One of the most notorious and maligned figures of the Tudor Court was George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Jane Rochford. She has been decried through the ages as a horrible, spiteful bitch who got her husband and sister-in-law deliberately murdered by telling Thomas Cromwell lies about George and Anne Boleyn’s supposedly incestuous relationship. Cromwell is often presented in historical fiction as having needed those particular lies in order to have Anne Boleyn executed and to allow Jane Seymour to be made the new Queen, which marks Lady Rochford out as an even more heinous person since all the blame for Queen Anne’s execution can be traced to her malicious tale-telling.
Jane Rochford seemed to offer more evidence of her vile internal landscape when she helped her cousin, Queen Kathryn Howard, have flirtatious (though unconsummated) liaisons with Thomas Culpepper. Clearly this awful woman had no respect for either matrimony nor honor, and only sought to forward her own greedy ambitions and social machinations! The final proof of her sly and vicious nature was that she tattled on Queen Kathryn the minute she was put to any kind of interrogation.
Lady Rochford was not only found guilty of treason and beheaded on February 13, 1542 (only six years after her husband and former sister-in-law were similarly dispatched by Henry VIII), she was tried in the court of public opinion and declared a wretched excuse for a human being.
But was Lady Rochford really guilty of the premeditated crimes against her family that she is accused of?
Respected academic Historians point out that there is no evidence until after the fact of George Boleyn’s execution that he and Jane had anything other than an amiable relationship. It was the love story of the ages, but it was seen as cordial enough for a politically expedient court marriage. It is also true that by the time Lady Rochford gave her “testimony” to Cromwell he had already found evidence that Anne had spouted off about “dead men’s shoes” to Henry Norris, had tortured Mark Smeaton into confessing an imaginary affair with the Queen, and had lined up a few other profligate members of the court who spent time with Anne as scapegoats for theoretically unnatural lusts. Cromwell had already made sure Anne was doomed, so Lady Rochford was certainly not the nail in Anne’s coffin she has been purported to be. Jane Boleyn’s testimony was merely icing on the cake Cromwell was constructing to make Queen Anne appear to be like the then-popular stereotype of a witch. Witches were believed to copulate with the Devil, beasts, and their own relations just to get their sick and twisted kicks, and the Tudor public whole-heartedly believed these tales. By exaggerating Anne’s crimes to (what we now see as an absurdity) Cromwell made them more titillating, more believable, and less a refection on Henry VIII’s manhood and honor. I think it is plain that Lady Rochford was a pawn in Cromwell’s Machiavellian plans, not the root of the them.
Why was Lady Rochford so amenable to the suggestions of others, no matter how personally detrimental, if she didn’t enjoy hurting those around her? Frankly, I think her behaviors can be explained by the fact that she was thoroughly indoctrinated in the mores of her time, which had drummed into her the idea that as a woman her “job” was to be biddable and to please her social superiors, and coupled with the evidence that she was probably not the sharpest knife in the drawer, made it easy for anyone in “authority” to badger her into compliance with whatever they told her believe/say/do. She didn’t have the backbone or the brains to withstand Cromwell when he interrogated her and (some historians argue) twisted her statements, nor to refuse Queen Kathryn when that silly young woman asked her to aid and abet the Queen’s flirtation with Culpepper. It was well documented that when Jane Rochford was imprisoned for treason she went “mad” with dismay, or what we would think of today as a psychotic episode or nervous breakdown. That is clearly not a sign of a hardened villain.
In my opinion the worst things that can be laid at Lady Jane Rochford’s door are that she was weak-willed and somewhat dimwitted. These aren’t admirable characteristics, but neither are they the scheming and monstrous attributes she is commonly accused of having.
For those who are interested, there is more historical evidence about George Boleyn’s notorious widow can be found in the biography Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox.