Monday 10 May 2010

May 10th, 1536: My Lord of Rochford's Conscience

"At certain revolutions all the
Damned are brought and feel
By turns the bitter change
Of fierce extremes"

- John Milton (1608 - 1674), Paradise Lost

32 year-old George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, currently being held in the Martin Tower of His Majesty’s Tower of London, on a charge of incest with his younger sister, Queen Anne Boleyn, had been – until his arrest eight days earlier - a generally well-liked figure at the royal Court. Tall, muscular, wealthy, powerful, funny, confident, intelligent and impossibly handsome (the comparison to Adonis has been made before), it was difficult not to like him, at least on first impressions; his friend, Thomas Wyatt, would later write that if only George had not been so arrogant, he would have been more sincerely mourned. As an extended member of the Royal Family, George had been given free use of the King's palace at Beaulieu in Essex and despite the slightly strained state of his marriage to Jane Parker (we have no idea how strained), the two had thus far managed to maintain a convincing fa├žade in public and were known for their fine-living and extravagance.

George was close to his youngest sister, the Queen, although there is nothing to suggest that their relationship was in any way inappropriate, much less incestuous. The two siblings shared a deep interest in politics, France and theology. However, Anne’s personal religion was much more ‘catholic’ than her brother’s – over the last two years, as George became more radical, they had quarrelled, at least once, about the issue of Transubstantiation. (George thought it was open for debate; Anne didn't.) George was also moving closer and closer to the Lutheran doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, whilst Anne still believed emphatically in the essentialness of good deeds in achieving Salvation. The Queen also found the long sermons of the more radical Protestant preachers favoured by her brother to be insufferably boring, and she was deeply devoted to the liturgical ceremonies and splendour of the medieval Church - the "smells and bells," if you will. George looked upon the fire and zest of the Reformation with tingling excitement - at last, they were about to sweep away the old superstitions and Catholic nonsense to replace it with the true religion of Christ's gospel. Anne, looking on with increasing unease at this reformist zeal, was now beginning to panic that they were running the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath-water and that the Reformation was turning into a hydra which nobody could control. Increasingly, the only thing the Queen and her brother had agreed upon theologically was their antipathy towards heresy trials and death by burning, their hatred for the Vatican and their deep commitment to having the Bible available for all to read in their native language.

Although George was now best-known for his devotion to the emerging Protestant religion, his devotion to it did not mean that he always lived so piously – certainly not chastely. As Professor G.W. Bernard so wisely reminds us, “There is a pervasive and tenacious assumption that those who are devout must and do live moral and chaste lives; and an equally pervasive and tenacious assumption that those whose lives, at least at times, are dissolute, or who, at least at times, defy or show little respect for the teachings of the church, cannot be, at least at times, sincerely devout.” George Boleyn was a case in point - despite his frequent Bible-thumping, which had become so zealous that the Spanish ambassador refused to dine with him anymore, in his younger days George had also jumped from bed to bed with gay abandon (which, as we shall see, may require a pun-pardoning.)

George was certainly an adventurous and successful lover and as a young man, he lived a life so extravagantly excessive that he eventually came to regret much of it. We can discount the recent suggestion made by Alison Weir that he was a serial rapist, since there is no evidence to seriously suggest that George Boleyn ever actually forced someone to go to bed with him. As to the suggestion by Professor R.M. Warnicke that he was homosexual or Alison Weir’s idea that he may have been bisexual, we simply cannot know for certain. I do not necessarily agree with those who dismiss the idea as nonsense, simply because of the number of women George Boleyn went to bed with. That rather seems to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the most basic gist of bisexuality. However, a note of caution should be given here on 16th century concepts of sexuality: numerous flawed translations of the Bible, most of them of the “Good News” ilk, have given rise to the absurd idea that the word “homosexual” existed in ancient times. It didn’t. Nor did it exist in George Boleyn’s time. It dates from the late 19th century and prior to this there was no separate psychological category for those attracted either exclusively to their own or both genders. In any case, whatever his sexuality - and there really is no firm evidence to link his name definitely to any men - it certainly had something to do with the vortex of self-loathing into which the viscount spiralled during his imprisonment.

