Thomas Boleyn died on 12th March 1539

Mar12,2021 #Thomas Boleyn

On this day in history, 12th March 1539, at the Boleyn family home, Hever Castle, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde, died.

His servant, Robert Cranwell, wrote to Thomas Cromwell the following day to give him news of Wiltshire’s death, writing: “My good lord and master is dead. He made the end of a good Christian man.” The next month, Wiltshire’s former son-in-law, King Henry VIII paid 16l. 13s. 4d. to his chaplain, William Franklyn, Dean of Windsor, “for certain oraisons, suffrages and masses to be said for the soul’s health of th’erle of Wilts, late deceased”.

Due to fiction and TV, many people think that Thomas Boleyn was an overly-ambitious social climber who was willing to pimp his daughters to the king to climb the ladder of success. But that’s just not true, and today I’ll be remembering the Thomas Boleyn who gave his daughter Anne the wonderful opportunity to be educated at Margaret of Austria’s court, who was a humanist who acted as a patron to many, and who served two kings loyally.

You can read more about him in my article In Defence of Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn and here are some videos on him.

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6 thoughts on “Thomas Boleyn died on 12th March 1539”
  1. Thomas Boleyn was ambitious, that’s not a criticism, its a fact, because you didn’t succeed at Court or as a member of the middle nobility without being ambitious. Like many of the gentry he came from a family of social climbers who married money or owned land. They were both from the merchant and knightly or lordly classes and they had responsibility to represent the King in their county and to keep law and order there. The Boleyns landed on the winning side after the Wars of the Roses and gained land, position and power as a result of that. They were resourceful, talented and they were well connected and came into Royal Service at a good time.

    Thomas had an opportunity to make his name in 1497 when Henry Vii sent him to help put down the Cornish Rebellion and the Perkin Warbeck Rebellion. He was successful and he was rewarded with Royal office. He was also rewarded with a wife of noble blood, Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Norfolk, later restored to the title of Duke. The Howards themselves had been demoted because they were loyal to Richard iii and John, First Duke had died at Bosworth. Henry Vii took most of their lands and Thomas was put in the Tower for three years. Having proven himself he was given back a lot of the Howard estates and wealth and his daughters were a catch. Elizabeth was offered to Thomas for his services and his affinity.

    Thomas and Elizabeth had a successful marriage and clearly had some affection for each other. Elizabeth was in service to Queen Elizabeth of York and she gave her husband several children early in their marriage, five at least between 1500 and 1507. We know about Mary, Anne and George but two other boys, Thomas and Henry died young. Thomas paid his wife a strong compliment and honour in his letter to Cromwell by speaking of her fertility and loyalty during those years when they struggled financially.

    Thomas Boleyn was one of six premier gentlemen chosen to escort Princess Margaret Tudor to her new husband King James iv of Scotland and represent the King in 1503. He was made a Knight of the Bath by the new King Henry Viii at his coronation in 1509. Henry like his father chose people for their talents rather than a noble birthright to any particular position. Thomas rose quickly through the ranks, becoming amongst other things Controller of the Royal Household and an Ambassador. On his first mission abroad to the Court of Emperor Maximillan and Margaret Regent of the Netherlands, he is believed to have obtained a position for his intellectual daughter Anne at her Court. Anne and her sister Mary later went to the Court of France and Thomas was assigned there as an Ambassador.

    The Boleyns progressed and thrived at the Court of Henry Viii and when the two girls made their debut in 1522 they were in the service of Catharine of Aragon and served for four years before Henry fell for Anne in 1526. By the time Henry and Anne were in a relationship, however, the family had been in Royal Service for over three decades. Anne’s rise had nothing to do with that and vice versa and there is no evidence that Mary gained anything from her short time as Henry’s mistress. Henry was also looking to end his marriage with Catharine because he believed that it was cursed and they were living in sin and he had no living sons. Anne wanted marriage and it seemed the best way forward. Yes, the family did benefit from the long term relationship of Henry Viii with Anne Boleyn but then the Seymour family also benefitted when Jane married him in 1536.

