Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire: Much Decayed Of Late
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!