The unhappy George and Jane of The Tudors

Numerous myths and falsehoods plague the memories of Anne and George Boleyn. But there are three specific ones relating to George:-

  1. That he and Anne actually committed the incest they were accused of. This suggestion was largely put to bed (pardon the pun) until the publication of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, in which it was strongly hinted at that they were guilty of trying to have a baby together and pass it off as Henry’s. Once again this raised the question in people’s minds and renewed the belief that it may be true. Thankfully the impact and effect of that book is passing, and not even G W Bernard argues that Anne and George were guilty of incest, despite what was reported in a number of newspapers.
  2. That George was either homosexual or bisexual. I’ve dealt with this in a previous article.
  3. That George and Jane Boleyn had an unhappy marriage.

George and Jane had an arranged marriage. Did that mean these two people were forced into a marriage that neither wanted? I don’t think so. Both of them had been at court since they were children. They would have known each other for years prior to their marriage in 1524/25, and there is nothing to suggest either had an aversion to the other. They were both attractive people from good families. Although the marriage was arranged, as with most marriages in their social circle, there is nothing to suggest it was enforced.

Their marriage has been discussed, dissected and disassembled over the last four-hundred and fifty years. Not bad bearing in mind there are no contemporaneous records relating to the state of their marriage whatsoever. In May 1536 Jane wrote to George following his arrest and asked how he was and promised to get him a hearing before the council. Upon receipt of the letter George sent her his thanks, with no indication that he believed she was merely being facetious. This is the only reference we have which hints to a relationship between them. We have absolutely nothing else to go on which gives us any indication of what their private relationship was like or the state of their marriage. It simply isn’t documented.

Extant records are virtually completely silent with respect to Jane, which is hardly surprising. She was merely a woman and a wife with no political importance. And yet there has always been a general consensus that her marriage to George was unhappy, which can be based on nothing more than an assumption. Was it a miserable marriage? Was she jealous of George’s relationship with Anne? Did she hate George? Did he hate her? Did they hate each other? I have absolutely no idea what their day to day marriage was like or how they felt about one another. I’m not necessarily putting forward an argument that their marriage was loving, happy and filled with roses. They were close enough to discuss Henry’s sexual prowess together, which would suggest an open and relaxed marriage, but irrespective of that, I’m just saying we don’t have any conclusive evidence to say one way or the other.

So if there is no direct evidence to suggest how they felt about one another, then what is the assumption of an unhappy marriage based on? I think there are two premises that have created the assumption:-

  1. George’s reputation as a womaniser.
  2. The largely accepted view that Jane provided Cromwell with the evidence he needed to accuse Anne and George of incest.

Dealing with the first, the sole piece of evidence we have to suggest George was a womaniser comes from Cavendish’s ‘Metrical Visions’, and Cavendish is hardly an unbiased source. No other source mentions it, meaning there is no corroboration. That doesn’t mean I’m dismissing Cavendish. However much I admire George I’m not daft enough to think of him as a paragon of virtue. He was a typical sixteenth century man, when extra-marital affairs (on behalf of the man, of course) were an accepted part of marriage. Although ‘Metrical Visions’ was written twenty years after George’s death, Cavendish would have personally known George, and there’s no reason to suppose he was lying. I think it’s highly likely that George was unfaithful to Jane, just as many men were unfaithful to their wives, including Henry VIII. However, it doesn’t mean that they hated their wives, or that their wives hated them. It doesn’t mean their marriages were unhappy either. Jane, like Anne and many other wives, may not have been happy with any infidelity of her husband, but it certainly wouldn’t have surprised her.

The difference in George’s case is that, due to the extremity of the language, Cavendish’s verses have been used to argue he was a ‘notorious libertine’ to a greater degree than the average courtier. However, there was never any scandal surrounding George during his lifetime, and no rumours regarding his marriage. He was the Queen’s brother and one of the highest profile and influential of Henry’s courtiers. If his behaviour with other women had been ‘bestial’ then surely someone would have picked up on it other than Cavendish twenty years later? No one felt his behaviour was base enough to comment on, including the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who would have loved to demonise the young Boleyn brother had the opportunity arisen!

I think the lack of evidence points to George being no more or less of a womaniser than the majority of Henry’s courtiers. In my view Cavendish was exaggerating, and George was just unlucky to have been executed and to have had Cavendish project his morality upon him. They say that history is written by the victors and this is certainly true where the Boleyn siblings are concerned.

