Very few high profile women in Tudor England met their ends on the executioners scaffold. Countless common folk did of course die in times such as the Pilgrimage of Grace or the Marian prosecutions, but very few noblewomen would end their life with the swing of an axe. Compared to the hundreds of men who would lose their heads on the block, there are only six women throughout the entire Tudor dynasty who met the same fate - two Queen consorts - Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, two female sovereigns - Lady Jane Grey and Mary, Queen of Scots, and two noblewomen - Lady Margaret Pole and Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford. Of these six women, Jane Boleyn is perhaps the least well known, and even those who have heard of her often look upon her with a certain amount of disdain. To many she is the essence of a bitter and deceitful wife intent on bringing down her husband, who would in turn meet the same end as the man she had deliberately conspired to destroy. But how fair is the assessment? Was she truly the villain that we have been led to believe, or was she merely a victim of the high pressured machinations of the Tudor court?
Jane was born Lady Jane Parker in Norfolk around 1505. Her father, Henry Parker, 10th Baron Morley was a popular figure at the court of Henry VIII, and was seen by many as a man of considerably literary achievements, often being called in to translate foreign documents. Henry Parker and his wife Alice St John had three daughters who all survived into adulthood - Margaret, Jane and Alice. With no sons, it was crucial that he made good marriages for his daughters, and in Jane he certainly achieved that. By 1525, she was married to George Boleyn, brother of Anne Boleyn who would of course go on to become Henry VIII's second wife. Despite this event taking place seven years before Anne's own marriage, by this time she was already well established at court and the rise of the Boleyn's seemed meteoric. Even without Anne's impending ascension to the highest woman in the land, the marriage to George was still highly advantageous for the Parker family. George was the only surviving son of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Lady Elizabeth Howard, a sister of the countries premier noble - The Duke of Norfolk. As the son of an Earl, George was a Viscount in his own right, making Jane a Viscountess, which immediately meant she outranked both her mother and father. George and Jane were given Grimston Manor in Norfolk as a wedding present by the King, but soon upgraded to the Palace of Beaulieu in Essex as their chief residence. They decorated the palace lavishly, installing a tennis court, chapel and a bathroom with hot-and-cold running water - still something of a novelty in Tudor England. Jane's father and her husband (possibly) can be seen in drawings by Holbein below:
Their marriage has often been viewed as unhappy and at times violent, not helped by the highly inaccurate portrayal in the Showtime series "The Tudors" or the description of him by George Cavendish as having "lived an almost bestial existence, forcing widows and deflowering virgins". George's sexual appetite is often commented on, and more recently has included claims that he may have been homosexual (again not helped by "The Tudors"), but when one looks at it, there simply is no evidence to prove any of these points. It is said that he was a man of considerable good looks and immense social standing, but this doesn't mean that he was also a lothario or rapist. It would appear that their marriage was not exactly perfect, although how many actually are? One thing that is often commented on is the lack of any children despite their marriage lasting 11 years. In a time when securing the dynasty with healthy sons was the primary purpose of marriage amongst the nobility, this suggests to many that there was estrangement between the two, but perhaps George was incapable of having children? Despite the belief that he was sleeping with anything that walked, there was never any talk of illegitimate children begot by him, so maybe their lack of issue was a matter of inability over poor martial relations?
When Anne Boleyn became Queen in 1553, Jane herself became one of the most senior women in the country. As the sister-in-law of the Queen her position within the court was unassailable. Like so much with Jane Boleyn, it is often claimed that she had a poor relationship with Anne, but there simply is no evidence for this, at least at the start of Anne's reign. In 1534 Jane worked with Queen Anne to uncover an affair that it was suspected Henry VIII was having. To me this speaks volumes - Anne clearly felt of Jane as family, and trusted her enough to play a role in helping her uncover a problem in her marriage. This shows that there was a level of trust there. This was a moment for the "Boleyn women" to come together for the good of the family name, and Jane played her part. This of course did her no favours. When Henry VIII discovered what had happened he banished Jane from court and she would not return for several months. A drawing sometimes said to be of Jane can be soon below, alongside the famous NPG Portrait of Anne Boleyn.
Three years later, the rise of the Boleyn's would of course explode for all the wrong reasons. Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother George were arrested on charges of high treason, including the claim that they had indulged in an incestuous relationship. It is here that Jane's story, at least in the eyes of historians, begins to take a turn. Many believe that by this time Jane was jealous and bitter of George's good relationship with his sister the Queen, and that this drove her to conspire with the Boleyn enemies to help bring both her husband and the Queen down. Unfortunately there simply is no contemporary evidence to support this. During George's trial, Jane was never mentioned nor was she someone who gave testimony against him. It is generally accepted that she would have been interviewed about the conduct of her husband and sister-in-law, but it is impossible to verify what was said because no transcript of the interview survives. It is of course reasonable to assume that she may have sensed the way the wind was turning and chose to side with the Boleyn accusers, but equally if one takes a step back, you also have to consider what this would have meant for Jane. By now she had been a Boleyn by marriage for over a decade. In an age of absolute patriarchy her entire existence and position came from her marriage. Would she truly have plotted to bring down the man for whom her whole being and purpose at court rested on? Surely she would have been a supporter of the Boleyn faction, because she was one herself. If they fell, she fell with them.
