In Donizetti’s 1830 opera Anna Bolena, the unhappy queen tells her erstwhile admirer Henry Percy, future sixth Earl of Northumberland, ‘Ambiziosa, un serto io volli’ e un serto ebb’io di spine’ (Ambitious, I wanted a crown, and got a crown of thorns). She came from an ambitious family. Originally of East Anglian yeoman stock, the Boleyns gradually improved their economic and social circumstances during the 15th century: Anne’s great-grandfather Sir Geoffrey Boleyn had been a London merchant who prospered to such an extent that he was elected Lord Mayor of the city, received a knighthood and bought Hever Castle in Kent. His son William married Lady Margaret Butler, a daughter and co-heiress of the seventh Earl of Ormond: this is the origin of the Boleyns’ links with Ireland. Sir William and Lady Margaret’s eldest son Sir Thomas Boleyn further scaled the social ladder by marrying Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk. A skilled diplomat and courtier, Sir Thomas lay claim to the Butler title following the death without male heirs of his grandfather, the Earl of Ormond in 1515. This was disputed by an Irish claimant, Piers Butler but once Henry VIII became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, he persuaded Butler to renounce the Ormond title (he was created Earl of Ossory instead). Accordingly in 1529 Sir Thomas Boleyn became not just Earl of Ormond, but also Earl of Wiltshire, his claim to the latter also coming through familial ties with the Butler family. Meanwhile his only surviving son George received the courtesy title Viscount Rochford. Following the downfall and execution of both Anne and her brother in 1536, their ambitious father lost his position at court and retired to the country. The year before his death, the Ormond title was restored to Piers Butler: his grandson, Thomas Butler the tenth earl, was a cousin of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I who is said to have called him her ‘black husband’ and certainly made him Lord Treasurer of Ireland.
In 1803, a limestone slab measuring eight by four feet is said to have been discovered close to Clonony Castle, County Offaly. This is recorded as bearing the following inscription: ‘Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.’ Understandably there has been much popular speculation about the stone and its words. George Boleyn, as mentioned, was Anne’s only brother: he was executed two days before her in May 1536 on a trumped-up charge of incest. George was as ambitious for advancement as the rest of his family: he had been introduced to the English court at the age of ten and not long afterwards became one of the king’s pageboys. From the mid-1520s onwards, as his sister’s star rose, he became a favourite of Henry VIII receiving a series of ever-more significant grants and offices from the crown. Around this time he married Jane Parker, daughter of the wealthy and well-connected tenth Lord Morley. Following her husband’s disgrace and death in 1536 she retired temporarily from court but then returned and served Henry VIII’s successive wives until February 1542 when, because of her links with Catherine Howard, she too was beheaded. Although they were married for more than a decade, there is no record of George and Jane Boleyn having had any children, either male or female, and no heirs for the couple are known. This is why the stone found at Clonony so curious: it claims his two great-granddaughters were buried there. But since he had no offspring, the matter is open to conjecture.
Clonony Castle is a tower house, probably built at the start of the 16th century by the MacCoghlan family who were hereditary chieftains in this part of the country. They remained in situ until the aftermath of the Nine Years War when dispossessed of much of their land. At the start of the 17th century Clonony had been acquired by an English official Roger Downton and in 1612 he sold it to Matthew de Renzi. The latter was a German-born cloth merchant who, having run up substantial debts in London, moved to Ireland in 1606. The funds to buy Clonony and 100 surrounding acres probably came from his first wife’s dowry. De Renzi is a fascinating character, not least because, a keen linguist who already spoke six languages, he learnt to write and speak both colloquial and classical Irish and composed an Irish grammar. The intention was to help him as he struggled to establish his presence in the Midlands, fiercely resisted by the MacCoghlans whose head, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, told everyone in the locality to neither buy from nor sell to de Renzi (except at excessive rates), and to ignore the boundaries of his territory. Soon he faced such intimidation that he thought it best to spend the winter at the County Roscommon home of his second wife, a daughter of Sir Oliver St John, writing ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’ Nevertheless, by the end of the following decade he had increased his landholding to over 1,000 acres, after which he sold Clonony, moved to Dublin, became a government official and was knighted in 1627, dying seven years later.
Clonony, de Renzi discovered, was not an especially comfortable residence, tall and narrow with very small windows so that little light penetrated the interior. In form it remains a typical tower house, some fifty feet high over three storeys, the greater part of each floor being given over to a single vaulted chamber. Clonony was restored as a private house in the 19th century when repairs were carried out on the bawn wall and, one suspects, larger windows inserted into the tower. The present owner has carried out further repairs and restoration, while retaining the essential character of the place. Incidentally, a 1533 proclamation of forbidding criticism of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was repealed by the Irish government three years ago in July 2015.