The Boleyn Women: Anne Boleyn’s Female Forebears

I am delighted to welcome historian Elizabeth Norton to On the Tudor Trail. Elizabeth has extensively researched the queens of England and the Tudor period. Her books include Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession, Anne Boleyn: In Her Own Words & the Words of Those Who Knew Her and The Boleyn Women. I hope you enjoy this fascinating guest post!

The Boleyn Women: Anne Boleyn’s Female Forebears by Elizabeth Norton

Anne Boleyn is, of course, the most famous member of the Boleyn family. Henry VIII’s second wife came from nowhere to become only the second Englishwoman in the post-Conquest period to become queen. Although Anne’s personal qualities led to Henry falling in love with her, it was her status, as the daughter of courtiers, which allowed her to come to his attention in the first place. Only a few generations before, the Boleyns had been peasants, farming the land at Salle in Norfolk. While the men of the family were ambitious, the Boleyn women played a crucial role in taking the family from peasant to princess in only six generations.

The earliest origins of the Boleyn family are obscure, with the first identifiable ancestors at Salle in Norfolk in the late thirteenth century. The family were lowly, enjoying a status below that of lord of the manor (of which there were four in Salle). Instead, they can more correctly be classed as ‘yeomen’, a class of men who were prosperous peasants.

The first prominent family member was Thomas Boleyn. He and his wife, Agnes, secured an indulgence from the Pope in 1398 and were reasonably well off, contributing to the rebuilding of the church at Salle.

Their son, Geoffrey, was one of the principal builders of the new church, which has been described as cathedral-like in its proportions and designed to show off the status of a parish made wealthy by the wool trade. Geoffrey, who farmed his own land, including selling loads of barley and oat straw, was one of the most prosperous men in the parish. This enabled him to marry an heiress, Alice, the daughter of Sir John Bracton of Bracton. While Alice was a member of the gentry, Geoffrey was not. However, the family’s increasing prominence at Salle ensured that they could set their two sons, Thomas and Geoffrey, up in careers away from Salle.

Blickling Hall in Norfolk, built on the site of the Boleyn home

The couples’ eldest son, Thomas, enjoyed a successful career at Cambridge University, becoming the master of Gonville Hall in 1454. His younger brother, another Geoffrey, achieved even more. After becoming a hatter in London, he worked hard to be in a position to join the prestigious Mercer’s Company in 1435. Geoffrey, who would later be knighted, became one of the most prosperous merchants in London, as well as serving as Lord Mayor of London in 1457. He purchased Blickling Hall in Norfolk from Sir John Falstolf, allowing him to establish a family seat. His first wife, Dionise, died young, but his second, Anne Hoo, was the most prominent early Boleyn woman and greatly extended the fortunes of the family.

Anne Hoo was considerably younger than her husband, whom she married in around 1442-1444. She was then the only surviving child of Sir Thomas Hoo, the head of a long-established Sussex gentry family. Hoo had served as Henry VI’s chancellor of France and, in 1448 was created Lord Hoo and Hastings, bringing the Boleyns within touching distance of the nobility. At the time of his marriage, Geoffrey had high hopes that Anne would one day be her father’s heiress – something that was proved right although, disappointingly, she had to share the near-bankrupt estate with three younger half-sisters, who were all born after her marriage.

Anne Hoo, who provided the Boleyns with strong family links to the gentry, also contributed more practically to the family following Geoffrey’s death in 1463. Her two sons, Thomas (who died as a young adult) and William were both minors, leaving her to run the family estates. She was also left to arrange marriages for her three daughters, proving to be a formidable barrier when the fortune hunting John Paston, of the famous Paston family, attempted to woo her daughter with his charm and ‘personable’ appearance. Instead, she arranged solid gentry matches for her three daughters. She remained close to her children, dying an old woman in 1485 and receiving a prominent grave in Norwich Cathedral.

While Anne Hoo proved to be an important Boleyn woman, her daughter-in-law, Margaret Butler, proved even more prestigious. At the time of her marriage to William Boleyn, Margaret was the niece of the sixth Earl of Ormond – a prestigious link for the up and coming Boleyns. Around three years after her marriage, in 1478, her uncle died and her father, Thomas Butler, succeeded to the family’s Irish earldom, English barony (that of Rochford) and extensive estates in both countries. The seventh Earl was then the father only of two daughters – Margaret and her elder sister, Anne St Leger. A second marriage in his twilight years must have worried Ormond’s daughters and their families, but it produced only a short-lived daughter. By 1510, with their younger half-sister’s death, it had become clear that Anne and Margaret would be their father’s only heiresses.

