George Boleyn’s Farewell

George Boleyn (played by Padriac Delany in
George Boleyn (played by Padriac Delany in “The Tudors”).

On the 17th of May 1536, George Boleyn and the other four men accused of adultery with the former Queen, Anne Boleyn, were beheaded. George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, and Sir Francis Weston were brought together to Tower Hill, to be executed.

“Henry had been so convinced that the public spectators would be gratified by the deaths of these traitors that he had ordered the scaffold to be built especially high so as to give everyone in the crowd a good view.” –Ridgway & Cherry.

Henry and the officials who were to be disappointed. In spite of Anne’s unpopularity, the people were not happy with the outcome of the trial. Many sensed something was amiss; not to mention that Lord Rochford and Norris were respected courtiers, and their charisma was well thought of when they saw them kneel down, putting their heads on the block, to meet their ends (especially George whose career as it has previously been discussed on this site, was remarkable –barely missing any council meetings and parliamentary sessions, and taking his job as an ambassador very seriously, not to mention that like his sister, he was a natural charmer).

Unlike Anne Boleyn who would die two days later, they died by the axe. Little is known about George’s speech but some of the people who knew him best wrote about it later, and accounts by those who remembered his speech recorded it decades later. Thomas Wyatt, one of men arrested with George Boleyn, got out free and years after his friend’s execution wrote a beautiful poem commemorating his death.

“Christian men, I was born under the law,
and I die under the law
for as much as it is the law which has condemned me.
Masters all, I have not come here to preach but to die
for I have deserved to die if I had twenty lives,
more shamefully that can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully.
I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly,  it were no pleasure to you to hear them,
nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all.
Therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me,
and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, the which I have been among,
take heed by me and beware of such a fall,
and I pray to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost
three persons and one God,
that my death may be an example unto you all.
And beware, trust not in the vanity of the world,
and especially in the flattering of the court.
And I cry God mercy, and ask all the world forgiveness of God.
And if I have offended any man that is here now,
either in thought, word or deed,  and if ye hear any such,
I pray you heartily in my behalf,
pray them to forgive me for God’s sake.
And yet, my masters all, I have one thing for to say to you:
Men do moon and say that I have been a setter forth of the Word of God, and one that have favored
the Gospel of Christ;
and because I would not that God’s word should be slandered by me,
I say unto you all, that if I had followed God’s word
in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power,
I had not come to this.
If I had, I had been a living man among you.
Therefore I pray you, masters all,
for God’s sake stick to the truth and follow it,
for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knoweth.” –George Boleyn’s execution speech according to the Chronicle of Calais.

Eustsace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador has him saying that he had been “contaminated” and had been “contaminating others with the new sects”. We don’t know if what Chapuys said was true because he wasn’t there but unlike what has been written about him, he was one of the most reliable foreign sources, and he did respect George on a level that he seldom had for any other English courtier, and his dispatches to the Emperor days later after Anne Boleyn’s execution demonstrates how he was capable of showing deep admiration for his enemies.

There is a reason why his speech was so impassioned and it was because as so many other men condemned to death, conscious that they were guilty or not guilty, they had to make their last moments on earth remarkable, worthy to be remembered. This was a highly religious era, and Henry had done something unprecedented, he had declared himself Head of the Church, his own church which made him in many of his people’s eyes, the representative of God on Earth. Which also made him infallible and those who opposed him were no longer committing acts of treason, but sins against God. It sounds far out but that is how it would have been viewed back then, especially by Henry (who being a deeply religious man, was convinced what his conscience and God’s will were one and the same).
In the view of Henry’s new Church –which the Boleyns had helped build when Anne encouraged Henry to read ‘forbidden’ books that gave him an alternative to waiting for a papal decision on his desired divorce with Katherine- George had not only committed treason against his sovereign, but against God as well. Therefore, before he put his head on the block, he addressed the crowds one more time and begged them to pray for him, to pray for his comrades, and although he didn’t ask for their forgiveness (perhaps a silent act of rebellion, knowing in his heart of hearts that he was innocent of the charges laid against him, and George being a highly religious man himself, could not admit to something he had not done, but the sins he spoke of –if Chapuys is to believed- could have been something else such as adultery with somebody else which might have hurt his wife, Jane Parker, or an arrogance that he had often been accused by his contemporary and later detractors) he went on to emphasize his religious and kingly devotion, ending his speech with “God Save the King.” The rest as they say is history.

