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

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.

An image that is said to be of Thomas Boleyn.

An image that is said to be of Thomas Boleyn.

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.

 

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Let us know by leaving a comment below…

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

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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