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The forgotten Boleyn

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Shortly after the midsummer festivities of 1458 a more sombre procession wound its way towards the parish church of St Andrew’s in the Norfolk village of Blickling.

Amongst the mourners was borne the body of Cecily Boleyn, whose soul had departed to God on 26 June and whose mortal remains were destined for the new family chapel in the north aisle of the church that had been prepared by her brother, Geoffrey. Blickling was his home, newly purchased and vastly extended with newly acquired wealth to embody his newly acquired status. Seventy years and three generations later, a smitten Henry VIII would be dispatching a flurry of love letters to Geoffrey Boleyn’s great-granddaughter, Anne, but that was all a world away from the life chosen by Cecily. Not for her the relentless striving for worldly success or a husband chosen to satisfy family ambition. No man would make her choices, define her life or compass her death.

There was one man, however, who always remained a part of her life. Cecily would be laid to rest under a brass made in London, where her brother Geoffrey had made his fortune.[1] It was surely from his purse that the money came to make a deeply personal memorial. Engraved into brass, Cecily’s hands are clasped in prayer. She wears a high waisted belted gown with full sleeves and a high neckline but her long hair flows loose about her shoulders and down her back, a sure sign of a very young or unmarried woman. The inscription makes the meaning explicit:

′Here lieth Cecily Boleyn sister to Geoffrey Boleyn lord of the manor of Blickling which Cecily deceased in her maidenhood of the age of 50 years the 26 day of June the year of our Lord 1458 whose soul God pardon Amen.′

Cecily’s virginal status was no accident of life, the unfortunate result of a failure to marry. It was a conscious and much-treasured choice and one that her brother wished to celebrate, both by engraving it in brass for all to see and by proudly claiming her as his sister. Far from leaving her behind, a forgotten and irrelevant spinster, Geoffrey had placed great trust in his sister. As he made his fortune and used it to purchase numerous properties he twice made use of her services as a feoffee or trustee. Once for the acquisition of another Norfolk manor at Stiffkey and once when he acquired additional land in Blickling.[2] When women appeared in such a trusted role it was usually in partnership with their husbands or as widows but Geoffrey evidently had great faith in the abilities of his sister.

Where, however, did Cecily find a home without a husband to provide one for her.  Her family originated in the Norfolk village of Salle but her father died in 1440 and her mother shortly afterwards. The family lands seem to have been dispersed and there is no record of Boleyns remaining in Salle over the ensuing years.[3] It may have been her brother who provided a refuge but it is also possible that Cecily was not alone in her embrace of celibacy and that her life was heavily influenced by growing up just fifteen miles from the rich religious life of Norwich.

In continental Europe, particularly in the Low Countries, women who chose, as Cecily did, a life of informal piety and chastity outside male oversight but not in a nunnery had an established identity. They lived together in communities known as beguinages but in England there were no institutions formally associated with the order of the Beguines. There is, however, evidence for more informal, spontaneous communities, that fulfilled a similar purpose, in a city that experienced a late medieval flowering of lay and particularly female spirituality: Norwich. 

They can be identified mainly through testamentary bequests to the ‘sisters’ or ‘poor women’, ‘living together’ and ‘dedicated to chastity’. One such group dwelt in the tenement of John Pellet in St Swithin’s parish from around 1427 to 1444 but it is the second group that more closely fits the timeline of Cecily’s life. This group of three women lived in the house of a John Asger in the parish of St Lawrence. They first appear in 1442, were reduced to two sisters by 1457 and disappear from trace after 1472.[4] John Asger was born in England and was a citizen of Norwich but seems to have spent much of his life as a merchant in Bruges. When elected mayor of Norwich in 1426 the city bore the cost of riding to Bruges to fetch him.  Unsurprisingly therefore, his wife was not English by birth. Katherine was born in Flanders and their son, John, in Zeeland so when the family returned to settle in Norwich, Katherine and John petitioned for letters of naturalisation.

These were granted in 1431 but both father and son died in 1436 and were buried in the parish church of St Lawrence. With the Asgers’ deep rooted connection to the Low Countries, where beguinages would have been familiar institutions, and with no heir to provide for after their double tragedy, they or their executors may have been moved to make their former home available to three sisters dedicated to chastity.[5] 

It is impossible to know whether Cecily was one of these three women but it is equally hard to imagine that the proximity of such communities had no influence on her choice. With the cathedral city of Norwich not only home to an English form of beguinage but also to more hermits and anchorites than any other town in England, the city described as the most religious in Europe must have exerted a pull on a woman such as Cecily.[6] It is possible, however, that the spiritual spark that led to a life of pious chastity was first lit closer to home. Amongst the chaplains serving in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in the small village of Salle, where Cecily grew up, was one Thomas Drew.

When he died in 1443 Drew bequeathed to Cecily a pair of coral beads with gilt paternosters, describing her as his ‘spiritual daughter’ but that was not his only personal bequest. He also left a book to a fellow chaplain and bequeathed to Lady Ela Brews another book of devotions that had formerly belonged to her father. This beautifully illustrated manuscript, which survives in the Bodleian Library, was commissioned by Ela’s father, Sir Miles Stapleton, but copied in 1430 for Salle’s rector William Wode.[7] The Brews family owned Stinton manor, that was partly in Salle, and both Ela and Cecily were evidently familiar with Drew and may even have been actively engaged in reading these texts with him. If so, this scholarly spiritual community may have had a profound effect on Cecily’s future. 

Although the details of her life are often obscure, Cecily was evidently a woman unafraid to take the path less travelled, to face the world and her relationship with God on her own terms.  While she chose not to take a husband to be her lord she remained a trusted friend to her brother, Geoffrey, who himself embraced another capable and independent woman in the person of his wife, Anne Hoo. In the generations to come the gifts and confidence of the women who bore the name Boleyn would only burn brighter.

By Claire Martin

[1] William Lack, ‘Conservation of Brasses, 1995’, Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society, 15:5 (1996), 499-510 (p. 499).

[2] The National Archives, C147/116.  Norfolk Record Office, NRS 10949, 25D6.

[3] NRO, NRS 2788, 12D6, mm. 72-75v.

[4] Norman P. Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich 1370-1532 (Toronto, 1984), p. 65.  Roberta Gilchrist & Marilyn Oliva, Religious Women in Medieval East Anglia: History and Archaeology c.1100–1500 (Norwich, 1993), pp. 71-73, 95.

[5] TNA, SC8/26/1254, C1/14/18.  CPR 1429-1436, pp. 112, 116.  Edmund Farrer, A List of Monumental Brasses Remaining in the County of Norfolk (Norwich, 1890), pp. 66-67.  Basil Cozens-Hardy & Ernest A. Kent, The Mayors of Norwich 1403–1835 (Norwich, 1938), p. 20.

[6] Tanner, Church in Norwich, p. 58.  Norman Tanner, ‘Religious Practice’ in Medieval Norwich, ed. by Carole Rawcliffe & Richard Wilson (London, 2004), pp. 137-55 (p. 137).

[7] The original manuscript is now Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 758 and the copy made for Wode is now Lambeth Palace, MS 505.  NRO, NCC Will Register Doke, f. 224.  Carol M. Meale, ‘Women’s Voices and Roles’ in A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350–c. 1550, ed. by Peter Brown (Oxford, 2007), pp. 74-90 (pp. 83-84).

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