Why write about George Boleyn? – Guest Article by Clare Cherry

George Boleyn signatureA big thank you to my co-author Clare Cherry for sharing this article with us today. I loved working with Clare on George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat and we have plans to work together in the future as well, just need to find that spare time that people keep mentioning! Over to Clare…

As you know, Claire and I have written a biography on the life of George Boleyn. As you probably also know there had previously been very little written about George by historians. This has led people to the natural conclusion that the reason historians rarely mention George, other than when discussing the fall of Anne Boleyn, is because there is very little information on him in primary sources. And because there has never previously been any detailed study of George this has enabled fiction writers to have enormous fun with him. The view held by some novelists seems to be, “if we know very little about him then we can justifiably do want the hell we want with him, and make him into whatever monster we choose.” This has led to a very slanted perception of George over the last thirty years or so.

So why did Claire and I go to the effort of writing a book about a man who, on the face of it, is at best an enigma, and at worse a man who fiction writers have taught us isn’t worth the effort? Primarily, I think it started because we both read primary sources on the Boleyn family, and came to the same conclusion, independently of one another, that George was worth the effort.

Writing about an historical personality who hasn’t been written about previously in any depth has its own challenges – there’s no one to crib from! That was a joke by the way, but not entirely. All writers of non-fiction will read secondary sources as well as primary sources, and the fact that someone else has also done research on the same subject is very useful; hence historians often quoting one another. Eric Ives mentioned George more than most historians have, so he was a useful starting point, but even in Ives’ biography of Anne George is very much a marginal figure. Julia Fox’s book on Jane Boleyn was also very useful, but obviously that focused on Jane and not George. Finding Edmond Bapst’s late 19th century French biography of George and Henry Howard was extremely helpful. Bapst was writing about both Howard and Boleyn, and he was looking more at their general court careers and their poetry. Although there was limited depth to his work, it provided an excellent starting point when trying to track down primary sources which refer to George.

So yes, writing about an historic personality who hasn’t been written about and researched in any great depth previously can be an enormous challenge, but on the other hand it also its own rewards, and there is definitely a plus side to it. Firstly, there is very little to influence you either for or against the person you’re writing about. You see that person as a blank canvas, neither good nor bad. Secondly, you are forced to go all the way back to the primary sources because you have nothing else to go on. In other words you can’t take the easy or lazy route. It’s a question of having to go back to basics or you’re scuppered!

So that’s exactly what Claire and I did. Having come across George in our research we went into ever greater depth. Between the two of us we have spent years devoted to researching the life and career of George Boleyn. Years devoted to the life of a little known-man? Years looking at ever primary source we could lay our hands on which referred to him? Are we mad?

george_boleyn_coverNo we aren’t mad…..honestly. The fact is that George, in his own lifetime, wasn’t ‘little known’. He was a huge player at court as a politician, courtier and diplomat. The primary sources are full of information relating to him as the brother-in-law of the King of England. They are so full that it took years to collate it all together. It was just a question of looking hard enough to find the George who had been there all along. So why did we bother with all that work, and why did we spend countless hours researching him, and sleepless nights worrying that we would do this young man the justice he deserves?

It’s a really easy question to answer. We care enormously about the man who emerged from our research. The man we found didn’t deserve the ignominy and discredit of either being forgotten or being vilified. We learnt from letters and papers written during his lifetime that he was far more than he had previously been portrayed. It then became easy (or relatively so!) to spend hours and hours on research because it became a labour of love, that grew as we found out more and more about George, and the more we found the more we realised he deserved our respect.

Historians should be as objective as possible. I like to think that Claire and I have been objective with George Boleyn. We portray his whole personality, as far as we can, and I don’t believe we shy away from portraying his faults. Irrespective of that, I believe that you have to care about the person you’re writing about. If you don’t, then how can you do them justice? To begin with, there is a risk that the book will be dry, soul-less and dispassionate. If the author doesn’t care then why should the reader? Worse still, the book merely becomes a vehicle to make a name for the author and/or to make money. Claire and I would never deliberately misquote a source to show George in a good light, and we would never manufacture ‘evidence’ to make a point. That is nothing short of dishonesty. But I hope that no one reading our book could ignore the passion and commitment that has gone into it, or the respect and affection we have for our subject matter.

