Monday, June 09, 2008

Question from Elizabeth M - Another daughter of the Boleyns

I posted my question on the wrong page. But now I think I am in the right place. It is regarding the children of Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn. The Wikipedia entry for Elizabeth Boleyn says she and Thomas had SIX children--including a daughter who died young named Elizabeth. I have never before seen that Anne And Mary had a short-lived sister named Elizabeth. I knew about the brothers Thomas and henry who died young, but not Elizabeth. Any basis of fact in this?


PhD Historian said...

I cannot say this often enough: Wikipedia is notoriously unreliable.

In the specific case of the Elizabeth Boleyn article, it states that three additional Boleyn children were "thought to have died young," but it does not offer any indication of a source for this "thought."

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn had three children: Mary, George, and Anne. It is possible that the author of this particular entry chose not to mention non-surviving children. I do not have a copy of Eric Ives' biography of Anne on hand, but if there were other children, I feel certain he would mention them. You might check his book, available in any public library.

Elizabeth M. said...

That is why I was so confused. I have several bios of Anne--Ives, Marie Louise Bruce, Retha Warnicke, Norah Lofts, Joanna Denny--and none of them mention a baby sister named Elizabeth. So I wonder where the Wikipedia article came up with that. I have read that the short-lived baby brothers Thomas and Henry are, I believe, buried at Hever Church--there are supposed to be markers for them. So if there was a baby Elizabeth, you think she would have one, somewhere, too.

Brittany said...

Well, even if Wikipedia can be unreliable and all...There must be some source that started that idea of 3 other Boleyn children that died young. I first heard of Elizabeth in Caroline Meyer's historical novel "Doomed Queen Anne"--I haven't read this book in years, but I think I remember Elizabeth being a younger sister who was either a midget or hunchbacked, or something like that. In the book, Anne's parents continually treat Elizabeth unfairly, and Anne is always defending her (In the novel, Anne is younger than Mary and therefore closer to Elizabeth's age). I think Elizabeth dies at some point in the book.

There must be some source that mentions Elizabeth (and perhaps Thomas and Henry).... It's very possible that they did exist; parents often had a good deal of children, many of whom died young.

Foose said...

There does seem to be a letter of Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cromwell extant, in which he complains about early married life: "When I married I had only 50 pounds a year to live on for me and my wife as long as my father lived, and yet she brought me every year a child." It's quoted in several biographies of Anne.

Three children doesn't seem a lot, but five would seem plentiful, and perhaps there were more. "Elizabeth" would be a logical choice for a name, children were often named after their mother, grandmother (both Elizabeth in this case) or an influential godparent. It would help to get a fix on how many children we might be talking about if we had some idea of the marriage date of Sir Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn (to compare against Sir William Boleyn's death date, apparently 1505), but I don't think that's ever been ascertained.

PhD Historian said...

For Elizabeth: Eric Ives and Retha Warnicke are the two most respected authorities on the Boleyns. And though they have differing opinions, they are
trustworthy. Both are distinguished professors of history at major universities. Nora Lofts and Joanna Denny were principally novelists. As such, they lacked the training and skill to write reliable histories, even on those occasions when they attempted to write non-fiction. I cannot find any background on Mary L. Bruce, though I did discover that her books are not owned by any university or college library in California, which suggests to me that they are not credible
histories. So where did "Wikipedians" come up with their information? Quite probably from having read it in a work of "historical fiction" and failing to recognize that works in that genre are often based only very loosely on any semblance of documented history. I don't mean to be an elitist academic snob, but in order to write reliable, quality histories and biographies, one must have a certain level of training. That training includes learning how to distinguish reliable from non-reliable document sources. Advanced degrees are most certainly NOT necessary. There are some excellent advanced-degree-less writers of legitimate history out there, Alison Weir, Leanda de Lisle, and Antonia Fraser among them. But each of these writers has significant undergraduate training in history, and notably from British universities, where a BA holder has as much or more training than an MA graduate from a US school. (I am American, and my degrees are from American schools, but I've also attended a UK university. UK
undergraduates are FAR more knowledgable about what Americans call their "major" subject than are US students!)

Also, not all people buried in a church or its cemetery have gravemarkers that have survived into the modern era. The abscence of a marker at Hever for an Elizabeth Boleyn, child of Thomas, cannot be taken as evidence that she did not exist. If, however, there are indeed markers for young Thomas and Henry, sons of Thomas and brothers of Anne, that is a pretty good indicator that they did exist! But I have not been to Hever, so I cannot say whether or not such markers still exist. Maybe some of our UK contributors have been there?

