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Guest Post: Mrs Orchard — A Governess Of Anne Boleyn Who Never Was

August 6, 2022

I’m very happy to revive my blog to welcome Sylvia Barbara Soberton, whose book Ladies-In-Waiting: Women Who Served Anne Boleyn has just come out — I got my copy last week and have loved what I’ve read of it so far. The only reason I haven’t finished it yet is that my thirteen-year-old made off with it, but I trust I’ll get it back soon! Sylvia has been kind enough to write a post on a subject I’m especially fond of — Anne Boleyn’s imaginary servants, and in particular the ones who were actually the brainchildren of confused or overly creative historians, but nevertheless made their way into the record as real people. Mrs Orchard hasn’t had quite the variety of fictional adventures that Simonette has; in the few novels where she appears, her job is to break down at Anne’s trial and that’s pretty much it; despite the childhood association, Mrs Orchard never gets to be the one to teach Anne the ways of the continental vixen or stab her in the back later in life. Nonetheless, her evolution is fascinating to see. I’ll let Sylvia take it from here.

Anne Boleyn was executed on 19 May 1536. Her dramatic fall from grace is a gift for historical novelists who re-imagine her last days in vivid detail.

When I was writing my book about Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, I was especially excited to find out more about the mysterious Mrs Orchard who appears in many accounts of Anne’s last days. What I found out is that she never existed.

Mrs Orchard appears in both fiction and nonfiction about Anne’s downfall. She was supposedly her “old nurse”, a governess who presided over the nursery when Anne was a child. The well-established narrative says that Mrs Orchard was chosen as one of the ladies-in-waiting serving Anne in the Tower and attended her during trial. According to biographers, Mrs Orchard “shrieked out dreadfully” when the guilty sentence was read aloud as Anne was sentenced to die (1).

Mrs Orchard did not accompany Anne to the Tower. I am not sure if she existed at all it has been suggested that she may have been a connection of the Boleyn family through the marriage of Isabel Boleyn, paternal aunt of Anne’s father, to Henry Aucher of Otterden (2). And yet Mrs Orchard appears only in connection to Anne’s last days and trial; she’s nowhere to be found in the sources pertaining to Anne’s female household.

Shortly after her arrest, Anne Boleyn bitterly complained to her gaoler, Constable of the Tower Sir William Kingston: “I think [much unkindness in the] King to put such about me as I never loved.” (3) By Anne’s own admission, the women who were appointed as her ladies-in-waiting in the Tower were such as she “never loved.” When Kingston protested, saying that they were “honest and good women”, Anne replied that she would rather have ladies “of my own privy chamber which I favour most.” (4) If her old governess, a woman whom she must have had an intimate connection with, was present with her in the Tower, would Anne really have complained that she was served by such women as she disliked? It is very unlikely.

Our main source of information about the women who served Anne in the Tower is Sir William Kingston, whose letters, although damaged in the 1731 fire, offer a valuable glimpse into Anne’s last days.

Kingston never mentioned Mrs Orchard. The women whom he did mention were his wife, Lady Mary Kingston; Anne’s aunt Lady Boleyn; Margaret Coffin, the wife of Anne’s Master of the Horse; and Mrs Stoner. Mrs Orchard was also not present during Anne’s trial on 15 May 1536, so the story of how her shriek pierced the air is a myth as well. A Windsor herald, Charles Wriothesley, recorded in his chronicle that the two women who accompanied Queen Anne to her trial were Ladies Kingston and Boleyn; again, no mention of Mrs Orchard. (5)

Mrs Orchard is not there in the contemporary account of Anne Boleyn’s last days. As soon as I established that fact, I started looking for the first reference to Mrs Orchard in nonfiction. I found the first mention of her in S. Hubert Burke’s Historical Portraits or The Tudor Dynasty and the Reformation Period. (6) Burke wrote his history of the Tudors in several volumes, but his work should be treated with caution as he fabricated sources — mostly letters — and created several myths that were repeated by later writers. It’s not that his narrative wasn’t readable; the main issue was that he made up letters and stories and had the audacity to pass them off as facts. His works contain no sources, so any historian trying to locate his claims embarks on a futile chase through a labyrinth of lies. Burke’s critics said that “his writing of history very closely approaches the grotesque, and is altogether pessimi exempli [of the worst example] for any serious student”. (7) If Burke’s contemporaries were wary of his writing, so should we be as well.

— Sylvia Soberton

(1) Alison Weir, The Lady In The Tower, p. 277
(2) Kathy Lynn Emerson, A Who’s Who Of Tudor Women, p. 44
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, n. 797
Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle Of England During The Reign Of The Tudors, Volume 1, p. 38
S. Hubert Burke, Historical Portraits or the Tudor Dynasty and the Reformation Period, p. 449.
The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 55, p. 443.

  1. Annalucia permalink

    “…he made up letters and stories and had the audacity to pass them off as facts.”

    Aaargh! “Historians” like that should be made to kneel naked in the snow with nooses around their necks, until such time as their victims consent to pardon them.

    • sonetka permalink

      Seriously, you’d think he could have channeled all that energy into novel-writing!

  2. Esther permalink

    I wonder why Burke made up something comparatively irrelevant like a shriek at Anne Boleyn’s trial or an extra attendant .. these details don’t seem like the kind of thing that would look good on a CV (like a best selling book might be)..

    • sonetka permalink

      Maybe he was hoping all the punchy extra details would lead to the book becoming a bestseller!

    • Oh Esther, he made up so much more about Anne Boleyn! He wrote, for example, that Anne’s stepmother lived into old age but that Elizabeth I was never interested in establishing contact. Needless to say, Anne didn’t have a stepmother but there was a time when, in the 19th century, historians believed she had, so he just went wild with it.
      His book is pretty ridiculous but fun to read.

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