Frocks and Shocks

Hilary Mantel

  • BuyJane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
    Phoenix, 398 pp, £9.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 7538 2386 6

You may fear, from the title of this book, that they’ve found yet another ‘Boleyn girl’. The subject of this biography has already been fearlessly minced into fiction by the energetic Philippa Gregory. But there is no sign so far that another inert and vacuous feature film will be clogging up the multiplexes. In reworkings of the Tudor soap opera, Jane Boleyn is more often known as Jane Rochford, wife of George Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne the queen. There are some lives we read backwards, from bloody exit to obscure entrance, and Jane’s is one of them. She was beheaded in 1542, with Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Catherine Howard. She was one of Catherine’s ladies, and for reasons which remain inaccessible to us, she had helped the dizzy little person carry on a love affair with a courtier, Thomas Culpepper. She passed on letters and misled and misdirected Catherine’s other attendants; while the lovers got down to business, she snoozed in a chair. Whatever emotion she felt when she found herself sentenced to death, it can’t have been surprise. Why did she do it? Stupidity? Perversity? For some voyeuristic thrill? Historians and novelists have enjoyed speculating.

Her black reputation dates from an earlier episode. When George Boleyn was executed in 1536 with his sister the queen, the allegations against him included incest with Anne, and his own wife is suspected of laying the accusation against him. Fox has set out to find the traces of Jane, and to see if her role can be reworked. Is she maligned, misunderstood? Biography must surely begin with an act of imagination. Julia Fox says: ‘I’m not sure quite how Jane Boleyn came into my life. She simply did. One moment I was considering a book on Henry VIII’s queens and the next those beguiling ladies were totally sidelined in favour of this woman, a pariah of Tudor history, whom no one had really considered before.’

Fox’s first chapter is carefully crafted around an absence of fact; she describes, in a generic way, the upbringing of a young gentlewoman with a future at the Tudor court. Born Jane Parker, around 1505, she grew up, probably, on her father’s estates in Essex. Jane’s mother was Alice St John, daughter of a Bedfordshire landowner. Her father was Henry, Lord Morley, the scholarly translator of Petrarch and Plutarch. David Starkey begins an essay on Lord Morley by wondering whether we should class him like Prufrock as an ‘attendant lord’: ‘one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/Advise the prince.’ Lord Morley never did become a royal adviser, which meant he was not in Henry’s firing line. But he was a loyal servant, impeccably connected, who always voted in Parliament the way the king would have wished and who was wheeled out to dignify state occasions. He gave his translations as New Year gifts to Henry, to the Princess Mary, to Thomas Cromwell. In religious matters he moved, like the king, from orthodoxy to an anti-papalist position, without departing from doctrinal conservatism. In 1537 he sent Cromwell copies of Machiavelli’s The History of Florence and The Prince, ‘to pass the time with all in the Italian tongue’. He asked Cromwell to show certain anti-clerical passages to the king: ‘In such places as the Author touches anything concerning the Bishop of Rome, I have noted it with a hand or words in the margin to the intent it should be in a readiness to you at all times in the reading.’ There is something of the wistful armchair traveller about Lord Morley, an Italophile who had never made it to Florence or Venice: ‘Your Lordship I have oftentimes heard you say has been conversant among them,’ he wrote to Cromwell. ‘Seen their factions and manners. And so was I never.’ But he had been abroad, serving as a diplomat in Germany. In 1523, when he was in his forties, Dürer made a beautiful portrait of him; he has a bad haircut and a lean, handsome face, sensitive, alert and still young.

There is no portrait of his daughter Jane. The beringed hands that decorate the book’s cover belong to Jane Seymour. No one seems to have noted what Jane looked like, or if they did no description survives. There is a drawing by Holbein labelled ‘Lady Parker’, and if this delicate wide-eyed child were really Jane, we would never entertain an evil thought about her. But it is almost certainly her brother’s wife, the heiress Grace Newport. How does a biographer work, without a single image to hold in mind? Fox’s imagination clings to a Holbein fashion sketch, featuring an unknown woman, ‘elegant, poised and animated. It is not Jane, but it is how she really was.’ To me, Holbein’s model looks bossy, sly and smug. That’s how far the eye of imagination gets you. Jane made her debut in the historical record in 1522, when she danced in a masque at York Place, Cardinal Wolsey’s London house. The ladies were dressed as Virtues. Jane Parker was Constancy. Mary Boleyn was Kindness. Her sister, Anne, was Perseverance. If the cardinal had known how persevering Anne Boleyn would prove, he would probably have stopped the show.

