On May 15, 1536, took place one of the most sensational trials of the 16th century. George Boleyn, the brother of Queen Anne, answered charges of high treason—that he had committed incest with his sister and conspired at the king’s death.
Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, had directly before been found guilty of treason. A jury declared that she had committed adultery with her brother and four other men. The Lord Mayor of London said, “I could not observe anything in the proceedings against her, but that they were resolved to make an occasion to get rid of her at any price.”
It would seem impossible that any other verdict than guilty could be reached for George Boleyn. Yet after hearing the evidence, Viscount Rochford defended himself “so well that several of those present wagered ten to one that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against him,” said a contemporary.
Boleyn’s spirited and eloquent defense was of course not enough to save him from conviction. When told the verdict, he took it bravely, as had his sister the queen. He made it clear that his main concern was the people to whom he owed money. Boleyn “requested the judges that they would beg the King that his debts, which he recounted, might be paid out of his goods.”
Intelligent, quick-witted and courageous—few would deny George Boleyn those qualities. But he possessed others too. Friend and enemy alike called him arrogant, promiscuous, and ruthless. Many of the noblemen and courtiers of the 16th century seem to us such contradictory characters that we are left confused. Few were more of a paradox than George Boleyn. And it is perhaps because we struggle to understand him that he has become such a controversial figure in popular culture. The brother of one of the most famous women in English history—portrayed by actresses ranging from Merle Oberon to Genevieve Bujold to most recently, Natalie Dormer—has taken on his own brand of fame. It is not easy to separate fact from fiction.
First, the facts. The only son of Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn to live to adulthood, George was most likely born in 1504, the middle child between Mary and Anne. He was well educated and spoke fluent French, although he did not spend his formative years abroad as his sisters did. He was known for his talent in writing music and poetry and had a gift for translations.
There is some evidence that George won favor with Henry VIII independent of the king’s lust for Boleyn females. He was made a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in 1525, which was most likely after the king’s affair with Mary had ended. While some historians believe Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn in the early or mid 1520s, it seems doubtful. In 1525, the king was consumed with making his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and trying to persuade the country to accept him as heir. In his early years as courtier, George Boleyn played a light-hearted part. Financial records show that he often gambled with the king and played him at bowls, tennis, card games, and archery.
But by 1527 the king had decided to solve his succession crisis by having a legitimate son with the woman he now loved, Anne Boleyn. And as she became more and more powerful, so did her brother, whom all agree, she was close to. George was knighted in 1529 and then made Lord Rochford. He received property and grants continuously from that time until the year of his death.
In films, television series, and historical fiction, George plays a prominent part in the endlessly fascinating saga of Anne Boleyn. He is often portrayed as sarcastic and conniving while circling his sister—a somewhat shallow uber-courtier. But that picture is incomplete. He seems to have been taken quite seriously in the court of the king and in foreign courts as well. Boleyn followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a diplomat and traveled to France on several important missions. In George’s official papers when traveling to France he was described as the one the King “specially loveth and trustith.” The king asked George Boleyn to argue the case for royal supremacy over the church in Parliament. In 1533, George Boleyn had the highest attendance record of any other lord in Parliament.
It is in the realm of Boleyn’s personal life that controversies rage the hottest. First there is the question of his sexuality. And then there’s the question of his marriage. The two are not necessarily connected.
The first historian to suggest George Boleyn was gay was historian Retha Warnicke. In a 1987 paper entitled “Sexual Heresy at the Court of King Henry VIII” and in her subsequent 1989 book The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Warnicke introduced several theories: Anne Boleyn’s January 1536 miscarriage produced a “deformed” infant that prompted Henry VIII to believe his wife was a witch; the courtiers who were eventually accused of having sex with Anne were promiscuous and in some cases bisexual; and George Boleyn had probably had an affair with Mark Smeaton as well as other men. Boleyn’s being gay is based on his giving Mark Smeaton a gift of a book ridiculing marriage and that after he was convicted of treason he denied the charges but said he deserved to die “for more and worse shame and dishonor than have ever been heard of before.” Such outcries were fairly common among the condemned, but Warnicke and others have interpreted his words as admission of sexual proclivities not accepted in the 16th century.
George Cavendish, a contemporary who did not like the Boleyns, had a different take on the sexuality of George Boleyn. He wrote:
I forced widows, maidens I did deflower.
All was one to me, I spared none at all,
My appetite was all women to devour
My study was both day and hour.
Historians have expressed skepticism about Warnicke’s theories, saying there was not enough evidence to support them and the beliefs are “inferential.” Yet the theories took hold in historical fiction and television drama. In The Other Boleyn Girl, George Boleyn is bisexual and, it is strongly implied, slept with his sister and fathered the child she miscarried. In the Showtime series The Tudors, George Boleyn rapes his wife on their wedding night and has a passionate affair with Mark Smeaton—although in this version, he does not sleep with Queen Anne.
In her recent biography of Jane Boleyn, author Julia Fox claims that the marriage of George and Jane was a good one. But she is a sole voice. At the time of the trial of Boleyn and a few decades afterward, the opinion was anonymous: It was an unhappy union, perhaps wretchedly so, and Jane was the one who supplied evidence of “undue familiarity” between Anne and George Boleyn to Thomas Cromwell that was used at the trial. Why she would do so, no one can fathom. In The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir suggests that Jane was put under extreme pressure by Cromwell and had little choice.
One piece of evidence at the trial was that Anne and George mocked the king’s virility. Boleyn was handed a paper that outlined this charge and told not to read it aloud. Yet he did so, an act that some say doomed him. Was such defiance a central part of his character? Most agree he was very proud, if not arrogant. Thomas Wyatt in a poem said:
Some say, ‘Rochford, haddest thou not been so proud
For thou great wit each man would thee bemoan
Since it is so, many cry aloud
it is a great loss that thou art dead and gone.
Yet another piece of the George Boleyn puzzle is his religious beliefs. He was an ardent reformer, annoying Spanish Ambassador Chapuys with his pro-Lutheran opinions. Of all the Boleyns, George may have been the one who hated traditional religion the most. He definitely opposed Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Fisher. When Catherine of Aragon died, he publicly said it was a shame that Lady Mary, the hope of the Catholic Party, did not “join” her mother.
In June 1535, several monks of the Charterhouse who refused to deny the Pope and vow their loyalty to Henry VIII as head of the church were persecuted, tortured and finally executed. Their deaths were horrible—they suffered the full penalty of being hanged, drawn and quartered. George Boleyn was present at these executions. Did he think of the monks’ sufferings when his own time came, less than a year later, to mount the scaffold? No one can know. It’s agreed that George Boleyn died with courage. Moments before being beheaded, he admitted that he “deserved a heavier punishment for his other sins, but not from the King, whom he never offended.”
George Boleyn had no known children. He left no legacy but debts and a widow who’d probably hated him.
Still, one can see bits of George in his niece, the princess whose canopy he carried in 1533 shortly after she was born. She, too, was courageous and witty and learned, loving both difficult translations and a bit of gambling and fun. In Queen Elizabeth I perhaps dwelled the best qualities of George Boleyn.
By Nancy Bilyeau author of ‘The Crown’ a historical thriller set in Tudor England.