Guest Post: The Infamous Lady Rochford and the fall of Anne Boleyn by Monika Simon

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Monika Simon to the blog. Monika’s debut book, From Robber Barons to Courtiers: The Changing World of the Lovells of Titchmarsh, is out at the end of the month. And on the anniversary of the execution of Henry VIII’s second and tragic queen, Anne Boleyn, Monika has written about the involvement in events, of Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane, Lady Rochford.

The Infamous Lady Rochford and the fall of Anne Boleyn

by Monika Simon

Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I, was executed on 19 May 1536. Reading about the whirlwind prosecution of Anne Boleyn and her fellow accused that lasted not even four weeks, one name comes up inevitably as one of the key witness if not the key witness: Anne’s sister-in-law Jane, Lady Rochford, sometimes cited as the person who may have accused Anne and her brother George of incest.

In short, she has become ‘the infamous Lady Rochford’. But does she deserve her infamy?

Jane was born Jane Parker, the name I continue to use here*, around the year 1500 as the oldest (or possibly second oldest) daughter of Henry Parker, Lord Morley and his wife Alice St John. Her father was the son of Alice Lovell and Sir William Parker, a knight from an obscure northern family. William Parker had made his career in the service of Richard III and it is possible that Alice Lovell’s cousin Francis Lovell had helped to arrange the marriage between Alice and his fellow member of the retinue of Richard, then Duke of Gloucester. Alice Lovell inherited her mother’s Morley estates after the death of her brother Henry Parker, Lord Morley in the battle of Dixmude in 1489. As a boy, Henry Parker entered the service of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and she arranged his marriage to Alice St John, the granddaughter of her half-brother John St John.

Around 1520, Jane Parker became a lady-in-waiting of Catherine of Aragon. To achieve this position she must have been good looking and quite accomplished. In the following years she often participated in the grand pageants at court, including a particularly spectacular one in 1522 revolving around a mocked-up castle, the Château Vert. It was inhabited by ladies dressed as virtues. A mock fight was then staged between boys representing vices and eight gentleman, including Henry VIII, who also bore mottos. Jane was given the role of Perseverance, the king’s sister Mary Tudor was Beauty and a recent newcomer, Anne Boleyn, portrayed Constancy. In the mid-1520s Jane Parker married Anne Boleyn’s brother George, whom she must have known well from court.

The Parkers were estates were situated near those of the Boleyns and the Howards were another noble family whose property was nearby. As is so often the case with aristocratic families, multiple ties existed between these families. Jane’s grandmother Alice Lovell had married Edward Howard after the death of her first husband. Edward Howard’s sister Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Boleyn and the mother of Jane’s husband George and Anne Boleyn. Thomas Boleyn’s sister Anne was in turn the mother-in-law of Jane’s sister Margaret.

While George Boleyn was profiting from his sisters affair with and marriage to Henry VIII, Jane was able to enjoy the honours and grants that he received alongside her husband. When her father-in-law was elevated to Earl of Wiltshire, George received the courtesy title of Viscount and Jane became a Viscountess.

But Jane’s situation changed drastically when the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn soured. As lady-in-waiting and sister-in-law to Anne, Jane was one of the women and men who were questioned in the search for incriminating evidence against Anne, her brother George, and the other accused. The brief description of Jane’s life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asserts that by this time, she had turned against Anne and that she may have been the source of rumours about George and Anne’s incest and of Henry VIII’s impotence. It is speculated that the reason for Jane’s actions was that her relationship to the Boleyns had been ‘poisoned by sexual jealousy’. As the accusations against Anne and her alleged lovers are almost generally regarded as spurious and just a means to an end, Jane Parker must have deliberately lied and lied in the full knowledge that it would cost her husband, her sister-in-law, and the other accused their lives. Accordingly, she has been described by Diarmaid MacCulloch as a ‘less than grieving widow’ and when she wrote to her husband imprisoned in the Tower that she would plead for his life, Eric Ives states that the letter ‘smells of malice’. Her complaints about her impoverished state after the goods and estates of her husband had been confiscated have been severely criticised as well.

Commemorative Plaque at the Tower of London

But on what evidence is the assertion based that Jane Parker was a main or the key witnesses against Anne Boleyn and the other accused?

