Elizabeth Boleyn as played by Kristin Scott Thomas

This article has been inspired by the tens of emails I’ve received recently and also comments on Facebook and online about Elizabeth Boleyn’s alleged affair with King Henry VIII and the possibility that Henry actually committed incest by marrying his own daughter, Anne Boleyn.

I’m not sure what exactly has stirred up this recent interest in this myth, and I do believe it is a myth, but I’d like to share my views here. Obviously, nobody knows the real truth of the matter and all I can comment on is the root of this myth, and how accurate it is likely to be, and the likelihood of the myth being truth rather than salacious fiction.

Alison Weir writes about this myth in her recent biography of Mary Boleyn, listing the sources for the story as:-

  • “Friar William Peto, an Observant Friar of Greenwich who had publicly denounced Henry VIII’s determination to wed Anne Boleyn in a sermon preached before the King on Easter Day 1532” and “who warned Henry afterwards that it was being said that he had meddled with both Anne’s sister and her mother.”1
  • Sir George Throckmorton, who, according to Cardinal Pole, had heard the story from Peto. Throckmorton recalled a conversation he had had with the King about his troubled conscience over marrying his brother’s wife: “I told your Grace I feared if ye did marry Queen Anne your conscience would be more troubled at length, for it is thought ye have meddled both with the mother and the sister. And your Grace said “Never with the mother.” “2
  • Elizabeth Amadas, wife of the royal goldsmith and a woman some believe to have been the King’s mistress at one time. She asserted “that the King had kept both the mother and the daughter” and also alleged that “my lord of Wiltshire was bawd both to his wife and his two daughters.”3
  • Thomas Jackson, a Yorkshire chantry priest, who claimed that Henry VIII had “kept the mother and afterwards the daughter.”4
  • John Hale, Vicar of Isleworth, who said that “the King’s Grace had meddled with the “Queen’s mother.”5
  • The Catholic writers Nicholas Harpsfield, William Rastell and Nicholas Sander – Harpsfield wrote that he “had credibly heard reported that the King knew the mother of Anne Boleyn”, Lord Herbert wrote of Rastell asserting that Anne Boleyn was the fruit of an affair between Henry VIII and Elizabeth Boleyn, and Nicholas Sander gave quite a detailed account of the affair which, according to him, took place while Thomas Boleyn was in France on an embassy.6
  • Adam Blackwood, a lawyer defending the reputation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, shortly after her execution7

Alison Weir points out that although there are many sources for this alleged affair between Henry VIII and Elizabeth Boleyn, “the King himself denied it, when he did not deny that he had had an affair with Elizabeth’s daughter Mary”, “all the sources are hostile” and that the claims of Rastell and Sander simply don’t add up as Thomas Boleyn “was not sent as ambassador to France until 1519”. Weir also says that “Henry was probably less than ten years old when Anne was conceived”8 but that obviously depends on what you believe regarding her birthdate; Henry VIII was ten years old in 1501 but he was 16 in 1507.

Let’s examine the sources and see just how credible they may be…

Friar William Peto

In “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, Eric Ives writes of how Friar Peto preached a sermon on Easter Sunday 1532 “telling Henry to his face that he would end up like the Old Testament tyrant Ahab (though he left unspoken the implication that Anne Boleyn was Jezebel).”9 Ives does not mention Peto talking to the King afterwards and although I have looked up reports of this day in Letters and Papers and the Spanish Calendar of State Papers all I can find is a report from Chapuys stating that the sermon upset the King and the following:-

“And I hear that the King himself, happening to converse privately with the said friar after the sermon, heard from his lips what was not much to his taste, for the Provincial spoke openly to him about the royal marriage in contemplation, telling him in plain words that if he did not take care he would be in great danger of losing his kingdom, since all his subjects, high and low, were opposed to it.”10

No mention of any scandalous relationships between the King and Elizabeth Boleyn or Mary Boleyn. Even if there were, Peto was head of the Observant Friars and was in agreement with the likes of Warham and More who opposed the King’s proposed annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and saw her as his true wife and Anne Boleyn as Jezebel.

G W Bernard, in his book “The King’s Reformation” writes of how Peto had told the King that “it was said that he had meddled both with Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary Boleyn, and their mother”11 and he gives Nicholas Harpsfield as a reference. I searched through Harpsfield’s book “A treatise on the pretended divorce between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon” and he mentions Peto’s sermon but not what Peto said to the King afterwards, although a few pages on he comments “Yea, I have credibly heard reported that the King knew the mother of the said Anne Bulleyne”12, meaning “knew” in the Biblical sense! It all sounds like gossip to me, a salacious rumour put about to blacken Anne’s name during the time of Henry’s quest for annulment.

