George Boleyn

George Boleyn, the son of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, was born in Bilickling Hall in about 1504. George was the youngest of three surviving children. Mary Boleyn was born in 1498 and Anne Boleyn in 1499.

George's father was a diplomat who was friendly with Henry VIII and was a guest to his wedding to Catherine of Aragon on 14th November 1501, at St Paul's Cathedral in London. Boleyn was a valued participant in royal tournaments. He was the king's opponent at Greenwich Palace in May 1510. "With his linguistic skills, his charm, and his knowledge of horses, hawks, and bowls, Boleyn made an ideal courtier." (1)

Sir Thomas Boleyn was very ambitious for his children. According to David Starkey: "They were intelligent, ambitious and bound by a fierce mutual affection. Their father recognized their talent and did his best to nurture it." (2) Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002), claims that he was particularly interested in the education of his two daughters: "Thomas Boleyn... wanted Mary and Anne to learn to move easily and gracefully in the highest circles and to acquire all the social graces, to speak fluent French, to dance and sing and play at least one instrument, to ride and be able to take part in the field sports which were such an all-absorbing passion with the upper classes, and to become familiar with the elaborate code of courtesy which governed every aspect of life at the top." (3)

George Boleyn - Diplomat

It has been claimed that George Boleyn was educated at Oxford University but his name does not appear in the university records. However, it is clear that he received an excellent education and inherited his father's talent for languages and was fluent in Latin and French. He was also an accomplished poet and translator and developed a strong interest in religious and political theory. "All this marked him out from the run-of-the-mill English gentleman of the day, who was more at home with the sword than the pen." (4)

In 1522 George Boleyn was granted various offices in Tonbridge. (5) Two years later he married Jane Parker, the daughter of Henry Parker, 10th Baron Morley. As a wedding present, Henry VIII granted George the manor of Grimston in Norfolk. (6) In December 1529, Thomas Boleyn was created Earl of Wiltshire and George was now known as Viscount Rochford. (7)

Over the next couple of years Boleyn, made five diplomatic missions to France. (8) He used his diplomatic bag to smuggle religious books that were banned in France as well as England. "They were small, cheaply produced volumes, and were designed for concealment, not display. But, taking advantage of the immunity conferred by status and family connection, George had two turned into magnificent presentation manuscripts for his sister.... In both books, the texts and readings were in French, while the commentaries emphasize, in clear and vivid language, the need for a living Faith in Christ as opposed to the moribund practices of the orthodox Church." (9)

Anne Boleyn & Henry VIII

George Boleyn's career was helped by the fact that Henry VIII was having an affair with Anne Boleyn. It is not known exactly when this relationship had began. Hilary Mantel has pointed out: "We don't know exactly when he fell for Anne Boleyn. Her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Perhaps Henry simply didn't have much imagination. The court's erotic life seems knotted, intertwined, almost incestuous; the same faces, the same limbs and organs in different combinations. The king did not have many affairs, or many that we know about. He recognised only one illegitimate child. He valued discretion, deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life. But the pattern broke with Anne Boleyn." (10)

Anne's biographer, Eric William Ives, has argued: "At first, however, Henry had no thought of marriage. He saw Anne as someone to replace her sister, Mary, who had just ceased to be the royal mistress. Certainly the physical side of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was already over and, with no male heir, Henry decided by the spring of 1527 that he had never validly been married and that his first marriage must be annulled.... However, Anne continued to refuse his advances, and the king realized that by marrying her he could kill two birds with one stone, possess Anne and gain a new wife." (11)

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Henry sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to sort the situation out. During negotiations the Pope forbade Henry to contract a new marriage until a decision was reached in Rome. With the encouragement of Anne, Henry became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope, not England, and in 1529 he was dismissed from office. (12) Wolsey blamed Anne for his situation and he called her "the night Crow" who was always in a position to "caw into the king's private ear". (13) Had it not been for his death from illness in 1530, Wolsey might have been executed for treason.

Henry's previous relationship with Mary Boleyn was also causing him problems in Rome. As she was the sister of the woman who he wanted to marry, Anne Boleyn. It was pointed out that "this placed him in exactly the same degree of affinity to Anne as he insisted that Catherine was to him". (14) However, when Henry discovered that Anne was pregnant, he realised he could not afford to wait for the Pope's permission. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead on 25th January, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England.

Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (15) Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (16)

Henry VIII continued to try to produce a male heir. Unfortunately, Anne Boleyn, had two miscarriages. Viscount Rochford found himself less influential as a result of Anne not being able to produce a son. (17) Anne was pregnant again when she discovered Jane Seymour sitting on her husband's lap. Anne "burst into furious denunciation; the rage brought on a premature labour and was delivered of a dead boy." (18) What is more, the baby was badly deformed. (19) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne.

