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Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford: Wicked Wife

February 6, 2013

“I didn’t just survive a wreck, I wasn’t just blown up yesterday. I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned. Every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender: I am an immortal!”

— Phil Connors, Groundhog Day

When Jane Boleyn died on February 13, 1542, one would have thought that her reputation had reached its nadir; she was “that bawd, Lady Rochford,” who had helped the Queen of England to commit adultery, and therefore treason. During her imprisonment she had collapsed so completely that new legislation was passed to legalize the execution of the insane. But as it turned out, her death was just the beginning; over the following centuries, playwrights and novelists would manage the startling feat of making her death look positively anticlimactic. In addition to her portrayal as the “one maid more” who accused George Boleyn of committing incest with his sister Anne, Jane Boleyn has: betrayed Anne’s affair with Henry Percy, betrayed Anne’s affair with Thomas Wyatt, betrayed Mary Boleyn’s affair with William Stafford and resulting pregnancy, conspired with a fictional Jesuit to bring Anne down, conspired with Jane Seymour to bring Anne down, conspired with Thomas Cromwell to bring Anne down, attempted to poison Anne, attempted to have Anne assassinated by archers in the middle of the night, connived at Anne’s kidnapping and attempted rape, killed one of her tenants in a fire, killed animals by tossing them out of a window, been in prison for more than a year, and had affairs with Thomas Cromwell, Francis Bryan, a whole host of nameless and sometimes fictional gentlemen, and last but not least — Henry VIII himself. She has had sons by George Boleyn and, once, by Thomas Cromwell. She has also miscarried several times. She is either too stupid to be George’s equal, or clever only in a mischief-making way — when she isn’t doing any of the things listed above, you’ll probably find her with her ear up against a keyhole. She loves George obsessively, but this sours because he won’t love her equally in return, because he’s a homosexual, or because he has no intellectual respect for her. She has nothing but contempt for George from the beginning, and spends their marriage trying to get rid of him and having affairs with other men. After all of this, you start to wonder if perhaps the block wasn’t a welcome sight after all — she must have been exhausted.

Jane began her career in fiction as a wanton woman — a woman who could connive at another woman’s adultery could hardly be expected to be chaste herself, after all. Although she makes no appearance in Vertue Betray’d (1682) in which the role of wanton, treacherous female is played by Bessie Blount, Jane is good adulterous form by the time of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) — though she still has some twinges of conscience about treachery. “Hast obtain’d that paper / In Lady Wingfield’s hand?” asks the imaginary Jesuit Angelo Caraffa, when Jane comes to him for her usual confession of all her adulteries. She does, but implores him to rethink his strategy — “Must crime be still aton’d by crime? Oh! Think / She is my husband’s sister, his — the bridegroom / Of my fond youth — ” “To whom thou art so true and faithful!” retorts the priest, reminding her that betrayal is the price of her absolution.

What is it for a life like thine — a life
That doth confess, bewail, forswear its sins,
But with new zest t’indulge — that com’st so oft
With the foul tale, that I do fear to breathe
The tainted air of my confessional?

Jane admits that “I do hate my husband / For that I’ve injured him so deeply,” but nonetheless reels off the stage crying “Oh, my soul! My soul!” But nonetheless she’s hardened considerably by the time of her appearance in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1849) in which Henry VIII, casting around for an excuse to divorce (but not execute) Anne, is approached by “the good Viscountess Rochford,” who has teamed up with Norfolk’s faction and has information she wants to share. “If hell were swept, to find its vilest soul, / That soul would blush at sight of this good lady,” says Henry, but nonetheless he’s ready to hear her out. Jane proceeds to reel off the names of Brereton, Weston, Smeaton, Norris, Wyatt, and of course her husband: “I’ll prove his guilt / More clearly than the crime of any other,” she insists, but Henry, disgusted by her “serpent mouth” and “malicious spleen” dismisses her now that she’s given him what he wants. “But Wyatt shall not die / We have had enough of executing scholars,” he tells Norfolk, apparently quite ready to get rid of the others. Jane’s motive, other than general malice, is never revealed, though obviously she doesn’t care for George at this point. A clear motive is similarly lacking in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Six Acts (1884) in which Jane — confusingly listed as “Lady Boleyn” and described by Anne as “A wily, traitorous fox” — first tells Henry that Anne is dressed in yellow to celebrate Catherine’s death (Henry is characteristically outraged) and then betrays Mark Smeaton and his fantasy life to some vague priestly authority, thereby destroying him, Anne and George.

