Fictive Kin: Anne Boleyn’s Imaginary Relatives
Anne Boleyn, like almost everyone else at the English court, had a large and not invariably friendly web of relatives, many of whom necessarily make regular appearances in the novels written about her. Although early portrayals tended to be relatively economical with their casts and often gave Anne only one sibling (George) and usually eliminated her parents altogether, by the time Boleyn novels were regularly rolling off the presses in the twentieth century, the standard cast had become much larger and would usually include, at a bare minimum, her parents, both of her siblings along with their spouses, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, her cousin Madge Shelton and her aunt Lady Shelton. Thanks to Agnes Strickland, she was also given an imaginary and no doubt unwelcome connection to Jane Seymour, who sometimes is described as Anne’s cousin although she was nothing of the sort. It was also due to Agnes Strickland that two of the most enduring fictional members of Anne’s family were created: her stepmother, and Simonette the governess. Novelists can hardly be blamed for treating these characters as real when they had been assured by a historian that they existed, and some of the depictions of these last two have been so good that I can’t in conscience wish Strickland had never made the errors which led to their shadowy existence. However, these two are not the only imaginary relatives with which Anne has been provided over the years — she has been the recipient of invented siblings, aunts, nieces, nephews, and in a few alternative universes, invented children. Who were (or weren’t) they?
When Thomas Boleyn told Thomas Cromwell that in his youth, his wife had brought him a child every year, he nonetheless declined to get into specifics about their exact numbers or birth dates. There appear to have been at least five Boleyn children born in the early years of the sixteenth century — Anne, George and Mary, and in The Life And Death Of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives tells us that “two children at least died before reaching adulthood” (17). These two children were boys named Thomas and Henry, and we know they existed only because their tombs survive. It’s entirely possible that Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn had other children whose existence has been blotted out completely by an early death and a lost grave.
There are similar question marks around the reproductive careers of George Boleyn and his sister Mary. While Anne’s obstetrical history has a few mysterious moments, it seems clearly established that she had one live birth of a healthy child and at least two other pregnancies which ended poorly. To the best of my knowledge no novelist, however fanciful, has ever provided Anne with a second surviving child unless they were writing a story which was very clearly set in an alternative universe: The Boleyn King (2013) provides her with a son who’s officially Henry IX but called William in private life, and in Between Two Kings (2015) she has a son named Arthur while imprisoned and, as of the end of the first volume, is pregnant once again by the King of France. And Wild For To Hold (1991), in which Anne is kidnapped into the far future in order to save her life, has her pregnant by the end and there’s no indication that the child won’t come to term.
Her siblings, not living in the royal spotlight, had much more shadowy reproductive careers and no writer has felt the need to resort to an alternative universe in order to give them previously undocumented children. Mary had two children, Henry and Catherine Carey, who unquestionably survived to adulthood, and George appears to have had none. But Mary’s surviving children were both born during her first marriage, and when she entered into her second it was because she was pregnant once more. What became of that baby, and any subsequent children she may have had, is unknown; the odds are strong that none of them survived childhood, but what their names or sexes were is impossible to know unless a previously-unknown grave turns up somewhere. Novelists have of necessity tried to fill in the blanks with regard to Mary’s third pregnancy at least; some of the answers they’ve come up with are discussed this post.George appears to have had no surviving children with Jane Parker, although again this does not preclude miscarriages or deaths in infancy. He may also have had illegitimate children, whose existence would naturally be somewhat more sketchily attested to even if they survived to adulthood. If they did not, the odds were strong that their memory would be altogether gone after a generation if not even less time than that. It’s worth noting in this context that the daughter of Queen Catherine Parr, born to a duke and a dowager queen and initially heir to an enormous fortune, has no known gravesite or date of death; the fact of her death has had to be inferred simply by her disappearance from extant records. If a child born in those circumstances could vanish without surviving comment, it’s not surprising that children born to slightly less exalted positions could disappear completely.
Nonetheless, the most orthodox approach would be to include only those extra siblings and second-degree relatives whose existence is in some way attested to, which would mean including only Anne’s two brothers who died young and Mary Boleyn’s first child with William Stafford. Most, though not all, modern novelists take this approach. A slightly less orthodox approach is to confine imaginary relatives to children who died young and could very plausibly be said to have left no trace in the record, whereas the least orthodox will happily furnish Anne with full-grown adult siblings or other relatives who often manage to live at court on a part-time basis while somehow avoiding appearances in any surviving papers.
It’s comparatively rare for Anne to be provided with extra adult siblings; in fact, before the twentieth century she was often deprived of one or both of the adult siblings she unquestionably had. George begins making appearances fairly early, in the late sixteenth century, but Mary went unseen and even unmentioned throughout the vast majority of works until the twentieth century. This is not to say she never appeared at all, but her presence tended to be hurried over and references to her love life extremely muted, if they’re there at all (in Anne Boleyn: A Historical Drama  she’s a straight-out paragon of virtue). A dramatic nineteenth-century exception to this rule, however, is Francis Lathom’s Mystic Events: Or, The Vision Of The Tapestry (1830), in which Mary not only appears as “Maria”, but Anne also has no fewer than six surviving adult siblings! Her sisters are named as Maria, “The Marchioness of Dorset” (never given a first name), and Amabel Boleyn, who’s very similar to Anne in many ways and whose ensuing marriage to the book’s protagonist gives him the chance to be married to someone who’s uncannily like Anne but who isn’t doomed by history books to end her life on the scaffold. The other two sisters are generically spiteful; it’s strongly implied that they were the ones who eventually spread the rumors which brought about her fall. Anne’s brothers are named as George, William and Edward, but only George plays a part in the story; William and Edward are barely there and have no discernible characterization. Thomas the younger and Henry Boleyn don’t appear; they may have died young in this version of the story as well, or more likely, Lathom simply didn’t know about them.
Four invented siblings are hard to surpass, but The Boleyn Bride manages to do so by interpreting “every year a child” extremely literally and giving Anne no fewer than twelve younger siblings who died as babies — Thomas and Henry are the first two, but they’re followed by “Geoffrey, Margaret, Amata, Alice, John, Edward, James, Eleanor, William, and Catherine, a dozen dead babies, all lost without grief, but not without regret,” according to Elizabeth Boleyn’s narration.
Not all of Anne’s imaginary siblings were borne by Elizabeth, however. She’s had at least two illegitimate half-brothers — the nervous, cowed “Flying Sidney” Boleyn in Cold Steel (1899) who’s so-called because he works primarily as a messenger and is a good horseman, and the studly Joscelin Boleyn of The Devil’s Mistress (2011). Both brothers are the offspring of Thomas Boleyn and a random peasant girl, albeit Sidney’s mother is English and Joscelin’s is French. The latter is a hardworking, intelligent, thoughtful type who’s set up in direct contrast to the lazy, effete George Boleyn who has unearned privileges heaped upon him for no reason other than that he’s the legitimate heir. Joscelin’s hard work appears to have paid off and he’s slated for an advantageous marriage with Sir Nicholas Carew’s daughter (“This is an opportunity to gain an important ally and deprive the queen of hers” says the ever-practical Thomas Boleyn when announcing the news to the prospective bridegroom) when he meets the mysteriously sexy Allegra Grimaldi, who’s supposedly a notorious courtesan and poisoner and who just so happens to be at the English court in the company of an Italian nobleman who’s a noted opponent of Henry’s divorce with Catherine. Naturally Joscelin is a goner.
Joscelin grimaced and ducked to tighten the swinging girth. Merde, why the Devil was he dragging his feet? This [Carew marriage] was the shining opportunity he’d worked for all his life. The chance to prove his worth, to become a real Boleyn, with lands and an English wife. If only he could avoid this bloody politicking.
Again the searing image of Allegra Grimaldi filled his mind — the ring of her voice as she flung pride in his face, the quick spark of her wit, the scent of night-blooming jasmine that tightened his loins.
You’ll be gratified to know that the story ends with Joscelin eloping abroad with “the devil’s mistress” after a lot of steamy interludes; in a way he’s the spiritual heir to the George Boleyn who appears in Mystic Events, right down to the continental adventures with Italian lovelies who are skilled with the cantarella — but Joscelin’s being fictional means that the author doesn’t have to give reality its due by somehow accounting for the fact of his arrest and execution.
I have so far looked in vain for a novel which featured either Thomas the younger or Henry Boleyn surviving childhood —which is especially curious, as there is one nonfiction book which depicts Thomas the younger surviving to young adulthood, on the basis of evidence which it would be generous to describe even as slim. In Mary Boleyn, Mistress Of Kings, published in 2011, Alison Weir confidently asserts that Thomas Boleyn the younger did not die in childhood but was born around the beginning of the sixteenth century and lived to young manhood. Referencing the “Master Boleyn” who participated in the court Christmas revels in 1514, she states that:
It is invariably assumed that this was George, but it was probably his older brother Thomas, and it may well have been Thomas who was sent to Oxford, for he must have been born before 1500 and lived long enough to go to university. Moreover, it is likely that Sir Thomas Boleyn would have provided his heir with a university education, rather than his younger son.
Thomas the younger’s revels supposedly ended six years later: “Tragedy struck the Boleyns sometime in 1520, when the eldest son and heir, Thomas Boleyn the younger, died. The cause of his death is unknown.” (113)
The assertion that Anne had not one but two brothers who lived to become men came as a surprise to many readers, and Claire Ridgway has an excellent, detailed post on the subject in which she shows the results of her own research and the unlikelihood of this claim’s being true. When pressed for her sources, it turned out that Weir had based her suppositions entirely on the fact that the brasses on both Thomas the younger’s and Henry Boleyn’s tombs were supposed to have been put in place in 1520, although the original documentation cannot be found and there’s no indication that they were put in place at the times of the boys’ deaths — not to mention the fact that if Elizabeth Howard was born c. 1480, it’s hardly impossible that she could have still borne children very close to the year 1520. Weir’s books are very popular so it’s somewhat surprising that as best I can tell, no novelist has taken up her idea of a second surviving brother for Anne, but as the book only came out five years it may be that novelists simply haven’t caught up with this latest “news” yet.
It isn’t just Thomas and Elizabeth who are credited with children unrecorded by history, but while Thomas Boleyn has been given a mere two illegitimate children, George Boleyn, by contrast, has fictional byblows approaching the double digits. Until the late 1980s, the vast majority of George’s depictions were extremely positive, while of course his wife suffered from far worse publicity. As they had no surviving children, it was hardly surprising that romancers decided that George deserved the consolation of children with someone else — this state of affairs also had the advantage of historical plausibility, since an illegitimate child could be kept out of the way more easily than a legitimate one and in addition would not be eligible to inherit any of George’s titles. (George has occasionally been given legitimate children with Jane, but they either die as babies, as in Reap The Storm , or mysteriously fade from the story with no explanation given for the extinction of the Wiltshire title, as in The Boleyn Inheritance ). George has predilection for fathering sons — his imaginary legitimate children with Jane are all boys, and his only two illegitimate daughters are a baby named Sarah in Betrayal and one named Margaret in Blood Royal (1988) — the former grows up to become the ancestor of the novel’s modern-day heroine, the latter to become the mother of Emilia Lanier.. His sons, however, include the identical twin boys of Anne Boleyn (1967), a baby boy in Dear Heart, How Like You This, and “little George” of The Reluctant Mistress, whom the elder George describes as “a likely little fellow … I’m pretty sure Jane has found where George’s mother’s home is and I wouldn’t put it past her to poison them both.” (Little George, incidentally, is described as the result of his father’s disillusionment with marriage to the evil Jane. Since the child is described as four years old in 1530 and George only married Jane Parker sometime in 1525, disillusionment clearly set in early). Jane is indeed gunning for Little George, and guessing correctly that his father has moved him to Mary Boleyn’s residence, turns up the next day, “her little mouth petulant … her little teeth sharp,” and inquiring over-casually about the children who are running around and playing on the grounds. Mary is able to fob her off by pretending that George is one of the villager’s children, and afterwards inquires anxiously of the nurse. “None of the visitors or their servants got near the children or their food?” The answer is negative, but nonetheless that’s the last we see of little George, even after his father’s arrest and death.