Henry now approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne. He suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. Philippa Jones has pointed out: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession." (20)

In April 1536, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen's lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. Another courtier, Henry Norris, was arrested on 1st May. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber. (21)

Arrest & Execution

Thomas Cromwell took this opportunity to destroy George Boleyn. He had always been close to his sister and in the circumstances it was not difficult to suggest to Henry that an incestuous relationship had existed. George was arrested on 2nd May, 1536, and taken to the Tower of London. David Loades has argued: "Both self control and a sense of proportion seem to have been completely abandoned, and for the time being Henry would believe any evil that he was told, however farfetched." (22)

On 12th May, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, as High Steward of England, presided over the trial of Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton at Westminster Hall. (23) Except for Smeaton they all pleaded not guilty to all charges. Thomas Cromwell made sure that a reliable jury was empanelled, consisting almost entirely of known enemies of the Boleyns. "These were not difficult to find, and they were all substantial men, with much to gain or lose by their behaviour in such a conspicuous theatre". (24)

Few details survive of the proceedings. Witnesses were called and several spoke of Anne Boleyn's alleged sexual activity. One witness said that there was "never such a whore in the realm". At the end of the trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the four men were condemned by Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley to be drawn, hanged, castrated and quartered. Eustace Chapuys claimed that Brereton was "condemned on a presumption, not by proof or valid confession, and without any witnesses." (25)

George and Anne Boleyn were tried two days later in the Great Hall of the Tower of London. In Anne's case the verdict already pronounced against her accomplices made the outcome inevitable. She was charged, not only with a whole list of adulterous relationships going back to the autumn of 1533, but also with poisoning Catherine of Aragon, "afflicting Henry with actual bodily harm, and conspiring his death." (26)

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Anne Boleyn

George Boleyn was charged with having sexual relations with his sister at Westminster on 5th November 1535. However, records show she was with Henry on that day in Windsor Castle. George's wife, Jane Boleyn, was one of the witnesses for the prosecution. She claimed that there was "undue familiarity" between brother and sister and her husband was "always in his sister's room". Jane claimed that it was possible they were lovers. George replied that "on the evidence of only one woman, you are willing to believe this great evil of me". (27)

Boleyn was also accused of being the father of the deformed child born in late January or early February, 1536. (28) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne. (29)

George and Anne Boleyn were both found guilty of all charges. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who presided over the trial left it to the King to decide whether Anne should be beheaded or burned alive. Between sentence and execution, neither admitted guilt. Anne declared herself ready to die because she had unwittingly incurred the King's displeasure, but grieved, as Eustace Chapuys reported, for the innocent men who were also to die on her account." (30)

On 17th May, 1536, George Boleyn and the other four condemned men were executed on Tower Hill, their sentences commuted from being hung, drawn and quartered. Boleyn exercised the condemned man's privilege of addressing the large crowd which always gathered for public executions. "Masters all, I am come hither not to preach and make a sermon but to die, as the law hath found me, and to the law I submit me." (31)

Primary Sources

(1) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)

Anne's brother George... went on five diplomatic missions to France and seems to have used his diplomatic bag to smuggle back increasingly controversial works that were banned in France as well as England. They were small, cheaply produced volumes, and were designed for concealment, not display. But, taking advantage of the immunity conferred by status and family connection, George had two turned into magnificent presentation manuscripts for his sister.... In both books, the texts and readings were in French, while the commentaries emphasize, in clear and vivid language, the need for a living Faith in Christ as opposed to the moribund practices of the orthodox Church.

Student Activities

Anne Boleyn - Religious Reformer (Answer Commentary)

Did Anne Boleyn have six fingers on her right hand? A Study in Catholic Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

Why were women hostile to Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn? (Answer Commentary)

The Marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon (Answer Commentary)

Was Henry VIII's son, Henry FitzRoy, murdered?

Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn?

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Answer Commentary)

Henry VII: A Wise or Wicked Ruler? (Answer Commentary)

Elizabeth Barton and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

Execution of Margaret Cheyney (Answer Commentary)

Pilgrimage of Grace (Answer Commentary)

Robert Aske (Answer Commentary)

Dissolution of the Monasteries (Answer Commentary)

Joan Bocher - Anabaptist (Answer Commentary)

Anne Askew – Burnt at the Stake (Answer Commentary)

Poverty in Tudor England (Answer Commentary)

Why did Queen Elizabeth not get married? (Answer Commentary)

Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

Francis Walsingham - Codes & Codebreaking (Answer Commentary)

Mary Tudor and Heretics (Answer Commentary)

Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein's Art and Religious Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

1517 May Day Riots: How do historians know what happened? (Answer Commentary)

References

(1) Jonathan Hughes, Thomas Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 258

(3) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 41

(4) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 258

(5) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 46

(6) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 158

(7) Jonathan Hughes, Thomas Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 93

(9) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 371

(10) Hilary Mantel, Anne Boleyn (11th May, 2012)

(11) Eric William Ives, Anne Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) pages 430-433

(13) George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (1959) page 137

(14) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 183

(15) Patrick Collinson, Queen Elizabeth I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 168

(17) Jonathan Hughes, Thomas Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(18) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 191

(19) G. W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (2011) pages 174-175

(20) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 25

(21) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 227

(22) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 81

(23) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 324

(24) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(25) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 324

(26) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(27) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 252

(28) Eric William Ives, Anne Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(29) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 227

(30) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(31) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 253