It is known that George Boleyn was a court poet. His earliest biographer, Edmond Bapst, considered George and Henry Howard to be the two gentlemen poets of Henry VIII’s court who were the harbingers of the English Renaissance. Yet none of George’s poetry survives. So how do we know about his penchant for poetry? One of the most convincing pieces of evidence comes in the form of a verse annexed to a selection of poems by George Gascoigne.
Chaucer by writing purchast fame, And Gower got a worthy name: Sweet Surrey suckt Parnassus springs, And Wiat wrote of wondrous things: Olde Rochford clambe the statelie throne Which Muses hold in Helicone Then thither let good Gascoigne go, For sure his verse deserveth so.
The writer of the verse, Richard Smith, was suggesting that Gascoigne’s poetry was good enough to rank with that of Chaucer, Gower, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt, and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Clearly, therefore, George’s contemporaries rated him alongside those men. The words relating to George are filled with particularly glowing praise. George Boleyn ‘claimed the stately throne which the Muses of Helicon held’. High praise indeed.
The Muses, in Greek mythology, were the nine daughters of Zeus who were the Goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science and the arts. They were the personification of knowledge and the arts, but more particularly literature, dance and music.
Mount Helicon, which is in the mountain region of Thespial in Boeotica, Greece, had two springs which were sacred to the Muses, and a temple can be found there which is dedicated to them.
Though none of George’s poetry survives, or at least none which can definitely be attributed to him, Richard Smith was writing in 1575, which means that forty-one years after George’s death his reputation as a poet of great merit survived Henry VIII’s purge of the name ‘Boleyn’. Gascoigne, Smith was declaring, would be considered honoured to be compared to the likes of George Boleyn.
This is, without doubt, the most persuasive primary source we have which tells us just how talented George was. But when he died in May 1536, not only as a convicted traitor but as a man found guilty of the depravity of having a sexual relationship with his own sister, his good name and reputation were stripped from him along with his poetry. The Earl of Surrey and Thomas Wyatt’s poetry survived. Therefore, their reputation as great poets has lasted to the present day, whereas George’s talent has been overlooked just as his reputation as a poet whose poetry compared to theirs has been forgotten.
But it’s through the likes of Richard Smith that, thankfully, Henry VIII failed in his bid to wipe the positive memories of George Boleyn off the face of England. He may have tried, but he was ultimately unsuccessful.
In Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies we have Cromwell suggesting that George only wrote poetry so that he could stick his cock in as many women as he could (Mantel’s obscenity, not mine). Richard Smith, and others like him, such as the court chronicler, Holinshed, who commented on George’s talent, make a mockery of Mantel’s fiction. All it took was for someone to take the trouble of finding the sources which remain to us, and George can once again be remembered as he should be, and not as fiction writers with grubby little minds would have us believe. Anne Boleyn, when arrested, wept for her ‘sweet brother’ and hypothesized that he would be in his prison cell writing ballads. She knew the truth of it.
I find it incredibly sad that we can’t say with certainty which poems belong to George. I suspect many of them were destroyed, or were simply not spoken of for fear of infuriating the King. But I also suspect that a number of his poems have survived and have simply been incorrectly attributed to other poets. One in particular, normally attributed to Thomas Wyatt, but attributed to George by John Harington writing in 1564, and Bale in Nugae Antiquae, is a poem entitled, The Lover Complaineth the Unkindness of his Love. I do like to think that George wrote it, primarily due to the particularly sad and almost prophetic final verse.
Now cease, my lute; this is the last Labour that thou and I shall waste, And ended is that we begun. Now is this song both sung and past: My lute be still, for I have done.
So when you read the poems of Henry Howard and Thomas Wyatt spare a thought for George Boleyn, because who knows, you may be reading something that tragic young man wrote.
The Lover Complaineth the Unkindness of His Love
My lewt, awake! Performe the laste! Labour that thow and I shall waste; And ende that I have nowe begunne: For when this song is sunge and past, My lewt be still, for I have done.
As to be heard where eare is none, As lead to grave in marble stone, My song may pearce her heart as sone: Shuld we then sighe, or singe, or mone? No, no, my lewte, for I have done.
The rockes do not so cruellye Repulsse the waves contynually, As she my sute and affection; So that I am past remedie, Whearby my lute and I have done.
Vengeance shall fall on thie disdaine That makest but game on earnest payne: Thinck not alone under the sonne, Unquyte to cause thie lovers playne, Althoughe my lute and I have done.
Perchaunce they lye withered and olde, The winter nightes that are so colde, Playninge in vayne unto the moone: Thie wishes then dare not be tolde, Care then whoe liste, for I have done.
And then may chaunce thee to repent The tyme that thow hast lost and spent, To cawse thie lovers sighe and swone; Then shalt thou know bewtie but lent, And wishe and want as I have done.
Now cease my lewte! This is the last Labour that thow and I shall waste, And endid is that we begunne; Now is this songe both sunge and past, My lewte be still, for I have done
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.