In popular culture, Tudor noblewoman Jane Boleyn is often portrayed as a petty, jealous schemer who played a pivotal role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s six wives. According to historians and fiction writers alike, Jane (also known as Viscountess or Lady Rochford) provided damning testimony that sent her husband, George, and his sister Anne to the executioner’s block on charges of adultery and incest in May 1536.
This betrayal—supposedly motivated by her distaste for George and jealousy over his close relationship with Anne—has tainted Jane’s reputation for centuries, with one Elizabethan writer labeling her a “wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood,” who acted “more to be rid of him than of true ground against him.”
But more recent scholarship—most notably a 2007 biography by historian Julia Fox—has adopted a sympathetic attitude toward Jane, portraying her as a convenient scapegoat who enjoyed a congenial relationship with the Boleyn siblings and didn’t actually accuse them of any crimes. Now, a new book by historian Sylvia Barbara Soberton adds to the evidence in Jane’s favor, drawing on archival records to argue that Anne and her sister-in-law were closer than previously thought.
“It’s difficult to overturn the centuries-long opinion of Jane as an accuser of her own husband because it’s so deeply entrenched in popular imagination,” says Soberton, author of Ladies-in-Waiting: Women Who Served Anne Boleyn, which came out in June, and several other books on Tudor women. “[But] a lot of what we think we know about Jane Boleyn turns out to be a myth based on misinterpretation of the original source material.”
Soberton’s argument centers on a document from October 1535, when a French ambassador wrote of “a great troop of citizens’ wives and others, unknown to their husbands, [who] presented themselves” to Mary, Henry’s only surviving child from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, “weeping and crying that she was princess, notwithstanding all that had been done.” The ambassador continued, “Some of them, the chiefest, were placed in the Tower [of London], constantly persisting in their opinion.”
At the time, Henry and his daughter were locked in a battle of wills, with Mary refusing to acknowledge either the dissolution of her parents’ marriage or the king’s new status as head of the Church of England. A devout Catholic who disapproved of Henry’s break from Rome—a move prompted largely by the pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce from Catherine—Mary found herself disinherited from the line of succession upon the birth of Henry and Anne’s daughter, the future Elizabeth I, in 1533. Formerly known as Princess Mary, she was now simply Lady Mary.
The English people viewed Anne as a scandalous usurper of the rightful queen’s place. Even in 1535, more than two years into Anne’s tenure as queen, she remained deeply unpopular, in large part due to her harsh treatment of Catherine and Mary, who enjoyed widespread public support.
Critics of Jane often name her and Katherine Broughton, wife of Anne’s half-uncle William, as members of the group imprisoned for their public display in Mary’s favor. The claim was first made by Anne’s 19th-century biographer Paul Friedmann on the basis of a note in the margins of the ambassador’s account that mentions “Millor de Rochesfort et Millord de Guillaume” (French for “my Lord Rochford and my Lord William”).
Jane came from a Catholic family, while the Boleyns were strong proponents of religious reform. It’s possible, wrote Soberton for the On the Tudor Trail blog in 2012, that Jane and her relatives resented the religious upheaval prompted by Anne’s marriage to Henry. In addition to breaking from the Catholic Church, the king ordered the executions of two prominent, well-loved courtiers—Bishop John Fisher and philosopher Thomas More—who refused to accept England’s new status quo.
“Jane Boleyn’s part in this demonstration … is often interpreted as indicative of her adopting a position of hostility toward Anne Boleyn,” says Soberton. “If she demonstrated in favor of Lady Mary, it helps to explain why she testified against George and Anne Boleyn, and if she was imprisoned for it, it gives her revenge as a motive.”
Even if Jane disapproved of the new reforms, she likely wasn’t among the women who presented themselves to Mary. As Soberton argues in Ladies-in-Waiting, the marginalia “clearly names men, not women,” perhaps indicating that “George Boleyn and … William Howard were tasked to imprison the ringleaders, not that their wives took part in the demonstration.” Crucially, the historian adds, Katherine Broughton couldn’t have been in attendance, as she died on April 23, 1535. William only remarried in June 1536, after Anne’s execution, so he had no wife at the time of the gathering.
According to Soberton, “The erroneous belief that Jane accused her husband stems from a myth that their marriage was unhappy”—a claim supported by rumors of George’s reputation as a womanizer and historian Retha M. Warnicke’s suggestion that he was either bisexual or gay. In truth, says Soberton, “little is known about Jane’s relationship with George. … Jane may well have resented his extramarital affairs, although one contemporary source makes it clear that she bore the name of ‘an honest and chaste wife.’”
Interestingly, when George was imprisoned in the Tower in May 1536, Jane was the only one to send him a comforting letter, inquiring “how he did” and pledging to “humbly [make] suit unto the King’s highness” on his behalf. George replied that he wished to “give her thanks.”
As Fox writes in Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford, Jane “had reaped nothing but benefits from her marriage,” attaining status as sister-in-law of the queen and living in “unbridled luxury.” She had little reason to accuse her husband of horrific crimes, as doing so would negatively impact her own stature at court; Fox and Soberton maintain that the first time Jane learned about the charges against her family was when George was arrested and she herself was called into interrogation.