For Brittany: Please do remember that Meyers' book is a NOVEL ... and is therefore by definition fiction. Novelists have the luxury of being able to make things up. Historians cannot do that (or at least they cannot get away with it
if they do). Just because a novel, movie, or TV show that is based on some historical event or person happens to contain information is no reason to take that one bit of information as itself based on historical fact. Meyers and her
fellow novelists are free to embellish history with whatever suits their own imaginations, even if their is no historical basis for it. Just look at Showtime's "The Tudors"! It's a historical mess, but now because it is based on real people and "Showtime said so," a great many people are assuming that everything in it must be accurate to the letter. It is never necessary for every character in a historical novel to have been mentioned in some legitimate historical source. That's the joy of fiction!

Again, Wikipedia and a string of novelists can name any number of non-surviving children of Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn they wish, but without specific citation to a recognized primary source document (i.e., a document written in the 1500s, such as the letter Foose cites), such naming must be viewed with skepticism at best.

My apologies if I rant too much, but it gets very frustrating when one tries to teach history to American university students and they cite Wikipedia and Showtime and novels as authoritative and reliable sources of information. I spend a great deal of time teaching students how to differentiate between acceptable/unacceptable and reliable/unreliable sources for historical data.

Monica said...

I agree with phd historian. I edit on Wikipedia and I've wondered about that claim previously. A huge amount of inaccurate information has arived on Wikipedia since the success of 'The Other Boleyn Girl' and the Showtime series 'The Tudors'. If I want information, I always go to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is first-rate and free in Britain.

Anonymous said...

to phd historian...

You noted a few legitimate writers what is your opinion about Alison Plowden? I also have a book "The Mirrour Of Vertue In Worldly Greatnes Or The Life Of Sir Thomas More" By William Roper, It was published in 1903, I think a 4th Edition. Reliable???

PhD Historian said...

My opinion of Alison Plowden is not particluarly positive, I'm afraid. Ms Plowden began her career as a scriptwriter/editor for the BBC, with no university education. She had no training at all in history that I have been able to discover. Her pair of biographies of Jane Grey ("Lady Jane Grey and the House of Suffolk," later re-issued as "Lady Jane Grey: Nine Days Queen") are little more than edited-down copied versions of Richard Davey's work of 1909, "Nine Days Queen." Indeed, entire paragraphs of Plowden's books are identical, word for word, to those in Davey's book. She also repeated his errors in citing sources, which suggests to me that she literally "copied" his work without consulting the original sources for herself. Her bios of Jane Grey were heavily criticized in academic reviews for their failure to utilize primary sources. Ms Plowden was a writer of history, not a historian. That is, she relied entirely on the work of writers and historians before her and show no evidence that she ever conducted primary source archival research for herself. She is great for those unfamiliar with the topic of Tudor history who need a starting point, but she should never be relied upon as an authoritative expert.

"The Mirrour Of Vertue In Worldly Greatnes Or The Life Of Sir Thomas More" by William Roper (d. 1578) was first published in 1626. William Roper was Thomas More's son-in-law, having married Thomas' daughter Margaret More. Academic historians have written a great deal about Roper's biogrpahy of his father-in-law, and there is some on-going debate regarding its reliability. It is, however, generally well regarded, despite one or two notable errors of fact within it. But because of the familial relationship and his religion (he was Roman Catholic and wrote after having suffered for his religion during the reign of Edward VI), Roper had an obvious bias. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however ... though it must be considered when reading his work. Roper had an agenda, and that was to "show the best side" of his father-in-law and a Catholic martyr. But on the whole, yes, the book is generally reliable.

Elizabeth M. said...

What do you think of Alison Weir? She mentioned one thing in her book Henry VIII King and Court that Anne Boleyn may have been pregnant again during her trial for adultery and treason, and that it was necessary to get rid of her and her unborn child? Because since she was being accused of adultery, the baby's paternity could not be ascertained for certain? There again, that is something I have never seen anywhere else. I for one believe Anne innocent of all the charges against her. She was not a stupid woman, and definitely a proud one, and it is very doubtful she would have jeopardized her position as the King's wife and as an anointed queen, a position which she held out for for so many years, by getting pregnant with another man's child.

