The story of Henry VIII and his six wives already reads like a melodrama: a mix of sex, love, death and betrayal. Throw the presence of Jane Boleyn in there and you’ve suddenly got a whole extra element of either the effect of one person’s choices, or something more mystical: a curse.
Jane’s not done well, in the history books. Born around 1505, she came to court in the 1510’s, attending the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 with Queen Catherine of Aragon, when she was young, and the royal couple had high expectations of a son and heir. She married George Boleyn, the only son and heir to Thomas Boleyn, and beloved brother of Anne in late 1524 or early 1525, and went on to serve the first five of Henry’s queens.
Although there must be plenty of courtiers who served two or more queens, few would have been so close to the throne as Jane, and very few for more than a couple of queens. Jane’s life is just an extraordinary as Henry’s wives, and although we know much less about her, opinion has not gone her way.
In literature, she’s often been portrayed as vital to the downfall of Queen Anne Boleyn and her brother; she’s frequently manipulative, sneaky, ranging from slightly perverse to voyeuristic. A lot of this can’t be verified; there simply isn’t enough in the sources about her. But if we look at her life, it’s easy to see why we – and perhaps people she knew, perhaps Jane herself – saw her as a bad omen for Henry’s queens.
Jane served Catherine for many years, but, after her marriage to George Boleyn, was always set on a course to abandon her royal mistress. Jane and George married at least a year or so before Henry fell for Anne, but seeing as her other sister-in-law, Mary, had already had some kind of affair with the king, it’s possible she was already putting family before queen.
When the break came, and Henry set up a rival court with Anne, and eventually dismissed Catherine from court, Jane of course stayed with Anne. And when the Princess Mary was disgraced, one of her lovely houses was actually given to Jane and George. So far, Jane is just pragmatic and inevitable rather than overly disloyal. But the fall of Queen Anne was to scupper Jane’s chance of escaping a vile reputation in history.
It’s uncertain what Anne and Jane’s relationship was like, or, for that matter, Jane and her husband. Jane’s relationships with Anne and George have usually been portrayed as as BAD: riven with jealousy, Jane hates both her husband, sister-in-law and the whole family. She is frequently shown as a toxic presence, often sexually voyeuristic – there seems to be the assumption that because in her statement to Cromwell she did allege incest between the two, that she took pleasure in spying on them.
Julia Fox, Jane’s biographer argues that the frequent portrayal of an unhappy relationship has no basis in fact, which is true, although her depiction of them “snuggling” up together is also stretching the sources, if in another direction. Despite years of marriage, Jane and George never had children, which probably put a strain on the relationship, but at the same time, Anne and Jane schemed together to get one of Henry’s mistresses banned from court. The plot failed, and Jane herself was banished from court for several months instead, but if Anne and Jane hated each other so much, it’s unlikely they’d have plotted together.
Whatever the truth of it – and it was probably far more emotionally complicated than historical sources would ever be able to show – when Anne and George fell, Jane did not. She co-operated with Thomas Cromwell’s investigations, giving a statement that said that not only had the two mocked the King, they were lovers. Jane’s statement is one of several that condemned the queen, but she is remembered for betraying her husband to the scaffold.
The Boleyns were disgraced, half of them were dead and the others not welcome at court. But Jane clearly knew where she needed to be, and worked hard at earning herself a place back at court. Her widow’s pension wouldn’t have paid out much, and all of George’s wealth and property was confiscated upon his arrest and execution. Court was a place of opportunity, and, perhaps as a reward for her help with the trial of the ex-queen, Jane Boleyn was brought back to serve wife number 3: Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour might have been beloved of Henry, and provided a son, but she didn’t last long. Her entire marriage was around 18 months, ending with her own death a few days after giving birth to Prince Edward. She hadn’t even been crowned. Jane Boleyn had nothing to do with Jane’s death, but it doesn’t come across that well when the third queen you’ve served has lost her life, especially when there have been accusations of lack of care for Queen Jane.
