Today February 13 marks the anniversary of the executions of Katharine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII and Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford. While there is a great deal of sympathy for the death of young Katharine many persons feel that Jane Parker Boleyn's fate was just desserts for her villainous life. This makes it very challenging for any actress who portrays a character that is seen by the average audience member as the very embodiment of villainy. The question for an actress, particularly when in the performance arena of a renaissance festival where you have a great deal of intimate interactions with audience members is that you must be prepared to be called a lot of nasty names and to be told over and over again that you will lose your head and that you deserve it.
Who was Jane Parker Boleyn? Is she the consummate grasping villain who accused her husband and sister-in-law of incest and then acted as bawd to Katharine Howard's extramarital carrying on? As a renaissance festival actress it is necessary to do a lot of historical research trying to find out the historic person's entire life. You are also shaped by any theatrical scripts that may show bias towards what is the stereotypical perception of the historic person's motivations.
Yet today, let us reflect on the actual life of a woman who served five English queens, was a patron of scholars, suffered the devastating aftermath of being the widow of a man convicted of treason, and through fateful decisions ended up suffering a mental collapse and her own date with the executioner's axe.
No one knows when Jane Parker was born. This is true for most courtiers and their wives in the first half of the sixteenth century. It is speculated by Jane's biographer Julia Fox that Jane Parker was probably born around 1505. The Victorians who dug up the altar floor in the Chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula in 1877 believed that the skeleton they identified as being hers was around 40 years old at the time of death. Jane Parker was the daughter of a Baron. Henry Parker, Lord Morley was a member of the household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and acted as her cupbearer at the coronation feast of King Henry VIII. Lord Morley was educated at Oxford and was known for his intellectual abilities being used as a literary translator in Henry VIII's reign. Lord Morley also served as an ambassador being one of a party who delivered the Order of the Garter to the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.
Jane's mother, Alice St. John, was the daughter of Sir John St. John, a prosperous landowner in Bedfordshire. Jane had at least four siblings, Henry, Francis, Margaret and Elizabeth. Jane probably grew up in Great Hallingbury, located in Essex, although there were other manors in the family estate. The Morley family was buried in the local church, but their gravestones were removed in the 1870's during a renovation.
Jane Parker first appears in the court records as Mistress Parker in attendance upon Queen Katherine of Aragon at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Next she appears as one of the eight ladies in the famous Chateau Vert Masque on March 4, 1522. Playing the courtly virtues the ladies were a who's who of the prominent women of the early 1520's Henrican court. Mary Tudor Brandon, Dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk, Henry VIII's younger sister played Beauty. Gertrude Blount Courtenay, Countess of Devonshire played Honor. Mistress Browne was Bounty, Mistress Dannet was Mercy and we do not know the name of the lady who portrayed Pity. The final trio would be entwined together through family ties and history. Mary Boleyn Carey portrayed Kindness, Anne Boleyn was Perseverance and Jane Parker was Constancy.
In 1524 marriage negotiations began for Jane Parker to wed George Boleyn, the only surviving son and heir of Sir Thomas Boleyn. The Parkers and the Boleyns knew each other well. The legal contract was drawn up on October 4, 1524 which settled a widow's jointure on Jane of 100 marks (about 66 pounds) a year to be paid in the event that George died before Jane. Jane brought a marriage jointure, of 2000 marks (1300 pounds). King Henry VIII doubled Jane's widow's jointure to 200 marks, possibly as a wedding present. George and Jane were given the manors of Aylesbury, Bierton and West Laxham.
Jane's fortunes at court rose at the same time that her sister-in-law Anne's rise in King Henry VIII's favor. Her husband became a privy counselor and an ambassador. It is common to say in popular fictional portrayals that these positions were rewards for first Mary Boleyn becoming the King's mistress and then the King's love affair with Anne Boleyn. To state that without looking at the facts is to ignore that both George Boleyn and his father Thomas Boleyn had court careers that were respected long before the sisters became involved with the King. George was granted his father's secondary title of Viscount Rochford in 1529 when Thomas Boleyn was elevated to the Earldom of Wiltshire.
