Why do the Boleyns continue to fascinate us?

Ahead of a new BBC docu-drama exploring the rise and fall of the Boleyns in Tudor England, historian Owen Emmerson examines what it is about the family, who rose from obscurity to the pinnacles of influence in Henry VIII’s court, that continues to enchant us to this day

Portraits of Anne, Thomas and Mary Boleyn.

“Of body small,

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Of power regal

She is, and sharp of sight;

Of courage halt,

No manner fault.

Is in this falcon white.”

Etched into a brass memorial upon the tomb of Sir Thomas Boleyn in St Peter’s church in the village of Hever, Kent, is an image of a falcon taking flight from Thomas’s right shoulder. Symbolic in heraldic terms of determination and ambition, the falcon was drawn from the heraldry of Thomas’s maternal ancestors – the Butler family, earls of Ormond. Adopted by Thomas’ daughter, Anne Boleyn, for her personal badge, it proved to be illustrative of both the Boleyn’s extraordinary rise to power, and of Anne’s fleeting flight as King Henry VIII’s second queen consort.

So much of the Boleyn’s history is unknown to us. We do not have contemporary portraits of any of their key players, only posthumous imaginings, or later copies. We aren’t even sure when or where Thomas’s children were born. This vacuum of knowledge about their lives has enabled us to craft wildly divergent versions of their tale, and stories about their lives are as popular today as they have ever been.

Crowds of people from across the world flock each year to the properties where their scandalous lives played out, such as their idyllic family home of Hever Castle in Kent where Henry courted Anne, or the notorious Tower of London, where the lives of Anne and her brother George Boleyn came crashing down. Countless novels, films and television dramas have told differing versions of their tale; reinvented and revised by each generation who revel in the drama of the family who gave birth to the notorious ‘thousand days queen’. Part of the reason for this enduring fascination with the Boleyn family is the scale of their extraordinary rise to power: the subject of the BBC’s new three-part docudrama The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family.

Max Dowler as Thomas Boleyn in 'The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family'
Max Dowler as Thomas Boleyn in ‘The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family’. (Image by BBC Studios)

Contrary to more popular narratives where both Mary and Anne are forced into the king’s bed for her family’s advancement, it was Geoffrey Boleyn – Anne’s great-grandfather – who was the founder of the Boleyn’s fortunes. Born in Norfolk, he escaped the life of petty crime lived by his father to better himself in London. Through acumen and an advantageous marriage into the Hoo family, Geoffrey had taken the Boleyns from being workers of the land to owners of vast swathes of it.

His heir, William, made a similarly advantageous marriage to Lady Margaret Butler, and their son Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. The Boleyns flourished in the prestigious properties purchased by Geoffrey such as Blickling Manor, the family seat, and Hever Castle, the jewel in the Boleyn’s crown, which so quaintly signified their rise to the nobility.

Villain or a victim?

Every story has a villain of the piece, and no other Boleyn has ruffled as many feathers as Thomas. In popular culture, he has long been cast as a Machiavellian schemer who risked his daughter’s honour and lives to better himself. And yet, as historians Dr Lauren Mackay and Claire Ridgway have so brilliantly demonstrated, Thomas was a humanist who afforded his daughters an exceptional education. He was honoured with a royal visit by Henry VII and became a beloved and trusted courtier and diplomat of Henry VIII. His ability to charm important people, such as Archduchess Margaret of Austria, ensured his daughter Anne was given coveted positions at two sophisticated European courts. Anne soaked up the Renaissance style in France and embodied the spirit that Henry VIII strove to engender at his own. She spoke not only French, the language of love, but understood and excelled at the chivalric language of courtly love: the highly performative medieval set of social practices by which the court operated. It was the opportunities afforded to Anne by her family that enabled her to soar.

A possible portrait Thomas Boleyn
A possible portrait Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, also identified as James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond and 2nd Earl of Ossory. In popular culture, Thomas Boleyn has long been cast as a Machiavellian schemer who risked his daughter’s honour. (Image by Alamy)

Anne will always be the star of the Boleyn’s show. Despite the reported brilliance of her poetic and much-beloved brother George, he regrettably lived in the shadows of her ever-expanding wings as she captivated the court and its King. Anne made a dazzling debut on 4 March 1522 at the Shrovetide “Châteaux Vert” pageant, playing the role of ‘Perseverance’: a quality she would require a great deal of during her seven-year courtship with Henry. Anne favoured the latest French fashions, but there was far more to Anne’s ‘je ne sais quoi’ than the cut of her hood. She was erudite, witty, and bold, and even those who despised her couldn’t help but watch her every move and hang on her every word.