The short answer is: not much. Though the proceedings against the accused are fairly well documented, and individual statements are known, what exactly Jane or anybody else said under questioning was not recorded in detail. The one information provided by Jane that we know for certain was used in the trial of her husband George. He was asked to silently read a note he was handed and answer yes or no. George, however, probably knowing that he had already been condemned before the official judgement, decided to read the note out loud. It said that his wife Jane had told him that his sister Anne had told her that the king ‘was no good in bed with women, and that he neither had potency nor force’.

This statement was probably received with embarrassed silence by the assembled Lords, Jane’s father among them, who knew that this was a particularly touchy topic. However tactless it was, the information was neither about adultery nor incest.

Another piece of evidence against Jane is that George Boleyn is recorded to have said, ‘On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgement’. It has often been assumed that the one woman he referred to was his wife. There were however other women who were questioned and according to John Spelmen, one of the judges of the trial, it was Lady Wingfield’s deathbed confession that first revealed Anne’s behaviour.

The third piece of ‘damning’ evidence is the lost journal of Antony Antony, which probably  included the statement that ‘the wife of Lord Rochford [George Boleyn] was a particular instrument in the death of Queen Anne’.

The charge that Jane was the source of incest against her husband is based on a book by Bishop Burnet, writing over a hundred years later, who asserted that Jane Rochford ‘carried many stories to the king or some about him [George Boleyn]’, and evidence ‘that there was a familiarity’. Bishop Burnett had access to sources no longer existing, but what these sources said and how reliable they were cannot be determined today.

Signature of Jane, Lady Rochford

To me this evidence seems rather flimsy, but for many it has been enough to condemn Jane, but there are also those, who like me don’t believe Jane was responsible for the death of Anne Boleyn, her husbands and the other accused notably Julia Fox who wrote a biography about her.

How Jane’s previous and subsequent actions have been interpreted depends on whether the historian in question believes in Jane’s guilt or not.

Three examples show this quite clearly. According to a report by the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys from 1534, Jane was banished from court as she had conspired with Anne to get rid of a lady who Henry VIII had become too interested in. If Jane is thought to be guilty in the case against Anne, as for example Eric Ives does, this must be an unfounded rumour. If Jane is not seen as guilty, for example by Julia Fox, it is believable that she worked together with Anne to remove a rival.

A year later a crowd of women from London demonstrated their loyalty to Lady Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, who was saying at Greenwich at this time. Among the mob were two ladies, Lady Jane Parker and Lady ‘William Howard’. Those who think Jane was guilty find this only natural, as she was ‘otherwise known as Anne’s enemy’, in the words of Eric Ives. Others, Richard Starkey for example, point out that the names of the two ladies were later added to the document, and states that Jane Parker would never be foolish enough to participate in such a demonstration.

It is also hard to believe that Anne Boleyn would have allowed Jane to remain her lady-in-waiting if she had been a ‘known enemy’. Ives himself repeatedly stresses how much control Anne had over the personnel at court so she would have been able to have Jane dismissed or at least sent away from court until she learned how to behave herself. Jane’s husband George would have hardly pressed a ‘known enemy’ on his sisters, and Jane’s father definitely had not enough influence to force Anne to accept his daughter as lady-in-waiting if the queen wanted her gone.

Unknown Man, possibly George Boleyn, Hans Holbein

The third example of how Jane’s actions, or in this case possible actions, are interpreted is the report that on Whitsun 1536, two weeks after the executions of Anne Boleyn, Jane, her father and mother paid a visit to Lady Mary. This visit is seen as further proof of Jane’s hostility to Anne. However, the document from which the visit is known is badly damaged and most likely says only that Henry Parker, Lord Morley, his wife and unnamed daughter visited Mary. The daughter in question was, however, most likely not Jane but her sister Margaret. Margaret’s parents-in-law, John Shelton and Anne Boleyn, were in charge of Mary at the time.

What the relationship between Jane and her husband was really like on a personal level is something we can only judge from their actions and as the three examples above show, Jane’s behaviour has been interpreted according to the author’s judgement on whether or not she was responsible for Anne’s death.

