Monday, 30 January 2012

THE BEWILDERING BOLEYN by H.M. Castor

H.M. Castor starts us off on an occasional series in which History Girls will write about a historical figure who is the opposite of a favourite: someone whose reputation or character or actions are just incomprehensible to them.
Harriet has chosen another "other Boleyn girl" for her post on a figure who perplexes her.


I don’t get Jane Boleyn. I don’t understand her – which is a fair indication that I don’t know enough about her story, I realize, but I’m not sure I can ever know enough to be able to get my head round the extraordinary events of her life and what seem to me to be the flabbergasting decisions she made.

Jane was a Boleyn by marriage. Born Jane Parker, she was the daughter of one of Henry VIII’s gentleman ushers. In 1526 she married George, the youngest sibling in the ambitious Boleyn family (Mary was the oldest, and Anne the middle child). Through that marriage, Jane later acquired the title of Viscountess Rochford; often she is known as Jane, Lady Rochford, or simply Jane Rochford.

There is no authenticated portrait of Jane but, searching for an image with which to open this post, the Holbein woodcut above felt suitable since this is, decidedly, a story of sex and death (familiar Boleyn themes, one might say). There’s also, for good measure, betrayal, a whiff of what was deemed to be insanity… and very possibly a hefty dose of blackmail too. For Jane helped assure the downfall of the Boleyn family and then, just five years later, created a more baffling and horrible downfall for herself than any ghost bent on revenge could have devised.

Jane’s marriage was not, it has been assumed (and with ample justification, as we’ll see), a happy one. I love Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of the relationship in Wolf Hall. In one of my favourite passages, Thomas Cromwell witnesses the Boleyn family’s discussion of a possible stumbling block to Anne’s royal marriage – the allegation that she was pre-contracted to marry Henry Percy:

‘I suggest we pack Anne’s bags and send her down to Kent,’ Jane Rochford says. ‘The king’s anger, once roused –‘
George: ‘Say no more, or I may strike you.’
‘It is my honest advice.’ Jane Rochford, God protect her, is one of those women who doesn’t know when to stop. ‘[…] The king cannot do all he has done, and all he means to do, for a woman who is concealing a secret marriage.’
‘I wish I could divorce you,’ George says. ‘I wish you had a pre-contract, but Jesus, no chance of that, the fields were black with men running in the other direction.’

Relations between Jane and Anne (below) were presumably somewhat less acrimonious, however, for when in 1533 Anne Boleyn became queen, Jane served as one of her ladies of the bedchamber. Jane clearly did Anne’s bidding, even to the point of taking risks: the following year, she was dismissed for plotting with Anne to secure the removal from court of an unnamed lady to whom Henry was showing favour. Yet, the year after that (1535), Jane apparently took part in a demonstration against Anne by London citizens' wives (a short stay in the Tower was her reward).




What had happened? Did Anne not sufficiently recompense her for her dismissal from court? Had Jane quarrelled with her mistress, or her husband – or both?

Jane’s actions against her in-laws were to take a much more sinister turn. Anne Boleyn’s downfall in April-May 1536 was orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell and was driven by charges that were lurid, shocking and manifestly untrue: that Queen Anne had committed adultery with 5 men, including her brother George, and had plotted Henry’s murder.

Jane Rochford was one of the people Cromwell questioned. Different versions of the story are related, but it seems clear that Jane provided the kernel for the worst of the (much-embroidered) allegations against Anne and George. First, Jane made some kind of allegation about ‘undue familiarity’ between her husband and his sister (which, in Cromwell’s hands, was blown up into an allegation of incest). Second, and quite possibly more damagingly, Jane repeated a remark that Anne had allegedly made to her about Henry’s performance in bed: that Henry was incapable of making love, and had neither skill nor virility in this respect.

The reason this was more damaging is that, unlike the other charges, it could well have been true. Henry probably did suffer from impotence, and it’s also perfectly likely that the forthright & intemperate Anne would have remarked on it in private. However, to say such a thing publicly – to humiliate the King – was fatal. At George Boleyn’s trial, the remark was deemed so sensitive that the record of it was passed around the court in writing so that no one would have to speak the words. When the text was handed to George, however, he read it aloud anyway (and I admire him for that).

Anne, George and the other 4 unfortunate men were all found guilty, and all executed.

So… back to Jane. Doubtless Cromwell was an intimidating questioner, and the atmosphere of those nightmarish weeks must have been terrifying. Clearly he made as much capital as he could out of what she said. Clearly, too, there’s an interesting story of family turbulence (or hatred?) in there somewhere… albeit one that we can never explore except by guesswork, due to lack of evidence.

(And, in case anyone's been carried away by the version shown in The Tudors TV series, I must at this point quote Professor Eric Ives' excellent book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn:
We can dismiss out of hand the nonsense that [Jane] felt insulted because George was a homosexual, a fiction for which there is not a scintilla of evidence, indeed, quite the reverse.)

However, as far as Jane and her motives go, I’m not throwing my hands up yet. The truly bewildering behaviour is yet to come.

