One of the more fascinating aspects of performing as part of the cast of a Renaissance festival, particularly one in which royal court story lines get performed on a regular basis, such as at my home festival, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, is the challenge to develop information when portraying an actual historical person. Actors who do historical interpretation at such venues as Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon are equally aware of this challenge. It is easier to find information if you portraying a prominent person, such as King Henry VIII or his wives. However, if you are given the role of a courtier or a courtier's wife it is much more difficult to find contemporary information. Birth dates are largely unknown in the first half of the sixteenth century. Unless you are of royal birth your early life and rudimentary education will not be recorded. There may be brief glimpses of you in the historical record, but for women of the sixteenth century, unless you came to prominence on your own accord, there is little to go on for an actor to develop insight into the personality of the historical figure.
I have had has had the priveledge of portraying three historical women from the court of King Henry VIII, Jane Guildford, the wife of John Dudley, Gertrude Blount, the Marchioness of Exeter, and Jane Parker, known to history as the infamous Lady Rochford. Today, being February 13th, is the anniversary of the executions for treason of Queen Katherine Howard and Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford. So, today, I honor this vilified woman with sharing what I have researched into her life.
Lady Rochford is forever entwined with the deaths of two queens, her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, and Katherine Howard. She has gone down in history as "that bawd, Lady Rochford" who accused her husband of incest with his sister and with having procured for and encouraged the teenaged Katherine in her adulterous behavior. First, when playing a woman with that reputation you must be prepared for a lot of "you're gonna lose your head" and "you're a bad person" type comments from the patrons of the festival. I have my own viewpoint on Jane Parker Boleyn's guilt in these matters, but as an actor you have to investigate the person's entire life, find her motivation as you will, to figure out how the person became the woman on that scaffold on a cold February in 1542.
No one knows when Jane Parker was born. It is speculated that it was probably around 1505. Victorians who dug up the altar space in the Chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula in 1877 believed her to be around 40 years old. She was the daughter of a Baron. Henry Parker, Lord Morley was a member of the household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and acted as her cupbearer at the coronation feast of King Henry VIII. He was educated at Oxford and was known for his intellectual abilities being used as a literary translator in Henry VIII's reign. He also served as an ambassador being one of a party who delivered the Order of the Garter to the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Jane's mother, Alice St. John was the daughter of Sir John St. John a prosperous landowner in Bedfordshire. Jane had at least four siblings, Henry, Francis, Margaret and Elizabeth. She probably grew up mostly in Great Hallingbury, located in Essex, although there were other manors in the family estate. The Morley family was buried in the local church, but their gravestones were removed in the 1870's during a renovation.
Jane Parker first appears in the court records as Mistress Parker in attendance upon Queen Katherine of Aragon at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Next she appeared as one of the eight ladies in the famous Chateau Vert Masque on March 4, 1522. Playing the courtly virtues the ladies were a who's who of some of the prominent women of King Henry VIII's reign. Mary Tudor Brandon, Dowager Queen of France and King Henry VIII's younger sister played Beauty. Gertrude Blount Courtenay, then Countess of Devonshire played Honor. Mistress Browne was Bounty, Mistress Dannet was Mercy and we do not know who played Pity. The final trio were Mary Boleyn Carey as Kindness, Anne Boleyn as Perseverance and Jane Parker as Constancy.
In 1524 marriage negotiations began for Jane Parker to wed George Boleyn, the only son and heir of Sir Thomas Boleyn. The Parkers and Boleyns knew each other well. The legal contract was drawn up on October 4, 1524 which settled a widow's jointure on Jane of 100 marks (about 66 pounds) a year in the case that George died before her. Jane brought a marriage jointure of 2000 marks (1300 pounds). King Henry VIII doubled Jane's widow's jointure, possibly as a wedding gift, to 200 marks. George and Jane were given the manors of Aylesbury, Bierton and West Laxham.
Jane's fortunes at court rose with her sister-in-law Anne's rise in King Henry VIII's favor. Her husband became a privy councilor and an Ambassador. George and Jane did not have any children and there is nothing in the record of any births or miscarriages. There was a George Boleyn who became Dean of Lichfield in the reign of Elizabeth I. A few posit that he was George and Jane's son or that he was the illegitimate son of George, but there is no evidence of either assertion.
We don't know what George and Jane's marriage was like. George inherited his father's title of Viscount Rochford in 1529, when Thomas Boleyn was raised to Earl of Wiltshire. Unlike how he was portrayed in the recent television series The Tudors, there is no evidence that George Boleyn was homosexual. However there is contemporary evidence that he was a womanizer. Jane became a lady-in-waiting to her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn and participated in Anne's coronation and banquet and was probably in attendance at Princess Elizabeth's birth. She also was the patroness of a scholar, William Foster.
In 1534, King Henry VIII banished Jane from court. Why? According to Ambassadors' reports, Henry showed interest in an unknown lady at court. Anne Boleyn used Jane to get rid of her, so Henry had Jane dismissed in the fall of 1534. We don't know how long she was kept from court, but it was probably only a few months. In 1535 there was a demonstration by a large group of women in favor of the Princess Mary at Greenwich Palace in which Jane was listed as one of the participants in a marginal note of the contemporary account of the demonstration. Her biographer, Julia Fox, does not believe that Jane took part, but it is original source material.
When Anne Boleyn was arrested, one of the five men who would be condemned to death on her behalf was George Boleyn. The interviews and interrogations do not survive, yet history has assumed that the incest charge between Anne and George Boleyn came from Jane. It is also very possible that the accusation that George claimed that Henry VIII suffered from impotency and which he boldly read out in court came from Jane. Adding to the puzzle of Lady Rochford is that her husband, during his confinement in the Tower of London thanked Jane for her promises to plead on his behalf. This information comes from a report by William Kingston, Lieutenant of the Tower in one of his many reports of the time period. Unfortunately, it was part of the Cotton Manuscripts that were badly damaged in a fire, but the few lines are clear.