PhD Historian said...

Your original question about Elizabeth Boleyn seems to have morphed into a lengthy discussion on "historians" vs "history writers" and their respective "reliability," but still I'm happy to answer any questions so long as Lara is okay with it all.

I actually have a lot of respect for Alison Weir, and I enjoy reading her work. She is in that grey zone between "writers of history" and "historians," in my opinion ... more than simply what I call a "writer of history" of the kind I described in a previous post but not yet quite a bona fide "analytical historian." She has some formal undergraduate training in history and historical research, and her works do reflect that she has done some limited first-hand research. But her research tends to be limited to modern printed collections of transcribed documents such as the "Calendar of State Papers." I have read several of her books without detecting any evidence that she has consulted unpublished manuscript sources such as letters or other personal documents, of which there are thousands surviving from the period. And her books are still largely narrative storytelling that do not attempt to debate directly with other historians. Or as some historians say, she does not "engage with the historical discourse" on her given topic. She usually does not, for example, note that Historian A said "X" about some perosn or event, that Historian B said "Y," and then offer her own opinion supported by an argument based on all of the evidence available. Instead, she simply offers her interpretation of the story, though she does that very well indeed. But as these numerous and lengthy posts illustrate, "engaging" with the larger body of historical research and previous publishing on a topic is critical for a clearer understanding of history. Straightforward storytelling is not enough.
Ms Weir has recently shifted to writing fiction, which may eventually damage her good reputation as an unusually reliable "writer of history," in my opinion. The general public is far too inclined to assume that if someone writes non-fiction "history," then their fiction must also be largely factual. I cannot count the number of people who have contacted me after reading her novel about Jane Grey and assumed that it was fact rather than fiction.
And she does, as you noted, tend to repeat many of the more fanciful rumors and much of the contemporary idle gossip surrounding her subjects (like you, I have never heard the later pregnancy rumor about Anne Boleyn before, and I tend to believe that she was much too smart to take such risks).
But on the whole, Alison Weir has my respect and I can endorse her non-fiction as much more useful and reliable for the general public than the works of Plowden, Chapman, Lofts, Denny, Bruce, and others.

Elizabeth M. said...

Just to get back to the original question--if anyone has any idea where the mystery sister Elizabeth came from, please let me know.

Foose said...

I'd like to offer a defense of Marie Louise Bruce, whose biography of Anne Boleyn was the first adult work on the Tudors that I ever read (and devil of a time I had extorting it from the librarians, who felt consummation and adultery and excommunication highly unsuitable topics for a 10-year-old to read about.) I got it out last night, and it's just as I remember: extensively endnoted, using all the standard primary sources, and quoting extensively from them and original letters throughout.

I think it's an excellent book for the period, 1972, representing what most scholars knew at the time about Anne Boleyn (I believe it was in 1981 that a historian first realized that the "Veure" in Anne's letter to her father meant Tervuren in Brussels, meaning that the usual story about her French upbringing had to be reevaluated, and thereby triggering renewed interest in Anne Boleyn's life.) True, it repeats the canards about her mole and her finger in the very first paragraph, and the tone is suitable for a popular, not academic, history. But Ms. Bruce is described on the jacket as "the author of several articles on the Tudor period ... a young historian whose first major work this is. Her extensive research for this masterful biography was conducted over several years." So I can credit she was a reasonably serious historian. Certainly the book, as I originally struggled through it, was extremely informative to me about where much of what we know about Anne actually comes from, since Ms. Bruce meticulously documented most of her statements.

As to the original question, it is extremely difficult to answer unless the Wikipedia article cites the source, which it does not. In fact, I do not see a child named "Elizabeth Boleyn" cited in the list of children on the page presently for Elizabeth Boleyn (Anne's mother), although the article still does say the couple had six children. On Sir Thomas Boleyn's Wikipedia page, "Elizabeth Boleyn" is still listed as his daughter, again without a citation. There are only two references for Sir Thomas' page, one of which is Richardson's "Plantagenet Ancestry," which I am not familiar with, but MAY have been the original source. As phd historian notes, Wikipedia is notoriously unreliable; the changed listing on Elizabeth Boleyn's page and lack of sourcing on Sir Thomas' is indicative of the problem.

Foose said...

And now the child Elizabeth Boleyn has been restored to the Wikipedia page of Elizabeth Boleyn the Countess of Wiltshire. Still no direct source cited.