Interview with Lauren Mackay

Dr Lauren Mackay is an historian whose scholarly interest has been in significant yet largely neglected historical figures of the early modern period, as well as diplomacy and other important aspects of the 16th century. Her research focuses on constructing the lives of individuals considered to be peripheral players of the Tudor Court. Her debut book, Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the eyes of the Spanish Ambassador, (Amberley Publishing) is the first and only biography of the so-called Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, the most integral chronicler of the Tudor Court from 1529 to 1545.  Her second book, Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury), is based on her doctoral research, and is the first biography of Anne Boleyn’s father and brother- two understudied players of the Tudor Court.

Lauren's research frequently takes her to different countries around the world, including Turkey, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, France, and Belgium, and she has studied countless manuscripts in the archives of the United Kingdom and Europe, including the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv in Vienna, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and L’Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Rome, the Archives générales du Royaume, Brussels, The Archives Nationales, Paris, the National Archives, Kew, the Bodleian library, Oxford, and the British Library, London. Lauren has written numerous articles for BBC History Magazine and All About History Magazine

TT:  Do you remember what first sparked your interest in history, and particularly Tudor history?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love history! I was passionate about ancient Egypt and Greece from a very young age, but I came to the Tudor period through my first love, music- I’m a classically trained violinist, having played since the age of four. It was a gradual obsession! 

TT:  Your first book was about Ambassador Chapuys, who might be said to be the greatest enemy the Boleyn family had – did that influence your views on the Boleyns before you began this book?

I wrote my Chapuys biography while researching my PhD on Thomas Boleyn, and it was akin to sitting at a chess board, playing both sides, so it forced me to see the dual perspectives. Boleyn and Chapuys had a complex relationship, and while researching Chapuys through his own correspondence it became clear that Chapuys was certainly not the greatest enemy of the Boleyns - I think there is a long list, with several other names at the top! He could be a harsh judge of Thomas Boleyn, often assuming that his career trajectory was due to Anne, but Chapuys enters the scene half way through the Boleyn narrative, so he doesn’t have the context. His knowledge of Thomas Boleyn was tied up in the divorce drama. 

TT:  Conversely, has your view of Chapuys (which seemed to be very positive) changed now?

Not at all - I’ll always be a passionate defender of Chapuys and his integrity as a source for the period! Both men were consummate ambassadors, and studying them at the same time offered an insight into their contrasting approaches to diplomacy, and the way in which they fashioned themselves in their letters to their respective masters.  Chapuys liked to suggest to Charles V that he always had the upper hand, especially over Henry VIII and his councillors, but Thomas seemed more concerned with how he was being perceived at foreign courts, if he was adhering to protocol, and how well or not he represented England and his King. He had a sense of fair play, and disliked nothing more than a monarch who stalled negotiations. Through Thomas we see Chapuys’ stubbornness, how he could, at times, over step the boundaries and be deliberately antagonistic. Chapuys of course would argue that Henry and his courtiers were no better, but more than anything, these dual perspectives really accentuated the fractious environment that Henry’s belligerent determination created. The marital drama had Chapuys and Thomas looking in opposite directions, but in another life, they would have worked very well together.

TT:  You demonstrate very clearly that Thomas Boleyn was already a senior member of Henry VIII’s council and court, long before Henry took an interest in either of his daughters – why do you think that the view of him as a man who climbed to power over Mary and Anne’s bodies has been so prevalent?

I think there are several reasons. Anne Boleyn’s story arouses such a strong emotional reaction, and the injustice of her death has impacted how we view some of the key figures in her life. This story needs villains, but I find it remarkable that 18th and 19th century historians chose not to point the finger at Henry VIII and Cromwell, men who facilitated the arrests and executions, instead reserving their harshest criticism for Thomas Boleyn. For these historians,  Anne was a either a helpless victim or a harlot and homewrecker. So Thomas Boleyn was a pimp who sacrificed his innocent daughter for personal gain, or a  scheming, amoral courtier, the English embodiment of the lessons provided in Machiavelli’s The Prince, who coached his daughter to reach for the greatest prize in the land, regardless of the cost. And in both narratives Anne’s fate is a reflection of Thomas Boleyn’s parenting skills, an absurd and simplistic argument. Thomas has almost been obliterated from the Tudor narrative, only conjured up as  a moral lesson in what could happen when a family “rose above their station.” Historians levelled considerable vitriol against Thomas Boleyn, accusing him of being a “self-seeking” courtier, not because they saw that he attained such heights as father of the Queen, or even that he fell from them, but that he set out to secure them in the first place. In the absence of any extensive scholarly treatments of him, he tends to remain captive to this dated historiography, which found its way into historical fiction, and back again into history. 

TT:  What is the most interesting new information you found in researching Among the Wolves of Court? 

Historians generally place Anne at the centre of the Boleyn family’s involvement in the events leading up to the English Reformation, and this has informed our assumptions about the family’s religious convictions and influence more broadly, including the prevailing view that whatever religious beliefs Anne favoured so too did her family. Yet the evidence, from his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, to the commissioning of several religious works from the great scholar Erasmus, shows Thomas Boleyn to be a man of deep, sincere, and conventional piety. As for George, there is the general assumption that he was an arrogant, useless ornament of court, his career as an ambassador nothing more than a reward as brother in law to the king. Yet the evidence suggests he was a young man eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, anxious to be seen as a well respected ambassador. He struggled to be taken seriously and one gets the sense he felt frustrated as being used by Henry as a glorified messenger, only being chosen for brief assignments to the French court to bolster support for his sister’s marriage. 

