Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Character Assassination of George Boleyn

Above: Negative depictions of George Boleyn were offered in both The Tudors (left) and The Other Boleyn Girl (right).

My research focuses on the maligning and misrepresentation of high-status women in late medieval and Tudor England, examining the gendered dimension and motivations for attacking prominent women. However, it was not only women who were defamed and maligned, but men too. One outstanding example of this is George Boleyn, lord Rochford, whose posthumous reputation has been notorious. He is frequently depicted as a rapist, homosexual, heretic, womaniser, abuser or coward - and, often, all of these are mixed together. This has resulted in what could be termed the black legend of George Boleyn. However, this popular understanding of George has little basis in historical evidence.

How did this black legend come about? It is difficult to separate the defamation of George from the character assassination of his entire family. The Boleyns have, in popular culture, become synonymous with greed, treachery, political ambition and ruthlessness, although modern historians recognise that they were typical of the period in which they lived in and were no worse than other noble families. But this has not prevented novelists, film-makers, and directors from slandering the Boleyns. Thomas Boleyn, a respected diplomat and talented linguist in his day, has been caricatured as an ambitious, grasping egotist. His daughter Mary has become synonymous with bawdiness and prostitution, although another line of thought has cast her as the innocent, vulnerable victim of her merciless family. Queen Anne Boleyn has suffered the most, being reduced to a scheming manipulator, a nymphomaniac, or a homewrecker - and frequently, the three are mixed together. George Boleyn then is, like other members of his family, a victim of the abuse directed at the Boleyns. 

Above: Anne (left) and Mary (right), the sisters of George.

Modern historians have been fairly appreciative of George Boleyn's significance, particularly in the English Reformation. In 1531, he was one of several crown officials who assisted Henry VIII in his claim to be supreme head of the English Church. Like his sister Anne, George owned a number of French evangelical works. He turned two of them into presentation copies for his sister, which were based on the works of Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples. These texts stressed the necessity of having a living faith in Christ in order to attain salvation, rather than relying on good works and on the rituals of the established Church. George wrote a dedicatory letter to his sister in one of the texts, "The Epistles and Gospels for the Fifty-Two Weeks of the Year", in which he addressed Anne as 'her most loving and friendly brother'. He also assured her that he loved her. These texts testify to both George's devout religion and his close relationship with Anne.

Later, George's execution speech in 1536 confirmed his prominent involvement in religious reform at Henry VIII's court. He referred to himself as 'a great reader and mighty debater of the Word of God, and one of those who most favoured the Gospel of Jesus Christ.' The Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys frequently accused the Boleyns of being 'more Lutheran than Luther himself', and it seems plausible that, when Anne became queen, her brother assisted her in advancing evangelical reform at court. Their father, also passionate about religious reform, was probably also involved. Joseph S. Block has written that George's interest and passion for religious reform was motivated not only out of desire to assist his sister, but 'was a guiding light in his life'. 

George's interests, however, extended beyond religion. His biographers Claire Ridgway and Clare Cherry note that he was a talented poet and linguist. George also enjoyed an excellent diplomatic career, a point often overlooked especially in popular depictions of him. For example, in 1529 he was knighted and led an embassy to France at an unusually young age (if he was born around 1504, he would have been only twenty-five or so years of age: a point which indicates that there was already considerable confidence in his abilities). Soon after, George became Viscount Rochford. In 1533, he again travelled to France where he informed the French king about Henry VIII's marriage to Anne and was able to secure Francois I's support in the struggle against the papal denunciation of Henry's annulment of his first marriage. Further embassies followed later that year and in 1534, and in June 1534, George was rewarded for his diplomatic successes: he was promoted to Baron of the Cinque Ports.

Around the end of 1524, he married Jane Parker, the daughter of Henry lord Morley. George's marriage to Jane has more often than not been portrayed as a vicious, tempestuous and abusive union. Alison Weir describes their relationship as "unhappy" and asserts that Jane testified against her husband at the time of his downfall in spring 1536 because she was revolted and disgusted by his sexual practices. This idea was originally put forward by academic historian Retha Warnicke, who suggested that not only was George promiscuous, but guilty of sodomy with several men too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this salacious notion has become enshrined in popular culture and has hugely influenced the prevailing view of George. In Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl, George Boleyn is a promiscuous, unhinged and sexually disturbed man who not only has an affair with Francis Weston, but is strongly suggested to have slept with his sister Anne, resulting in the birth of a deformed child and accusations of witchcraft and incest that send both of them to the scaffold. In the television series The Tudors, George is portrayed in a darker light as a serial abuser, who sexually assaults his innocent wife on their wedding night. He also enjoys a sexual relationship with Mark Smeaton. The Tudors provided the most manipulative, abusive, violent and cruel portrayal of George Boleyn to date. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies presents George more as an arrogant, shallow dandy or fop who shamefully cries at his trial and, during his lifetime, is concerned with nothing more than the pursuit of luxury and decadence. The television series Wolf Hall similarly presents his relationship with Jane as abusive, in which he treats her violently and with contempt.

