“In no country but England,” wrote the historian TL Kington Oliphant, “could a race of merchants have risen in the feudal times to the highest rank under the crown… and have wedded ladies of the blood.”
This is the story of many great English families, but it has particular resonance for the Boleyns. Through their industry and talents, they accrued great wealth and influence, entwining themselves with some of the mightiest families in the realm. They rose to such heights that two of their own came to be queens of England: Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth I.
But this is also a story with a dark side. Anne was famously – infamously – beheaded for treason, the first English queen to be publicly executed. Her brother, George Boleyn, fared no better, going to the block two days before her, charged with the same crime – the victim of the same scandal.
In the wake of such grisly events, the Boleyn name seemed to offer a moral lesson in what could happen to those whose ambition enticed them to rise ‘above their station’. History has relegated the story of the Boleyns to a soap opera – and Anne’s father, Thomas, is often the villain of the piece, widely derided as a callous, grasping courtier who would stop at nothing to advance his own interests.
Such accusations were first levelled at Thomas during his own lifetime, put about by supporters of Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, who despised Anne. And those accusations stuck. One modern historian famously remarked that, on his way to an earl dom, Thomas “slipped, or appears to have slipped, two daughters in succession into the king’s bed”. (The other daughter was Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, who was Henry VIII’s mistress, and may have borne him two children).
But of all the barbs directed at Thomas, perhaps the most damaging is the one that he blithely accepted the deaths of Anne and his son and heir, George, as collateral damage in his quest for power. Fact or fabrication, this version of events has gained a good deal of traction down the centuries. But has history been fair to Thomas? Was he really the callous opportunist of popular perception?
The Boleyns could trace their ancestry back to the early Middle Ages. It is generally believed that they descended from Count Eustace II of Boulogne in northern France, who arrived in England in the 11th century, setting down roots as he formed an alliance with the conquering Normans. Thomas’s branch of the family settled in Salle, Norfolk in the 13th century, becoming important patrons of the town and its church. Over several generations, they extended the family’s local fortunes, foraying into trade, commerce and land acquisition.
When Thomas was born in 1477, he was raised in a milieu of wealth and privilege, the son of doting parents who invested heavily in his future. They encouraged his scholarly pursuits by engaging private tutors and nurtured his keen intelligence and flair for languages, particularly French. We catch a glimpse of a young man in 1497, aged 20, standing alongside his father William as a part of the Kentish contingent of Henry VII’s army facing 30,000 Cornish rebels. For Thomas it was an honourable, and victorious, initiation into manhood.
Henry VII’s style of kingship would transform Thomas’s fortunes. The first Tudor monarch chose his new courtiers primarily on merit, snubbing the hereditary lords who dominated England during the reign of the Yorkist Edward IV. The ‘new men’, of which Thomas was indisputably one, were educated, intelligent, ambitious and all too eager to advance themselves through service to the king. Thomas was appointed to a number of increasingly senior positions in the royal household, developing a reputation as a loyal and reliable courtier.
His star waxed further when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, his reputation as a skilled sportsman – one who often participated in jousting and wrestling tournaments – endearing him to the new king.
While many of Henry VIII’s courtiers sought glory in military campaigns, Thomas’s mastery of languages and penchant for diplomacy pushed him down a different path. The ever-changing balance of power in Europe threatened the peace, as a cohort of ambitious young monarchs, Henry among them, sought to expand their territory and influence.
Keeping these realms on side was a delicate task for Henry’s chief architect of foreign policy, Richard Fox. He advised Henry to form a select group of ambassadors to protect England’s interests at the courts of Europe – and Thomas was to be among them. In 1512 he was appointed ambassador to the court of Margaret of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor’s daughter, in Mechelen, modern-day Belgium.
The pressure is on
The appointment catapulted Thomas into the heart of the greatest empire in Europe – and, in Archduchess Margaret, he would be dealing with one of the most powerful women on the continent. Margaret’s father, Emperor Maximilian – ruler of the Holy Roman Empire – had expanded his territories into Spain, Italy and parts of modern-day Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and had made his daughter governor of the Low Countries. Now he empowered her to negotiate a treaty with England in his absence. For Thomas, the pressure was well and truly on.
Luckily he had a natural talent for negotiations. Thomas was keen to make his voice heard, preferring to use a frank approach in his dispatches to the king. When negotiations began to stall, Thomas reported that he regretted not having anything more substantial to send Henry but “fair promises and sweet words when spending the king’s money but doing him no good”.
Just as importantly, Thomas struck up a warm relationship with Margaret. In fact, the archduchess favoured Thomas above his colleagues, choosing to negotiate with him personally. While they waited for the commission giving her the power to draw up a treaty against France, Margaret proposed to Thomas that they wager on whether the commission would arrive within 10 days: if she lost, Margaret would give Thomas a Spanish courser (a type of horse); if he lost, he would give her a small horse, known as a hobby. The commission arrived 10 days late, and so Thomas won the bet.
By this time, Thomas had three young children, including two daughters of whom he no doubt spoke a great deal. Margaret offered one of those daughters, Anne, a place at Mechelen – one of Europe’s most sophisticated courts – the domain of musicians, artists and philosophers. It was a hugely generous gesture, and testament to the closeness of Margaret’s relationship with Thomas.
