History Weekends 2018: 5 minutes with Lauren Mackay
Thomas and George Boleyn, father and brother of Anne, are usually consigned to the margins in the story of Henry VIII's turbulent reign. And yet their stories are important, compelling and tragic. At our York and Winchester History Weekends this autumn, Lauren Mackay will probe beyond the usual stereotypes to establish the Boleyns' place in Tudor history
We caught up with Lauren Mackay ahead of her talk, Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn, at our History Weekends in York and Winchester this autumn…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk at our History Weekends in York and Winchester?
A: A very different portrayal of Thomas and George Boleyn. Neither have fared well in the hands of history – they are, for the most part, often vilified and marginalised in studies of the period and grossly misrepresented in fictional portrayals. There is far more to their story, and this talk provides a re-evaluation of the Boleyn men – moving beyond the traditional stereotypes of Thomas as the scheming, manipulative father and George as the wild, unscrupulous brother – to restore them to their rightful place in Tudor history.
Q: Why are you so interested in this period of history?
A: There are countless books dedicated to Anne Boleyn, but no biography of Thomas has been written and there is very little on George. They are always peripheral characters, and I felt compelled to revisit their lives – their political and personal trajectories, the evolution of their careers, and what mattered to them.
Thomas had an extraordinary career that spanned almost 40 years; he was a courtier, ambassador, special envoy, parliamentarian and patron. He cultivated relationships with some of the most influential men and women of the age, including: Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands; Margaret of Angoulême, the queen consort of Henry II of Navarre; King Francis I of France and his mother, Louise of Savoy; and influential scholar Desiderius Erasmus). Thomas’s son, George, was on a similar career path until his life was tragically cut short, executed on trumped-up charges alongside his sister and four innocent men.
Thomas and George are almost footnotes in the Tudor story, but they deserve to be the subjects of their own biography and to be recognised as integral and influential members of the Tudor Court.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history
A: Despite the reformist tendencies of his children, Thomas was a deeply spiritual and conventionally pious man. After surviving a particularly violent crossing from England to Spain during one of his embassies, he embarked on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain – the alleged bural site of the biblical apostle St James. He was also a patron of influential thinker Desiderius Erasmus, who dedicated three works to him, one of which was Praeparatio ad mortem (Preparation for Death). These works were not for show: Erasmus had a deep respect for his patron, and wrote a passionate letter in his defence to a fellow scholar, insisting that Thomas was not motivated by self-interest or ambition.
Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?
A: The fact that the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for the colour blue. They classified colours by shade, so the same word could be used to describe blue, green, brown, or black. Hence Homer’s descriptions in his Illiad and Odyssey of “purple” sheep and the “wine dark” sea!
Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?
A: Thomas Boleyn as I’ve spent so many years with him! Charming, highly intelligent, well travelled and well read, he would be a perfect dinner guest. I feel he would get on famously with the Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and Renaissance author, Baldassare Castiglione. Castiglione wrote the influential Book of the Courtier, and would have recognised in Thomas many of the skills and attributes he believed every courtier should possess. My third guest would be Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a great conversationalist and lover of the arts and literature. He knew Thomas Boleyn well, working with him for many years. I would love to discuss Wolsey’s collection of oriental carpets: it was said that these were the key to Wolsey’s heart, and he would often accept such a gift in lieu of a repayment. And of course, Wolsey would bring some wine from his collection…
Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?
A: A bit of an obvious answer, but the Tudor period, towards the end of Henry VII’s reign when England and Europe were on the cusp of cultural and artistic developments. It was a golden world of art, architecture, and literature. I would also want to catch a glimpse of the icons of the age whose lives have taken up many years of my research, including Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, and the Boleyn men.
Q: Which history book(s) would you recommend (excluding your own)?
A: Right now I am really enjoying Peter Marshall’s Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (2017). Steven Gunn’s Henry VII's New Men and the Making of Tudor England (2016), is an important study for any Tudor historian, and I love all of Stephen Greenblatt’s works, especially The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (2012). It isn’t strictly a history book, but Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation of Homer’s Odyssey – the first to be made by a woman – is exciting, fresh, engaging, and has transformed the story I thought I knew so well.
Lauren Mackay will be talking about Thomas and George Boleyn at our Winchester History Weekend on Sunday 7 October and at our York History Weekend on Saturday 20 October. To find out more about her talk and to book tickets, click here.