1. The Boleyn women genealogical table.
The Boleyn family came to international prominence through the marriage of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII in 1533. This match, which proved so disastrous for the parties involved, produced Elizabeth I, a queen who was arguably one of the greatest rulers England has ever had. Elizabeth I, as the daughter of a Boleyn, must take her place among the other members of a family which produced a large number of remarkable women. From the queens, Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, to the royal mistress, Mary Boleyn, to Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, who acted as governess of Princess Mary to Elizabeth Howard, Lady Boleyn, the mother of Queen Anne and her sister, Mary, to Lettice Knollys, a Boleyn granddaughter, who won the heart of Elizabeth I’s greatest love, the family produced remarkable and active women, who rivalled and, sometimes, surpassed the men of the family in their political ambition. This is the story of the women of the family, both those who joined the family through marriage and those who were born a Boleyn lady. The family rose from the rank of yeoman, or tenant farmer, to the highest position in the land through the agency of its women, before disappearing once again into obscurity with the death of Elizabeth I, the greatest of the Boleyn women.
The family’s origins were deeply unpromising and an observer in the thirteenth, fourteenth and even fifteenth century would never have dreamed that the family would produce two queens of England. The name Boleyn and its various spellings (such as its modern form, Bullen) was not an unusual one. It has been suggested that the name, which was often pronounced and spelled in the same way as the name of the city of Boulogne, denoted a French origin for the family.1 This is not impossible, but it need not be the case. The earliest ancestors who can be identified were firmly rooted in the county of Norfolk.
The first ancestor who can be identified with any certainty was a John Boleyn, who was living in the Norfolk village of Salle in 1283 when he was noted in the Register of Walsingham Abbey.2 This John was associated with a William Boleyn of Thurning who can presumably be identified as a kinsman. A Simon de Boleyne had previously purchased land at Salle in 1252 and he was perhaps the father of John and William.3 The next recorded Boleyn of Salle was a Nicholas Boleyn, who was accused of theft in 1318.4This Nicholas was a turbulent individual, robbing a man in Lincoln in 1333. That same year Nicholas was ordered by one of the manorial courts in Salle to repair the bank between his land and that of the lord of the manor after he had damaged pastures and trees. At the same time a second John Boleyn makes an appearance in surviving documents relating to Salle, dying soon after his last appearance in 1369. An Emma Boleyn was noted in the Court Rolls for 1377 and it was suggested by W. L. E. Parsons, who carried out a comprehensive review of the early records of the Boleyn family, that she could be identified as John Boleyn II’s widow. If so, she is the first known Boleyn lady. Nothing further is known of her.
John Boleyn II can probably be identified as a son of Nicholas Boleyn. A second man, Thomas Boleyn, was identified as a son of Nicholas Boleyn in a later court case brought by his great-grandson in the fifteenth century. However, given that Thomas Boleyn I only begins to appear in the records in 1370, holding much of the same land as the recently deceased John Boleyn II, he is more likely the son of John than of Nicholas. For Nicholas to have committed theft in 1318, he must have been born by at least 1300. Thomas Boleyn I was still active in 1399 and did not die until 1411, suggesting that he would have been too young to be a son of Nicholas. He is more likely his grandson.
Thomas Boleyn I was married to a lady named Agnes in 1398 when the couple secured an indulgence from the pope.5 Once again, the life of this Boleyn lady is almost entirely obscure. In March 1386 Thomas Boleyn I was associated with one Martin Taverham and a Margaret Anabille in a writ relating to their role as executors for Richard Anabille of Salle.6 Margaret was the widow of Richard Anabille and it has been suggested that she became Thomas’s first wife, something which would also make her the more plausible candidate for the mother of his son Geoffrey Boleyn I, who produced his own children in the early years of the fifteenth century (a daughter, for example, is known to have been born in 1408).7 However, she was certainly not Thomas’s wife in March 1386 and there is no further evidence of a connection between the pair. It therefore seems more probable that Agnes was the only wife of Thomas Boleyn I and the mother of Geoffrey Boleyn I.
