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Rehabbing a Villain from Henry VIII's Court

Feb 24, 2008 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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In King Henry VIII's vicious court of intrigue, Jane Boleyn kept her head low and followed the money.

Married to George Boleyn, brother of Anne, who would eventually become Henry's queen, Jane won a place in the heart of the Tudor regime as Anne's sister-in-law. Jane enjoyed many perks of court life, but she also had ringside seats to the dramas that unfolded in the king's court.

Author Julia Fox meticulously details Jane's life — and her role in the scandals that engulfed the court — in her first book, Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford.

For centuries, Jane Boleyn has been reviled. When Queen Anne was accused of adultery with several men — including her own brother — Jane's husband — George, Jane was interrogated. Jealous of the close relationship between George and Anne, Jane provided testimony that helped lead to the siblings' executions. Or so the story goes.

But Fox challenges this picture of Jane as a vindictive and opportunistic young woman. Re-examining the historical record, Fox suggests that Jane had no reason to risk her privileged life with George for penniless, landless widowhood. And she chronicles how Jane clawed her way out of obscurity and back up the court's social ladder — attending to Henry VIII's third, fourth and fifth wives.

It was Jane's service to Henry's fifth wife, the teenaged Catherine Howard (who was also Anne Boleyn's first cousin) that proved her undoing. Jane passed messages from Catherine to her secret lover, Thomas Culpepper. Jane was eventually interrogated and executed for her role as go-between.

Liane Hansen spoke with Fox about Boleyn's life and her place in history.

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