The Boleyn family’s downfall was swift and carefully orchestrated, with the king’s chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell, conspiring to end Henry’s second marriage and pave the way for him to marry Jane Seymour, whose demure personality starkly contrasted Anne’s fiery demeanor, and hopefully sire a male heir. Cromwell questioned any courtiers who could’ve witnessed the queen’s purported indiscretions, including her sister-in-law and other ladies-in-waiting.
“[T]he arrests had been so sudden and unexpected that there was no time to separate out what testimony might be damaging, what could be twisted to become so, or what could only be innocuous no matter what the interpretation,” writes Fox.
During George’s trial, Cromwell seized on a comment made by Anne during her struggles to conceive and “painstakingly extracted from a frightened Jane” during her interrogation, according to Fox. Handed a piece of paper with a charge that he was instructed to answer with a simple yes or no, George instead read the note aloud, repeating Anne’s observation that Henry “was not skillful in copulating with a woman, and had neither virtue nor potency.” Though George’s goal in defying the order was to avoid engendering or creating “suspicion in a matter likely to prejudice the issue the King might have from another marriage,” his actions were viewed as a public disparagement of Henry’s sexual prowess.
George, Anne and four other men accused alongside them were found guilty of adultery and, in the siblings’ cases, incest. The men were beheaded on May 17, Anne on May 19. Today, historians generally agree that the charges against Anne and her supposed lovers were false, contrived by Cromwell to ensure the king was free to marry Jane Seymour.
As Fox notes, “Jane would remember until her dying day that the words Cromwell had gleaned from her during her interrogation had been turned so effectively against her husband.” Still, contrary to popular belief, no contemporary sources explicitly named Jane in their lists of George and Anne’s accusers. If she had willingly implicated them, “such explosive information would have been shared at court” to lend weight to the charges, says Soberton.
Following her husband and sister-in-law’s executions, Jane briefly withdrew from court. Struggling to survive on limited means as the widow of a condemned traitor, she appealed to Cromwell (a prime example of the constantly shifting nature of Tudor allegiances) and the king, who implored Anne and George’s father, Thomas Boleyn, to help her out financially. Jane returned to court and served as a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s next three queens: Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard.
Jane’s own downfall came about as a result of her relationship with Katherine, the king’s young, vivacious fifth wife. The couple wed in July 1540, when Henry was 49 and Katherine was still a teenager. For reasons unknown, Jane helped Katherine arrange illicit meetings with the dashing courtier Thomas Culpeper—an adulterous entanglement that would lead to the executions of all three.
Theories about Jane’s involvement abound: Fox suggests that she agreed to aid Katherine once and “was then on a slippery slope heading in one direction,” while historian Lacey Baldwin Smith simply labels Jane an “agent provocateur” and “pathological meddler.” Claire Ridgway, the historian behind the Anne Boleyn Files blog, notes that Jane could have just been following orders, as ladies-in-waiting were expected to do. At the very least, wrote Ridgway in 2012, “Jane may have been guilty of stupidity, in not learning from what happened to Anne Boleyn and the five men in 1536.”
Though Jane’s reputation suffered toward the end of her life, it was only after her death that her name became synonymous with betrayal. According to Fox’s biography, a marginal note in the 1576 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, which chronicles the Protestant martyrs burned at the stake during Mary I’s reign, states, “It is reported of some that this Lady Rochford forged a false letter against her husband and Queen Anne her sister, by which they were both cast away. Which if it be so, the judgment of God is here to be marked.”
A few decades later, George Wyatt, grandson of Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt (who may have had a romantic relationship with Anne before her marriage to Henry), wrote a biography of Anne in which he also denounced Jane. As Soberton writes in a blog post for Tudors Dynasty, Wyatt claimed he’d received firsthand insights from the queen’s former lady-in-waiting, who was later erroneously identified as one Anne Gainsford. Much like Katherine Broughton, who was dead at the time she supposedly demonstrated in Mary’s favor in October 1535, Gainsford couldn’t have been Wyatt’s informant, as she died at least five years before Wyatt was born.
Soberton’s book delves into the myths surrounding not only Jane and Anne Gainsford but also the ladies-in-waiting who “were privy to Anne [Boleyn’s] spectacular rise and dramatic downfall [but] are often just faceless silhouettes.” As Soberton concludes, “I wanted to retrieve them from obscurity.”
Wyatt and later historians’ scapegoating of Jane began during the reign of Elizabeth I, Anne’s daughter. In a Q&A published on her website, Fox explains that once Elizabeth became queen, “an explanation was needed for why Henry VIII had sent Anne to her death for treason and incest.” The historian continues:
Just as Elizabeth’s mother, herself a Protestant icon by then, must have been innocent of the charges, the queen’s father, it was thought, would not have ordered Anne’s execution unless he had believed her guilty. Conveniently ignoring Henry’s passion for Jane Seymour, it was easy to suggest that the king had been told lies. And the person who had told the lies, it was alleged, was Jane.