Jane Parker

Jane Parker, Viscountess Rochford, was the wife of Anne Boleyn's brother, George.

Jane was born around 1505 to a wealthy and well-connected family. She was the half second cousin of the king, which made her a fine catch on the marriage market.

Evidence suggests that she was an attractive young woman, because she is recorded as having played a part in court masques, which were usually given to the girls who were prettiest and most graceful dancers. We don't have a portrait of Jane. (The Holbein sketch labeled "The Lady Parker" is almost certainly Grace, the wife of Jane's brother.)

We know nothing of Jane's education, but she probably received the basic education of all noblewomen: reading and writing, religious instruction, and the courtly arts - such as dancing, singing, and playing an instrument.

Jane married George Boleyn around 1525, though it may have been as early as 1524, when George was granted a manor, which some think may have been a wedding present from the king.

Was Jane's marriage with George unhappy? We simply do not know. There's no evidence to indicate one way or another. But people of the era didn't necessarily expect their marriage to make them happy. Nobles married the person their parents chose and had children while trying to get along with one another as best they could. A cordial, respectful relationship was what most people hoped for, and there's no reason to believe that Jane and George had any particular dislike or animosity for one another.

Nor is there evidence to suggest George may have been a bad husband. He seems to have been a nice enough fellow. He was popular at court even before his sister caught the king's eye, witty, and charming. There were never any allegations he was cruel toward his wife.

Evidence suggests George may have been somewhat of a womanizer. Cavendish paints his appetites as voracious and indiscriminate. However, there is no hint of evidence to support the theory - first proposed by Agnes Strickland - that George was homosexual. Cavendish was no fan of the Boleyn family, and if there had been so much as a whisper of gossip that George was "unnatural" in his appetites, Cavendish would have mentioned it.

Jane's signature, "Jane Rochford"
However, if George was a womanizer, he likely wasn't any worse than any other nobleman, because Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, doesn't mention it in his dispatches. He reported any unfavorable gossip about the Boleyns to the emperor. He personally knew George, and had even liked him at one time, before he found out George was the brother of the "Concubine." The only scathing thing Chapuys could think of to say about George was he was "more Lutheran than Luther" in his religious beliefs.

Historians are divided when it comes to Jane Parker. Many see her as a meddler, an intriguer, though my portrayal of Jane in Under These Restless Skies as an outright nasty creature has fallen into disfavor. Recently, Jane has found partisans among historians who say there's no evidence to support her negative reputation.

It's true there's no documentary evidence that Jane hated Anne. In fact, the one piece of evidence we do have suggests Anne and Jane got along, at least enough to conspire together in 1534 to try to send away a young woman Henry was pursuing. When Henry discovered the plot, he was furious, and banished Jane from court for a few months.
We have a mention in the historical record that Jane may once have dashed outside of Greenwich Palace to cheer for Princess Mary Tudor as her litter passed by. Jane had a good relationship with the princess later in life, so it's possible her lingering affection for Mary could have caused some tension with her sister-in-law. However researchers Claire Ridgeway and Clare Cherry don't believe there's any merit to this anecdote:

[B]y taking such action, Lady Rochford would have been putting herself in open opposition and conflict, not only with Anne, but also with her own husband and the King, whose command it was that Mary should not be treated as Princess. [...] Jane’s good relationship with Mary following the deaths of George and Anne confirms the loyalty and affection she had for the princess despite the fact that her husband had been one of Mary’s bitterest enemies. Jane must have maintained this loyalty and affection for Mary throughout her marriage to George; yet it is very difficult to imagine her taking such drastic action, which would have been completely against her own best interests.

What was Jane's role in the fall of George and Anne Boleyn? We know from George's testimony in court that there was an accusation Anne had told Jane the king was suffering from impotence. History has traditionally accused Jane of being the source of the incest allegations against George and Anne, but the few extant records seem to exonerate her of that charge.

John Husee, writing to Lady Lisle, states another lady was the source of the allegations:

As to the confession of the Queen and others, they said little or nothing; but what was said was wondrous discreetly spoken. "The first accuser, the lady Worcester, and Nan Cobham with one maid mo; but the lady Worcester was the first ground."

Other than the charge that Anne told her the king was impotent, Jane is not named in any of the court documents. Eric Ives believes most of the testimony that condemned Anne and George was verbal - never written down - and so we will never know what the witnesses confessed under interrogation. 

Historian Julia Fox believes Jane was pressured into testifying and her innocent words were twisted into something horrible.

"The questions to Jane would have come thick and fast... Faced with such relentless, incessant questions, which she had no choice but to answer, Jane would have searched her memory for every tiny incident that occurred to her... Jane had not been quick to tell tales, but she had buckled under the pressure of relentless questioning..." 

Whether or not Jane "talked," she was soon accused of doing so. Almost immediately, she was given the scarlet letter, and she has worn it ever since.

There is an anonymous account in Portuguese, dated June, 1536 (one month after the executions) which mentions an anonymous lady often supposed to be Jane.

that person who, more out of envy and jealousy than out of love towards the King, did betray this accursed secret, and together with it the names of those who had joined in the evil doings of the unchaste Queen.” 

But we do not know for certain that woman was Jane Parker. Lady Bridget Wingfield is another possible suspect. Bridget and Anne had some sort of falling-out, which could have been from jealousy or envy. Bridget supposedly confessed to a secret about Anne as she was dying, according to her brother who gave testimony about it at the trial.

George is recorded as having exclaimed while he was in the Tower,

"On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgment." 

But - again - we do not know for certain that "one woman" was Jane. A few days after he was arrested, a letter arrived at the Tower from Jane to her husband. Kingston doesn't seem to have actually given the letter to George, but he did tell him about its contents. Jane asked how George was doing, and said she was going to try to approach the king on his behalf. In reply, George simply thanked her for her efforts. It would be an odd response if he thought she was the person who put him in prison in the first place.

What makes it unusual in this case is that Jane apparently the only one who wrote or tried to approach the king. There are no mentions of any other letter from the prisoners' friends or allies. That's not certain evidence there never was one, but it seems in this case that the silence is damning. If Jane did go to the king - though we have no record of it - she's the only person who tried to save Anne and George.

But the accusations against Jane were persistent. Bishop Burnet, writing in the 17th century with access to primary sources now lost, believed that she was the instigator.

[Anne's] brother, the Lord Rochford, was her friend as well as brother; but his spiteful wife was jealous of him: and being a woman of no sort of virtue (as will appear afterwards by her serving Queen Katherine Howard in her beastly practices, for which she was attainted and executed), she carried many stories to the king, or some about him, to persuade, that there was a familiarity between the queen and her brother, beyond what so near a relation could justify.
George Wyatt - grandson of Thomas Wyatt - flatly stated:

This principal matter [of incest] between the Queen and her brother, there was brought forth, indeed, witness, his wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his blood. What she did was more to be rid of him than of true ground against him.” 

On May 19, Anne went to the scaffold, the last of the prisoners to be executed. Her brother had died the day before. Both were buried in the floor of St. Peter-ad-Vincula, the chapel on the Tower grounds.

Jane's life after the executions wasn't easy. George's estate was seized by the king. Jane had to leave court and go to the Boleyns to sort out her financial situation. The Boleyns eventually decided to grant her a £100 per year pension, the same amount Mary Boleyn had been given after her first husband died.

When Henry married Anna von Kleefes, Jane returned to court as one of the new queen's ladies in waiting. Living at court would have put a further strain on her budget, because each lady in the queen's service had to had to be richly clothed and bejeweled to be seen in the queen's presence. (Jane Seymour is known to have refused a maid of honor who didn't have enough pearls in her girdle.)

What happened to Anne and George Boleyn doesn't seem to have had a lingering effect on Jane's career at court. Instead of being assigned on the periphery as one of the queen's minor servants, it’s obvious Jane was highly favored by Anna von Kleefes. Jane gave testimony during Anna's annulment proceedings that revealed she and Anna spoke about very intimate matters. The fact that Jane was able to speak with the queen on such a level indicates they had a friendship that went beyond the ordinary relationship between a queen and her lady-in-waiting.

Court etiquette required that a lady-in-waiting never speak unless the queen spoke to her first. There was a formal distance there, unless the queen welcomed conversation. And queens were often wary of their servants becoming too “familiar” with them. (Anne Boleyn firmly put Mark Smeaton in his place when he tried to converse with her.) It’s notable that Jane and Anna seem to have conversed on a level as equals. Jane even appears to tease the queen a little with her comment that Anna is still a maid. It doesn’t stick out to a twenty-first century mind as unusual two girls would chat with one another, but in the Tudor era, this was a marked level of familiarity.

Anna was lonely, and probably quite frightened. All of her ladies from Cleves have been sent away, so she was friendless in a strange land, and it was obvious her (murderous) husband disliked her.

Jane appears to have made an effort with Anna because ambassadors complained she was hard to understand with her heavy accent. We can’t know Jane’s motives, of course. Perhaps she just took pity on poor Anna, so alone with no one to advise her. Anna was reportedly very charming and friendly, so perhaps it was natural to befriend her. Or perhaps Jane saw the value in offering the queen her friendship, knowing it could help restore her family fortunes. In any case, Anna opened up to her, and spoke to Jane regarding very intimate matters of her marriage.

Jane’s testimony helped Anna in the matter of the annulment. Not only did it establish the non-consummation, but it made Anna seem pure and innocent. She was such a virgin, she didn’t even know what sex was, and didn’t want to know! Apt to behave herself honorably, in other words.

Henry annulled his marriage to Anna when he became infatuated with one of Anna's maids of honor, Katheryn Howard. Jane stayed on to serve the new Queen Katheryn, whose reign was also cut short ... but this time with an axe.

Jane Parker was once again interrogated, but this time, as a defendant herself. It had come out that Katheryn had been unchaste before her marriage with the king, and now the servants were being interviewed. It emerged that Jane had helped the young queen arrange meetings with Thomas Culpepper.

Katherine Tilney, one of the other ladies in waiting, testified to the beginning of Jane's involvement:

Kath. Tylney, examined whether the Queen went out of her chamber any night late at Lincoln, where she went, and who went with her, says that the Queen went two nights to lady Rochford's chamber, which was up a little pair of stairs by the Queen's chamber. Examinate and her fellow Marget went with her, but were sent back. Marget went up again eftsoons, and examinate went to bed with Friswyde. When Marget came to bed, about 2 o'clock, examinate said, “Jesus, is not the Queen abed yet?” She replied, “Yes, even now.” The second night the Queen sent the rest to bed and took examinate with her, but she was in a little place with Lady Rochford's woman and could not tell who came into Lady Rochford's chamber. Has been sent with such strange messages to Lady Rochford that she knew not “how to utter them.” At Hampton Court, lately, “she bade her go to the Lady Rochford and ask her when she should have the thing she promised her; and she answered that she sat up for it, and she would next day bring her word herself. A like message and answer was at my lord of Suff. outward.”

Why did she do it? Jane had to know she was playing a very dangerous game. It was said Jane was helping Katheryn meet with Culpepper in exchange for Katheryn finding Jane a new husband. Aside from her financial difficulties, Jane would have been around thirty-five years old, nearing the end of her childbearing years, according to Tudor standards. She must have been feeling the pressure to marry again, and quickly, if she wanted to produce an heir, but perhaps her reputation and small income may have kept suitors away.

Some have speculated Jane had a financial motive. Perhaps Culpepper was paying her to arrange the meetings. Some have also speculated Culpepper was blackmailing the queen to remain silent about her past. Or maybe Jane also knew about Katheryn's past - they were relatives - and Culpepper was blackmailing her, too.

It could also be that she was sucked into a situation that spiralled out of control, and she was in trouble before she realized the seriousness of what she had done. Or, Jane could have simply been forced into obedience when her queen commanded her to carry the notes and set up the meetings. We do not know, though history has been rife with speculation, most of it unflattering to Jane.

Both Culpepper and Katheryn seem to have tried to throw the blame on Jane. Katheryn tried to insist Jane had arranged the meetings herself - sometimes without Katheryn even asking.

Culpepper confessed:

Lady Rochford contrived these interviews. The Queen would “in every house seek for the back doors and back stairs herself.” At Pomfret she feared the King had set watch at the back door, and lady Rochford made her servant watch in the court to see if that were so. [...] Lady Rochford provoked him much to love the Queen and he intended to do ill with her.

And then Jane herself was asked about the matter:

Relative to the above interviews; of which she heard or saw nothing of what passed, for the Queen was at the other end of the room and Culpeper on the stairs, ready to slip down. One night at Lincoln she and the Queen were at the back door waiting for Culpeper, at 11 p.m., when one of the watch came with a light and locked the door. Shortly after Culpeper came in, saying he and his man had picked the lock. Since her trouble the Queen has daily asked for Culpeper, saying that if that matter came not out she feared not. At Lincoln, when the Queen was with Culpeper, she was asleep until the Queen called her to answer Lovekyn. She thinks Culpeper has known the Queen carnally.

The last line is troubling. There is no evidence that Katheryn actually committed adultery with Culpepper, or even intended to. Both Culpepper and Katheryn vehemently denied a physical affair, though Culpepper eventually confessed he would have slept with Katheryn if given the opportunity. That was enough to convict them.

But why would Jane say that she thought Culpepper and Katheryn had sex, especially since she was actually present for most of these meetings? Was it another example of her cracking under pressure, desperate to save herself by saying whatever the interrogators wanted to hear, or is it the actions of a dishonest intriguer, as she's been portrayed? Was Jane counting on the fact that none of Anne Boleyn's ladies had been criminally charged for supposedly assisting her in meeting with her lovers?

In the end, Jane was charged along with Katheryn and both of them were imprisoned while the king decided what he was going to do with them. This time, Henry wasn't going to bother going through the motions of a trial. 

During her imprisonment, Jane either had a nervous breakdown, or decided to feign madness to try to escape the headsman. The law at the time was that insane persons could not be executed. Either Jane was trying to take advantage of this loophole, or the stress and terror of her situation had been too much for her to bear.

Chapuys wrote on December 3rd that she would have been tried along with Dereham and Culpepper, but that had to be delayed because of her apparent insanity:

Lady Rocheford would have been sentenced at the same time, but that on the third day of her imprisonment she went mad. She recovers her reason now and then, and the King has sent her to be with the Admiral's wife, and gets his own physicians to visit her, desiring her recovery that he may afterwards have her executed as an example

Henry wasn't about to let Jane escape his brand of "justice" even if she had gone mad. He promptly passed a new law allowing him to execute insane persons for treason, as long as they had been sane when the act was committed. The law implies that the king or his authorities felt Jane may have been faking her illness.

FORASMUCH as sometimes some persons, being accused of High Treasons, have, after they have been examined before the King's Majesty's Council, confessed their Offences of High Treason, and yet nevertheless after the doing of their Treasons, and Examinations and Confessions thereof, as is aforesaid, have fallen to Madness or Lunacy, whereby the condign Punishment of their Treasons, were they never so notable and detestable, hath been deferred, spared and delayed; and whether their Madness or Lunacy by them outwardly shewed were of Truth, or falsely contrived and counterfeited, it is a thing almost impossible certainly to judge and try:
Be it therefore enacted, by Authority of this present Parliament, (to avoid all sinister, counterfeit and false Practices and Imaginations that may be used for excuse of punishment of High Treasons, in such cases where they be done or committed by any person or persons of good, perfect and whole Memory at the time of such their Offences), That if any person or persons have done or committed, or hereafter shall do or commit any High Treasons, when they were in good, whole and perfect Memory, and after their Accusation, Examination and Confession thereof before any the King's Majesty's Council, shall happen to fall to Madness or Lunacy, [...] And if it shall happen such person or persons, so indicted, to be found guilty by the said Jury so charged to try such Treasons, that then the Offenders of such Treasons so found guilty, shall have such Judgment, and suffer such pains of Death, Forfeitures of Judgment. Lands, Goods, Chattels and all other things, asis commonly limited in cases of High Treason, and as if such persons had been of good and whole Memory, and personally present arraigned and pleaded totheir Indictment, and had been found guilty thereof; their Madness or Lunacy, or their Absence, Non-arraignment, or not pleading to the said Indictment, in any wise not letting nor withstanding.

He condemned both Jane and Katheryn through Act of Attainder. By the time she climbed the scaffold after Katheryn, Jane either dropped the useless ruse or had found peace, because witnesses praised both women for meeting a "goodly Christian end."

Jane gave the expected speech repenting of her sins and exhorting the audience to live a pious life before she submitted to the blade, just as every noble did. According to legend, she said she deserved to die for lying about George and Anne. But that tale comes from an extremely unreliable source, and other witnesses reported merely that Jane confessed she was a sinner and begged for forgiveness before kneeling before the block, still wet from Katheryn's blood.

Jane was buried in the chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula, only a few paces away from the body of her husband. A Victorian excavation found a set of bones they identified as Jane Parker, though some believe it might have been Anne Boleyn's remains they discovered.

Was Jane really the villain of this story or has a dark legend grown up around her character that she doesn't deserve? For decades, history has slandered Anne Boleyn, and her reputation is just beginning to be rehabilitated as the layers of supposition and legend are scraped away. Perhaps the same will happen for Jane Parker, Lady Rochford.

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