The other Bo­leyn boy

How po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions cost Anne Bo­leyn’s faith­ful brother, Ge­orge, his life

BBC History Magazine - - The Boleyns -

Ge­orge Bo­leyn re­mains elu­sive through the dis­tant mir­ror of the cen­turies, of­ten pushed to the side­lines. For 500 years he has lived in the shad­ows of his more glam­orous sis­ters – and, un­til his ar­rest for trea­son in the spring of 1536, he did ex­actly the same in his own life­time.

As a young man, Ge­orge sought to carve out a ca­reer as a diplo­mat – with help, no doubt, from his fa­ther – but strug­gled to be taken se­ri­ously. Ev­ery ad­vance he made in his ca­reer was at­trib­uted, not to his own mer­its, but the in­flu­ence of his royal sis­ter.

In fact, Ge­orge was an in­tel­li­gent, lit­er­ate and artis­tic young man with a flair for lan­guages and a charis­matic per­son­al­ity. He loved joust­ing and hawk­ing, and cul­ti­vated a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a skilled sports­man, much like his fa­ther.

Ge­orge ul­ti­mately be­came a cen­tral mem­ber of the colour­ful cir­cle of courtiers who sur­rounded his sis­ter Anne as queen. The pair were close and sim­i­lar in tem­per­a­ment, shar­ing the same in­tel­lec­tual and aes­thetic in­ter­ests, and devel­op­ing a pas­sion for ‘new learn­ing’ – the lib­er­a­tion from the old dom­i­nant way of think­ing – that was in­spired by the Re­nais­sance.

Per­haps the strong­est ev­i­dence of their bond can be found in two re­li­gious texts by the French hu­man­ist Jac­ques Le­fèvre d’Éta­ples, which Anne asked her brother to trans­late. Th­ese beau­ti­fully bound works from Ge­orge to Anne still sur­vive in the Bri­tish Li­brary, and not only sug­gest was man ca­pa­ble of deep spir­i­tu­al­ity, but also a de­voted brother.

In his ded­i­ca­tion, Ge­orge wrote: “I have been so bold to send unto you, not jew­els or gold, whereof you have plenty, not pearl or rich stones, whereof you have enough, but a rude trans­la­tion of a well­willer, a goodly mat­ter meanly han­dled, most humbly de­sir­ing you with favour to weigh the weak­ness of my dull wit.”

As the cracks in Anne’s mar­riage to Henry be­gan to widen, Ge­orge was one of the few peo­ple Anne could trust. Her brother now car­ried the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­tect­ing his sis­ter, ad­vis­ing her to be guarded with her some­times im­pru­dent com­ments. But Ge­orge, too, could be rash and care­less, at one stage mock­ing the king’s viril­ity, jok­ing that Henry was un­able to cop­u­late with any woman.

Th­ese com­ments would come back to haunt Ge­orge when the Bo­leyns’ en­e­mies made their move against the fam­ily. Ge­orge was charged with in­cest with his sis­ter and of plot­ting to kill the king. He re­mained de­fi­ant at his trial, declar­ing his in­no­cence, and de­fend­ing him­self well.

But the ver­dict had been de­cided be­fore the trial even com­menced. Ge­orge was prob­a­bly re­spon­si­ble for the carv­ing (shown above) of Anne’s white fal­con that still adorns a wall of Beauchamp Tower, where he awaited ex­e­cu­tion. It was a quiet but fit­ting trib­ute to his fam­ily, to whom he had been so ded­i­cated.

Ac­tors Jim Sturgess and Natalie Port­man as Ge­orge and Anne in the drama The Other Bo­leyn Girl. In his­tory, the real Ge­orge has been over­shad­owed by his sis­ter

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