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George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford: God Knoweth All My Sins

October 10, 2012

Anne Boleyn’s only brother had, like his sister, a meteoric but brilliant career. Elevated early to the privy chamber and then to diplomatic posts, thanks to his father’s and sister’s connections, he appears to have been able enough in his own right. George Cavendish, in his Metrical Visions, has the doomed Lord Rochford describing himself thus:

God gave me grace, dame Nature did hir part,
Endewed me with gyfts of natural qualities:
Dame Eloquence also taughte me the arte
In meter and verse to make plesaunt dities,
And Fortune preferred me to high dignyties
In soch abondance, that combred was my witt
To render God thanks that gave me each whitt.

Cavendish’s description is especially important because he had known George Boleyn in the days of his rise (Cavendish seems to have left court life at Wolsey’s death) and also because Cavendish, who was no reformer, did not like him — later in his poem he treats George as guilty of the crimes he was charged with, and describes him as sexually licentious. One phrase in particular would be prominently featured in at least one history book: “I forced wydows, maydens I did deflower / All was oon to me, I spared none at all.”

George received various privy chamber posts during the 1520s, and in 1529 was sent on a diplomatic mission to Paris, the first of several in which he would promote Boleyn — and most particularly Anne’s — interests. He was quite close the King both politically and physically (one of Henry’s love letters to Anne refers to going hunting with her brother). According to Ives, Jean du Bellay thought George excessively young for the job. “The arrival at the French court of such a young man as ambassador would probably provide a few laughs, but the new realities of power had to be recognized.” George and Anne were both power players at court, unlike their less ambitious (or possibly just less able) sister Mary, and the interest of one was the interest of the other; in a letter written shortly before the fall of both Boleyns, Chapuys described himself as “avoiding all occasion of conversation with him or discussing his Lutheran principles, of which he is so proud that he cannot abstain from boasting of them in public.” Whether George was really a card-carrying Lutheran is impossible to know; Chapuys tended to lump all religious reformers under that label.

The trial of George Boleyn was distinguished by one moment which has deservedly made it into virtually every fictional retelling of his sister’s story. That moment took place when he was handed a slip of paper and asked to confirm whether he had said what was written on it — but that he should not read it aloud. The question was about whether he had heard that the King was impotent. Ives writes that “Rochford showed his contempt by reading out what Cromwell wanted kept secret. Again the audience was with him — not even More had been so effective — and the odds, Chapuys said, ran ten to one for an acquittal.” But the court, of course, was using loaded dice; realistically he was never going to be acquitted.

He was executed two days after his trial; a good account of his last days can be read here. He spent his last few days trying to settle his debts (much like Francis Weston; both men knew that their property would go to the Crown after their deaths, but they also knew that the Crown was more assiduous about collecting debts than paying them — Kingston told Cromwell that “you must help my Lord of Rochford’s conscience” in the matter) and before he died gave a speech. Of himself, he declared in the expected manner that “I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly it were no pleasure for you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all,” and urged his listeners to follow the Gospel, saying that if he had done so more often “I had not come to this.”

George Boleyn had been married for about ten years when he died, but he and his wife do not appear to have had any surviving children, and if he had any children elsewhere, we do not know about them. Novelists would later attempt to remedy this lack of posterity, much in the way most of them would portray Mary Boleyn’s children as belonging to Henry VIII.

Unlike Mary Boleyn, George has been a presence in fiction from the beginning — how could he not be, considering how he died? Almost all of these portrayals, taking Cavendish’s word about George’s wit, good looks, and close relationship with his sister (why not?) show him as handsome, well-spoken, and a convenient confidant for Anne whenever she’s in a dilemma. Often his disposition is a bit saturnine, this quality being attributed to his miserable marriage with Jane Parker. (His marriage is always miserable, despite the lack of any documentary evidence, but we’ll go into reasons for that another time. Only once, in The Uncommon Marriage [1960] does he marry willingly, and even then it sours quickly, since he hates Jane when he’s not being sexually bewitched by her). This passage from The Concubine (1963), describing Anne and George’s relationship, is typical:

The relationship between them was a rare one. In their distant childhood they had played together, he, as the boy and the senior, always the leader and instigator. Then they had parted, and when she had appeared at the English Court they had met almost as strangers. But they had quickly found that they were so much in sympathy that they could communicate in half-finished sentences, in the lift of an eyebrow, the flick of a finger. Once he had said to her, “If I didn’t know otherwise, I should swear we were twins.”

At least once, they are twins: in Vertue Betray’d (1682), Anne, upon hearing the accusation of incest, says “We two liv’d in one Mother’s spotless Womb; / And then we scarce had purer Thoughts than now!” This is the play in which George is seduced and then deceived by Elizabeth Blount, who frames him as having an affair with Anne after asking him to address his love letters to his “Sister.”

