Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford

Lady in Waiting to Five Queens of Henry VIII

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn, Jane's Sister-in-Law. No images of Jane herself have survived. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, born Jane Parker (circa 1505 - February 13, 1542), was a noblewoman and a courtier at the court of Henry VIII of England. She married into the Boleyn/Howard family and spent the rest of her life embroiled in their intrigues.

Early Life

Jane was born in Norfolk, though the year is not recorded: record-keeping was imperfect at the time, and a daughter's birth was not significant enough. Her parents were Henry Parker, 10th Baron Morley, and his wife Alice (nee Alice St. John). Like most girls of noble birth, she was likely educated at home; records are scarce.

She was sent to court sometime before her fifteenth birthday to join the court of Katherine of Aragon. The first record of Jane being noted at court came in 1520, where she was part of the royal party that traveled to France for the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting between Henry and Francis I of France. Jane was also recorded as participating in a court masquerade pageant in 1522, which indicates she was likely considered very pretty, although no confirmed portraits of her survive.

Joining The Boleyns 

Her family arranged her marriage to George Boleyn in 1525. At the time, George's sister Anne Boleyn was a leader in court society, but had not yet caught the king's eye; her sister Mary had recently been Henry's mistress. As a respected member of a powerful family, George earned a wedding present from the king: Grimston Manor, a house in Norfolk.

By 1526 or 1527, Anne's power had increased, and with it the fortunes of all the Boleyns. George Boleyn was given the title Viscount Rochford in 1529 as a mark of royal favor, and Jane became known as Viscountess Rochford ("Lady Rochford" was the appropriate form of direct address).

Despite all these material gains, Jane's marriage was probably an unhappy one. George was unfaithful, and historians have debated the exact nature of his debauchery: whether he was promiscuous, gay, violent, or some combination thereof. Nevertheless, the marriage did not result in any children.

Boleyn Rise and Fall

In 1532, when Henry VIII entertained the French king Francis I at Calais, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Boleyn appeared together. Henry finally divorced Katherine, and Anne married Henry in 1533, at which time Jane was a lady of the bedchamber to Anne. The nature of her relationship with Anne is not recorded. Some speculate that the two were not close and that Jane was jealous of Anne, but Jane did risk temporary exile from court to help Anne banish one of Henry's younger mistresses.

Anne's marriage to Henry began to fail, however, and Henry's attentions began to turn to other women. Anne miscarried in 1534 and had discovered that Henry was having an affair. Somewhere along the line, Jane's loyalties shifted away from the faltering queen. By 1535, Jane had definitely sided against Anne, when Jane was part of a Greenwich demonstration protesting that Mary Tudor, not Anne's daughter Elizabeth, was the true heir. This incident led to a stay in the Tower for Jane and for Anne's aunt, Lady William Howard.

In May 1536, the Boleyns fell. George was arrested and accused of incest and treason, and Anne was accused of witchcraft, adultery, treason, and incest. Some have concluded that the idea that Anne and her brother George were committing incest may have been spread by Jane. While this is unknown, Jane's testimony was likely key evidence used in Thomas Cromwell's case against Anne. Another charge against Anne at her trial, though it was not spoken in court, was that Anne had told Jane that the king was impotent - a piece of information Cromwell had obtained from Jane. 

George Boleyn was executed on May 17, 1536, and Anne on May 19. Jane's motivations in this betrayal are lost to history: she may have been terrified by Henry's vengeance, but the reputation she gained in history was as a jealous harpy who schemed against her in-laws.

Lady To Later Queens

After her husband's death, Jane Boleyn retired to the country. She was in serious financial trouble and obtained some help from her father-in-law. Apparently, Thomas Cromwell was also helpful to the woman who had been helpful to him in making the case against Anne, and she was allowed to continue using her aristocratic title.

Jane became a lady of the bedchamber to Jane Seymour and was selected to bear the train of the Princess Mary at the queen's funeral. She was lady of the bedchamber to the next two queens, as well. When Henry VIII wanted a quick divorce from his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, Jane Boleyn provided evidence, saying that Anne had confided in her in a roundabout way that the marriage had not actually been consummated. This report was included in the divorce proceedings.

Now firmly with a reputation for eavesdropping and meddling, Jane became a crucial figure in the household of Henry VIII's young, new wife, Catherine Howard - a cousin of Anne Boleyn. In that role, she was found to have been a go-between arranging visits between Catherine and her love Thomas Culpeper, finding them meeting places and hiding their meetings. She may even have instigated or at least encouraged their affair, for reasons unknown.

Downfall and Depictions

When Catherine was accused of the affair, which amounted to treason against the king, Jane first denied knowledge of it. The interrogation of Jane over this matter caused her to lose her sanity, raising questions whether she'd be well enough to be executed. A letter to Culpeper was produced in Catherine's handwriting, in which was found the sentence, "Come when my Lady Rochford is here, for then I shall be at leisure to be at your commandment."

Jane Boleyn was charged, tried, and found guilty. Her execution took place on Tower Green on February 3, 1542, after Jane made a prayer for the king and alleged she had falsely testified against her husband. She was buried at the Tower of London, near Catherine, George, and Anne. 

After her death, the image of Jane as the jealous accuser and manipulator firmly took hold and was accepted as fact for centuries. Most fictional portrayals of her have depicted a jealous, unstable, vicious woman at worst and an easily manipulated tool of powerful men at best. In recent years, however, biographers and historians have revisited her legacy and questioned whether or not Jane simply did the best she could to survive one of the most dangerous courts in history.

Jane Boleyn Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford
  • Born: circa 1505 in Norfolk, England
  • Died: February 13, 1542 on Tower Green, London
  • Spouse: George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (m. 1525 - 1536)
  • Occupation: English nobility; lady of the bedchamber for four queens
  • Known for: Sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn who may have testified in her downfall; lady-in-waiting to five of Henry VIII's queens

Sources

  • Fox, Julia. Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
  • Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York, Grove Press, 1991.