The Tudor Society

23 April – George Boleyn loses out

On this day in Tudor history, 23rd April 1536, St George's Day, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, lost to Nicholas Carew in the Order of the Garter elections.

George Boleyn was, of course, the brother of Queen Anne Boleyn, so how did he lose, and was this a sign of the beginning of the end for the Boleyns?

Find out what exactly happened in today's talk.

Here is the video on Sir Nicholas Carew:

Today is also the anniversary of the birth and death of William Shakespeare in 1564 and 1616. Find out more about the Bard in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:


23 April
Today, 23rd April, is St George’s Day, the day for announcing new appointments to the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England, and today’s “on this day in Tudor history” talk, I’m going back to Henry VIII’s reign and St George’s Day 1536, shortly before the fall of Anne Boleyn. This talk is based on an article I researched and wrote for the Anne Boleyn Files back in 2015.

Back in 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was expected to be elected to the Order. He had been nominated in 1535, and had received a reasonable amount of support, but King James V of Scotland had beaten him by two votes. Unfortunately for George, he was to miss out in 1536 too with the honour going to Nicholas Carew, a known opponent of the Boleyns and the man who was said to be coaching Jane Seymour on how to behave with King Henry VIII. Carew beat George soundly, receiving twice as many votes, and even George’s father, Thomas Boleyn, had voted for Carew.

Although some historians see Carew’s appointment as a snub to George and the Queen, that may well be reading too much into what happened. While it could be taken as a sign that the Boleyns were losing their influence, it is only with hindsight, knowing what was to happen to George very soon, that we interpret this appointment as the beginning of the end for him.
The choice of appointment to the Order of the Garter in 1536 was in part dictated by the Henry VIII’s earlier promise to King Francis I of France that Carew was next in line for an appointment to the Order. This promise is referred to in a 1535 letter from Palamedes Gontier, secretary to Philippe de Chabot, Admiral of France. Gontier had written to his master in February 1535 explaining that he had seen Henry VIII and “Presented the letter in favor of the “Grand Escuyer” of England [Nicholas Carew], to which he replied that the said place of the Chancellor of the Order was filled by the King of Scotland, and the number of 24 could not be exceeded. On the first vacancy he would remember the said Grand Escuyer.” Francis I had been favouring an appointment for Carew since at least 1533.

Having researched the voting for appointments to the Order of the Garter, I can say that knights appear to have voted for men for whom the king wanted them to vote. In 1536, quite a few knights voted for both Carew and George Boleyn, as they were in different categories due to their status. Each knight could cast 9 votes: 3 “Principes”, 3 “Barones” and 3 “Equites”. It wasn’t a case of Thomas Boleyn voting AGAINST his son, he just didn’t vote FOR him. Thomas voted for Delaware, Cobham and Powys as Barons, and Carew, Browne and Cheyney as Equites (knights). The Dukes of Norfolk and Richmond voted for both men, as did the Earls of Sussex and Oxford, and William Fitzwilliam.

The king could see by the votes who was popular with his Knights of the Garter, but he was still free to choose whoever he wanted. Hence, Henry VIII could still have chosen George Boleyn even though Carew had proved more popular.
Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded that “the Concubine has not had sufficient influence to get it for her brother”, so he definitely read Carew’s appointment as a sign that the queen’s power was waning. Whatever the truth of the matter, it must have been humiliating for George to have his name put forward for voting and then see a Boleyn opponent win the vote and get chosen by the King.

Nicholas Carew, the knight appointed that year, was a royal favourite until his arrest on 31st December 1538. He was implicated in a plot to depose Henry VIII and to replace him with Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter and cousin of the King through his mother Catherine of York. Carew was tried on 14th February 1539 and executed on 8th March on Tower Hill.
The 23rd April is still the traditional day for new appointments to the Order to be announced. The installation ceremonies then take place in June, on Garter Day which is the Monday of Royal Ascot week. Back in 1536, Nicholas Carew was installed on 21st May at the annual Order feast, just four days after George Boleyn’s execution.

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