One of the more interesting women of the reign of King Henry VIII of England tends to be either vilified, or given not much more than a momentary glance. She has come down through history as a treacherous woman, providing the testimony that doomed two queens to execution for adultery, and even accusing her husband of commiting incest. To cloud the matter further, it seems that she was mad and unknowing when she laid her head on the headsman block.
Author Julia Fox peels back the legends and works at recreating the real Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, from the information that actually exists about her. And what the reader discovers is that Jane Parker, as she was born, was hardly the scheming creature that popular fiction and some histories have made her out to be. But neither was she a completely innocent pawn either, and Jane Parker turns out to just an average woman, who finds herself in the middle of various conspiracies where a wrong word could mean a person's death.
The daughter of a minor nobleman, Lord Morley, Jane Parker grows up expecting to marry and have a household of her own, with security and some means to ensure a safe future. It was the typical role expected of every English gentlewoman, and from all accounts, Jane was more than happy to work towards it. Her father, a noted diplomat and scholar, had already started discussions with the Boleyn family nearby, and Jane was married at a young age to her cousin, George Boleyn, already becoming a young courtier at King Henry's household. As his wife, Jane would find herself in a glittering world, full of fine jewels and clothing, wonderful entertainments that she would take part in, and even a spot in Queen Catherine of Aragon's household as one of her ladies. It was a heady prospect, and one that Jane delighted in.
Now Jane Boleyn, she would have seen the stellar ascent of the Boleyn family when the youngest sister Anne arrived at Henry's court. One sister, Mary, had already become one of Henry's mistresses, but had never held out for riches or titles, and when Henry tired of her, he married her off to a minor nobleman of the court, William Carey. Anne decided that was not going to happen to her, and no matter how determined the King was to have her in his bed, Anne held out, proudly stating that she was too good to be his mistress, and held out for the role of his wife and queen.
It was possible -- Henry's current wife, Catherine of Aragon, was six years older than he was, and had born a long, sad succession of dead babies, resulting in an only daughter, Mary. And Anne was much younger than Henry, vivacious, educated and merry -- a woman far more interesting than Catherine. For seven years, Henry wrangled with Catherine and her powerful relatives, and finally declared himself the head of the Church in England, and broke with Roman Catholicism, to marry Anne. For the Boleyns, it was the route to permanent fame, and Jane Boleyn soon found herself a titled lady, Viscountess Rochford, a home in a royal palace that had been turned over to George Rochford, and ever growing number of manors and glittering wealth.
But Anne would give only a daughter, Elizabeth, and miscarriages to Henry, along with tantrums and shouting -- never something that a man wishes to linger in. And his attention had already turned to another young woman -- Jane Seymour. Jane was quiet, nearly plain, demure, and submissive to Henry's desires.
Unluckily for Jane Boleyn, it would be some of her words that would doom her husband and sister-in-law to the headsman. When Henry's lawyer, Thomas Cromwell, tell to disclose what she knew, she mentioned that the two siblings would be alone in Anne's bedchamber, their heads close, whispering. And what would doom George, was Jane's murmurring to him that the King's virility was a bit lacking in Anne's bed -- a secret that would doom nearly all of them.
Jane managed to hang onto some of her wealth, but nearly all of the lands and revenues and wealth vanished. The only person she could turn to was Cromwell, the man who had arranged for her husband's death...
Reading through this biography, I found myself very surprised by many of the twists and turns. There were quite a few surprises here -- I had no idea that Jane served as a lady-in-waiting to the first five of Henry VIII's wives. Eventually, it would be the last of them, Catherine Howard, that would provide her downfall, and the loss of everything, especially her reputation.
It's an interesting account of survival and betrayals. Most biographies set in the Tudor period focus on Henry and his many queens, and the lesser known people around them get not much more than a footnote. Here some of the grandness of Tudor life is given, especially in some of the court spectacles and ceremonies such as coronations, christening of royal infants, and even funerals.
Fox's writing is more of a fictional style, trying to build a bridge between her subject and her readers, and trying to reveal some of the psychology behind Jane's actions. Most of the time it works, and it gives a good look at the how the court must have appeared to someone who was not born into this grand life. While it is clear that the author has a great deal of sympathy for her character, she also doesn't try to whitewash it either.
Along with the narrative, there are two inserts of various art work from the period, showing the main players in this drama. Genealogical tables show the ties between the Parkers and the Boleyns. The footnotes are extensive, and the sources used excellent, with Fox going back to many of the originals to untangle the truth from the fiction. Two appendices discuss a possible portrait of Jane Rochford, and how her name became so blackened by later writers and to the modern day.
I had not really expected much when I had read this biography, but as I continued, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the story. It's far from being sensationalistic, and it tries to present the story as close to the probable truth as possible. I will continue to look forward to more from this author in the future.
Four stars, overall. Recommended.