Jane married George Boleyn about 1525. There is no portrait of him either. But we know him as a clever, cultured young man, sympathetic like his sister to the evangelical cause and the vernacular Bible. He was said to be a womaniser, said to be proud. Like his father, Thomas Boleyn, he served Henry in France on many diplomatic missions. He and Jane spent long stretches apart. We have no idea whether they were happy. Their marriage seems to have produced no children. We can suppose that George was displeased to have no heir. On the other hand, it is possible that Jane’s childlessness made her a more restful companion for Anne Boleyn than her own fecund sister, Mary; Mary Boleyn was widowed in 1528, and the children born within her first marriage may or may not have been the king’s, but she was gloriously pregnant in 1534, when her sister threw her out of the court after her secret marriage to a Mr Nobody called William Stafford. Grumble all you like about the feminisation of history, at Henry’s court you can’t avoid it; the politics of sex and procreation dominate, so chatter of caudles and possets and babies’ caps drowns out the masculine drone of tunnage and poundage and signets and seals. We can assume that Jane was at Anne Boleyn’s side on the cross-Channel trip of 1532, when the English and French courts met, and when, detained in Calais by storms at sea, Anne eventually went to bed with Henry. Jane may have been with the queen when Elizabeth was born, and when she suffered two miscarriages, but we don’t know what Jane thought about any of it. There is a dubious story that has her involved in an incident in 1535, when a group of London women gathered outside the palace at Greenwich, hoping to see the princess Mary. Henry’s elder daughter had by this stage been barred from the succession and downgraded to ‘Lady Mary the king’s daughter’, and there was considerable sympathy for her among women in the country at large, as there was for her discarded mother, Katherine of Aragon. Fox discounts this story; why would Jane have acted against the interests of the family she had married into?

The Boleyn marriage was a good one for her. George ascended from royal page to gentleman of the privy chamber. He was one of Henry’s sporting set, a gambler, and like his father he became a rich and powerful man as a result of the sexual favours granted to the king by his two sisters and, if contemporary gossip is to be believed, by his mother before them; even the most fevered bodice-ripping novelist has trouble keeping up with what these people said and thought about each other. When Jane married him, her jointure was £1300, a very large sum to which the king contributed. Her settlement decided what Jane would receive should her husband die before her and was later to become the subject of interesting negotiations. Fox is thorough in her exploration of Jane’s financial position at every stage of her life. It is often the only clue as to her more general fortunes. The figures are there on paper; for the rest, it’s like chasing a ghost. Perhaps it’s Jane’s very centrality that reduces her to a vanishing dot on the page. She’s always where the action is, if never precisely part of it. No one writes to tell her what’s going on, because she already knows. She sees and hears everything, and keeps no diary.

In 1534 Jane crops up in the despatches of the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys. It seems that Henry has been paying attention to one of the court ladies, and Jane has joined her sister-in-law the queen in a plot to drive the young woman from court; the king has found out, he is displeased, and Jane is rusticated. It is understandable that Fox seizes on the ambassador’s remarks. No other source offers such personalities, such gossip. But how good was Chapuys’s information? He couldn’t even put a name to Henry’s passing love interest, and he was always looking hopefully for signs of cracks in the Boleyn marriage. The ambassador didn’t speak English, and the court was not so obliging as to tittle-tattle in Latin. Possibly the queen’s circle gossiped in French, but Chapuys had no entrée there.

If Jane did leave the court, we don’t know where she went or how long she was away. Inevitably, her story gets subsumed into Anne’s, which in turn is subsumed into the story of the break with Rome. Fox is inclined to make Henry’s state sound more despotic, more successful in its absolutism, than it really was. In the 1530s, she says, ‘Henry would not countenance rebellion, disobedience, protest or even the mildest and most tentative disagreement.’ No state, of course, will countenance rebellion, or it would soon cease to be a state. But there was plenty of protest and disagreement, and Henry and his advisers existed in a ferment of debate. Where did a king get his power from? What made the law into the law? Parliament frequently resisted and amended government bills, and in 1534 the government ‘lost’ a treason trial. William Tyndale had fled England to escape Thomas More and his heresy hunters, but Anne Boleyn put Tyndale’s work into Henry’s hands. Henry detested Luther, but listened to preachers who were near-Lutheran. He detested the notion of married priests, but his own Archbishop of Canterbury was married; either Henry knew this and tolerated it, or his system of surveillance was less efficient than is sometimes claimed. Perhaps Henry would have liked to be an autocrat. But he didn’t have the mechanisms of the modern state to help him achieve it. Determined, vigilant and ruthless as your advisers may be, you can’t have a police state till you’ve invented the police. If Henry had possessed the means to stifle dissent in the way Fox suggests, his reign would be much less interesting and easier to understand. She pays little attention to the international situation, though she tries to fill in the domestic one. Her difficulty is obvious. The larger the story becomes, the more Jane Boleyn dwindles and fades. But you can’t understand Henry’s fiercer proceedings unless you take on board the fact that he was under threat of excommunication, and that once outside the Christian community he was fair game for any assassin or claimant to the throne. At the time of which Fox is writing, the early 1530s, England was on the fringe of being an outlaw state, isolated in Europe. If this does not excuse internal repression, it explains it. It sprang from realpolitik, not from some personal pathology of the monarch.

