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Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire: Much Decayed Of Late

October 2, 2013

You know this guy already, don’t you? Avaricious, ambitious to the point where he would happily prostitute his daughters to the king if it helped him get ahead, a flint-hearted tyrant who sent his daughters abroad as mere children and didn’t care what kind of emotional wreckage resulted. He urged his younger daughter on while she pursued the crown, then slithered away, earldom intact, as she was judicially murdered alongside her only brother. His marriage was an unpleasant affair, undertaken only to further his financial interests and occasionally featuring abusive behavior and rape. In short, not the kind of ancestor one would wish to have a visiting acquaintance with.

Or so you’d be justified in thinking if your main source of information was the packet of fictional works in which Thomas usually plays a secondary and highly unflattering role. There’s a non-trivial number of non-fiction books which also take it for granted that Thomas Boleyn was somehow unique in his attitudes, or at least an especially unpleasant example of a more common type of courtier. But the truth seems to be that he was neither — he was simply a very successful example of that up-and-coming Tudor court inhabitant, the self-made man. Long before Anne was a player at the English court — while she was still a small child, in fact — Thomas was making his presence felt. In addition to being (according to Ives) the best French speaker at the young Henry VIII’s court, he was also an expert negotiator, entertainer, and jouster — he was an answerer at the Westminster challenge of early 1511, one of the many celebrations held during the short lifetime of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s first son. By then he had been married for at least ten years and probably more to Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk; they had had at least five children and buried two of them. By the 1520s, he was well entrenched in the system, and he was created Viscount Rochford in 1525. This is the first preferment which may have stemmed from Henry’s interest in Anne. Certainly no special benefits seem to have resulted from Mary Boleyn’s earlier, more nebulous attachment to the king.

After Anne began to move up in the world, she naturally towed her family along with her; Thomas Boleyn became Lord Privy Seal in 1530, an office he would hold until just after Anne’s death, and was also granted the Earldom of Ormond for which he had disputed years before with Piers Butler. For all that, it’s difficult to know exactly what he thought of her actions, or how much control he had over them. In Antonia Fraser’s The Wives Of Henry VIII, she quotes one of Chapuys’ dispatches in which he mentions that “the Lady’s” father was apparently trying to dissuade her from her current stance of marriage or nothing — assuming this was true, he may have thought that she was safer in the better-tested and still potentially lucrative waters of being Henry’s maitresse en titre. He showed less interest in restraint when Cardinal Wolsey died and his taste for entertainments manifested itself as a masque entitled “Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell” performed for his household. When Catherine of Aragon died, he — again, if Chapuys is reporting correctly — wished that her daughter would soon follow her and joined the king in celebrating. But as it turned out, it was his own daughter who followed Catherine, not hers, and six months later, having been excused from being a judge at the trial of his children, he was writing a much-quoted letter (#17) to a triumphant Thomas Cromwell. The occasion was Cromwell’s demand that he increase the living expenses allowed to the newly-widowed Lady Rochford. Thomas Boleyn writes:

I received a letter from the King, with another from you concerning an augmentation of living to my daughter of Rochford; and although my living of late is much decayed, I am content, whereas she now has 100 marks a year, and 200 marks a year after my decease, to give her 50 marks a year more in hand. From Lady day last past she shall have 100l. a year to live on, where she should have had only 100 marks as long as I live, and after my death 300 marks a year. Beseeching you to inform the King that I do this alonely for his pleasure. When I married I had only 50l. a year to live on for me and my wife as long as my father lived, and yet she brought me every year a child. I thank you for your goodness to me when I am far off, and cannot always be present to answer for myself. Hever, this first Sunday of July.

The fact that he could write so calmly to Cromwell has raised eyebrows, but he was hardly the only courtier to carry on with business as usual after his nearest and dearest had been executed. (A few years later, Lady Rochford’s father, a classical scholar, would present the king with one of his customary gifts of a translation not long after his daughter was beheaded). And there may well have been a small barb in informing Cromwell, who already knew better than anyone, that his “living of late is much decayed.” It would decay further, but not for long — he kept his earldom of Wiltshire (although as George Boleyn was dead, there would be no inheritor of the title) but lost his offices and also the earldom of Ormond, which was given back to Piers Butler and his heirs. Elizabeth Boleyn died in the spring of 1538, and Thomas himself hung on for just under a year afterwards, dying on March 12, 1539.