Elizabeth Blount isn’t the only one with whom George falls in love. Quite a few Georges fall in love with Margaret Wyatt but are forbidden to marry her because Thomas Boleyn has his eye on the disagreeable but wealthy Jane Parker. “I could have found happiness beyond words with Margot,” laments the George of Brief Gaudy Hour (1949), and in Anne Boleyn (1957) they have a full-blown affair. His charms are strong enough to attract even fictional ladies — Meg Tierney of Anne Boleyn (1967) falls in love with him as a child and they have an affair after his (unwilling) marriage, with George declaring that they’re married in the sight of God. Frances Pierce of A Lady Raised High (2006) develops an enormous adolescent crush on George, who throws her the occasional crumb of attention but pretty obviously considers her not worth serious regard. Here he is leading Frances into a dance:

George smiled. His dark eyes held mystery, like Anne’s. Like Anne, he could smile without moving his lips, just by turning his eyes a certain way. He did so now, following me with his gaze as we stepped and touched and backed away …. When the dance was finished, George walked me back to the ladies who clustered near Anne. He kissed my hand before he turned and sauntered away.

Modern Georges tend to be like this, with the exception of To Die For (2011) in which George is in full reformer mode, but he’s still quite dashing. Margaret Wyatt, narrator of this book and for once not in love with George, says that “I’d heard rumors that George was a notorious religious book smuggler. It fit with his sense of charm and daring — not to mention his faith.” It’s a harkening back to the days of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) in which George is an exemplary religious reformer who’s just as much of a bore on the subject as Chapuys said he was. He tells Anne that he has been “enriching my rude verse with thoughts / I stole from thee in that religious converse / We held some days ago,” and goes on to recite for her a momentum-killing eight page long “Protestant’s Hymn To The Virgin.” The theme is sufficiently summed up by its final stanza:

Mary, we yield to thee,
All but idolatry;
We gaze, admire and wonder — love and bless
Pure, blameless, holy, every praise be thine
All honour save thy Son’s; all glory but divine.

Sometimes George is a father; he and Meg Tierney secretly have identical twin boys in Anne Boleyn (1967). When he discovers Meg’s pregnancy he’s overjoyed, and immediately sets about finding her a secure location to give birth in. Of his wife, he says “I swore to the bitch I would get no sons by her, and she taunted me that I was not man enough to do so. She would harm you, Meg, and through you spill the venom of her hate on me.” After discovering that he’s a father twice over, “`Two, by God!’ he ejaculated, and sat down weakly on a convenient chair.” As the boys are both illegitimate and raised in secret, they are unmentioned at George’s death and not candidates for inheriting his title, but we’re told that through them his line continues down to the present day.

George is also the ancestor of an interesting line in Blood Royal (1988) in which he has both a legitimate son (who vanishes before the end of the book) and before that an illegitimate daughter whom he’s placed with a paid foster family, as many well-off people before and since have done with inconveniently timed offspring. This George is a bit more hardheaded about the whole business. Here he is telling Mary Boleyn about it while they’re discussing the delicate matter of whether the King’s lack of sons is his fault or Anne’s:

“So far I have only a chance-come daughter. She brought her mother no luck, since she lost her place at Court and was sent home to the country. But the child was healthy enough, and the image of me, a Boleyn to its fingernails — no infection there. King or no King, I’d wager your progeny are as healthy as mine.”

“Where is she now, your little girl?” I asked.

George shrugged. “With good enough people, well paid for keeping her.”


“I shall not tell you, or you’ll make a drama of it and go visiting your niece. They live in Bishopsgate and are known to be honest, that’s all I’ll say. I even had her christened Margaret, with Meg Lee standing godmother. There, that’s enough.”

Later on we’ll discover that small Margaret Johnson grew up to be the mother of Emilia Lanier, pioneering female poet and candidate for the Dark Lady, who was also the mistress of Mary Boleyn’s son Lord Hunsdon. Alas, the real Margaret Johnson seems to have been born at least ten years after George’s death, but it makes a good story nonetheless.

George is cuckolded a number of times (Brief Gaudy Hour, Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem [1826], The Uncommon Marriage [1960]) but only once does this lead to his fathering a small cuckoo. In The Boleyn Wife (2007) Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford has a semi-consensual thing going on with Cromwell during which he both entices her into betraying George and Anne, and also knocks her up. She gives birth to a baby boy named George several months after her husband’s death, and the baby is fostered out after she tries to injure him, describing him as the son of Satan. As in Blood Royal, George’s son (putative in this case) drops out of the story entirely after this.

