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’s life

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.

Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford.

Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford.

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.

 

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’.

 

Victim

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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How familiar are you with the Tudors? In this article, Jennifer Johnstone introduces us to some of the key events and people in the period including bloody religious change, kings and queens, and King Henry VIII’s six wives.

 

Everyone is familiar with the Tudors. Or at least, most people know about Henry VIII, and his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and finally Catherine Parr, alongside another one of England’s longest serving monarchs: Elizabeth I. The first Tudor royal was King Henry VII (1485-1509), then his son, Henry VIII (1509-1547), then to the boy King Edward VI (1553), briefly Lady Jane Grey sat on the throne in 1553, to be ursurped by Mary I, sometimes referred to as ‘Bloody Mary’ (1553-1558), and finally, the last of the Tudor monarchs was Elizabeth I (1558-1603). In the television program The Tudors, Catherine of Aragon describes Anne Boleyn as ‘the scandal of Christendom’; however, it seems like an accurate description of the Tudors themselves, as they divided a country religiously, broke with Rome, and reformed England in a way that changed the country forever.

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Family divisions

The Tudors did not only divide the country of England religiously, between Catholic and Protestant, but they were divisive amongst themselves too. They were a family of intense division.

One of the divisions in the Tudor court came from the contentious relationship Mary I had with Anne Boleyn. It is said that they hated each other, and even tried to kill one another. The Imperial Ambassador of the time, Eustace Chapuys, claimed that Anne tried to poison Mary. But there is a lac k of evidence to suggest that Chapuys’ claim is true. Chapuys wasn’t an impartial figure in the Tudor court; he is said to have supported Lady Mary and her mother Catherine of Aragon. But it is also claimed that Anne said to her brother George that, “she would consider putting Mary to death if the King ever left her as Regent while he was away in France.” Perhaps there is some truth to the claim that Anne thought that it would have been easier on her if Mary was out of the equation, but to accuse her of murder without strong evidence, doesn’t give us an accurate picture of what Anne really thought of Mary.

So, what did Mary think of Anne? Well, Mary seems to have resented the new Queen. And that she even rejoiced when Anne did not and could not produce a son for Henry. Mary seemed to blame Anne for her parents’ divorce, and the ill treatment by her father towards her. It’s possible that Anne could have been partly to blame for Henry’s mistreatment towards Mary, but Henry stripped Mary of being a princess of his own accord; she was in favor one minute and banished the next minute from court. Henry also had the notion that a son was more important to the Tudor’s future; seeing Mary as inferior in this way must have affected her psychologically too. Indeed, Mary later became a bitter, resentful, and brutal Queen.

 

Henry VII

The divisions which were rife throughout the Tudor period can be seen from the dawn of the Tudor period as Henry VII came to power in a divided country. The country was at civil war when Henry VII defeated King Richard III in battle. The civil war was called the 'The War of the Roses', a battle between two families, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster (the Tudor Rose), hence the name 'Roses'.

Henry VII is know for his ruthless taxes on the populace. With the money taken from these taxes, Henry VII was able to leave a fortune to his son Henry VIII. Henry VII also reformed laws, and the powers of the King. All told, although Henry VII came to power with a bang, nothing terribly noteworthy happened in his reign, hence why some regard Henry VII as an unmemorable ruler. But, we do not have that problem with his son.

 

Henry VIII

Henry VIII succeeded his father to the throne on April 21, 1509, and his coronation took place on June 24, 1509. He is well known for forming the Church of England at the expense of the Catholic Church. This was partly because the Pope would not grant Henry an annulment on his first marriage, to enable him to marry again. The establishment of his own church gave Henry the chance to marry a total of six times. Interestingly, his marriage with Anne of Cleaves lasted only six months, but he remained friends with Anne for the duration of their lives. Catherine Parr had understandable reservations about becoming Henry's Queen - who of us would want to marry a King who easily tired of his wives, and was prepared to chop off their heads? They say the only one that Henry really loved was Jane Seymour. Perhaps this was because she gave him the son that he desperately wanted.

But Henry seemingly had several other sons, albeit ‘bastard’ (illegitimate) ones. They were Henry FitzRoy, Thomas Stukley, and Richard Edwards. Considering that Henry VIII had many affairs, and the social stigma that surrounded 'bastard' children, there were very likely more children of Henry's too. Of his three sons, only one was recognized by Henry VIII. The rest were not. In short though, Henry VIII can be seen as a self-serving King, particularly during the Reformation.

 

The Reformation

The Reformation brought scandal to Christendom across Europe. But was the English Reformation about political and religious rule for Henry? Or was it just about Henry VIII seeking to remarry?

The answer is a mixture of both.

The Lutheran Reformation, which began in 1517, was focused on challenging clerical power and educating the public about the bible, including encouraging them to read the bible in English. Another factor were the resented taxes imposed by the Catholic Church on the people of England. The Catholic Church had a lot more power over countries in those days; Cardinals were the politicians of their day. Cardinal Wolsey would be a perfect example; he had a lot of power in Henry VIII’s day.

Usually in history it's a collection of elements that spur these political breaks, so it would be naïve of us to think that the break with Rome was just an issue of Henry wanting to remarry.

 

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is often seen as one of the main driving forces of the English Reformation; this is indeed true. Her faith in Protestantism was strong. She adhered to the Lutheran doctrine, a point that one of Anne's Boleyn's biographers argues. In her book on Anne Boleyn Joanna Denny argues that Anne was a passionate reformer. She writes: “Her views were evangelical, many would say Lutheran. She read the bible daily, and believed that everyone should be able to read the bible in a language they understand.” Therefore, it can be seen that Anne, as well as Henry, were both in favor of bringing the Reformation to England. However, they were not alone; there were plenty of powerful figures in the Tudor court that supported the English Reformation, such as Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.

So, a country that Henry VII united, was divided again by the Reformation, into two main religious ‘ideologies’: Catholicism and Protestantism. After Henry's VIII’s reign, Mary I burnt Protestants at the stake, while after her Elizabeth I burnt Catholics at the stake.

But to end, let us consider Henry VIII’s own words:

''Alas, how can the poor souls live in concord when you preachers sow amongst them your sermons of debate and discord... here will see these divisions extinct, and these enormities corrected.''

 

You can find out more about the Tudors as part of our English Civil War blog post series. Read the first article in the series by clicking here.