TT:  Have you discovered anything that radically changed your views of any of the protagonists in the Boleyn family story?

More than I can fit in this answer! But I discovered that Thomas’ relationship with Wolsey, which spanned almost two decades, is far more nuanced than we assume.  The pages and pages of detailed correspondence between the two is remarkable, not only in terms of content,  but in the way it forces us to rethink the popular narrative of Wolsey and Thomas Boleyn: that they were embittered by political and personal rivalry, engaged in a long running battle which would result in Wolsey’s fall. There is far more to their story, with the evidence showing Thomas working as one of Wolsey’s right-hand ambassadors for years.  While Wolsey’s downfall is linked to Anne’s rise, there is a lost thread here between these men which I felt needed to be restored. 

TT:  When researching for your books, are you attempting to uncover as yet hidden information or are you looking at interpreting what is known in different ways?

My subjects so far are individuals who have been overlooked  or vilified throughout the centuries. Chapuys is one of our most important sources for the period but is regarded as little more than a footnote at the bottom of the page. Thomas Boleyn, highly successful ambassador, courtier, and statesman,  and father and grandfather to two Queens, has never been the subject of a biography, and there is almost nothing on George Boleyn. I set out to provide a comprehensive analysis of their lives and careers, examining their original correspondence to rebuild their story. There is always something new to discover, but often there are misconceptions which require correcting, so it’s a mixture of both.

TT:  How do you combine the different aspects of writing? Do you prefer to do all your research first, then write the whole book, or do you prefer to research a section, then write it up?

Every project is different. Often, I begin with the secondary sources, tracing the historical arguments, and asking: how did you come to this conclusion? What evidence influenced your argument? What else influenced your argument? I then take up the archival threads- the original sources. I don’t always trust the translations of documents, so I go back to the original manuscripts.  From there I build the argument from the ground up. I take a thematic approach- researching elements such as diplomacy, personal life, political career, religion or spirituality.

TT:  You also have a career as an academic – does that help, or hinder, the writing career?

It certainly doesn’t hinder the writing in any way. History is a discipline, and the skills learned throughout my masters and especially during my PhD have benefitted me enormously. If anything, the two elements compliment each other, because the realms of commercial and academic are blending, which is reflected in the evolving attitudes towards both commercial and academic historians. I’ve read academic works from previous decades, where language is used to alienate the reader, to create a distance, even a superiority. These are two spheres which blend together surprisingly well.

TT:  Can you tell us anything about what are you currently working on – or are you having a well-earned rest?

I have two very large projects in the works with a few more on the horizon! This year I will be able to make an announcement, but it’s under wraps for the moment!

TT:  Do you have a favourite place and time to write?

It depends where I am. I split my time between the UK and Europe, and in the summer I tend to be in Slovenia/Croatia, where my partner is from. When in the UK I love writing in the British Library, surrounded by people, or at any desk which has a view. In the summer, I take my laptop to the wild beaches of the ancient Roman town of Pula in Croatia, with the smell of pine trees and salt in the air as I write. Or I’m on the balcony my partner’s home town in Slovenia, overlooking the neighbour’s vineyards and the town’s castle-every town has a castle, naturally. As for a time to write, I have learned that it’s best to write what I can when I can. If the words aren’t coming, I can’t force it! 

TT:  Are you planning to speak at any events during 2019 where our readers might be able to hear you? 

In March I have events at Hampton Court and the National Portrait Gallery, London, in May I will be speaking at Windsor Castle, and in the autumn I have an event at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh. That’s all I have time for right now!

And a couple of question from our Tudor Times readers:

Why do you think Jane, Lady Rochford gave evidence against her husband and sister-in-law?

I don’t believe she did. Jane’s reputation is collateral damage, and she has been vilified without any substantial evidence. We read Jane’s story backwards, unable to comprehend her behaviour during Catherine Howard’s reign, and we are also highly influenced by the portrayals of Jane in historical fiction. Cavendish, (who had an opinion on every member of the Boleyn family) hinted that Jane had made dishonest accusations, which sources further embellished. But it been noted that the ladies who had given evidence were the Countess of Worcester, Nan Cobham and another maid. Lady Jane Rochford was no maid. It’s an unfortunate myth, and one which needs to be rectified.

Is there any historical information on Thomas Boleyn deceased sons, Thomas and Henry, how old were they when died, cause of death, relationships with their surviving children?   

Mystery surrounds these two Boleyn children – Henry and Thomas, one buried near his father at Hever, and the other in the Sidney chapel in nearby Penshurst.  We have no idea how they died or when. The memorial brasses for both young Boleyns have been dated as 1520, and a record exists in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford of  one of the brasses, stating that the younger Thomas died in 1520. But I find the date peculiar, for Penshurst was owned by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham in 1520, so why would a Boleyn be buried there at that stage? Thomas would not be appointed Keeper of Penshurst until 1522, so perhaps it was simply a memorial brass. It is a popular theory that these two Boleyns died as young men, and while there is no evidence to support such an argument, the size of the brass does not necessarily indicate a child. However,  there is no mention of a Henry or Thomas Boleyn of this generation in any record, it is therefore more than likely that they never reached adulthood.