Wolf-Hall-Crows-George Boleyn

Above: George Boleyn in Wolf Hall.

There is no evidence for any of this, and we cannot know the truth of George and Jane's marriage. Their childlessness has frequently been cited as conclusive evidence of their marital unhappiness, but it is equally possible that either partner suffered from infertility, or perhaps there were other problems that we just do not know about. In the absence of evidence, it is unfair and contrary to historical practice to speculate negatively about their relationship. Contrary to legend, Jane was not the 'principal accuser' of her husband in the wake of his downfall in 1536, and she may have been coerced into providing testimony, in what must have been a terrifying and traumatic experience for her. Jane has traditionally been presented as jealous and hurt by George's close relationship with his sister Anne, in which he neglected and mistreated his wife in favour of spending time with his more attractive and accomplished sister. Again, there is no evidence for this. Perhaps Jane was jealous of Anne, perhaps she hated her, perhaps she did love George and was hurt by his treatment of her. Alternatively, and equally validly, perhaps she enjoyed a good relationship with her sister-in-law and perhaps she was treated well by George. We cannot say, and as stated, it is unfair and fruitless to speculate.

George was implicated in Anne Boleyn's downfall in the spring of 1536, and he was one of five men sentenced to death for committing adultery with her and plotting to murder Henry VIII (and, in his case, incest). While the majority of modern historians reject these charges entirely, and present all six as innocent of adultery and treason, several writers have speculated that George was guilty of 'unnatural' sexual offences, primarily sodomy and buggery. His sexual partners have been identified as Mark Smeaton and, perhaps, Francis Weston, both of whom were also accused of adultery with the queen and executed. As noted above, the notion of George Boleyn as a homosexual has gained credence in popular culture, and it is almost impossible to read a novel, watch a film, or view a play about him that does not subscribe to this prevailing view of him as a lover of men. However, as with his relationship with his wife, there is no evidence for this. George did provide Smeaton with a manuscript attacking the institution of marriage, but it is reading far too much into this to infer from this alone, in the absence of any other evidence, that George and Smeaton were lovers. George Cavendish, who served Cardinal Wolsey, later described George as 'my life not chaste, my living bestial, I forced widows, maidens I did deflower': in other words, identifying him as a serial womaniser, rather than a sodomite. However, Cavendish was a hostile and prejudiced writer with a clear agenda: to blacken the name of the Boleyns, whom he blamed for the downfall of his master. The famed Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who knew George personally, lamented that, had George 'not been so proud, for thy great wit each man would thee bemoan'.

It is disturbing to realise that George Boleyn's posthumous reputation has been more negative than it was in his own lifetime. Since his death, he has been subjected to vitriolic attack, shameful slander and, in short, character assassination. In his lifetime, observers alleged that his chief vices were pride, arrogance and, from the perspective of religious conservatives, heresy. However, with the exception of Cavendish, none of them accused him of sexual lechery, and his intimate, loving relationship with Anne was cruelly distorted and misrepresented in 1536 as an incestuous relationship in order to get rid of them both. George Boleyn was a talented linguist, a renowned poet, and above all, a principal exponent of religious reform. He occupied a central place in English politics in the late 1520s and most of the 1530s, and was actively involved in several embassies on the Continent. His contemporaries were in awe of his talents and appreciated his significance. Controversy about George centres on his sexual preferences and on his relationship with his wife Jane. In the absence of any evidence that their relationship was unhappy, or that his sexual behaviour was anything but conventional, George should be given the benefit of the doubt, and should instead be admired and respected for his talents and skills.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Alice Perrers, Mistress of Edward III

Above: A fictional depiction of Alice Perrers attending the deathbed of her lover, King Edward III.

History abounds with the names of those who enchanted kings and became their mistresses. They were the stars at the centre of royal courts, they basked in favour, they were present at every social gathering, dazzling and enchanting onlookers, captivating observers and inspiring awe, envy, devotion and hatred. Whether for a night or a month, a year or a decade, these women were privy to their royal lovers' secrets and enjoyed informal influence at the heart of power. Whether they were motivated by wealth, ambition, love or goodwill, or whether they were coerced, depends entirely on circumstance.

One royal mistress who has traditionally been seen as motivated solely by blind, grasping ambition, is the legendary lover of Edward III, one of England's greatest medieval kings: Alice Perrers. For the last decade of the ageing king's life, Alice was his confidant, his bedfellow, his friend and his companion. She became a byword for promiscuity, arrogance, and greed. Loathed by commons and courtiers alike, but beloved of the king, Alice's story exemplifies the dazzling opportunities presented to those who captured the heart of their monarch.

Above: An artistic rendition of the relationship between Edward and Alice.

Alice's origins were humble, and at her birth no-one could have guessed that she would one day become mistress of a king. Her birth date is unknown, although it has been suggested that she was born around 1348. She was probably the daughter of Sir Richard Perrers of Hertfordshire, who was thrown into prison in 1350 (when his daughter may have been only two years of age) and outlawed nine years later, following a dispute with the abbey of St. Albans. Given-Wilson contends that the Perrers family's hostile relations with the abbey could account for the virulent hatred later directed towards Alice in the chronicle of Thomas Walsingham, who was chronicler at St. Albans. He disparaged her, describing her as ugly and claimed that she only enchanted Edward through sorcery and magic: a common explanation in the Middle Ages for beautiful women who captured the heart of kings. Elizabeth Wydeville is an obvious example of this.

At an unknown date, Alice arrived at court and served in the household of Queen Philippa of Hainault, the respected and matronly queen of Edward III. Around 1364, when she may have been only sixteen years of age (the king was fifty-two), she seems to have become Edward's lover. For the next five years, their relationship was secret and veiled. Only when Philippa died in 1369 did Alice's affair with the king become more conspicuous, and it aroused bitter envy and hatred at court. Alice acquired numerous favours from the king and she soon became an extremely wealthy lady. Her doting lover bestowed upon her property and even jewels belonging to the late queen. She became known as 'The Lady of the Sun' and courtiers were expected to behave respectfully towards her.

Alice's power soon became legendary, and it is possible that she inspired fear. She engaged in a series of enfeoffments-to-use and other land transactions, and Walsingham reported that Alice 'had such power and eminence in those days that no-one dared to prosecute a claim against her'. How credible this assertion is cannot be known with certainty. Alice may have been ambitious, she may have been grasping, she may even have been a calculating and cold-hearted opportunist who manipulated the ailing king into granting her unheard of wealth and status at a court that brimmed with spite and loathing of her. But it is also true that it was common practice for high-status women to be attacked as a way of besmirching the name of kings. No-one would have dared to attack Edward III; the easiest way of criticising him was through slandering his mistress. Hostile allegations directed against Alice, therefore, should be taken with a pinch of salt. In any case, who can blame her if she did take advantage of Edward's devotion? She was of humble birth and experienced limited opportunities. Being the king's mistress offered her access to wealth, luxury and security that she probably never dreamed she would ever have the luck of possessing.

Edward III of England (Order of the Garter).jpg
Above: King Edward III.

Alice attracted scandal and caused controversy during her years at the centre of English politics. At the Good Parliament of 1376, it came to light that she was not, in fact, a single woman. Some years previously, she had been married to Sir William Windsor, a Westmorland knight. Alice was subsequently banished from court as part of the reforms instituted by those hostile to the way the country was being run. At a later date, she returned. Her besotted royal lover had been pining for her. She remained with him until his death in 1377, when Walsingham claimed that she coldly seized the rings from her royal lover's fingers. Alice had three children by Edward III: John de Southeray (1364-83), who married Mary, half-sister of Henry Lord Percy; Jane; and Joan. 

Later that year, in the new reign, Alice was accused in Parliament of corruption. Although she asserted her innocence, she was found guilty, and was convicted and sentenced to banishment from the kingdom and forfeiture of all her lands and goods. Evidence from inquisitions confirms that she held land in 15 counties: an insight into the extraordinary power and position Alice had acquired during her years as the king's mistress. Alice was clearly a resourceful and determined woman, for she refused to go down without a fight. She spent the remaining years of her life trying to recover as much as possible of what she had been deprived of in the 1377 Parliament. Her husband initially helped her, but his death in 1384 brought new problems, both because he died in debt to the crown and because he had enfeoffed all his lands to a group of trustees, rather than to his wife. The trustees refused to let Alice have the lands, claiming that it had been her late husband's wish that the lands go to his nephew, John Windsor. Alice fell into bitter conflict with John, and sent several petitions to Parliament. She was briefly successful in 1393 when John was imprisoned, but he was later released, and she recovered only a few small manors that were of little worth. She was clearly resentful that her nephew by marriage had 'usurped' her lands. Alice died in the winter of 1400-1, her will being proved in February of 1401.

Alice Perrers was a woman who caused considerable controversy. We lack details surrounding the most basic aspects of her life: her birth date, her appearance, her personality. Most of what we know about her derives from hostile sources that viewed her as to blame for Edward III's mismanagement in the later years of his long reign. She was defamed as arrogant, power-hungry, ruthless, greedy, acquisitive and grasping. How true this assessment is cannot be known with certainty. She occupied an important place in the literature of the age. It has been suggested that she served as the living prototype of the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and less favourably, William Langland's Lady Mede -  a selfish, materialistic and immoral high-status woman - in Piers Plowman may have been based on her. But perhaps Alice has been too quickly condemned and too easily reviled. She may have been an opportunist, but it is understandable why she took advantage of Edward III's devotion. She was not of high birth and would have been well aware that her opportunities in life were limited. Who can blame her if she became enamoured with power and dazzled by riches? Most other women of her social standing probably would have done the same. Alice Perrers is well known as one of the most famous royal mistresses, but her reputation remains decidedly unfavourable: perhaps, in this age, we should afford her the benefit of the doubt and view her actions somewhat less moralistically and somewhat more sympathetically.