George and Anne Boleyn: their real relationship explored

Brother to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII, George Boleyn is best-known for his arrest and subsequent execution treason. But how close was he to his royal sister, really? Lauren McKay investigates...

The relationship between Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) and her brother George (Jim Strugess) is explored in 2009 film 'The Other Boleyn Girl'

George Boleyn remains elusive through the distant mirror of the centuries, often pushed to the sidelines. For 500 years he has lived in the shadows of his more glamorous sisters, Anne and Mary Boleyn – and, until his arrest for treason in the spring of 1536, he did exactly the same in his own lifetime.

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As a young man, George sought to carve out a career as a diplomat – with help, no doubt, from his father, Thomas Boleyn – but struggled to be taken seriously. Every advance he made in his career was attributed, not to his own merits, but the influence of his royal sister, Anne Boleyn.

In fact, George was an intelligent, literate and artistic young man with a flair for languages and a charismatic personality. He loved jousting and hawking, and cultivated a reputation for being a skilled sportsman, much like his father.

George ultimately became a central member of the colourful circle of courtiers who surrounded his sister Anne as queen. The pair were close and similar in temperament, sharing the same intellectual and aesthetic interests, and developing a passion for ‘new learning’ – the liberation from the old dominant way of thinking – that was inspired by the Renaissance.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of their bond can be found in two religious texts by the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, which Anne asked her brother to translate. These beautifully bound works from George to Anne still survive in the British Library, and not only suggest was man capable of deep spirituality, but also a devoted brother.

In his dedication, George wrote: “I have been so bold to send unto you, not jewels or gold, whereof you have plenty, not pearl or rich stones, whereof you have enough, but a rude translation of a wellwiller, a goodly matter meanly handled, most humbly desiring you with favour to weigh the weakness of my dull wit.”

Did Anne Boleyn trust her brother?

As the cracks in Anne’s marriage to Henry began to widen, George was one of the few people Anne could trust. Her brother now carried the responsibility of protecting his sister, advising her to be guarded with her sometimes imprudent comments.

But George, too, could be rash and careless, at one stage mocking the king’s virility, joking that Henry was unable to copulate with any woman.

These comments would come back to haunt George when the Boleyns’ enemies made their move against the family. George was charged with incest with his sister and of plotting to kill the king. He remained defiant at his trial, declaring his innocence, and defending himself well.

But the verdict had been decided before the trial even commenced. George was probably responsible for the carving of Anne’s white falcon that still adorns a wall of Beauchamp Tower, where he awaited execution. It was a quiet but fitting tribute to his family, to whom he had been so dedicated.

Lauren Mackay is a historian specialising in Tudor England and the author of Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn (IB Tauris, 2018)

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This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine