The Mythology of Jane Boleyn: What was Jane and Anne Boleyn’s Relationship Like?

Rochford may have forced Jane to submit to the kind of sex that outraged her. That would have been cause enough for her hatred. Some have said that Jane sought revenge on him after finding out that he had had gay sex with Mark Smeaton. But, if that was true, why incriminate his sister Anne? Unless, of course, Jane really believed that they were lovers. Given Rochford’s other proclivities, it was all too credible. Jane may have been jealous of Rochford’s close bond with Anne.1

Last year, the above press release for Alison Weir’s The Wicked Wife, a novella about Jane Boleyn, was featured on her publisher’s marketing website. It is a maladroit summary of all of the most salacious theories about Jane, peppered with cringingly inappropriate language and ideas throughout. It also demonstrates what the popular view of Jane is, the unshakeable ‘villain’ in Anne and George Boleyn’s story. It appeals in the same way celebrity tabloids appeal to people. They allow a sense of power, of moral superiority over the unfortunate subject of scandal, pleasure at wielding that power over one who usually ranks higher than you in the social sphere, and the inherent satisfaction some feel in the misfortune of others.

You may be fooled into thinking there is some sort of normalcy when it comes to the idea that Jane Boleyn was jealous of her husband’s relationship with his sister. After all, some people simply don’t get on with their partner’s family, and that is perfectly normal. However, it is not just suggested that Jane was jealous of Anne and George’s closeness. It is also suggested that it was Jane herself who gave an incriminating testimony that Anne and George Boleyn committed incest. Sometimes this is inferred gently, suggesting that it must have been Jane that gave the statement that George ‘had been once found a long time with [Anne]’, and probably under duress. But it is also, perhaps more often, insinuated that Jane was actually jealous of an imagined incestuous sexual relationship between her husband and sister-in-law, a woman she spent her formative years at court with, and who she called sister, as well as queen.

There are traditional, popular accounts used to support this myth. The first is the non-contemporary George Wyatt, who was born in 1553, and writing approximately in 1605. Wyatt wrote that Jane was ‘[George’s] wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his blood’ and that her execution was ‘just punishment by law after her naughtiness’.2Another popular ‘source’ is Gilbert Burnet, born in 1643, claiming that ‘[George’s] spiteful wife was jealous of him; and, being a woman of no sort of virtue, (as will appear afterwards by her serving Queen Katharine Howard in her beastly practices for which she was attainted and executed,) she carried many stories to the King, or some about him, to persuade, that there was a familiarity between the Queen and her brother, beyond what so near a relation could justify. All that could be said for it was only this; that he was once seen leaning upon her bed, which bred great suspicion.’3 Burnet had access to some sources lost to us now, so it has been suggested he also had access to a lost source in regards to Jane. However, as I have  discussed in detail, we have many fully reliable contemporary sources of Anne Boleyn’s fall, and Jane is not mentioned once. We already know there was no testimony, no witnesses at the trial, and due to absolute lack of evidence, I question if Jane was even interrogated at all. Burnet’s work cannot be claimed as a source, it is an artefact, a myth passed down over the century between Foxe’s 1576 edition of Acts and Monuments, in which, for the first time, it was claimed that ‘It is reported by some that this Lady Rochford forged a false letter against her husband and Queen Anne her sister, by which they were both cast away’, and Burnet’s account published in 1679.

Burnet’s account does demonstrate, however, how historical events, real and imagined, become embellished over time, and therefore, it remains a significant artefact in Jane’s historiography. All of the above accounts are, of course, informed by the knowledge of Jane’s execution for her role in the fall of Katherine Howard. Jane was caught up in two adultery scandals, indirectly, and directly, in the space of six years. Both Wyatt and Burnett, and subsequent writers, up until this day, demonstrate, in their accounts of Jane’s life, the moral superiority and power they feel over a fallen and disgraced dead woman. It should also be noted that Katherine Howard is one of history’s greatest examples of victim blaming, with almost all of the focus in her story on her alleged adultery, and very little on the fact that Henry VIII was a brutal wife murderer.

