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.