"After your departing yesterday, Greneway gentleman usher came to me and ........M. Caro and Master Bryan commanded him in the King's name to my .........Ratchfort from my lady his wife, and the message was now more .....se how he did, and also she would humbly suit unto the King's Hy........for her husband; and so he gave thanks,"
From the missing parts it can be conjecture that the blank before Ratchfort (Rochford) is my Lord or my Lord of and that the Hy is short for highness.
There is little known about Jane's life in between the execution of her husband and her end as Katherine Howard's panderer. For that we should be grateful to Jane's biographer, Julia Fox, as she uncovered the story of what happens to the wife after the husband is executed.
Jane lost everything. As the wife of a convicted traitor her goods down to her silk stockings were inventoried and forfeited to the crown. She was still entitled to her widow's jointure and she had to legally fight her father-in-law Thomas Boleyn to receive its entirety. For that she turned to Thomas Cromwell for help and wrote him at least one letter.
as a poor desolate widow without comfort, as to my special trust under God and my Prince, I have me most humbly recommended unto you; praying you, after your accustomed gentle manner to all them that be in such lamentable case as I am in, to be mean to the King's gracious Highness for me for such poor stuff and plate as my husband had, whom God pardon; that of his gracious and mere liberality I may have it to help my poor living, which to his Highness is nothing to be regarded, and to me should be a most high help and succor. And further more, where that the King's Highness and my Lord my father paid great sums of money for my Jointure to the Earl of Wiltshire to the sum of two thousand marks, and I not assured of no more during the said Earl's natural life than one hundred marks; which is very hard for me to shift the world with all. That you will so specially tender me in this behalf as to inform the King's highness of these promises, whereby I may the more tenderly be regarded of his gracious person, your World in this shall be to me a sure help: and God shall be to you therefore a sure reward, which doth promise good to them that doth help poor forsaken Widows. And both my prayer and service shall help to this during my natural life, as most bounden so to do, God my witness; whoever more preserve you.
She did receive her income eventually yet was involved in legal disputes with her father-in-law over property until his death in 1539
Jane becomes an interesting figure as the only wife of a convicted traitor to be received back at court in the lifetime of Henry VIII. The Marchioness of Exeter also returned to court, but not until the reign of Queen Mary I. Lady Rochford served Queen Jane Seymour receiving a New Year's gift from the queen in 1537. Along with her father and brother she participated in Queen Jane's funeral. And she was appointed one of the ladies of the bedchamber for Queen Anna of Cleves, giving testimony of Anna's alleged naivety in the matters of sex and signing the annulment papers as one of the witnesses.
Why did Jane return to court? She could have settled into the country and lived very comfortably on her widow's income. I liken it to how a celebrity past their prime tries to stay in the public eye by doing humiliating reality programs. The court was the Hollywood of its day. Who wouldn't want to be at the center of the cultural and political universe?
From here we get to her familiar role, that of bawd to Queen Katherine Howard. According to Jane's testimony she assisted Katherine in her assignations with Thomas Culpepper on the northern progress of 1541. Once the arrests happened no one in that situation behaved well. Francis Dereham, guilty of being the Queen's lover before her marriage to King Henry VIII accused Culpepper of taking his place after the marriage. Thomas Culpepper stupidly kept a letter from the Queen, the only letter that exists in Katherine Howard's handwriting. That letter was how Lady Rochford was implicated. And they all blamed each other for the affair.
I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. The which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send one by him and in so doing I am as I said afore, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.
Yours as long as live endures, Katheryn
One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it."
We don't know why Jane helped Katherine Howard. It could have been as simple as obeying her Queen or pitying a young girl married to a man at least 30 years her senior who was unhealthy. But, Lady Rochford lost her protector when Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540. No one would save her. And then she lost her mind.
Jane was taken to the Tower of London in late November 1541. Three days later she "went mad," probably a mental collapse. What is interesting is that she was removed from the Tower to the care of Sir John Russell and his wife, Anne. The King provided his own physicians to cure her of her affliction. Katherine and Jane were condemned using an Act of Attainder passed in early February 1542 and signed with Henry VIII's dry stamp. Jane was returned to the Tower on February 9. Otwell Johnson, who provides the only eyewitness account of the executions states that she died well. There is no record of either her or Katherine's scaffold speeches. It is a myth that she confessed to falsely accusing Anne and George.
John Fox in a 1570's edition of his Acts and Monuments added a marginal note about Jane, the French Ambassador in 1542 referred to her as that bawd, Lady Rochford. Most fictional portrayals are unsympathetic. Yet, on this day, the anniversary of her execution upon Tower Green (not where the memorial is located), I am reminded of a woman who served five queens of England, who participated in the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Chateau Vert, Anne Boleyn's coronation and Jane Seymour's funeral. A woman who fought for her widow's rights, and did her part loyally when asked to get a King out of a marriage he hated to Anna of Cleves. She is a complex woman with a lot of faults and was a fascinating character to portray at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
The following is list of some of the material that I used to research Jane Parker Boleyn, the Viscountess Rochford.
The Rutland Papers
Letters of the Queens of England 1100-1547 edited by Anne Crawford
Original Letters Illustrative of English History; volume II edited by Henry Ellis
Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric W. Ives
Lady Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton
A Tudor Tragedy by Lacey Baldwin Smith
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir