(2nd V. Rochford)
Born: ABT 1504
Died: 17 May 1536, executedBuried: St. Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
Father: Thomas BOLEYN (1° E. Wiltshire)
Mother: Elizabeth HOWARD (C. Wiltshire)
Married: Jane PARKER (V. Rochford) 1526
"Rochford, haddest thou
been not so proud,
Attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt
His father was an English diplomat, Sir Thomas Boleyn, and his mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of one of the powerfull families of that time. George Boleyn was Anne Boleyn's brother, and is best known for being accused of incest with her. However, he was very much a figure in his own right, and one of considerable intelligence. (In this context, it is worth noting that "wit" was used as a generic term for "intelligence" in the sixteenth century.) He was described by David Starkey as having "some of Anne's talents and all of her pride", and was a leading member of the Boleyn faction at court.
George's date of birth is difficult to determine. The fact that his first royal grant was only secured in 1524 hints that he was the youngest of the three, but George Cavendish's Metrical Visions (and Cavendish almost certainly knew George Boleyn) records George as saying that he had obtained a place in the privy chamber at "thrice years nine my life had past away". We know that he was "retired" from the chamber in Jan 1526. At very latest, therefore (in order for George to have been 27 in 1526), this would indicate that he was born in 1499 - but this would make him older than Anne. However, as Cavendish was writing 30 years after the event and in meter (making the next possible verse "years thrice eight"), it's possible that he was trying to say that George was about 25, indicating a date of approximately 1501 - It could also be that Cavendish was referring to George's 1529 restoration to the privy chamber. "Thrice nine" taken literally would then give us a date of c. 1503, and an age of about 25 would give us a date of c. 1504. This last date is generally agreed to be the most likely, and is corroborated by Jean du Bellay opining (in 1529) that George was too young to be sent as an Ambassador to France.
Little is known of George's early years. He played a part in the 1514-1515 Christmas revels, but evidently as a child. It seems that he was very close to Anne, and would remain so throughout his life. (One of Anne's uppermost concerns after her arrest in 1536 was for her "sweet broder" [sic].) In 1525, he married Jane, daughter of Henry Parker, 8º Lord Morley. The marriage was an unhappy one, and George was much closer to Anne than his wife. In Jan 1525, George lost his post in the Privy Chamber due to the Eltham Ordinance. (This was meant to reform the royal household, but Wolsey seized the opportunity to dispose of several courtiers who in his opinion might impinge on his own influence). However, he remained in the King's intimate circle.
In 1526 he became cupbearer to King Henry VIII, then Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and, in 1528, Esquire of the Body with an annuity of 50 marks. Also in 1528 he became Master of the Buckhounds and, probably in Oct 1529, was knighted.
Like the rest of his family, George benefited from the rise of his sister Anne. From Oct 1529 till Feb 1530, with John Stokesley, he was sent by the King on an embassy to France. This was the appointment which du Bellay thought him too young for; however, he advised Paris to "flatter Boleyn pretensions" and "lionise the... petit prince [George]". Evidently, George was worth cultivating. Soon after his return, he was restored to the privy chamber as a full adult member. (Wolsey was out of favour now.) About this time (the exact date is unknown) he was created Baron Rochford and, signing as George Rochford, is among the "Barones" on the letter to the Pope about the King's divorce. He was known as Viscount Rochford from 1529 onwards (after his father became Earl of Wiltshire), and this ceased to be merely a courtesy title in 1530. Throughout, he was a firm supporter of Anne, helping to manage the clergy in convocation in 1531 when the latter were, more or less, coerced into declaring Henry "sole protector and supreme head of the English church and clergy" in the Pardon of the Clergy. The clergy showed who they thought was feeding the King with the whole idea, and tried (unsuccessfully) to communicate with him and bypass Rochford. In 1533, it was he who announced that his sister was married to Henry VIII and pregnant.
He was sent on other missions to France and, from 23 Jun 1534 till his death, was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Like his sister, Rochford was a supporter of reform. (He was alleged to have suggested to Anne that she show the copy of Fish's A Supplication for the Beggars to the King that she had been sent) There was an element of self-interest in his support, but (as with Anne) he does seem to have had a genuine interest in reform for its own sake. When he and Anne fell, many reformers feared that their cause would go down with them.
In May 1535 he was an envoy to Calais in the negotiations for a marriage between the Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Angoulême.
As one of Anne's chief supporters, Rochford went down with her in May 1536. On 2 May 1536, he was arrested on charges of "Illicit Intercourse"; incest and treason. Warnicke argues (p. 215) that Rochford had committed sodomy, using information from George Cavendish's Metrical Visions, and that this was why he had been accused of incest with his sister to explain her alleged deformed fetus. This is possible, but the evidence doesn't seem enough to me to prove the case.
When in the Tower, he showed great agitation, asking Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, "When shall I come before the King's Council? I think I shall not come forth till I come to my judgement", and bursting into tears.
The charges against him were certainly false, and at his trial (15 May), as he "crumble[d] the royal case to dust", the odds were thought to be ten to one that he would be acquitted. However, he was asked whether he had ever said that which was written on a piece of paper handed to him, and he either read it out or said that he would not "create suspicion in a manner likely to prejudice the issue the King might have from a second marriage". "I did not say it!" he cried out, but it was too late. His wife, Jane, testified against him. He was unanimously found guilty. He accepted the sentence, saying that after all all men were sinners and deserving of death, but was concerned about those who owed him money, fearing that they would be ruined.
George Boleyn was beheaded with an axe on Tower Hill, on the morning of Wednesday, May 17. He died well, by Tudor standards, accepting his death and not challenging his sentence: "Masters all, I am come hither not to preach a sermon but to die, as the law hath found me, and to the law I submit me".
Fraser, Lady Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993.
Ives, Eric W. Anne Boleyn. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII. Cambridge: Canto, 1991.
Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
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