I have previously discussed the separation of Jane from her Boleyn family. This is done in two parts, firstly, by taking her Boleyn name from her. Jane is often called ‘Jane Parker’ her maiden name, rather than her married name, or title of Lady Rochford. She is even listed as Jane Parker in the index of Eric Ives’ biography of Anne Boleyn. And secondly, the idea of a rift between Jane and her Boleyn family is suggested, variously claiming that she was jealous of Anne and George, that she had an unhappy marriage, or that she was loyal to her birth family over her husband.

The best way to tackle this myth is to look at Jane’s relationships individually. This is not, in fact, a difficult or complex aspect of Jane’s life. This myth has been built up in secondary sources, which we have, and will continue to, discuss the ideology behind in this series. A look at the few primary sources we have on Jane, and the absence of any proper sources that support the mythology, reveal a far clearer picture of her relationships.

I am beginning with the relationship between Jane and Anne because misogyny plagues ideas about their relationship, and it is Jane’s and Anne’s relationship that often informs views of Jane’s marriage. The myth of Jane and Anne relies on the archetypes of female rivalry and the ‘woman scorned’. Therefore, it is important to establish that Jane and Anne appear to have had, based on these few primary sources, a close relationship, and that Jane’s alleged hatred of her sister is based on pure fiction. When we look at these primary sources we need to consider what happened, according to the source, when it happened, and in what environment it happened in.

There are three specific sources that give us an insight into Jane and Anne’s relationship. The value of these sources is that they are indirect, they have no interest in Jane and Anne’s relationship. The first is Chapuys’ account in 1534 of Jane being banished from court:

Of late days lord Rochford’s wife has been banished the Court because she had conspired with the Concubine to procure the withdrawal from Court of the young lady whom this king has been accustomed to serve, whose influence increases daily, while that of the Concubine diminishes, which has already abated a good deal of her insolence. The said young lady has of late sent to the Princess to tell her to be of good cheer, and that her troubles would sooner come to an end than she supposed, and that when the opportunity occurred she would show herself her true and devoted servant.4

Now, to look at what is most obvious about this account, it appears that Jane and Anne, together, contrived to have Henry’s new mistress removed from court. Whether it was at Anne’s behest or Jane’s suggestion we simply couldn’t speculate, but Chapuys indicates they conspired together. Jane started a quarrel with this mysterious woman, and was banished by Henry from court for her efforts. Chapuys also tells us two other things of great significance, that it was thought Anne’s influence was waning, and that this mistress wrote to Princess Mary telling her that her tribulations would shortly be over. In short, there was an opinion in some quarters that this mistress may supplant Anne. What is important to note here is that mistresses actually supplanting queens had never been the norm. It was Henry VIII who had created that environment when he abandoned his first wife. It is also significant that this was happening in October 1534, rather than 1535, because it is thought that Anne’s first possible miscarriage occurred in September of 1534.5 It is unclear what happened to this pregnancy. Chapuys mentioned ‘Anne Boleyn is now pregnant’ on the 28th of January 1534,6 then on the 27th of September, he made the odd remark that Henry had doubted whether Anne had been pregnant.

Since the King began to doubt whether his lady was enceinte or not, he has renewed and increased the love he formerly had for a very beautiful damsel of the Court; and because the said lady wished to drive her away, the King has been very angry, telling his said lady (dame) that she had good reason to be content with what he had done for her, which he would not do now if the thing were to begin, and that she should consider from what she had come, and several other things. To which it is not well to attach too much importance, considering the changeable character of the said King and the craft of the said lady, who knows well how to manage him.7

It is interesting that Chapuys doesn’t attach too much importance to Henry’s words here. I suggest they would have been of great consequence to Anne herself. What do these events mean in relation to Jane and Anne? We can surmise that in October of 1534, Anne was feeling increasingly vulnerable for two reasons, she had yet to give birth to a son, and her husband was parading his mistresses around the court. Moreover, there were whispers that the mistress would supplant Anne. So who did Anne turn to in this time of great insecurity? Her sister Jane.

