Sir James the Lame

In writing Perseverance I am taking pains to base every creative decision, every ‘scene’ I write on the historical record. It’s proving – at times – rather constricting and has resulted in the release date being pushed back a whole quarter of a year! At least when Perseverance does hit Amazon later this year, I will be proud to know that my tiny addition to the mountain of fiction focusing on the life of Anne Boleyn was written in good factual faith!

As you can imagine, it has been the first ‘third’ of the book that has caused the most problems. Between her return from France in 1522 and Henry starting to take notice of her in c.1526, there wasn’t much cause for Thomas Boleyn’s younger daughter to appear on the historical record. When she does, it’s for her two attempts at marriage. The latter of which is the more famous – Anne was proposed to by the infinitely eligible Henry Percy, heir to the Dukedom of Northumberland, an apparent ‘love match’ that Cardinal Wolsey broke apart for reasons of his own. The earlier was the reason Anne was originally recalled from France: her family was arranging her marriage to a cousin, James Butler.

Anne’s father was – like James Butler – a grandson of Thomas Butler, the 7th Earl of Ormond, an Irish peerage. When Thomas Butler died with no living son, he left the families of his two daughters (Margaret, who bore the Boleyns and Anne, who bore the St Legers) as joint heirs. Unfortunately, possession is nine-tenths of the law and all that, and Thomas Butler’s cousin, Piers Butler, had taken control of the lands and was styling himself Earl of Ormond. The two halves of the family had been squabbling over the title and lands ever since and in September 1520, Henry VIII wrote to Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey (Anne’s maternal uncle), who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland “to ascertain whether the Earl of Ormond is minded to marry his son to the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn”.

James Butler is a shadowy figure. He was probably about ten years older than Anne herself and was nicknamed “the Lame” after receiving a wound to one of his legs in battle in 1513. He was brought up in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, which is a rather genteel way of saying he was held hostage in England as surety for his father’s good behaviour. The picture I’ve used above is sometimes taken to be Anne’s father Thomas, but is usually accepted as James himself; with that great auburn beard it’s easy to see why people called his father Piers “the Red”!

Nobody knows why the intended marriage never happened. Perhaps it was never meant to; the discussions were all part of a courtly dance designed to keep the Butlers obedient. Maybe the Butlers weren’t impressed that Anne had taken herself off and contracted to marry another man! Some novels have Henry VIII infatuated with Anne the minute she steps back on English soil, and have him go about sabotaging her engagements to Butler and Percy out of jealousy. That’s probably not it, as Henry was quite happy bedding Anne’s sister Mary until at least 1525, and his surviving letters suggest the earliest he took a fancy to the other Boleyn daughter was 1526. It wasn’t all bad for James though; he eventually married an heiress who gave him a rather impressive seven sons!

The most interesting (and certain) thing we know about James Butler is how he died. On 17th October 1546, James went to dine at Ely Palace in London, the guest of his friend John Dudley. Whether by accident or design, James fell victim to a poisoning that also killed his steward and sixteen of his servants! Unfortunately, this rather dramatic and mysterious death is far outside the scope of Perseverance (poor Anne had been dead for a decade).

Although there is no evidence either way to tell us if James Butler ever met with Anne, I have chosen to include a scene where this happens (mainly because the year 1524 – where Anne cooled her heels at Hever Castle after the Henry Percy debacle – would otherwise be rather uneventful). I am assuming James to have been a pragmatist (he figuratively and literally kept his head where Henry VIII was concerned), red-bearded (through the evidence of the sketch above and his father’s nickname) and known to Henry Percy (as the two were both of Wolsey’s household) and I hope very much that the ‘real’ James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond would approve.

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