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Sketch for a Portrait of Thomas Boleyn by hans Holbein

Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire (1477-1539)

SIR THOMAS BOLEYN, EARL OF WILTSHIRE, was the second son of Sir William Boleyn of Blickling, Norfolk, and grandson of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, a wealthy London merchant, who was lord mayor in 1457. The manor of Blickling, purchased originally by Sir Geoffrey of the veteran Sir John Fastolf, descended to Sir James Boleyn, the elder brother of Sir Thomas. His mother was Margaret, daughter and coheir of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormonde. According to his own statement he was fifty-two years old in 1529,1 and must therefore have been born in 1477.

In 1497, when he was twenty, he was in arms with his father against the Cornish rebels [see Battle of Blackheath].  In 1509 he was appointed keeper of the exchange at Calais and of the foreign exchange in England, and in 1511 the reversion of the keepership of the royal park of Beskwood in Nottinghamshire was granted to him.2  That same year he accepted the challenge of King Henry VIII and three other knights to a tourney on the birth of a prince,3 and shortly afterwards obtained a contingent reversion of some of the forfeited lands of Viscount Lovel granted by Henry VII to the Earl of Oxford, of which he no doubt came into possession on the earl's death without issue in 1513.4  In 1511 also he had a grant of lands in Kent,5 and early next year he was appointed, in conjunction with Sir Henry Wyatt, constable of Norwich castle,6 and received other grants and marks of royal favour besides.

At this time he was sent in embassy to the Low Countries with Sir Edward Poynings, where he remained for about a year, with an allowance of twenty shillings a day.7 On 5 April 1513 he and his colleagues concluded with Margaret of Savoy at Mechlin the Holy league, by which the Emperor Maximilian, Pope Julius II, and Ferdinand of Spain combined to make war on France.8 He took part in the invasion of France in the following summer with a retinue of a hundred men;9 but nothing is recorded of his exploits in the war.

He appears to have made some exchange of lands with the crown in or before the year 1516.10 Even then he must have occupied a distinguished position at the court of Henry VIII, for on 21 Feb. in that year he was one of four persons who bore a canopy over the Princess Mary at her christening.11 In 1517 he was appointed sheriff of Kent.12 On 26. Oct. in that year he obtained a license to export from his mill at Rochford in Essex, in a 'playte' or small vessel of his own, called the Rosendell, all 'wode, bollet, and. . .' (a word illegible in the original), made (which apparently means cut or manufactured) within the lordship of Rochford.13

Early in 1519 he went in embassy to Francis I, and he remained in France till the beginning of March 1520. During this period the famous interview of the Field of the Cloth of Gold was projected, and it was Boleyn who negotiated the preliminary arrangements. He was admitted to great familiarity with Francis I, and was evidently quite at home in the language and manners of the French court. He himself does not appear to have been a witness of the interview, which took place in June 1520, though it had been arranged beforehand that he should go; but he was required to be present at the meeting of Henry VIII and the Emperor Charles V, which took place immediately afterwards, in July at Gravelines.14

In May 1521 he was on the special commission for London, and also for Kent, before which the indictment was found against the unfortunate Duke of Buckingham.15 In the autumn of that year, during the conferences held at Calais, in which Wolsey professed to mediate between the French and the imperialists, he was used as an agent in various communications with the latter, and was afterwards sent to the Emperor at Oudenarde. In May 1522 he was appointed to attend the king at Canterbury on the emperor's arrival in England, and his name appears as a witness to one of the acts in connection with the treaty of Windsor on 20 June. A little later in the same year he was sent with Dr. Sampson to the emperor in Spain in order to promote joint action in the war against France. He seems to have taken a French ship at sea on the voyage out, and made prisoners of some Breton merchants, who, being sent to England, received license to import 300 'waie' of salt for their ransom.16

In April 1523 he received letters of recall, and he returned in May following. A private letter, dated 28 April in this year, says that he received a writ of summons to parliament as a baron along with Sir William Sandys, Sir Maurice Berkeley, and Sir Nicholas Vaux,17 but the writer was certainly misinformed. Not only was Boleyn still in Spain at the time the letter was written, but he is mentioned long afterwards by the same designation by which he had been styled for years before, viz. as knight for the royal body. It was on 16 June 1525 that he was first ennobled as Viscount Rochford, when the king's illegitimate son [Henry Fitzroy] was created Duke of Richmond: shortly before which he had a rather anxious duty as commissioner for the forced loan in the county of Kent to prevent the outbreak of disturbances.

There cannot be a doubt that not only his elevation to the peerage, but several earlier tokens of royal favour besides, were due to the fascination his daughter had begun to exercise over the king. Early in in 1522 he filled the office of treasurer of the household, and he is so styled in a patent of 24 April in that year granting him the manor of Fobbing in Essex. On the 29th of the same month various offices about Tunbridge, Brasted, and Penshurst were granted to him and his son George in survivorship. On 1 Sept. 1523 the keepership of the part of Beskwood, of which he had before received a grant in reversion, was given to him and Sir John Byron in survivorship. It was, perhaps, about the same time that he received also the keepership of Thundersley Park in Essex, the grant of which is enrolled without date in the fifteenth year of Henry VIII.18 In 1524 or 1525 he was made steward of the lordship of Swaffham in Norfolk.19 Some correspondence that he had with Sir John Daunce is preserved, relating to the repairs of the manors of Tunbridge and Penshurst.20 In December 1525 he was assessed for the subsidy at 800l.,21, an income probably equal to about 10,000l. a year in our day [1886].

