Today in English History, 15 May 1536, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, was tried and condemned to die at King’s Hall by the same jury that also condemned his sister, Queen Anne Boleyn, earlier the same day. Our Lord of Rochford did not acquiesce to his fate. As you will learn more comprehensively from Claire Ridgway at The Anne Boleyn Files, his defense was so compelling few in attendance believed Boleyn could be found guilty based on the evidence presented. Thomas Cromwell made a foolproof decision to seal Rochford’s fate, however. With Anne Boleyn already found guilty of all charges, it was impossible not to find Rochford guilty, as well.
Throughout history, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, commonly was painted as largely responsible for providing Thomas Cromwell and his agents with the witnessed information needed to bring charges against her husband — and by extension, some of the charges lodged against Queen Anne Boleyn. Are these characterizations from a host of historians, novelists, and playwrights fair to her legacy?
In this highly thought-provoking article, Adrienne Dillard attempts to dispell a host of potential misconceptions. Enjoy!
The Black Legend of Lady Rochford
If you’ve read Tudor historical fiction or watched The Tudors, you’ve seen her; she’s just over there, lurking in the shadows and peering through keyholes.
“I’ve got a secret for you,” she whispers, her grey eyes dancing with barely contained delight. “Do you know what George and Anne do behind closed doors?”
She’s vicious and cruel; she’s out for revenge. You know her name – it may as well be synonymous with evil. She’s Lady Jane Rochford. Well – she’s some version of Lady Rochford – most likely a version that her contemporaries would not even recognize.
Over the last five centuries, it’s become vogue to pin the lion’s share of George Boleyn’s downfall on his supposedly vile and grasping wife. King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell may have been responsible for Queen Anne’s death, but when it comes to George, the blame falls squarely on Jane’s shoulders. Her motivations vary with each portrayal: jealousy, anger, fear. Yet, the end result is always the same – Jane runs to her savior, either Lord Secretary Cromwell or the Duke of Norfolk, with news of her husband’s deviant behavior and justice is quickly served. It makes for a great story, doesn’t it? It has all the inherent drama and turmoil every writer needs. However, based upon the evidence, that’s precisely what it is – a story.
So, where does this story come from? There are no transcripts of her interrogation. In fact, there is no record that she was even interrogated at all. At least not until 1541, when the crown began its investigation into Katherine Howard, but the events of 1536 are not mentioned there. No, the first appearance of Jane’s involvement comes much later, in a work by George Wyatt. In his biography of Anne Boleyn, Wyatt calls Jane a “wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood.” Later historians have put great stock in his assessment for several reasons, but chief among them is because he was the grandson of Thomas Wyatt. The same Thomas Wyatt who went to the Tower along with Anne and the six other men accused alongside her. His work seems to have taken shape based upon legends passed down in his family, neighbors of the Boleyns in Kent. In addition, the author included recollections from some of the ladies who served Anne, primarily Anne Gainsford Zouche. At first blush, the younger Wyatt’s biography would seem to be the perfect primary source; he would have the best resources and be in a position to know the truth. However, upon closer examination, the certainty begins to waver. Why? Humans. Humans are notoriously unreliable witnesses.
In order to accept Wyatt’s assertions, it has to be proven that his witnesses were telling the truth, and that is nearly impossible. Wyatt didn’t even begin his biography until the late 1580s – nearly fifty years after the events. He was not a witness to Anne’s life or death and his chief witness, Lady Zouche, was well into her seventies by the time she shared her memories with him. In fact, she died shortly after. Even if Lady Zouche spoke as honestly as possible, there is no way to prove that she remembered everything exactly right. Much had happened since Queen Anne and George’s deaths and some of it likely colored her perception. Jane’s execution alongside another queen in 1542 might have made it easy to reflect upon the past with biased hindsight. We must also take into account Wyatt’s own motivations in writing his biography. The ascension and successful reign of Queen Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, made it in his best interest to portray her mother as an innocent. He also may have wanted to put more blame on King Henry, but that posed a problem. He couldn’t rehabilitate Queen Elizabeth’s mother at the expense of her father. Jane was a perfect scapegoat. She had caused the downfall of Katherine Howard; isn’t it possible that she played a large role in the downfall of Anne and George Boleyn? Sadly for Jane, by 1588 no one was around to care about her reputation – at least no one with as much influence as a queen.
The next piece of evidence we find for Jane’s treachery is a note by Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Lord Herbert claims that “the wife of Lord Rochford was a particular instrument in the death of Queen Anne” in his biography on the life and reign of King Henry VIII, written in 1649. Thankfully, Lord Herbert properly cites his claim. Unfortunately, the reference he uses is his own book. It has been claimed that his work was based on a lost chronicle written during Henry VIII’s reign, but as historian, John Guy, points out, Herbert very clearly marked the source as his own book – including the page number. It is true that Lord Herbert used a contemporary journal now lost to time, but this particular assertion did not come from that source, and even if it did, we have no way of proving its veracity without knowing the author of the journal.
