The world continues to be obsessed with Anne Boleyn, nearly 500 years after her downfall and execution. Recently, her sister Mary has come to prominence, in large part because of Philippa Gregory’s hugely successful ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. Yet, relatively little is said or written about the sisters’ father, Thomas, or brother, George – even though the latter was executed the day before Anne, on the same trumped-up charges.
Through her new book, ‘Among the Wolves of Court’, historian Dr Lauren Mackay seeks to address this imbalance – and dispel some myths. A warm and engaging speaker, I thoroughly enjoyed her talk at Southwark Cathedral and cannot wait to read her book about “the two men so dear to my heart”. Below, I’m going to share some snippets, in the hope that you will be intrigued as I was.
Thomas and George Boleyn are frequently portrayed as ambitious predators: “Wolves of Court”. Thomas, in particular, has been described as thoughtless, greedy – and owing his professional success to the sexual prowess of the female members of his family, rather than his own talent. But did he really sacrifice Mary and Anne to the royal bedchamber for his own ambition?
The answer, as always with Tudor politics, is complicated – and it helps to understand the family’s background. The Boleyns had not always been wealthy & well-connected, we learned, and nor did they hail from Kent, despite their connections to Hever Castle. It was Thomas’s grandfather, Geoffrey, who brought success to the family and thanks to whom Thomas found himself rising up the ranks at a youthful Henry VIII’s court.
Indeed, the Boleyns were much in favour when Henry married Catherine of Aragon, with Thomas made Knight of the Bath in 1509. Thomas was chief mourner at the funeral of the couple’s baby son, Henry, and continued to prosper at court, accumulating lands and wealth. Together with the future Cardinal Wolsey, who was of a similar age and had a “brilliant” mind, Thomas became a protégé of Bishop Richard Fox.
Thomas’s career went from strength to strength and at one point he was based at the court of Margaret of Austria. An incredibly powerful woman, Margaret recognised Thomas’s talents and offered to make Anne her maid of honour – an offer accepted with alacrity by Thomas. Anne would spend a year with Margaret before moving to the French court to serve Mary Tudor.
By now, Thomas was reporting directly to Wolsey – and the two men enjoyed a cordial relationship (another myth dispelled) which would last until the latter’s death. Himself now based in France, Thomas acted as Wolsey’s right hand man and kept him well-supplied with useful information.
Success continued to come Thomas’s way. He developed a strong relationship with Louise of Savoy; he understood that she was the power behind the throne and she, in turn, held him in great affection. It was Louise who inspired ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ – and Thomas who organised many of that legendary event’s logistics.
Back in England, Thomas was appointed Treasurer of the Household and Henry continued to entrust him with diplomatic responsibilities. By the time Anne became queen, Thomas was 56 and Keeper of the Privy Seal, well-liked and respected by his son-in-law and a “cog in a well-oiled government machine”. He had developed a good working relationship with Henry’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, who was generous – for a while – to Thomas’s family and friends.
Cromwell, of course, played a key role in the downfall of Anne and George Boleyn. What must it have been like for Thomas, seeing two of his children accused of hideous crimes yet powerless to protect them? Because there would have been nothing, Dr Mackay argues, he could have done. It’s true that there is no record of Thomas speaking out – which many have interpreted as him being complicit in his son’s and daughter’s deaths. But how could he have complained without placing the rest of his family in jeopardy?
It’s interesting that Henry chose to keep his former son-in-law employed at court, showing no desire to persecute the older members of the Boleyn family. There was a heavy price to pay for Thomas, though: he had to attend the christening of Henry and Jane Seymour’s son, Edward – as well as the funeral of Jane, just a few days later. He also had to maintain civil relations with colleagues such as Cromwell, despite knowing full well that Cromwell was complicit in his children’s deaths.
According to Dr Mackay, Henry’s reaction to Thomas’s death in 1539 showed just how much he respected this senior Tudor. Ordering a public and expensive mass, the monarch was genuinely grief-stricken (difficult though that may be for us to understand). Unlike his wife, Elizabeth, Thomas was buried at a church in Hever; contrary to much of what has been written, there was no rift between the couple; it was traditional that the Howard women be buried in Lambeth, South London.
I’m so glad I went to this talk. Dr Lauren Mackay managed to persuade me that history has done Thomas and George Boleyn an injustice – and, although I still have many questions, I am confident that her book will answer these, as well as enlighten me in respect of many other areas of Tudor history.