Poor Jane Boleyn just could not catch a break during her time as a member of King Henry VIII’s court. Betrayed multiple times and by multiple people, the intrigue and backstabbing of the court eventually caused Jane to lose her head…literally. As if this wasn’t bad enough, people proceeded to make her out as some sort of cartoonish, cackling witch of a villain. How did this all come to pass? Read on to find out.
Born around the year 1505, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, originally went by the much plainer name of Jane Parker. Don’t let that fool you though: her family was well-connected, wealthy, politically active, and a part of the English upper class. She was a very distant relative to King Henry VIII, and eventually ended up being a part of the court.
It wasn’t the distant family connection that got her in though—she had her mom to thank for that.
In her time, Jane’s mom would’ve likely schemed and plotted to get Jane into the royal court to become educated in the ways of being a lady. While we’re not sure exactly what kind of backstabbing and political maneuvering her mom had to do to get her daughter in, she definitely succeeded. When Jane hit her early teens, she joined the court of King Henry VIII.
Needless to say, court life completely blew her away.
Jane had a pretty cushy childhood, but life at Henry VIII’s court was on a whole other level. At court, the King treated Jane and the rest of his courtiers to the finest of exotic foods, which she partook in while dressed in the glitziest of court fashion. She spent the rest of her time watching jousts or dancing at balls.
All Jane did in exchange was occasionally look after the King’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. What could possibly go wrong?
As Jane settled into court life, her beauty and “winning manner” began to garner some attention from members of the court. This made it clear that Jane was ready for her next career move: getting hitched. Of course, like most other women of her time, Jane didn’t get to choose the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with.
No, that choice was in the hands of her father, and boy, did he choose for her a doozy of a husband.
Sometime between late 1524 and early 1525, Jane married George Boleyn. All seemed pretty awesome on the surface: the marriage got Jane respect from society, a sweet mansion out in Norfolk, and it made her a member of the influential Boleyn family. Not only did being a Boleyn make her politically affluent, but it even gave her access to their lands and riches. Unfortunately, the marriage came with a major downside: her actual husband.
In many ways, Jane kind of lucked out when it came to George. It wasn’t uncommon for women around Jane’s age to marry men who were much, much older, and George was, thankfully, right around her age. That’s where the praise ends, though. Otherwise, George was an absolutely vile man. He allegedly slept around with anything with a pulse, which makes for an unhappy marriage in any era.
Whether true or not, Jane was stuck with her new husband, and now that she was a member of the Boleyn family, everything about her life was about to change.
Jane Boleyn was there to witness the scandalous affair unfolding between King Henry VIII and her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn. Jane and the rest of the Boleyn family jumped at the opportunity to get Anne married to the King himself, envisioning the prestige the union would bring them. When Anne and Henry wed on January 25, 1533, Jane got a small taste of what being a member of the King’s family meant for the Boleyns.
After the marriage of Henry and Anne, Jane and the Boleyns reaped the rewards of their union. One reward was the transfer of the title of Viscount Rochford over to her husband, making Jane the Viscountess Rochford by association. Her lifestyle became downright lavish as the King showered the Boleyn family with wealth. Despite this, not all was well between Jane and her sister-in-law.
Despite Anne being Jane’s key to a fabulous lifestyle, Jane allegedly wasn’t too fond of her sister-in-law. One reason may have been plain old jealousy of all the attention the King gave to Anne. Another may have been that Jane didn’t like how so much of her own financial independence relied on Anne’s success as the Queen.
Whatever the case may be, Jane still had a duty to help Anne, so when Anne called on her for help, Jane put her personal feelings aside to join her in a bit of good old-fashioned courtly scheming.
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In 1534, Anne caught the King having an affair with a member of the court. Furious, she roped Jane into a devious plan. She wanted to get rid of the King’s new flame. Jane agreed to pick a fight with the King’s new mistress, raising such a ruckus that “Henry, finding the fracas all too tiresome and preferring a quiet life, would dismiss the girl from court.”