In the end, the case against Jane Parker rests on one vague statement by her husband about ‘a woman’, a lost journal that may have included the accusation, and the later report by Bishop Burnett that is impossible to verify. On the other hand, the one definite piece of information we have, that she was told by Anne a very intimate detail about her married life, which Jane in turn shared with her husband, shows that far from being estranged to the queen or her husband, Jane was on good terms with them. Anne surely would not have divulged the problematic state of her relationship to Henry VIII to a woman who was her enemy.

Additionally, if the whole case against Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers was a farce and falls apart as soon as it is analysed, as Ives states, can Jane even be responsible for Anne Boleyn’s fate? If the trial was only the means to the end of getting rid of Anne and make way for a new queen, what Jane said or whether or not George Boleyn read out the note in court made no difference whatsoever.

Why are so many writers convinced of Jane Parker’s guilt based on this meagre evidence? For most of them this is an open and shut case and has been proved for centuries. The focus of their research was on a different subject and they had to rely on other writers for their information. Diarmaid MacCullough working on his massive and excellent biography of Thomas Cromwell could not let himself be side-tracked by examining in detail every person that happened to come in contact with the subject of his study.

Additionally, Jane Parker, Lady Rochford also became entangled in the downfall of another of Henry VIII’s wives: Katherine Howard. Jane was briefly exiled from court following Anne Boleyn’s execution, but returned to became lady-in waiting to the next three queens. When Katherine Howard’s youthful misdemeanours had come to light, her behaviour as queen was scrutinised and it was discovered that she had become all too friendly with a young courtier, Thomas Culpepper, one of the king’s gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. During the court’s progress through northern England Katherine had secretly met Thomas Culpepper on several occasions, meetings that often lasted for hours. Her lady-in-waiting Jane Parker was incriminated as well as she had helped arranged these clandestine encounters and acted as a chaperon. In their trial, all three, Thomas Culpepper, Katherine Howard, and Jane Parker, naturally tried to present their part in the events in as innocent a light as possible. Culpepper blamed the women for leading him astray, Katherine blamed Jane for encouraging her and enabling the meetings, and Jane said she had only done what Katherine had told her to do. None of them could deny they had been involved and all three were executed.

In the light of her involvement in Katherine Howard’s conviction and death, it was easy to assume that Jane had also been involved in the downfall of Anne Boleyn. By the reign of Elizabeth it was also adamant that the reputation of her mother had to be freed of any doubts about her sexual conduct, but the blame for her execution should also not be put on Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. Blaming others, like Jane Parker or Thomas Cromwell, had become the prudent explanation of the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

* I generally refer to married women my their maiden names for one to keep their natal family in mind and secondly to avoid confusion. Alice Lovell and Alice St John would otherwise become Alice Parker.

About the book:

Francis Lovell is without a doubt the most famous – if not the only famous – Lovell of Titchmarsh. In 1483 he was he was made a viscount by Edward IV, the first Lovell to be raised into the titled nobility. He is most famous for being the chamberlain and close friend of Richard III, the ‘dog’ of William Collingbourne’s famous doggerel.

Though Francis Lovell is the best known member of his family, the Lovells were an old aristocratic family, tracing their roots back to eleventh-century Normandy. Aside from the Battle of Hastings, a Lovell can be found at virtually all important events in English history, whether it was the crusade of Richard I, the Battle of Lewes, the siege of Calais, the Lambert Simnel rebellion against Henry VII, or the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Over the centuries the Lovells rose in wealth and power through service to the crown, rich marriages, and, to a considerable degree, luck.

The history of the Lovells of Titchmarsh, from their relatively obscure beginnings in the border region between France and Normandy to a powerful position at the royal court, not only illustrates the fate of this one family but also throws an interesting light on the changes and developments in medieval and Tudor England. Several themes emerge as constant in the lives of an aristocratic family over the five centuries covered in this book: the profit and perils of service to the crown, the influences of family tradition and personal choice, loyalty and opportunism, skill and luck, and the roles of women in the family.

About the author:

Monika E. Simon studied Medieval History, Ancient History, and English Linguistics and Middle English Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, from which she received an MA. She wrote her DPhil thesis about the Lovells of Titchmarsh at the University of York. She lives and works in Munich.


My Books:

Coming 31 May 2021:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly  and Monika Simon

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