Saturday 4 June 2011

Defending Jane Boleyn

Above: Actress Sheila Burrell as Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford in the 1970 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Along with Thomas Cromwell and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Jane Boleyn has one of the most unremittingly dire reputations from her time at Henry VIII's Court. Born Jane Parker in about 1505, she was the daughter of a well-educated and well-respected minor aristocrat, Henry, baron Morley, who married her off at the age of nineteen to George Boleyn, a man so handsome that one palace servant compared him to Adonis. Handsome and intelligent he may have been, but none of George's talents could prevent him being eclipsed like the rest of the family by his youngest sister, Anne, who was crowned Queen of England in 1533. As the new queen's sister-in-law, Jane had a prominent role in the royal household but legend has it that her marriage to George was a miserably dysfunctional one. When the fall of the Boleyns took place in 1536, legend and historical tradition state that it was Jane, consumed with hatred for her husband and eaten up with jealousy for his beautiful, glamorous sister, who provided the false evidence to send them both to the block on a trumped-up charge of incest. Returning to court, Jane was involved in intrigues against Anne of Cleves before becoming a close confidante of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and helped the young queen meet with her adulterous lover, Sir Thomas Culpepper, a crime for which both she and Queen Catherine paid with their lives in 1542. 

Given Jane's role in what happened in 1536 and to a lesser extent in 1541-2, it's hardly a surprise that historians have usually strongly condemned her and that in historical novels like Brandy Purdy's Vengeance is Mine and Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance, she is presented as a mentally-imbalanced harpy. Recently, Jane has attracted a defender in the form of Julia Fox, whose first book was a full-length biography Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford, defending Jane and querying some of the legends surrounding her life. Julia's new book, Sister Queens, is a dual biography of Katherine of Aragon and her sister, Queen Juana "la Loca", but she has returned to her first subject in a guest article written for The Anne Boleyn Files. To quote from Julia's article: -

"Let me nail my colours to the mast: I believe that when Anne Boleyn knelt before the Calais swordsman on that May morning in 1536 she was entirely innocent of the charges levelled against her. She had committed neither adultery nor incest. And because she was innocent, so was each and every one of the five men accused with her. Their deaths, and hers, were totally unjust. Over the centuries, Anne and her fellow victims have been ably defended. So they should be... Quite why and how Anne fell remains a matter of fascinating conjecture. But of one thing I am convinced: it was not because of Jane Boleyn. She too was framed."

For Julia's full article, which I really recommend for Tudor enthusiasts, please click here.

For my account of Jane's execution in 1542, click here.

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