George and Jane did not have any surviving children and like many people of the sixteenth century there is nothing in the historical record about any births or miscarriages. There was a George Boleyn who became the Dean of Lichfield in the reign of Elizabeth I. A few have posited that he was either George and Jane's son or that the was the illegitimate son of George, but there is no evidence of either assertion.
We don't know what George and Jane's marriage was like. Unlike how he was portrayed in the Showtime series The Tudors, there is no evidence that George Boleyn was homosexual. Neither was he an arrogant fop as he was portrayed in the novels and play versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. It is possible that he was a womanizer but the evidence for that comes from sources who were enemies of the Boleyn family.
Jane Parker Boleyn, now Viscountess Rochford became a lady-in-waiting to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn. She participated in the coronation of Queen Anne and attended the coronation banquet and was probably in attendance at the birth of Princess Elizabeth. During this time period she also became the patroness of a scholar, William Foster.
In 1534, King Henry VIII banished Jane from court. Why? According to ambassadors' reports, Henry had shown interest in an unknown lady at court. Queen Anne used Jane to get rid of her so the king had her dismissed in the fall of 1534. We do not know how long she was kept from court, probably only a few months. In 1535 there was a large demonstration by a group of women at Greenwich Palace in favor of the demoted Princess Mary. Jane is listed as one of the participants in a marginal note of a contemporary account.
When Queen Anne was arrested one of the five men who would be condemned to death with her was her brother, George Boleyn. The interviews and interrogations do not survive, yet history has assumed that the incest charge came from Jane. It is also assumed that the accusation that Henry VIII suffered from impotency which George Boleyn read out loud during his trial was also information received from Jane. We just do not know as the records do not survive. Adding to the puzzle is that George Boleyn during his confinement in the Tower of London made a curious reference to his wife that was reported by Sir William Kingston, Lieutenant of the Tower of London. Unfortunately it was part of the Cotton Manuscripts heavily damaged in a fire, but the following excerpt in interesting.
"After your departing yesterday, Greneway gentleman usher came to me and...M Caro and....... Master Bryan commanded him in the King's name to my ...(Lord) Ratchfort for my lady his wife, and the message was now more...(to see)se how he did, and also she would humbly suit unto the King's Hy.....(highness) for her husband; and so he gave thanks."
There has been little known about Jane Parker Boleyn's life between the execution of her husband and her end on the scaffold in 1542. For filling in the gaps we should all be grateful to Jane's biographer, Julia Fox, as she uncovered the story of what happens to the wife after the husband is executed for treason.
Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford lost everything. As the wife of a convicted traitor all of her goods, down to her silk stockings were inventoried and forfeited to the crown. She was still entitled to her widow's jointure and to get it she had to legally battle her father-in-law Thomas Boleyn to receive its entirety. (side note: Thomas Boleyn also treated his own daughter, Mary Boleyn Carey in the same manner after the death of her first husband). For assistance Jane turned to Thomas Cromwell for help.
as a poor desolate widow without comfort, as to my special trust under God and my Prince, I have me most humbly recommended unto you; praying you, after your accustomed gentle manner to all them that be in such lamentable case as I am in, to be mean to the King's gracious Highness for me for such poor stuff and plate as my husband had, whom God pardon; that of his gracious and mere liberality I may have it to help my poor living, which to his Highness is nothing to be regarded, and to me should be a most high help and succor. And further more, where that the King's Highness and my Lord my father paid great sums of money for my Jointure to the Earl of Wiltshire to the sum of two thousand marks, and I not assured of no more during the said Earl's natural life than one hundred marks; which is very hard for me to shift the world with all. That you will so specially tender me in this behalf as to inform the King's highness of these promises, whereby I may the more tenderly be regarded of his gracious person, your World in this shall be to me a sure help: and God shall be to you therefore a sure reward, which doth promise good to them that doth help poor forsaken Widows. And both my prayer and service shall help to this during my natural life, as most bounden so to do, God my witness; whoever more preserve you.
Jane did receive her income eventually yet was involved in legal disputes with her father-in-law over property until his death in 1539.
