Modern history



Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford, as her surviving letter to Cromwell attests, was left in a perilous financial state after the execution of her husband, George Boleyn, writing to beg assistance as a ‘poor forsaken widow’. Although a Boleyn by marriage, her father-in-law had little interest in the childless widow of his only son, no doubt seeing her as a financial burden, It is no surprise, given her long court service and her need for funds, that she quickly took a court post, serving Anne Boleyn’s successor as queen, Jane Seymour.

Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, within days of Anne’s death, immediately ordering that she be given all honours due to her as queen. The facts behind Jane’s appointment with the new queen do not survive but, since Jane Seymour herself was a supporter of Princess Mary, it would seem likely that, politically, the two women had interests in common. Jane Rochford’s recent biographer has suggested that it was Thomas Cromwell who secured her place, in return for the widow’s consent to act as a spy in the queen’s household.1 Although an interesting theory, there is no evidence that Jane was used as a spy, in spite of her promise in her letter that, in the event that Cromwell assisted her, ‘God shall be to you therefore a sure reward, which doth promise good to them that doth help poor forsaken widows. And both my prayers and service shall help to this during my natural life, as most bounden so to do.’2 In any event, the minister evidently had his own sources close to Queen Jane since his son later married the queen’s sister. More likely Jane Rochford, with her long court experience, was a useful attendant for the new queen. Jane Seymour, as the daughter of Margery Wentworth, a first cousin of Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, was also related to Jane Rochford through her marriage to George and may have taken pity on her impecunious kinswoman.

Jane Rochford became friends with the new queen, receiving a gold tablet as a gift from her.3 She would have taken part in most of the ceremonial events of Jane Seymour’s brief time as queen, including the ceremonies surrounding her taking to her chamber to await the birth of her child on 16 September 1537. The queen’s labour began on 9 October, lasting for two days and three nights until she was finally delivered of a son, to the joy of the king and the country. Jane Seymour was well enough to play a role in the christening on 15 October but she soon sickened. By 24 October the queen’s life was despaired of and she died that evening, probably of puerperal fever. Perhaps Jane Rochford was one of the ladies who was blamed by Thomas Cromwell for killing their mistress with kindness by suffering her ‘to eat things that her fantasy in sickness called for’.4 Jane Rochford was prominent in the funeral procession of the late queen, holding the train of her friend, Princess Mary. With Jane Seymour’s death, Jane Rochford’s court appointment came to an end. She was glad to secure a new appointment to the household of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who arrived in England in December 1539.

Henry VIII had agreed to marry Anne of Cleves for political reasons, although he had been pleased by a portrait of the German princess prepared by his court painter, Hans Holbein. Unfortunately Henry, who had been used to selecting his bride personally, found himself disappointed in his bride when he met her at Rochester, finding her not as described. Henry only went through with the match for fear of offending Anne’s brother, the Duke of Cleves, and efforts to consummate the marriage were unsuccessful. Anne of Cleves, whose heavy German clothes were not to English tastes, tried her best to win her husband’s affection, appearing at jousts held to celebrate her marriage ‘apparelled after the English fashion, with a French hood, which so set forth her beauty and good visage, that every creature rejoiced to behold her’.5 Soon after his marriage, Henry began a relationship with Catherine Howard, who was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard, a brother of Elizabeth Howard Boleyn. Catherine was under twenty when she caught the king’s eye and had been raised by her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. As the daughter of a younger son, Catherine, in spite of her grand family name, had few prospects and she was therefore glad to receive an appointment as one of Anne of Cleves’s maids. This was probably when she first met Jane, the widow of her first cousin. By July 1540 Henry had taken the decision to end his marriage to Anne of Cleves and marry Catherine Howard, whom he considered to be his pure ‘jewel’.

Jane was one of Anne of Cleves’s highest-ranking ladies and she, along with ladies Rutland and Edgecomb, had considerable access to the queen in her household. In the summer of 1540, when the king began a trial of his marriage, the three ladies came forward to provide a deposition setting out a conversation that they had allegedly had with Anne on the Wednesday before midsummer at Westminster Palace.6 The three claimed to have had a long conversation with Anne when they said they wished that she was pregnant. Anne replied that she knew she was not, before revealing an alarming ignorance of sexual matters when she confessed that the king would merely kiss her goodnight before rolling over in bed to sleep when they spent the night together. That this conversation ever took place is highly doubtful. At the time of her divorce Anne’s own chamberlain, the Earl of Rutland, required an interpreter to speak with the queen and it is improbable that Anne, who only spoke German, could have understood the ladies and replied in such detail. More likely, given that Henry was seeking an annulment on the grounds of non-consummation, the three ladies perjured themselves on the promise of some benefit. For this testimony to believed, Lady Rochford must have been known to be reasonably close to the queen and respected by her, particularly as the ladies also claimed that on another occasion ‘the queen declared to my Lady Rochford, how the king used her the four first nights’, demonstrating that on occasion Jane was alone with her mistress and evidently considered a potential confidante. Jane, far from being an infamous and untrustworthy figure as often portrayed, won the affection of both Queen Jane Seymour and Queen Anne of Cleves. With Anne’s divorce in July 1540 and Henry’s remarriage, she was to quickly win the affection of the final royal mistress that she was to serve.