When Anne had a miscarriage in January of 1536, ominously, on the day of Katherine of Aragon’s funeral, it was her sister Jane that she turned to again. This document, from March 1536, is infamous for its description of Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn as a ‘prostitute’, this single foolish sentence cementing her reputation for many years, before historians began to dispute it:

Francis said also that they are committing more follies than ever in England, and are saying and printing all the ill they can against the Pope and the Church; that “that woman” pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France “per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte.” (a great prostitute and infamous above all)8

I must note that I am using this document very cautiously, because it is unreliable, malicious gossip spread by men who had an interest in degrading Anne. Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, the Bishop of Faenza, wrote the letter, repeating gossip, and the slur against Mary, that he has supposedly heard from Francis I, whose court he was instilled in at the time. We know that Anne had a miscarriage in January, that is corroborated by other accounts. However, Mary wasn’t at court in 1536, she had been banished in 1534 after marrying William Stafford in secret, and arriving at court pregnant. If Anne was allowing no one but her sister to attend her, it must have been Jane. While we can’t be sure anything in the above account is reliable, it is reasonable to suggest that it had been heard in France, that in Anne’s grief, she allowed no one to attend her but her sister. Having that piece of information may have sparked the ludicrous gossip that Anne faked her pregnancy, as she could trust her sister to cover up the deception. So while I use this account with caution, if Anne had turned to Jane to comfort her in her grief, it again shows that the two women had a close relationship.

The final, and most infamous source I will discuss is the only mention of Jane at Anne and George Boleyn’s trial. The ever-reliable Chapuys wrote that Anne had confided to Jane that Henry was sexually inadequate:

I must not omit, that among other things charged against him as a crime was, that his sister had told his wife that the King nestoit habile en cas de soy copuler avec femme, et quil navoit ne vertu ne puissance.9 This he was not openly charged with, but it was shown him in writing, with a warning not to repeat it. But he immediately declared the matter, in great contempt of Cromwell and some others, saying he would not in this point arouse any suspicion which might prejudice the King’s issue.

I don’t need to go into great detail here. Most practical historians have seen this event for what it is, and those who seek to denigrate Jane tend to ignore it. But is is difficult to imagine that Anne would have confessed such an intimate and dangerous detail to someone she didn’t trust, or who was her supposed enemy. This account suggests that Anne had confided in Jane, and in turn, Jane had confided to her husband. Far from being jealous of Anne and George’s closeness, it appears that Jane was included in that closeness. This must have been confessed to Jane in a moment of serious concern, even fear, and Jane shared that concern with her husband. This simply doesn’t fit with the claims Jane was jealous of Anne and George’s closeness. And it was a secret that Anne told Jane first.

What can we surmise about Jane Boleyn’s relationship with her sister-in-law and queen, Anne Boleyn, from these three sources? We have, in all three instances, events where Anne was extremely vulnerable. In 1534 her pregnancy had just ended and Henry was parading around a new mistress. She turned to Jane. In 1536 she miscarried a son, who would have been her saviour. Again, she turned to Jane. And some time during these two years of desperately trying to conceive an heir, she confided in Jane that Henry was unable to perform well sexually, meaning it was very likely Anne thought she would not be able to fall pregnant with him again. These were dangerous words to utter. They would not have been relayed to an ‘enemy’. There is absolutely nothing in these sources that indicates Jane and Anne did not get along, what these sources demonstrate is that the two women had a close familial relationship. Based on the particular intimate problems she and Anne discussed, one cannot imagine otherwise. We will discuss, in time, how Jane’s behaviour after Anne and George’s death demonstrates she remained in permanent mourning until her own death. The only villain in Anne and George Boleyn’s story is King Henry VIII.


  1. J. Liddiard, ‘Lady Rochford, The Real ‘Wicked Wife’ by Alison Weir, H is for ‘History.
  2. G. Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey and Metrical Visions from the Original Autograph, (London: Chiswick, 1825.) 212.
  3. G. Burnet, The history of the reformation of the Church of England (London: W. Smith., 1841) 146.
  4. British History Online “Letters and Papers, Henry VIII”, British History Online, Vol 7 #1257
  5. L&P Vol 7 #1193.
  6. L&P Vol 7 #114.
  7. L&P Vol 7 #1193.
  8. L&P Vol 10 #450
  9. L&P Vol X #908. This is variously translated but essentially it means Henry could not sustain an erection during sex.