Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, and the Ghost of Gay Rights
JULY 21, 2013
Jim Sturgess as George Boleyn in "The Other Boleyn Girl"
The following guest post is from Gareth Russell, author of the comic novel Popular and blogger extraordinaire at Confessions of a Ci-Devant. It is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”
Same-sex attraction was a dangerous affair in the early modern period. Within Anne Boleyn’s lifetime, her husband introduced legislation that made buggery an offence punishable by death and even monarchs suspected (correctly) of having male lovers themselves, like James I (he of the Great Bible fame), felt moved to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Given the secrecy that surrounded it by virtue of necessity, speculating who among the famous long-dead was gay, bisexual, bicurious or whatever post-nineteenth century label you want to give it, is a rich imaginative field for modern-day history enthusiasts. Ever since the publication of Professor Retha Warnicke’s academic work in the 1980s, where she hypothesized that Anne Boleyn’s brother George had been sexually or romantically involved with the palace musician Mark Smeaton, the idea that George Boleyn, viscount Rochford, was what we would now recognize as gay or bisexual has never really gone away and in modern dramatizations of his family’s story, he is almost invariably presented that way.
We know relatively little about George Boleyn’s life, but just enough to flesh out the few bare narrative details. Born sometime around 1504 to Sir Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat with a strong claim to be heir-apparent to the Irish earl of Ormonde, and his aristocratic wife, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (née Howard), George Boleyn joined his father at court at an early age and there is an unsubstantiated story that he was briefly a student at the University of Oxford. He was said to be uncommonly handsome, with a talent for languages, poetry and music, but he also had a pride that bordered on the arrogant. He followed his father into a career in diplomacy and he married the well-connected Jane Parker, Lord Morley’s daughter, in the early-to-middle part of the 1520s. He was known to be particularly enthusiastic about the emergence of Protestantism; he enjoyed debating theology and philosophy and from what we can tell, he was far more religiously radical than Anne or the king. During his sister’s time as queen consort, he was given de facto use of the sumptuous Beaulieu Palace in Essex, where he lived splendidly before being arrested on a charge of committing incest with the queen and subsequently being executed on May 17th 1536, in his early thirties.
It was George Boleyn’s love of music and the arts that first led to the suggestion that he may have preferred the sexual company of men. A satirical book mocking the institution of marriage, inscribed in George’s own hand, was allegedly given as a gift to Mark Smeaton, prompting Professor Retha Warnicke to speculate that such a gift was a sign of intimacy between the two. Many criticized this conclusion, often by citing a biographical sketch left of George by one of his contemporaries, the thoroughly-unimpressed George Cavendish, a loyal servant of Cardinal Wolsey, who had (at least in Cavendish’s view) lost power thanks to the machinations of George Boleyn’s family. Cavendish described Boleyn as a compulsive bed-hopper, with little discrimination about what kind of woman he went to bed with, which has led to some writers swinging to the opposite extreme to paint George Boleyn as not only heterosexual but also an habitual rapist as well. Which, as ideas go, seems to be built on even less evidence than the theory that he was gay.
Whether or not George Boleyn was actually gay or bisexual, to use words that did not exist in the sixteenth century, is unfortunately unknowable. There does seem to be enough evidence of his interest in women to rule out the idea that he was definitively homosexual; his bisexuality, however, cannot be dismissed with equal certainty and while it would be unwise for an historian to make pronouncements about it based on how little evidence we have, it is perhaps understandable that a dramatist, who must take a decision about their character’s psychology, would chose to dramatize George Boleyn as someone who was romantically or sexually interested in both genders at different stages of his life. Two royal lives, those of Edward II and Marie-Antoinette, stand out as two that were bedeviled to the point of death by homophobia. In Edward’s case, probably accurately, and in the case of Marie-Antoinette and her poor murdered confidante, the Princesse de Lamballe, almost certainly not. In contrast, if George Boleyn did sleep with men, and/or fall in love with them, it seems to have had precious little subsequent bearing on his life. This was a man, after all, who perished for allegedly having sex with a woman. George Boleyn, the person, therefore tells us very little (if anything) about the realities of homosexual or same-sex love in the early modern period, but George Boleyn, the ghost, the symbol, can tell us an awful lot about our own society’s evolving, if often unsettling, attitudes towards homoeroticism.
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Pádraic Delaney as George Boleyn in “The Tudors.”
In the successful television show “The Tudors,” George Boleyn was played by the Irish actor Pádraic Delaney. In season one, the wild-living George is shown enjoying a threesome with two palace servants (both women), but in season two, he is miserably married to a sour-faced Jane Parker (Joanne King) while pursuing a passionate love affair with Mark Smeaton, played by the Canadian actor, David Alpay. On his wedding night to Parker, things get off to a rocky start when she notices a provocative painting on her husband’s wall showing the kidnap of Ganymede, the beautiful mortal male abducted, raped and seduced in Greek mythology by Zeus, king of the gods. As Jane’s revulsion at her husband’s less-than-subtle advertisement of his sexuality spirals, George snaps and sexually assaults her, setting in motion a chain of events that will see Jane betray him in the crisis that took his life in 1536. At best, this portrayal of Boleyn’s romantic life could be described as confused and a meager defense can be mounted by pointing out that many people’s sexual identities are often confused and thus confusing; as Dr Kinsey would no doubt hasten to remind us, sexuality is an enormously complicated spectrum of desires, both fulfilled and repressed, and that there is therefore no reason to suppose that like billions of men and women throughout history, George Boleyn, as imagined in “The Tudors,” had a complex series of romantic and sexual feelings. He could have despised his wife, while enjoying the sexual company of other women and falling in love with a man. Michael Hirst and Pádraic Delaney’s presentation of George could tentatively be seen as fluid and devoid of an agenda, beyond spicing up the dramatic narrative of a supporting character. Boleyn fans perhaps fairly queried the need to show George’s graphic and demeaning assault on his bride in such excruciating detail; it implicitly suggested that there was some kind of link between sexual repression and sexual violence. However, by and large, it is difficult to look at “The Tudors” and see that it is guilty of anything more sinful than trying to balance the competing historical theories about the modus operandi of George Boleyn’s nether regions.
A far more insidious view of Boleyn’s sexuality comes in the 2001 bestseller “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory. In both the 2003 BBC television adaptation and 2008 movie version of the novel, nothing is made of the subplot in the book which sees George Boleyn becoming romantically involved with Francis Weston, a handsome and athletic courtier who, in historical fact, was also one of the men executed in 1536 for allegedly committing adultery with Queen Anne. (Part of Professor Warnicke’s theory was that sixteenth-century ignorance of the psychological realities of homosexuality led to people incorrectly assuming that someone like Boleyn, Weston or Smeaton, who was capable of going to bed with their own gender was automatically capable of a plethora of other sexual vices, such as adultery with the queen or incest with a sibling. Thus, the six people sent to the block by Henry VIII in May 1536 perished due to ignorance, superstition and pornographic paranoia.) Philippa Gregory builds on this in her novel to suggest that most of the men who died as Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers were gay and the portrait she paints of them is not a pleasant one. After its publication and its commercial success, so much was made of the novel’s demonization of a remorselessly unlovely Anne and of concerns that by presenting Anne as a promiscuous sociopath against her doe-eyed, ambition-fearing, love-obsessed sister Mary, Gregory had effectively produced a novel that was about as feminist as a swimsuit pageant, that its portrayal of its male characters’ sexuality has gone almost unnoticed. Perhaps this is also because that aspect of the storyline did not make it in to either screen adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” and thus garnered less attention.
Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn in the 2003 BBC adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl”.
In the first place, Gregory effectively has George Boleyn choosing to be gay. At one point, his sister Mary relates that George has had enough sexual experience in the course of his short life to be intimately familiar with the techniques of ‘French whores, Spanish madams, and English sluts,’ but in the spring of 1525 George reveals that he has fallen in love with Francis Weston, through a conscious decision to distance himself from the schemes and wiles of his female relatives – ‘It’s no wonder I am sick of it. The life I live makes me weary to the soul of the vanity of women.’ (Women seem to be at fault for most of the heartbreak in “The Other Boleyn Girl.”) How George Boleyn could possibly have looked upon men and been in any way inspired to see them as the nobler sex is baffling, since in “The Other Boleyn Girl,” the leading male characters emerge almost without exception as craven, sociopaths, rapists, spoiled children, moronically stupid or glorified pimps. But perhaps an even bigger psychological question mark is raised by the fact that George seems to have made the decision to embark upon a love affair with a member of his own gender simply because the women he has been exposed to are so exhausting, unlikable and uninspiring. This raises the ugly specter of the corollary of that idea: that had George Boleyn been able to spend time with more “natural” women, he would therefore have chosen a more natural sexual path and thus “The Other Boleyn Girl” stumbles right in to one of the most fraught areas of the modern civil rights debate – the allegation, at once both ludicrous and harmful, that homosexuals choose to be gay and are therefore abdicating the right to expect certain civil rights as a result of that choice.
Secondly, Gregory does not seem at all interested in presenting her gay characters in any way other than the most reductive of stereotypes. Henry Norris, one of Henry VIII’s closest companions before 1536, is in conversation with the queen and her family before he ‘minced back to Madge’. As mentioned, the idea that Henry Norris was intimate with his own gender is part of the historical thesis that Gregory allegedly used to inspire her storyline, but there are also ample descriptions of Norris from the books cited in the author’s bibliography that reference not just his charm and kindness, but also his intelligence and his sporting prowess. There is obviously absolutely nothing wrong with someone who minces or who is as naturally camp as New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but to shorthand it for the audience that Henry Norris is supposed to be gay by having him flamboyantly sashay across Anne Boleyn’s apartments suggests that every other trait can be swept away by the word “gay” and the stereotypical behavior that comes with it. In this world, we do not have to imagine the complexities of sexual identity, because often there are none.
But perhaps the most unsavory aspect of how “The Other Boleyn Girl” presents George Boleyn’s sex life is the way in which somehow everything about it is thoroughly sordid. George regularly invades his sisters’ rooms while they are in the bath or getting changed, his conversation with them is usually crude to the point of graphic, he apparently has no concept of boundaries, even when he hugs the girls there is something quasi-erotic about it, he jokes about sexually desiring Anne and at one point he French-kisses her in front of a horrified but transfixed Mary. Later in the novel, his wife remarks, ‘But of course, you don’t really like to kiss women at all unless they are your sisters.’ In this light, George’s infatuation with Francis Weston is nothing more than part of a series of sexual aberrations from the novel’s most sexually aberrant character (a tough race to win.) There is something unrelentingly unnatural about George Boleyn’s homosexuality and the reader is left with the inescapable conclusion that this is someone whose sexuality is so flexible, so fluid and so easily reduced to the lowest form of sexual infatuation that he could indeed willingly commit incest with his sister. (Later, Mary Boleyn recalls hearing George cry out in guilt, but the guilt seems shoehorned in to appease the reader, or the narrator, since there is absolutely no indication given his behavior with Anne over the previous five hundred pages that George would feel any form of guilt at toying with her. Indeed at one point, the novel describes an equally-unhinged Anne ‘giggling’ like a schoolgirl at jokes about her brother’s rampant perversity.) And thus the theory put forward by Professor Warnicke, that George Boleyn was harried to his death because of gross societal ignorance about homosexuality, is suddenly turned on his head. The paranoia becomes understandable, the prejudice and the bigotry are not so much contextualized as justified; every allegation that brought George Boleyn to his untimely death in 1536 is made understandable and even, when viewed in the context of the novel, utterly reasonable.
The story of history, I have often thought, is really two stories – what it tells us about the past and what it tells us about ourselves. It is fundamentally the study of human nature. Marina Warner’s musings on Western veneration of the Virgin Mary, seeing it as something like the Lady of Shalott’s mirror, reflecting undulating shadows of the society gazing into it, strikes me as true of so much of history, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. Susan Bordo’s book “The Creation of Anne Boleyn” looks at how the spectral ghost of Anne Boleyn illuminates so much more than simply the story of a sixteenth-century queen; it tells us a great deal about the twenty first century’s attitudes to femininity, feminism and gender. It is tempting to look through that lens at George Boleyn and wonder what presentations of him tell us about our attitudes to homosexuality or bisexuality.
When discussing a modern figure like, say, openly gay characters in “Glee” or “The New Normal,” an author might hesitate to portray them in a way that pandered to negative stereotypes; there is an expectation that, in 2013, people do not behave that way and therefore cannot or should not be dramatized like that. And yet, when it comes to historical personages, our old prejudices do not quite seem to be as completely banished as the glorious, brightly-colored world of “Glee” suggests. In the world of historical dramatizations, stereotypes all too often resurrect themselves, masked thinly and disingenuously by claims that it’s in the name of context. When historians posit the theory that George Boleyn was gay (which, as I have suggested, is an idea I find unconvincing historically), a particularly interesting word used on Tudor chat rooms and websites to refute it is the declaration that they want to “defend” George Boleyn against the “accusation” that he was homosexual. The idea that to be gay is still an insult, rather than simply an inaccurate adjective in Boleyn’s case, has not gone away. Equally, in drama and literature, the very worst of the old stereotypes – mincing, vicious, self-absorbed queens, sexual ambiguities, rampant promiscuity, gay as a dominant character trait, debilitatingly confused bisexuals and the permeable boundaries between homosexuality and other kinds of sexual perversity, be they rape or incest – flow unchecked and uncensored.
Maybe someday a brilliant novelist will come along and write the story of George Boleyn or Francis Weston or Mark Smeaton as people who maybe did fall in love with their own gender, but who also actively pursued and promoted the Protestant Reformation, who discussed politics, who played sport, wrote music and dabbled in international diplomacy. Maybe, at some point, it will cease to be all about their sexuality and, when we begin to see that happening in popular culture presentations of them, we will begin to know that at long last we will have stopped reducing our own cultural expectations as well.
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