QAB Guest Writer: THE MADNESS OF JANE BOLEYN, by Danielle Marchant

By Danielle Marchant


This sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger is thought by some art historians to be Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford. This may actually be another female Parker relative.
This sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger is thought by some art historians to be Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford. This may actually be another female Parker family relative.


On the morning of the 13th February 1542, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford followed Queen Katherine Howard to the scaffold on Tower Green. Both were to pay the ultimate price for helping to make a cuckold of Henry VIII. In The Tudors drama series, Jane played by Joanne King, is shown as a gibbering wreck, slowly making her way, but not all there, lost in her madness and makes a speech that is just about understandable before complying with the executioner. In the last two months of her life, Jane did go mad, but was this madness genuine or did she fake it?
The scene from The Tudors is slightly inaccurate. In reality, Jane did not appear mad on the way to the scaffold. In fact, she had approached the scaffold “with calm dignity”. Katherine, being the Queen, took precedence and was executed first. Jane followed. In her final speech, contrary to popular myth, Jane did not make references to the fate of her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn, or the fate of her husband George six years previous to this, which has often been said because she has often been unfairly blamed for sending them to their deaths.


Joanne King as Jane Boleyn. Lady Rochford (THE TUDORS, Showtime)
Joanne King as Jane Boleyn. Lady Rochford
(THE TUDORS, Showtime)


Her final speech according to eyewitness Ottwell Johnson was as follows:

“I have committed many sins against God from my youth upwards and have offended the King’s royal majesty very dangerously, so my punishment is just and deserved. I am justly condemmed by the laws of this realm and by Parliament. All of you who watch me die should learn from my example and change your own lives. You must gladly obey the King in all things, for he is a just and godly prince. I pray for his preservation and beseech you all to do the same. I now entrust my soul to God and pray for his mercy.”

This is hardly the mutterings of a madwoman. She had shown a calm dignity and according to Ottwell Johnson. Both Jane and Katherine met a dignified end – their souls were “with God, for they made the most godly and Christian’s end that was ever heard tell of (I think) since the world’s creation”.

Identified (after Hans Holbein the Younger) Historian Conor Bryne and others believe this to be an authentic Holbein portrait of Queen Katherine Howard.
Unidentified (after Hans Holbein the Younger)
Historian Conor Bryne and others believe this to be an authentic Holbein portrait of Queen Katherine Howard.

However, we do know that Jane did suffer a nervous breakdown after her arrest in November 1541. Jane was arrested for her involvement in Queen Katherine’s affair with Thomas Culpepper, helping to arrange their meetings. On the 1st December, both Thomas Culpepper and Katherine’s former lover Francis Dereham, had been tried for treason. Dereham then faced the full gruesome traitor’s death of hanging, drawing and quartering, whilst Culpepper faced the relatively merciful beheading. While this took place, Katherine Howard remained at Syon while Jane stayed in the Tower, both awaiting their fates.

On the third day of her imprisonment, Jane suffered a nervous breakdown. It’s not a total surprise; her life was unravelling before her. Neither Jane’s brother Henry, nor her father Henry Parker had attempted to intervene. In fact, the uncle of Jane’s sister-in-law Anne Boleyn, James Boleyn, took back Blickling Hall from Jane. Her family were profiting from her death. Also, unlike six years earlier when Anne and George had been executed, Jane was now at the epicentre of events. With Anne and George, she was a witness interrogated, on the periphery and survived to come back to serve Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. However, with Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper, she had acted as go-between, arranging their secret meetings. In Henry’s eyes, she played a central role in this affair. Despite her mental collapse, the King was still determined not to let her off the hook. Henry was going to make an example of her; she would still be punished publicly.

It has been said that there was a law at the time that protected those that were insane, so that they could not be executed. The King, however, got a law passed through to overrule this, so that Jane could still be executed. He even sent his own Doctor to nurse her back to sanity. Jane was temporarily allowed out of the Tower and spent Christmas 1541 at Russell House, on the Strand, London. Jane spent Christmas with Admiral Lord Russell and his wife, Anne. She was already acquainted with them from court and also would have met them on a progress visit made earlier that year to the family seat at Chenies, Buckinghamshire.

After Christmas, the King himself opened Parliament in January 1542. Jane, referred to as “that bawd, the lady Jane Rochford” and Katherine Howard had proceedings made against them under the Act of Attainder. This meant that both would not be entitled to a trial, nor would they have a chance to defend themselves. Both were sentenced to death.

