On February 13, 1542, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford followed her mistress, Queen Catherine Howard, to the headsman’s bloc. There was a certain irony to Jane’s death. For six years before, she had played a part in sending several others to the block, amongst them, her husband, George Boleyn and George’s sister, Queen Anne. The exact nature of Lady Rochford’s role in the deaths of King Henry VIII’s second wife and his brother-in-law is debatable. Indeed, it did her no lasting harm for Jane Boleyn remained a fixture at court, serving as Lady in Waiting to all three of King Henry’s subsequent wives.
However, Jane’s luck ran out when she became complicit in the adultery of Queen Catherine Howard. She was arrested- and the pressure of the ensuing investigations sent her quite mad. Jane Boleyn’s insanity should have protected her from the block. However, King Henry had the law changed two days before her death, to allow the insane to be executed. This law remained on the statute books until it was repealed by Mary I’s Treason Act of 1554.
While Henry’s unforgiving attitude to those perceived to have betrayed him is well know, he went to an extraordinary length to avenge himself on a woman who was already broken. So what were the crimes of Jane Boleyn? And why did her former brother-in-law go to such lengths to be rid of her?
The Life and ‘Crimes’ of Lady Rochford
Jane Boleyn began life as Jane Parker, the daughter of the wealthy and well connected Henry and Alice Parker of Norfolk. At the age of twelve, after receiving the basic education of a young noblewoman, Jane was sent to the royal court. Although no verifiable portraits of her exist, Jane was reputedly pretty and presentable. Certainly, she did well for herself. At the age of 15, she was an attendant of Queen Katherine of Aragon. Jane was present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520- and was one of the dancers at the fateful masque where Anne Boleyn first caught Henry VIIIs eye.
In 1526, the Boleyns were on the up due to Henry’s obsession with Anne. Sensing an advantageous match, Jane’s parents organized her marriage to George Boleyn, who in 1529 became Viscount Rochford. Many historians have maintained that the marriage was unhappy, which seemed to be substantiated by the fact that the couple had no children. However, while it may have been a loveless match, there is nothing to suggest that George and Jane Boleyn did not enjoy as cordial a relationship as any other aristocratic couple. Indeed, Jane continued to write to her husband when he was in the Tower after his rest- despite the fact it was she who supposedly betrayed him.
It is Jane’s role in the death of her husband and sister in law that is her most contentious one and that has damned her in the eyes of history. The popular version of events sets Jane up as Cromwell’s star witness against the pair, for Jane was the supposed source of the stories of incest that damned Anne and George. Some people even believed it at the time. The poet Thomas Wyatt, a friend of Anne Boleyn reputedly called Jane a “wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his own blood.”
Jane was supposedly motivated to betray those closest two her by her desire to be rid of a cold, possibly abusive husband and the sister in law she hated. Yet there is evidence that she and Anne were close. Anne confided secrets of the royal bedchamber to her sister in law. And when Henry began an affair not long after their marriage, Jane conspired with Anne to have the woman banished from court- a scheme that earned her several months’ banishment herself once Henry found out!
After the deaths of Anne and George, Jane lost some of her lands and titles and had to rely on her father in law Thomas Boleyn for financial support. However, she was soon back at court as Lady in waiting to Jane Seymour. Jane also served Henry’s next wife, Anne of Cleaves and supplied the crucial evidence of the nonconsummation of the marriage. Then, in 1540, Jane was appointed Lady in Waiting to the Queen who was her downfall, Catherine Howard. In 1541, she helped facilitate and cover up the young Queen’s affair with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry’s gentlemen. In 1541, the affair was discovered and Jane, along with Catherine was arrested.