The assertion that Jane hated her husband and conspired to bring him down did not come up until long after both their deaths. It began with the court writer George Wyatt, grandson of Sir Thomas Wyatt, a one time supposed lover of Anne Boleyn before her marriage to the King, who would be one of the seven men initially embroiled in her downfall - he would be one of the lucky two who managed to somehow evade execution. Wyatt described Jane as "a wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood,". Subsequent generations of historians also believed that Jane's testimony against her husband and sister-in-law in 1536 was motivated by spite, as opposed to any real conviction that they were indeed guilty. Again however there simply is no proof to back this up. Some have claimed that Jane had a deep-rooted hatred of Queen Anne, which sprang from jealousy at Anne's superior social skills and George's preference to spend time with his sister, but as evidenced by her assistance in a plot to uncover Henry VIII's adultery, there was clearly a strong and trustworthy relationship between the two women.
I think it likely that Jane was interviewed by Cromwell during his plans to bring down the Boleyn's, and that she may have cracked under the enormous pressure that was being placed upon her. It is probable that she said things during this time which may have been highly inconsequential, but were spun into a web which would end in Anne and George's destruction. Equally, here we also have to take a step back and take a more macro view. Whilst I don't believe she would have ever been tortured, it is possible that she was intimated enough by Cromwell and his henchmen into saying things that they could then pounce on. Either way, it would result in her husbands beheading, Queen Anne meeting the same fate and the utter destruction of the Boleyn's in Henry's court. With her husband gone, Jane no longer had her social standing and financial safety net. She was allowed to continue the use of her Viscountess title, but ultimately withdrew from court and waited for better times. She negotiated an annual income of £100 from her father-in-law, which despite being considerably less than she was used to certainly enabled her to remain a noblewoman of the Tudor court. Her absence from Henry's inner circle appears to have been short, as she was soon serving as a lady-in-waiting to Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife.
During Anne of Cleve's short-lived marriage to the King, Jane would provide a useful tool for Henry when she gave evidence that the Queen had confided in her that their marriage had not been consummated, giving Henry enough to be able to annul the marriage with relative ease. Jane was soon serving Henry's fifth Queen, the teenage Catherine Howard. Catherine was the first cousin of Queen Anne Boleyn, and as a pretty and charming young woman soon caught the eye of several male courtiers. It is here that Jane's story truly began to take a turn for the worst. Less than two years into the marriage rumours began to circulate that the Queen was conducting extramarital affairs. The two men accused with her were Francis Dereham - a childhood friend of the Queen and Thomas Culpepper, a groom of the stool to King Henry. Jane became embroiled in the scandal when it was suggested that she had been the architect of Queen Catherine's relations with Thomas Culpepper. It is believed that she helped smuggle Culpepper into the Queens chambers during the night. Soon the Queen and Jane were imprisoned and a lengthy interrogation process began. As a high born women Jane was not tortured, but perhaps under the staggering levels of pressure she suffered a full nervous breakdown. By 1542 she was pronounced insane. Her mental state actually blocked her from standing trial, but because the King was so determined to see her punished that he pushed through a change in law. Jane below can be seen on the left as depicted by Jessica Raine in "Wolf Hall" and Catherine Howard in as played by Angela Pleasence in "The Six Wives of Henry VIII
On February 13th 1542, Jane was beheaded in the precincts of the Tower of London. As the higher ranking of the two, even as traitors, Queen Catherine died first. Jane then followed her mistress and laid her head into the crevice of the block. Despite her nervous collapse, it is said that Jane was calm and dignified on the scaffold, admitting her guilt and asking for all those gathered to pray for her. The end was mercifully quick. She was beheaded with a single blow of the axe, although one can't help thinking that it must have been a most terrifying ordeal. Catherine Howard had died only moments earlier. Her blood must have littered the scaffold. Jane was buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Her remains were possibly unearthed during the reign of Queen Victoria, although this hasn't been proven beyond doubt. Most believe she was 36-37 at the time of her death.
Forever characterised as the pantomime villain who "got what she deserved", Jane is one of histories lesser known figures but who led an undeniably dramatic life. She has been vilified as a woman determined to bring her down husband. A woman so filled with jealously and hatred that she would happily play a role in destroying her in-laws. I am forced to conclude however that this view is simply not tenable. The evidence to back it up simply is not there. As I touched on earlier, Jane stood to lose EVERYTHING if the Boleyn's fell from favour. I can't help but think that in her heart of hearts she remained loyal to the Boleyn name, but equally did what she had to do save her own skin. Her downfall alongside Catherine Howard is harder to pin point. That she was involved is fairly cut and dry, but her motives are unknown. Was she a voyeur who lived vicariously through the young Queen and her lover, or was she simply following orders?
I think history has been rather unkind to Lady Rochford. Like anyone at the time, she did what she had to to survive. As I have touched on though, you can't help but imagine that initially she would have been horrified at the fall of the Boleyn's, given that she was one. On balance, was she a villain or a victim? I'd say the latter. I don't doubt that she wasn't perfect, but who actually is?