At the beginning of the new century, Jane continued adulterous and at odds with George from the beginning of their marriage — in Anne Boleyn (1912) she flirts heavily with the Duke of Suffolk, and it’s heavily implied that that isn’t the worst she’s been up to. In Brief Gaudy Hour (1949), she’s full-on sleeping with other men behind George’s back, and none too discreetly. In Anne Boleyn (1932), we see very little of her, but it’s clear that the relationship is dead on arrival. As a young George departs from Anne, he tells her “Well, I am off to see my bride-to-be. I think her insufferable, but that is neither here nor there.” Later on, the vengeful Simonette, now safely back in France, writes a letter to Jane telling her of her suspicions of incest, and Jane duly passes these suspicions on and testifies in their trial, being thus rid of George.

In Murder Most Royal (1949) things begin to shift. Jane does, in fact, love George, or at least like him — the problem now is that he doesn’t care to reciprocate. “[Jane] had married, and once married had fallen victim to the Boleyn charm, to that ease of manner, to that dignity, to that cleverness. But what hope had Jane of gaining George’s love? What did she know of the things which he cared for so deeply? He thought her stupid, colorless, illiterate …. she hated Anne because of the influence she had over her brother, because he could give her who was merely his young sister much affection and admiration, while for Jane, his wife who adored him, he had nothing but contempt.” In Anne Boleyn (1957) a Jane who is devoted to and insanely jealous of George attempts to revive their relationship towards the end, and George is not amenable: “the white face and hooded eyes, that bitter, hungry mouth filled him with blind horror. He felt as if he were holding a snake …” After he rebuffs her, Jane cries that “You love her best. That’s why you don’t love me.”

Almost every Jane since could be summarized by those two sentences. There are exceptions, in which Jane is still a coldhearted adulteress from the outset, but the general rule now is that Jane is a twisted, mildly insane obsessive who is devoted to George to the point where she can’t stand the thought of his being with anyone except herself, and who eventually betrays him in a despair of jealousy and rage on realizing that he’ll never love her and enjoy her company the way he does Anne’s. This is the line taken by the relatively few novels centering around Jane Boleyn: Reap The Storm (1998), The Boleyn Inheritance (2006) and The Boleyn Wife (2007). In Reap The Storm George Boleyn begins as a charming but distant husband who drinks heavily to avoid Jane’s company — her main problem seems to be that she’s just a little dim and can’t discuss politics and religion with him. Their real hostility begins after a quarrel over a family brooch in which George once again sides with Anne (after they’ve been playing brain-games all morning and leaving Jane out), and Jane says that “I was not important in his life and probably never had been. Anne definitely meant more to him than I did.” Intriguingly, Jane is the one who discovers that Anne has been reading the Bible in English, and she takes this news to Wolsey, as she is “a devout believer in the Holy Roman Church.” Unfortunately this character trait is never really developed, not even when a furious, newly-miscarried Jane is talking to a silken-smooth Cromwell, who assures her that she won’t be asked to swear to anything untruthful and elicits from her a helpfully vague statement that George and Anne are “unnaturally close.” Five years later, Jane will sign another statement, this one much more detailed, detailing the sins of Katherine Howard, whom she helped because she loved her like a daughter and couldn’t deny her anything (similarly to the Jane of Murder Most Royal, except that in that case, Katherine really was innocent and Jane was merely arranging meetings between courtly lovers who were misjudged).