The summer of 1540 was unusually dry, with cattle dying in great numbers. London suffered as much as anywhere, with the Thames receiving so little rainwater that it was noticeably shallow and saltwater flowed under London Bridge, leading to transport difficulties in the capital.7 Although his boat trips were curtailed, Henry was enjoying himself, taking Catherine Howard as his bride on 28 July 1540 at Oatlands Palace. Catherine dined that evening under a cloth of estate denoting her new status and, as such, she required a household of ladies to attend her.8 Jane, as an experienced courtier and Catherine’s kinswoman by marriage, was soon appointed to attend Henry VIII’s fifth wife, becoming the new queen’s closest confidante.

Henry was over thirty years older than Catherine and a poor physical specimen. Although she was in awe of her husband, she was not in love with him and was, in fact, already in love with someone else at the time of her marriage. Catherine met Thomas Culpepper shortly after she arrived at court. He was a member of Henry’s Privy Chamber and a man who would have been considered an entirely suitable husband for her. He was young and handsome and the couple may already have been lovers before Catherine became queen. Culpepper does not appear to have been a particularly pleasant character. Shortly before he became involved with the queen he had raped the wife of a park keeper in a thicket of trees while three or four of his men held his victim down.9 Rape warranted capital punishment in England and Culpepper compounded the crime by killing one of the villagers who apprehended him. In spite of this, the young man was charming and highly personable. The king, who was very fond of him, pardoned him and allowed him to return to court.

Catherine made a present of a chain and rich cap to the man she called her ‘little sweet fool’.10 She was soon also writing him passionate love letters, with her only surviving letter being addressed to her lover. In it, Catherine declared that she was troubled by news of his illness and that ‘I never longed so much for [a] thing as I do to see you and to speak with you’.11 She further added that this thought ‘doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company’. It is clear from Catherine’s words that Jane had already become her most trusted confidante and was deeply involved in the affair, writing, ‘Praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment.’ As a respected and mature widow, Jane’s presence allayed suspicion and she was certainly considered an appropriate chaperone for the king’s wife. What possessed her to become involved in the affair is unclear as, even without the benefit of hindsight, it must have seemed like madness. Perhaps Jane took pity on the young lovers. Alternatively, she may have looked to gain an advantage over the queen to further her court career. It has been suggested that she acted under direct orders from Catherine.12 Less likely, Jane’s contemporary, Cavendish, putting words into her mouth, believed that,

And when my beauty began to be shent;
Not with mine own harm sufficed or content,
Contrary to God, I must needs confess,
Other I enticed by a sample of my wretchedness.13

She may simply have liked her royal kinswoman and was flattered by the confidence that the queen placed in her. It was a highly dangerous game as even Catherine realised. In her letter she begged that Culpepper be good to her male servant who brought the letter as ‘I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you’. As queen, Catherine was never alone and always watched, something of which the highly experienced courtier, Jane Rochford, should have been aware. She threw caution to the wind in her behaviour, taking a cramp ring from the queen to send as a token to Culpepper, as well as purchasing a pair of bracelets for the queen to give.14

Much of the evidence of Jane’s conduct in relation to the queen’s love affair survives from Henry VIII’s summer progress in 1541 when, for the only time in his reign, he ventured to the north of his kingdom, travelling up into Lincolnshire and Yorkshire with his queen and court. When the details of the affair later began to emerge, Catherine laid the blame squarely at Lady Rochford’s door, claiming that she had only embarked on a relationship with Culpepper due to Jane’s urgings, with the queen claiming that ‘Lady Rochford hath sundry times made instance to her to speak with Culpepper declaring him to bear her good will and favour’.15 Faced with this nagging and Jane’s assurance that Culpepper ‘desired nothing else but to speak with her and that she durst swear upon a book he meant nothing but honesty’, Catherine claimed that she consented to meet with the young man in a little gallery at the top of the stairs at Lincoln at ten or eleven o’clock at night. There is no doubt that Jane was deeply involved in Catherine and Culpepper’s affair, with her contemporary, Edward Hall, recording that it was she who conducted Culpepper to the queen’s chamber at Lincoln, where they ‘were there together alone, from eleven of the clock at night, till four of the clock in the morning’, something which suggests that Jane may have withdrawn to a side room during the meeting. It seems highly improbable that Catherine embarked on her affair only at Jane’s urging and, more likely, it was Catherine who urged her kinswoman to secure a meeting.