Nicholas Boleyn, in spite of his evidently turbulent lifestyle, had been a member of the minor gentry, as is clear from a court case heard in 1463 in which Nicholas’s great-great-grandson, Thomas Boleyn II, claimed a manor at Calthorpe, called Hookhall ‘as his right and inheritance’.8 According to Thomas Boleyn II, Nicholas was the rightful holder of this manor following a grant from Edward III. He was dispossessed by Sir Bartholemew Calthorpe and thus unable to pass it on to his descendants. Thomas Boleyn II was successful in his claim for the manor, suggesting that there was indeed substance in his claims. His nephew, William Boleyn, held the manor at his own death in 1505.9 In 1463, the manor was worth £19, a not insubstantial sum. However, it is perhaps fair to say that, while the family may have had tenuous claims to gentle status they were more appropriately part of the yeoman class – prosperous tenant farmers, with the focus of their activities at Salle. Thomas Boleyn I leased 6½ acres of land at Salle in 1370. Norfolk in the fifteenth century was wealthy, with the wool trade being particularly important. Thomas Boleyn I was wealthy enough by 1399 to pass some of his land at Salle over to his son Geoffrey, a gift which saw him appear before the manorial court for failure to seek the appropriate permission. An eighteenth-century visitor to the church at Salle recorded that there was a window with a fragmentary inscription to a Thomas Boleyn.10 Given the fact that the church was built in the early fifteenth century, this window would seem likely to have been a gift made by Thomas Boleyn I, as suggested by Parsons in his history of the parish. This gift would accord both with the piety of Thomas and his wife, Agnes, as evidenced by their request for a papal indulgence and of the rapidly rising status of the Boleyn family in the parish. Nothing more is known of Agnes Boleyn. Thomas Boleyn I died in 1411.
It was Geoffrey Boleyn I, in the early years of the fifteenth century, who extended the family’s local prominence. In spite of its small size, Salle supported four manors in the medieval period, all of which were established by the time of the Domesday Book.11Salle is now a very small settlement and there is no evidence that its size was very much larger in the late medieval period. It has been estimated that the population of the parish has never been more than 400–500.12 As such, its church, which has been likened to a small cathedral, is very much at odds with the village and was clearly conceived as a monument to the prosperity of the settlement and its citizens. As Eamon Duffy set out in his study of the parish and church, ‘this huge building was never full and was never intended to be full; its space was intended as the setting for elaborate liturgy and processions, involving the whole parish, but also for the smaller-scale worship in screened-off side chapels, which housed the daily and occasional activities of the guilds and family chantry-chapels’. The nave of the church bears the arms of Henry V as Prince of Wales over a doorway, something which suggests that at least part of the structure was built between 1405 and 1413 (before Henry V’s accession to the throne). As such, Thomas Boleyn I and his wife may well have taken an active interest in the building work, as evidenced by the window inscription. Their son, Geoffrey Boleyn I, was one of the leading builders.
In 1408 Geoffrey Boleyn I found himself before the manorial court with six other men, who were all accused of entering the lord’s manor without permission and occupying part of it with the timber that they had prepared for the church.13 At the same time they had also broken down one small building on the site, as well as despoiled the lord’s possessions in the manor house. This was an offence of some seriousness since it represented a direct contravention of the social order in Salle, with tenants actively despoiling the lands of the lord of the manor and, as such, it was deemed too weighty a matter to be dealt with by the manorial court, with the lord and his council to instead consult on a fitting punishment. The reference to the timber for the church makes it clear that Geoffrey was fully involved in the building of Salle’s grand new church, a building that was largely completed by the newly rich lower-ranking members of the parish, such as the Boleyns, rather than the more established gentry. Later that same year, Geoffrey was once again before the court, this time with the parson of the church at Salle, with both men accused of occupying a ditch or bank belonging to the lord of the manor without permission so that they could store a great ash tree. The assumption must be that this timber was also required for the church and, this time, Geoffrey was dealt with more leniently, being merely ordered to remove the tree within seven days or face its forfeiture.
