Tomb: Thomas Boleyn earl of Wiltshire

Who was Thomas Boleyn?

For many people, Thomas Boleyn is famous as the father of Anne Boleyn. However, this is to do him a great injustice. Thomas’ parents had invested in his education and social advancement (securing Eliabeth Howard, daughter of the earl of Surrey, as Thomas’ wife) and, when Henry VIII became king in 1509, Thomas was one of the young king’s favoured companions. He was made a knight of the Order of the Bath on the occasion of the King’s coronation, and regularly appeared at court. He was charming, athletic, skilled in aristocratic pursuits such as hunting and hawking, and he was a talented linguist. This made him both an ideal courtier and well suited to diplomatic work. He travelled abroad on numerous diplomatic missions, including time spent as resident ambassador in France. It was due to his diplomacy that he was able to obtain places for his daughters, Anne and Mary, at the French royal court. When his daughters returned to the English court and caught the attention of Henry VIII, Thomas rose rapidly in royal favour becoming first Viscount Rochford and then Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond. Anne’s marriage to Henry lifted her family to giddy heights but, with her death, it was returned largely to obscurity. Her father and mother were not implicated in the alleged crimes of their children but her mother died two years later, in 1538. Thomas died on 12 March 1539. Mary Boleyn died in 1543 and the remaining Boleyns, siblings of Thomas, showed no desire or talent for excelling at the royal court.

If you want to know more about Thomas Boleyn, I can recommend reading Lauren Mackay’s book Among the Wolves of Court.

Where is he buried?

Above: The church of St Peter viewed from the north east corner of the churchyard

Thomas Boleyn is buried in the church of St Peter in the village of Hever, just outside the edge of the Hever Castle estate. There has been a church in Hever since the 12th century and the oldest parts of the current building are believed to date to the 13th century. It was rebuilt and altered over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries – the chapel on the north side of the chancel was added in the mid-15th century. This chapel is known as the Boleyn (or Bullen) Chapel; Thomas Boleyn’s tomb is located under the arch between the chapel and chancel.

Above: The interior of the church with the Boleyn chapel just visible through the arches
Above: View from the chancel towards the Boleyn chapel with the tomb under the arch

What is the tomb like?

Compared with the memorials of many of his contemporaries, Thomas Boleyn’s tomb is relatively underwhelming. It is a chest tomb of purbeck marble with a brass inlaid in the top rather than a sculptural effigy. The brass depicts the full figure of a man in armour with his head resting on his helm and his feet on a beast (in this case a gryphon) – a fairly typical representation of noblemen in the 15th and 16th centuries. He is shown wearing the robe and collar of the Order of the Garter.

Above: The top of the tomb with inlaid brasses
Above: Detail of the brass showing the insignia of the Order of the Garter

Whilst the brass itself is high quality work for the 16th-century and is well preserved, the chest tomb is badly weathered and has been crudely repaired with brick. Although they are worn, canopied niches (now empty) can be made out along the sides of the chest. Curiously, the style of these niches appears to be more of the 15th century than the 16th – for example it bears some resemblance to the tomb of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland d. 1489. It is possible that an earlier memorial was reused for Boleyn, something that was not unheard of in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries.

Above: Slide to see Thomas Boleyn’s tomb and the tomb of Henry Percy, 4th earl of Northumberland

Another unusual feature of the tomb is that it is set below the current floor level of the chapel and the chancel. It is clear that the floors in the church have been raised and the decision must have been made not to attempt to lift the tomb to the new level.

Above: The raised floor level around Boleyn’s tomb

Is the date wrong on his tomb?

Look closely at the inscription on Boleyn’s tomb and you will notice that it says he died on 12 March 1538 rather than 12 March 1539. This is not a mistake by the engraver. Until the mid-18th century, the legal (or civil) year in England began on 25th March – confusingly the Tudors did still give new year gifts on 1st January! Therefore, at the time, Boleyn’s death was dated as 1538. Today, it is common for historians to give the “New Style” year for events occuring between 1st January and 24th March to avoid confusion. Sometimes in older or academic texts, you may come across dates recorded as 12 March 1538(OS) for Old Style or 12 March 1538/9 to indicate both the Old and New Style year.

Above: Inscription on the top with 1538 date

Where are the other members of his family buried?

There is a brass to an infant son of Thomas’, Henry, in St Peter’s church but there are no other members of his family commemorated or conclusively known to have been buried at Hever. After their executions, George and Anne Boleyn were buried alongside one another in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the grounds of the Tower of London. Thomas’ wife, Elizabeth, died in 1538 and was buried in St Mary’s Church, Lambeth, alongside other (mostly female) members of her birth family. Her ledger stone was rediscovered recently and is on display in the floor of the Garden Museum shop. Interestingly, her name is given as Elizabeth Howard, countess of Wiltshire not her married name of Elizabeth Boleyn. The final resting place of the last of Thomas’ family, Mary Boleyn (later Mary Carey and then Mary Stafford), is unknown.

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