Similarly loving of Katherine Howard, albeit much crazier, is the Jane of The Boleyn Wife. After she’s been ignored by George, kicked around by him, and cheated on with members of both sexes, she falls semi-willingly into the arms of Thomas Cromwell, who just so happens to be looking for information that could do damage to the husband whom she now hates for not loving her enough. Jane agrees to everything he suggests, while in the process getting pregnant by him. To her horror, George is executed as well as Anne (she had intended only for Anne to die, in order to have George to herself) and she’s bundled off to the country to bear Cromwell’s child, which is given to a foster family after she tries to kill him).

In fact, only the Jane of The Boleyn Inheritance has a motive which doesn’t stem from pure emotion: she too has betrayed George in the hopes of getting Anne killed and her husband back, but she’s still firmly in the Duke of Norfolk’s faction and working for him for the Howard family interests while he strings her along with the promise of getting her married again if she does everything to his satisfaction. These, of course, include (1) getting Katherine Howard on the throne and (2) keeping her there. The latter would be much easier if Katherine were to get pregnant, and as the king isn’t up to it these days, Jane enlists Thomas Culpepper — whom Katherine has been crushing on from afar — to be a ringer. “If she conceives a child and gives England a son, she might live long enough to learn to be a queen that is admired,” thinks Jane, but we all know how that ends; Jane buckles and betrays Katherine as she betrayed Anne and George, Norfolk tells her that there was never any prospective husband for her — “There’s not a man in the world who would marry you.” Why would they, when she’s known all over the world as the woman who betrayed her husband to his death and who knows full well that it would happen? “You knew if you turned evidence against your own husband, then the king would leave you with your title and your lands. That’s all you wanted in the end. That’s all you cared for … you are a byword for malice, jealousy, and twisted lust …. D’you think any man would risk calling you wife? After that?” Jane’s reaction is to have a brief collapse and then to feign insanity in the hopes of a reprieve, only realizing the truth just before she sees the block.

What with the millions of words that have poured out in excoriation over the centuries, it may come as a surprise to learn how few traces the real Jane Boleyn has left behind. Her biography, Jane Boleyn: The True Story Of The Infamous Lady Rochford, by Julia Fox, often suffers because of this — it can get tiresome to read of events which Jane “may have attended”, and I think it would have done well as a long article — but it’s informative in revealing the amount of information which isn’t there. Briefly put, Jane Parker, born to Henry Parker, Baron Morley, around 1505, came to court as a young girl and married George Boleyn in 1525. There are no letters between the couple which survive, and no record of the state of their marriage; whether it was happy or unhappy, whether there were no children or children who died young. Jane may have been involved in a demonstration in Princess Mary’s favour while Anne was queen (the record is confused, and although her family would prove to be solidly Catholic, it seems like, at best, a risky thing for her to do) and she seems to have conspired with Anne to get one of Henry’s mistresses banished from court. The effort failed, and Jane was briefly sent away instead. Before Anne and George’s arrests, she seems to have been questioned by Cromwell, but records of questions and answers don’t survive. She did not testify in court, and was never named in contemporary documents as a witness for the incest accusation. After George’s death, she lost most of her property and income and had to appeal to Cromwell (much as Mary Boleyn had, several years earlier) to have her jointure increased, which it was. By the time of Jane Seymour’s death she was back at court, and remained there until she was condemned for her share of Katherine Howard’s intrigue with Culpepper. She was executed after making a conventional speech expressing regret for her sins, which were not enumerated; she said nothing about her husband or sister-in-law. Her posthumous reputation as “a bawd” is exemplified in Cavendish’s poem in which he speaks for the woman “Whome I oons knewe / Iane vicountes Rocheford.”

My grave father / quod she / of the Morlas lynne
My mother of the Seynt Iohns / this was my parentage
And I alas / that dyd my self inclyne
To spot them all / by this my owltrage
Brought vppe in the Court / all my yong age.
Withoutten bridell of honest measure
Ffolowyng my lust / and filthy pleasure

Without respect / of any wyfely truthe
Dredles of God / ffrome grace also exempte.
Viciously consumyng / the tyme of thys my youthe
And whan my beawtie / began for to be spent
Not with myn owen harme / sufficed or content
Contrary to God / I must it nedes confesse
Other I entised / by ensample of my wredchednes.
(Edwards, 71)

The intent of the poem is to exhort its hearers to behave chastely, because she herself was unchaste and encouraged similar behavior “Where nowe my slaunder / For euer shal be ryfe.” Cavendish was righter than he knew. He says nothing about any testimony against George, nor was anything similar mentioned until thirty-plus years after Jane’s death, when a marginal note in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs stated that it was “reported of some” that Jane had had a hand in her husband’s condemnation. A decade or so later, Thomas Wyatt’s grandson George, in his biography of Anne Boleyn, described Jane famously as a “wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood.” As Julia Fox points out, however, this cannot necessarily be taken as the whole truth — Jane Boleyn, having already been convicted and executed for a sexually-related crime, made a good scapegoat for Elizabeth’s innocent mother having been executed by her glorious (and misled, surely!) late father. It was easy to read history in reverse and decide that her involvement must have extended to framing the incest charge as opposed to merely being one of the many questioned by Cromwell and, possibly, giving him information that the king was said to be periodically impotent. Insinuations of Lady Rochford’s telling of “calumnies” to Anne’s detriment continued in Peter Heylin’s 1660 history, and Burnet’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England explicitly linked her with the incest accusation — she was “jealous”, and persuaded the king that “there was a familiarity between the Queen and her brother.” Mispagination of a 17th century scholar’s notebook led to Burnet’s observations being mistakenly attributed to a diarist who lived at the Tower of London in 1536, and confusion abounded as a result. Between Cavendish and Burnet we can see the roots of virtually every Lady Rochford who has ever stepped into a play or a novel: jealous, adulterous, ultimately destroying herself and everyone around her — the wicked wife, indeed.

What she actually was is, at this point, impossible to establish: like Mark Smeaton, virtually everything about her personality and character is a blank except for a handful of writings which were made after her highly prejudicial end. Barring some quasi-miraculous discovery, her opinions on her husband, her sister-in-law, Katherine Howard, and everything else are gone forever. Her interview with Cromwell, so crucial to her future, is lost as well, and even if it were to be found it would be extremely risky to take everything in it as her own freely given opinion. There is no surviving picture of her (nor is there one of George). With the newly-uncovered blanks in her life, you would think that novelists would leap at the chance to remake her in a way — not heroic, as nothing of what survives of her suggests heroism, but at least not overtly treacherous — that could make the Boleyn story quite different, but so far most of them have managed to restrain themselves. The same cartoonishly villainous Lady Rochford has been trotted out in pretty much every post-2007 book, most notably in Bring Up The Bodies (2012) in which the usual jealous, embittered Jane comes of her own volition to Cromwell to make her incest accusation (“Lady Rochford, I cannot write `He kissed her in that way,'” says the initially disbelieving Cromwell).

There is one exception, which is actually a YA novel — Gilt (2012). The novel is about Katherine Howard, told from the viewpoint of her maid of honour Katherine Tylney, and its portrait of Jane is wonderfully ambiguous, beginning with her appearance. Usually Jane is either bone-ugly (the usual scenario) or beautiful but vicious, but when this Jane is introduced and smiles at the new girls, “her pale face brightened and her pointed chin smoothed. From seeming somber and somewhat world-weary, she became a coy beauty.” Although polite and considerate, she keeps her cards very close to her vest, and the reader wonders about her as much as the younger women do. Jane is discovered to keep an “A” pendant in her pocket, secretly, and tells Katherine Tylney that “People say I hated her. That I was jealous. But she was my friend. For a while.” Katherine Howard is more manipulative and less innocent than in many other renditions, and Jane, who has learned that the key to court life is to always obey, no matter what — “Jane, who did nothing but what was asked of her,” Katherine Tylney describes her — helps Katherine Howard in meeting with Culpepper until it’s too late for her to do anything other than continue helping. After all, by the time you’ve set up a meeting or two, you may well have crossed the line between “witness” and “co-conspirator”. When, inevitably, the dam breaks, Jane tells the younger girls what’s in store:

“They will ask open-ended questions that require specific answers.” Her voice shook. “They will ask them again. And again. And again. Until you answer.”