    The Boleyn family gained land and titles and a whole lot of other honours, but they were as I say again already in loyal service to the crown and their rewards were partly to do with that. There is absolutely no evidence that Thomas placed either of his daughters in the Kings bed, that they were forced into anything and Anne in particular made her choices to be Queen. Once Anne was Queen her family rose again as did families around them. This was called affinity and patronage and was how things worked at Court. It was how people got on in life. It was very common. If you wanted a career you needed a rich or noble patron and the King was the best patron of all to have. However, there was also a downside to all of this because if the favourite and family fell, you could do so and the Boleyns found this out to their extreme and fatal cost in 1536.

    After the falal events of May 1536, in which their son and daughter, George and Anne were falsely accused of treason and adultery and brutally executed, the surviving family went home to mourn and remain in seclusion. Thomas and Elizabeth suffered from the shame that treason brings, although Thomas returned to service because that was the way of things and he didn’t really have any way to live otherwise. That doesn’t mean Elizabeth and Thomas didn’t love their children and just what could they do against the King, short of a rebellion? Both of them suffered ill health and they probably died prematurely because of the deaths of Anne and George.

    Finally, here we see that Henry Viii still valued Boleyn as a loyal servant, even though he had been demoted from the position of Lord Privy Zeal, which was given to Thomas Cromwell. Benry praised his continued loyalty and paid a lot of money to have masses said for his soul. He contributed towards his funeral. Thomas had already lost his wife Elizabeth less than a year earlier from illness and I believe he was devastated. He was buried in his beloved Hever and his tomb can be seen in the family Church today. We should rehabilitate Thomas Boleyn and Lauren Mackay does just that in her fantastic biography.

