Everyone knows that King Henry VIII loved to chop off women’s heads. Anne of Cleves was probably thrilled when she escaped her marriage to the notorious Tudor with her head still on her shoulders. But most people don’t realize the history between Henry VIII and Jane Boleyn—the OTHER other Boleyn girl, Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law, was another case of all-in-the-family execution.
Jane Boleyn married Anne’s brother, George, making her the Viscountess Rochford, and sent her sister-in-law to the chopping block when she claimed that Anne had an incestuous relationship with her own brother. Anne found out the hard way that Henry had a thing for gruesome executions.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for Jane Boleyn—she would have her own name added to the list of everyone Henry VIII beheaded only six years later, when she foolishly helped Henry’s young wife, Catherine Howard, have an affair behind the king’s back. Even though Jane went insane while she was interrogated at the Tower of London, Henry had the law changed just so he could execute her. Ironically, Henry was the one with hereditary psychiatric problems in his family, so he probably shouldn’t have promoted executing insane people!
Henry VIII has a well-deserved reputation for executing anyone who got in his way, and he didn’t stop with his wives, two of whom lost their heads after marrying the Tudor monarch. Henry executed people he declared to be heretics (meaning they didn’t support his break with the Catholic Church), along with rivals to the throne and his own advisors. In fact, one estimate claims that Henry offed as many as 72,000 people during his 37 year reign.
One of those victims was Jane Boleyn—and no, you didn’t read that wrong. Jane Boleyn was Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law, and she played a central role in Anne’s execution in 1536. Was it karmic justice when Jane was executed only six years later? Some think so. But in order to execute Jane Boleyn, Henry had to change the law barring executions of insane people.
But who was Jane Boleyn? Her last name might be famous, but most people don’t know anything about the woman who married Anne Boleyn’s brother. She was born sometime around 1505, four years before Henry would become king. Jane was the daughter of Henry and Alice Parker. The Parkers were wealthy and wanted to marry Jane into the up-and-coming Boleyn family as soon as Anne hooked Henry’s attention.
Jane was no stranger to court—by the age of fifteen, she was serving in Queen Katherine of Aragon’s retinue. Jane might have even seen the early stages of Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn first hand. In 1526, Jane’s parents married her to George Boleyn, Anne’s brother. By 1529, George had been given the title Viscount Rochford by Henry. Everything seemed perfect—but Jane was never loyal to the Boleyn family.
Jane’s marriage into the Boleyn family was arranged, and many historians have speculated that it was not happy—Jane and her husband, George, had no children, and Jane’s testimony ended up sending George and his sister Anne to the chopping block. That had to make family get-togethers pretty awkward in the Boleyn family.
Even though her position as Lady Rochford gave Jane power—and access to the Boleyn's Hever Castle in Kent—Jane was always a schemer. In 1534, right after Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen, Jane schemed with her sister-in-law to banish one of Henry’s mistresses from court. When the plot was discovered, Jane was punished for her role by herself being sent away from court. And Jane also got caught up in the biggest debate at Henry’s court—who his next heir should be, since his two legitimate children were girls.
As soon as Anne Boleyn married Henry VIII, he started having affairs with Queen Anne’s maids-of-honor. Jane Boleyn was in a position to see exactly what was happening—she was Anne’s lady of the bedchamber. But Jane didn’t side with the scorned queen, her sister-in-law. Instead, while Anne struggled to hold Henry’s interest, Jane publicly promoted Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, to be Henry’s heir.
Refresher: in the 1530s, Henry was still struggling to produce a male heir. His only legitimate children were Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn's daughter. Over the years, Henry would disinherit and reinstate both daughters multiple times, even after he finally had his son, Edward.
In 1535, Jane participated in a Greenwich demonstration in favor of Mary. It was a particularly rough slap in the face coming from a Boleyn. Anne’s own daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, who was only a toddler at the time, was the other Tudor competing for the position. Apparently Jane didn’t feel much loyalty to her in-laws—which she proved the next year year when she testified against Anne Boleyn.