By the spring of 1536, the best days of the Boleyns were behind them. There is no consensus among historians on how the plot to bring them down was orchestrated, or how far ahead and how tightly it was organised. Possible co-conspirators include Thomas Cromwell, the Seymour family, the conservative ‘Aragonese’ faction at court, Mary the ex-princess and Anne Boleyn’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Arrests took place in the first week of May: of Mark Smeaton, a court musician, and a number of gentlemen close to the king. George Boleyn was one of them. Along with the queen, the suspects were sent to the Tower, and a trial process set in motion. In the end, five men, including George, were charged with adultery with the queen. Smeaton confessed: possibly tortured, possibly just very scared and hoping for mercy. Like the other ladies around the queen, Jane was questioned by Thomas Cromwell. Her vilifiers believe that at this point she lodged an accusation of incest against George, in return for a promise of good treatment after his death. Is this likely? Fox points out how much Jane had to lose: status, wealth. If George were guilty of treason his estates and possessions would be forfeit. It is possible, of course, that something Jane said, unwittingly and without malice, provided ammunition against her husband. But to demonstrate her total innocence is hard. It is true that she wrote to her husband in the Tower, saying she would plead for him with the king. But she could hardly have been seen to do less, and there was no prospect of her meeting Henry face-to-face. Cromwell was turning away all petitioners, and letting Henry out only by night, to visit the incoming queen, Jane Seymour.

At the trial, George Boleyn was handed a piece of paper, and asked to answer yes or no to the question written on it. Defiantly, he read it aloud: had the queen told his wife, Jane, that Henry was useless in bed, that ‘le Roy n’estait habile en cas de soy copuler avec femme, et qu’il n’avait ni vertu ni puissance?’ George didn’t deny it, and the next question followed naturally: had he spread the rumour that Henry was not Elizabeth’s father? In Anne’s circle, gossip had become a fatal activity. Did Jane do more than pass on rumours? The records of George’s trial are patchy and dubious, but one source has him saying this: ‘On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgment.’

But the ‘one woman’ need not have been Jane. Other companions of Anne’s had given statements to Cromwell, and it seems one of them spoke from beyond the grave. Some years before she became queen, Anne had written a strange letter to Bridget, Lady Wingfield, who had grown up in Kent, a neighbour of the Boleyn family at Hever. It is impossible to work out the circumstances behind the letter, but Anne sounds like a woman trying to placate a possible blackmailer. What did Bridget Wingfield know about the queen’s early life? One of the witnesses to the trial believed that on her deathbed in 1534, Bridget Wingfield had made a dying declaration to clear her conscience of matters concerning the queen. Perhaps she was George’s ‘one woman’. Fox points out that Anne’s letter to Bridget Wingfield has ended up among Cromwell’s papers, and it would not be there if he had not thought it important.

In excusing Jane a role in her husband’s downfall, Fox is making her story less sensational, not more; it’s good history, but it gives her a problem in holding the general reader. Alternative theories about Anne’s downfall are mentioned in the notes, which are therefore more exciting than the text. Sometimes the reader is reminded of Wilde’s Miss Prism: ‘The chapter on the fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.’ The difficulty with Fox’s book is this: who is it for? She knows more about Jane Boleyn than anyone else. Her painstaking research would make a handsome academic paper. Her publisher has dressed it up as popular history, and she has provided the padding to go with it; but her credentials as a judicious and restrained historian make her unwilling to set out to entertain, and her uncertainty about who her reader is and what her reader wants makes her unwilling to air conflicting theories in the body of the book. The historian Retha Warnicke, author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, also finds Jane Rochford blameless, but her view of the last days of the Boleyns is quite different from Fox’s. She suggests that the foetus Anne miscarried in 1536 was deformed, and that this deformity, which became known, opened the queen and her circle to accusations of witchcraft. Witchcraft, Warnicke points out, was associated with deviant sexuality; she also believes that Mark Smeaton was George Boleyn’s lover. Warnicke’s arguments, though dense, are circular. It’s likely, though, the readers of Fox’s book would find them gruesomely fascinating.