A mixed (if very able) bag in life, his afterlife would prove to be considerable less successful. Although he doesn’t appear directly in Vertue Betray’d (1682) he’s said by his son to have orchestrated Anne’s division from Percy and her subsequent marriage to Henry, all done for the sake of cold ambition. He would prove to be the pattern on which many, many future Thomas Boleyns were drawn, although it wouldn’t be until the twentieth century that they became really vile.

The nineteenth-century plays, creaky as they are in many respects, actually feature a respectable variety of takes on Thomas: from the implausibly pastoral and peaceful Thomas exemplified in Anne Boleyn (1861) to the politically astute but nonetheless emotionally considerate Thomas of Anne Boleyn (1875) to the completely henpecked Thomas whose Howard wife is the real force behind Anne’s rise and who boasts that since he’s finally an earl “I’ll be as good a Howard as any of ’em” in Anne Boleyn (1881). But by the beginning of the twentieth century he was beginning a slow retreat to his original form of 1682. In My Friend Anne (1900) we never see him and are given to understand that he’s a widower who can’t be bothered with raising his daughter, but who has ambitions for her and so has her stay with her highly-placed godmother — who shows her unfitness for that office by encouraging her to accept the king’s attentions. In The Favor of Kings (1912) and Anne Boleyn (1912) he’s essentially the same character — virtually faceless, offstage most of the time, but understood to be benefiting handsomely from Anne’s moral dilemmas. By the time of Anne Boleyn (1932) he’s taken a further step down into villainy by actually assisting Cromwell’s inquiries into Anne’s “misconduct” — and while the Anne of this particular book isn’t exactly an attractive personality, there’s no question but that that the “crimes” imputed to her are imaginary.

Throughout the next couple of decades, Thomas the cold, ambitious chess player remains a constant — though there’s a nice variation in Anne Boleyn (1957) where he’s still a cold-blooded strategist but we actually see him having strategy sessions with Anne where they discuss religious reform, which he’s genuinely interested in for its own sake (although being himself, he naturally doesn’t overlook the political advantages of pushing it). The only noticeable change is decidedly for the worse, and it coincides with the beginning and flourishing of novels starring or heavily featuring Mary Boleyn. Thanks to her sketchy reputation (however ill-deserved it may be) sympathetic treatments of Mary usually find a way to blame it on Thomas somehow — he’s cold and visits her and Anne rarely during their stay in France, and so naturally Mary falls into the arms of the nearest affectionate male. The Marys of The Tudor Sisters (1971) The Last Boleyn (1983) and Blood Royal (1988) all fall into this category — in the last one, he gives Mary a shiner upon finding out that she slept with Francois — much to her confusion, as she thought he would approve of her having slept with someone so powerful and with so much to give. (Although in The Last Boleyn he became angry at his wife when she refused to sleep with a king, so he really can’t win either way).

The implication that Thomas at best looked the other way and at worst pimped his daughters becomes a storyline in its own right in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) and Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007), among others. The former ignores Mary’s French past but has the family council, headed by her uncle but assented to by her father, telling her to get to bed with the fascinated Henry forthwith. The latter features Thomas telling Mary straight-out that “You will give yourself to Francois,” and ordering extra clothes and accoutrements so she can seduce him and further the family ambitions by … it’s never quite clear exactly, now that I think of it.

Once in a while, he softens a little and becomes more three-dimensional — ironically, this is often done under the influence of someone who didn’t actually exist, namely, his second wife. Since the second wife was created by Agnes Strickland, portrayals of her are very consistent; a nice, motherly countrywoman, held in affection by all of the Boleyn children, but clearly not grand enough to be worth marrying for ambition. The usual conclusion is that Thomas had some humanity in him after all (“What had happened to him, that afternoon in Norfolk?” thinks the Thomas of The Concubine, himself baffled at what brought this about — though he admits that he’s never regretted it). From Strickland’s mistake were born Jocunda Boleyn, Lady Beth, Lady Bo, and several other less-developed stepmothers, none of whom exactly succeeded in reining in Thomas’s ambition but who were usually successful in getting him to treat his children humanely. And once, in Threads (2002) his actual marriage is a love match — he and Elizabeth Howard are portrayed as having been in love even before they married, and remaining so afterward. It doesn’t make them into ideal parents — part of what drew them together was their shared sense of ambition, after all — but it was a nice take. Certainly it’s not impossible, even if it’s unlikely.