Sir George Throckmorton

In Letters and Papers, in the records for 1537, there is a report concerning Sir George Throckmorton and Sir Thomas Dyngley. In it, we read of a conversation between Throckmorton and the King:-

“About six or seven years ago conversed with Sir Thos. Dyngley in the garden at St. John’s about the Parliament matters. Dyngley wondered that the Act of Appeals should pass so lightly, and Throgmorton said it was no wonder as few would displease my lord Privy Seal. Told Sir Thomas he had been sent for by the King after speaking about that Act, and that he saw his Grace’s conscience was troubled about having married his brother’s wife. “And I said to him that I told your Grace I feared if ye did marry Queen Anne your conscience would be more troubled at length, for it is thought ye have meddled both with the mother and the sister. And his Grace said ‘Never with the mother’.”13

In the same report, we hear that Throckmorton gleaned the information regarding Henry VIII and Elizabeth Boleyn from Peto:-

“Explains his conduct since the beginning of the Parliament of 21 Hen. VIII. Just before that Parliament friar Peto, who was in a tower in Lambeth over the gate, sent for him and showed him two sermons that he and another friar had made before the King at Greenwich, and reported a long conversation he had had with the King in the garden after the sermon. He said he had told the King that he could have no other wife while the Princess Dowager lived unless he could prove carnal knowledge between prince Arthur and her; which he said was impossible, as she, who knew best, had received the Sacrament to the contrary, and she was so virtuous that her word deserved more credit than all the other proofs; that prince Arthur’s saying that he had been in the midst of Spain was probably but a light word; and that the King could never marry Queen Anne as it was said he had meddled with the mother and the daughter. He moreover advised Throgmorton if he were in the Parliament house to stick to that matter, as he would save his soul.”

So, Throckmorton is not a separate source for the scandal, he got it from Friar Peto, and G W Bernard14 believes that Throckmorton was just boasting to his friends and that he never spoke these words to the King.

Elizabeth Amadas

In Letters and Papers, in the records for 1533, there is a collection of prophecies spoken by “Mistress Amadas”. The eighth prophecy is:-

“She rejoiced when the Tower was made white, for she said shortly after my lady Anne should be burned, for she is a harlot; that Master Nores was bawd between the King and her ; that the King had kept both the mother and the daughter, and that my lord of Wiltshire was bawd both to his wife and his two daughters.”15

Now, I’m not sure that we can take that very seriously when it’s amongst sixteen rather fanciful prophecies regarding Mouldwarp, dragons, blazing stars and the destruction of the King. Josephine Wilkinson points out that when Mrs Amadas was abandoned by her husband “she began to champion the causes of other discarded wives”16, like Catherine of Aragon, so would have been against Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn family. Wilkinson also believes that Amadas may have had a fling with Henry VIII at some point, so this prophecy may also be a case of sour grapes. Whatever the motive behind her words, we cannot take Amadas’s words a proof of a relationship between Elizabeth Boleyn and the King without also believing her other fanciful words.

Thomas Jackson, Chantry Priest

In June 1535, William Fayrfax reported to Thomas Cromwell of an indictment against “Sir Thos. Jakson, priest”:-

“Deposition by John Lepar and Brian Banke before Wm. Fayrefax, sheriff, co. York, against Thos. Jackson, chantry priest of Chepax, for saying,—1. That the King lived in adultery [with Anne Boleyn] before his marriage, and still lives so. 2. That he kept the mother and afterwards the daughter, “and now he hath married her whom he kept afore, and her mother also.” “17

I suspect that this priest, a Catholic who was obviously opposed to the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, was simply spreading gossip which blackened the royal couple’s names.

John Hale, Vicar of Isleworth

In 1535, John Hale, Vicar of Isleworth was reported as saying “the King’s grace had meddling with the Queen’s mother.”18 Further objections against Hale included that he had “called the King the “Molywarppe” that Merlin prophesied of, that turned all up, and that the King was accursed of God’s own mouth, and that the marriage between the King and Queen was unlawful.”19 The fact that he referred to the King as Mouldwarp suggests to me that he was simply repeating the prophecies of Elizabeth Amadas and in his own account to the council he states that “the fellow of Bristow showed, both to me and others of Syon, the prophecies of Marlyon; for, by my truth, Master Skydmore showed me also the same, with whom I had several conversations concerning the King’s marriage and other behaviours of his bodily lust.” He is simply repeating hearsay. Hale also said “Moreover, Mr. Skydmore dyd show to me yongge Master Care, saying that he was our suffren Lord the Kynge’s son by our suffren Lady the Qwyen’s syster, whom the Qwyen’s grace myght not suffer to be yn the Cowrte”, more hearsay concerning the paternity of Mary Boleyn’s son, Henry Carey.