And okay, this wasn’t exactly a flashy or exciting scheme, but it should’ve gotten the job done without any repercussions to the Boleyn family. Instead, their plot backfired on Jane in a big way.
What Jane hadn’t accounted for was Henry’s temper. Henry didn’t just roll his eyes and dismiss Anne’s rival—no, the man flipped his lid. And not even at Anne’s rival, but at Jane herself! Henry ended up exiling her from the court for several months as a result of her little plot. Jane likely spent these months bouncing between the different Boleyn households as she waited for things to cool down before trying to win the King’s favor once again.
What Jane didn’t know was that her return would be quickly followed by some of the worst days of her life.
When the King forgave Jane Boleyn for her little scheme, she quickly returned to court, only to receive terrible news. Anne had miscarried, and the King was beside himself with anger. Worst still, his eyes started wandering to a lady in court named Jane Seymour. Well, that shouldn’t have been a problem, right? Anne just needed to get pregnant again!
Well, Anne ended up confiding a dark secret to Jane that threw a wrench into that plan.
Anne confessed to Jane that the King had some trouble, well, performing, in the bedroom. The news shocked Jane, and worried her deeply. If Henry decided he needed a different wife to spice things up in the bedroom and got rid of Anne, Jane’s fortune would disappear—poof!—just like that. Like a good Boleyn, Jane brought the news back to the family—in particular, to her husband, George. As a result, Jane, at least partially, sealed her husband’s fate.
May 2, 1536, was one of the darkest days of Jane’s life. Scheming courtiers had accused George and Anne Boleyn of being in an incestuous relationship with each other. As a result, Henry VIII’s guards imprisoned them in the Tower of London. As someone close to them both, Jane became a person of great interest to Minister Thomas Cromwell, who led the investigation into this supposed relationship.
When he summoned Jane for her testimony, she knew what she said next would decide her entire future.
The testimony of Jane Boleyn was utterly cold-blooded. She spoke against her husband and sister-in-law, but accounts as to why Jane did this differ. Some say that, between her husband’s infidelity and her jealousy towards Anne, Jane provided testimony against the two of them out of spite. Others say that Anne only testified against them due to the pressure from Cromwell’s incessant questioning, and her fear of losing her station.
Whatever you believe, it’s clear that there was very little Jane could do to stop the King’s wrath—but she tried anyway.
Getting a letter directly to her imprisoned husband was near impossible, but Jane Boleyn managed to do it. In the letter, Jane asked after George’s health, and promised that she would “humbly [make] suit unto the king’s highness” on his behalf. Unluckily for Jane, this was an empty promise—by now, the Boleyn family did not have the favor of the King, and he wasn’t about to listen to Jane’s pleas.
When the trial for Anne and George began, Jane had no choice but to sit back helplessly and watch it unfold.
The trials found both Jane’s husband and sister-in-law guilty—and their sentence was truly disturbing. Both were beheaded to great ceremony. Jane and the Boleyn family now truly lived in disgrace. Being a widow didn’t even get Jane any sympathy or comfort—no one wanted to hang around the ex-wife of a man who engaged in incestuous relations with the Queen. Finding no friends in court, her life came crashing down around her.
King Henry’s officers immediately set to work seizing the Boleyn family’s belongings, and that applied to Jane as well. They took all her beautiful silks and dresses, along with her jewelry. She lost all the land and estates the family worked so hard to get. Even any debts owed to George went straight to Henry and the royal coffers. This wasn’t the only thing either—the humiliation just kept getting worse.
You might be wondering why Jane didn’t go back to her original family. After all, weren’t the Parkers doing pretty well for themselves? Yeah, you can scrap that idea. Even her father got in on the action, swooping in to take some of the offices that the Boleyn family originally held. There was only one person Jane could turn to: Thomas Boleyn, her father-in-law. And even that came with its own set of problems.
The biggest issue Jane faced was that she had no children with George. No children meant she had nothing to bargain with, and no way to gain sympathy from her father-in-law. As far as Thomas saw it, Jane was just some girl he was stuck with now. Jane received the bare minimum Thomas legally owed to give her, which was a bit of land and a very small annual salary. She needed more if she didn’t want to become a destitute widow, so she turned to an unexpected source.