After Lord Herbert’s biography, we find Gilbert Burnet claiming that Jane was “a woman of no sort of virtue,” and that she “carried many stories to the king, or some about him, to persuade, that there was a familiarity between the queen and her brother.” Historians have accepted his view of Jane because they believe that Burnet was using primary sources no longer surviving. Yet, there is great mystery surrounding those sources. What were they and who did they come from? I suspect that the source for Jane’s involvement in the events of 1536 was George Wyatt. Burnet’s views on Jane’s virtue were likely influenced by Metrical Visions, a poem by George Cavendish, loyal servant to Cardinal Wolsey. Visions is suspect for many reasons, but the main one is the author himself. Cavendish blamed the Boleyns for his beloved Cardinal’s fall and his writing bears out that bias. Additionally, Visions is meant to be a poem and not a biographical work – much of it is allegorical – and it is riddled with errors.
These are the only three works that specifically name Jane as an instigator in the fall of her husband. Two other sources offered up as evidence suggest a woman who is never named. An anonymous account from Portugal says, “that person who, more out of envy and jealousy than out of love towards the king, did betray this accursed secret, and together with it the names of those who had joined in the evil doings of the unchaste queen.” This quote comes less than a month after Anne’s execution, but without knowing who the author is, we can’t accept it as evidence nor prove just who “that person” or the “accursed secret” is. The statement from Lancelot de Carles, on the other hand, is an excellent reference. He was actually in London in 1536 and in perfect position to know what was going on. He said that a “single woman” gave the most damning evidence, but he suggests that woman was the Countess of Worcester, not Jane Boleyn. The final source used to target Jane is George, himself. In the heat of his trial he asked in disbelief, “On the evidence of only one woman, you are prepared to believe this great evil of me?” Once again, Jane is never named, but I would agree with George’s biographers, Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway, that if he had meant Jane, he would have specifically said so.
When you take a deeper look at the sources above, the case for Jane being complicit in the downfall of her husband and sister-in-law, seems to be built on nothing more than hearsay. The evidence wouldn’t even be accepted in a modern-day court trial. Sadly, it is just as difficult to prove Jane’s innocence. The people who could have exonerated her are uncharacteristically mum. Even the terminally chatty Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, maintains radio silence on Jane. His lack of commentary supports her innocence, but you can’t debate silence. All that’s left are the actions of the woman herself.
Throughout her marriage to George, Jane showed herself to be loyal to the Boleyns on many occasions. At Anne’s coronation, she rode just behind the queen in the procession, in a place much higher than her status would dictate. In 1534, she quarreled with a maid that had caught the king’s eye in an effort to get her removed from court; an action that resulted in her own banishment. There are also reports that she attended on Anne during her miscarriage that year. It has been suggested that tensions ran high between Jane and her in-laws after her rustication, as proved by her attendance at a demonstration in support of Princess Mary. However, there is no firm proof that she did in fact attend. The dispatch itself says that several of the ladies, “being of higher rank than the rest, had been sent to Tower.” While an accompanying notation from the ambassador merely reads “Note, my Lord Rochford…” This reference is far too vague to assume his meaning. Besides, if Jane had been among the ladies sent to the Tower, it certainly would have been reported.
When George was arrested, Jane sent a letter to the Constable of the Tower offering comfort to him and a promise that she would plead his case to the king. She was the only one to reach out to him. After his death, she continued to wear her widow’s clothing and never remarried. The argument that Jane received financial rewards for her testimony is utterly negated by the fact that she had to go to great lengths to get the bare minimum of her jointure. She had everything to lose, and nothing to gain, by her husband’s downfall. It’s quite telling that she requested the return of her marriage bed after George’s execution. If she hated her husband as much as it is suggested, she would be glad to be rid of it. Not only was Jane successful in reclaiming the bed, she didn’t part with it until after her own death on the scaffold, even though she could have made a tidy profit from its sale during her lean years.
We may never know what went on in the Rochford marriage or what really happened during the building of the case against Queen Anne and her brother, but it seems clear that Jane has been roped into a reputation that is entirely undeserved. Was she perfect? Of course not. None of them were, and all confessed themselves to be sinners in the moments leading up to their deaths. Jane was just a woman like any other woman. She had flaws and imperfections, but the historical Jane bears no resemblance to the black Lady Rochford of fiction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adrienne Dillard, author of Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey and The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn is a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in History from Montana State University-Northern. Adrienne has been an eager student of history for most of her life and has completed in-depth research on the American Revolutionary War time period in American History and the history and sinking of the Titanic. Her senior university capstone paper was on the discrepancies in passenger lists on the ill-fated liner and Adrienne was able to work with Philip Hind of Encyclopedia Titanica for much of her research on that subject. Visit Adrienne’s website at ADRIENNE DILLARD: REVEALING THE HIDDEN FIGURES OF HISTORY.