Jane Boleyn was a bitch; or so history tells us. Centuries on she remains one of the most vilified figures in history; opinion of her can be pretty much summarised by Historian C Coote:
‘The infamous lady Rochford… justly deserved her fate for the concern which she had in bringing Anne Boleyn, as well as her own husband, to the block.’
Aww the days when historians could openly celebrate the brutal execution of people.
But Cootes opinion isn’t a one off. Jane is famed with bringing about the downfall and eventual execution of her husband George Boleyn and his sister, Anne Boleyn. Giving false evidence which led to Anne, George and 4 other courtiers execution.
Not only that! Just a few years later Jane would be embroiled in yet another royal scandal; aiding and abating the treasonous affair between Thomas Culpepper and Henry Vllls young wife, Katherine Howard. This was a scandal Jane couldn’t survive and she, Culpepper and Howard all met with the executioners axe.
It’s this picture of Jane as history’s favourite conniving bitch that lives on to this day. But that might not be the case for much longer. You see, the line between fact and fiction is starting to get less blurred and only now, centuries later, are we starting to discover who Jane really was.
Did Jane kill Anne Boleyn?
History tells us that Jane gave false evidence that sealed the fates of Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn and 4 other unfortunate courtiers. Jane told the court that Anne was having affairs all over the place…even with her brother; and these words effectively nailed down 6 people’s coffins.
Here’s the thing: the facts on this one are pretty bloody shaky at best; there’s little surviving evidence one way or another. Which makes working out if Jane did effectively kill 6 people detective work to the extreme.
Here’s what we know:
We know that several of Anne’s ladies were asked to give evidence in her trial. To refuse was not an option (unless you fancied joining the rest of your pals in the Tower of London) Jane was part of this number.
We also know that during the trial one of these ladies gave false evidence that Anne and George had a more than platonic relationship. But no name is given as to who this woman was.
In the account of Imperial Ambassador Chapuys, the only description of the woman is this:
Super helpful Chaps! But don’t worry, at his trial George Boleyn mentions the woman who sealed his fate, so maybe theres something useful there:
‘On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me’
‘Woman’ ….yeah not that helpful either George.
So, left without a name or a description, how the hell can we possibly work out who gave this evidence? Well we can hazard a guess at who would have been most likely to be privy to this kind of information!
On that level, it’s not looking great for Jane. As sister in law and confidant she would be best placed to hear of/witness an affair – but remember the evidence is false – so though her neck is quite literally on the line, would Jane lie to this extent when:
She has the most to lose
The families of people convicted of treason didn’t tend to live out the rest of their days skipping through a field of daisies. If you thought execution was a pretty nasty punishment, then the decades of shame, poverty and even prison that the families of the accused had in store was also pretty shitty.
With her husband and sister in law convicted of treason in such a scandalous way, Jane stood to lose a lot. The Boleyns high position of power, their titles and lands all disappeared overnight and as she and George hadn’t popped out a son she wasn’t entitled to his fortune. Jane did get to keep her title (Viscountess Rochford) but without a place at court, lands or a fortune it was kind of useless.
It should also be noted that when Jane wrote to George when he was awaiting his execution and his reply didn’t contain the words:
‘Fuck you bitch, I’m totally going to die because of you’
In fact his reply was nice, which suggests he didn’t blame Jane for his death. George’s Dad appears to have been in the same camp; arranging a yearly small pension for Jane.
Armed with this pension, Jane convinced Thomas Cromwell – the Kings right hand man and key player in the Boleyn downfall – to offer her financial and social support. With this in place, she returned to court and started to try and claw her way back into a good position.
Her hard work paid off and Jane served Jane Seymour until Seymours death and then her successor, Anne of Cleeves. She started to get back in Henry’s good book, performing a role in Seymours funeral and giving evidence to help Henry divorce Anne of Cleeves (because being nice to Henry Vlll involves a lot of deaths, wives and court proceedings.
But then all Janes hard work turned to shit.
Enter Katherine Howard!
As with the two previous Queens Jane served Henrys new young bride, Katherine Howard.
Jane quickly become Katherines confidant and soon the two women became embroiled in a secret so great that it would end both their lives.
Jane and Katherine worked together to hide the new Queens relationship with one Thomas Culpepper; a favourite of the King and Katherine’s cousin. with Jane acting as secret keeper and go between.
But the relationship didn’t stay in the shadows for long. Katherine and Culpepper were caught and accused of adultery. Soon they, along with Jane, were sent to the Tower of London to await their fate.
Hiding a Queens affair seems like a monumental fuck up on Janes part and hardly fits in with the behavior of someone trying to regain the Kings favour and move on from their scandalous past. But as with everything in this story – it’s not that simple!
To summarise: Katherine had a hidden past of sexual abuse; a past that would put her marriage at risk if Henry ever discovered it. It’s likely that Culpepper discovered this and was blackmailing Katherine (for sex, for power, etc.)
Culpepper was not a nice guy, he was a known rapist and murderer and volatile as fuck. So basically not someone you want to be around.
So maybe Jane got involved in the situation because she wanted to gain the trust of the new Queen, maybe she just felt bad and wanted to help, whatever it was that led her to make that choice; once Culpepper knew of Janes involvement it would have been near impossible for her to back out.
Personally I think this really puts pay to the picture of Jane as a master manipulator.
Jane entered an obviously dangerous situation, where the gains in no way outweighed the risks. Unless Jane just lived for the drama, it seems very unlikely that she got involved due to a machiavellian lust for power and more likely that she made one bad decision and the situation spiraled beyond anyone’s control.
Either way Jane ended up in The Tower of London facing execution and under this intense stress she had a severe mental breakdown.
Or did she? Because one theory that has followed Jane through history is this:
Jane Boleyn faked madness to avoid execution
This really fits the cunning bitch narrative, but yet again, is based around literally no evidence.
On that note, I’m just gonna say this:
If people in the 1500’s thought you needed mental health help…then yeah…you were probably having, by modern standards, a pretty gnarly breakdown.
Anyway…Jane was removed from the Tower of London and cared for by members of the court in their home.
However Henry wasn’t letting her off that easily! It was against the law at the time for a person suffering ‘madness’ to be executed. But that wasn’t going to stop Henry ‘I invented a religion for a divorce’ Vlll.
Henry Vlll changed the law just so Jane Boleyn could be executed – I mean, I guess you have to give Henry props for determination.
And so on 13th February 1542, Jane Boleyn was beheaded inside the Tower of London alongside Katherine Howard.
As with her life, Jane’s execution managed to create it’s own mythology, with Jane tearfully apologising for her role in the deaths of Anne and George Boleyn (she didn’t and yet again there is no evidence that she did)
Wow this was really interesting where can I find out more? I would suggest checking out Julia Foxes book ‘The True Story of The Infamous Lady Rochford.’ It’s a great deep dive and has a good pace.