  2. So many myths have arisen around Thomas Boleyn like his daughter Mary, and daughter in law Lady Rochford and in more recent times, his son George’s sexuality has been dragged through the mire, with tales of sexual deviancy and even rape, in fact the whole family has been the subject of rather hot gossip if not downright slander, it is true Thomas got where he was on his own mettle, intelligent with a gift for languages and diplomacy, both Henry V11 and later his son knew this man was a valuable and loyal servant, he was one of a number of men sent to vanquish the pretender Perkin Warbeck and also he was one of the retinue as Bq states that escorted Princess Margaret to Scotland, proof of his monarchs deep trust in him, he was also made a knight of the bath at his sons coronation, later on he became Viscount Rochford, so we can see his daughters involvement with Henry V111 had nothing to do with her or her sister Mary, who briefly had been his mistress, he was later elevated to the peerage by having the title of Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond bestowed on him, being the heir to the Earldom, through his mother Lady Margaret Butler, though many were later to say the Boleyn’s were of humble origin they could boast a lineage back to Edward 1st through their ancestor James Butler Earl of Ormond, although through Geoffrey Boleyn, Thomas’s grandfather the family originated from Norfolk, were of the merchant/ gentry classes, Sir Geoffrey who possibly we could say set the Boleyn’s on the road to fame and fortune, left the marshy fells of East Anglia and headed for London to make his fortune, in true Dick Whittington style, he did in a way find the streets were paved with gold firstly he became a hatter, then its Lord Mayor, and he married a noblewoman Lady Anne Hoo, the daughter of Lord Hoo and Hastings, it seems to ability to rise above ones station was in the blood and for a member of the merchant class to marry into nobility was not that uncommon, many aristocratic families did not have the money to live in the style their noble blood decreed, many found they were in debt or one member had been attainted and had lost the family title and fortunes, so many of them did marry into the merchant class as they were rich and Sir Geoffrey knighted by now, must have been really quite wealthy, a few generations down his grandson Thomas was rising high in the court of Henry V111, and he himself had married an aristocrat, and not just any old one but a Howard to boot, Lady Elizabeth was a great prize said to be beautiful and charming and the marriage appears to have been a success, Thomas was a skilled diplomat and courtier, there are no records of any animosity between him and other courtiers, he was not involved in any murky plots at court and seems to have been well liked and respected, so why has he been for so long made out to be a cold heartless monster who favoured ambition above family, who thrust his daughters into the kings arms and abandoned both son and daughter in their hour of need, like his eldest Mary is painted as a willing wh*re, Thomas is shown as eagerly picking up honours, as first Mary then Anne is seen climbing into the kings brocaded four poster bed, he was portrayed thus in The Tudors, and in Anne Of The Thousand Days he was shown as a rather weak ineffectual man who worried more about keeping his own head than his children’s, in The Tudors I thought his character was besmirched by the dreadful way he was shown actually encouraging Anne to seduce his Majesty, when Anne and George were awaiting death, Brandon visited him in his cell and he was overjoyed when the former told him he was free to go, Boleyn then gleefully replied ‘do I get to keep my title’, he was then shown walking away from the Tower with one last look at Anne as she watched him disappear from sight, maybe fiction who is after all much to blame for most people’s interpretation of history and historical characters, likes the idea of this man appearing blacker than he really was, it goes somehow with the tragedy of the Boleyn’s, Lady Elizabeth is the dutiful obedient wife, and Sir Thomas the head of the family, is a controlling emotionless figure he had three attractive children, they were used to suit his own ends, and lost them through his own greed, Mary angered him when she wed secretly and arrived at court pregnant, to tell her family of her sinful deed, we do not know if they ever became reconciled as we have no sources to go on, but possibly after the deaths of her two siblings, he and his wife must have made peace with her, their only child left, Sir Thomas’s personality is intriguing and he could well have been a serious minded man, he done his job well and pleased two monarchs, he appears like once he set out to do something, he made sure the work was completed, maybe he did not laugh much or bandy jokes with other courtiers, but that does not mean he was cold, he was a loyal husband, there are no scandals attached to him, he gave his children a good education especially Anne, and both George and Mary made good marriages, and contrary to popular belief, there is no record of him being pleased with his two girls affairs with Henry V111, in fact he was against Anne’s marriage to the king, which he tried to dissuade Anne from entering into, so much for his so called desire for political gain, he has been called a pimp who without reservation sat on both his children’s trials, and in fact long after his death the legend continues, he is said every year on the eve of Anne’s death, to ride his horse and carriage over the moors and fens of Norfolk to Blickling Hall, this he has been cursed to do for a thousand years in atonement for agreeing to sit on Anne’s trial, in fact Sir Thomas was spared that cruelty and early writers to have little good to say of him, Norah Lofts described him as ‘one of the most self seeking men in a self seeking age’, in reality. we do not know much of his character to go on, so he does appear a bit of an enigma, many have thought he could have done more for both Anne and George, they do not like the fact he lent his chain of office to Cromwell after their deaths, how could he have participated in the christening of Edward V1? The truth is he had no choice, his position rested entirely with the king, he still had the family fortunes to consider and his wife Mary and her children, he was in service to the king, he went where he was ordered and when told to leave he left, I have no doubt he pleaded the king for their lives, had it been in the days of the early Saxon kings, he could well have raised an army, marched to the prison where his son and daughter were held, and after a bloody battle maybe able to free them, but those days were long gone, Thomas’s inability to help both his children must have ate like a canker in his breast, so he had to like the families of the day who had lost loved ones, had to bow and curtesy and say nothing, survival was necessary in Henry V111’s court.

    1. The Boleyn problems in fiction to me stem from one thing only….Anne and her posthumous and contemporary reputation. If you have two kids arrested in their prime for incest, treason and adultery, then there must be something wrong with you as parents, right? The shame, indeed did fall on the rest of the family, if not in land and property then certainly in the loss of honour and reputation as well as official position. The law allowed the crown to take the goods and the property of those condemned for treason and this happened of course but the property of others in the family remained with them. No Boleyn members were Attained. The remaining family members still had everything belonging to them, but they would have lost income because Thomas was demoted. His most prestigious title was that of Lord Privy Seal and he lost that and it was given to Thomas Cromwell on 2nd July 1536.

      Now this was the third most important office of State and it carried an immense amount of responsibility and trust and as with all Government posts a good income. If nothing else this was a public admission that the Boleyn faction had fallen out of favour and the Seymour and traditional factions were back in favour. These had united in the attack on the Queen and also broadly supported Princess Mary. Thomas Cromwell was publicly rewarded for his part in getting rid of Henry’s unfortunate Queen. The Privy Seal was the personal seal of the monarch, not the Great Seal and was used to seal private orders and letters and his orders. It was used to send letters to Ambassadors and so on. This was an important position of trust. This demotion signalled the fall of the family from grace.