George was worth the effort.

Note from Claire

You can find out more about how Clare and I came to be working together, our research into George’s life and our book in our George Boleyn Interview video series on YouTube – click here. You can find articles on George at www.georgeboleyn.com, and George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon and other book retailers.

Related Post

13 thoughts on “Why write about George Boleyn? – Guest Article by Clare Cherry”
  1. As for writing about George Boleyn, had I been in your shoes, Claire and Clare, my response would have been, “Why NOT?”

    George was condemned to die with his sister, Queen Anne – WHY? That has to be one of the biggest questions surrounding the man in the first place. Did he actually commit incest with Anne, or not? If not, then why the extremely lurid charge that condemned George and Anne to their deaths? Anne was known to have many enemies, but why take her brother down along with her, unless he WAS someone important.

    George was known and acknowledged, even by the Boleyn faction’s enemies to be a charismatic, intelligent and very educated man, who had the King’s ear. The scandal built up around Anne could be interpreted as “killing two birds with one stone” by getting George mixed up in that mess, too. But was there something else that was feared about George himself that made it so urgent to get rid of him, something that made a charge as outrageous and absurd as incest necessary?

    George had powerful connections – the Boleyns had risen high in royal favor since Thomas had first begun his service to the Tudor court, and they had risen higher, since Anne caught Henry’s eye. Then, too, there was the Howard connection, since the Howards were one of, if not the most, powerful and connected noble family in England. This made George formidable, even if he didn’t have any sort of ambition, and for some reasons that are lost to most, he had to be eliminated.

    I would like to know more, so I am glad, Claire and Clare, that you decided to write about George Boleyn!

  2. Great article, but I’m not sure that the (perceived) lack of references to George in the primary sources have anything to do with the way he is portrayed in fiction. After all, there are lots of reference to Elizabeth I in the primary sources, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being portrayed inaccurately.

  3. Firstly the book brought to the foreground the interesting and active career of a man who was much more than a supporting role in the star life of Anne Boleyn. He was a diplomat, reformer, poet, high flyer, member of the inner court, a maker of fortunes, clearly the King liked this man’s company, and yet drama does him little favours. I honestly believe people who have not read the sources, and most people will not have done, do not realise how much is out there. I have read hundreds of books over the years and know just how many biographies are put together from few sources. Sometimes authors have to carefully reconstruct the life of their subject simply because information is scarce, has been lost or destroyed or only preserved in the writing of later or enemy authors. In the middle ages and Tudor Times we had begun to be obsessed with paperwork, sadly not birth DOCS for some time, so in the case of George Boleyn even his gambling debts are recorded. I am pleasantly surprised by the amount of stuff out there, for it must have taken a large effort to research and interpret the sources. The smallest thing can change how historical people are accepted by authors. The book gives a fuller insight into the real George Boleyn than even I would have thought possible and a biography of him is well overdue. Maybe the question should not be why write about the man who was so cruelly killed with his devoted sister one morning in May 1536, but why not write about George Boleyn? The so called second players to a famous star like Anne Boleyn are often just as fascinating if not more so than those who they promoted. (I am not saying George promoted Anne) It is a great shame they are ignored by historians while others have books galour written about them.

    Great to see George dragged out of the shadow of his sister at last.

    Not the same thing but the first biography of Jasper Tudor the uncle to Henry Tudor vii has just been released, written by Terry Breverton from Amberley called Jasper Tudor Dynasty Maker. Another great man steps out of the mists into the light, just as George Boleyn finally has.

  4. I’m struck by the parallels between the degrading of the reputation of George Boleyn and that of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, sometimes called ‘the king we never had’, about whom I am currently writing an article.

    In his time Prince Eddy, as he was known to his family, seems to have been much-loved by them, respected by certain leading politicians, and his death in 1892 at only 28, just before his marriage was to take place, was a cause of great sadness among the ordinary people.