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Thomas trusted his daughter to conduct herself well and bring honour to the family. She would learn desirable courtly skills to set her apart from other ladies of the English court and make her a desirable match for any noble family. Thomas also saw in Margaret a role model for his daughter: powerful in her own right, intelligent and respected. We know that Margaret became fond of her young charge and wrote warmly to Thomas that she found Anne “so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me”.
Margaret was less pleased when she received a letter from Thomas months later, asking that Anne be released from her court. King Henry was marrying his sister, Mary Tudor, to King Louis XII of France, and Anne would be needed to attend upon her. Thomas admitted to Margaret that: “To this request [for Anne] I could not, nor did I know how to refuse”.
Anne, however, seemed excited, writing to her father: “Sir, I understand by your letter that you desire that I shall be a worthy woman when I come to the court and you inform me that the queen will take the trouble to converse with me, which rejoices me much to think of talking with a person so wise and worthy… I promise you that my love is based on such great strength that it will never grow less.” Anne clearly adored her father, and her earnest desire to please him and earn his respect is clear. We do not have any responses from Thomas, but the fact that he kept this letter throughout his life, perfectly preserved, speaks to his deep affection for his daughter.
King Louis and Mary Tudor were married on 9 October 1514. Less than three months later, however, it was over, the 52-year-old king succumbing to a severe case of gout on 1 January 1515. Anne was soon on the move again, her father securing her a position with Queen Claude, wife of the newly anointed King Francis I. Anne would spend seven years at the French court, reuniting with her father on his various lengthy embassies to France.
Anne catches the king’s eye
By now Thomas was a highly respected ambassador, and soon forged a close friendship with King Francis and his mother, the formidable Louise of Savoy, as well as his sister, Marguerite of Navarre. His influence in the French court allowed him to keep an eye on his daughter, and he rented rooms near the French court in Poissy, likely so Anne could stay with him when she was able.
Thomas continued to guide his daughter and may have even helped her cultivate relationships with the influential members of court, in particular Marguerite. Highly literate and famously beautiful, Marguerite was another educated and progressive role model for Anne. Her court sphere boasted some of the greatest musicians, poets and artists of the day, including Leonardo da Vinci. Few young women could boast such an impressive education or exposure to such influential individuals and ideas of the age.
When Anne finally returned to England, she was not only highly spirited and attractive but, like her father, well-read, linguistically gifted, fashionable, sophisticated and well versed in poetry, music and philosophy.
No one, however, could have foreseen that such talents would capture the attention of a married king. Thomas had intended his daughter to become an imposing woman in her own right, poised to take a prominent place at the English court. He did not raise her to share the king’s bed – she deserved better than the life of a royal mistress. As Henry pursued Anne, Thomas removed her from court, taking her to the family seat at Hever Castle in Kent in the vain hope that Henry’s eye would alight elsewhere. It didn’t.
Anne was clever enough to refuse Henry’s advances, but in the end, the king’s wishes prevailed. His offer to her would be radically upgraded: from mistress to wife. Thomas could not defy Henry and had no option but to support his daughter’s marriage to the king.
Disgrace and death
Henry’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was deeply unpopular – and that put a strain not only on his relationship with Anne, but also on Anne’s relationship with her family. On the eve of her coronation in 1533, father and daughter fought publicly, for a heavily pregnant Anne seemed self-conscious and uncertain, letting out her gowns to cover and hide her growing belly. Thomas told her to leave the gowns as they were, that “she should be thankful to God for the state she was in, and to take away the piece she had put on her dress, to denote her impending motherhood”. Anne snapped that she was in a better plight than he would have wished her to be. With the crushing expectation that the baby she carried would be the heir Henry craved, tempers were fraying.
There had already been disagreements between Boleyns over spiritual and political matters. Anne and George were interested in new learning (humanism – as it would be dubbed later) while Thomas remained conventionally spiritual and pious. When Thomas interceded for a Catholic priest accused of fraud and condemned to death, Anne publicly berated her father, declaring that there were too many priests in England.
Given the tumultuous times through which the Boleyns lived – the fall of Catherine of Aragon, religious upheaval, Henry’s determination to punish anyone who opposed him – such friction was, perhaps, inevitable. It does not change the fact that throughout Anne’s reign the Boleyns remained a close-knit family, united against their enemies at court.
We have no evidence of Thomas’s state of mind at the disgrace and deaths of George and Anne, although we can assume he left the court to grieve for some time. He did not have particularly cordial relationships with those involved in the downfall of his children. Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was terse and to the point, and on several occasions made his life difficult. There was hostility between Thomas and his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk, who presided over the trials of his children – their relationship did not survive the summer of 1536. However Thomas remained dedicated in his service to the crown, performing official duties when commanded.
Throughout her lifetime, Thomas had been steadfastly dedicated to his daughter’s cause. The tragedy of their story is that they were ultimately torn apart, not by their ambition – as their detractors would have it – but by the man who had relentlessly pursued Anne and raised her to exalted heights in the first place: Henry VIII.
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)