The second premise to suggest George and Jane Boleyn had an unhappy marriage is that, throughout history, Jane has been blamed for providing the evidence which sent George to his death. Yet other than providing the prosecution with a statement saying Anne had told her of Henry’s occasional sexual dysfunction, there is no evidence to prove Jane was behind the incest allegation. I’m not going into detail about that because Claire has already written a brilliant article about Jane being history’s scapegoat, and I would just be regurgitating what she said. It was unfortunate that Jane told the prosecution of Anne’s comments, because if Henry believed that Anne and George openly discussed intimate information pertaining to him then the siblings were dead the moment that allegation came to Henry’s ears, irrespective of the incest charge. I think that Jane was known to have given evidence at the trial of the Boleyns, but the exact nature of that evidence became skewed and exaggerated over time like Chinese whispers until it became accepted fact that she betrayed the siblings and that it was Jane who provided evidence of incest.

In almost every book in which Jane appeared, whether fiction or non-fiction, her character became blacker and blacker. And with each portrayal that perception became more and more entrenched, until we were left with the monster so many people think she was.

Taking the two threads used to argue an unhappy marriage, then other than Cavendish I have found no evidence to suggest George was any more of a womaniser than any other courtier, and there is no evidence to prove Jane provided evidence which helped convict Anne and George of incest.

So what we’re left with is actually very little. Yet irrespective of that, the myth lives on, because in virtually every book which refers to George and Jane, they have a miserable marriage. And because of that people often try to theorise why Jane hated George and why she gave evidence against him. In most works of fiction, and some non-fiction, Jane is a jealous vicious vindictive shrew. Alternatively George is cruel and uncaring towards her. ‘The Tudors’ took that one step further and had him rape her. In Alison Weir’s ‘The Lady in the Tower’ she theorises that George was probably cruel to Jane and perhaps subjected her to unusual sexual practises. She also suggests he may have committed acts of rape, without giving a shred of evidence to support that theory, other than one line in ‘Metrical Visions’, which says, ‘I forced widows’. From this one innocuous comment George is turned into a rapist and wife abuser, despite there being no evidence to substantiate the allegation.

Sadly these myths are propagating rather than diminishing, largely due to an attempt to find a reason for the unhappiness in the Boleyn marriage, when in fact we have no evidence that the marriage was unhappy, or that Jane hated her husband, or that she gave evidence to convict him of incest.

Following George’s death Jane got on with her life. She became lady-in-waiting to two of Henry’s future queen’s before coming to a sticky end in 1541. This may suggest she and George were not particularly close by 1536, but it’s hardly conclusive evidence. Thomas Boleyn got on with his life too, as did Francis Weston’s father who continued to serve Henry. It does not mean these people didn’t care about their loved ones. It’s difficult for us to understand their responses to the murders of their children/husbands, and how they were able to continue in Henry’s service. To Jane and Thomas court life was all they knew, and in order to have any hope of a future in the glorified world they were used to, they had to put the deaths of 1536 behind them, irrespective of their personal feelings.

Perhaps in private George and Jane Boleyn fought like cat and dog and she regularly threw the fire-irons at him! It’s possible, as with any marriage, but possible doesn’t mean probable, particularly where there’s no evidence. Possibly, perhaps, maybe, probably, likely. These words aren’t good enough to base a theory on and they certainly aren’t good enough to destroy two reputations.

Back to Claire (Ridgway)

Thank you so much, Clare, for your article on George and Jane, I feel very strongly about the way that fiction and TV has caused people to assume that George and Jane were unhappy, that George was gay and that Jane too revenge for her ill-treatment by betraying Anne and George in 1536.

I think another premise for the unhappy marriage argument is the fact that George and Jane were childless. There is no evidence of a living child so therefore the marriage was unhappy, is the assumption. In my opinion it is a dangerous assumption to make when we know nothing of Jane’s obstetric history. As Clare has pointed out, Jane was not an important woman, she was simply the wife of a courtier, so nobody would bother recording her having a miscarriage or stillbirth, would they? Jane could have had a number of pregnancies, we just don’t know, or perhaps one of them had fertility issues. To say that the absence of a child means that their marriage was unhappy is like adding 2 and 2 and getting 5.

If you’re going to jump to a conclusion about the state of their marriage then why not conclude that it was happy, or, at least, tolerable. It appears that Jane, George and Anne discussed Henry VIII’s sexual prowess, and, as Clare says, Jane wrote to George when he was imprisoned in the Tower, so perhaps there’s more evidence of a close relationship rather than an abusive one. Of course, a happy marriage isn’t quite so interesting, is it?

What do you think?

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