Geoffrey often found himself on the wrong side of his lord during the first half of the fifteenth century. In 1412 he was accused of ploughing over a field division in order to extend his own land at the expense of his social betters.14 He took water belonging to one of the manors in Salle without making any payment, something that resulted in his regular appearances in court between 1419 and 1439 when he finally capitulated and paid a fine. Geoffrey was an ambitious man and acquired a number of pieces of land in Salle and neighbouring parishes, not always paying the specified sums for the land when they fell due.15 He must have been a substantial man in the town by the time of his death in 1440, but he remained below the rank of a lord. He farmed approximately 30 acres and was prosperous, for example in 1424 selling six loads of barley and oat straw for thatching to the lord of Kirkhall manor in Salle. He, like most of his neighbours, would also have kept sheep.16 It is the church however which stands as a monument to his prosperity. A memorial brass, commissioned by Geoffrey for both him and his wife, Alice, stands prominently in the middle aisle of the church and testifies to his importance to the building of the church at Salle.
Geoffrey’s wife, Alice, is, like her predecessors as Boleyn ladies, a shadowy figure. She was apparently as pious as her husband as the pair are known to have made a gift to the church at Salle of a hearse cloth of tapestry work and two matching cushions.17These may well have been decorated with the couple’s names and badges and would have further served as a reminder of their important role in the foundation of the new church. Alice was an excellent match for Geoffrey socially, as the daughter and heiress of Sir John Bracton of Bracton.18 Based on the dates of birth of their children, the couple must have married in the early years of the fifteenth century. The gift of land in Salle that Thomas Boleyn I made to Geoffrey in 1399 would seem to be a probable marriage gift to the couple: an heiress was never acquired cheaply and Alice’s father would have insisted on substantial provision being made for her on her marriage. It is a testament to the prosperity of Thomas Boleyn I (and, perhaps, his claims to be a member of the gentry through his grandfather, Nicholas) that he was able to secure a wealthy gentlewoman for his son.
A representation of Alice Bracton Boleyn survives in her funeral brass at Salle. Alice survived her husband, who died in 1440 and she is therefore very likely to have played a role in the commission of the monument and its design. Her representation can therefore be considered an accurate view of how she wished to be presented. The brass shows Geoffrey and Alice standing side by side. Both are dressed fashionably, with Geoffrey wearing a cap and knee-length gown with large hanging sleeves. Alice is depicted wearing a pleated floor-length gown, again with hanging sleeves which are gathered up at the cuff. In keeping with the fashion of the period, she wears a large headdress of cloth which entirely covers her hair and hangs down over her shoulders. The pair stare forward from the brasses. Over their heads, there is a scroll which can be translated as ‘God be merciful to us sinners’.19 Underneath, the inscription reads ‘Here lies Geoffrey Boleyn, who died 25 March 1440, and Alice his wife and their children: on whose souls may God have mercy. Amen.’ The depictions on the brasses, which are likely to be true likenesses, are conventional for the period and demonstrate that the couple saw themselves as local dignitaries, important in the parish and local area.
A visitor to the church in the late eighteenth century noted that the memorial to Geoffrey and Alice also originally included depictions of their five sons and four daughters. Only three of their children can be identified with any certainty and this, coupled with the fact that the brass inscription referred to their children being buried with them, suggests that a number died before adulthood, as was all too common in the fifteenth century. The names of only two sons are known and, given the fact that both became prominent, it would seem highly likely that their three brothers did not survive to adulthood and to build their own distinguished careers. Certainly, a Simon Boleyn, who served as a priest at Salle and has a memorial in the church there, should not be identified as their son. Simon, who died in 1482, left a will dated 1478 in which he referred to a sister Joan and brothers James and Thomas of Gunthorp.20 He also mentioned a niece, Joan, who was the daughter of his brother Thomas. Since Geoffrey and Alice’s son Thomas was a priest, it seems highly unlikely that he is the brother referred to (due to the requirement for celibacy). Also, there is no known connection between Geoffrey’s son Thomas and Gunthorp. More likely the relationship was considerably more distant. Parsons suggested that Geoffrey Boleyn I could be identified as Simon Boleyn’s great-uncle. Heraldic visitations taken of the families of Norfolk in 1563 and 1613 recorded the names of two further brothers of Geoffrey Boleyn II (a son of Geoffrey Boleyn I and Alice): William, who was recorded to have married, and John.21 However, visitations, which relied on the memories of family members, were often inaccurate. In this case, the parents of the brothers are listed as Thomas Bullen of Salle and his wife Jane, daughter and co-heir of Sir John Bracton. While the visitation appears to have been reasonably accurate with regard to the lineage of Geoffrey Boleyn II’s mother (if not her Christian name), it entirely omitted Geoffrey Boleyn I as their father. Given that there are no surviving records relating to William or John, their existence is doubtful. They can, perhaps, also be identified as children of Thomas Boleyn I rather than his grandchildren. The visitations are highly doubtful for the Boleyn family as Anne Boleyn III, who married Sir John Shelton and will be discussed later, was also described as a daughter of her brother, Thomas Boleyn IV, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, something that would have made her a sister of her namesake, Queen Anne Boleyn, rather than her aunt.
