The destination for history

Anne Boleyn and the Irish connection


Up to a couple of years ago, though very few of us knew of the law, it was an offence punishable by death for any person in Ireland to speak against or in any way to criticize the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Luckily, our president, Michael D. Higgins, has now repealed that 1533 law and we can say what we like, including, perhaps, ‘What a shame that she didn’t marry James Butler; that she didn’t come over to Ireland; give birth to his seven sons; and lead a happy life turning Kilkenny Castle into a Renaissance palace.

I wonder, sometimes, whether that thought might have crossed Anne’s mind when she stood on the scaffold on that May morning in 1536. As she beseeched Jesus to save her ‘Sovereign and master the King, the most goodliest, and gentlest Prince that is, and long to reign over you,’ did she think at all of that broad-shouldered, handsome, young James Butler who had been assigned to marry her fourteen years earlier.

It was probably Cardinal Wolsey who planned the match, though some say it was Surrey, the future Duke of Norfolk. To me it bears the hallmark of Cardinal Wolsey’s diplomacy. It solved the problem of the Ormond inheritance very neatly, would keep the Butler faction in Ireland loyal to the throne and provide a counter balance to the mighty Earl of Kildare, who, as Henry VII found out, had ambitions to rule all of Ireland. Whoever the originator; the idea was welcomed by the king and once Wolsey returned from Calais, he ordered Thomas Boleyn to summon his daughter back from France, in preparation for the wedding to James Butler, son of Piers Rua Butler, claimant to the title of Earl of Ormond.

Piers Rua Butler, of course, was not the only claimant to the earldom of Ormond (always spelled without an e until the 17th century). It was an Irish earldom, the word comes from two Irish words, Oir Mumhan, meaning east Munster – and was an extensive area, covering, I suppose, about a quarter of the arable land of Ireland. When Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond and Lord Chamberlain to Queen Katherine of Aragon, died in 1515, he left no male heir, just two daughters, one of whom was the mother of Thomas Boleyn and the grandmother of Anne. Under English law, the estate was divided between the daughters, but under Irish clan law a woman could not inherit land and therefore the lands in Ireland were seized by the nearest male relative, Piers Rua Butler.

Law suit after law suit followed; the two elderly ladies handed over their claims to their sons: Boleyn and St Leger. St Leger was, apparently, content with the lands in England, but Boleyn desperately wanted the Irish earldom, and six years later the solution was found. Marry the granddaughter of Lady Margaret Boleyn to the son and heir of Piers Rua Butler who would then be the ninth earl of Ormond. And so, in 1522 Anne returned to England to meet her future husband who was a page in the household of Cardinal Wolsey.

But what went wrong? Yes, there was a flirtation between Anne Boleyn and Harry Percy, also a page in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, and heir to the Earl of Northumberland, but that was soon quashed by the Cardinal and by the Earl, himself. Yes, Henry himself took an interest in Anne, but not in 1522. Certainly not then. The earliest date that modern historians put for the first moves by the king appear to be late 1525, in other words a good four years after the recall of Anne from France. What had been going on in the meantime? By this stage Anne was middle-aged by sixteenth-century standards.

Why hadn’t she married handsome young James Butler who later fathered seven sons?

Perhaps she asked herself that question during her last moments.

By Cora Harrison

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