Harpsfield, Rastell and Sander

When reading the claims of these men regarding Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, we have to take into account who they were.

Nicholas Harpsfield was a Catholic priest who was friends with Thomas More and his family. He wrote a biography of More, dedicating it to his patron, William Roper, More’s son-in-law, and he also wrote “A treatise on the pretended divorce between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon”. He was against Henry VIII’s annulment and was a supporter of Catherine of Aragon.

William Rastell was a printer, judge and Catholic who was related to Sir Thomas More. He wrote a now lost “Life” of his uncle and saw Anne Boleyn as a Salome type character20, putting on a special banquet for Henry VIII to persuade him to execute More and Bishop Fisher.

Nicholas Sander was a Catholic recusant writing about Anne Boleyn while he was in exile during her daughter Elizabeth I’s reign. He wrote:-

“ANNE BOLEYN was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn’s wife; I say of his wife, because she could not have been the daughter of Sir Thomas, for she was born during his absence of two years in France on the king s affairs. Henry VIII. sent him apparently on an honourable mission in order to conceal his own criminal conduct; but when Thomas Boleyn, on his return at the end of two years, saw that a child had been born in his house, he resolved, eager to punish the sin, to prosecute his wife before the delegates of the archbishop of Canterbury, and obtain a separation from her. His wife
informs the king, who sends the marquis of Dorset with an order to Thomas Boleyn to refrain from prosecuting his wife, to forgive her, and be reconciled to her. Sir Thomas Boleyn saw that he must not provoke the king s wrath, nevertheless he did not yield obedience to his orders before he learned from his wife that it was the king who had tempted her to sin, and that the child Anne was the daughter of no other than Henry VIII.”21

Sander goes on to describe Anne Boleyn as “rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her
throat.” He then writes of her being banished to France at the age of fifteen after having sexual relationships with her father’s butler and chaplain.

No other source describes Anne Boleyn in such a way and she was in France serving Queen Claude when she was fifteen so the story about her scandalous behaviour at Hever is pure fiction, how can we then put any store in Sander’s claim that Anne was Henry VIII’s daughter?! Sander was simply blackening the name of Anne Boleyn, the mother of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I who was the reason for him being in exile.

Adam Blackwood

Adam Blackwood was “a Scot, a Catholic, a lawyer and a poet”22 who wrote “Martyre de la royne d’Escosse” (The martyrdom of the Queen of Scotland) or “The History of Mary Queen of Scots” in 1587, a defence of the Queen’s virtues and an attack on Elizabeth I. He wrote his book shortly after Sander wrote his and he repeated Sander’s story about Anne Boleyn being Henry VIII’s daughter. Blackwood also collected and contributed to a collection of poems known as “de Jezebelis”23 which painted Elizabeth as Jezebel and perpetuated the myth that she was the result of an incestuous relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, father and daughter. Blackwood’s work was simply propaganda defending Mary Queen of Scots’s reputation and slandering the woman he viewed as her murderess.

Other Sources

I found another source for the myth: “The Life and Death of the Renowned John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester” by Thomas Bailey (1655)24, although the real author is said to be Dr Richard Hall, writing in the reign of Elizabeth I. In this book, Bailey writes of Cardinal Wolsey investigating a possible pre-contract between Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn and calling for the Countess of Wiltshire, Elizabeth Boleyn, to see what she had to say about it. Elizabeth Boleyn, according to Bailey, “better liked of the marriage of her daughter with the said Lord Percy, than if the King should marry her” and Wolsey, guessing the reason for this, sent her to the King. Elizabeth Boleyn then, according to Bailey, said to the King:-

“Sir, for the reverence of God, take heed what you do in marrying my daughter; for if you record your conscience well, she is your own daughter as well as mine.”

The King didn’t care and told Elizabeth that he would marry her regardless of who her father was.
Of course, we have to remember that Bailey/Hall was writing a sympathetic account of the life of John Fisher, a man who was executed for refusing to accept Henry VIII as the supreme head of the church and also for his support of Catherine of Aragon. Fisher had advised Catherine during the annulment proceedings and had spoken up in her defence at the Legatine Court.

