Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn
By Lauren Mackay
IB Tauris, 2019
As Tudor historian Lauren Mackay knows better than anybody, history hasn’t been kind to the Boleyn family. Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII, was beyond redemption even while she reigned and has most often been cast as a shrill, conniving villainess in the Tudor drama ever since. But the collateral damage has swamped other members of her family. A criminal sheet of increasingly length has accumulated around her brother George after her death and his, with charges including both incest (to beget little Princess Elizabeth, a feat Henry’s detractors claimed was even then beyond him) and running a kind of sodomy syndicate below-stairs at Court. And this is piddling compared to the condemnation that’s attached itself to Thomas Boleyn, the Earl of Wiltshire, who for centuries has been portrayed as so greedy of place and honor and money that he was willing to whore out both Anne and her sister Mary and who was willing to watch Anne go to her executioner rather than object and risk his favor with the King.
In the Introduction to her utterly fascinating and indispensable new book Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn, Mackay remorselessly traces these negative assessments through the popular historians of earlier generations and our own, and she sums up the prosecution’s case: “The Boleyns are often portrayed as predators who pursued wealth and status, working in close-knit political units to destroy those who opposed their ambition, making them, in effect, wolves of court.” She goes further: “George and Anne lost their lives, while Thomas lost his reputation, not at the hands of his contemporaries, but generations of historians.”
The main goal of Among the Wolves of Court is to argue, valiantly but perhaps hopelessly, against this verdict of history. Mackay consults an enormous array of sources - the book’s Notes and Bibliography section is a marvel to behold - and crafts from them a fuller portrait of the Boleyn family than readers of Tudor fiction have ever seen before.
In the process, Mackay finds quite a few people who were willing to praise the Boleyns in exchange for coin of the realm. There’s naturally less to work with when it comes to George, since he was executed at age 32 after a Court career consisting mostly of anonymous sycophancy. But Thomas Boleyn had a decades-long career as a courtier, ambassador, and social climber, and that leaves a paper-trail that Mackay thoroughly interrogates in the hope of finding a sympathetic protagonist:
Whatever spirituality Thomas exhibited, the scandal of Anne’s marriage had tainted Thomas’ reputation, with the general gossip suggesting he was a greedy and egotistical man for helping install his daughter as Queen, but Erasmus himself wrote a passionate defence of his patron to a fellow scholar, Damien de Goes, in July 1533, insisting that Thomas was not motivated by self-interest or ambition. Thomas had earned the loyalty of the most upstanding men of the age.
Cynics who might change that “earned” to “bought” will doubtless roll their eyes when Mackay claims that George and Anne were “determined to usher in a new political and spiritual age,” but in any case, an attempt to defend Thomas Boleyn must come down to the one event: the trial of his daughter Anne. Many histories (and of course a couple of mega-selling novels) have insinuated as much as they could about what kind of a father Thomas Boleyn was to his daughter Mary, but Mary exits the historical record with her head still attached to her shoulders. Anne stood trial for a host of scandalous charges and was never, that we know, defended by her powerful and highly-placed father.
The standard defense here is also pretty much the only one: triage. The fact that Henry had raised Thomas Boleyn far above his station meant that Thomas Boleyn and his family had that much more to lose by displeasing Henry:
To ask how Thomas could stand by and watch the tragic events unfold for his children is the wrong question, and we are demanding answers from the wrong person. If Henry, the most powerful man in England, divinely appointed, had made clear his desire to be rid of Thomas’ children, who logically would he have complained to and what would he have been able to achieve? While martyrdom for some would seem an honourable (but pointless) alternative to survival, Thomas had to consider the welfare of his remaining family.
As far as vindications go, this is admittedly weak tea, and it’s all Among the Wolves of Court has to offer on this particular score. Far more fascinating is the book’s consistent hammering of historical complacency. Always in reading history, unanimous verdicts should be suspect, and Mackay’s intensely painstaking excavation of what life was like for an infamous set of Tudor courtiers is eye-opening, in some ways a genuine example of the “untold story” promised in the book’s subtitle. Mackay doesn’t quite achieve her goal of refurbishing reputations - even after reading this book, you won’t be inviting the Boleyns over for dinner any time soon - but her attempt, the most energetic ever made, makes for exuberant reading.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.