I’m not sure where Thomas Boleyn is headed from here. Although he doesn’t sound precisely pleasant in life, it sounds like he’s had a bad rap from fiction so far. It would be good if we could see a bit more of the Thomas who jousted, threw parties, and negotiated in fluent French — if not in his own right, at least during his interactions with Anne. It might, additionally, be good to see a Thomas who was doing his daughters a tremendous favour by sending them to train in overseas courts; yes, they were far away, but they were gaining experience (and linguistic skills) which would be incomparably valuable when they returned to England. The constant characterization of him as cold and unloving because he sent them overseas strikes me as anachronistic; you might as well say a modern father was unloving because he sent his daughter across the ocean to attend Harvard. Who would argue that the experience wasn’t worth the separation? I doubt Anne or Thomas would.

One thing I hope they would agree with is that we’ve seen more than enough of Thomas Boleyn as a pimp. It’s dull, lazy villainization and besides, it sounds like the real Thomas was too occupied with matters diplomatic and linguistic to be interested in taking up that profession. There are plenty of other ways to make him look less than saintly, please stop picking that one!

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From → Brief Lives

16 Comments
  1. Esther permalink

    Great post. I wonder if the negative portrayal of Thomas Boleyn was created by turning him into a composite of both the historical Thomas Boleyn and some of the Norfolk men. There are letters from the Duchess of Norfolk to Cromwell complaining of physical abuse, for example, and the Earl of Surrey (Norfolk’s son) is alleged to have suggested to his sister Mary (widow of Henry Fitzroy) that she try to seduce Henry VIII (her former father in law) — giving rise to the “pimp”.

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, the Howard men seem to have skipped the Courtly Love segment in their literature lessons, don’t they? It may well have been that — he did run with a tough crowd, and was probably pretty tough himself. My guess is that a lot of it had to do with deflecting blame. Anne herself had to be seen as the heroine, as she was Elizabeth’s mother and a proponent of the side which eventually won the religious wars, but being involved with a married man was not generally seen as a mark of good character, even if he was the king. (And of course, Catherine of Aragon’s reputation was unassailable — even writers of Protestant histories were sympathetic towards her personally). So very often the solution was to have her badgered or bullied into the relationship, sometimes by the king, but more often by her family and the king combined.

  2. Another great character overview. Thanks for posting–and for linking back to that bit about Anne’s nonexistent stepmother. I really need to go on another archive binge. 😀

    Once again, we have a real person being treated like a fictional character. Authors want Anne to be a heroine, so they made her father a scheming bad guy. It almost makes me wonder if we can ever really know anything *true* about history; the more people weigh in, the more our images of the past get distorted.

    • sonetka permalink

      Well, in fairness, he *is* a fictional character in this context and fiction can’t be quite as loosey-goosey as real life; motivations are shaded and highlighted, and characters need to be compressed (one reason, I think, why the Duke of Norfolk is always given that line about how he would bang the Lady Mary’s head until it was as a soft as a baked apple; someone in his party said it who may or may not have been him, but for fictional purposes he’s already a known and named character with a less than savoury attitude towards his womenfolk, so it makes sense to give it to him). There’s nothing really inherently wrong with the usual characterization — unpleasant as it is, it can make for a compelling character if done well, as it was in The Concubine and the 1957 Anne Boleyn. What I object to is the fact that the usual characterization *is* so usual — that it seems to have become the standard template for Thomas Boleyn to the point where people now seem to “know” that he didn’t love his children, pimped his daughters etc. I will say that he does genuinely seem to have been a skinflint, but when you start life with £50 per annum and every year a child, you’ll start looking at both sides of every coin pretty quickly.

  3. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Excellent post! I’d love to see a novel featuring the Boleyn men–three-dimensionally, of course.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating; I think there’s a potentially huge market for a really good novel starring George Boleyn. As best I can tell, he has *never* been the star of his own novel, and his life had more than enough going on outside of hanging out with Anne to justify one. Bonus: unlike his sisters, he was sent to the English court as a child and presumably saw a lot more of his father than they did. (Admission — I’ve thought seriously of writing this novel myself, but if I’m ever going to do it, I need to stop letting myself get paralyzed by details. I’m the type that will put a character into a green doublet and then start backtracking and worrying that somewhere out there is an account book I haven’t read but which demonstrates that said character had a wardrobe containing yellow and blue doublets only).