Rafaëlle Cohen as Anne Boleyn in BBC docu-drama The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family
Rafaëlle Cohen as Anne Boleyn in BBC docu-drama The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family (Photo courtesy of BBC Studios/Mackenzie Quicke)

Those who have revised, and restored Thomas Boleyn’s reputation have also liberated Anne from being seen, as the Victorians did, as the hapless victim of her father’s ruthless ambition. We see now a woman prepared and able to carve out her own destiny. She refused the position of the King’s official mistress and asked instead for a crown. When the greatest minds at court failed to provide a solution to Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ of annulling his marriage to queen Catherine of Aragon, it was Anne who provided the answer. Taking the radical move of placing the then deemed heretical works of William Tyndale into the King’s hands, Anne introduced Henry to the notion that his authority – and not the Pope’s – was second only to God. “This book is for me and all Kings to read,” he reputedly declared.

Henry was probably merrier with Anne than with any of his other wives. Henry did not quickly tire of her, as we often see on screen, and their marriage was not doomed following the birth of a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. The late Professor Eric Ives, Anne’s celebrated biographer, best characterised their marriage as “sunshine and storms”, and it was a perfect storm which sent Anne and her brother George to the scaffold in May 1536.

The allure of Anne

Anne’s ability to excel at the performance of courtly love – the very thing that had attracted Henry so wildly to her – proved to be her undoing. It was her words (mentioning the King’s death with Henry Norris) and not her deeds (the trumped-up charges of incest and adultery) that brought an air of legitimacy to the squalid charges intending to shatter her reputation.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn
“Anne Boleyn’s ability to excel at the performance of courtly love proved to be her undoing,” writes Owen Emmerson. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Despite the Henry’s best efforts to erase all traces of Anne following her dramatic downfall in May 1536, the story of the Boleyns has lived on in the popular imagination for centuries. Jane Seymour’s emblem of a phoenix may have replaced Anne’s falcon in the decor of Henry’s lavish places when she supplanted Anne as queen, but it was Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who, against all odds, rose from the ashes of the Boleyn’s destruction. Elizabeth I’s reign inspired the term ‘Gloriana’, and the Boleyn heir delivered a show-stopping finale to the saga of this infamous family. Generations have marvelled at the spectacle of this most unlikely story ever since.

Before Anne’s dazzling eyes were blindfolded to spare her the horror of glimpsing the sword that was to kill her, she asked the crowd who had gathered to watch her demise to “judge the best” should they seek to understand her story. The BBC’s latest version of the ever-fascinating Boleyns not only does Anne’s story justice, but it also restores the reputations of her astonishing family too.

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Dr Owen Emmerson is a social and cultural historian. He is castle historian and assistant curator at Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, and he is co-author with Claire Ridgway of the forthcoming The Boleyns of Hever Castle (MadeGlobal Publishing, August 2021)

The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family: what to expect from the new BBC series

Arriving on BBC2 this Friday, The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family is a three-part docu-drama that tells the Boleyn story of intrigues, rivalries, sex and betrayals through the eyes of the family themselves. Much like Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn, the usually indomitable presence of Henry VIII is cast to the side lines, with the Boleyns – Thomas, Mary, Anne and George, plus their in-law Thomas Howard – taking centre stage.

Through dramatic reconstructions, with expert commentary from impressive roster of historians that includes Owen Emmerson, Lauren Johnson, Leanda de Lisle, Lauren MacKay, Elizabeth Norton, Estelle Paranque, Linda Porter and Gareth Russell, we see how the Boleyns transformed their fortunes from a position of insignificance to become one of the most pre-eminent families in the land. It’s the story of the founding of a dynasty that promptly foundered, but one that in a few years still managed to alter the course of English history.

Episode one largely follows Thomas Boleyn, as he begins his ascent of the ‘greasy pole’ that is Tudor politics, and his children embark on what will become dazzling ascents in court life. In episode two, Anne, freshly returned from continental Europe, catches Henry’s eye – though in doing so opposition to the Boleyns begins to harden. The final, third episode explores the Boleyns at the height of their power – and how they come to lose it all.

When is The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family on TV?

The first episode of The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family airs on BBC2 on Friday 13 August 2021 at 9pm, with episodes 2 and 3 following on BBC2 on Friday 20 August and Friday 27 August.

Can I stream The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family?

The entire three-part series will be available on BBC iPlayer from Friday 13 August.