Given the fact that women married and changed their names (and often led less prominent lives) it is probable that more of the daughters of Geoffrey and Alice survived infancy. An Alice Boleyn married a gentleman, Henry Aucher of Otterden in Kent, a marriage which would place her birth date at around 1410.22 This Alice bore her husband two sons, John and Henry. It is not at all impossible that she can be identified as a daughter of Geoffrey Boleyn I and Alice Bracton Boleyn. However, there is no further evidence of her parentage and the name Boleyn was not uncommon – any identification must therefore be tenuous. The only daughter of Geoffrey and Alice who can be certainly identified is Cecily. Geoffrey Boleyn II, who was by far the most prosperous early member of the family, purchased the fine manor of Blickling in Norfolk, moving the centre of the family’s interests there from Salle. He evidently took his unmarried sister, Cecily, there with him as a fine brass survives to her in the church next to the manor, recording that ‘Here lieth Cecily Boleyn, sister to Geoffrey Boleyn, lord of the manor of Blickling, which Cecily deceased in her maidenhood, of the age of L  years, the xxvi  day of June the year of our lord MCCCClviij , whose soul God pardon Amen’.
Cecily was born between 27 June 1407 and 26 June 1408, making her the youngest of the three known children of Geoffrey Boleyn I and Alice Bracton Boleyn (with Thomas as the eldest son and Geoffrey II born in 1405). Her memorial brass, which was commissioned by her brother Geoffrey, shows a woman with her hands at prayer and downcast eyes. She is bare-headed, with a large (and very likely plucked) forehead, which was the height of fashion in the late fifteenth century. Cecily is depicted simply dressed in a pleated high-necked gown drawn in beneath her breasts. Her sleeves are full and hanging with plain under-sleeves glimpsed at the wrists. The simplicity of Cecily’s pose and dress can be contrasted sharply with that of her niece, Isabel Boleyn Cheyne, who is also commemorated on a brass at Blickling and appears in a furred gown with jewellery and an elaborate headdress. Given the emphasis on the fact that Cecily died a maid, coupled with the fact that she described herself as the spiritual daughter of Thomas Drew, the chaplain at Salle, who died in 1443 and bequeathed her a rosary, it does appear that there was a pious motive to Cecily remaining unmarried.23 This did not extend as far as taking holy vows and she evidently remained at Salle with her parents until at least 1443. Alice survived her husband, who died in 1440, and her daughter presumably remained with her until her death at an unknown date. After that, Cecily lived with her brother, Geoffrey. The siblings were close enough for Geoffrey Boleyn II to commission the fine memorial to his sister after her death in middle age.