“These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, y youth did them depart, And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
The Bell Tower showed me such a sight
That in my head sticks day and night. There I did learn out of a greater,
For all fair, glory, or might,
That yet, circa Regna tonat.”

Thomas Wyatt wrote this poem during his time in prison never forgetting this event and the people behind it.

Sources:

  • George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Claire Ridgway and Clare Cherry
  • On this day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
  • Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton
  • The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo
  • Inside the Tudor Court of Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writing of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys by Lauren Mackay
  • The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Claire Ridgway and Claire Cherry.

George Boleyn

An engrossing biography about the life of Anne Boleyn’s only brother, George Boleyn. A consummate courtier who was witty, bold and hardworking. The two Claires set the record clear on George as well as on his family, tracing back the origins of the Boleyn family and enlightening readers to the truth about his father (ambassador and courtier as George would become whose ideals influenced him and Anne) and his marriage. There’s a lot that we are yet to know of this period despite what pop history tells us, a lot of what we think we know of George comes from later centuries and negative propaganda started by his enemies and Catholic rebels during the Elizabethan regime. Others have come from much later like with Victorian historian Agnes Strickland. George Boleyn started his career early, and like his father he was not afraid to speak his mind (like with the king of France). But there is a difference between him and his sister who was also outspoken. He and Anne were good friends but were polar opposites when it came to their way of doing things. Anne was more hot tempered and wasn’t afraid to speak hard truths, while George was more diplomatic and like his father, a pragmatist and approached every situation with caution and -albeit false- courtesy. Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador had a good opinion of him and his father when he met them on his arrival to England. Even some of the Boleyn enemies, also remarked on how hardworking George Boleyn was.

On his missions abroad, his skill showed and the King trusted him for a reason: “Whether smugly self-satisfied with the result of the French mission or not, in reality, the small success George had achieved in France had no practical effect. Despite attempts to use Francis as a means of intimidation, the Pope remained unwavering. Irrespective of the Pope’s continuing refusal to relent, due to Anne’s pregnancy, and also to the intervention of Cranmer, matters that had taken six years to get to this point now started to move quickly. On 23 May 1533, Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine void, and five days later he declared the marriage of Henry and Anne to be valid, thereby stripping Catherine of her title as Queen. By having his marriage with Catherine declared void, Henry was in effect declaring his own daughter Mary a bastard, with no concern for her feelings or the feelings of her mother. As we have seen, it was also in May that Cranmer instigated the break with Rome, thereby making Henry head of the Church of England. The break would be completed by the Act of Supremacy in 1534. This was the beginning of the English Reformation, and the end of England as a Catholic country. Matters were now put in hand to have Anne crowned queen, and the date for her coronation was set for 1 June. 17 Unfortunately, having devoted much of his career to bringing it about, her brother was not able to attend his sister’s moment of glory. Less than two months after returning from France, George was sent back. In May 1533, accompanied his uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and a large contingency of courtiers so that they could both be present at the meeting scheduled between Francis and the Pope. 18 Henry had chosen a contingency of men who would be acceptable to Francis, and clearly George Boleyn was considered to be one of them, having spent considerable time with the French king on previous missions.

He never failed to attend one council meeting he was summoned to and was what we would call today a ‘workaholic’.

“In 1534, during the fifth session of Parliament, George’s attendance rate was prodigious, particularly bearing in mind the fact that he was on a diplomatic mission abroad for a total of two months, and was also Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports from June onwards. Despite these other onerous duties, he attended more sessions in Parliament than many other Lords Temporal. Out of the Lords Temporal attending Parliament, only the Earl of Arundel, the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Wiltshire, George’s father, attended more frequently than George: on 45, 44, and 42 occasions respectively, with George appearing 41 times. The average attendance was just 22 out of 46. George’s high attendance demonstrates hi commitment to his own career, as well to Reform and to his sister’s cause.”
“In 1534, during the fifth session of Parliament, George’s attendance rate was prodigious, particularly bearing in mind the fact that he was on a diplomatic mission abroad for a total of two months, and was also Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports from June onwards. Despite these other onerous duties, he attended more sessions in Parliament than many other Lords Temporal. Out of the Lords Temporal attending Parliament, only the Earl of Arundel, the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Wiltshire, George’s father, attended more frequently than George: on 45, 44, and 42 occasions respectively, with George appearing 41 times. The average attendance was just 22 out of 46. George’s high attendance demonstrates hi commitment to his own career, as well to Reform and to his sister’s cause.”