Considering the depth of the Boleyn family’s disgrace, Jane came back to court pretty rapidly after her husband’s death and went on to act as lady of the bedchamber to Henry’s next three queens – Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. One might expect that her involvement in the terrifying events of 1536 would have transformed her into the most cautious possible practitioner of careful court-footwork.


But no. In 1541, a scandal was uncovered. Catherine Howard (the portrait above has been thought to be of her) – the very young fifth wife of the now bloated & ulcerated king – had been holding nocturnal trysts with one of her husband’s handsome young courtiers, Thomas Culpeper. The stupidity of this behaviour is jaw-dropping. How they thought they could keep such a thing secret in the crowded, gossip-hungry court, I can’t imagine. In the case of Culpeper (a young man who had already, according to one account, committed rape and murder and been saved from the consequences by the King), it seems likely that ambition clouded his (already fairly limited) judgment – perhaps, calculating that Henry could not survive long, he thought that influence over the Queen would bring him power. As for Catherine, was it passion that motivated her, or fear? She was already hiding something else from Henry – an unchaste premarital history – and Culpeper could well have been blackmailing her over it. Either way, there are motives to ponder. But in the case of the third actor in the drama, motives are thin on the ground. This third actor was Jane Rochford.

Astonishingly, Jane – who was Catherine’s chief confidante among her ladies of the bedchamber – acted as go-between for her mistress and Culpeper. She facilitated the late-night meetings, making sure doors were left unlocked and that the coast was clear. Catherine later claimed that it was Jane who encouraged her to acquiesce to Culpeper’s insistent demands for meetings in the first place – and though this may have been nothing more than desperate buck-passing, certainly there is no evidence to suggest that Jane ever tried to dissuade Catherine from her madly risky behaviour, or indeed to distance herself from the practical tasks necessary for its accomplishment.

Why, I want to yell. Of all people, Jane Rochford – with her personal experience of the brutal horrors of Henry’s regime – should have known that she was walking alongside Catherine and Culpeper on a sure path to the block. And what possible incentive can she have had to act like this? It was no power play for her, no mad passion. What’s left? Bribes from Culpeper? Surely, as the Queen’s chief confidante, she had other people offering her less dangerous sweeteners. Blackmail, then? If Culpeper were blackmailing her (and about what, I don’t know – her knowledge of Catherine’s past?), no danger of exposure could have been worse than the danger in which she now placed herself.

The chickens, of course, came home to roost. Upon arrest, Jane made a feeble attempt at claiming ignorance, and then admitted her knowledge of the liaison. She seems to have had some sort of breakdown, and the Imperial ambassador Chapuys later reported that she “had shown symptoms of madness till they told her she must die”. (Henry, incidentally, was so determined that she would die that he sent his own physicians to ensure that she was well enough for her execution). In the event, she went to the block calmly, immediately after Catherine.

“Lady Rochford’s motives are hard to understand,” writes David Starkey in Six Wives – The Queens of Henry VIII. Antonia Fraser (in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) concludes that “absolute truth – and thus relative blame – is impossible to establish. One can however assert definitely that Lady Rochford, Queen Catherine and Culpeper were all in their different ways involved up to the hilt in something that none of them should actually have countenanced for a moment.”
Hilary Mantel, in the passage from Wolf Hall quoted earlier, has Thomas Cromwell sum Jane up as “one of those women who doesn’t know when to stop.”
When it comes to fathoming her, I guess I’m just one of those people who doesn’t know where to start.

(And, by the way, I can’t wait to read Mantel’s interpretation of Jane Rochford’s role in the Boleyn debacle in her forthcoming novel Bring Up The Bodies. Roll on May 17th!)



H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, and by Penguin in Australia.

H.M. Castor's website is here.


26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Culpeper and Catherine were in love - doesn't that explain why they would risk certain death to continue an affair. People do that every day. I've done that. Much simpler a solution than blackmail. It doesn't explain Jane's involvement, though.

The Virtual Victorian said...

You have cast a spell of fascination for me ... I wasn't interested before but I am now!

H.M. Castor said...

Yes, Anonymous, quite possibly. But they each tried desperately to blame the other under questioning - which doesn't quite fit the romantic ideal, though is understandable in human terms! And, Virtual Victorian, I am glad!

Sue Purkiss said...

What a strange and bitter character Jane Rochford must have been. I guess, with all these twists and turns and passions and daftnesses, it's not surprising that the Tudors exert continuing fascination! (Mind you, I do think the clothes have a lot to do with it...)

adele said...

Thanks so much for this really intriguing and interesting story. Can't wait to see Mantel's take on it all.

Hannah said...

Great post! I completely agree with what you've said. To lose her husband, and Queen and sister-in-law, in that manner would probably make most people want to shun court for life (Mary Boleyn behaved far more normally in that respect), let alone get so involved with Howard and Culpepper. It's just very bizarre.

Wendy said...

I think it is very obvious that she driven by jealousy. For me, she is the most unlikeable character in this Tudor "web". But her treachery fits right in with the other deceptive, power hungry people who came to court. I think you would have had to sleep with one eye open, you always had to be aware of what was happening around you. Her actions were foolish, there were eyes everywhere.

michelle lovric said...