George’s numerous love affairs were conducted solely with women until fairly recently; Retha Warnicke’s 1983 book hypothesizing that he and the other executed men had all been part of a homosexual ring eventually seeped into authorial consciousness. In The Boleyn Wife a depraved bisexual George orders Mark Smeaton into bed and boasts about it afterwards, and in Anne of Hollywood (2012) George’s modern equivalent, a television actor, has blind items placed about his “close friendship” with a chef whose picture his has on his cellphone. Despite this, he proceeds with his wedding to Lacy Rochford, and when asked if he loves her, replies “Whatever love is.”

And of course, there’s the arch-novel: The Other Boleyn Girl, in which George pulls off the astounding feat of doing everything he was accused of both at his trial and in Warnicke’s book. He’s his usual witty, calculating self, but he’s also in love with Francis Weston, and eventually confides in his sisters:

He laughed carelessly, but I could hear the strain in his voice. “I love Francis,” he confessed. “I can’t see a finer man in the world, a braver sweeter man never lived — and I cannot help but desire him.”

“You love him like a woman?” I asked awkwardly.

“Like a man,” he corrected me swiftly. “A more passionate thing by far.”

“George, this is a dreadful sin, and he will break your heart. This is a disastrous course. If our uncle knew …”

“If anyone knew, I’d be ruined outright.”

His passion for Weston is matched by his passion for Anne, or at least for their family’s position. “I have reason to think this baby will be strong,” Anne writes to Mary, telling her of the pregnancy that would end in January of 1536. Anne miscarries “a devil’s baby” severely deformed, and George tells her that “Whatever we have done, we have done for love,” and casts doubt on the idea that a deformed baby inevitably means sin, pointing out that animals have these accidents occasionally and they don’t get executed for it. Anne and George aren’t as lucky. When they’re arrested, Mary is forced to admit to herself that they are guilty of the accusations, and this is the sole work of fiction I’ve read in which this is true. Interestingly, although George and Jane Boleyn have no child in this book (it’s implied that the only woman who can so inspire George is Anne) they do have a son in the sequel, The Boleyn Inheritance. Like other putative legitimate sons of George, the child fades away before the end of the book.

George Boleyn has had many fictional lives; in all of them he’s devoted to his sister, in almost all he’s of great intelligence (Vertue Betray’d is something of an exception here, but even there he’s a noble dupe), and although his religious side has been in eclipse recently, he’s maintained his dashing character most of the time. Even the George of The Other Boleyn Girl cuts an appealing figure some of the time and is implied to be deeply tormented by the life which he loves and yet knows he should escape. The George of The Boleyn Wife is an exception, but even there we’re obviously dealing with a jealous unreliable narrator, and while no prince, he has his priorities in better order than she does. But only once have I read any extended attempt at George Boleyn as the point of view character, and that’s in The Uncommon Marriage. Sadly, the sections devoted to him focus only on his twisted courtship of Jane Parker, and don’t take us abroad with him. But there’s the thing; he did have a life outside of Henry’s court. He undertook a lot of missions on behalf of Henry and his sister and traveled abroad frequently. He got to see the international aspect of the divorce in a way that Anne herself couldn’t. And as a man, he could move about more freely than any but the most humbly-born woman and on a much more elevated level. Sounds like a good lead character for a novel, wouldn’t you say?

From → Brief Lives

  1. Clare permalink

    Love this. Thank you!!

    • sonetka permalink

      I’m glad you liked it! Incidentally, since I imagine you would know if anyone does — are there any novels out there with George as the lead? Half the hits I get are from people looking for “george boleyn fiction” so there’s certainly some demand for it at least. I may be driven to writing one myself someday if this keeps up so I can point the searchers to it :).

      • Clare permalink

        I don’t know of any fiction where George is the central character. That may be a blessing bearing in mind how he’s usually depicted. Why don’t you have a bash? You have the writing skills, and you would be sympathetic to him because you know your history. Most fiction writers are quite lazy and just follow the party line i.e. George the womaniser who would have sex with anything whether man, woman or dog. George the rapist, George the useless hanger on, George the playboy etc etc etc. It would be nice if he could be portrayed accurately. Now that really would be something unique!

      • sonetka permalink

        Amazing how trends are formed — George The Depraved has been big in the last twenty years or so but before that he was usually portrayed fairly heroically. I don’t know if it would even be possible for me to write a novel about him; I’d be terrified of (1) unintentional plagiarism and (2) getting known facts wrong. It’s very hampering, not having a good biography of him out there and being 6,000 miles away from what primary sources there are. Why Mary Boleyn gets two biographies and he doesn’t even get one is mystifying — he did so much more and left behind a lot more paper.

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