There was a long gap between Jane Seymour and Anna of Cleves, while first the King mourned, then he chose his new wife. We all know the story: unhappy with his German bride instantly, the King looked for ways to be rid of her. The truth to Henry’s claims that she was ugly, that he suspected she wasn’t a virgin, don’t matter here. Henry wanted Anna gone, and he wanted the pretty teenager Catherine Howard in her place.
Jane Boleyn was one of Anna’s ladies-in-waiting, and so ideally placed to help the men seeking to be rid of her. Once again, she found herself testifying against a Queen Anne: a mirror image that is irresistible for a novelist. This time, the end result was annulment, not execution, but Jane gave a sworn statement that Anna and Henry had never consummated their relationship, ensuring that another queen was pushed off her throne. Was she a curse, or actually an actively malevolent figure? It is her relationship with Catherine Howard that puts the final stamp on her reputation.
Catherine Howard’s date of birth isn’t known, and there’s a variety of guesses, but what is known is that she was very young, and definitely at least 20 or younger when she married the old, ill King. After a year or so of marriage (exact timings unknown), Catherine began a secret affair with handsome courtier Thomas Culpepper, aided by none other than Jane Boleyn.
Jane’s role in this, based on her own testimony and Catherine’s, was to act as logistics co-ordinator. She helped to sneak Culpepper in and out of Catherine’s chambers (including one memorable occasion where the couple met in Catherine’s toilet) and aided the young queen in keeping the affair secret from all of her other maids.
What was Jane’s motivation in enabling such a clearly foolhardy affair? Many have been offered: to get Catherine pregnant, because she wanted to keep Culpepper close, because she hated Catherine, because she liked to arrange sexual liaisons and spy on them. Perhaps, as Julia Fox suggests, she simply felt like she had no choice but to obey her royal mistress. We’ll never know. But aid and abet she did.
The affair between Catherine and Culpepper only came to light after some initial investigations into the queen’s sexual past, specially a relationship with a man called Francis Dereham from before she even came to court. Once the Archbishop Cranmer started digging though, the affair was revealed, and Jane Boleyn arrested alongside the queen, Culpepper and several other members of Catherine’s household.
Jane apparently promised Catherine that she would keep her secrets, but once she got into the Tower, she cracked. She told investigators everything she knew about the affair, pleading her own fear and obedience to the queen as mitigating factors. Catherine equally threw her lady-in-waiting to the wolves: confessing to the affair and blaming Jane for arranging everything. Two frightened women desperately fighting for their lives: both came away with a reputation for being a slut (Queen Catherine) or a bawd (Jane).
Catherine Howard, by now, no older than 21 years of age, was led out to die on 13 February 1542. Jane’s help had led her to commit a treasonous affair and Jane’s testimony helped to bring the axe down on the fifth of Henry’s wives.
Shortly after the axe fell on Catherine Howard’s neck, Jane Boleyn placed her head down on the very same block, wet and slippy with the girl’s blood. She’d have thrown her arms out to signify that she was ready to die, and down it came, ending her life.
Jane lived cheek to cheek with five queens who ultimately paid a cruel price for being married to Henry Tudor. Perhaps if wife number six hadn’t been the only one to survive, after Jane’s execution, the idea that she was some kind of bad omen wouldn’t persist.
Jane Boleyn was not a faithful lady-in-waiting. She gave testimony against three queens, statements that had a real, tangible impact upon their fates; testimony against her own husband; flip-flopped her service between rival queens. She was intimate with all five of them, or more intimate than most at court.
But we mustn’t forget that although Henry’s queens were particularly unlucky in some ways, in many ways it was a lot less to do with bad luck, and a lot more to do with political shifts, constitutional needs, and Henry’s own mood and emotions. Literature has been cruel to Jane’s memory, the circumstances of her life are both fascinating and an easy target for writing a villain. Courtiers lived in an intensely competitive and high risk atmosphere and had to make “bad” choices. Maybe Jane just made more conspicuous ones than most, and for that, she has paid the price.
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