Jane Boleyn, the wife of George Boleyn and sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn, is often portrayed as a wicked and jealous woman who was instrumental in the downfall and death of both her sister-in-law Anne, and her husband George. But is that the case? Is she the villainous woman that she is made out to be? There is evidence to suggest that she is not. Jennifer Johnstone explains…
Jane Boleyn was born Jane Parker, to Henry Parker, 10th Baron Morley, and mother Alice in 1505. She came from a wealthy upper class family. Her father was an intellectual, a lover of books and writing. Little is known about her mother. There is speculation about Jane’s early life in Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford, but little solid evidence.
The first documented evidence we have about Jane is when she comes to the royal court as a teenager, and serves Catherine of Aragon. Her exact date of her arrival is not documented though. Unfortunately, we do not know what Jane truly looked like either, as there is no official portrait of her. Fox gives us a portrait in her book of what Jane might have looked like though.
Scapegoat or villain?
In Fox’s book, she argues that Jane was history’s scapegoat, rather than an instrumental player in the downfall of her family members. Some other contemporary historians disagree with this, arguing that rather Jane was to blame for the executions of her family members.
As there is limited evidence, we have to work with what few sources we have about Jane. First let us see the evidence for Jane as a villain.
Jane has always been thought of as the woman who gave evidence to Thomas Cromwell about George and Anne having an affair, or Anne having an affair - depending on the source. There is evidence to say that Jane Boleyn spoke out about her husband during court proceedings. But there is no clear evidence for what Jane actually said, or, what her motivation was for saying whatever she said about her husband. So, if we don’t know what Jane said, we can’t condemn her for this. There is also no record of Jane saying anything about her alleged role in their downfall. Some have speculated that Jane gave this evidence in spite towards her husband for having affairs. But, is there any truth to these claims?
Let’s take the example of George’s alleged affairs. There is a poem called Metrical Visions about a womanizing young man - the young man is said to be George Boleyn. Even if this poem is accurate - that George had extra-marital affairs - there is nothing to suggest that there was friction between his and Jane’s marriage. Indeed, Julia Fox argues that the marriage between Jane and George was not an unhappy one! Of course, if there were affairs, Jane would have had a reason to be jealous, and that could have been her reason to give evidence against her own husband at the court trials. But even if it were true that George had an affair, or a string of affairs, at the time, it was the done thing in this age; it was common for men to have mistresses. So, if he did have affairs, it would not have got George into terrible trouble; it would have got a woman into trouble though.
However, there is evidence to suggest that Jane was instrumental in the Boleyn’s downfall. This evidence comes from the Bishop Burnet. Bishop Burnet claims he had access to primary sources, which show Jane’s role in the downfall of her own family. The source says, ‘’Jane carried many stories to the King or some about him (George) to the King.’’ There was further evidence Jane allegedly gave to the King, and that was that ‘’there was a familiarity between the queen, and her brother, beyond what so near a relationship could justify.’’
There are several problems with this source. One, there is no evidence from anyone else about this source documented, not from the King, Cromwell, or Chaupys. If this was true, it would have been well known within the court, and it would have at least been recorded by one other person – notably Chaupys as he documented many events and was well aware of court activities. A second reason to not believe this source is that it is from several decades after Jane was executed. A third, and final reason why I believe this source is not accurate is because there is little evidence of these primary sources that Burnet claimed to have.
Even people who argue against Jane, who argue she was responsible for the downfall of her husband and sister-in-law, admit that many details are unknown about her. This tells us that because we know so little about Jane, it is unwise to call her names such as ‘vindictive’ ‘wicked’, and ‘spiteful’.
It is equally plausible that Jane might have been innocent of the accusations that have been placed against her.
There were many noble women who gave evidence at the trials, not just Jane; there is nothing to say that it was her testimony that brought the axe down on her family. The ever reliable Chaupys does not tell us it was Jane who gave the damning evidence. In fact, he does not name anyone. He just says ‘’that person’’, was to blame for the downfall. I think it’s important to take Chaupys as a reliable source here as he championed Lady Mary’s return to court when it would have been in his interests to name and shame a Boleyn, because of the religions fraction between the Protestant Boleyns, and the Catholic Mary. Wouldn’t Chaupys want to stir up trouble for the Boleyns? After all, this was not a man shy of his words - he called Queen Anne ‘’the concubine’’.
It is still disputed today who brought down the Boleyns. Some believe that it is the Seymours, some believe it was the Boleyns themselves, other historians believe that it is Cromwell, or Lady Mary, and lastly, some think that the king himself wanted Anne gone. Whatever the truth, with missing evidence, and court politics and cover-ups, we are likely to never know the answer. We can but speculate.
One last thing…
But, there is one final and interesting point that Julia Fox raises. It is perhaps the most important point - Jane had everything to lose from the Boleyns falling. Why would a woman who had everything to lose, by turning on her own family, bring them down? It doesn’t make sense. She had never been in a better position because she was wealthier and more prestigious than she had ever been when they fell.
Maybe the truth is still waiting to be discovered somewhere…
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