This month marks somewhere between the 519th and 526th anniversary of the birth of Anne Boleyn (admittedly not a particularly momentous anniversary) the unfortunate second wife of King Henry VIII. Unfortunately both the date and year of her birth have eluded historians for many years but the circumstances in which this infamous queen were born are so shrouded in mystery that even the very place in which she was born has been lost to history. The most likely candidates for her place of birth have always been Blickling Hall in Norfolk or Hever Castle in Kent, though for many years another candidate persisted, unlikely though it was: Ormond Castle in Carrick on Suir.
Anne Boleyn was born sometime between 1501 and 1507 to Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. She had a sister named Mary (either younger or elder as her date of birth is also uncertain) and a younger brother named George. From a young age she was seen to be an exceedingly bright child – extremely intelligent and charming, and while she was no great beauty by the standards of the day she soon became her father’s arguable favourite and great hope for the family’s future. The Boleyns were not a particularly influential family, only two generations had passed since Sir Geoffrey Boleyn became Lord Mayor of London after making his fortune as a mercer (someone who procures and provides fine fabrics). Sir Thomas Boleyn was determined to change that and to use his children to do so and perhaps prophetically, saw Anne as the key to all of their futures (though he does not seem to have seen her also as the key to their downfall). As his best hope, he quickly had Anne installed at the court of Margaret of Austria and the Queen would remark in letters to Thomas that young Anne was “so presentable and so pleasant, considering her youthful age, that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me, than you to me.” Anne was very happy in the Netherlands but after a short time her father ordered instead that she go to France to be a maid of honour at the wedding of Mary Tudor to King Louis XII.
France was very different to the court of Margaret of Austria and while the marriage of Mary Tudor and Louis XII didn’t last very long (the French king died after just three months), Anne and her sister Mary Boleyn both remained in France with the new Queen Claude and Francis I. The court of Francis I was lively, if not a little debauched at times, and the finest minds of the day received patronage there – even Leonardo da Vinci appeared at one point, Mona Lisa in hand. Anne by all accounts remained intelligent and beloved, but her sister Mary became infamous in France when she allegedly became mistress to the King. Today, historians agree that much of her infamy is exaggerated but we do know that the King called her his ‘English Mare’ and that she earned the title of ‘The Great Prostitute’ during her time there. Unlike Anne, who was appreciated for her intelligence, wit and charm, Mary was considered a great beauty and when Thomas Boleyn recalled his daughter to England in 1520 to avoid further scandal and once home Mary very quickly became mistress to King Henry VIII.
We don’t know how Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn felt about each other during this affair but Anne herself didn’t return from France until 1522 (two years later) so it is probable that they had had scarcely any interaction at all before that point. On her return to the English court Anne’s ambition was notably different than her sister’s (the two are not believed to have been close) and she was installed as one of Queen Catherine’s ladies. As we now know, Anne successfully seduced the King, convinced him to divorce his wife, they run into a spot of bother there, break with Rome, found the Church of England, get married, have a daughter, fall out of love and Anne loses her head. What we’re really interested in today though is the Ormond connection and funnily enough, that was precisely why Anne was recalled from France in 1522 – to marry her cousin and settle the dispute that had been going on for many years.
So, first things first: who built Ormond Castle and what do they have to do with Anne Boleyn? Ormond Castle was built sometime before 1315 by the Butler family who arrived with Prince John in 1185. An old Norman family, they traced their noble lineage back to Rollo, famous Viking and the first Duke of Normandy himself (but then so do most noble European families) and changed their name from Walter when Theobald Walter became the Chief Butler of Ireland. In the fifteenth century though the Butler line of succession was a little muddied. When the 7th Earl of Ormond, Thomas Butler, died without a male heir the title was claimed by a distant cousin by the name of Piers Butler. This move was contested by Thomas Boleyn whose mother, Margaret Butler had been one of the two surviving daughters of the 7th earl. The dispute raged between Thomas Boleyn and Piers Butler, with each claiming that they were the true heir to the title until eventually King Henry VIII proposed a match between Piers’ son, James Butler and Anne Boleyn. Anne balked at the idea of the marriage and seems to have refused to consent to it so this solution was deemed a lost cause.
Thomas Boleyn was an ambitious man. His family did not have much by way of titles but they had some money and with his own charm he forged several connections. His mother was Butler, a co-heir to the Ormond lands and titles and he married a Howard – at that time one of the most powerful families in the British Isles. The Ormond title itself would have given him the power he so craved. During the latter years of the 7th Earl’s life Thomas Boleyn is said to have spent quite a lot of time hanging around him, ingratiating himself to his father-in-law, hoping no doubt to be named heir. This is the basis of our theory about Anne’s birth. If Thomas Boleyn was hanging around with his Father-in-Law, and his father in law was not only 7th Earl Ormond, but also 8th Earl Carrick – so isn’t it just possible that at some point between 1501 and 1507 when Lady Elizabeth Howard was pregnant they happened to be staying in Carrick-on-Suir when their little bundle of joy, the future queen, arrived? It is, of course it is. However as one of the richest men in Britain the Earl also owned Kilkenny Castle and 72 other manors across the kingdoms and it is equally likely she could have been born in any of those. During Anne’s rise to power Thomas Boleyn would actually be given the title of Earl of Ormond and Piers Butler relegated to Earl of Ossory – though as her reign was short, just ten years later he was forced to give it back.
So where did the rumour begin? Much of the speculation seems to have started with a single article by M. Morris in the Limerick Reporter in 1872. Morris posited the theory that because Thomas Boleyn was one of two Earls of Ormond, and because he was close to his grandfather who was living in Carrick-on-Suir during this period, it is possible that the future religious reformer and Queen of England and Ireland was born in the castle. Possibly due to popularity or interest the article was also published that same year in the journal Notes and Queries with a note advising caution with trusting the contents implicitly. The article was also later reproduced in its entirety in the Journal of the Waterford and South East of Ireland Archaeological Society Vol. 11 published in 1904. This time the article was accompanied by the same note from Notes and Queries along with another by the author suggesting that all of the evidence pointed to Blickling Hall as the most likely location but as there was no concrete evidence for either argument speculation was perfectly fine.
Speculation is of course perfectly fine, and generally makes for a good time. Who among us hasn’t argued an utterly unprovable historical theory with friends just for fun? The problem, just as it was in 1872, comes when we take a theory offered for fun and repost it elsewhere without necessary context. At some point, this theory offered by Mr. M. Morris and reproduced twice with appropriate warnings was repeated enough that the ‘possibly’ was lost in translation and it became all but fact to many people, repeated across several sources and even making its way into the Encyclopedia Britannica. The rumour that Ormonde Castle had seen the birth of such an infamous lady persisted in popular memory in the town, led to the naming of a (now closed-down) bar after Boleyn. It is now just a very early form of what we now term ‘fake news’ – a lesson perhaps in checking our sources before we repost things online!