  4. What a good post! Once I figure out how, may I share it on my blog with full credit to you? I’m new to it, but this is exactly when I’m going for!

    • sonetka permalink

      Certainly you can link it, thanks for asking.

  5. Reblogged this on AntiWhiteQueen and commented:
    This is an excellent post about the differences between the Thomas Boleyn in our known sources and how he has been portrayed on TV and in books.

  6. Fabulous post! And nice to see that he is softening! He gets a similar treatment on film where he begins in the 50s-70s basically telling his daughters ‘get into bed with the king…what do you mean you don’t want to?!’ There’s a lovely portrayal of him in Henry VIII (2003) where he is actually a father! *gasp* and is shown to be quite concerned for the wellbeing of his daughters, in fact he tried to protect Anne from the king initially! Then of course we go back to the pimping aspect, most recently in The Tudors he’s been quite thoroughly damned. I’ve always enjoyed his relationship with his wife in fiction, from what I’ve seen either she’s just as evil as him or she’s the complete opposite and appalled at him. Except in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ where she can’t make up her mind.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’ve never been able to bear a full episode of The Tudors, but have watched a lot of bits — the whole “But I get to keep my earldom?” was over-the-top even for that series (although he didn’t get any sex scenes, thank heaven).

  7. I’m reading a review copy of Laura Anderson’s “The Boleyn Deceit” and have already read her first book, “The Boleyn King”, and what I’ve enjoyed is her portrayal of George Boleyn. He’s still not who I see him as but he’s not the usual weak character, he’s a very strong, powerful character because he’s the Lord Protector for his nephew, the King (it’s a what if story). Lady Rochford is the usual nasty piece of work, but George is very different to the usual portrayal and it’s a refreshing change – so far, anyway, I haven’t finished. Now I wish someone would write a novel with a strong, talented Thomas Boleyn who doesn’t pimp his daughters out to the King.

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks for stopping by! I already reviewed “The Boleyn King” and have “The Boleyn Deceit” on hold at the library, and I’m looking forward to seeing your take on it. I had quibbles with the first book (mostly because the invented young people and the love quadrangle took up way too much space) but I loved it how she wrote the older Anne and George Boleyn. I agree that he’s not quite as I’d pictured him either, but he was really plausible as a strong, clever sixteenth-century courtier, and he and Elizabeth made a very convincing uncle and niece — they had a lot in common.

  8. This is why I love this blog–it reinforces the idea that the “players” in every retelling of the Anne Bolen story, though the same, are mostly always different. It seems that Thomas Boleyn and the Duke of Norfolk are almost always hard-hearted chessmasters out for the family’s advancement. In fact, the only one in my memory where they were portrayed somewhat sympathetically was the movie version of Anne of the Thousand Days. Norfolk seemed to have genuine sympathy for Anne, and Thomas was ambitious for the family’s sake but cared for his children. It’s mainly in that first scene he has with a (brunette?) Mary Boleyn…he tells her that he loves her, but that she’s been foolish for giving in too easily to Henry and not asking for anything in return. (I think it’s also at that point that he basically sets up the movie’s main engine, by saying that Henry goes crazy to obtain what he can’t have, but loses interest once he does have it.)

    Besides, it’s Michael Hordern. Paddington Bear himself. How unsympathetic can a character played by Michael Hordern be?

  9. Oh, and I forgot to mention–I remember that scene in Blood Royal. (I read that, Evelyn Anthony’s Anne Boleyn and Murder Most Royal after I’d stumbled across Anne of the Thousand Days on Bravo and been fascinated with the story.)

    Thomas wasn’t contradicting himself by upbraiding Mary. What he was angry at was the fact that she’d given her favors too easily, to Francis and to a number of other men. Instead of doing it cleverly (in his eyes) and manipulating Francis into making her official mistress, she was nothing more than a slut and good-time girl in the eyes of the court, with no chance of advancement.

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks for the comments! I should clarify — I wasn’t saying that Thomas was contradicting himself by getting angry at Mary, I was just amused at how in the vast majority of novels, Thomas can’t get anything right. If he approves of a female relative sleeping with the king, it means he’s a cold, unfeeling ass, and if he disapproves it means the same thing.

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