Woman in the Shadows: The Life of Jane Boleyn

The Tudors are everywhere. From the Other Boleyn Girl and Elizabeth: The Golden Age in movie theaters to The Virgin Queen and Elizabeth I on the small screen. Not to mention the glitz and glamour of Showtime's The Tudors on cable (don't get me started on this series) where the doings of the Royal Family make Dynasty seem tame.

One only has to go to the bookstore to check out the new offerings on the front tables, to see the wealth of fiction and non-fiction that is available about England's Tudor dynasty. Books about everyone from Elizabeth's Lady in Waiting, Cat Ashley to books about Mary Boleyn, and the Katherine's (Aragon, Howard and Parr) but the most famous of course is Anne Boleyn. You could probably line up the books written about Anne Boleyn from here to California, and that's just the books written in the last few years!

But what about Jane Boleyn? She is the shadowy figure in the saga of the Boleyns and the Tudors. Was she an innocent bystander caught up in circumstances beyond her control or a cold, calculating bitch determined to punish her husband for not loving her? The accepted wisdom about Jane Boleyn for years has been that she was bitter about her marriage to George Boleyn and jealous of Anne Boleyn which led her to deliberately lie about his relationship with his sister during Anne Boleyn's trial. She pops up again during Katherine Howard's marriage to Henry VIII as sort of a royal pimp, pushing Katherine into the arms of her lover.

Now Julia Fox has written the only biography ever undertaken about Jane Boleyn. This post will be as much a review of the book as it an examination of the life of a woman who seemed to spend her life in the shadows of the Tudor Court only briefly coming out into the sun.

The known facts about Jane Boleyn are these: she was born Jane Parker in around 1505 to a wealthy and well-connected family. Her father Henry Parker was the 10th Baron Morley, descended from a family that had the misfortunate of picking the wrong side originally during the struggle between Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Richard III for the throne. Her father was an intellectual who was educated at Oxford. Jane and her siblings grew up in Norfolk where they were mainly raised by nannies and governesses. She was given a modicum of education, taught to read and write and more importantly how to run a large household, along with needlework, the noblewoman's chief past-time. At some point, probably around the age of twelve, Jane was sent to court to join the household of the Queen, Katherine of Aragon. She was certainly part of the retinue that went with the royal family to France for the epic Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

There is no description of Jane's appearance and no known portraits of her (nor of George Boleyn her future husband). We guess that she was probably pretty since she appeared in court masques, in particular the Chateau Vert in 1522, where she danced alongside her future sisters-in-law Mary and Anne Boleyn. Around 1524 or 1525 she was married off to George Boleyn which was considered a particularly good match. The Boleyns had risen high in the world not only by marrying well, but by being of service to the King. Thomas Boleyn was fluent in French, and he had married Elizabeth, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, aligning himself with one of the most powerful families in England. Thomas Boleyn's mother, Lady Margaret Butler was the daughter of the Earl of Ormonde, and through her, he inherited estates in Ireland as well as England.

As Anne's fortunes rose as the King's favorite and later wife, so did the fortunes of Jane and George Boleyn. George was created Viscount Rochford, he was made a member of the Privy council, and was sent to France as a diplomat. When Anne and Henry were finally married, Jane had a place of honor at Anne's coronation, and was among her ladies in waiting at Court. Julia Fox contends that this proves that Anne and Jane were close, although it is possible that Jane owed her place more to Anne's great love of her brother than affection for Jane.

Anne's reign as Queen lasted less than three years, a thousand days. The boy that was predicted by Henry's astrologers turned out to be a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth. In her effort to keep in Henry's good favor, Anne suffered two miscarriages, the last one a boy. The stress of keeping the King happy plus the strain of the miscarriages, probably led Anne to act irrationally. The King had taken to one of her ladies, which sent Anne into a rage. Instead of placating her as he had usually done, the King told her to take care. Julia Fox believes that Anne convinced Jane to help her try and get rid of this nameless woman by provoking a fight with the woman. Instead, Jane found herself banished from court for several months.

