Boleyn, George, Viscount Rochford (c.15041536), courtier and diplomat, was the only son of , and Elizabeth Howard (d. 1538), eldest daughter of . He first appears in the public record participating in the Christmas revels of 1514, and he signalled his father's success when he became a royal page in 1516. His earliest recorded grants resulted from his father's service to the crown and his sister Mary's relationship with the king. With his father in 1522, he was granted various offices at Tonbridge, which had belonged to the fallen duke of Buckingham. He received the manor of Grimston, Norfolk, in 1524 and was admitted to the king's privy chamber, perhaps about the same time.
Early in 1526 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey pushed through the Eltham ordinances, designed to reduce the size of the king's household and to reduce the privy chamber's potential as a source of political opposition to his ascendancy. George Boleyn was one of the gentlemen removed by Wolsey, who recognized that the Boleyns had become his most serious rivals at court. Boleyn suffered little personal damage from Wolsey's actions. Shortly after his dismissal he married Jane Parker (d. 1542) [see ], a daughter of Henry, Lord Morley and Monteagle, and Alice St John of Bledsoe, herself a maternal half-niece of Henry VIII's grandmother the countess of Richmond. The king granted Boleyn an annuity of £20 to support the newly wed couple at court. As his sister became firmly established as Henry's favourite, Boleyn's career accelerated rapidly. By 1528 Henry was actively seeking to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and the Boleyns were entrenching themselves at court.
In September 1528 Wolsey, trying to placate his powerful new challengers, helped George Boleyn secure an income of 50 marks, payable by the chief butler of England out of the prizes for wines. On 26 September he was appointed esquire of the body (Ives, 128n.; LP Henry VIII, 4, no. 4779). The next year proved particularly lucrative for him. Wolsey's situation had deteriorated further, and Thomas Cromwell, the cardinal's chief lieutenant now in control of his patronage, arranged for Boleyn an annuity of £200 from the lands of the bishopric of Winchester and another 200 marks from the temporalities of St Albans. Also in 1529 Boleyn secured the chief stewardship of the honour of Beaulieu, Essex, and the office of the New Park there. In addition he was appointed to the office of master of the buckhounds and to the governorship of the hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, near Bishopsgate, London.
In the autumn of 1529 Boleyn was knighted and began his diplomatic career, heading an embassy to France. It was well understood that the ambassadorial appointment of such an inexperienced young man reflected the new realities of power. This point was amplified when his father was promoted to the earldoms of Wiltshire and Ormond, and George Boleyn became Viscount Rochford. He carried out further diplomatic missions in France in 1530 and 1532, but seemed primarily concerned to secure favourable opinions about the divorce. By 1533, having acquired some ambassadorial experience, Rochford was sent to the court of François I to tell him about Henry's marriage to his sister and to secure the French king's support in the struggle against papal denunciation of the divorce. He was accused of bragging and ignoring proper diplomatic forms, but these charges came primarily from defeated opponents of the Boleyn marriage and the religious reform carried in its train.
More embassies to France followed in 1533 and 1534. Rochford spent much time trying to plan a meeting between François and Henry that neither monarch wanted. Diplomatic service, however, promoted valuable rewards. In June 1534 Rochford was made warden of the Cinque Ports, and in April 1535 the crown granted him the manor of South, in Kent, formerly held by Sir Thomas More. Rochford then served on the commission that tried and condemned More on 26 June 1535.
Under his sister's factional leadership Rochford played an important role on behalf of religious reform in England. Eustache Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, characterized Rochford as a Lutheran, a charge with some merit. His advocacy of reform was particularly open. He worked with other crown officials in 1531 in support of Henry's claim to be supreme head of the Church of England and was charged to argue the crown's position in convocation. He was widely regarded as one of the king's principal advisers in backing efforts to secure the submission of the clergy, and he served as a member of the group of leading councillors and courtiers who met with the upper house of convocation to handle the final stages of the submission.
Rochford's motivation for reform carried beyond loyalty to his sister's cause. His interest in reformed religion was a guiding light in his life. About 1534 he gave two manuscript texts, written by French reformers, to Anne. He commissioned the translations of these books, both deeply committed to putting scripture in the hands of laymen. His final public utterances spoke to his devotion to the true word of God and his hope that listeners would both observe and set it forth. He desired that his audience would trust in God especially and not in the vanities of the world, and blamed his own travails on his lack of perfect understanding of this important lesson.
Rochford's eclipse might have been signalled as early as the spring of 1536. On 23 April, St George's day, he and Sir Nicholas Carew were competing candidates to fill a vacancy among the knights of the Garter. Henry had already promised François I that he would promote Carew at the earliest opportunity; nevertheless, when Carew was selected, many interpreted the king's choice as a defeat for the Boleyns.
As Anne began losing her grip on the king's affections, Rochford too inevitably began to slip. Opponents of the Boleyn faction at this point realized that any attempt to overthrow Anne Boleyn had to destroy her brother as well. Rochford had ability and energy and could be expected to mount a vigorous defence of his sister if left free. The plot was developed accordingly, and, it is said, with the active involvement of Jane Parker, his wife. Lady Rochford, according to Chapuys, was the source for the story that Henry's declining sexual capacities had become a matter of discussion in the queen's household. Even more damaging was the charge, raised by Bishop Burnet, that Lady Rochford had intimated that there was an incestuous familiarity between George and Anne.
The trap was sprung on 1 May 1536. Rochford participated in a royal tournament in Greenwich from which the king precipitately withdrew. The next day he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, accused with four other men of having committed adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn, his sister, an act most detestable against the law of God and nature also, and of conspiring to cause the king's death. No one has ever suggested that the charges against Rochford were sustainable. He was formally accused on one occasion of spending a long time in Anne's room and on another of claiming that the king was not Elizabeth's father. Rochford defended himself at his trial with energy and eloquence, blaming his wife for the accusation of incest. He denied all the articles brought against him, and his demeanour drew praise from many. People on the streets, it is said, offered long odds against his conviction. It was, however, a foregone political conclusion.
Rochford was tried and convicted on 15 May 1536 and beheaded at Tower Hill two days later. Before he died he was allowed to speak. He did not say anything about the specific charges, but submitted himself to the law and the king's will. In a loud voice, it was reported, he said, I am come hither not to preach and make a sermon, but to die. This he did, and his remains were buried, probably on the same day, in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower.
Joseph S. Block
LP Henry VIII · P. Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: a chapter of English history, 15271536, 2 vols. (1884) · C. Wriothesley, A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors from AD 1485 to 1559, ed. W. D. Hamilton, 2 vols., CS, new ser., 11, 20 (18757) · GEC, Peerage, new edn · R. Warnicke, The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) · E. W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (1986) · D. Starkey, The reign of Henry VIII: personalities and politics [new edn] (1991) · Her moost loving and fryndely brother sendeth greeting: Anne Boleyn's manuscripts and their sources, Illuminating the book … essays in honour of Janet Backhouse, ed. M. P. Brown and S. McKendrick (1998)