During their captivity, whilst the Queen’s faith brought her comfort, George's brought him pain; he despised his earlier promiscuity, his extravagance and his self-indulgence. As far as the Queen was concerned, the only matters worth considering were the ones for which she had been arrested. For her, there was a direct symbiosis between cause and effect; medieval theology taught that the punishment would fit the crime – Anne had not committed adultery, therefore, she did not deserve her imprisonment. Emerging evangelical or “born-again” Protestantism, however, did not offer these certainties to Her Majesty's brother – just because George Boleyn had not committed incest did not necessarily mean that he did not deserve his incarceration for some other reason, known only to God. "I am a wretched sinner," he would later lament, "and I have sinned shamefully."

This unhappiness came and went and he was often able to mask it - most memorably with the magnificent bravado of his trial - but it is clear from reports on the prisoner that Lord Rochford was a man distraught. Seeing him despondent when he visited him in his rooms, George’s gaoler, Sir William Kingston, was profoundly moved and tried to alleviate it as best he could. To see this proud, handsome young man so broken apparently moved Sir William in a way in which the chutzpah of the Queen never could; later, as we shall see, when George Boleyn was condemned to death, Kingston made arrangements for preachers to be brought to visit George and wrote to Cromwell on his behalf, asking him to settle Boleyn’s outstanding debts and "help my lord of Rochford's conscience."

All this, of course, is not to say that traditional Catholicism is a religion of logic, light, self-validation and warmth compared to the fire and brimstone fury of evangelical Protestantism, operating like an emotional cat o' nine tails on the psyches of its followers; it is simply to point out that, in this case, the personalities and the previous private lives of George and Anne Boleyn, coupled with their different emotional responses to Christianity, meant that they both reacted to this final crisis of their lives in very different ways.


  1. Might the idea of justification by faith alone have appealed to George partly precisely because of his chequered life?

  2. Another wonderful article. I'm so pleased to have found your blog, Gareth. You've presented a balanced view of Anne's faith, rather than the usual Protestant Saint or Trend-Loving Fake often presented, and it's interesting to read that the siblings argued on religious matters. What sources highlight the specifics mentioned in your second paragraph? I would love to know.

  3. As a fan of Claire's Anne Boleyn Files, I am delighted to discover your blog! And very pleased to learn that you are writing a new biography of this tragic queen. Your writing style is wry, insightful, and gives details I have never seen elsewhere. Thank you for giving such an intimate portrait of George Boleyn. Anne's birthdate and Henry's instigation of her downfall are two other of your very well-reasoned arguments that I completely agree with. I am now following your posts with great anticipation.

  4. Matterhorn, I think you're maybe right about that, though of course it's pure speculation. The born-again zeal often manifests itself in people who have an unusually high preoccupation with sin - so, for example, we see modern day hard-line pentecostal or evangelical sermons and campaigns often fixate with extraordinary detail and vigour on criticising sex before marriage or homosexuality in the most graphic terms, precisely because the preachers and congregations themselves are often obsessed with sins of the flesh. George Boleyn certainly fits this profile to a degree; although, as I say, it's pure speculation.

    Anne, thank you for your incredible comment I'm so glad you liked the Boleyn posts and I hope I don't disappoint over the next few days!

    Shannon, the arguments about Holy Communion took place late in 1535 and early 1536. George wanted Anne to patronise the work of a writer called Tristam Revell, who had written a book called "Farrago Terum Theologicarum," in which he denied the Real Presence. Hope that helps!

  5. I just wanted to comment that while the word homosexual may not have existed, the word sodomite did, and did specifically refer to same sex attraction.

  6. Thank you for visiting the blog.

    Yes, the word "sodomite" did indeed exist, but it did not apply solely to same-sex attraction. The sin of the people of Sodom was an attempt to rape visiting angels, something which meant the technical term "sodomite" has been subject to a myriad of interpretations since it was first deployed, since no-one else has ever attempted to do again what they attempted in the Book of Genesis.

    Although it later came to mean same-sex attraction, in the 16th century "sodomite" meant anyone who participated in any form of non-vaginal intercourse, be it anal or oral, and with man or woman.

  7. Gareth, it's worth noting that sodomy is still defined that way -- and that until relatively recently, both male and female residents of many states could be arrested for this "crime."

    In any event, I want to join other posters in praising your blog. I'm finding it to be tremendously absorbing, educational and moving. Thanks for your work and if you can, keep it up!


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