Thomas Boleyn was an important figure for many years in King Henry VIII of England’s reign. He was also the father of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne, as well as George Boleyn, Jane Boleyn’s husband. But was he a controversial, bad man? Or is that view misguided? Jennifer Johnstone gives us her opinion.
Thomas Boleyn was a more prominent figure than his daughter-in-law, Jane Parker (later Jane Boleyn, a lady who we have considered previously), as he was a leading politician during King Henry VIII’s reign. Indeed, he worked as a diplomat for both Henry VIII, and his father Henry VII. Born in 1477, in Norfolk, England, Thomas Boleyn was a shrewd and calculated politician. He knew how to work his way to the top, to the extent that his daughter became the queen.
That was not the only noteworthy achievement of Thomas though. He was a successful politician and man in his own right; he had become Earl of Ormond and Earl of Wiltshire by 1529. His political career was forced to end after a scandal involving his daughter and son; however, unlike his successor Thomas Cromwell, Boleyn managed to keep his head. He also retained his wealth and prestige, something that Jane Boleyn had taken from her when Anne and George Boleyn were executed.
Thomas was also honored with the knight of the garter, an elite and high honor in the Tudor era. In 1532 Boleyn was granted the Lord Privy Seal. All told, an impressive array of titles. Boleyn was obviously astute enough to play the game of Tudor politics and largely succeeded in that game.
The career of a diplomat
Thomas wasn’t just a politician, he was a diplomat too. One of his more prominent roles as a diplomat was as Ambassador to France, a role he started in 1518. As ambassador, he was responsible for arranging the Field of Cloth and Gold, a meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francis I of France in 1520. He was also appointed envoy to Charles of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1521.
The reputation of Thomas
In my last post, I discussed how Jane Boleyn suffered - and suffers - from a bad reputation. This is unfair, but another person from the Tudor era who suffers a bad reputation is Thomas Boleyn. In the television show The Tudors, Boleyn is portrayed as an individual who used his children as bait to achieve his own political ends. In the show we also see that he is not very sympathetic towards his children when they are condemned to be executed. A perfect example of this is when Thomas is set free by Henry. He is not convicted of doing anything wrong, and on his way out of the castle, he stops to turn around. There he sees his daughter Anne looking out of a window, imprisoned, and gives her a cold look before walking off. Is this an accurate portrayal of Thomas Boleyn - was he a bad guy?
Well he tried to marry off his daughters Mary and Anne. Mary had an affair with the King, but it didn’t last – it was an unsuccessful fling. But Thomas was successful in marrying his second daughter Anne off to Henry. Even so, Thomas wasn’t unique in marrying, or trying to marry, his daughters off - it was common in Tudor England. So seeing Thomas as a bad guy for this alone is unfair. It’s more accurate to call Thomas an opportunist, and wanting the best for him, his daughters, and his family - and who wouldn’t want that?!
Even so, as much as Thomas could not prevent Mary’s affair, he tried to assist Anne. Indeed, Thomas removed Anne from court when he saw the King gaining an interest in her. And he brought Mary back to England from France when he heard about her exploits there. It seems as if he cared about his daughters.
He also gave his daughters the best education possible, sending them abroad for their studies. Women and girls being educated at that time was uncommon, as woman were seen as home makers, not as scholars or academics. It shows that perhaps Thomas wasn’t traditional, and that he was more liberal and open minded than many men of his time.
A lesson for the future
As we can see from both Thomas Boleyn and Jane Boleyn, their characters could be far removed from what we believe them to be. We will never really know what type of people Jane and Thomas Boleyn were as the sources available can be biased and or unclear, and so it is hard to really know their true motivations.
I suppose we have to look at the primary sources ourselves, and come up with our on judgments. We also have to view situations in context, and ask whether it was conventional for people to behave in a certain way in a given era, or when people were acting out of character. To know historic people, we must question sources - who wrote this? Why did they write this? What were their political and religious ideologies?
Sometimes people can be completely different depending on the angle through which we view them.
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