Jane becomes an interesting figure as she becomes the only known wife of a convicted traitor to be received back in a position as a lady-in-waiting at court during the reign of King Henry VIII. Lady Rochford served Queen Jane Seymour receiving a New Year's gift from the Queen in 1537. Along with her father and her brother she participated in Queen Jane's funeral. She was appointed one of the ladies of the bedchamber to Queen Anna of Cleves and she gave testimony of Anna's alleged naivety in the matters of sex and signed the annulment papers as one of the official witnesses.
Why did Jane Parker Boleyn return to court? She could have settled in the country and lived very comfortably on her widow's income. To give an analogy to the 21st century it is like how a celebrity past their popularity tries to stay in the public eye by doing reality programs. The court was the Hollywood of its day. You strived to stay at the center of the cultural and political universe and it was very difficult to retire from that life.
At this point we enter Jane Parker Boleyn's most familiar role, that of bawd to Queen Katharine Howard. According to Jane's own interrogations she assisted Katharine in arranging her assignations with Thomas Culpepper on the northern progress of 1541. Once the arrests happened no one in that scandal behaved well. Francis Dereham, guilty only of being the Queen's lover before her marriage to the King accused Culpepper of taking his place after the marriage. Thomas Culpepper kept a letter from the Queen, the only letter that exists in Katharine Howard's handwriting. (note: recent biographers have questioned the authenticity of this letter) The letter implicated Lady Rochford. And during their interrogations they all blamed each other.
I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. The which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send one by him and in so doing I am as I said afore, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.
Yours as long as life endures, Katheryn
One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it."
We don't know why Jane helped Katharine Howard. It could have been as simple as obeying her Queen or pitying a young girl married to a man at least thirty years her senior who was suffering from a lot of health issues. However, Lady Rochford lost a potential protector when Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540. No one would save her. Then she lost her mind.
Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford was taken to the Tower of London in late November 1541. Three days later she "went mad," probably a mental collapse. She was removed from the Tower of London to the care of Sir John Russell and his wife, Anne. The King provided his own physicians to cure her of her affliction. Katharine and Jane were condemned without trial by an Act of Attainder passed in early February 1542 and signed with Henry VIII's dry stamp. Jane was returned to the Tower on February 9th, Katharine was sent from Syon Abbey to the Tower on February 10th. Otwell Johnson, who provides the only eyewitness account of the executions stated that she died well. There is no record of either Jane or Katharine's scaffold speeches. It is a myth that Jane confessed to falsely accusing Anne and George.
The French Ambassador writing in 1542 referred to her as that bawd, Lady Rochford. John Fox in a 1570's edition of his Acts and Monuments added a marginal note about Jane. Almost universally fictional portrayals are unsympathetic. In popular culture we like our historical fiction with easily identifiable heroes and villains.
On February 13th let us reflect on the life of a woman who was, the daughter of a Baron, who served five Queens of England, participated in the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the Chateau Vert Masque, Queen Anne Boleyn's coronation and Queen Jane Seymour's funeral. A woman who fought for her widow's rights and did her part loyally to assist her King in his quest for an annulment from Queen Anna of Cleves. Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford is a complex woman. She was in the end human.
Note: I originally wrote a version of this post in 2011 on my theatrical blog The Accidental Thespian. I am currently writing a paper for the Popular Cultural Association/American Cultural Association on how popular culture shapes opinion on Jane Boleyn and the challenges that actresses who have portrayed this woman at the Maryland Renaissance Festival face. It will be delivered at the national conference in early April 2015 and I will post the paper after it is delivered.
The following is a list of source material used to do the original research for the first version of this post in 2011.
The Rutland Papers
Letters of the Queens of England 1100-1547 edited by Anne Crawford
Original Letters Illustrative of English History; volume II edited by Henry Ellis
Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric W. Ives
Lady Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton
A Tudor Tragedy by Lacey Baldwin Smith
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Additional reading; Since I first researched this new scholarship has been published. I will be incorporating these sources in my final paper and analysis
Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne
George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway
The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway