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Irredeemable

Jane Boleyn: The True Story
of the Infamous Lady Rochford

By Julia Fox
Ballantine, 2007

 

They captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will encompass their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the fourth installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

The ears prick up when any book promises a ‘true story.’ We’ve been so surfeited lately with falsified memoirs that we wonder if we’ve been hoodwinked, or if the impersonal tides of history have sopped an innocent with calumny. In Julia Fox’s new book, Jane Boleyn, The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford, the focus of revision is Jane Boleyn nee Parker, the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn, the wife of her brother Lord Rochford. And here at least revision would seem impossible: if ever a minor figure in Tudor history seemed easily dismissible on the face of her own actions, it’s Lady Rochford. Her drama starts with the fall of Henry VIII’s bewitching second wife.

When Anne Boleyn was brought to trial in 1536, she faced two types of charges and heard not one word about a third type. The first was plain treason, for discussing the death of the king and incidentally, well, upsetting him by doing so. The second was the famous one – adultery, for which there were five named co-conspirators: the courtiers Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Westin, and the musician Mark Smeaton, and lastly and most monstrously, Lord Rochford, otherwise known as George Boleyn, Anne’s own brother.

The third charge against her, the unmentioned one, lurked behind the others in oppressive implication. The King’s council was hastily convened to examine the above charges against Anne Boleyn in April. Two months before, in February, she had miscarried of a boy, leaving Henry VIII’s much-prized succession on the tiny shoulders of Anne Boleyn’s little girl Elizabeth, or else the King’s disinherited daughter Mary. The King was furious and bitterly disappointed at the appearance of this dead baby boy – he refused to comfort the desperate mother, leaving her bedchamber almost immediately upon learning the issue of it. Two months later, Anne Boleyn was on trial for her life for adultery, treason, and incest.

This is not to insinuate total injustice. Anne should not have been held accountable for the gender of her child, but she was certainly accountable for the follies of her favors. This was, even then, a matter both entirely under her control and entirely treasonable if she controlled it amiss. Her words to Mark Smeaton, of her own account, were unacceptably suggestive. In 21st century parlance, they flirted with each other – but it took six succeeding centuries for that parlance to become innocent; in the 16th century it was plain blasphemy against the ruling order, and Anne Boleyn, who’d served in watchful thralldom to courts in France and England, knew that better than anybody. The always-pithy Tudor historian Anthony Froude puts it thus:

Young men [referring to Smeaton] do not speak of love to young and beautiful married women, still less to ladies of high rank, unless something more than levity has encouraged them; and although to have permitted such language is not proof of guilt, yet it is a proof of the absence of innocence.

The absence of innocence might go far to describing everybody involved in all of these events, both then and later. The commission assigned to try the case included a big chunk of the English nobility, and among their number was Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Wiltshire, father to both Anne and George Boleyn.

Generations of Tudor historians have convincingly maintained that Thomas Boleyn wasn’t present at the actual trial of his children, but there is no doubt that George Boleyn’s wife was present, that Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was sitting in the gallery when tortured and coerced witnesses stood up and under oath accused her husband of having committed incest with Anne Boleyn. Thomas Boleyn and his wife certainly knew of the charges; nobody spoke in contradiction except the brother and sister themselves. They protested their innocence to parents who couldn’t champion it without risking the titles, preferments, and revenues they’d begun to reap under Henry VIII. The king’s animus was for Anne Boleyn’s destruction, and both the Howards (including Anne’s mother) and the Boleyns (including Anne’s father) acquiesced without a word. Centuries of dispassionately misogynistic historians have assumed that this silence must lend credence to the horrible allegations before the board of inquiry. Such malevolent complacence is ignorant not only of human nature but of the Sunday New York Times, the weddings announcement pages of which are replete with smiling photos of exactly the same kind of negotiations, conducted in iron rooms by hard-eyed matrons in stiff dress, creatures who are thinking of the good of the line, not the happiness of any hapless individuals who might be unlucky enough to get in its way.

But Lady Rochford did more than just sit there: for weeks, she had been actively passing along malicious gossip about Anne to the King and men close to him; indeed, much of that animus can be laid directly at her door. And she was the one who brought before the inquiry Anne’s withering comments about Henry’s lack of sexual potency, with its further insinuations of incest involving her own husband, who loudly protested, “On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgement.”

The question immediately arises as to what possible motive Jane could have had to so further her husband’s ruin, and history may never have a definitive answer. Thomas Cromwell took care of her needs in her widowhood with particular care, and something may perhaps be inferred from that; her family, the Parkers, had been intimate with Princess Mary – again, inferences are possible. Tudor scholar Eric Ives eventually leans toward simple jealousy, that Jane was jealous of the closeness (the entirely non-incestuous closeness) between her husband and his sister. Regardless of her reason, her actions were as gross and total a renunciation of common decency as they were of her marriage vow. In response to it, Fox is oddly, doggedly semi-defensive:

Jane had not rushed to tell tales but she had buckled under the pressure of relentless questioning, once the investigation was in progress. Confronting the first major test of her courage, she had given way.

