George Boleyn

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.

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Comments

  1. George has always been obsession..a masters dissertation was not sufficient, and now he is the subject of my PhD! I think there is so much of his like left to unravel..I’m determined that he will be remembered as much as Anne.

    • Ooo! I do hope you’re able to weave his story without all of the dramatization that currently surrounds him; so far, no one seems to have cared to actually capture his personality and interests and would rather focus on his sexual affairs.

  2. Great post. You have a very interesting blog and I’ve spent a few hours pouring over it!

    You may be interested in my own blog http://www.essexvoicespast.com. This is a blog on a Tudor town, Great Dunmow in Essex, based on an amazing primary source, their churchwarden accounts. It is an investigation into a small English town from the late 1400s until the 1600s during the turbulent reigns of Henry VIII and his 3 children, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth and assesses the impact of the English Reformation on the inhabitants of the town of Great Dunmow.

    • Thank you for your comment! I have just had a quick look at your blog and it looks very interesting! I will most definitely return and read more of your posts. I often wonder what the Tudor personalities would have sounded like – really intriguing. Natalie

  3. Susan O'Neill Wood says:

    I can’t remember if The Other Boleyn Girl was my first or if I found it as a result of something else I read, but it was definitely near the beginning of my obsessive start with the Tudors . Finding your essays/blog through Gillian Bagwell’s twitter feed has been a joy. How I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at Henry’s court. Surely I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman there! Love this entry about George.

    • Thank you for your lovely comment Susan! I am so glad that you found your way to my site and look forward to hearing more from you in the future. Lots more articles on their way 🙂 Natalie

  4. Magdalena m says:

    George has always intrigued me. The poet,
    courtier, diplomat, a true Renaissance man.

  5. Joy LaBarr says:

    Loved this article! I too have watched the Other Boleyn Girl (Both versions) The Tudors, and have read a few books, and I always find it hard to believe that Anne and George had sexual relations, as desperate as she was to have a baby boy for the King, I just do not believe she cheated on him with her brother, or anyone else for that matter, but if she did cheat on him, I just do not believe she did with her own brother.

  6. George Boleyn, its hard to know what to believe when it comes to this man, he is painted as two different charactors, a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, some say good some say bad, gay or straight etc, maybe the most complex Boleyn of the lot, anyway will look forward to reading the new book about him.

  7. Great job! You male me think better about G.B. I still cannot undestand how his father had excaped from Henry’s wrath. With two children condamned for treason and one banished from court, the next one would have been him. How can you explain that?
    Thank you

    Patty from Italy

    • I don’t think there was any rhyme nor reason to the working of Henry’s court Patty, from a modern point of view. Perhaps it was some kind of recognition to all the hard work Thomas had done for Henry in the past. Thomas was a very respected ambassador of Henry’s for many years.
      Boleyn was back in favour in late 1536 when he helped put down the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and was at the baptism of Henry’s son to Jane Seymour in October 1537. And there was a rumour that he would marry the King’s niece in 1538 after the death of his wife 3 months earlier. Henry paid his Chaplin to say masses for his soul after his death, showing that Thomas was once again in great favour with the King. Hard for us to comprehend being friends with the man who signed the death warrants of 2 of your children, but not unusual in early history. Times were so, so different then.

      • Joanne says:

        I did not know this about Thomas Boleyn, very interesting, most things I’ve read about him have been before court or during Anne and Henry’s courtship/marriage. Would be good to learn a bit more about this man. Not sure what to make of George, he has always intrigued me greatly…

  8. After watching the latest The Tudors installment, it tells that George is beheaded as Anne watched from the Tower prior to her own death, but her father goes off scott-free! Have not heard anything about him. I pray he got his comeuppance! What a cad!

  9. Dawn 1st says:

    Oh Sarah please don’t believe how The Tudors portray these people from history, the series should be taken with a LARGE pinch of salt, the fiction well outweighs the facts.
    George Boleyn and the others accused with him were executed on Tower Hill, which is not visible from the Tower itself. There are very few factual books about George as little is known about him, which leaves his persona wide open for exaggeration and speculation. Read ‘George Boleyn, Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat’ by Clare Cherry & Claire Ridgway to get a better idea on Anne’s brother. And there is plenty of factual information on Thomas out there too, The Anne Boleyn Files has a few good articles written on him.
    That said l really enjoyed the Tudors, have it on DVD but it was made to entertain more than teach the truth…

  10. Thank you for your reply. These days it is hard to tell where facts and historical fiction for entertainment begin. I appreciate the attempts at accuracy in many portrayals. I own the two Elizabethan DVDS staring Cate Blanchette. My husband is more of an Anglophile than I although he was born in what was east Germany. He knows quite a lot and any other detains I scour the “net” or local library for. Inherently, there is almost as much intrigue in the world now as in the times of the Tutors.

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