Jane decided to make a heartbreaking plea, and began to pen the most important letter of her life to Minister Thomas Cromwell. Even though he had essentially shaken her down for information, leading to her husband and sister-in-law’s executions, she couldn’t deny that he held a lot of power in court. If Cromwell couldn’t get her out of this mess, no one could.
She begged him to ask Henry to help her out, and surprisingly, he did.
At Cromwell’s prompting, King Henry managed to pressure Jane’s father-in-law to increase her yearly allowance. Jane was grateful. At 30 years old and as a part of a disgraced family, Jane didn’t have many people to turn to. Now, she could only depend on herself. With her increased yearly allowance in hand, Jane set out to carve herself a new life in the English court. And that was exactly what she did.
After a year of hard work, Jane returned to the King’s court. This time, she became a lady-in-waiting to none other than Jane Seymour, the lady who had usurped her sister-in-law’s position as the Queen. While it’s hard to say whether Jane felt any sort of ill-will towards the new Queen, one thing was for sure: her appointment as Seymour’s lady-in-waiting happened for a twisted reason.
When Jane originally asked Cromwell for help, she promised him two things in return: her “prayers,” and her “services.” A shrewd man, Cromwell realized that the Seymour family hungered for power, but he couldn’t keep an eye on them all the time. Jane, however, had direct access to the Queen’s private chamber, making her an effective spy. While this meant Jane had to play a dangerous game of espionage, the perks certainly made up for it.
As Seymour’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn had her own servants, stayed in the swanky palace, and kept her title of “Lady Rochford.” The Queen herself paid for Jane’s lavish meals. All in all, Jane managed to keep herself fed, warm, and with a very fancy roof over her head—definitely not too shabby. However, she lived in fear.
There was one thing about her life she had little control over, and it worried her constantly: how long Seymour could hang onto her position as the Queen.
Much to Jane’s relief, the Queen managed to get herself pregnant by Christmas of 1536, giving birth to a male heir in October of the following year. As her lady-in-waiting, and with her job on the line, Jane stayed with the Queen every step of the way, tending to her every whim and making sure she recovered from the ordeal.
When the Queen showed every sign of recovering, Jane must have breathed a sigh of relief, but the relief turned out to be short-lived.
Eight days after the Queen’s son went through his christening, things suddenly took a turn for the terrifying. Seymour fell deathly ill. Cromwell very quickly pointed the finger at Jane and the rest of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, saying that they “suffered her to take cold, and eat such things as her fantasy in sickness called for.” Was this unfair?
Totally, but fighting Cromwell’s accusations probably wasn’t the best idea, so Jane kept her mouth shut. In any case, Jane had other ways of defending herself.
It turned out that there was at least some justice in Jane’s world. Despite Cromwell’s accusation, Jane’s decades of experience in court and as a lady-in-waiting saved her from his accusations. Unfortunately, they couldn’t save the poor Queen. On October 24, 1537, Jane witnessed the passing of the Queen. With her fate tied so closely to Seymour’s, Jane knew that the tragedy meant that her own life was about to change again.
For a while, Jane Boleyn did alright for herself after the Queen’s passing. She no longer had a job at the court, but she managed to live off of her yearly salary and the lands she held. Still, she wasn’t happy living a quiet, idyllic life. She loved the excitement of King Henry’s court, and living out in the countryside must’ve been mind-numbingly boring for Jane.
So, when her father-in-law contacted her out of the blue, she took the chance to spice up her life a bit, and to get a bit of revenge.
You see, Jane had some Boleyn family mansions in her possession, and Thomas wanted them for himself. He figured taking them from Jane would be like taking candy from a baby, but boy, was he wrong. Years of court intrigue made Jane a master negotiator, and by the end of negotiations, Jane gained a huge sum of his money, plus lands and titles that he had not at all planned to hand over to Jane.
While this was a huge win, Jane missed the bustle of court life. A few years later, she got a chance to return.