As ever, a compulsively readable post!
Could she have felt a subconscious, suicidal need to atone for her part in sending so many innocent people to the block? It does not seem as if it was conscious. Insight not her most prominent quality, clearly!

H.M. Castor said...

Ooh, now, Michelle, I like that - very much! I think that's an absolutely fascinating line to take, and one that could bear very interesting fruit...

Thank you to everyone for very interesting comments!

Anonymous said...

Have you read the bio on Jane Rocheford by Julia Fox? She makes (to me an unconvincing case) for Jane's innocence in the Boleyn case, that she didn't say anything against George and there is no evidence their marriage was unhappy. It's interesting but again, I don't quite buy it. I'm using anonymous but I'm Anne Barnhill. :)--I can't wait to read VIII by the way--it's on my list!
Have heard wonderful things about it!

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating stuff Harriet. I've no comment to make - women are a complete mystery to me. ;-)

Astrid Holm said...

Brilliant post! This was absolutely fascinating and I too can't wait for the next Hilary Mantell book. Maybe the danger and the drama of it all was too addictive, and Jane thought she was immune from retribution, having been on the right side of Henry when her sister was beheaded?

Katherine Langrish said...

I can't help wondering how Mantell's very honest Cromwell is going to handle all of this? He seems such a nice man!

Carol McGrath said...

I think that court had so many intrigues it is impossible to really know who was setting up who. Jane Rochford is intriguing.

H.M. Castor said...

Anne - no I haven't read the Julia Fox, though I found her book on Catherine of Aragon & her sister Juana 'the Mad' very interesting. Hope you enjoy VIII!

Astrid & Kath - yes, Bring Up the Bodies is going to be fascinating. As I understand it, it reached a situation between Cromwell & Anne of kill or be killed - one was going to bring the other down - and Cromwell won.

And Carol - I agree it's very difficult; I'm reading some John Le Carre for the first time just now & thinking of Tudor intrigues as I do it!

(Mark, I don't believe it for a moment!)

Book Maven said...

Julia Fox was my oldest daughter's History teacher at school!

Steph Burgis said...

Have you read Philippa Gregory's interpretation of Jane's character? She and Catherine are the two protagonists of The Boleyn Inheritance, which basically reads like a Greek tragedy, everyone hurtling towards their inevitable doom. I have NO idea how historically accurate it all is, but it was a fascinating, compulsively readable novel...

Leslie Wilson said...

She was maybe one of those self-destructive people, who just can't resist making mischief and getting into stuff that was a nightmare for other people and herself. She kind of hovers as a malevolent and yet somehow pathetic presence in the arras of Wolf Hall, I feel. I did enjoy your post, Harriet, and am also, natch, eagerly awaiting Bring Out The Bodies.

H.M. Castor said...

'Malevolent and yet somehow pathetic' is brilliant, Leslie - spot on, I think!

H.M. Castor said...

And no, Steph, I haven't read the Philippa Gregory - yet...

Theresa Breslin said...

Do you think there is possibly a slight chance that Anne Boleyn was prepared to commit incest with her brother knowing that her life depended on having a boy child and the only person who could father it with no 'foreign' feature or resemblance was George. Jane is maddened by jealousy but later has regrets at the outcome so has her revenge on the king by assisting in making him a cuckold. Just a thought... Great post.

H.M. Castor said...

Thanks, Theresa. It's a very interesting theory, but personally I don't incline towards it. For one thing, despite Henry's possible periodic impotence, Anne had been pregnant by him 3 times in 3 years... so I just don't feel there was a reason for her to take such a desperately dangerous step.

Leslie Wilson said...

I think Philippa Gregory suggests, doesn't she, in The Other Boleyn Girl, that one of the babies Anne lost was grossly malformed? But from Alison Weir and Hilary, I gather there is no basis for this, apart from rumours which went around at the time. I had the impression, I'm sure from history books I read in the past, that there was only one miscarriage, a boy 'she had miscarried of her saviour.' It may come from Margaret Irwin, actually - I did love her Tudor books. So I was surprised to hear how many babies she lost, and then, of course, one sees a parallel with Katherine of A. There was a thing in the Guardian today about an Afghan farmer who murdered his wife because she presented him with a third girl, though, scientifically, it might have been more appropriate, though pointless, if he had taken it out on his own sweetbreads..anyway, it shows Henry is certainly not alone.

Theresa Breslin said...

I wasn't thinking of Henry's virility, it was more a case of his absence from her bed. Anne, an intelligent and resourceful woman, would have known that she was losing him and there would be 'one last visit' and then she'd have a very small window of opportunity to become pregnant to protect herself and her child Elizabeth. Her decisions would be coloured by her experiences at the French court and her father having, in effect, pimped her and her sister. This might lead her to desperate measures. Your post is so good that the speculation is fascination, isn't it? And really I should be editing a completely different story at the moment....

Anne Helm said...

So many questions to answer.

Linda B-A said...

This is such a clear account of a complex character. Jane really does appear to have had a self-destructive streak. A truly fascinating post.