In my post on Anne Boleyn’s family, I commented that I was interested to see how they were going to depict Jane, Lady Rochford’s involvement in Anne’s fall. In the end, they showed her talking to Cromwell after flirtatious chatter between Anne, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and William Brereton gets out of hand. She then goes on to claim that her husband has committed adultery with his sister. Cromwell makes reference to Anne’s other ladies having talked after her arrest but we don’t see them. This is a departure from the book where Cromwell is shown talking to Elizabeth, countess of Worcester and Margaret Shelton before he talks to Jane Rochford.
Lady Rochford intrigues me as a character because of the contrast between her depiction in popular culture and the lack of evidence we really have about her. So, what do we know about her?
Jane Boleyn (or Jane Parker as she is sometimes referred to, using her maiden name) is usually portrayed as forced into a loveless marriage with a renowned womaniser, jealous of her sister-in-law, bitter about her husband’s close relationship with his sister and a key source of the rumours that brought about the deaths of Anne and her (alleged) lovers. In some depictions she is also lumbered with a bisexual husband and an abusive marriage.
We know very little about her marriage to George Boleyn except that it was childless. It is likely that it was an arranged marriage but that was not unusual for the children of noblemen and courtiers – Jane, the daughter of Lord Morley, a gentleman usher to Henry VIII, would have been aware of this. There is little evidence either that their marriage was happy or unhappy, the unhappiness is largely deduced from her involvement in the Boleyn’s fall, her father-in-laws unwillingness to support her after George’s execution and Cromwell’s intervention on her behalf. Regarding these latter two points, many Tudor noblemen and gentlemen were reluctant to support unmarried or widowed female relatives as it diminished their wealth so Thomas Boleyn was not necessarily punishing her and Cromwell was regularly approached by women (including the duchess of Norfolk) seeking his support in disputes with their male relatives so his involvement was not necessarily a reward for her help. All that said, George does appear to have been a womaniser, certainly he was skilled in the games of courtly love that played out in the Tudor court, and he may have blamed his wife for the accusation of incest.
In terms of Jane’s involvement in Anne’s fall, she has long been believed to have been responsible for the accusations of incest – this is based on Bishop Burnet’s late seventeenth century history of the Reformation which itself referred to the now lost journal of Anthony Anthony. It is unlikely that this can be conclusively proved either way, but, even if it is true, her evidence was just one small part of that arrayed against Anne and she does not seem to have provided the initial gossip that opened the way for Anne to be brought down. The question of the Queen’s faithfulness appears to have been brought to wider attention. There is contemporary evidence that it was Elizabeth Somerset, countess of Worcester, who was Anne’s main accuser. It appears that her brother, Sir Anthony Browne, was taking her to task for promiscuous behaviour when she retorted that she was not the worst sinner. The timing coincided with Anne’s enemies circling and she was subsequently questioned, revealing details of the behaviour in Anne’s household and accusing her of adultery. Further incriminating evidence was provided by Anne herself. The conversations depicted in the final episode of Wolf Hall – Mark Smeaton’s claim that a look from he Queen was enough, Francis Weston’s claim he loved Anne more than his wife and Anne’s assertion that Henry Norris would not marry Margaret Shelton because he wished to marry her after Henry’s death – were all derived from letters sent by Sir William Kingston (Anne’s gaoler) to Cromwell reporting Anne’s conversations with her attendants in the Tower.
Where does this leave us in understanding Lady Rochford?
It seems likely that she was not in the happiest of Tudor marriages and her offer to plead to the King for husband’s life does not appear to have come to anything. But that does mean that she was in an abusive marriage or that she maliciously set out to ruin her husband and sister-in-law. She probably did provide some gossip to Cromwell but so did others and she was not the instigator of the allegations. There was probably enough evidence against Anne without her input but it may have added a touch of authenticity to the allegations against George. She was brought up at court from her mid-teens, serving five of Henry VIII’s wives and this incident, combined with her later involvement in Catherine Howard’s affairs, it seems that she revelled in the world of courtly flirtation and gossip. Unfortunately, she seems to have ultimately lacked the wisdom and insight to tell when she had crossed a line.