Who is George Boleyn? A Guest Article by Clare Cherry

 

who-is-george-boleyn

George Boleyn’s legacy has been lost in the shadows of his famous female relations. In this guest post, author Clare Cherry explores how our perception of George Boleyn is altered by fiction and her surprising findings.

For centuries, George Boleyn has lived in the shadow of the Boleyn women. 

Although the Boleyns are one of the most controversial families in Tudor history, they are often overlooked due to  the all-encompassing legacies of Queen Anne Boleyn and the immortal Queen Elizabeth I. George’s sister, Mary Boleyn — the long-time mistress of her sister’s future husband Henry VIII — has recently emerged as the romantic heroine who outlived them all. George’s wife “that bawd” Jane Boleyn, who for centuries has been the Boleyn scapegoat, carries the burden of sending her husband and sister-in-law to the scaffold.

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Mary Boleyn

George’s women have always given us plenty to think about. But what of George? He was once a mere footnote, the wronged husband and victim in his sister’s downfall. Through the creation of fiction and television he is now risen as the abusive husband who drove his wife to plot against him in a desperate bid for freedom from an intolerable marriage.

Just who is George Boleyn? And how has history and fiction shaped our perceptions? When author Clare Cherry set out to research George, she was not expecting to find a wealth of information on this shadowy member of the Boleyn family. What she uncovered was a talented courtier, poet and religious reformist that deserves his own place in history. Clare describes her journey to us.

George Boleyn: Hidden in Time by Clare Cherry

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The Boleyn family coat of arms.

I’ve always wondered what the answers would be if the following was asked of people with an interest in Tudor history.

From what you have read about George Boleyn, either in fiction or non-fiction, how would you answer the following questions?

1.  What do you think George’s role was at court?
2.  What do you think his relationship with Henry was like?
3.  Do you think of him as being intelligent?
4   Do you think of him as weak?
5.  Do you think he was dominated by his father and/or uncle and/or Anne?
6.  Do you believe he had an unhappy marriage?
7.  Do you think he abused his wife?
8.  Do you believe he had homosexual/bisexual relationships?
9.  Do you believe Anne and George had an incestuous relationship?
10. Irrespective of the answer to 9, do you think he was responsible for his own downfall? If so, why?”

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Juno Temple as Jane Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl. Image: © Columbia Pictures.

I think the answers would be extremely diverse. Before researching George, and bearing in mind at that stage I had never read any historical fiction except The Other Boleyn Girl, my own response would have been:

1.  Courtier, but don’t know what he did precisely.
2.  Never really thought about it, although Henry chopped his head off so probably not that close!
3.  I believe so, but no idea why other than he was close to Anne.
4.  Never really thought about it.
5.  Ditto.
6.  Definitely. Jane was a vindictive shrew who gave evidence which brought him to his death.
7.  Never heard that before, so no. (This is a new allegation thanks to Weir and the Tudors).
8.  Don’t think so having never read it outside the pages of TOBG. (Warnicke remains a mystery to me).
9.  No.
10. Don’t think so.

These would have been rather vague answers. He is a minor figure in most works of non-fiction, save perhaps Eric Ives’ biography of Anne Boleyn. It’s not surprising that anyone who limits their reading to non-fiction doesn’t really give him a great deal of thought. He’s the brother accused of incest with Anne and he was beheaded for it. We may know a few vague facts about him being a recognised court poet and going on some embassies to France etc, but that’s about it really.

He is fleshed out far more in fiction which is, therefore, where we get most of our information about him. It’s that fiction which creates such diverse opinions of the man. A gay wife beater, a rapist, a fop, a liability to his family etc etc. Those who read fiction through to those who read a mixture of both fiction and non-fiction would be forgiven for answering:

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Henry VIII by Hans Holbein circa 1540 – four years after he executed George Boleyn.

1.  He was a courtier, but don’t know precisely what he did.
2.  He was Anne’s brother, so was probably friendly with Henry. Beyond that, not sure.
3.  Probably, but based on a number of depictions, not sure.
4.  Possibly.
5.  Probably.
6.  Definitely. Jane was a vindictive shrew who gave evidence which brought him to his death.
7.  Possibly.
8.  Possibly.
9   It’s possible, but probably not.
10. Possibly.

Again very vague answers, depending on what you’ve read. But even if you’ve read all works of both fiction and non-fiction which include references to George then the variances in depictions will leave you completely confused.

The only way to answer any of the above questions is to go back to basics (that is, the primary sources). In all of the non-fiction books about Anne Boleyn and/or the Tudors generally, George Boleyn hasn’t been the main focus of attention. He is, therefore, a figure in the background, and without researching him in any detail various assumptions are made about him. These vague assumptions follow through into fiction and become even more entrenched, as well as more exaggerated.

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Padraic Delaney portrayed George Boleyn in The Tudors © Showtime.

When I started researching George, I had intended writing a brief pamphlet for my own amusement. I really didn’t think there would be enough information to write a book. But there was ample information about him to write a book, and that shocked me due to how badly he has been overlooked. Obviously I was interested in him as a character to have started looking into his life in the first place, but my interest grew as my knowledge of him and admiration for him grew.

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The only image that remains of George Boleyn is his signature.

Claire Ridgway and I want to restore George Boleyn to his proper place in history and to do away with the assumptions many people have of him. If our book changes the answers to the above questions, then we will have helped give a much demonised and underrated historical figure the justice he deserves.

 


clare-cherryClare Cherry lives in Hampshire with her partner David. She works as a solicitor in Dorset, but has a passion for Tudor history and began researching the life of George Boleyn in 2006. She started corresponding with Claire Ridgway in late 2009, after meeting through The Anne Boleyn Files website, and the two Tudor enthusiasts became firm friends. Clare divides her time between the legal profession and researching Tudor history. Clare has written guest articles on George Boleyn for  The Anne Boleyn Files, Nerdalicious.com.au, and author Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn website.

george-boleyn-book-coverFor more information about George Boleyn and the book George Boleyn: Tudor Port, Courtier & Diplomat, see the George Boleyn book website.

Buy George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat (US)

Buy George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat (UK)

Olga Hughes

Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other pop culture news, including books, film, sci-fi and medieval history.

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