The last we see of this Jane is her collapse while she screams. It’s not surprising — after all, she’s seen this play before, she knows how it ends. And whatever her sins may have been during her life, I would say that between the historians, novelists, and playwrights, they have been more than expiated.

Sources for the first paragraph are listed below:

Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) She gives away Anne’s betrothal to Henry Percy.

Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) She betrays Anne’s affair with Wyatt.

Blood Royal (1988) She betrays Mary Boleyn’s pregnancy, and has a son by George.

Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) She gives Angelo Caraffa damaging documents.

At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) She conspires with Jane Seymour.

The Boleyn Wife (2007) She conspires and sleeps with Thomas Cromwell, later having his son.

Reap The Storm (1998) She conspires with Cromwell, and has two miscarriages by George.

To Die For (2011) She attempts to poison Anne, and later to assassinate with conveniently stationed archers.

Anne Boleyn (1912) She connives in a conspiracy to kidnap and rape Anne.

The Uncommon Marriage (1960) She has affairs with Henry VIII, Sir Francis Bryan, and others unnamed, burns down a tenant’s cottage with the tenant inside, and throws a cat out of a fourth-storey window; it does not land on its feet.

The Last Boleyn (1983) She has an affair with the fictional Mark Gostwick.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) She betrays George because he’s homosexual.

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From → Brief Lives

6 Comments
  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Great post! I shall have to muster the courage to find “Reap the Storm.” (Don’t think I could take the novel with kitty murder.)

    • sonetka permalink

      She kills the cat on their wedding night, no less. It really says something that Jane Boleyn has had a more consistently terrible portrayal than Henry VIII — at least he sometimes gets to be honestly baffled or oppressed with the need to keep the dynasty secure, whereas Jane is consistently a pox on society from Day One.

      I’m curious to learn what you think of Reap The Storm — it isn’t the best book I’ve read, but I feel like it had potential, and that given a better editor it might have been turned into something rather good. Trying to humanize her, especially the pre-biography version, is an extremely tricky undertaking.

  2. Brown Line permalink

    Thank you for a fascinating post. The fictional Jane comes across like a soap-opera villainess when the reality most likely is that was just one more of the persons trying to survive in the vipers’ den of Henry’s court.

    By the way, is she mentioned in the Lisle letters?

    • sonetka permalink

      I haven’t read the full collection, but the only mention I can remember is of her death.

  3. Tungsten permalink

    So bizarre, especially the insistence on the unhappy marriage. Has there ever been a Jane in fiction that actually got along with George Boleyn? I mean, if you MUST have George as a cold schemer you can have him keep Jane as a morality pet or something; there’s no rule that says Jane’s marriage has to be awful. But I guess an unhappy marriage is a nice quick way to insert some drama.

    It’s kind of terrifying that a few lines of scandalous gossip centuries ago can become the basis for hundreds of years’ worth of condemnation.

    • sonetka permalink

      Reasoning backwards, it makes sense for their marriage to be unhappy — if Jane was willing to perjure herself and claim that George was sleeping with his sister, thereby getting them both killed, any novelist worth her salt is going to prepare the ground by giving them a miserable marriage as some sort of motivator for her. Although what I wonder about is that even when Jane was generally supposed to be the source of the accusation, that nobody seems to have wondered if, just possibly, her “accusation” might not have been completely voluntary. Enough intense questioning and word-twisting can produce all sorts of interesting “admissions”, and certainly Henry and Cromwell benefited more obviously than she did. (She lost a lot of income and property, much of which she eventually got back but only after intense begging and petitioning).

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