      Even though we know Anne and George were innocent, as did others, a great number of people actually rejoiced at the fall of Anne, primarily those who had supported Katherine of Aragon. Nicholas Carew was practically dancing for joy that the King had come out of hell into heaven. He had trained Jane Seymour on how to play the King, so obviously he knew Henry very well indeed. Anne had made a number of powerful enemies and many didn’t actually care if the charges were true or not. However, that attitude didn’t necessarily translate to animosity towards Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire or to Elizabeth. There isn’t any real evidence to support a breach between him and any of his fellow courtiers and contemporaries, not even Cardinal Wolsey, in whose fall he participated. There wasn’t any personal animosity from the crown either, because Thomas was back in favour very quickly.

      We have criticised the Boleyn family survivors for returning to royal service, but the phrase grin and bear it comes to mind. The Boleyn family had local responsibilities as gentry in keeping the King’s peace and law and order. That included raising troops or a local militia when called upon to do so and this was one of the first things Thomas was told to do by Cromwell when the Pilgrimage of Grace took place. I once saw a comment that if it were my children, I would have risen and hit the King for six. O.K., I am guessing that’s how Boleyn felt and his wife and he were devastated but they had little realistic choices because if he didn’t raise that militia or rebelled, his head goes up on Tower Bridge. The noble families who sucked up to the crown afterwards, following an execution is staggering to us, but they all did it so condemning Thomas and Elizabeth is really modern nonsense. The Staffords did plenty of sucking up as did the Howards for whom execution was a professional hazard. Unfortunately, if you wanted to serve the crown, it was a risk you took and rivalry could easily see a former favourite in the Tower with little provocation. So whether or not the Boleyns returned to royal service out of necessity or because they were super loyal and looking out for nobody but themselves, its totally wrong to condemn them, especially as we have no information on how they felt. We do know there was a breach between Thomas and Norfolk because of a complaint he made regarding something the Duke wrote and when Cromwell asked him to lend him his chain of office, Thomas wrote back saying he did so out of duty but telling him to leave them alone. In other words, the family had withdrawn to Hever to mourn. Personally I think they were absolutely devastated and the King had granted leave to withdraw and mourn. There was nothing anyone could do to help Anne and no he didn’t abandon her or sit on her jury at her trial. Anne was concerned about her mother who was ill at the time of her imprisonment and I believe Anne’s execution killed her. They were very close and there is evidence that they had a deep bond.

      The fact that Thomas Boleyn wasn’t exactly father of the year when it came to Mary has more to do with her behaviour and the dynamics of sixteenth century parenting. Henry Viii wasn’t father of the year after Mary, his daughter, defied him either and Anne was an awful stepmother. None of these factors translate to the modern mythology of Thomas Boleyn being a coward, a bad father, a pimp, a devious and overly ambitious man who wanted to rule through his daughters or that they gained the family its place in the Tudor Court. If Chapuys is to be believed half the families at Court were trying to get Henry to notice their pretty daughters. Anne owed much of her success to herself. She loved the King and the idea of Queenship. Henry fell in love with her and she had a beneficial relationship with him for several years. Anne’s own reputation has suffered badly, showing her as homewrecking wh*re, witch, evil stepmother, the one who turned a good man into a tyrant and monster and out of control sexual predator. Even some historians who show her as innocent of the terrible charges against her have negative things to say about her in other respects. Those who see Anne as a total victim look for someone else to blame, her family. Thomas and Elizabeth have both suffered because of the reputation of their children and as people try to recover the reputation of Anne and George. A long history of this has come to our screens unfortunately, going right back to the 1970s and Anne of 1000 Days. The OBG revived that poor reputation and Wolfe Hall did an even worse job. Social media is very useful at times but its also full of the brain dead unfortunately. People too lazy to read beyond the fictional books or to ask sensible questions continue every year to trot out the same rubbish. If people have questions about the truth then ask them, that’s what sites like these are about. The Fan Video is a wonderful opportunity for that. If all people ever do is rant on Facebook about how they hate Thomas Boleyn for what he did to his daughters, year after year, unfortunately they will never learn and his reputation will sadly continue to be maligned.

