The Boleyn Family: 10 Eye-Opening Non-Fiction Book Recommendations
The Boleyn family are one of the most interesting fascinating of the Tudor era, and today we’re going to look at some of the best non-fiction books written about them.
Anne Boleyn obviously leads the pack, being the subject of countless novels, TV shows, films and one incredibly catchy musical. But in recent years, her family members have really come out of the woodwork as well, starting with Mary Boleyn (i.e. The Other Boleyn Girl) and slowly expanding out to include George, his wife Jane, and their parents. Today I’ve rounded up some of the best non-fiction reads so that you can really get your fill of the infamous Boleyn family.
The Boleyn Family: a brief history
The head of the Boleyn family, Thomas, came from a wealthy family but didn’t have a long and noble heritage. However he was incredibly smart, very good at languages and a sharp courtier, and these skills, coupled with his ambition meant that he was on a high trajectory at Henry’s court. He also managed to bag himself an excellent wife – Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was one of the powerful Howard family (her brother was the Duke of Norfolk), and was lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York and Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth is a more shadowy figure than her more infamous daughters, but she was supposed to be a beautiful woman, and later rumours circulated that even she might have had an affair with Henry VIII (almost certainly not true).
Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn had several children, but only three of them survived childhood – Mary, Anne and George. Mary, like her mother, was reputed to be a great beauty, and supposedly had a fling with the French king while she was at his court, as well as later becoming the mistress of Henry VIII following her return to England.
Mary was married twice, first to William Carey who was good friends with the King, and with whom she had a daughter and a son (although it’s possible that the King had actually fathered one, if not both, of her children). A few years after her first husband died, Mary secretly married another William, a soldier and second son, and was banished from the court by her furious sister – Queen Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn needs no introduction, but you’re getting one anyway. Anne was very smart, very vivacious and bold. Educated in the Netherlands and France, on her return to England she and the son of the Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, secretly got engaged. Anne was banished when their relationship was discovered but when she was allowed to return to court she caught the eye instead of Henry Tudor.
When she refused to become his mistress (in the sexy sense of the word) she caused one huge turning point in history; in his desire to marry Anne and divorce Catherine, Henry broke from the church of Rome. Their relationship was tempestuous at best – after 3 years and no male heir, their marriage completely collapsed, ending with (spoiler alert) her execution.
The whole family obviously felt the impact of her fall, but none more so than her brother. George was the youngest of the siblings, and had a successful court career as a diplomat and friend to the King outside of his sister’s influence. He was intelligent, charming, and something of a womaniser, which can’t have thrilled his wife, Jane.
George Boleyn was arrested and executed just before his beloved sister: accused of incest and adultery with Anne, he really hammered the final nail in his coffin during his trial by reading out the one thing he was expressly told to “read silently”: namely a sentence that mocked the King’s potency. His fate sealed, he died at the hands of the executioner’s axe.
Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn lay low during the trials and executions of their children, and although Thomas did return to court in the following years, the Boleyn family – or what remained of it- remained quiet and crushed, with Mary Boleyn and her parents dying with little notice from the rest of the world. But what about George’s wife?
Jane Boleyn married George around 1524/25, and lived at court with the rest of the Boleyn family. She served five of Henry VIII’s six queens: Catherine of Aragon, her sister-in-law Anne, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. There is a lot of speculation around whether her marriage was happy, and what she was like as a person, which is hard to know because she features so little in the sources.
Jane managed to gain some success by getting back to court and becoming the favourite lady of the Queen Katherine Howard. However she too came to a sticky end when she helped Katherine in her affair with Thomas Culpepper, and was executed on the same day as the ill-fated fifth queen.
Non-Fiction books about the Boleyn Family (that I have read)
I’m going to start with the ones I have read and enjoyed, because that seems logical. These are specifically ones books about members of the Boleyn family, so I haven’t included ones that talk about Henry VIII’s wives or anything – though if that’s something you want to see, let me know!
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy – Eric Ives
This is probably *the* seminal book on Anne Boleyn, I would say. It will forever remind me of a holiday in France when I was 16, and this was the book I’d bought to take with me. It’s a chunky book, full of information, analysis and discussions.
I think the style of writing is more academic than some of the others here, but it’s still a good read, and it’s thorough. I particularly like the section of Anne’s queenship, which is sometimes skipped over, showing her influences and interest in art, fashion and religion and rounding her out as a character. It also provides lots of information about the Boleyn family as a whole, which provides lots of helpful context.
Find the book here
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn – Alison Weir
Although there has been plenty of books written about Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower takes the interesting approach of solely focusing on her fall, and the final days from arrest to execution. I think it’s a really approach to take, and I think Weir does well in zooming in on this short time span, and doesn’t rely on context to fill the space. There is obviously reference to events and contexts from before Anne’s arrest, but it serves a purpose. It also draws out the lives of the men who died alongside her, without shifting the focus off the queen herself.
Find the book on Alison Weir’s website
Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’ – Alison Weir
This is the first full-length biography of Mary Boleyn, as Weir explains, this book builds on the research done by Josephine Wilkinson. It’s a well-paced biography, with lots of detail, and although it’s been a while since I read it, I was satisfied with the amount of focus actually on Mary, rather than talking about Anne – a hard task when the sources around Mary are severely lacking!
Get hold of it here
Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford – Julia Fox
Fox’s book attempts to bring the much-maligned Jane out of the shadows, and restore her reputation a bit. I think this is a really enjoyable biography, and that Fox brings out a lot of interesting points about Jane and her life, and it is one I’ve read a couple of times.
However, there are some conclusions that seem to be drawn from what Fox wants to think, rather than from the sources – although the sources don’t really prove that Jane and George had the awful relationship that popular culture depicts, that doesn’t mean that we can assume they “snuggled” up together either. She is keen to emphasise that Jane had an important and relevant part of the story of the Boleyn family, which I think is really important for us to remember.
Overall though, worth a read, and an interesting slant on the lives of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard too.
Check the book out here
Here’s a weird little subsection labelled: books I have read, but I read them so long ago I can’t really remember them:
Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress – Josephine Wilkinson
A thin little volume about the life of Mary Boleyn – not a full biography, but might be an interesting introduction to her, especially if your only knowledge is based on The Other Boleyn Girl or The Tudors. I love both, but their accuracy isn’t always top notch, particularly about Mary.
Find out more about Mary here
Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen – Joanna Denny
A full-length biography of Anne Boleyn, with a focus on her intellectual interests and devout Reformist beliefs, and to restore some of her agency. It was actually the first biography I read about Anne Boleyn specifically, so it’s a shame I don’t remember more, but I do remember enjoying it and finding it very interesting, coming from a point of having very little knowledge of the time.
Check out Denny’s book here
Non-fiction books I’m planning to read
The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femme Fatales Who Changed English History – Elizabeth Norton
This sounds so fascinating and may or may not have found it’s way into my basket online while writing this post. Here, Norton tracks several generations of Boleyn women from the fourteenth century all the way to the end of the 16th, including Anne Boleyn, but also the aunts who helped send her to the block, Mary Boleyn’s daughter who fled England under Mary I, and Lettice Knollys who was rival to Elizabeth I herself.
Get hold of it here
Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn – Lauren Mackay
Mackay writes the story of Thomas and George, who are often side lined in the story of Anne Boleyn despite their importance to her rise, both politically and personally. She aims to look beyond the stereotypes of both men to reveal a truer portrait of both.
Find Lauren Mackay’s book here
George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat – Claire Ridgway and Clare Cherry
In this biography of George Boleyn, Ridgway and Cherry track his life, covering a huge range of topics including his diplomatic career, his poetry, his marriage to Jane and his personal religion and finishing with his ignoble end.
You can find the book here
Which of these have you read, and which others would you recommend?
If you want to find out more about the Boleyn family, check out these other posts on History Chatter or come and chat on Instagram!