Why do so many people still accept the incest allegation against Anne and George Boleyn as being true? Come to that, why do so many people believe the other allegations against Anne, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Anne was charged with adultery with a man she barely knew, a servant she probably wouldn’t have touched with an over-sized jousting pole, one of the King’s best friends who was married, and a youth who was good at tennis. The indictment doesn’t even make sense in that on all but two of the dates Anne was supposed to have committed adultery either she was somewhere else or the man was. Perhaps it was adultery by proxy!
Here I’m just dealing with the supposed incest and the reasons why it is still believed to be true. What you do read quite often are comments that there were rumours about Anne and George and their inappropriate relationship during their lifetime. It is assumed that there must have been rumours which resulted in the eventual charge. But the recurring suggestion that there were rumours about the siblings relationship during their lives is a myth. There were no rumours. Not one shred of evidence has come down to us to suggest that anyone believed that had an ‘unnatural relationship’.
They were very close, of that there is no doubt. To her he was her beloved, ‘sweet brother’. They shared the same interests, the same fierce intelligence and the same religious views. Likewise, he adored his sister, which is strongly exemplified by his dedication to her prefixing a translation he undertook for her where he describes himself as her, ‘Most loving and friendly brother’ who ‘sendeth greetings’. He talks of the perpetual bond of blood between them which binds him to her. It is very beautiful, and it shows the depth of affection between them. But being close to your sister does not mean you are having a sexual relationship with her, and at no time was it hinted at by anyone that their relationship was anything other than a close sibling bond.
The only modern historian who suggests Anne may have been guilty is G W Bernard in his book, ‘Fatal Attractions’. In it he attempts to argue that Anne was guilty of adultery with Norris and Smeaton, and possibly Weston. He provides very little evidence for proving anything against her, and his thesis seems more of a ‘what if’, although that is merely my opinion. Despite the headlines in various newspapers he does not try and argue that Anne committed incest with her brother. He says that George was found guilty because the jury believed he was a man capable of committing incest, not that he actually had. He suggests this due to George’s supposed reputation as a womaniser and because he read aloud the allegation that Anne had informed his wife of Henry’s impotency. Of course, Bernard also argues that by finding Anne, George and the rest guilty, the jury actually believed they were guilty. I admire Bernard’s trust in human nature, but I don’t think that a guilty verdict was arrived at because of a belief in guilt. Did Thomas Boleyn believe his daughter had committed adultery with four courtiers when he found those four courtiers guilty of adultery with her? I don’t believe so.
So why was George charged with incest when there had been no rumours leading up to his arrest? Step forward Lady Jane Rochford. She provided the damning evidence which sent her husband and sister-in-law to the scaffold and admitted that she had lied about the siblings at her own execution less than six years later; or so many, including some writers of non-fiction, would have us believe. But the scaffold speech of Lady Rochford is a myth, and there is no evidence that she provided the prosecution with the accusation of incest which sent her husband to his death.
There was a charge of incest so surely there must be evidence. That is what we like to think today, because the alternative is to accept that an innocent woman and five innocent men went to their deaths on someone’s whim; be that Cromwell’s, Henry VIII’s or a combination of the two. We can’t imagine a situation where someone can be charged out of the blue with a crime, without evidence to back it up, and that those people would be put to death. So we do our level best to find something to give a reason why the miscarriage of justice took place. It’s human nature to try and make sense of what we can’t comprehend. We try to impose logic where logic may not actually exist. Hence there must have been rumours about Anne and George. But there weren’t. Someone must have given damning evidence which proved guilt. But no one did.
It is argued that there was more evidence against Anne but that it has been lost. I cannot agree. All we have is hearsay and vague references. If there had been real evidence of wrongdoing it would have been shouted from the rooftops, not hidden away. Somehow, somewhere and from someone we would know about it. Any real evidence would have come down to us, but all we have is innuendo.
Chapuys says George was convicted merely on a presumption because on one occasion he had spent a long time alone with Anne. No witnesses were called, so Chapuys says. But surely that’s unbelievable. There has to be more to it than that. How could Henry VIII possibly believe such a thing unless there was hard evidence? That is of course always assuming Henry did believe it. I don’t accept that he did, but irrespective of that there are other reasons for such a charge to be brought. It blackened Anne’s name even further and it got rid of a powerful and influential courtier who would surely have fought to save his sister. Anne and George were accused of laughing behind Henry’s back at his clothes, poetry etc. Whether or not they did is immaterial. If Henry thought they did, then they were dead the moment the allegation came to Henry’s ears. George’s death, and the charges raised against him, may have been little more than spite and malice.
Yet despite the lack of evidence, the myth relating to supposed rumours and the myth that Lady Rochford gave damning evidence of incest, still exists, and there are still those who believe in the myths and who believe the siblings were guilty. I suppose it’s possible they were guilty in the same way that anything is possible, but being possible doesn’t make it probable. A lot of the questions relating to Anne and George’s supposed guilt stem from a book published in 2001 entitled ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. In it there is a strong inference that the siblings committed incest in order to conceive a child. The deformed monster foetus is later burned in the fire. The author has said in interviews that if Anne were desperate for a child then her brother ‘would be the obvious choice’. I’m not quite sure that would be the obvious choice for many of us, or for two such religious people as Anne and George Boleyn, but there you are. What the book did do is give credence to the possibility that the allegation was true. It planted the seed in the minds of many people who hadn’t previously given it much thought. It raised endless questions.
Then came Mantel’s, ‘Bring up the Bodies’, which insinuated a possible truth in the allegations against Anne, including the charge of incest. In interviews Mantel points out that Anne and George Boleyn were not brought up together and that there could, therefore, easily have been a sexual attraction between them which may have been acted on. That is ignoring the morality of the act, in the knowledge they were brother and sister. But then again the Anne and George Boleyn of Mantel’s fiction can easily be reconciled with people who wouldn’t let morality get in the way of a little incest.
These fictional accounts, and the authors’ comments, have muddied the waters. They have made possible what the majority of historians have been disputing for decades. They have blurred the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and made a cruel plot believable to many people. The myth is perpetuated, and now the Boleyn siblings are having to declare their innocence against a charge which would have caused shame and horror to both of them yet again, nearly five-hundred years after they first had to, this time through people who care about them and who care about justice for them.
There will always be those who accept in their totality the charges brought against Anne and her co-accused, and think of Anne as an adulteress and whore. They are entitled to their opinion and I’m not suggesting that everyone who believes her guilty has read too much fiction and not enough fact. But I would be interested to hear if there are those who believe the incest allegation and who can actually point to hard facts to suggest why they believe it, rather than vague innuendo and myth. It may just be a matter of people believing what they want to believe, or at least accepting it. After all, isn’t that exactly what happened in 1536.