      Perhaps we should start a Thomas Boleyn fan club in order to recover his reputation. After all King Richard iii has one. Even Henry Tudor has one. They have heavy presences on social media and in person. Our new chairman is Matthew Lewis and the head of the HT is Nathan Amin. Both have good reputations as well known authors. Anne of course has this platform and Claire has a big presence on social media and YouTube. She is also a relatable author. Lauren Mackay has begun to bring Thomas Boleyn to a wider audience with her biography and maybe we could expand that. Its time for drama to do some research and do the same.

      1. It was very sad that Thomas was demoted but it was nothing personal, it was the norm when a member of a family at court was attainted, not only had Thomas had to cope with having lost his children, but he had to lose his high office and thus take a much lower salary, today we would think it dreadful talk about kicking a man when he’s down, but it did happen at court, and it did not last forever, after his children’s deaths Sir Thomas spoke to Cromwell of his early life with Elizabeth, he must have been recalling the infants he had lost as he told him Elizabeth had been a very fruitful wife, falling pregnant every year, maybe Cromwell felt some remorse then for orchestrating the deaths of his remaining offspring, if anyone can after planning their deaths in such meticulous detail, I will have to purchase that book Bq it sounds most interesting, and yes poor Sir Thomas’s character should be rehabilitated, he really does not deserve to be cast as the unfeeling un fatherly figure he is so often portrayed as.

      2. It is true that to our modern minds 16th c parents seem like the parents from hell, unusually strict, stiff and capable of meting out the harshest of punishments for the mildest misdemeanours, but that was as you say Bq, 16th c parenting, the poor in their little dwellings were much more lax, even poorer families forced their daughters into prostitution, but to the nobility, the harshest treatment was a measure of their love, and deportment, the best of manners absolute devotion to their parents, was necessary to produce a well schooled daughter or son, in preparation for when they left to go to court and for marriage, children were regularly beaten and chastised, Lady Jane Grey complained to her tutor of her numerous nips and slaps she received from her parents, if she slouched a little at the dinner table if she did not stand straight etc, but that was normal and it is interesting to note that her two sisters did not complain of the same treatment, as they all had a very good education, maybe Jane’s parents were a bit over harsh with her, as they hoped one day she would be able to marry the little heir in waiting the Prince Edward? With other Tudor parents yes regarding Henry V111 with Mary, we think the poor girl he was so unkind to her, but Mary was his daughter and she was challenging his authority, as Linda Porter says in her biography of Mary, ‘a king who allows his daughter to defy him was no king at all’, he could not let his subjects or in Europe see she was openly calling into account his title as Head Of The Church, and that she was refusing to acknowledge her parents marriage as invalid and she was a bastard, she maybe his daughter and still his pearl, but she was also his subject, and men had gone to the block for refusing to acknowledge the kings authority, she was committing treason and I think by this time, Henry V111 had had enough of her stubbornness, he sent a delegation headed by Norfolk to bully her into signing, Chapyus saw the dangers she was taking and advised her to sign, she signed with her hand and not her heart, he would have told her, in private she made amends to her mother and the pope and thus her conscience was swear, but it gnawed at her over the years and possibly she must have always felt she let her mother down, with Sir Thomas Boleyn regarding Mary on her widowhood, he comes across as a bit mean there because he only helped her financially, after Cromwell interceded with the king for her, he had a good salary at court and Cary was known to be a bit of a waster at the gambling tables, maybe he thought Mary had encouraged him in this vice and he was angry with her, who knows and he seems harsh to for when Mary was banished from the court by the king and queen, he refused to send her money, it was Anne who later relented, so to the modern mind we think yes, Thomas was again being rather mean but many other parents might have done the same, if their son or daughter had defied convention and married without the permission of the king, Mary after all was sister to the queen, and expected to make a much grander match, all in all the Tudor parent does seem overly harsh, yet they adored their children just as parents in any age did, and like parents today, Frances Brandon gave all three of her daughters a wonderful education, including the youngest Mary, who sadly was a plain little hunchbacked dwarf, she was still however in the line of succession and expected to marry one day, which she later did but her life was quite sad really, like her elder sister Katherine, who was called the beauty of the family, yet suffered imprisonment during the reign of Elizabeth, for marrying her lover without the queens consent, these two sisters must have grown up in the shadow of the axe, the same axe which had ended the life of their sister the tragic Jane.