Once involved, Jane relished her role in assisting the lovers, on one occasion allowing the pair to make use of her own chamber at York.16 Catherine and Jane were both fully aware of the danger that they were in if they were discovered, with the queen later claiming that she said to Jane, ‘Alas madam this will be spied one day and then we be all undone,’ to which Jane replied, ‘Fear not madam let me alone I warrant you.’ Jane was present at most of the couple’s meetings, although she would often ‘sit somewhat far off or turn her back’.17 Given the late-night nature of the trysts, she also on occasion fell asleep. She would also sometimes remain in the bedchamber that she shared with the queen while Catherine met with Culpepper in a private place.18 That Jane was a very active participant in Catherine Howard’s treason is clear from the fact that, during the progress, she would take it upon herself to search out the back doors in every house they stayed in, ensuring that Culpepper was able to visit the queen in secret.19 When they came to Greenwich, she was able to assure her mistress that ‘she knew an old kitchen wherein she might well speak with him’.

The end of Catherine’s queenship came swiftly and brutally. That autumn, Archbishop Cranmer was approached by a young gentleman named John Lassells who informed him that his sister, Mary Hall, had been raised with Catherine in the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk and had reported to him that the queen had been ‘light of living’ and had had sexual relationships with two young men in the household, Henry Manox and Francis Dereham.20 Cranmer was shocked by what he heard and, on 2 November, handed a letter containing the allegations to the king. Henry was still besotted with his pretty young wife and refused to believe them, instead ordering an investigation in order to clear his bride’s name. To his horror, he found that Lassells’s claims were true and, devastated, the ageing king burst into tears, demanding a sword to slay his wife himself.

Catherine had been entirely oblivious to all that was happening and she was therefore horrified when, on 4 November, guards burst into her chamber at Hampton Court while she was practising her dance steps. As the musicians fell silent, the stunned queen was told that ‘it is no more time to dance’. Both Catherine and Jane must have been terrified, and it was with relief that they greeted the news that only the queen’s past life was the subject of the investigations.

Jane is likely to have been aware that Catherine Howard was not the innocent young virgin that Henry VIII had thought he had married, something which became all too evident when the court returned from the northern progress. The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household at Horsham had been home to a number of young girls and Catherine mixed with both gentlewomen, such as herself, and servants, sharing a dormitory room with the other unmarried women. Although Catherine received little formal education, her step-grandmother arranged for a neighbour, Henry Manox, to teach her to play the virginals. Manox was far beneath her socially but he seduced the young girl and, according to his later testimony, the couple fell in love with each other. The duchess found them alone together one day and, after beating Catherine, ordered them to separate. The relationship was never consummated but Catherine herself later admitted that ‘at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox being but a young girl suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit nor him to require’. Manox was dismissed when the duchess caught him and Catherine alone in her chapel chamber. Probably hoping to marry Catherine, he followed the household when it moved to Lambeth.

Catherine lost interest in Manox at Lambeth when she met a young kinsman of hers, Francis Dereham. Although not of equal status to Catherine, Dereham was higher born than the lowly Manox. He was also young and handsome and a particular favourite of Catherine’s step-grandmother. Many of the girls in the duchess’s household had lovers and, while the maidens’ dormitory was locked at night, the key was easily stolen. The young men of the household were then free to come and go as they entertained their lovers with picnics before sleeping with the girls. Catherine had been very young at the time of her flirtation with Manox, but when she met Dereham she was ready for a full affair. She later admitted that

Francis Dereham by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose and after within the bed and finally he lay with me naked and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife many and sundry times but how often I know not and our company ended almost a year before the King’s majesty was married to my lady Anne of Cleve and continued not past one quarter of a year or little above.

Catherine and Dereham’s relationship was consummated and Dereham later claimed that the pair became engaged, although Catherine, aware of her higher status, denied this. The couple referred to each other as husband and wife and exchanged love tokens, with Dereham lending Catherine the substantial sum of £100.

