It was in the fictional programme The Tudors that George Boleyn was first depicted as a rapist. He brutally raped his wife anally on their wedding night. In this same programme George was also depicted as being homosexual/bisexual. He did not wish to marry a woman, so took his frustrations out on his young wife.
Since then George has been depicted as a rapist in a number of historical fiction novels. Is there any evidence to suggest that these depictions are accurate?
It was Retha Warnicke in the 1980s who first came up with the theory that George Boleyn may have been homosexual. Her theory has been dismissed by other historians due to there being no evidence to substantiate it. The theory was based solely on hypothesis, and relied on:
– George’s scaffold speech in which he admitted to being a wretched sinner deserving of death. However, on the scaffold he was merely following the standard convention of those facing death by beheading, and there is nothing to suggest he was referring to homosexual activity/buggery.
– The fact that George lent/gave a book to Mark Smeaton which was a popular satire on marriage. Warnicke theorises they were lovers because of this whilst ignoring the fact that others, including Thomas Wyatt, also had possession of the book at some stage.
– A set of verses by George Cavendish (gentleman usher to Cardinal Wolsey), in which he talks of George’s ‘unlawful lechery’, which I will discuss later.
Although the theory of George Boleyn’s sexuality can be easily discounted, it has been used in various works of fiction and is sometimes taken as fact by people who don’t realise the weakness of the theory those depictions are based on. The same is true of George ‘the rapist’.
Returning to George Cavendish, Warnicke theorised he was referring to homosexual activity when he talked of George’s ‘unlawful lechery’. However, Cavendish also talks of Henry VIII’s unlawful lechery. He is clearly referring to adultery not buggery/homosexuality.
There is also a line in Cavendish’s poetry (Metrical Visions) where he talks of George ‘forcing widows’. Ironically, when discussing George’s sexuality Alison Weir dismissed Warnicke’s reliance on Cavendish but, following the release of The Tudors, Weir herself uses Cavendish’s verses when theorising that George may have committed buggery on women and ‘probably’ subjected his wife to unnatural sexual practices. Weir thinks Cavendish was suggesting that George was an habitual rapist by his use of this phrase.
Was Cavendish privy to information that no one else had? He would have had to have been if he intended those words as Weir believes he intended them.
Firstly, as with the theory of George’s sexuality, there is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that George Boleyn was a rapist, or indeed abusive to his wife. Secondly, are we really supposed to believe that the court knew George Boleyn was a rapist and/or had affairs with men, and the only way we know about that is through a few words in a poem which have been taken entirely out of context? George Boleyn was a powerful, high profile courtier. It is inconceivable to think that there would not have been more than a line in a poem if there was any truth in the theory that he was a multiple rapist.
Sadly, however, this theory has been taken up by historical fiction writers, who believe it adds a bit of spice to their narrative. It may well be on it’s way to being treated as fact in the same way as George’s sexuality, without people realising the weakness of the theory those depictions rely upon.
So let’s knock these depictions on the head and say once and for all that there is no evidence to support the idea that George Boleyn was a rapist. Respect the dead. Isn’t that what this is really about?
Respecting the dead isn’t limited to defending them against unsubstantiated theories as to a persons sexuality and allegations of rape. It goes far wider than that. We cannot possibly comprehend what it was like to live in the sixteenth century. Today, to the majority of us living in a free world, religious beliefs are a matter of choice. We will not be burned at the stake for following the wrong religion or for being an atheist. Though religious persecution still happens in various parts of the world it is not acceptable and nor is it condoned in a free society. To have your life governed by religion and/or the church is something few of us now experience.
So it is difficult for us to imagine how an innocent person could stand upon the scaffold and accept they were sinners worthy of death. That a belief in God can be so powerful the very fact of being found guilty, though innocent, means you must be worthy of death. That lack of understanding as to sixteenth century mentality has enabled fiction and non-fiction writers alike to misinterpret, whether deliberately or not, people’s words on the scaffold, giving an entirely different interpretation to the one intended.
Nowadays, we largely live in an elected democracy where no one in a free society is born to rule. Imagine living in a world where one man, or woman, had complete and unelected autocratic power. Imagine that person held your life in their hands, with total control over it. Image, despite the risks, a situation in which the only avenue to gain a decent career and any sort of power was to be in the employment of that person. For your career to depend of the vagaries of just one man. It’s a frightening thought.
