Revisiting Lady Rochford and Her Alleged Betrayal of Anne BoleynHistorians in the News
tags: British history, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Tudor England
In popular culture, Tudor noblewoman Jane Boleyn is often portrayed as a petty, jealous schemer who played a pivotal role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s six wives. According to historians and fiction writers alike, Jane (also known as Viscountess or Lady Rochford) provided damning testimony that sent her husband, George, and his sister Anne to the executioner’s block on charges of adultery and incest in May 1536.
This betrayal—supposedly motivated by her distaste for George and jealousy over his close relationship with Anne—has tainted Jane’s reputation for centuries, with one Elizabethan writer labeling her a “wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood,” who acted “more to be rid of him than of true ground against him.”
But more recent scholarship—most notably a 2007 biography by historian Julia Fox—has adopted a sympathetic attitude toward Jane, portraying her as a convenient scapegoat who enjoyed a congenial relationship with the Boleyn siblings and didn’t actually accuse them of any crimes. Now, a new book by historian Sylvia Barbara Soberton adds to the evidence in Jane’s favor, drawing on archival records to argue that Anne and her sister-in-law were closer than previously thought.
“It’s difficult to overturn the centuries-long opinion of Jane as an accuser of her own husband because it’s so deeply entrenched in popular imagination,” says Soberton, author of Ladies-in-Waiting: Women Who Served Anne Boleyn, which came out in June, and several other books on Tudor women. “[But] a lot of what we think we know about Jane Boleyn turns out to be a myth based on misinterpretation of the original source material.”
Soberton’s argument centers on a document from October 1535, when a French ambassador wrote of “a great troop of citizens’ wives and others, unknown to their husbands, [who] presented themselves” to Mary, Henry’s only surviving child from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, “weeping and crying that she was princess, notwithstanding all that had been done.” The ambassador continued, “Some of them, the chiefest, were placed in the Tower [of London], constantly persisting in their opinion.”
At the time, Henry and his daughter were locked in a battle of wills, with Mary refusing to acknowledge either the dissolution of her parents’ marriage or the king’s new status as head of the Church of England. A devout Catholic who disapproved of Henry’s break from Rome—a move prompted largely by the pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce from Catherine—Mary found herself disinherited from the line of succession upon the birth of Henry and Anne’s daughter, the future Elizabeth I, in 1533. Formerly known as Princess Mary, she was now simply Lady Mary.
The English people viewed Anne as a scandalous usurper of the rightful queen’s place. Even in 1535, more than two years into Anne’s tenure as queen, she remained deeply unpopular, in large part due to her harsh treatment of Catherine and Mary, who enjoyed widespread public support.
Critics of Jane often name her and Katherine Broughton, wife of Anne’s half-uncle William, as members of the group imprisoned for their public display in Mary’s favor. The claim was first made by Anne’s 19th-century biographer Paul Friedmann on the basis of a note in the margins of the ambassador’s account that mentions “Millor de Rochesfort et Millord de Guillaume” (French for “my Lord Rochford and my Lord William”).
Jane came from a Catholic family, while the Boleyns were strong proponents of religious reform. It’s possible, wrote Soberton for the On the Tudor Trail blog in 2012, that Jane and her relatives resented the religious upheaval prompted by Anne’s marriage to Henry. In addition to breaking from the Catholic Church, the king ordered the executions of two prominent, well-loved courtiers—Bishop John Fisher and philosopher Thomas More—who refused to accept England’s new status quo.
“Jane Boleyn’s part in this demonstration … is often interpreted as indicative of her adopting a position of hostility toward Anne Boleyn,” says Soberton. “If she demonstrated in favor of Lady Mary, it helps to explain why she testified against George and Anne Boleyn, and if she was imprisoned for it, it gives her revenge as a motive.”
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