Here's where things get a little tricky. The party line over the centuries has been that George and Jane Boleyn had a horrible marriage. That she was jealous of his relationship with his sister Jane, and his attentions to among others Mark Smeaton. But is there any historical evidence that suggests that this was true? Julia Fox believes that while the marriage between George and Jane was arranged, as most marriages were, that it was entirely possible that they got along well together. The truth is there is no evidence either way apart from the fact that Jane was questioned closely by Cromwell.

Julia Fox contends in her biography that Cromwell already had all the ammunition that he needed to help the King achieve what he wanted, which was getting rid of Anne so that he could marry Jane Seymour. The lovely Jane, whose family was equally as ambitious as the Boleyns, had taken a leaf out of Anne's playbook and was refusing to give into the King without the benefit of a ring. Unlike Anne who was intelligent, vivacious, devoted to the new religious teachings, and used to getting her own way, Jane was quiet and serene. In a way, she was a throwback to Katherine of Aragon, the King's first wife.

Cromwell still questioned Jane thoroughly, about Anne's relationship with her brother who she had been accused of committing incest, but also in particular about whether or not Anne had said that the King was impotent. If the King was impotent, it raised questions about Princess Elizabeth's paternity, and the paternity of the babes that the Queen subsequently miscarried. What Anne apparently had said was that the King was slow to rise to the occasion, but that he was still capable. Anne's slip of the tongue was the last nail that Cromwell needed. Anne and her brother George were executed in May of 1537. The King remarried less than a month later.

Jane was now a widow who had to fight her own father-in-law to receive the money that was due her. The first inkling we have of her character is the letter that she wrote to Cromwell seeking his help to secure her jointure which was due to her. Her petition was successful and Thomas Boleyn was forced to pay her the 100 pounds a year that she was due. Shortly thereafter, Jane returned to court as part of Jane Seymour's ladies. The position was not as exalted as her previous one under Anne, but she was still part of the court. Despite what her personal feelings might of been, she served Jane well.

It was when Henry took his 5th wife, Catherine Howard, that things will belly up for Jane. Catherine and Jane had both been ladies to Anne of Cleves before Henry decided to divorce her because he found her unappealing. Jane had even testified that Anne and Henry had not consummated the marriage. Jane still had her position at court but Cromwell lost his. Historians still are divided as to what caused Cromwell's fall, but the marriage to Anne of Cleves was the final straw. Henry seemed to be just as capricious with his advisors as he was with his wives.

Catherine's days as Queen of England and Henry's wife were even shorter than her cousin Anne Boleyn. While Anne had kept the King on the hook for several years before marriage and the thousand days as his wife, Catherine lasted half as long. At first things seemed hunky dory, the King was besotted with his eighteen year old bride, he couldn't keep his hands off her even in public. Things looked good for the possiblity of a second son to secure the succession. While Katherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour had been serene, and Anne vivacious, Catherine was willful and a bit silly. Still she made her 49 year old groom who was now fat with ulcerated legs happy.

It came to light that Catherine may have been unchaste before her marriage to the King. The evidence piled up about Catherine's prior relationships with Francis Dereham and Henry Manox, the music tutor while Catherine lived in her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's home. Catherine had hoped to brazen it out, after all, this had all occured before her marriage to the King. She even tried to deny it, despite the testimony of several members of the Duchess's household and Dereham and Manox themselves.

But Jane knew better, because once the cat was out of the bag about Catherine's prior scandalous behavior, it was only a short amount of time before it came out about Catherine's infidelity after her marriage to the King, with one Thomas Culpepper and Jane's role in the affair. While the facts might be sketchy about Jane's role in the demise of her husband and sister-in-law, there is no doubt that Jane played a major role as a go-between in the affair with Thomas Culpepper. She even helped the Queen while the court was on royal progress search out places where the lovers could meet in secret and served as a look-out during their assignations.

Jane was arrested taken to the Tower of London where she appears to have had some kind of breakdown while being questioned by Cranmer about her role in the sordid affair. Then the blame game started. Catherine blamed Jane and insisted that Jane had encouraged the affair, that she would never have thought to have cheated on the King without Jane's interference. She also insisted that her relationship with Culpepper was innocent, that they never had carnal knowledge. While admitting her role in the affair, Jane insisted that for the hours that Catherine and Culpepper were together, and the Queen's behavior prior to her marriage, the idea that she was innocent was laughable. Even Culpepper blamed Jane for the affair.