Yet that was the world the Tudor courtiers, diplomats and politicians inhabited. It was also the world in which the bright, articulate, passionately religious, competent and charismatic Boleyns inhabited. They were ambitious, which was not a crime either then or now. They were consummate courtiers. They had to be in order to have any chance of a successful political career.
Anne and George Boleyn were brought up by their successful father to do as well in life as was humanly possible. Both excelled at the roles thrust upon them from an early age. All they knew from childhood was court life. All many courtiers knew was the cut and thrust of that environment. It was their lives; the only one most of them had ever known. It was also the only life/career Thomas Boleyn and Jane Boleyn had ever known.
In what we all know was a travesty of justice Jane Boleyn had her husband taken away from her when they were both about thirty-two years old. She never married again and wore black for the rest of her life, but she still went on to serve as lady-in-waiting to Henry’s later queens. How could she do that?
Thomas Boleyn lost his two charismatic children in 1536. How could he find his own daughter guilty of treason, by finding the commoners guilty of adultery with her, knowing she would die? How could he try to work his way back into favour knowing what the King had done to his children?
The answer is that Thomas and Jane did what many fathers, mothers, wives and children of convicted traitors did, including Francis Weston’s father. With their unquestioning loyality to God’s representative on earth, they got on with doing the the only thing they had ever done and the only thing they knew how to do. They got on with being loyal servants to the King and to resurrecting their shattered careers, whatever their personal feelings may have been.
Just as Anne and George Boleyn got on with dying, with as much dignity and honour as was humanly possible in the circumstances, so Jane and Thomas got on with living.
Can we really understand any of them? How could the innocent siblings stand an the scaffold and accept their futile, meaningless and undeserved deaths with such composure and humility? How could Jane and Thomas work their way back to court when the King had murdered their loved ones? Looking back from the relative safety of the twenty-first century, with it’s freedoms and choices, we have limited answers to those questions. We can perhaps answer in academic terms, but on a human level we find it hard to understand the mentality.
That makes us able to accuse Catherine of Aragon of lying, and putting her immortal soul in jeopardy, when she swore her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. It enables those who believe Anne Boleyn was guilty to dismiss the fact that she swore to her innocence before she died. It enables us to misinterpret scaffold speeches, and accuse people of rape without being able to appreciate or care about the deep distress that lack of respect and decency would cause to the accused. It enables us to judge peoples callousness because we have no conception of the world they lived in and had to navigate.
People in every generation are vastly different, not only our attitudes and beliefs, but our very characters and morality. To a large extent we adapt to the society we live in. The society we live in is vastly different to the one the Boleyns had to navigate. I have been guilty of judging both Jane and Thomas in the past, and I don’t pretend to understand either of them. How can I understand behaviour which is so alien to me? I admit I still find it difficult to condone Thomas for finding his own daughter guilty of treason. That’s something I will always find a challenge, but am I entitled to judge him?
The problem is that because we don’t understand these people, then it is difficult for us to empathise with them. So in turn we judge them.
We hear the phrase ‘they were people of their time’ so often. We are all people of our time. No doubt in another five-hundred years no one will be able to fathom us out either. Likewise we will be judged, and no doubt found wanting. We are all products of our time and within our own time we cope as best we can with whatever life throws at us.
What is it about human nature that makes us feel the need to judge anyone who has the audacity to cope well, just as the Boleyns did until they were brutally destroyed? Why not assess their characters based on the evidence available to us, having regard to the circumstances in which they lived, whether or not we can understand their behaviour with the passage of time? Isn’t that simply a matter of respecting the dead?
We all hope our memories will be respected when we die. We think we are owed an honest assessment. We think that’s what we deserve. We are right, because it is what everyone deserves, whether they have been dead five years or five-hundred years.
Clare Cherry lives in Hampshire with her partner David. She works as a solicitor in Dorset, but has a passion for Tudor history and began researching the life of George Boleyn in 2006. She started corresponding with Claire Ridgway in late 2009, after meeting through The Anne Boleyn Files website, and the two Tudor enthusiasts became firm friends. Clare divides her time between the legal profession and researching Tudor history. Clare has written guest articles on George Boleyn for The Anne Boleyn Files, Nerdalicious.com.au, and author Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn website.
George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway, 2014
George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King.
This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother. Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway chart his life from his spectacular rise in the 1520s to his dramatic fall and tragic end in 1536.