Jane always kept one ear on the ground for news of a new queen coming to town—after all, a new queen needed a skilled lady-in-waiting, and Jane was one of the best. Eventually, Jane caught a lucky break. Henry married the German Anne of Cleves on January 6, 1540, meaning Jane once more had her old post back. She looked forward to a nice, long career of being this new Queen’s lady-in-waiting.
Except this is King Henry VIII we’re talking about here, and—spoiler alert!—his queens didn’t tend to last long.
There was a veritable laundry list of issues that Henry had with Anne, but one of the biggest ones was the language barrier. While Henry didn’t bother trying to break through it, Jane and the rest of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting did their best to communicate with one another. Unfortunately, as Jane got to know her queen better, one thing became clear: this marriage, and thus Jane’s job, wasn’t going to last, for one huge, awful reason.
What’s the most important aspect of the married life of a King and Queen? If you said “steamy bedroom action,” you’re right! And that’s something that Jane knew wasn’t happening between King Henry VIII and Queen Anne of Cleves, which was bad news for Jane. How did she know? Well, Jane got her first clue that not all was well in the marriage of the King and the Queen when Anne told her a very strange story…
During a conversation between Jane Boleyn and Anne of Cleves, Jane made a saucy, if pointed, joke about Anne still being a virgin. After all, a queen’s job was to consummate the marriage and to start popping out an heir, and Anne really should get on that. The king’s wife’s answer was shocking. Like a blushing teenager, Anne replied that she totally wasn’t a virgin, thank-you-very-much!
In fact, the King—gasp!—kissed her. Sometimes. So she should be getting pregnant soon, right? And that was how Jane ended up having to teach her 25 year-old Queen about the birds and the bees. A couple of months later, this funny little story took on a dark twist.
Henry soon fell in love with Catherine Howard, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, and started divorce proceedings. To approve the divorce, Henry needed to prove that he and Anne never consummated the marriage, and it was none other than Jane who provided the testimony. During the proceedings, she relayed the story of the conversation she had with Anne, and her testimony was enough to annul the marriage.
To make things even more awkward, Jane was at the Queen’s side when she got the news about the divorce.
Anne got the news of the divorce while she was staying in Richmond Palace, with Jane at her side—this probably made Jane more than a little uncomfortable. Anne consented to the divorce—not that she actually had a choice—which meant that Jane, once again, was out of a job. Luckily, her testimony earned her the approval of King Henry, so she found herself employed soon enough to the new Queen.
Catherine and Jane immediately hit it off when Catherine became Queen on July 28, 1540. They had a lot in common: both used to be Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, and were very distantly related. Jane became Catherine’s confidant, and the Queen showered her with gifts and favors. Jane once more had all the money she ever wanted, but the treasures didn’t come without a dark and heavy price.
It all started innocently enough. As Catherine’s attendant and most trusted servant, Jane frequently carried messages back and forth for the Queen. One day, the Queen asked Jane to carry a message to one Thomas Culpepper, a courtier and close friend of the King’s, asking for him to meet her for some “company.” Innocent Jane, not knowing the contents of the message, did as commanded—and thus began the journey to her doom.
What started out as a one-time flirtatious message quickly spiraled out of control. Jane found herself becoming the go-between in a steamy and dangerous affair between Catherine and Culpepper, running messages for them as much as three or four times a day. One particularly salacious letter even asked Culpepper to “Come when my Lady Rochford is here, for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment.”
And for poor Jane, things didn’t just stop at messages.
Soon, the secret messages became full on trysts. Once, during a three-day-long stay in the city of Lincoln, Jane helped Queen Catherine to find “secret nooks and crannies” where Catherine and her lover Culpepper could have some “alone time.” In the evening, Jane acted as lookout while Culpepper visited the Queen’s chambers.
With no other choice, Jane had to repeat this during their visits to other cities too. While Jane could have tried to report the Queen and Culpepper, an awful reason kept her from doing so.
