In defense of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wilshire, and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk

Fiction and popular culture try to make us believe that two iron-hearted villains – their relatives –used Mary and Anne Boleyn to elevate themselves at the court of King Henry VIII. Nonetheless, it is a product of fiction without credible historical evidence. First of all, there is no proof that Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wilshire and of Ormond, and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, schemed to make Mary Boleyn the mistress of Henry VIII and then to push Anne Boleyn to the lustful monarch, at first into Henry’s bed and then into his matrimony with Anne.

Possible depiction of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wilshire and of Ormond

Mary Boleyn seems to have had an affair with Henry after her return from France, but we have no idea when it exactly happened and how she caught the ruler’s eye. There were rumors that Mary’s children, born during her marriage to Sir William Carey, were royal bastards, but again there is no proof. We know that Thomas Boleyn and Mary were not close in 1528 because she had financial problems after her first husband’s death, and her father seems to have avoided helping her, so Henry interfered and aided Mary. We have no information about Norfolk’s role in Mary’s life at this point, and no proof of his fictional machinations to make his niece the king’s lover.

Thomas Boleyn meeting with his daughters, Anne and Mary, in France in the ShowTime’s series ‘The Tudors’

As for Anne Boleyn, the roles of her father and uncle in her romance with Henry VIII are shrouded in mystery. The monarch expressed a serious interest in Anne in about 1525, and by this time, Mary’s liaison with the Tudor ruler had already ended. The Showtime’s series “The Tudors” and some other movies depict the beginning of Anne’s relationship with King Henry as the result of her compliance with her father’s order to seduce the monarch and then reap the harvest for the family – the benefits from the king’s growing affection for her. This is a product of fiction.

Thomas Boleyn was probably against Anne’s marriage to His English Majesty. At least he did not plan for Anne to marry the king from the beginning. There was a calculation on his part to obtain privileges from the matter, but it was not the cold-blooded calculation of an egotistical father who did not care for his daughter and craved to selfishly use the monarch’s love for Anne for his self-advancement. The infamous Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote to Emperor Charles V in February 1533, before he had heard about the king’s wedding to Anne:

“I must add that the said Earl of Wiltshire [Thomas Boleyn] has never declared himself up to this moment; on the contrary, he has hitherto, as the Duke of Norfolk has frequently told me, tried to dissuade the king rather than otherwise from the marriage.”

Chapuys also wrote to his master:

“Shortly after the duke [Norfolk] began to excuse himself and say that he had not been either the originator or promoter of this second marriage, but, on the contrary, had always been opposed to it, and tried to dissuade the king therefrom. Had it not been for him and for the father of the Lady [Anne], who feigned to be attacked by frenzy to have the better means of opposing it, the marriage would have been secretly contracted a year ago; and for this opposition the Lady [Anne] had been exceedingly indignant with the one and the other.”

Thomas Boleyn with Queen Anne Boleyn in the ShowTime’s series ‘The Tudors’

Chapuys, who fiercely hated Anne Boleyn and her relatives, suggested in his letters to the emperor that Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Howard were not very fond of Anne’s union with the king. It is likely that Norfolk was against the marriage at least because he was a devout Catholic and did not like England’s break with the Catholic Church, although he did not voice his opinion in public. The Boleyns and Howards enjoyed the benefits from Mary and Anne’s relationships with the monarch, but there is no evidence that they schemed beforehand to set Mary and Anne in the king’s path – it just happened, so they took advantage of the opportunities presented.

There are no records that Thomas Boleyn tried to help his children after Anne and George had been arrested. However, we do not know for a certainty that he did nothing because even if he tried to defend his hapless offspring, it would have been ignored by Thomas Cromwell, or these records could have been lost over time. Maybe Boleyn chose not to interfere knowing that he could do nothing and preferred to save his own skin, because it was apparent that Anne and George were both doomed. Regardless of his role in their demise, Thomas paid for his sins. After his children’s deaths, he lost his influence and died in complete loneliness at Hever Castle on the 12th of March 1539. Thomas Boleyn outlived Anne and George by 2 years, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn née Howard, only by 1 year, for she had predeceased him on the 3rd of April 1538. Thomas was buried in St. Peter’s Church at Hever Castle, where his elaborate monumental brass survives.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, presided over Anne Boleyn’s trial and proclaimed her guilty while he is reported to have been weeping. We do not know whether Norfolk really wept or not, but it looks like he was relieved that Anne’s case was over – the sooner Anne was executed, the less danger to lose the monarch’s favor for the duke was. After the executions of Anne and her alleged lovers, he was clever enough to retire to his estates with the goal to wait for the end of the storm, until the events of the bloody May became somewhat paler in Henry’s memory.

In fact, the Duke of Norfolk did not lose royal favor and his power. He became Edward VI’s godfather in October 1537 and was a commissioner at Queen Jane’s funeral in November 1537. Later, after his niece and Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard, was executed, he was lucky to escape punishment. However, in 1546 he and his son – young Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – fell out of royal favor. The two men were both arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Surrey was executed on a charge of high treason, but Norfolk narrowly escaped his death only because Henry VIII died and was not able to sign his death warrant.

Portrait of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk by Hans Holbein the Younger

After Henry’s death, the Duke of Norfolk spent the years of Edward VI’s reign in the Tower. The boy-king had breathed his last, and he was released after the ascension of Queen Mary I of England in 1553. He got back not only his freedom, but also his titles and lands. Norfolk was sent to deal with the rebels led by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger. Norfolk died at one of his manors, at Kenninghall, on the 25th of August 1554 at the age of 80-81, before Mary’s coronation.