After George’s death, his possessions were inventoried, and so were Jane’s. We can dress her, if not see her face: her satins, damasks and velvets are laid out for our inspection. The original document detailing her marriage settlement is lost but Fox has reconstructed it from other references, to see what she had to live on. It was a competence, no more; her father-in-law, Thomas Boleyn, didn’t exactly cheat Jane, but he was hardly helpful to her. He was hanging onto his assets as hard as he could; his family was disgraced, and he had lost his job as lord privy seal to Thomas Cromwell. Her father, Lord Morley, didn’t seem inclined to intervene. He was, though, always on excellent terms with Cromwell, and Jane now wrote to the minister. Her letter, Fox points out, might well have been written from a template. There is no evidence of a special deal. The minister helped her sort out her affairs, but that was part of his job. Thomas Boleyn was unwilling to part with land, but came up with some more money for her. It would take a private Act of Parliament to settle Jane’s entitlements, but eventually she would become a wealthy woman. In the meantime, she was soon back at court as a lady-in-waiting to Jane Seymour. We don’t know what she did during that queen’s short reign. Fox is reduced to: ‘With her weeping ladies clustered at her side, one of them almost certainly Jane, the queen had died.’

Along with the young Catherine Howard, the Duke of Norfolk’s niece, Jane then attended the fourth queen, Anne of Cleves. During Anne’s divorce, Jane was one of the ladies who gave testimony that, to the best of their belief, the marriage had not been consummated; their conversations with Anne suggested that not only was she still a virgin but she was a sexual innocent who saw nothing amiss with her situation. The fifth queen was far from innocent, in the sexual sense. A neglected little girl with no particular prospects, the tenth child of a Howard with no money, Catherine had grown up in the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, where after dark in the ‘maidens’ chamber’ young men brought in apples, strawberries and wine and lay on the beds with the young girls: ‘puffing and blowing’ followed. Catherine’s first lover was a music master called Henry Mannox, a charmer who would later boast: ‘I have had her by the cunt and know it amongst a hundred.’ She moved on to Francis Dereham, whose activities caused one of the other ‘maidens’, who must have been trying to get some sleep, to plead: ‘I pray you, Mr Dereham, lie still.’ Catherine is usually reckoned to have been about eighteen when she was married to the besotted Henry, though her recent biographer Joanna Denny thinks she may have been as young as 15. Henry was nearly fifty, obese, unpredictable, increasingly irrational. The marriage took place on the day of Cromwell’s execution. Fox says of Jane that ‘with the death of Cromwell, she had lost her protector’ – which is rather odd if there was no special relationship to be considered. Whatever drove the next part of Jane Boleyn’s career, it wasn’t the fact that she didn’t have a man around who would tell her what to do.

She had now amassed years of court experience. She had been caught up in one huge, death-dealing scandal. She knew of Henry’s emotional volatility. Yet she stepped straight out of the role of ‘attendant lady’ and onto the scaffold. Whatever possessed her, when the little queen fell in love with Henry’s favourite Tom Culpepper, to facilitate their meetings? Why did she spy and lie for the queen, help her seek out unlocked doors and backstairs when the court went on progress to the north? ‘Come when my lady Rochford is here,’ Catherine wrote to him, ‘for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment.’ Catherine wasn’t a good picker. Once she became queen, Dereham turned up at court and pressured her into taking him on as a secretary. Culpepper had a rape and a homicide in his past – the kinds of boyish prank you could get away with, if you were close to Henry. But he was handsome, and the queen’s feelings about him were easily apparent to one of her women, Margaret Morton, who ‘first suspected the queen at Hatfield when the queen looked out at her privy chamber window at Mr Culpepper’. We all know those looks. Catherine was a poor risk for this sort of game. Culpepper was a little thug to whom Jane owed nothing. So why did she risk her life for them? Again, Fox leaves discussion to the back of the book: ‘I think the most plausible explanation for Jane’s foolish behaviour is simply that she became involved because Catherine gave her a direct order.’ Warnicke suggests that Jane was ‘probably bribed’ and was ‘financially straitened’. Fox’s research strikes down this theory; Jane was her own woman, wealthy in her own right, in no financial need of a position at court. But then, Warnicke thinks that Catherine didn’t have an affair with Culpepper. While Jane dozed in the chair, they were just talking: Culpepper knew about the queen’s past, and she was stringing him along, hoping to placate him somehow, keep him quiet.