Why did Jane do it? Why did she involve herself in the Queen's affair, after what had happened to her sister-in-law? Julia Fox writes in her biography that Jane couldn't refuse Catherine and that if she had gone to Henry, she would not have been believed. But Jane had other options, she could have retired from the court and not involved herself in the matter. Was it ambition? The idea that the Queen had chosen her to rely on?

In the end, both Jane and the Queen lost their lives. Jane was executed the day before Valentine's Day in 1542, almost six years after the death of her husband and sister-in-law. There is no word for word transcript of her final words before her death, she wasn't important enough for that, but Ottewell Johnson managed to reconstruct her final words. While not referring to the specific offenses that brought about her death, she admitted that she had committed sins against God and that she had offended the King. She was buried in the Tower of London alongside Catherine Howard and not far from Anne and George Boleyn.

Julia Fox's biography of Jane, while a remarkable portrait of the period, unfortunately leaves as many questions unanswered as answered. The reader is told constantly that Jane might have been at certain events or that she may have thought certain things, but there is no direct evidence. She does make a credible argument that Jane has been vilified to absolve both Henry VIII from the crime of possibly executing an innocent man and woman, and also to restore the reputation of Anne Boleyn.

The problem however with the biography is that Jane is still pretty much a cipher. Since she left no letters and she is little mentioned in histories until long after her death, there are very few contemporary chronicles that mention her accept in passing. The reader has no idea what she thought about Anne, or her husband, or indeed anything that went on. She is the perfect courtier, silent. Julia Fox gives credible reasons in her biography for why Jane never remarried, for why she returned to court. Having been at court since the age of 12, court life was all that Jane knew, a quiet life in the country away from the glitter and the glitz was not for her. Perhaps after a marriage that had raised her so high, (sister-in-law to the Queen of England) what could another man have offered her? However, it is all speculation.

It is for this reason that it has been so easy for novelists and historians to ascribe any number of motives to Jane Boleyn. Most recently in Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance, she is one of the three narrators, and its central villain. A villainess makes a much better story, than a woman caught up in circumstances beyond her control, who may or may not have loved her husband. Far easier to see her as a ruthless and ambitious woman, frustrated by a loveless marriage, and jealous of the attention given to her sister-in-law. The fictional Jane Boleyn seems to have lived a more exciting life than the actual woman.

The truth is that we will probably never know the real truth about Jane Boleyn. She is the woman in the shadows, observing, but never revealing.


Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford - Julia Fox


Heather Carroll said…
It would appear that the name of Boleyn curses people with ambition that makes them loose their head. I had no idea about Jane so this is really interesting to me! I know a few ppl I should recommend this book to (despite the gaps in info)
Anonymous said…
The Tudor dynasty is fascinating and by far my favorite though I have a soft spot for Henry and Elinor and their brood.

Jane is quite the enigma though.
I know and after reading Julia Fox's book, she's still an engima. Did she love George, like him? Julia Fox mentions that they corresponded while George was away on diplomatic missions, but that doesn't necessarily suggest a loving marriage. We don't even know if she mourned her husband.

Heather, the book is certainly worth it, if you want to know more than what you get in The Tudors on Showtime. And it certainly is a good summary of those years between Anne and Catherine Howard.
Kelly S. Bishop said…
I agree we'll probably never know for sure. But given her "pimping" behavior with Catherine, I'm not inclined to see her as a misused innocent in Anne & George's deaths.

To me this suggests a woman driven by ambition.

Kelly B.
MamaBlanks said…
I've seen this book at my library a couple of times and decided not to get it, but after reading this review I'll pick it up next time I'm there. I've been drawn to stories about the Tudors since I was a kid and I think the thing that kept me from wanting to read this book before is the awful depiction of Jane in the Phillippa Gregory books. I'd like to see a different view of her, even if most of it is speculation.
Even though I am a history major, I learned something I did not know. The only Boleyns that I was familiar with before were Anne and Mary.

Thank you for writing this article.

Kelly, I had a hard time with Jane Boleyn while reading Julia Fox's book. She makes a credible argument that for Jane to have willingly testified against George and Anne, that Thomas Boleyn would have been less inclined to give her the jointure that was due to her in her widowhood. But then she later turns around and helps Catherine cheat on her sovereign. It didn't make sense and unfortunately Julia Fox doesn't give a credible explanation for that turnaround, given the enormous risks that she was taking.
Jessica and Mamablanks, the book is worth reading if you are a history buff, and in particular if you are a fan of The Tudors. The book does a good job of giving you an idea of court life. My personal feeling is that Jane falls somewhere in between a villain and an unwitting accomplice.
mjcolado said…
It certainly looks like an interesting book, I had never heard of a Jane Boleyn. Let's see if I can find it here, in Spain...
The only thing that puts me off (perhaps it's just me, though) is the picture on the cover... I can't stop thinking "That's Jane Seymour!"
I know Marie Jose. Unfortunately there are no portraits of Jane Seymour, so the best the publisher could do was cut the head of another woman. I wasn't sure who that was without the head on the cover!

I hope you find the book in Spain!
Zenobia said…
I also read Julia Fox's book. I do not understand why Jane encouraged and helped sanction Catherine's Howard's affair with Thomas Culpepper. She was well aware of the price to be paid.

My big question about Jane remains: Did she really believe Anne and her husband, George committed incest?
Hi Hershey! Welcome to the blog. Its one of the great unknowables as to why she helped out Catherine, given what had happened with her husband. She must have known or sensed that Catherine had a past that might have come to light. The same thing with the incest charge. Personally I believe that the charge was baloney, used just in case the adultery charge didn't stick.
Heather Carroll said…
Haha yes, I just watch the Tudors on showtime for the eye-candy. I used to be really into Elizabeth and so I have a good amount of back knowledge on it, but I've been bad with keeping up! So I will probably have to add this to my never-ending queue
MamaBlanks said…
To the question of why she helped Catherine cheat on Henry: maybe she hated him after what he'd done to her husband and sister-in-law and took some joy in helping to cuckold him, in spite of the risks. After seeing the lengths he was willing to go to to dispose of his first two wives a thirst for revenge doesn't seem totally unbelievable.

It's also possible that she was genuinely fond of Catherine, who from what I've read was very young and immature, and sympathized with her dislike for the old, fat, gouty king. Enough sympathy to help commit adultery? I don't know...but I can't help looking for ways to make Jane more sympathetic.

What a great time period to read about, though.
Heather, I haven't watched The Tudors past the first 3 episodes because I was so pissed at what they did to Henry's sisters, turning them into one and then completely screwing up her story (I wrote two posts on Margaret and Mary Tudor).

Mamablanks, you bring up a good point that I haven't heard before, that Jane may have been pissed at Henry for murdering her husband. I can buy that reasoning but Catherine was such a bubblebrain, I suppose Jane probably thought better she get involved than some of the other women among Catherine's ladies. Still she had to have known the possibility that it could end badly and that it might cost her, her life. That I have a hard time with.
Zenobia said…
The Tudors butchered English History. Supposedly, Jane is mad at her husband for being the gay lover of Mark Smeaton (Anne Boleyn's musician and one of her accused lovers). She helps Cromwell with her testimony for this reason.
Instead of the truth, which was she had no choice but to answer Cromwell's questions which had more to do with whether or not Anne had said that Henry was impotent, and Anne's relationship with George.
Donna Maloy said…
Fascinating post, not only for the information about Jane but for the insight into the biographer's resources and thinking. I'm so glad I found this blog. Who doesn't love "scandalous women"?????
Welcome Donna! I'm glad that you found the blog. Yes, Jane Boleyn is a fascinating subject. I hope you return for more scandalous women. I have quite a few planned for the fall starting with an interview with Eleanor Herman, author of Mistress of the Vatican and continuing with Mata Hari.
scurvytime said…
Wowsers! Scandalous Women and a chance to win a book?!
Emily said…
I have been dying to read this Jane Boleyn book -- both books, actually. RR comes out next week -- YAY! So many great books, so little time. I actually have to read as part of my job, so it's like school again -- the have to read vs want to read. These are wants. Definitely wants!

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