Clare Cherry is a Tudor enthusiast who is in the process of writing a biography of George Boleyn with Claire Ridgway.
As anyone interested in Tudor history knows, George Boleyn was the brother of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne.
He was first introduced to court at a child of around 10 years old. He was a member of Henry’s Privy Chamber by 1525 but lost his place in the Eltham Ordinances. He was knighted in 1529 and appointed as Gentleman of the Privy Chamber not long afterwards. He was a recognised court poet. He was also to become one of Henry’s busiest diplomats as well as serving in Parliament, including the Reformation Parliament and becoming Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in June 1534. By 1535 he had become an extremely successful, powerful and influential man.
Then, as his career and influence continued to flourish, he was falsely charged with incest and high treason, and went to his death in May 1536 at the age of around 32. In his own words he died, ‘with more shame and dishonour than hath ever been heard of before’. It is generally accepted today that he was innocent. Indeed that appeared to be the feeling at the time of his death, as there was a general belief in his innocence, and many claimed that it was ‘a great loss’ that he was dead.
In the years that followed George largely escaped the excesses of fiction. He was invariable portrayed as innocent, his career was recognised, and he was generally portrayed as the intelligent and compassionate brother of Anne. Admittedly he was nearly always saddled with a vindictive wife and his marriage was a failure, but she was always the guilty party, rarely if ever him.
So where did it all go so horribly wrong?
Guilty of incest?
In the mid nineteen eighties an historian named Retha Warnicke came up with the theory that Anne surrounded herself with a number of homosexual courtiers, including her brother, George Boleyn. I won’t go into the reasoning behind Warnicke’s theory save to say that there is no evidence to support it. Be that as it may, the theory was subsequently expanded on in fiction. Now, whether George Boleyn was homo/bisexual or not, is irrelevant to his character, but writers of fiction appear not to see it that way. So once the theory was introduced they had a field day with his honour and reputation. The general consensus seemed to be ‘he’s gay, so let’s do what we like with him’. The start of George being demonised in fiction seems to me to be innately homophobic when considering when he began to be demonised. This started almost simultaneously with the Warnicke theory, which is far too coincidental.
Since the theory of his sexuality was introduced he has been a little too fond of pageboys, as well as being guilty of incest with Anne (The Other Boleyn Girl).
He has been a wife abuser and rapist, as well as a murderer (The Tudors).
He has been a smirking boorish fool who wouldn’t stoop to having sex with an animal, and who was also a coward (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies).
He has been a vicious rapist and braggart (The Crown/The Chalice)
He has been shown as virtually raping Mark Smeaton (The Boleyn Wife).
One could go on and on. What all of these portrayals share is that his incredible career is more or less overlooked, and he is reduced to a rather ineffectual fool. Nowadays he seems to fall into one of two separate categories. He’s either rather foolish and incapable, as well as being more than happy to ride on his sister’s coat tails, or alternatively he’s clever and ambitious but extremely unpleasant. Sometimes he’s both depictions at the same time.
But whichever way his character is depicted, he nearly always has some sort of sexual perversion, which has taken the homosexual theory, expanded on it, and run with it with more legs than a centipede. Presumably the thought process is that George the homosexual must be capable of any sexual deviancy, including rape and incest.
The tables are turning on the myth that Jane Boleyn was the dreadful wife who betrayed her innocent husband. Partly that’s because George and Anne are sometimes shown as actually being guilty, but mostly because Jane’s evidence was in retaliation for the awful way George treated her. There is no evidence that Jane did betray the Boleyn siblings, and I am all for her rehabilitation, but not at the expense of her husband. Suddenly it’s George’s treatment of his wife that led to her giving evidence against Anne and George. And taking that to it’s logical conclusion Anne’s fall was largely George’s fault.
The brutal treatment of George Boleyn in fiction has become self perpetuating. Warnicke’s theory gave fiction writers the green light to commence the attack. Once that started subsequent writers continued the assault because it was easy pickings. If enough writers depict a certain character in a certain way, that characterisation takes hold. It becomes the norm to show them that way, just as it has become the norm to portray George Boleyn as a cruel husband and sexual deviant, despite the fact there is no evidence to support that portrayal. That characterisation, when seen over and over again, seeps into the public psyche, and all of a sudden that’s what George Boleyn was like. He was a dreadful person, who is now hated.
I find it incredible that in the space of thirty years a person’s honour and integrity can be torn apart, and their achievements forgotten, for the sake of entertainment, whilst the writers of that entertainment earn a good living out of the demonising of the characters they write about.
Hopefully, in due course the tide will turn once again, and George Boleyn will get the recognition and respect he deserves.