The close relationship between Cecily and Geoffrey Boleyn II was echoed in the relationship between Geoffrey Boleyn II and his brother, Thomas Boleyn II, something which suggests that Geoffrey Boleyn I and Alice Bracton Boleyn enjoyed a contented family life as parents. It was Thomas who claimed to be the son and heir of Geoffrey Boleyn I in a court case in 1463 in which he claimed the manor of Calthorpe and he can therefore with certainty be identified as the eldest surviving son. Since Geoffrey II was born in 1405, this would place Thomas II’s birth in the early years of the fifteenth century and he lived to a venerable age, dying in 1472. The fact that he became a priest, something which was unusual for an heir, suggests that he may originally have had an elder brother who predeceased him. Thomas was ordained as a deacon in March 1421 and then as a priest later in the year.24 He was already a fellow of Trinity Hall at Cambridge at that time, something that suggests that he had studied at the university. He retained a connection with Cambridge for most of his life, becoming the seventh master of Gonville Hall (which later became Gonville and Caius College) in 1454. He was fond of the college and donated a window in the old dining hall there. Thomas was relatively well known in court circles and, in 1434, was chosen by the king to attend the Council of Basle – a singular honour. He was also selected by Henry VI to be one of six men to draft the statutes for Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1446 at the college’s foundation.25
Thomas Boleyn II’s career took him far from his family’s agricultural origins in Salle and he was to have a career as prominent as that of his younger brother. There is strong evidence for affection between the two brothers in Geoffrey II’s will, where he asked that ‘£20 sterling of my goods be dispended upon the work of the body of the church of Blickling aforesaid, or upon ornaments for the same church or on both, as shalbe thought most necessary by the discretion of my brother Master Thomas Boleyn, and of my executors’.26 Geoffrey specifically asked that Thomas should attend a dinner held in his memory and that he should be one of the people asked to compose the guest list. Thomas, along with Geoffrey’s wife and executors, was further given discretion over the distribution of bequests to Geoffrey’s daughters, as well as being named as one of the people who were required to assent to the daughters’ marriages. Thomas was finally paid the complement of being the overseer of Geoffrey’s will.
The surviving evidence suggests strongly that Geoffrey Boleyn I and Alice Bracton Boleyn were able to build a contented family life, as well as launching their sons into prominent positions. Further testament to the family’s close relationship can be seen in the will of Geoffrey Boleyn II, in which he left 200 marks to fund an ‘honest and virtuous priest’ to pray for Geoffrey II’s soul ‘and the soul of Dionise sometime my wife, and for the souls of Geoffrey and Alice my father and mother, and of Adam Book, and for the souls of all them that I am bounden unto’. Geoffrey II’s parents were evidently still remembered fondly by him and he took steps to ensure the safety of their souls. Geoffrey’s will, which is dated 1463, makes it clear that Alice Bracton Boleyn had already died although there is no further evidence for her date of death, save that it occurred between 1440 and 1463.
Geoffrey Boleyn II’s first wife, Dionise, or Denise, is an even more shadowy figure. The mention of her in her husband’s will is the only surviving evidence for the marriage. The recent suggestion that Dionise may have been the mother of Geoffrey’s eldest surviving son, Thomas Boleyn III,27 is highly likely to be false as Thomas referred to Geoffrey’s second wife, Anne Hoo Boleyn, as his mother repeatedly in his own will and placed a good deal of trust in her in the document, including making her his executor, something that does suggest that she was more likely to have been his mother than her predecessor.28 In all probability, the marriage to Dionise was a short one and she was soon supplanted by her more prominent successor, Anne Hoo. There is a tantalising hint in the records that she may have borne a child, and, in a list of early benefactors to Queen’s College, Cambridge, which was founded in 1446 and with which Thomas Boleyn II was strongly associated, a Dionysius Boleyn appears alongside Geoffrey Boleyn II and Anne his wife, as well as Thomas Boleyn II.29 The name Dionysius is so unusual that a comparison with the name Dionise must be made. It is perhaps not too romantic an interpretation to suggest that Dionysius was the son of Geoffrey Boleyn II and Dionise, with the child named in memory of a mother who died in childbirth – a common enough end for young married women in the medieval period. Dionysius was presumably an adult when he made his gift to the college at some point before his father’s death in 1463. This also suggests the possibility that he was the child of Dionise as Geoffrey’s remaining children, who were born to his second wife, were all minors at the time of his death. Dionysius, if he can be identified as the son of Geoffrey Boleyn II, died within his father’s lifetime, presumably still as a young man as he merited no further mention in surviving documents, including his father’s will.
The lives of the earliest Boleyn ladies were, to a large extent, obscure. The women, many of whose names no longer even survive, lived lives centred on Salle. They would have kept their houses and been involved in agriculture. The family was always reasonably prosperous, although their claims to gentry status were tenuous. This all changed with the career of Geoffrey Boleyn II and his marriage to his second wife, Anne Hoo, who laid claim to being a member of the nobility.