  3. Just watched the last two episodes of the dramas series about Henry V111’s unfortunate wives, Catherine the giddy girl queen and the more elder and serious Catherine Parr, Catherine Howard was shown as a rather spiteful selfish and vain girl, who willingly met her alleged lover Thomas Culpeper without any feelings off remorse towards her husband the ageing king, there of course was Lady Rochford, portrayed as she invariably is, a somewhat silly and gossipy woman who got a kick out of conniving in the nightly meetings with her errant mistress and her handsome beau, Catherine’s hysteria which she gave way to was pitiful to see, when an armed guard appeared at her door, and said she was to go to Syon House, there to await his majesty’s pleasure, Jane was with her at the time and also started screaming and was told she was to go to Syon with her, but I don’t think this is quite true, firstly Catherine was kept under house arrest at Hampton Court and although she was in the queens service, I think Jane was taken first to the Tower where she had a mental collapse, although it was pure drama and meant to be taken as entertainment, I could not help but feel so very sad for both women because all that was true, I could feel their terror, living in the age they did they knew they could not expect to be shown mercy, especially with their Lord and master being Henry V111, there were some discrepancies, like with Catherine’s uncle Norfolk saying to the king she was not fit to live, and the series showed him already having knowledge of Dereham and Manox, I thought she was his flesh and blood, although we know he did distance himself from his niece and informed the king he knew nothing of her scandalous past, I cannot see this even this cold fish of a man wishing her death, the bit where she requested the block be brought to her so she could practise her ending, we know was true and really I find this the saddest thing about Catherine Howard, she did not in her brief tenure as queen, show the respect for her husband that was expected of her, outwardly she did, but she betrayed him, even if nothing physical had passed between her and Culpeper, to meet with another man alone and at night was no way for a queen to behave, it was also incredibly dangerous as both parties could plead innocence, but proving it was well nigh impossible, it showed Henry’s tears at being burdened with such wives, his last wife as we know was Catherine Parr known for being something of a bluestocking the actress who played her was far too serious and grim to be the real Catherine, she was unusually pale, in fact it looked like the make up artist had smeared white paste over her face, and it took on a grey tinge, she rarely laughed and acted more like an old headmistress prattling on about the scriptures and theology, in all she was a most gloomy woman and dressed like a nun, the real queen was a sensuous woman who adored fine clothes in rich colours and jewels, she was in love with Thomas Seymour, yet it showed them both discussing their future wedding like it was merely a political match with no love or passion there, with the king she would all the time be in discussion with him and we know she did like to debate with him, something which we know Anne Boleyn did, she overstepped the mark and he was rather irked, it showed her clashes with Stephen Gardiner and her discovery of the warrant, which led to her giving way to hysteria, she ran to the king when he was resting in the gardens, and beseeched him for his understanding, we know this did happen and she later rather grovelingly said it was because she wished to be advised by him, in fact the king and queen were inside the palace at the time and she was sobbing in her rooms, the king on hearing the queens distress asked what ailed her, Catherine was so lucky as she was being given a chance, a chance to save her life, she took it and never attempted to preach to the king again, so most of Catherine’s story was true, it also showed the torture of Anne Askew and Gardiner’s attempts to try to incriminate the queen for heresy, he searched her rooms which Catherine complained about to the king, this was false as she knew her books were highly toxic and the king hated heresy, she would not wish the king to know she had such books, I was disappointed the kings children were rarely seen except Mary, as Catherine was a kind and loving stepmother, but it was highly enjoyable nonetheless and much nearer to the truth than the glossy much later Tudors.

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