There was little privacy in the duchess’s household and the affair was soon common knowledge. Henry Manox was jealous of the new relationship and wrote to Catherine’s step-grandmother setting out the details of the affair. Rather than passing it directly to the duchess, Manox left it on her pew in her chapel where Catherine found it and showed it to Dereham. The precaution of destroying the letter was perhaps not necessary as the duchess already knew of the relationship. According to Katherine Tylney, one of the girls in the household, the duchess once ‘found Dereham embracing Mrs Katherine Howard in his arms and kissing her, and thereat was much offended and gave Dereham a blow, and also beat the queen [Catherine] and gave Joan Bowmar a blow because she was present. When Dereham was wanted the duchess would say, “I warrant you if you seek him in Katherine Howard’s chamber you shall find him there.”’ Under interrogation, Catherine signed a confession, admitting to her past and that she had, indeed, had lovers before her marriage to the king.21

Catherine’s conduct had been immodest, but it was hardly treason since she admitted that her relationship with Dereham had finished nearly a year before the king married Anne of Cleves and had only, in any event, lasted for around three months. She and Jane may therefore have hoped that nothing worse would be discovered. For Jane, the danger that she was in may only have become clear on 13 November 1542 when Sir Thomas Wriothesley, the king’s secretary, came to Hampton Court.22 He immediately set about calling Catherine’s ladies, gentlewomen and servants to him in the great chamber. Jane, whose name had not by then been linked to the enquiry, was among the group who met to hear of ‘certain offences that she [Catherine] had done in misusing her body afore the king’s time’. He then discharged the queen’s household and, the next day, Catherine was taken as a prisoner to Syon Abbey while the king decided what to do with her. She was still technically queen, but not accorded the honours associated with the role. Instead, Catherine was permitted only four gentlewomen and two chamberers to attend her, while she was allowed only six French hoods with gold trim but no jewels. Before her name had been mentioned in the enquiry, Jane remained with the queen, with the pair finding time to speak candidly to each other. Jane, terrified, advised Catherine to say nothing of Culpepper, reminding her that her interrogators ‘would speak fair to you and use all ways with you but and if you confess you undo both yourself and others’.23To hammer home her point, Jane declared that ‘I will never confess it to be torn with wild horses’.

Although in her confession Catherine swore that after her marriage she ‘intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your majesty after’, it soon became apparent to those carrying out the investigations that this was not the case, with Culpepper’s name soon being mentioned in the enquiry. Catherine always denied that she had actually consummated her relationship with Culpepper, but the evidence certainly suggests that the meetings between the pair were not innocent. Jane herself, in her own deposition, stated that she believed that the couple had sexual relations.24 The suspicion of adultery was very different to Catherine’s pre-marital activity and both Culpepper and Jane were quickly apprehended. Given the fact of Anne and George, Jane can have been in no doubt as to what her likely fate was to be.

Jane already had a certain notoriety as ‘the widow of that nobleman who was capitally punished, as you know, for incest with his sister, Queen Anne’.25 Damned by association, it was easy for her contemporaries to believe in her guilt. When word reached Chapuys, on 19 November, that she had been the ‘intermediary agent for such love appointments’, he also referred to George’s earlier fate in his despatch.26 It has been suggested that she suffered some kind of nervous breakdown while in prison.27 According to Chapuys, she lost her reason on the third day of her imprisonment, something that meant that she was not fit to be tried with Culpepper and Dereham early in December as expected.28 Jane well remembered what had happened to her husband and his sister after they were imprisoned and she must have been terrified. It would have been no consolation to her that the king sent his own doctors to her every day in a bid to ensure that she recovered her reason: this attention was not due to any pity that Henry felt for her. Instead, he wanted to ensure that she had sufficient reason to allow him to try and, in all probability, execute her. Evidently her sanity was still in doubt as, in February, he had Parliament pass an Act that stated that, since it was difficult to tell the difference between real and feigned madness, in cases of treason, the accused could be tried and condemned whether mad or not.29 There can be no doubt that this was aimed at Jane. It may be that her lack of sanity was rather questionable anyway, particularly as she had lucid intervals.30 The Act itself noted that madness could be feigned and Chapuys recorded that Jane recovered her reason at ‘the very moment’ she was told that she was to die.31 Given that this ‘recovery’ was made as soon as it became apparent that the king meant to execute her regardless of her state of health, it does seem highly likely that her condition was feigned. She certainly appeared sane enough to bystanders on the scaffold.

