Thursday, 25 July 2013

Katherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, and Sexual Violence

Top: Were Queen Katherine Howard (above) and her lady-in-waiting Lady Jane Boleyn victims of what we would now term sexual violence?

The mysterious relationship between Queen Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, formerly Viscountess Rochford, has long perplexed and confused modern historians. Both would die by the axe in February 1542 for committing treasonous acts against the state, after it was alleged by the Crown that Queen Katherine had committed adultery with Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of Henry VIII's privy chamber. She had apparently been aided and abetted by the experienced Lady Rochford, who acted personally for mysterious reasons which historians have been unable to trace. In my book, which will hopefully soon be published, I have found intriguing evidence to suggest that Queen Katherine was a victim of what would today be termed sexual violence during her childhood at the hands of Francis Dereham. Controversially, there might be evidence to indicate that her lady-in-waiting, Jane, suffered similar horrific experiences.

George Cavendish, who formerly served in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and who was thus admittedly hostile to the Boleyn family, provided disturbing evidence regarding Jane's husband, George Boleyn, who was executed for supposed incest with his sister Queen Anne. Cavendish's verses regarding George's vices read thus:

My lyfe not chast, my lyvyng bestyall,
I fforced wydowes, maydens I did deflower,
All was oon to me, I spared non at all
My appetit was all women to devoure
My study was bothe day and hower.
My onleafull lecherey, howe I myght it fulfill
Sparyng no woman to have on hyr my wyll.

Modern historians such as Retha M. Warnicke and Alison Weir have interpreted Cavendish's hostile verses to mean that George committed not only rape and buggery but also sodomy, sparing neither men or women in his pursuit of sexual gratification. Personally, I am sceptical - of course, it is possible that George did enjoy homosexual sexual intercourse alongside heterosexual sex, which could explain Cavendish's references to his 'onleafull lecherey' and 'all was oon to me'. However, I believe that the verses are intentioned to relate to how no women were spared from Rochford's licentiousness: 'I spared non at all, My appetit was all women to devoure', 'sparyng no woman'. Perhaps these verses have been misinterpreted. Rather than emphasising 'unnatural' homosexual 'perversions', Cavendish seeks to describe in horror and revulsion George's sexual violence, not stopping even at rape, using force on women to pursue sexual pleasure.

Of course, we cannot know if this relates to Jane, George's wife. Historians have traditionally believed that the marriage was singularly unhappy, perhaps even a catastrophic failure. They suggest that Jane as an earnest supporter of Queen Katherine of Aragon was resentful or jealous of Anne, George's glamorous elder sister, and it also seems likely that Jane's traditional Catholic religion led her to be hostile of the reformist Boleyns, who were identified by their enemies as Lutherans. In 1536, the Boleyn family spectacularly fell from power, as the Queen and her brother alongside four other gentlemen were accused, condemned and executed for sexual perversions, including adultery and incest. While Jane Rochford probably did not supply the crucial evidence for her husband's incestuous relations with his sister, as was traditionally believed by historians, she does appear to have assisted the Crown's case, detailing how Queen Anne had confided in her that her husband, Henry VIII, was impotent and unable to father a son on her.

It is also unlikely that Lady Rochford was assisted by Cromwell, or rewarded for providing evidence. As Warnicke notes: '... her status as his wife did not exempt her from revealing information about his treasonable activities.... she seems not to have made any deal with the crown in exchange for her testimony'. In a letter to Cromwell, she beseeched God to pardon George. But, interestingly: 'Had Rochford's attentions to other women been the cause, her contemporaries would have viewed her behaviour as a grave over-reaction because of the prevailing double standard that condoned a husband's extra-marital liaisons. Given this custom, she must have been greatly provoked to condemn him'.

Rather than believing, as Warnicke and Weir do, that Lady Rochford moved against her husband because she was revolted at his homosexual relations with other men, I believe that Cavendish's verses may insightfully supply intriguing evidence as to Lady Rochford's decision to provide assistance. If George had sexually assaulted her, or forced her to undergo sexual intercourse, she could have been personally affronted, even horrified. While women were identified as licentious, even evil in their carnal appetites, rape was to become a capital offence and during Elizabeth's reign was to become punishable by the death penalty. If Lady Rochford had been violently forced by her husband to have sex, perhaps even raped, it could explain, rather than his supposed homosexuality, her revulsion towards him and why she decided to assist Cromwell.

On a different note, there is tantalising evidence to suggest that her future queen, Katherine Howard, also endured sexual violence at the hands of Francis Dereham, who resided in the household of her step-grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Aged around fourteen when Dereham began pursuing her, Katherine later emphasised his use of 'force' and his 'vicious purpose', while her statement that he used her 'as a man doth his wife' could imply that he was violent towards her, for wife-beating was a serious problem particularly in London during this period. A more detailed explanation and interpretation is to be found in my full-length study. Admitting that she had not enjoyed the sexual experience, Katherine suggested that she had been unable to conceive a child because of her revulsion. When she was forced to employ Dereham in her household in 1541 in order to try and keep him quiet about their relationship, his aggressive and controlling behaviour in boasting about his intention to marry the Queen when the King died and his boasts about his acquaintance with her confirm the likelihood that he was aggressive both verbally and physically towards a girl probably at least a decade younger than him.

Around the same time that Dereham threateningly promised to marry Katherine following Henry VIII's death, the Queen became involved with Thomas Culpeper, a handsome favourite of the king who served as a gentleman of the privy chamber. Although she never committed adultery with him, Katherine was later to admit that she had become friends with Culpeper, and he also admitted his liking for the Queen. There is no evidence that Culpeper, like Dereham, was aggressive and physically violent. The association of rape and murder with him probably relate to his elder brother, confusingly also called Thomas. Lady Jane Rochford's assistance in this affair was crucial. Katherine's ladies in waiting seemed to confirm that she had encouraged Katherine from the very beginning.

While Jane's motives for helping the Queen remain obscure, this reinterpretation of both Jane's marriage and Katherine's childhood sexual experiences indicate that both women may have suffered what in the twenty-first century would be termed sexual violence. Although their contemporaries did not regard such experiences as such, they were aware of rape and sexual assault, which were classified as sexual deviance and abominable to God. Churchmen warned that sexual intercourse should be utilised only for the purpose of conceiving children. Lust was unthinkable and viewed as offensive, with women identified as licentious and eager to entrap men in unnatural perversions. Consequently, the experiences these women may have undergone would be classified as deviant, for lust was turned on its head and the purpose of conceiving children inverted for the sake of inflicting harm.

If both Jane and Katherine had endured such horrors, it may have brought the two women together. Interestingly, Jane seems to have become the Queen's confidant and favourite lady-in-waiting, despite the fact that she was aged around twenty years older than her new mistress. Aware of Katherine's marital difficulties in the spring and summer of 1541, she appears to have encouraged Katherine's blossoming friendship with Thomas, as the Queen's position was increasingly endangered by the resentful Dereham and his foolish comments. Never the pathological monster or sociopath she is often presented in modern portrayals as, Jane Rochford had perhaps been the victim of unnatural sexual force and wished to assist her Queen, who may have suffered similar experiences, as best she could.

Later, these women were associated with carnal licentiousness and treason against the king. Following their executions in 1542, Katherine has been universally condemned as a flighty and adulterous trollop and Jane Rochford a revolting abetter of the foulest of crimes. Perhaps reading their experiences in light of prevailing cultural customs and prejudices about women and sexuality should clarify and explain their actions. Their male contemporaries were unable to believe that women did not enjoy sexual intercourse, since they almost universally subscribed to the view that women, as accomplices of the Devil, eagerly and happily embraced all forms of sexual perversions, no matter how unnatural.


  1. I have to disagree with you regarding George and Jane Boleyn, Lord and Lady Rochford, on various points:
    1)Cavendish's verses is poetry which is his interpretation of George's scaffold speech, rather than word for word what George said. The scaffold speeches recorded in Letters & Papers (a Spanish record), The Spanish Chronicle, The Chronicle of Calais and Elis Gruffudd's Chronicle do not refer to George forcing widows or deflowering maidens. I do not feel that you can use Cavendish's verses as evidence that George committed sexual violence.
    2)There is no evidence that George and Jane had an unhappy marriage.
    3)As you say, there is no evidence that Jane betrayed the Boleyns (John Guy debunked all of Weir's theories regarding this) but she had to tell the truth when she was interrogated. George and Anne had confided in her regarding the King's sexual problems. I'm sure she was scared out of her mind and she had to tell the Crown what she knew. It was not her fault that it was all twisted.

    It's great that we are questioning the way Jane has been portrayed by both fiction and some history books, but to tar George Boleyn's reputation by doing so just does not feel right. In my years of researching the Boleyn family, I have found no evidence of him being a violent man and no evidence that he mistreated Jane.

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