King Henry VIII (Hans Holbein the Younger)
King Henry VIII
(Hans Holbein the Younger)

With the knowledge of this law for the insane, did Jane pretend her madness? This idea has been used in historical fiction by authors Brandy Purdy and Philippa Gregory. Jane was a survivor. She had survived Henry’s court up to this point for twenty-three years and had served five of Henry’s six Queens. She obviously knew how to play the game and what not to do. Seeing this loophole that could potentially save her life and see her serve another Queen, could you blame her? Being at the epicentre, Henry was extremely angry at all of those involved. He even threatened to kill Katherine himself with his sword. Jane was not going to get out of this alive and pretending to be mad was probably her only lifeline.

However, to be genuinely mad, you have to consistently show symptoms over a period of time. Even the best actress could only keep up this façade for so long before being rumbled. To have a Doctor nurse her back to health over the Christmas period, she must have demonstrated symptoms over a period of time and had convinced everyone around her. This is one reason why I am inclined to believe that her madness was genuine.

Another possible sign that her madness was genuine was describing the nature of Katherine and Thomas’ affair. Both Katherine and Thomas denied anything had happened, whereas Jane who had stood guard in the room during their meetings and on one occasion had even been asleep on a chair in the same room, had said that “Culpepper have known the Queen carnally, considering all things that she had heard and seen between them”. Why was Jane being so honest – if that was the honest truth – about the affair? Was she drawing from her experiences from before when she had been interrogated about Anne and George Boleyn?

At that time, she was honest to her interrogators about Anne confiding in both her and George over her struggle to conceive a son and that Henry was impotent. This statement was treasonous information that could not be withheld and therefore, Jane had no choice but to admit what Anne had said to her, or risk being interrogated and put on trial herself. Jane survived, but Anne and George did not. Maybe she believed that honesty would save her this time. If Jane was thinking lucidly at the time, this would have been evidence of it.

However, by being honest, Jane was also underestimating Henry’s anger. Maybe it was in her best interests to have gone along with Thomas and Katherine’s story after all. Surely it would have been better to lie, than twist the knife and make the situation appear ten times worse? What appears to us as Jane betraying both Thomas and Katherine does also appear to be a sign of someone clutching at straws, throwing caution to the wind and acting irresponsibly, especially if she wasn’t telling the truth. If this was a desperate attempt to extricate herself from the situation regardless of the terrible consequences to Katherine and Thomas and making the situation sound even worse than it probably was, this does to me sound like a woman not thinking clearly and on the brink of a nervous breakdown.


Another factor to take into account here is the Tudor attitude to witchcraft. Those accused of witchcraft were hanged in England, although the main movement against witches didn’t truly get underway until the 17th century in the reign of James I, who had a great fear of witches from his time in Scotland. Given that insanity and promiscuous behaviour was sometimes associated with witchcraft, it is a wonder that the King went through all the trouble of changing a law about insanity just to get Jane executed. He could have simply just thrown in a witchcraft accusation into the proceedings, as he obviously wanted her dead anyway and wanted to make an example of her.


The fact that Henry had got his own Doctor to nurse her back to health and had passed a special law maybe does indicate that her madness was genuine. If she was playing him, even at this stage and pretending to be mad, wouldn’t he have just turned around, gave as good as he got and just accused her of being a witch to blacken her reputation even further, a reputation where she was already being referred to as “that bawd, the lady Jane Rochford”? It’s interesting food for thought and again, to me this does indicate that maybe her madness was genuine.

Therefore, based on what has been discussed, it does seem obvious to me that contrary to historical fiction, Jane was actually calm and dignified on the day of her execution. However, in the days leading up to this, it is very likely that also contrary to historical fiction, her madness was very real.

Sources and suggested further reading:
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII – David Starkey, 2004, Vintage.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII – Alison Weir, 2007, Vintage.
Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy – Joanna Denny, 2008, Piatkus Books Ltd.
A Brief History of the Tudor Age – Jasper Ridley, 2002, Robinson.
Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford – Julia Fox, 2008, Phoenix.


Danielle Marchant
Danielle Marchant

Danielle is an independent author from London, UK. She published my first historical novella, The Lady Rochford Saga Part 1: Into the Ranks of the Deceived. It is available to download worldwide via Amazon. It is part of a series of novellas. Part 2 is scheduled for release in Spring 2015! Facebook highlights the novella series at Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford on facebook. Visit Danielle’s blog featuring Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford at Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochord: The Real Story Behind the Infamous Lady Rochford


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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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