His relationship with his wife was one of the hardest to tackle for these authors but they did so in such a way that they didn’t put words in either of the subjects’ mouths like so many old historians have done. There is no evidence as the two point out that proves Jane hated George or vice-verce. Arranged marriages were nothing new and despite the Parker family’s sympathy for Mary Tudor and her mother, they knew that a union with the Boleyns was good for them. If George’s family prospered so would they. That’s how things were done back then and both lived and dealt in a world where this was the norm, neither of them as the authors point out, questioned this. The woman in question who denounced George and gave false evidence in his and his sister’s trial was never referred to as his wife, but merely a ‘lady’. It has recently pointed out this ‘lady’ was lady Worcester and she could’ve done it out of spite or under psychological duress like so many were put on during the interrogation.

In fiction she has been portrayed as a vicious, amoral woman but there is no evidence she and George hated each other or that she testified against him. Both her and George as they point out below, were products of their times: "George Boleyn mainly benefited from the offices and positions of trust and responsibility to which he was appointed and his wife's social position increased vicariously. She revolved in circles that would never have been open to her without the advantage of her marriage to a highly successful courtier. In addition to this, through that marriage, she was about to become sister-in-law to the King of England. Whether she was happy with this last honour is debatable. Jane Boleyn's court career blossomed following her husband's execution. She was prepared to continue in her role of lady-in-waiting to Henry's next wife, Jane Seymour, and she seems to have had a good relationship with the Princess Mary. Her ability to separate herself emotionally from her husband's death, and more importantly from the circumstances of her husband's death, may suggest that by 1536 the couple were not particularly close; or it could simply be Jane's survival instinct. Just as Thomas Boleyn climbed his way back into the King's favour after the executions of his children, Jane knew she had to dust herself off and move on. Jane's family were staunch Catholics, and supporters of Catherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary. There were many staunch Catholics in the country, and at court, who had been appalled at the religious changes being wrought on the country due to the King's infatuation with Anne Boleyn. Jane would have been doubly mortified due to her own husband's heavy involvement in the changes sweeping the country. She may have forgiven him for any infidelities; she may have forgiven him for his long absences; perhaps, however, she found his commitment to religious reform too much and it soured the marriage. However, there is no irrefutable evidence to confirm that it was the troubled marriage of fiction. *George and Jane were not twenty-first century sentimentalists; they were people of their time.*"
In fiction she has been portrayed as a vicious, amoral woman but there is no evidence she and George hated each other or that she testified against him. Both her and George as they point out below, were products of their times:
“George Boleyn mainly benefited from the offices and positions of trust and responsibility to which he was appointed and his wife’s social position increased vicariously. She revolved in circles that would never have been open to her without the advantage of her marriage to a highly successful courtier. In addition to this, through that marriage, she was about to become sister-in-law to the King of England. Whether she was happy with this last honour is debatable. Jane Boleyn’s court career blossomed following her husband’s execution. She was prepared to continue in her role of lady-in-waiting to Henry’s next wife, Jane Seymour, and she seems to have had a good relationship with the Princess Mary. Her ability to separate herself emotionally from her husband’s death, and more importantly from the circumstances of her husband’s death, may suggest that by 1536 the couple were not particularly close; or it could simply be Jane’s survival instinct. Just as Thomas Boleyn climbed his way back into the King’s favour after the executions of his children, Jane knew she had to dust herself off and move on. Jane’s family were staunch Catholics, and supporters of Catherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary. There were many staunch Catholics in the country, and at court, who had been appalled at the religious changes being wrought on the country due to the King’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn. Jane would have been doubly mortified due to her own husband’s heavy involvement in the changes sweeping the country. She may have forgiven him for any infidelities; she may have forgiven him for his long absences; perhaps, however, she found his commitment to religious reform too much and it soured the marriage. However, there is no irrefutable evidence to confirm that it was the troubled marriage of fiction. *George and Jane were not twenty-first century sentimentalists; they were people of their time.*”

Nor is there any evidence that he was a homosexual.