Fox is at pains to produce any evidence of grilling; and she does not do so. What we’re left with is the impression that with her husband on trial for his life, our subject was only too happy to spill any gossip she knew in order to preserve her own skin.

Anne, of course, was beheaded, and all of the men accused of being her lover – including her brother – were likewise executed. In an instant, Lady Jane Rochford lost her husband, her sister-in-law, and her standing at court. She retired to the country, perhaps a bit looked after, and by all rights should have disappeared from the stage of history.

The strangest set of circumstances not only returned her to renown but turned her to ruin. The root cause is perhaps not all that strange: she’d developed a taste for the splendor of court. She became an attendant to Anne of Cleves and subsequently attached herself to that practical lady’s successor, Catherine Howard, when that pretty young thing became Henry’s fifth queen (she was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk, and she furthered his dream of a Howard ascendancy). But Lady Rochford did more than simply return to court, and she took action as far more than a lady in waiting – and that’s where the strangeness comes in. Strange, corrupt, and treasonous: she aided the lusty young queen in committing adultery. Historian Lacy Baldwin Smith (who characterizes Lady Rochford as a “pathological meddler”) refers to this as an act of “unbelievable imbecility” and is willing to excuse the lady on grounds of mental incompetence:

What went on in the minds of those involved is beyond analysis. Lady Rochford went mad under the strain of disclosure and ceaseless interrogation, and perhaps it is charitable to believe that she was insane from the start.

The Queen was accused of sleeping with three men: Henry Manox and Francis Dereham before she came to the King (the ancient Duchess of Norfolk assured all parties concerned that Catherine was untouched), and the musician Thomas Culpeper repeatedly while she was Henry’s wife. The Howards had amassed a large number of enemies at court, mostly among the ‘new men’ who had risen in Henry’s service. Thomas Audley, the Seymours, Thomas Cranmer – these and others like them, once they began to grow suspicious of Catherine (things had grown so blatant between her and Culpeper that servants could not help but sense what was going on), worked assiduously to amass the documents of her downfall. Witnesses were interviewed, timelines were established, affidavits were extracted by gentle means and not, and, most damningly, Culpeper himself confessed.

The Queen and all three men were condemned – and so was Lady Rochford. Unlike in the trial of Anne Boleyn, where the most she had done, odiously enough, was stoke fires that were already burning, in the fall of Catherine Howard she was directly complicit. She’d arranged clandestine meetings between Catherine and Culpeper, lied to the king’s servants, scouted out suitable locations for assignations – she’d even sat chaperone in the same room as the young lovers. At one point she claimed to have fallen asleep in the same room as the young lovers during one such meeting, a laughable ploy Fox actually seems to believe:

Staying up half the night might suit Catherine and Culpeper, but Jane, their supposed chaperone, had fallen asleep.

Fox has studied the dimensions of rooms such as those in question; she must know the claim is an impossible one, yet there she is, championing it. Something in the air of the case, then or now, compels this kind of credulity.

Fox cannot change the facts as they stand: Lady Rochford steps onto the Tudor stage exactly twice, and both times she behaves about as horribly and stupidly as anyone could possibly do. Even in an age of serially apologetic biography (Lee Harvey Oswald? Tragically misunderstood! Senator Joe McCarthy? A misinterpreted patriot! Adolf Hitler? Just sit patiently in the waiting room: some eager PhD will be along shortly, surely some figures simply aren’t capable of rehabilitation, aren’t open to reexamination, and have through their own actions rendered themselves unworthy of remembrance? Henry’s pitbull minister Cromwell might have been a monster, but he was a monster who went far to create a working bureaucracy independent of the comings and goings of individual sovereigns. Cardinal Wolsey might have been a monster, but he went further than any other cleric in England to purge the Church in England of the many corruptions that four generations of reformers had condemned. And Henry himself might have been – no, certainly, certainly was – a monster, but he was also everything his people wanted in their king, boisterously, even malevolently energetic, warlike, consumed by worries for his kingdom and his succession, outwardly grand and applaudable – a big king, in other words, a strong king, which it can be argued was then the whole responsibility of being a king.


Sketch of Anne Boleyn
by Hans Holbein the Younger
  And Anne Boleyn? She was haughty, small-minded, and as avaricious as Satan, but she was also very generous to her friends, to her artists (including the exceedingly unfortunate Mark Smeaton), and to the arts in general. And she was brought down by something entirely beyond her control, her inability to produce a live male heir (although even there she needn’t have boasted of an ability she knew perfectly well she couldn’t control or direct, but boast she did, in order to entice the king).

But Jane Boleyn, nee Parker? She also was a monster – a mean-spirited, selfish gossip-monger who brought misery and death to virtually everybody she ever professed to love. But the difference between her and the rest is that she wasn’t anything other than a monster.

This person is Julia Fox’s chosen subject. For the courage of this, if for nothing else, she deserves a measure of admiration.