While her father lived, Margaret’s connections aided the Boleyns. Ormond served both as ambassador to France and Burgundy, for example, as well as sitting on the king’s Privy Council. He also acted as chamberlain to Elizabeth of York. William Boleyn, who was knighted at the coronation of Richard III, also began to appear more at court in the period, moving his principal residence to Hever Castle, allowing for greater access to court.

Hever Castle, Kent

Hever Castle, Kent

Margaret had been a widow for nearly ten years when her father died in August 1515 at the advanced age of ninety. The death made Margaret, who was already well into her sixties, potentially very wealthy indeed. Ormond owned seventy-two manors in England alone, as well as extensive Irish estates. He was described by an eighteenth-century biographer as ‘the richest subject the king had, and left £40,000 in money besides jewels, and as much land to his two daughters in England, as at this day would yield £30,000 per annum’. Unfortunately, he did not leave an uncomplicated succession.

Ormond’s two daughters were his heirs-general and co-heiresses to any of his property and titles not entailed on his heir-male, who was his distant cousin, the powerful Irish nobleman, Sir Piers Butler. The two sisters were able to take possession of the English inheritance without difficulty, but Piers seized the Irish estates. To further complicate matters, Sir James Ormond, an illegitimate son of the sixth Earl of Ormond, who had acted as the seventh Earl’s steward in Ireland, also claimed the inheritance, taking some of the Irish manors for his own use.

The seventh Earl’s English barony of Rochford certainly lapsed when he died without a son, but the earldom, which was created before 1330, had never been limited to the male line and should therefore have passed to Ormond’s daughters. Piers, however, who was a crucial English ally in Ireland, was a formidable opponent.

Margaret relied on her eldest son, Sir Thomas Boleyn, to manage her claim, stating in a letter to him that ‘I pray and heartily desire you that you will do for me in everything as you shall think most best and expedient’. In 1522 a potential solution was reached, with a proposed marriage between Piers’ son, James, and Thomas’s daughter, Anne. While matters advanced so far that the potential bride was recalled from service in France, the match eventually came to nothing. In June 1525, probably due to Mary Boleyn’s relationship with the king, Thomas received the old Ormond barony of Rochford, upgraded to a viscounty. This was no compensation for an earldom.

Modern portrait of Anne Boleyn (Thornbury Castle)

Thomas continued to push for the restitution of his grandfather’s earldom and, finally, in 1527, Cardinal Wolsey was instructed to draw up articles for an agreement to be entered into by Margaret, her sister and Piers Butler. There is no doubt that this settlement was the result of Anne Boleyn’s influence with the king and it proved very favourable to the Boleyns. The following year, all three parties signed to confirm that the Irish estates belonged to Margaret and her sister (although they were immediately leased back to Piers). At the same time, Piers abandoned his claim to the earldom of Ormond, instead receiving the earldom of Ossory. The following year, Thomas Boleyn became Earl of Ormond, as well as receiving the old Butler earldom of Wiltshire. Although his daughter’s influence was undoubtedly behind the settlement, it was Margaret’s position as the earl’s daughter which had allowed him to claim so much.

Sir Thomas Boleyn, like his father and grandfather, also made an influential marriage. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, he married Elizabeth Howard, the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, a man who finally recovered his father’s lost duchy of Norfolk in Henry VIII’s reign. The Howards were one of the premier families in England and this connection allowed Thomas to fully cement his position at court.

Sir Geoffrey Boleyn married the daughter of a baron. Sir William Boleyn married the daughter of an earl. Sir Thomas Boleyn married the daughter of a duke. The Boleyn women helped to increase the family’s prestige, placing their descendants in a position where one of them could marry the king of England. In 1400 the Boleyns were peasants at Salle in Norfolk. In 1500 they were lords of the manor at Blickling and Hever. In 1600 the daughter of a Boleyn sat on the throne of England itself. In this dramatic rise, the men were important, but it was the women of the family who brought them to the very top of society.

Visit Elizabeth Norton’s official website here.

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  1. Kate Wallace says:

    From merchants to the leading family of 1530’s England.
    An interesting article on Anne’s ancestors/

  2. Fascinating… What a great post.

  3. Anne Barnhill says:

    Great article–thanks! I’ve always thought the Boleyn men wise in their choice of wives…the women had the bloodlines and the men had the money…interesting!

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