Jane Boleyn was truly stuck between a rock and a hard place. If she reported to the King and he believed her, a divorce meant no more Queen, which meant that Jane would lose her job. If the King didn’t believe her, and thought she was lying, she would still lose her job—no one wanted a perceived liar in their court, after all.
With no other choice, Jane kept her head down and mouth shut, hoping against hope that the secret wouldn’t get out… But her hopes were soon dashed.
None of these events went unnoticed by the members of the court, and some began gathering evidence against the Queen—along with, of course, evidence of Jane’s involvement with the affair. In November of 1541, it finally blew up in Jane’s face. The King received a letter containing these findings, and he learned that not only was the Queen having an affair, but she had a long, scandalous history of being with a variety of men.
On top of that, Jane knew everything and hadn’t told him. Furious, the King left the Queen and Jane to the mercy of the law.
Catherine immediately went under intense questioning and scrutiny. They also, of course, questioned Jane, harshly and mercilessly. Jane was ready to deny everything—the Queen, after all, made a vow to never crack under pressure if her affair with Culpepper came out. Unfortunately, the Queen broke that vow as quickly as she broke her marriage vows.
Without hesitation, the Queen dealt Jane a brutal act of heartbreaking betrayal. She placed the blame squarely on Jane. Yep. Apparently, it was totally Jane’s fault that Catherine and Culpepper had an affair. Jane, Catherine claimed, “begged her to speak with Culpepper,” and even went so far as to force the Queen to send Culpepper gifts and tokens of love.
Catherine further claimed that Jane, unprompted, found secret hiding places for Catherine and Culpepper to meet. And as if this betrayal wasn’t enough, other people placed the blame on Jane too.
Then, somehow, things for even worse for poor Jane. In the Tower of London, an imprisoned Culpepper also blamed the affair on Jane. Now, Culpepper admitted that he and Catherine were totally in love, and totally planned to sleep together. The affair was still absolutely Jane’s fault though, according to him, because she carried the messages between them that led to them falling in love.
Yeah, that’s some mental gymnastics for you—and poor Jane didn’t get much of a chance to defend herself either.
Jane, also imprisoned in the Tower of London, confessed to the truth as she saw it. Yes, the Queen asked her to set up clandestine meetings with Culpepper. Yes, she carried tokens and messages between them. She confessed that she absolutely believed that Catherine and Culpepper slept together. This, she believed, was the truth, and she believed that the truth would save her. Unfortunately, Jane was wrong.
Jane underestimated the depths of King Henry’s anger. Henry felt betrayed by Catherine, and in his heartbroken state, unleashed his ire on all who had a hand in her salacious deeds. This included Jane. Soon, Jane discovered that the King planned to execute her, and the pressure became too much. By the beginning of 1542, Jane went insane—and while this was terrible, her insanity almost saved her life.
Due to Jane’s insanity, she could not legally stand trial for her role as the go-between for Catherine and Culpepper. Henry, in an ironic move, was so determined to legally execute her that he made his own doctors tend to her mental health. He actually sent her out to another family’s estate so she could recover in an environment healthier than the bleak walls of the Tower of London.
However, there was a cruel twist. After several months and no signs of improvement, an impatient Henry did what he did best: he changed the law to suit his needs. This sealed Jane’s fate.
Henry enacted the Act of Attainder in January of 1542, allowing for the execution of the insane for high treason, which Jane just so happened to fit the bill for. They set her execution date for February 13, 1542, the same day as the former Queen Catherine. With nothing left to save her, Jane faced her execution with a surprisingly calm dignity that earned her the approval of the onlookers.
With that small comfort, Jane placed her head down on the chopping block. They beheaded her, and buried her in the Tower of London alongside Catherine and her husband.
Unfortunately, Jane’s story has become twisted over the years. Some people looked to defend the actions of the past queens that Jane had acted as lady-in-waiting for. In the process, they made Jane out to be a total witch of a woman to strengthen their arguments. Tons of present-day media, like The Tudors, took this concept and ran with it, making her out to be cruel, petty, and hateful.
Although Jane wasn’t exactly a saint, she likely wasn’t a cartoon villain either—as ever, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.
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