At his trial, Culpepper maintained that it was Catherine, through Jane, who had made all the advances and that he had merely bowed to royal pressure to meet with the queen, who had assured him that she ‘pined for him, and was actually dying of love for his person’.32 Trying to shift the blame to Catherine did not save him. Culpepper and Dereham died together at Tyburn on 10 December 1541, for their offences with the queen. Later that month Catherine’s uncle, Lord William Howard and his wife, along with Catherine’s friend, Katherine Tylney, and others were tried and convicted of assisting her in relation to her affair with Dereham.33 Catherine’s step-grandmother, the aged Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, was sent to the Tower at the same time.34 Jane and Catherine, in their separate prisons, must have known that it was only a matter of time before their own fates were decided.

Parliament opened on 15 January 1542 to consider the matter of the queen. Although Catherine still had hopes of her life, it was considered ominous that she was still at Syon Abbey, with an increased guard.35 Unlike her husband and sister-in-law nearly six years before, Jane was not given even the show of a trial, instead being condemned by Parliament in the same Act of Attainder as the queen. It is clear, from its wording, that Henry was as furious with Jane as he was with Catherine, with the Act declaring that

it may be enacted that the said Queen Katherine and Jane Lady Rochford for their said abominable and detestable treasons by them and every of them most abominably and traitorously committed and done against your majesty and this your realm shall be by the authority of this present parliament convicted and attainted of High Treason; and that … they … shall have and suffer pains of death, loss of goods, chattels, debts, farms, and all other things as in cases of high treason by the laws of this your realm hath been accustomed granted and given to the Crown.36

Jane was taken to the Tower on 9 February, with the queen following the next day.37 Catherine, as Anne Boleyn had been before her, was terrified, with it recorded that she ‘weeps, cries and torments herself miserably, without ceasing’.38 There were rumours that this would delay the executions in order ‘to give her leisure to recover’ as had earlier been afforded to Jane. This speculation was unfounded, and, for both, time had nearly run out. On the evening of 12 February, both women were told that they would die the next day. On hearing that she was soon to die, Catherine composed herself and asked for the block to be brought to her so that she could practice for the morning. Jane’s activity is not recorded but her last night alive cannot have been a joyful one.

At around nine o’clock in the morning on 13 February Jane and Catherine stepped out of the Tower together, making a short walk over to Tower Green where a scaffold had been erected. As they walked, they would have been aware that the king’s whole council, as well as other invited guests, had assembled to watch them die.39 As the superior in rank, Catherine was to die first, stepping up onto the scaffold to be beheaded by an axe. Her body was then covered with a black cloth and carried by her ladies to one side, to make space for Jane at the block.40 It was then Jane’s turn and she, like her mistress, was despatched quickly.

There is some dispute over the words spoken by Catherine and Jane on the scaffold. Their contemporary, Edward Hall, merely recorded that they ‘confessed their offences, and died repentant’.41 The French ambassador, on the other hand, recorded that ‘the queen was so weak that she could hardly speak, but confessed that she had merited a hundred deaths for so offending the king who had so graciously treated her. The Lady of Rochefort said as much in a long discourse of several faults which she had committed in her life.’42 Chapuys recorded that ‘neither the queen nor Madam de Rochefort spoke much on the scaffold; all they did was to confess their guilt and pray for the king’s welfare and prosperity’.43 Another account, written by Otwell Johnson, a London merchant who witnessed the two women die, claimed that both made Christian ends, and,

uttering their lively faith in the blood of Christ only, with wonderful patience and constancy to the death, & with goodly words and steady countenance they desired all Chritsian people, to take regard unto their worthy and just punishment with death for their offences, against God heinously from their youth upwards, in breaking of his commandment, and also against the king’s royal majesty, very dangerously: wherefore they being justly condemned (as they said) by the laws of the realm and parliament, to die, required the people (I say) to take example of them, for amendment of their ungodly lives, and gladly to obey the king in all things, for whose preservation they did heartily pray, and willed all people so to do commending their souls to god, & earnestly calling for mercy upon him.44

Given that Catherine was believed to have said little on the scaffold, much of the speech recorded above by Johnson was probably made by Jane. She therefore died a good death by the conventions of the day, appearing remorseful and contrite on the scaffold and admitting that she had sinned.

In death, Jane Parker Boleyn, the last true Boleyn woman to be resident at court, was laid in a humble grave near her husband, George Boleyn, and her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, in the chapel in the Tower. Although she was the last notable Boleyn woman, Boleyn daughters continued to be prominent. The most famous of them all, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was finally welcomed back into the royal family shortly after Jane’s death.

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