Mark Smeaton and George Boleyn were portrayed as lovers in the hit drama "the Tudors". The Tudors went with popular myth and with historian Warnicke. But reality is different.  "The ridiculous notion that she [Jane Parker] believed the allegations against her husband because she was aware that he was homosexual and that he also subjected her to "sexual practices that outraged her" 14 does not have a single scrap of evidence to support it. This idea relies on Cavendish's poetry, Metrical Visions, and George's own scaffold speech. Metrical Visions has George talk of his "unlawful lechery" and his "living bestial", and go on to say that "shame restrains me the plains to confess, / Least the abomination would all the world infect." 15 To suggest that George is talking about homosexuality here is to take these phrases totally out of context. When the whole verse is read, Cavendish is clearly speaking of the incest charge: "For which by the law, condemned am I doubtless". Cavendish's verses on Henry VIII talk of Henry's "unlawful lechery" and his verses on Thomas Culpeper, Catherine Howard's alleged lover, have Culpeper warning his fellow courtiers of their "bestiality". It is clear that Cavendish is talking not about homosexuality but about adultery. In his scaffold speech, George refers to himself as "a wretched sinner" and "a perverse sinner", but he is simply following the usual scaffold etiquette, accepting that he is a sinner deserving of death. It was considered honourable for the convicted man to accept death as he deserved."
Mark Smeaton and George Boleyn were portrayed as lovers in the hit drama “the Tudors”. The Tudors went with popular myth and with historian Warnicke. But reality is different.
“The ridiculous notion that she [Jane Parker] believed the allegations against her husband because she was aware that he was homosexual and that he also subjected her to “sexual practices that outraged her” 14 does not have a single scrap of evidence to support it. This idea relies on Cavendish’s poetry, Metrical Visions, and George’s own scaffold speech. Metrical Visions has George talk of his “unlawful lechery” and his “living bestial”, and go on to say that “shame restrains me the plains to confess, / Least the abomination would all the world infect.” 15 To suggest that George is talking about homosexuality here is to take these phrases totally out of context. When the whole verse is read, Cavendish is clearly speaking of the incest charge: “For which by the law, condemned am I doubtless”. Cavendish’s verses on Henry VIII talk of Henry’s “unlawful lechery” and his verses on Thomas Culpeper, Catherine Howard’s alleged lover, have Culpeper warning his fellow courtiers of their “bestiality”. It is clear that Cavendish is talking not about homosexuality but about adultery. In his scaffold speech, George refers to himself as “a wretched sinner” and “a perverse sinner”, but he is simply following the usual scaffold etiquette, accepting that he is a sinner deserving of death. It was considered honourable for the convicted man to accept death as he deserved.”
Finally, George’s last words and his image immortalized by his friend Thomas Wyatt is one that brings the reader to tears.

“There are a number of different versions of George’s speech, but they all agree on the basic content. Only Chapuys has George confessing that he deserved death for “having so contaminated and so contaminating others with the new sects”, and praying everyone to abandon such heresies. That is clearly not what he said, and is more a matter of wishful thinking by Chapuys. 2 After stepping on to the scaffold, George addressed the crowd: I was born under the law, and I die under the law, for as much as it is the law which has condemned me. According to two eyewitnesses, he said this three times, almost as if he were collecting his thoughts before continuing. But there was another reason. To say he died “under the law”, rather than admitting his guilt, was the closest he dared go to declaring his innocence. Therefore, he ensured the point was reiterated to the vast crowd of spectators, many of whom knew him personally. He went on to say that he was not there to preach a sermon but to die. He told the vast crowd that he deserved death because he was a wretched sinner who had grievously and often offended. He did not relate his sins, telling the crowd that they would derive no pleasure from hearing them, and that he would derive no pleasure from stating them. He merely said that God knew them all. He warned everyone present to use him as an example, especially his fellow courtiers. He warned them “not to trust in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flatterings of the Court, and the favour and treacheries of Fortune”, which he said raised men up only to “dash them again upon the ground”. He blamed fortune for his current pitiful condition – or rather, he blamed himself, saying he had leaned too heavily on fortune, “who hath proved herself fickle and false unto me”. He said he prayed for the mercy of God, and that he forgave all men. He begged forgiveness of God and of anyone he might have offended. He begged those present to ask anyone not there to forgive him if he had offended them, and he told them that “having lived the life of a sinner, I would fain die a Christian man.””