Sunday, June 07, 2009

Question from Katie - Change from Bullen to Boleyn

I have another question regarding Anne Boleyn. I'd just like to clarify what her actual surname was - I was always led to believe that originally the name was Bullen and that it was later changed to Boleyn, posibly when she went to live in France. In a childhood visit to Hever castle I also remember seeing a sign referring to her brother as Geroge Bullen so I'm curious as to if, when and why the name change occured. Many Thanks.


  1. Spelling ... even the spelling of names ... was not standardized in the sixteenth century. Additionally, as much as 80% of the population could neither read nor write. And in the Tudor era, people learned to read well before they learned to write. The two were taught as entirely separate skills, and many who could read quite well never learned to write. Of those who did, their skills were often very limited. Even among the wealthy, there was a heavy reliance on secretaries for the actual writing of documents, including personal letters. Most people simply signed their name to a document or letter that had actually been penned by a secretary.

    As a result of the general lack or reading and especially writing skills, spelling was largely phonetic. People tended to sign their name in a way that corresponded to how they thought the letters should sound when spoken. Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset, usually signed his name "Henry Dorsett," with two t's, for example, while Katherine Parr signed her name "Kateryn."

    The spelling of a surname might change from one generation to the next as the second generation acquired greater writing skills than the first. There are many, many examples of Tudor-era sons spelling their surname differently than their fathers had done.

    I've not myself examined any documents signed by any of the Boleyns that used the actual surname rather than their titles (Wiltshire, Rochford), but my understanding is that Anne's and George's father, Thomas Boleyn, did sign his name "Boleyn," not "Bullen." George and Anne also used the "Boleyn" spelling, from what I have been able to find. So it would appear that the change from Bullen to Boleyn occurred before the family came to prominence in the 1520s.

    I also note from my copy of Original Letters Illustrative of English History (4 vols, edited by Henry Ellis, 1827, 2: 10-12) that when Anne Boleyn wished to "Frenchify" her name, she signed it "Anna de Boullan." So Anne's time in France does not appear to be the direct source of any spelling change.

    Everything that I find from searching through various databases and manuscript sources suggests that the spelling change from "Bullen" to occurred "Boleyn" occurred before Thomas Boleyn's generation ... sometime in the 1400s.

  2. Following on PhD Historian's comprehensive answer...

    It is possible that contemporary use of Bullen was the work of clerks writing on behalf of someone else and spelling phonetically.

    Another example would be the Knollys and Carey families whose names are spelled in a variety of ways during Elizabeth's reign. Knollys, Knowlze, Knolleys, Knolles, Knowlles, Knolys were all used as were Carey, Cary, Carew (which is especially tricky as there was another family called Carew) Carre and Carye.

    The codification of spelling, even of names, did not occur till much later.

  3. Composer William Byrd (c1540-1623) spells his second name (seemingly randomly) as Byrd, Byrde or Birde!

    Eg. "Byrde" is signed clearly (and with great flourish!) on his Lincoln acceptance/contract whilst in his will (close to the beginning), "Byrde" is very definitely corrected to "Byrd" and his signature reads as such.*

    * See John Harley's corrections and updates to "William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal" (July 2005) for more details on the will's corrections.

  4. The shifting spelling of the name may be linked to the shifting spellings of the French town of Boulogne. In the medieval Chronicles of Calais, the city is spelled Boleyn; in Letters & Papers, the city is fairly consistently spelled Bullen. The suggestion has been made that the family originated with a Baldwin de Bolon, from Boulogne. (See Joanna Denny's Anne Boleyn for a brief footnote discussion to Chapter 2.

  5. The fact that 'Boleyn' is another spelling of 'Bullen' makes me think that my (and I'm sure a lot of other people's) pronunciation of 'Boleyn" as 'Bow' (long ‘o’ rhyming with 'go') - 'lynn' is wrong.

    'Boleyn' should probably be pronounced the way it was originally spelt as 'Bullen' (that is rhyming with 'woollen').

  6. What about when it changed back to Bullen? I'm married to one of those.

  7. I am a Bullen and have always attributed my gregarious personality to the Bullen gene. Are there many other extrovert Bullens out there?

  8. Hey guys, my family comes from the Bullen family who has kept strict records of tracing their lineage back to a Samuel Bullen, the first Bullen ancestor in this country, residing in Medfield, MA. He, himself traced his lineage to George Boleyn. I know that it is thought that George had no children, however, it is widely thought that George Boleyn, the dean of Lichfield, is in fact the son of George Boleyn, Viscount of Rochford and Jane Parker. Making this the line to my family and many others here in this country.

    1. I am part of that same family line!!! Thank you so much!!! Ive been stuck on Edward Bullen wondered who his father was. My grandmothers father was a Bullen


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