And in fact she deserves more than that, because Jane Boleyn actually manages to be an entertaining and even worthy addition to field of Tudor studies. Fox is an indefatigable researcher (this is a trait shared by a large proportion of newer Tudor scholars, and it bodes well for the future), and she’s very consciously theatrical in her narrative style. Her book is full of atmospheric details – horses nostrils flare, torches gutter in wall-sconces, breath mists in the cold morning air. These are things Fox of course did not see and that no contemporary source bothered to record, but after all they must have happened, and Fox’s literary skills weave them fairly unobtrusively into the historical matter she’s dealing with. This is not a biography by a frustrated writer of historical fiction; rather, it’s the book by somebody for whom history is fully and colorfully alive.

And she’s unshakably solid on her sources and her facts. She’s done a wide amount of reading, and she’s chosen a seldom-seen method of showing it: the end-notes for each chapter are not the usual scrabble of abbreviations and page-numbers but rather several compartmentalized discussions of the matters she’s end-noting, weighing alternative sources, citing disagreeing opinions, and making her case for her version of events. In this way the end-notes form almost a separate book, certainly a complementary one, entirely without colorful stage-settings, all business. Perhaps she decided such business, if included in the main text, would bore her intended readers, and perhaps she’s right about this – but in any case, it’s oddly thrilling to finish her vivid account of the zenith of Henry’s court and then encounter this scholarly underside to the theater, and to find Fox herself unchanged, her spirit and intelligence now concerned not so much with telling a story as with proving one.

Nevertheless, that story is ultimately an impossible obstacle. Fox wants her readers to sympathize with, if not to like, Lady Rochford – but such a goal would only be possible if Fox herself were a less competent or a less truthful biographer. In any full account of Jane Boleyn’s life – and this is the fullest one likely to appear – the verdict of every reader will be the same, and it won’t be sympathetic.

Naturally, Fox knows this. But she’s nothing if not tenacious on behalf of her subject:

She was no fairy godmother, but she was no wicked witch either. Forced to look out for herself in a man’s world, she so nearly succeeded.

Well, yes, but no, not exactly, or rather, not at all. What are we supposed to make of most of this? What benefit is it for anybody to be defended on the grounds that they’re just looking out for themselves? Fox would like Lady Rochford to be some kind of victim, and the only occasions on which her prose goes slack are those occasions when she attempts to argue this:

And it was her weakness under interrogation that gave her future detractors, happy to find a scapegoat to exonerate the King from the heinous charge of callously killing his innocent wife, the ammunition to maintain that it was her evidence that had fooled Henry and destroyed Anne and George.

This amount of double-dealing is, if nothing else, an ironically fitting tribute to the memory of one as deceitful as Jane Boleyn, but what can it mean? Henry wanted to discard Anne, for the sake of the succession – that’s beyond question. But it was an assemblage of the greatest and often most upright men in the kingdom who so carefully documented the case for adultery, and how in any of that was Lady Rochford a scapegoat? A scapegoat is an innocent creature – a scapegoat does not voluntarily retail innuendo in open court, does not set spy on the dalliance of others, does not read out bedroom snickerings in open court. Had the focus of Henry’s attention not been elsewhere, on his present and his future wives, if he’d turned to contemplate Lady Rochford’s behavior in the cold light of reason, she might very well have gone to the block right along with the brother and sister she so industriously maligned. Henry was famous for hating all malices but his own.

Jane Boleyn did not die in 1536, though she helped others to do so. She retired to her country estate at Blickling, and the best, least contentious part of Fox’s book describes the savvy efforts she made to rebuild her fortunes and her standing. But this quiet period was doomed to end, because Lady Rochford had acquired what we would call today a compulsion, and she was ultimately helpless before it. She was drawn to the cutthroat pace and the spectacle of the court. It wasn’t merely the opportunity for material advancement; Fox is very good at showing how advancement enough could be amassed far from Hampton Court. No, it was the glitter, the challenge, the electricity of the Tudor court that drew her back, and Fox is almost mournful of it:

What matters is that Jane’s own actions made the accusations later leveled against her credible. She opened the floodgates herself. With considerable effort, she had carved a career for herself after George’s death. She had shown just how far a woman alone could progress, despite the handicaps she had faced; but then she had thrown it all away. She could not break her addiction to the court and retire quietly to Blickling.

Lady Rochford richly deserved the fate she wove for herself, but even so, she was not the first to feel that compulsion when it came to the Tudors, and she would not be the last. Indeed, five centuries have felt it, although only those actually alive in the 1500s could die as a result. The rest of us are free to enjoy the spectacle without the peril, and we have, we endlessly have – particularly since the advent of film, a medium perfectly suited to the oversized and unabashed showmanship of the Tudors. The union of the Tudors and film may well be the only happy marriage the dynasty has ever had, and it will be the subject of our next installment.


Steve Donoghue led a force from his home in Blois to Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204. With the booty gained from sacking the Byzantine capital, he funded a tremendous library, which he has since increased, and which he refers to for his literary blog Stevereads

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