December 8, 1529 – Thomas Boleyn Created Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde

Thomas Boleyn, by Hans Holbein (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons). NOTE – the identity of the sitter is disputed: this may be James Butler, the “other” Earl of Ormonde.

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.



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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November 26, 1533 – Henry FitzRoy Marries Mary Howard

Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond, by Hans Holbein (public domain via Wikipedia Commons)

Henry FitzRoy was the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount. Mary Howard was the second daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn’s cousin. The marriage was an enormous coup for the Howard family.

There had been talk, when Henry VIII first began to consider divorcing Catherine of Aragon, to have FitzRoy marry his daughter Mary and thereby assure the future of the Tudor line. The Pope pushed for this solution as the perfect solution to Henry’s Great Matter, and offered to issue the required dispensation. It might even have worked, except that the King was in love with Anne Boleyn…

By November 1533, Anne Boleyn had become Queen of England. She had given birth to her daughter Elizabeth and a son was expected next. The marriage between the fifteen year old FitzRoy and the fourteen year old Mary Howard was a triumph for the Howard family, cementing their position as the premier English family. It also gave assurance that, one way or another, Howard blood would join in the royal line after Henry…

Unfortunately for the young couple, they were not allowed to consummate the marriage. The King was afraid that too much sexual activity had hastened his older brother Arthur’s death (remember – it was at the base of his annulment from Catherine that the two had consummated that marriage) and didn’t want to chance his own son. Thus, when FizRoy died of consumption in 1536 right after turning 17, Mary was not entitled to many of the lands she should have expected as the widow – because without the consummation, the marriage was not a true marriage (a trick Henry was to use again to rid himself of Anne of Cleves)(!).

But that is a story for later. For today, let us toast happiness to the newlyweds and to the still-triumphant Anne Boleyn….

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July 28, 1540 – Thomas Cromwell Executed

July 28, 1540 - Thomas Cromwell executed. Sad day for England. Read more on

James Frain as Thomas Cromwell in Showtime’s The Tudors

This was the end of an era. Incredibly, Thomas Cromwell was executed on this day. There is an old saying on Wall Street, “you’re only as good as your last trade.” This certainly was Cromwell’s problem.

Think about it. Henry worked unsuccessfully for seven years to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon – until Cromwell came along and created the Church of England. Henry was broke from all his profligate ways, until Cromwell came up with the idea of dissolving the abbeys. Finally, when Henry tired of his second wife, Cromwell came up with a way to dispose of her and blame her for all the country’s ills. For that kind of loyal and unfailing service, he should have been safe for life.

But then Spain and France forged an alliance that left England out in the cold. And Thomas Cromwell suggested that England’s best defense would be an alliance with the German league. Politically, he was right, but he failed to consider that the King had lost the habit (if he ever had it) of political marriages. When Henry took an immediate dislike to Anne of Cleves, it was too easy for him to believe that Cromwell had sacrificed him to his dreams of reform. All of a sudden, all of Cromwell’s accomplishments were recast through this selfish lens.

Normally, that should not have been fatal – except that Cromwell had made a permanent enemy of the Duke of Norfolk. Had Henry fallen in love with someone other than the old Duke’s niece, Cromwell would likely have been safe. But Norfolk used his increased access to the King to move Cromwell aside. Permanently.

Interestingly, Cromwell was the one person Henry executed that he openly regretted. Henry realized after the fact that he’d been manipulated. A bit too late for Thomas Cromwell…



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December 15, 1541 – Thomas Howard’s Letter to Henry VIII

December 15, 1541 - Thomas Howard wrote an abject letter to the King in the hope of distancing himself from his niece Catherine and other unfortunate relatives. Read it on

Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, by Hans Holbein (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of Catherine Howard’s disgrace, the King had four members of the Howard family arrested and committed to the Tower: the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, her son William and his wife, and the Duchess’ daughter Anne Howard. On December 15 1541, Thomas Howard, the Third Duke of Norfolk, wrote an abject letter to the King in the hope of distancing himself from his unfortunate  relatives. It is a remarkable insight into the mind of a shrewd courtier, and I am sharing it here (cleaned up for easier reading)

To the King’s Majesty,

Most noble and gracious Sovereign Lord. Yesterday came to my knowledge that my ungracious mother in law, my unhappy brother, and his wife, with my lewd sister of Bridgewater, were committed to the Tower; which, by long experience, knowing your accustomed equity and justice, used to all your subjects, am sure is not done, but for their false and  traitorous proceedings against your Royal Majesty. Which, revolving in my mind, with also the most abominable deeds doe by two of my nieces [Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard] against Your Highness, hath brought me in to the greatest perplexity that ever poor wretch was in; fearing that Your Majesty, having so often, and by so many of my kin, been thus falsely and traitorously handled, might not only conceive a displeasure in your heart against me, and all other of that kin, but also, in manner, abhor to hear speak of any of the same. Wherefore, most gracious Sovereign Lord, prostrate at your feet, most humble I beseech Your Majesty to call to your remembrance, that a grat part of this matter is come to light by my declaration to Your Majesty, according to my bounded duty, of the words spoken to me by my mother in law, when Your Highness sent me to Lambeth to search Dereham’s coffers; without the which I think she had not been further examined, nor consequently her ungracious children. With my true proceedings towards Your Majesty considered, and also the small love my two false traitorous nieces and my mother in law have borne unto me, doth put me in some hope that Your Highness will not conserve  any displeasure in your most gentle heart against me; that God knoweth, never did think thought which might be to your discontentation. Wherefore, [effsonys] prostrate at your royal feet, most humbly I beseech Your Majesty, that by such, as it shall please you to command, I may be advertised plainly, how Your Highness doth weigh your favor toward me; assuring Your Highness that only I may know Your Majesty to continue my good an gracious Lord, as ye were before their offenses committed, I shall never desire to live in this world any longer, but shortly to finish this transitory life, as God knoweth, who send Your Majesty the accomplishments of your most noble heart’s deires. Scribled at Kenynghale Lodge, the 15th day of December with the hand of

Your most humble Servant and Subject,



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