My Thoughts

It’s difficult to sort truth from fiction, fact from legend, nearly five hundred years on but the only sources we have for the alleged affair between Elizabeth Boleyn and Henry VIII are suspect in my opinion because they

  1. Are Catholic and therefore anti-Boleyn
  2. Have an agenda, a reason why they are attacking Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I
  3. Seem to be based on the same rumour stemming from Friar Peto

They are not separate sources all backing each other up and I don’t believe there is any evidence that Elizabeth Boleyn did indeed have an affair with Henry VIII, never mind have a child by him. As Alison Weir states, Thomas Boleyn was not in France when Anne Boleyn was conceived or born. He went to the Low Countries on an embassy in 1512 and to France in 1519. He was in England in 1501 and 1507 and surely would have noticed if his wife had got pregnant by the King. Also, would the paranoid Henry VIII, who worried about his marriage to Catherine of Aragon being contrary to God’s law because she was his brother’s widow, really marry his own daughter? I think not.

I’m sure that if there was any truth in these rumours then they would have been used to stop Henry annulling his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne and surely Chapuys would have gleefully passed such news on to Charles V. I just cannot see the opposition ignoring such ammunition.


In her book on Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir ponders whether these rumours spread and were believed “because of Elizabeth Howard’s dubious reputation” and that she “had gained some ill fame for straying from the connubial couch”25. Weir even wonders if “the fact that all her offspring became notorious in one way or another for sexuality might suggest that she herself had set them a poor example by her loose morals and by betraying her marriage vows.”26 Weir supports this theory with the poetry of  John Skelton who compared Elizabeth to the beautiful Cressida, a woman who pledged undying love to Troilus but then betrayed him with Diomedes. Weir writes that by the 14th century, Cressida’s name “had become synonymous with female inconstancy” and that a Tudor audience would “have instantly grasped the double entendre.”27 She does admit that Skelton may simply have been praising Elizabeth’s looks, “but if so, he had chosen a strange and compromising comparison, when there were plenty of others to be drawn.” I don’t believe so. Here are Skelton’s words:-

“To My Lady Elisabethe

To be your remembrancer, Madam, I am bownd:
Lyke to Aryna maydenly of porte,
Of vertew and konyng the wel and parfight grownd,
Whome Dame Nature, as wele I may reporte,
Hath freshely enbewtid withe many a goodely sorte
Of womanly feturis: whos florisshinge tender age
Is lusty to loke on, plesant, demure and sage.

Goodely Creisseyda, fairar than Polycene,
For to envyve Pandarus appetite:
Troylus, I trow, if that he had yow sene,
In yow he wold have set his hole delight:
Of alle your bewte I suffice not to wright,
Bot as I sayde your florisshynge tender age
Is lusty to loke on, plesant, demure and sage.”28

This allegorical poem was written in praise of the ladies of the Countess of Surrey at Sheriff Hutton Castle who made Skelton a garland of silks, golds and pearls in a pageant around 1495. It praised not only Elizabeth Howard, but also the Countess and other ladies such as Jane Hasset, Isabell Pennel, Geretrude Statham and Isbell Knyght (Skelton’s spellings). Although it was not printed until 1523, I can’t see Skelton changing a poem complimenting these ladies to one of satire. I think it should just be taken as praise of Elizabeth’s beauty, without “a sting to its tail”. To read it as evidence of a dubious reputation and infidelity is to read far far too much into it, in my opinion. What do you think?

So, do I believe that the young Henry VIII slept with the older Elizabeth Boleyn (around 11 years his senior)? No, I don’t. Poppycock and piffle, I say. How about you?

Notes and Sources

  1. Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore, Alison Weir, p30, UK paperback version
  2. Ibid., p31
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p32
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p33
  8. Ibid.
  9. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p154
  10. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2: 1531-1533, 934
  11. The King’s Reformation, G W Bernard, p152
  12. A treatise on the pretended divorce between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon, Nicholas Harpsfield, p236
  13. LP xii.952
  14. Bernard, p211
  15. LP vi.923
  16. Mary Boleyn, Josephine Wilkinson, p134
  17. LP viii.862
  18. LP viii.565
  19. Ibid., 567
  20. Ives, p47
  21. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, Nicholas Sander, p23-25
  22. The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots, Jane Elizabeth Lewis, p120
  23. Mary, Queen of Scots: politics, passion and a kingdom lost, Jenny Wormald, p13
  24. “The Life and Death of the Renowned John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester” by Thomas Bailey (1655)/Dr Richard Hall, p63
  25. Weir, p34
  26. Ibid., p35
  27. Ibid., p34
  28. The Book of the Laurel, John Skelton

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