Monday, April 25, 2011

Question from shtove - Anne Boleyn's Irish connections

I'm mostly familiar with the later Tudor period, so H8 and his amazing array of wives tend to confuse me.

Boleyn was related to the Ormond Butlers, and I do understand the basics. But I have not come across a full account of that relationship and its political implications.

English historians tend to treat Irish matters with arched eyebrow - "ouch, that's impenetrable, and anyway it's a matter for the Irish" - but even the Irish accounts, including the Butler archives, don't do the relationship justice.

The pivotal character is the 9th earl of Ormond:,_9th_Earl_of_Ormond

Anyone have insight?


  1. Hi,

    You're absolutely right that Anne was related to the Butler family, who were the hereditary earls of Ormond (sometimes spelled Ormonde.) And that this connection is often either unremarked upon or mis-represented.

    This is part of a wider trend in Irish historiography, in which English historians are often reluctant to engage with Irish issues and many Irish historians were, until recently, often loath to research the lives of Irish individuals who were loyal to the English Crown, for political reasons.

    The Earldom of Ormond was the highest ranking title in the Anglo-Irish nobility in the sixteenth century. That class dated back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century. However, it would be wrong to get too carried away with what we know of modern Irish politics and nationalism and conclude that they were therefore seen as an invading class. In the first place, many of them had been there for centuries and secondly, the concept of nationality and nationhood was only beginning to develop in the sixteenth century. The idea of being "Irish" as distinctly separate, or even oppositional, to being English would not really occur until well into the nineteenth century. What mattered far more at the time were ties of feudal loyalty and monarchy. In many ways, you could therefore draw (faint!) similarities between the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the Protestant Ascendancy of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and modern-day Irish unionists. It's likely that Anne would have associated her Irish ancestry in much the same way as she would have associated her Norfolk, London and Kent ancestries - i.e. all regional identities, not national ones. If that makes sense?

    Thomas Boleyn's grandfather, the earl, was active in upholding English justice in Ireland and maintaining the feudal system of government in the southernmost province of Munster, where the majority of his family's estates were located. He was also a member of Henry VII's court and he served in the household of Katherine of Aragon from 1509 until his death in 1515. Unfortunately, he did not have any sons and his fortune and title was to devolve down the female line between his two daughters - one of whom, Margaret, was Thomas Boleyn's mother.

    Thomas followed in his grandfather's career at Court, whereas an Irish cousin, Piers, followed down the line of militarily supporting the Dublin administration. When the old earl died in 1515 Piers, on fairly dubious grounds, claimed he should inherit the title; whilst Thomas Boleyn, on slightly stronger ones, could claim that his grandfather had intended him to be the next Earl of Ormond.

    Henry VIII's advisers in Dublin were extremely nervous about denying Sir Piers Butler and his claim and thus run the risk of an aristocratic rebellion if he did not get the title he wanted.

    This feud dragged on for several years until the reluctant mediator, the future Duke of Norfolk, hit upon the idea of marrying Piers's son, James, to Thomas's daughter, Anne. There is strong evidence that this was the reason she was brought home from France in late 1521.

    Boleyn's reluctance over the scheme is almost certainly why it failed and by the time James Butler returned to London in 1526, Anne had already attracted the attention of the King and was therefore off the marriage market.

    That her father was heir presumptive to the most prestigious aristocratic title in Ireland and her mother the daughter of the most prestigious aristocratic title in England was obviously something which helped give Anne Boleyn many of the privileges and opportunities she enjoyed early in life. Unfortunately, it robs her of the romance of being a commoner who climbed her way onto the throne. Her Irish ancestry guaranteed that she had been born into the upper echelons of the Tudor nobility.

  2. Gareth, thanks for this information - very interesting!

    I had assumed the Geraldines were the premier peers in Ireland, simply because I see their names come up a lot.

    Regarding the status of the Butlers, was there in Tudor times any sort of derogatory connotation attached to being an "Irish peer," as there was in later centuries - a reputation for impoverishment, fecklessness and provinciality? (There is Wellington's remark; when asked if he was Irish, he replied that just because a man was born in a stable, it did not make him a horse.) Would an Irish peerage be considered inferior to an English one?

    Also, I read that James Butler was poisoned in 1546 at Ely. A large number of his household died with him. Is there any information as to whether this was food poisoning or "malice aforethought" by specific persons?

  3. James butler was the husband of joan fitzgerald . Which is in my direct line of Fitzgeralds . It's said that joan poisoned him and several other people


All comments are moderated so your replies may not show up immediately. Please be patient. Thanks!