Last and, sadly for them, least are the maiden aunts. Anne had a number of real aunts, one of whom, Lady Shelton, appears fairly often in novels, although for good reason their relationship is seldom portrayed as a warm one. She also had a surviving grandmother — Thomas Boleyn’s mother Margaret, who would outlive both Anne and George and who’s occasionally, though not often, depicted as living at Hever Castle with them when they were young. What she did not have were either an spinster Aunt Ursula Boleyn, who appears in Anne Boleyn: An Historical Romance (1842), or a spinster Aunt Maud taking on a stern, Simonette-like role in caring for a beloved niece, as in Anne Boleyn (1956) and The Uncommon Marriage (1960), both written by the same author.
Poor Aunt Maud, one of that great tribe of unmarried relatives, who are excellent as nursemaids to young children, but who remain forever inflexible and immature, resentful of the dwindling sphere of their authority, instinctively hostile to the amorous exhalations of adolescence, often made painfully aware how years of unchanging routine has dulled their wits! Once, not very long ago, Anne would be running to her for comfort for a bruised knee or a broken doll. It was hard that she should now despise and reject her.
Aunt Maud proves not to be nearly as obtuse as the teenaged Anne thinks her, and she has the lustful creeper Mark Smeaton’s number literally decades before he gets Anne thrown into the Tower.
“I should have thought you would be well aware of the dangers of a pretty face and a vagabond smile. That young fool is half in love with you.”
“Mark is a sweet boy. He keeps his distance. Approaches me with reverence and is none the worse for that.”
“One day he will disillusion you.”
When the day comes that Cromwell feeds Mark Smeaton a love potion and turns him loose to assault Anne during a music lesson, the reflective reader will note that Aunt Maud was entirely correct. Anne, being preoccupied with her own impending trial and death, is uninclined to give Maud much credit.
Why were these people invented? There are a number of things which bring these people into being. Amata Boleyn and Jocelyn Boleyn, though separated by almost two centuries, are both wish-fulfillments; characters closely connected to the real people but who, being imaginary, don’t have to share in the unhappy fates of the real ones. George Boleyn’s imaginary illegitimate children often have a strong air of wish-fulfillment about them as well; their mothers are often maids of one sort or another who are George’s real love and refuge from the shrewish and usually downright evil Jane Boleyn. The maiden aunts provide domesticity and comic relief, and dead children provide pathos and are often used to heighten the realism and give the characters some depth which might otherwise be lacking. Infant death was a distressing and real fact of life for nobles as well as for peasants, and a shrewish, evil Jane Boleyn or coldhearted Elizabeth Boleyn who had a history of losing children can have this fact used as a way to deepen their characters; the distress both from their losses and the fact that they would have been failing in their duty to provide heirs can be made to account for any number of unsympathetic behaviors. Finally, there’s the fact that until very recently, in-depth research on Anne’s family tree was extremely difficult. Novelists didn’t have the online resources to give them basic information or direct them to the books which could; mostly they had to rely on what printed histories they could find, and these weren’t always (and as Weir’s book demonstrates, still aren’t always) entirely accurate or complete. Knowing that she must have had more family than was explicitly specified, they had to fill in gaps and hypothesize possible relations as best they could. And even if the results aren’t usually accurate, at least they’re entertaining.