It’s good to remember, as every page of Tudor history is turned, the misogyny of the age, and the unconscious misogyny involved in repeating uncritically the age’s judgments. Jane’s villainy may come out of the same deep drawer as Anne Boleyn’s deformity – the extra finger, the one that no one saw during her lifetime. That said, it takes a great stretch of the feminist imagination to make Culpepper a blackmailer and not a lover, and Jane Boleyn a woman who was just obeying orders. Jane’s personality unravelled with Catherine Howard’s fortunes, and one historian, Lacey Baldwin Smith, thinks perhaps she was mad in a covert way all along; this theory has not found many takers. Still, for a short time, she acted suicidally. She was a woman in her mid-thirties, a courtier bred in the bone. She was familiar with the vicious faction-fighting of the court, and must have known that people hostile to the Howard family had an eye on Catherine. Eventual discovery was almost certain. While the court was in the north, the king’s councillors back in London were unravelling the queen’s past.

It was in the wake of her arrest that Jane ‘went mad’. It is the invaluable Chapuys who tells us so. She was released from the Tower, cosseted back to health in the custody of people she knew. Bringing into Parliament an Act of Attainder, which avoided the need for a public trial, Lord Chancellor Audley referred to ‘that bawd, the lady Jane Rochford’. She was returned to the Tower three days before her execution. In her speech from the scaffold, if the reports are to be believed, she was pious and conventional, as her husband had been when he faced the executioner. There was a set form for scaffold speeches. You acknowledged you had been convicted by the operation of the law. You praised the king for being merciful; after all, you could be dying a nastier death than by the axe. You didn’t have to say you were guilty, but you had to acknowledge that, in the eternal scheme of things, you were a great sinner and that you trusted to God’s mercy. Anne Boleyn died like that, as did her ‘lovers’. Thomas Cromwell died like that. If you tried anything else, possibly the shocked chroniclers would have taken the words out of your mouth, confiscated them, and replaced them with the usual formula. Your death, if not your life, should be edifying. Catherine Howard managed it, and so did Jane.

And how did Lord Morley mark the occasion? He made a translation from Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, and presented it to the king at New Year 1543. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, Lord Morley: another exquisite velvet-bound book. It contained the story of 46 female figures, some goddesses and others drawn from the Bible and classical history. In his essay on it, James Simpson detected an interpolation in Morley’s translation of the story of Polyxena, who was sacrificed by Pyrrhus at Troy to obtain a favourable wind for the home-bound Greeks. Departing from the original, Morley writes that it was ‘against all good order . . . that so sweet a maiden should be devoured by the hands of Pyrrhus for to satisfy for another woman’s offence’. Fox has looked again at the translation and found that Boccaccio’s original reference to the ‘throat’ of the sacrificed woman has been turned into ‘neck’. It can be taken as a reference to Jane, and Fox describes it as ‘a veiled obituary’, though calling Jane a ‘maiden’ seems to be stretching a point – unless Lord Morley was telling us a surprising truth about the Boleyn marriage. Most of the women in the stories come in for censure, as they did in the original. Europa, when she was raped by the bull, was asking for it; if she had been dutifully minding her flock, it wouldn’t have happened. Women have a propensity to disgrace their menfolk, and the only safe way is not even to look at them: ‘If then men were wise . . . they would look up with their eyes to heaven, or else shut them and look downwards to the earth; betwixt both is none too sure way.’

Catherine had blamed Jane for entangling her with Culpepper. Jane had blamed Catherine, saying she was only doing as the queen told her. The whole sad and sordid story is distinctively of its time and place. Fox’s publisher misrepresents her book by suggesting in the cover copy that Jane was ‘a rather modern woman’. Do they think we wouldn’t be interested, otherwise? The claim belies Fox’s careful method and the sincerity of her intentions. In the end, Jane, like many of her contemporaries, is hardly a fit subject for biography. Her inner life is lost to us. We know more about what she wore than what she thought. We know the company she kept. We know about her grim fate. We don’t know why she agreed to walk towards it. It’s no surprise that the era has generated so much fiction. If writers are driven, in part, by the frocks and the shocks, they may also be driven by a need to know, and if knowing is impossible, to imagine. It would be improper for a historian to do this, and Julia Fox has not. She has put the factual case for Jane as neatly as anyone could. There is still, though, a gap in our understanding. Too much has been erased. Whatever dangerous knowledge Jane Boleyn carried, it’s lost; whatever secrets she knew, she’s not going to tell us now.