    Yet, our immediate thoughts upon hearing the name of Prince Eddy today, are of a man lethargic to the point of being almost educationally subnormal, the scandal of the male brothel in Cleveland Street, and the claim he could have been Jack the Ripper, most of which does not stand up to even minor scrutiny.

    Current thinking among some scholars is that his reputation was besmirched deliberately in order to make it look as though the Nation had had a better deal in having George V, his interminably dull and virtually uneducated younger brother reign over us, and once the ball of character assassination started rolling, it was impossible to stop and gathered a lot of rubbish along the way.

    I think something like this, happening almost in our own times, shows how easily, and quickly, George Boleyn’s reputation might have been trashed in order to make Henry VIII’s treatment of him appear justified.

  5. George had no children – that’s the final tragedy, isn’t it? His parents dead so soon after his own demise, who is left then to preserve portraits, poems, anecdotes, or portraits of themselves and their children? The last time we, history, “see” the real George is on Mayday 1536, a knight in armour on horseback, at the tiltyard, with banners unfurled, looking at his most manly, most knightly, most gorgeous best. How sad. His story is also about heirs, male or female, do you not think? To rescue such a romantic figure from obscurity is a significant triumph. Well done, Claire and Clare, and thanks.

  6. I have read your book on George, and which I enjoyed immensely, and was educated by.

    George has always been Anne’s, or Mary’s brother,Thomas’s son, the bloke who got his head chopped off for committing incest the usual portrayal in history book. A bit of a back-ground waster, and a ne’r-do-well.

    When novelists and the film industry get hold of him he becomes, an even bigger and more complete waste of space…a philandering, raging wife beater and raper, an adulterer, who rogers his way the whole English court, women and men alike, if you are to believe the gay thing….not to mention you know who!!! a man who’s position and titles are gifts via the King’s infatuation for Anne. Someone who arrogantly floats around the court purposely rubbing the Nobles up the wrong way for sport as he knows he’s untouchable..a player, a chancer, totally obnoxious. Do you think I remembered them all ?!! 🙂

    For the first time ever George, thanks to both of you, he stood on out on his own, a person in his own right with his own merits, and had all that ‘Hollywood’ stripped away from him.

    Now I love Tudor history, it is a past-time and an enjoyment for me, it has been for decades. I don’t have the patience to do the research, or the discipline, I can’t sit still long enough for a start, I’m fully reliant on people such as yourself to do it for me…so when I do plonk myself down to read a book that’s as hard as it gets…how lazy is that!! lol.
    But I do value all your hard work, realizing how very time consuming collecting all the facts will be, checking and re-checking no doubt to make sure your findings are sound. There are people out there purposely looking to find fault, proclaiming more knowledge but not having the ‘bravery’ to put themselves out there as an author, because it is a brave thing to do write a book, especially a factual one on a person who’s personal life is made up of myth, and linked to so many other famous people. So a big well done, and thank you I appreciate both of your dedication to my enjoyment of Tudor history 🙂 lol…what’s next girls!!!?

      1. Hello Dawn,
        We’re looking at the Seymour brothers. Neither of them have been the subject of biographies in their own right. I just have to put my George aside to look at the Seymour brothers in their own right and without any preconceived ideas….aargh!!!!!

        1. Hi there,
          Wow, double trouble there then, two men with two different ways of approaching their upward mobility at court, I think I will look forward to reading about Thomas, always loved a ‘bad’ boy lol…so I’ll just laze around on the sofa until it’s ready to read then!!! you are so good to me, lol. Good luck Clare.

  7. Fascinating. However, I do wish that people who comment would get their grammar right and also not use meaningless phrases like “out there”. Not only meaningless, but superfluous. It reduces the integrity of the comments.

    1. While I appreciate that bad grammar can annoy some people, The Anne Boleyn Files welcomes comments from everyone, whatever their background, level of education and language skills. Many people who use this site have English as a second or even third language and I would not want them worrying about commenting. Discussion, debate and history are my priorities here, along with a friendly community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *