Last year on this day, I posted an Apologia for Sir Thomas Boleyn on The English Historical Fiction Authors site. They have given me permission to post it here, which I have gratefully accepted. I have made some minor changes, so feel free to click through if you’d like to see the original. I also wrote about the experience, if you’d like to read about that.
Today is an appropriate day to examine the life of Thomas Boleyn, since it was on December 8, 1529 that he was created Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde. Before this point, it really could be argued that Sir Thomas had earned all his own success – he was an extremely intelligent and ambitious man, he married well, and he worked hard. Still, the smartest thing that Sir Thomas did was to educate his children so that they too could contribute to the family’s advancement. Because it is absolutely the truth that the most significant part of Thomas Boleyn’s rise is due to the fact that Henry VIII fell in love with his daughter Anne.
Born around 1476/1477 to landowner Sir William Boleyn and his heiress wife Margaret Butler, Boleyn scored his first political coup in 1422, when he was about 22 years old: he won the hand of Lady Elizabeth Howard, the oldest daughter of Thomas Howard, Second Duke of Norfolk. The match was a brilliant one for Boleyn, much higher than he should have been able to expect; he was able to pull it off because at the time, Howard was still in a bit of disgrace and relatively impoverished: he and his father had supported Richard III against Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Howard’s father died on the field, and Howard was stripped of all the family’s titles and sent to the Tower. In 1487, Howard refused an opportunity to escape during the rebellion of the Earl of Lincoln, which started his return to favor. In 1489, he was restored to the Earldom of Surrey, but not yet to the Dukedom or any of his lands. That step would wait until 1514, some five years after Henry VIII had acceded to the throne and Howard had proven his worth by crushing a Scottish invasion while the King was in France.
Meanwhile, thanks perhaps to a real talent for languages, Thomas Boleyn was fast becoming one of Henry VIII’s leading diplomats. In 1512, he was one of a party of three envoys sent to the Netherlands. From 1518-1521 he was Ambassador to France, where he was involved in arrangements for the 1520 Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting between Henry and the new French King Francis I. And from 1521 to 1523, he was an envoy to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and King of Spain. He was well rewarded for this work: by 1522 he had been granted about two dozen manors, he was a member of the Privy Council, he was the Treasurer of the King’s Household (a promotion from Comptroller, which he was named in 1520).
The 1522 date is significant because that is thought to be around the time that Sir Thomas’ oldest daughter, Mary Boleyn, became the King’s mistress. During the Shrovetide joust that year, the King wore a badge that read “Elle mon coeur a navera” (she broke my heart) that was said to refer to Mary. It is not known how long the affair lasted, many believed it was quite brief, but it is safe to say that Mary got nothing from it. Some have argued that Sir Thomas appropriated the benefits that could have gone to Mary: he was made a Knight of the Garter in 1523, then given the title of Viscount Rochford in 1525. This is possible, but not conclusive. After that, of course is a different story.
Henry is thought to have fallen in love with Anne Boleyn in 1525 – this time signaled by a joust badge that read “Declare je n’ose” (declare I dare not). While Thomas continued to perform well in the royal assignments given to him, the elevation to the Earldoms of Wiltshire and Ormonde in 1529 are clearly attributable to Anne because the Ormonde title represented a reversal of the King’s prior position on the matter. Sir Thomas had tried to claim the earldom through his wife when Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormonde, died in 1515, but Henry decided that Piers Butler, a more distant relation, should get it. By 1529, Henry was in the position of trying to burnish his beloved Anne’s background: he wanted to honor her father with both his “hereditary” title of Earl of Ormonde as well as the Earldom of Wiltshire. (Henry accomplished this by persuading Piers Butler to resign the Ormonde title and accepting the Earldom of Ossary several days later as a consolation prize.)
Given this history, many people accuse Sir Thomas of throwing his daughters at the King just so that he could prosper for himself. Whether this is in fact true depends on how the story is told. Was he a pander? Yes by today’s standards, no by those of his time. In Tudor times, pleasing the King led to power and fortune – displeasing him resulted in punishment and even death. There was no refusing the King (before Anne, anyway) so once the King’s eye fell on a woman, there would have been no question that she should submit. What that means in relation to Sir Thomas is a little more subtle than that, and again there is a distinction between Mary and Anne.
Mary had a terrible reputation. She wasn’t thought to be terribly bright. She was accused of having taken many lovers at the French court, some say the French King himself. She still managed to marry a man from a wealthy family – William Carey – though he was only the second son of a mere knight. The thing is, Mary does not seem to have been motivated by money given how she derived no benefit from her relationship with the King. Yes, her father was appointed to the Privy Council, but he could have done that on his own. That more than anything else is what would have disappointed Thomas Boleyn. (There is a possibility that Henry arranged the 1520 marriage with Henry Carey. If this is true, Sir Thomas might still have been disappointed because he would have been looking to the example set by Bessie Blount, who married Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme, although admittedly after bearing the King’s bastard son. )
Anne’s story gets more complicated. She was highly educated and very accomplished. She had acquitted herself well in impressive positions in the courts of the Netherlands, France, and then England – and without a single blemish on her reputation. She really had it all. She should be able to marry high. Indeed, she set her sights on Henry Percy, the heir to the Earldom of Northumberland. He fell in love with her and offered her marriage. Unfortunately, the public story at the time was that she had aimed a bit too high: Wolsey summoned the unfortunate Percy to chastise him for dallying with “That foolish girl yonder in the court, I mean Anne Boleyn.” There are those who claim that the reason Wolsey destroyed the relationship was because Henry VIII had already fallen in love with her and didn’t want her taken away up North. That – combined with her sister’s example – would certainly have prompted her refusing the King.
It cannot be understated how revolutionary an action this was back then. No one had ever refused a king, the anointed of God. Thomas Boleyn would never have believed – no one would ever have believed – that the King would leave Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne. The world was positive that she would have to give in at some point – but they underestimated Anne’s resolve and political acumen. During seven long years, she would get into fights with the King and retreat to Hever Castle – forcing Henry to use Sir Thomas as his go-between to beg her forgiveness. As the stakes continued to rise, Boleyn must have been quaking in his boots until the wedding and Anne’s coronation.
Understanding this side of Thomas Boleyn helps us to accept his behavior once his daughter’s downfall became clear. As early as April 24, 1536, the net tightened around Anne Boleyn. On that day, Henry signed a document authorizing the Council to begin an investigation into the activities of the Queen and her alleged lovers. Thomas Boleyn was a member of that Council, he knew then that his daughter was in danger. Did he warn her? He must have said something. History has recorded a scene after that date and before her arrest where Anne waited for the King in the courtyard below his apartments with their daughter Elizabeth. When Henry appeared at an open window, she held up the young princess and entreated her husband. We are told that Henry was embarrassed and annoyed, “though he concealed his anger wonderfully well,” before he made some excuse and turned away.
Still, it is questionable at this point whether Thomas Boleyn’s warning was explicit enough. Probably not, but it is likely that the Boleyn family thought that the investigation was a precursor to a simple annulment. We do know that Anne did not blame her father at all. Indeed, when Anne was first arrested, her thoughts were for her family. She asked Master Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, where her father and her “sweet brother” were. She also lamented that her mother would die of sorrow for her.
The next weeks must have been a horrendous experience for the man. Because Cromwell was determined to cleave to a show of justice, Anne was given a trial rather than condemned by Act of Attainder as she might have been. The King’s council all served as jurors – except for Thomas Boleyn. Although he did cast a guilty vote for his daughter’s alleged paramours, he was excused from participating in the trials of his two children. He is said to have assured the King and Thomas Cromwell of his willingness to appear (Chapuys reported that he had “wished to be present”) – though this can be explained by his fear of being added to the extensive list of victims if he didn’t.
Two months after Anne’s death, Thomas was stripped of his post of Lord Privy Seal, which went to Cromwell. Or perhaps he resigned it so that he could retire to Hever, having proved his loyalty and saved his life. That loyalty was acknowledged in October 1537, when he was chosen to carry the taper at the christening of the young Prince Edward. While he might thereafter have resumed some royal favor, Thomas Boleyn chose instead to retire from court. (Perhaps as punishment, in January 1538 Henry reversed himself yet again and gave Piers Butler back the Earldom of Ormonde.) In April 1538, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn died. Thomas followed her less than a year later in March 1539.
In all, Thomas Boleyn died a broken man. It is fascinating that during his lifetime, he earned enormous sympathy whereas now he is vilified – an interesting contrast to his daughter Anne who was hated during her lifetime but redeemed by her innocent death. I think it is time we let Sir Thomas off the hook just a little bit….. and celebrate with him on this day when life was looking as promising as it would ever get.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Hester W. Chaman, The Challenge of Anne Boleyn. Coward, McCann & Geoghean, 1974
Eric W. Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn; Blackwell Publishers, 1986
Lauren Mackay, Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writings of the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys; Amberley Publishing, 2014
Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn; Cambridge University Press, 1989
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I don’t believe Thomas Boleyn to be worthy of sympathy. He was willing to participate in the handing down of a guilty verdict to his own children on capital crimes. A thirst for power is one thing, but in an age where the family and the good of the family was of prime importance he was going to participate in the death of his only son and heir, and only didn’t because he wasn’t allowed to. His actions from the time of Mary’s affair with the king were entirely self serving, and were not in any way relatable as furthering the Boleyn family, nor the best interests of his children. He is the perfect picture of what not to be in any age.
I agree that Thomas Boleyn is a hard man to defend!
Excellent article. Thank you for broadening my knowledge of the period.
[…] him, posted on the anniversary of the day he was elevated to the Earldom of Wilshire, you can click here to read it). Either way, he deserves a compassionate nod […]
A wonderful article. I have no sympathy for him. Self-serving. He was spared the axe because King Henry Vlll needed him. I guess having his children killed by the King was punishment enough, although I am not sure. A common occurrence in Tudor times to use your children for power and advancement. It appears to me that King Henry Vlll was extremely vindictive to Thomas Boleyn even after the killing of his children.
That he was forced to participate in the christening of Jane’s son is appalling….
I went into a different world when I read this article…Thank you.
Awww, thank YOU!