The Duke of Norfolk was born into one of the most high-ranking and powerful noble families in the English peerage. Being a prominent courtier at the court of Henry VIII even during Henry’s early reign, Norfolk occupied important government positions such as Lord High Admiral (1513-1525), Lord High Treasurer (1522-1546), and Earl Marshal (1533-1547), which he lost after his incarceration on the monarch’s orders. Later, Queen Mary I restored all of Norfolk’s noble titles, and she again made him Earl Marshal until his death. Norfolk’s aristocratic birth supplied him with endless opportunities of building a career at court, and the duke was so influential due to his talents in statecraft, his birth and his connections, and his schemes to please Henry VIII.

Monumental brass to Thomas Boleyn, St Peter’s Church, Hever Castle

At the same time, Thomas Boleyn belonged to a far less influential family. Born in about 1477 at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, Thomas was the son of Sir William Boleyn, who was a wealthy landowner, as well as High Sheriff in Kent and eastern England in the late 15th century. His paternal grandfather was Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, who had a humble background compared to that of his son and especially to that of the Howard family. Geoffrey Boleyn was a London merchant and served as Lord Mayor of London for quite some time; he acquired the manor of Blickling in Norfolk and Hever Castle in Kent in 1462, where Thomas Boleyn’s children were raised.

Thomas Boleyn was descended from King Edward I of England and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, on both paternal and maternal side. Thomas’ mother, Lady Margaret Butler, belonged to the senior line of Ormond of Irish nobles, which was descended from Emperor Charlemagne. Edward I was also a descendant of Charlemagne. There was royal blood in Thomas’ veins, but his background was still modest. Many English, French, and other European aristocrats, including the House of Howard, had such an impressive ancestry, but to be considered very prominent, one had to be born into the exclusively high-ranking family at the time of their birth.

Modern shows and movies try to make us believe that Thomas Boleyn received his positions thanks to using his daughters, Anne and Mary, as sort of prostitutes. However, it is a wrong, biased portrayal of their father. If we evaluate the life and career of Thomas Boleyn in the context of his role as a courtier, ambassador, special envoy, and Privy Councilor, we can arrive at the conclusion that Thomas made an illustrious career because of his many talents. Only later, he began to climb too high in the court’s universe because of Anne’s romance with the Tudor ruler. Clever and well-educated, Thomas understood the government machine well and spoke several languages.

In 1503, young Thomas Boleyn was part of the great escort of Princess Margaret Tudor north for her marriage to King James IV of Scotland. At the coronation of Henry VIII in 1509, Thomas was created a Knight of the Order of the Garter. His knowledge of foreign languages helped him obtain the position of the English ambassador to the Low Countries, where he developed good connections with the regent Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who took very young Anne into her household. Thanks to Boleyn’s foreign connections and his talents of a diplomat, Thomas served as the English ambassador to France in 1518-1521 at the court of King François I of France.

Henry VIII and François I’s meeting, the Field of the Cloth of Gold in Calais in 1520

In 1520, Boleyn participated in the arrangements for the Field of the Cloth of Gold – the extravagant meeting between Henry and François in Calais. Thomas acted as special envoy to Emperor Charles V in 1521 and 1523. Despite his successful diplomatic career spanning over 20 years, popular culture ignores Thomas Boleyn’s talents: his achievements are barely mentioned in movies and shows about Anne and the Tudors. His appointments to the influential positions of Comptroller of the Household, Treasurer of the Household, and Lord Privy Seal should not be forgotten. It is indeed true that Thomas obtained some of them and a lot of wealth thanks to Henry’s obsession with Anne and their marriage, but his own talents, skills, and accomplishments, which he displayed long before his daughters’ relationships with the king, should be remembered.

Despite being a Catholic, the Duke of Norfolk was one of Henry VIII’s men who suppressed the rebellion of Catholics in the north of England in 1536-1538 – the Pilgrimage of Grace. Later, when he assisted Mary Tudor in securing her throne, he planted the seeds of future alienation between his family and the Protestant royal line, represented by Queen Elizabeth I. Definitely, Norfolk was unimpressed by the new ideas of the reformers and always remained a Catholic, even though he did not voice a public protest against the Reformation in England.

In contrast to Norfolk, Thomas Boleyn was devoted to the religious reform and helped advance it in England through his diplomatic missions. For example, he could use his connections abroad to smuggle heretical literature to his home country. He could also keep in touch with French reformers. In her “Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen”, Joanna Denny write:

“Thomas Boleyn was a firm advocate of the “New Religion”. He imported dangerous tracts that could have led to his condemnation as a heretic, one of which he translated and dedicated to his daughter Anne. He commissioned works from Erasmus, who wrote a commentary for him on Psalm 23 and called him “egregie eruditus,” outstandingly learned.”

The Boleyns and Howards worked together as members of Private Council and courtiers, who were high in King Henry’s favor. Their true religious interests were different, although in public everyone supported the break with Rome because Henry expected that – his subjects had to support their liege lord, or lose their titles and lives. The Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Wiltshire cooperated as councilors because their interests coincided at some point in time, and because they needed to remain in the monarch’s favor, aiming to increase their power. People may set aside their differences in politics, and they do not have to be friends to work as effective allies.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville

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