On 17 May 1527 he received a commission in conjunction with Clerk, bishop of Bath, and Sir Anthony Browne to go to France and take the oath of Francis I to the new treaty between him and Henry. He was one of the English noblemen who received pensions from Francis for promoting a good understanding between the two countries. He took his place in the parliament which met in November 1529, and on 8 Dec. he was created Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde.22 The latter earldom had for many years been in dispute between him and Sir Piers Butler, who had actually borne the title; but the matter was referred to the king's arbitration, who, making Sir Piers an allotment out of the lands, compelled him to relinquish the title in favour of Boleyn.23

On 24 January, 1530 he was appointed Lord Privy Seal. The authority for the patent of this office had already been issued four days previously; at which time he received a commission along with Stokesley, afterwards bishop of London, and Lee, afterwards archbishop of York, to go to the Emperor Charles V, and explain to him the king's reasons for seeking a divorce from his aunt, Catherine of Arragon.24  The pope [Clement VII] and the emperor at that time had met together at Bologna, and the ambassadors were further commissioned to treat with both of them, and with other potentates, for a general peace. But, of course, the main object was to counteract, as far as possible, the influence which the emperor would bring to bear upon the pope in favour of Catherine. The ambassadors, however, failed to impress the former with the justice of the king's cause; and the latter very naturally kept his sentiments to himself.

It was on this occasion that—according to that most untrustworthy authority, Foxe—although sent ambassador from the king of England, he declined to pay the pope the accustomed reverence of kissing his toe. The story may be true, for to one who stood so high in favour of a powerful sovereign the discourtesy involved no very serious consequences. But the graphic addition that a spaniel, brought by the earl from England, at once gave his holiness's foot the salutation refused by his master, seems rather to show the spirit in which the tale is told than to invite our confidence in its veracity. The incident is avowedly related 'as a prognosticate of our separation from the see of Rome.'

From Bologna Wiltshire took his departure into France, where he remained for some time trying to get the doctors of the university of Paris to give an opinion in the king's favour on the divorce question. He returned to England in August.25  From this time he was generally resident at the court, and the notices of him in state papers are frequent enough; but there is little to tell of his doings that deserves particular mention. What there is certainly does not convey a very high opinion of the man. Not many weeks after Wolsey's death he gave a supper to the French ambassador, at which he had the extremely bad taste to exhibit a farce of the cardinal's going to hell.26

When the authority of the bishops was attacked in the parliament of 1532, he was, naturally enough, one of the first to declare that neither pope nor prelate had a right to make laws; and he offered to maintain that proposition with his body and goods.27  That he became a leader, or rather a patron, of the protestant party, was no more than might have been expected from his position, his daughter's greatness and the fortunes of his house being so closely connected with a revolt against church authority.  Yet he was one of those who in 1533 examined the martyr Frith for denying the real presence; while he commissioned Erasmus from time to time to write for him treatises on religious subjects, such as on preparation for death, on the Apostles' Creed, or on one of the Psalms of David.28

The last thing recorded of him that is at all noteworthy is, that he and Sir William Paulet were sent on 13 July 1534 to the Princess Mary to induce her to renounce her title and acknowledge herself an illegitimate child!29  He died (as appears by a letter of his servant Robert Cranewell to Lord Cromwell at his family mansion of Hever, in Kent, on 13 March 1539.30

(James Gairdner)

1 Calendar of Henry VIII, iv. p. 2581.
2 ib. i. Nos. 343, 1477.
3 ib. No. 1491.
4 ib. No. 1774.
5 ib. No. 1814.
6 ib. No. 3008.
7 ib. ii. pp. 1456, 1461.
8 ib. i. Nos. 3859, 3861.
9 ib. No. 4307.
10 ib. ii. No. 2210.
11 ib. No. 1573.
12 ib. No. 3783.
13 ib. No. 3756.
14 ib. iii. No. 906.
15 ib. No. 1284.
16 ib. No. 2729.
17 ib. No. 2982.
18 Calendar, iv. p. 125.
19 ib. p. 568.
20 ib. Nos. 1501, 1550, 1592.
21 ib. p. 1331.
22 ib. Nos. 6043, 6085.
23 Calendar, ii. Nos. 1230, 1269, iv. 3728, 3937, 5097.
24 ib. iv. 6111, 6154-5, 6163.
25 Calendar, iv. 6571, 6579.
26 ib. v. No. 62.
27 ib. No. 850.
28 ERASMI Epp. lib. xxix. 34, 43, 48.
29 Calendar, vii. 980.
30 Manuscript in Public Record Office.

Gairdner, James. "Sir Thomas Boleyn."
       Dictionary of National Biography. Vol V.
       Leslie Stephen, Ed.
       New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886. 321-323.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn.
           Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and His Court.
           New York: Ballantine, 2001.

Wilson, Derek. In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition,
           and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII.
           New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.

Thomas Boleyn on the Web:

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This page was created on April 9, 2007. Last updated April 11, 2023.

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