Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  Others have been even more creative in their assessment of Mary Boleyn. It is evident that she became an object of fantasy for male writers of an earlier generation. One imagined her “discreetly letting it be known that she was always prepared to continue an interesting religious or political discussion in bed.”58 Another thought she “was by nature simple.”59 She was also called “a lighthearted and easy-spirited girl, the sort of being who is soon in intimacy with men, knows the morose valleys between the heights of their ardor and the heights of their disdain, and is aware that she must inveigle or humor the beasts, or be beaten. She had not much iron in her character. She was one of those ingratiating yet simple women to whom it would never be of great importance to say no, who are pliant and sweet, who cling like ivy and are as easily detached.” She “yielded to the happy moment.”60

  That is a view echoed by some modern writers: one describes Mary as “a woman who lived for the moment and dived head first into love affairs,” someone who was kind and loving and “followed her heart.”61 The last statement was self-evidently true, given that, years later, Mary was to defy her family, and the King and Queen, to make a second marriage for love. Another author writes of her “spirited behavior,”62 and she is also seen as passionate,63 on the evidence of a letter written in the wake of that misalliance—which was probably true as well.64

  There is little evidence to show that Mary was “serenely sure of herself,”65 and none that she saw her “road to advancement” as being “through her use of her feminine wiles to manipulate men” or believed that “her reputation was to be sacrificed to be close to men of the highest influence.”66 She was not “remarkably successful” in realizing any such ambitions.67 Even if this were the case—although there is evidence that she was reluctant to become Henry VIII’s mistress—Mary seems to have lacked the ability or will to carry through any grand design; she emerged from her affairs with kings barely the richer, and having wielded little or no influence. As for manipulating men, she was clearly not adept—at least in her younger years.

  If, as seems likely, François I was Mary’s first lover, we can hardly blame her—reluctant or not—for submitting to him, or even for having her head turned. She was young, inexperienced, living at a licentious court in a foreign land, and the daughter of a mother who may have been known for her infidelities. He was the King of France, all-powerful and commanding—how could a young, untried girl deny him? One brief amorous episode in youth does not define a woman’s character. In fact, it tells us very little about her.

  Anne Boleyn, it has been claimed, “must have been horrified at Mary throwing herself away so cheaply”;68 given, of course, that Mary did, for the chances are that she had little say in the matter. But Anne too risked becoming the subject of scandal at the French court. In July 1535, King François was to confide to Rodolfo Pio “how little virtuously she has always lived, and now lives”;69 he may have been referring to Anne’s later reputation, but in 1536, Henry VIII himself would reveal to Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador in England, that it was only after he had begun having sexual relations with Anne that he found out she had been corrupted in France.70 After her death, when offered a French bride, the King insisted “he had had too much experience of French bringing up and manners”71—a clear reference to Anne Boleyn. Evidently Anne was discreet and clever enough to ensure that barely a soul knew of these early falls from grace.

  Contrary to modern popular opinion, Mary Boleyn too seems to have been discreet; aside from taking her cue from her royal lovers in this, she would no doubt have feared for her reputation, and hopefully had some regard to her future and her family’s ambitions and sensibilities. Given the absence of any contemporaneous evidence that hints at promiscuity on her part, it is surely time for the traditional view of her as a willing, even adventurous, sexual partner who cared little for the loss of her good name, and was “a full participant in the sensual pastimes of the French court,”72 to be rebutted.

  In 1512, François’s mother had written to a correspondent that her son had a disease in his private parts, which had fortunately been cured,73 almost certainly by the administration of mercury, which was the standard cure for syphilis at that time. Joanna Denny repeats the oft-told tale that François caught it again from a later mistress, La Belle Ferronière, but that is a fabrication dating from the seventeenth century, when the story was put about that the lady’s cuckolded husband, Le Ferron, deliberately got himself infected with the pox so that his wife would pass it on to the King. In the 1600s that legend was spun around a famous portrait of a woman by Leonardo da Vinci, now in the Louvre.

  Syphilis was first recorded in 1494, when a French army occupied Naples, and it was soon rampant throughout Europe, particularly in the higher ranks of society. The Italians naturally called it “the French disease”—the French, of course, called it “the Italian disease.” Most people referred to it as “the great pox”; the name syphilis was not used until 1530.

  According to some lurid accounts, François I died of syphilis in 1547; others, more convincing, state that his last illness was a disease of the urinary ducts. An autopsy showed that he had a stomach abscess, shrunken kidneys, decaying entrails, an abraded throat, and one shredded lung.74 These conditions are not typical of syphilis, even in its later stages; there had been, for example, no mention of the mental disorders associated with the disease,75 nor do François’s later portraits show any collapse of the bridge of his nose, which can be eaten away by it. Thus, after 1512, there is no evidence beyond rumor that François I had syphilis, or that he was “known to be heavily infected” with it.76

  It has been suggested that Mary Boleyn could have contracted the “great pox” from François and later passed it on to Henry VIII.77 That is highly unlikely. Syphilis was endemic in Europe in this period, and highly topical, yet it was not until the late nineteenth century that anyone suggested that Henry VIII suffered from it.78 Only in 1888 did Dr. Currie first put forward the theory that the King contracted it as a young man. The Victorians found it easy to believe that, with his notorious marital record, and his infidelities, it must follow that Henry had syphilis. It has been speculated that he could have caught it from one of his mistresses, including Mary Boleyn, whose favors he had shared with François I79—even though there is no evidence that the latter had the disease.80

  The standard sixteenth century cure for syphilis was mercury, yet there is no mention of that in the complete set of Henry VIII’s apothecaries’ accounts that survive today. Furthermore, syphilis was as widespread and notorious then as AIDS is today, and the unpleasant side effects of mercury would have been obvious—and well known—to ambassadors and other observers. Yet not one ever hinted that Henry VIII had the pox. Despite all this, Currie’s theory is still widely accepted as fact. It is surely time, therefore, to lay that myth to rest also.

  Escorted as far at St. Denis by François I, the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk departed from Paris on April 15, bound for Calais, where they waited to receive Henry VIII’s permission to return to England. After a smooth crossing in beautiful weather, they and their retinue landed at Dover on May 2, and were received by a host of nobles and their ladies, sent by the King to greet them. They were then escorted by Cardinal Wolsey to the royal manor of Barking, Essex, where they were formally forgiven by King Henry,81 who welcomed the couple home, and afforded them a fine public wedding at Greenwich Palace on May 13, 1515.

  Confusion reigns as to what happened to the Boleyn sisters at this point and over the next few years. It is often stated that both girls remained at the French court, transferring to the service of Claude, the wife of Louis XII’s successor, François I, after Mary Tudor returned to England.82 Some say that only Mary Boleyn was found a position there,83 while one writer—misreading the letter sent from La Veure, quoted above—claims that Anne joined her in 1517, and that Mary finally returned home with the English court after the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520.84 The claim that Anne went to Fr
ance with her father in 151985 rests on not “a scrap of evidence,”86 as does the assertion that Sir Thomas Boleyn, “far from regarding his daughter’s fall from grace as some kind of ambitious career move, swiftly recalled” the disgraced Mary to England “in the wake of Mary Tudor.”87 And there is no basis to the claim that Anne was only “a frequent visitor at the French court,”88 or that, around 1519, her father removed her and placed her in Queen Katherine’s entourage.89 Nor is there any evidence to show that Mary Boleyn came back to England with Mary Tudor in 1515, “and did not return until her father was appointed ambassador to France in February [sic.] 1518. She remained for two years and was so liberal with her favors that she acquired a very unsavory reputation.”90 We are once more in the realm of myth here.

  There is no mention in contemporary sources of Mary remaining at the French court. There is overwhelming evidence that Anne stayed on. As for Mary returning to England with Mary Tudor in April 1515,91 that is by no means certain.

  In the years after Anne Boleyn supplanted Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII’s affections, her former mistress, Mary Tudor, took the Queen’s part and showed nothing but enmity toward Anne. It has been suggested that that enmity may have had its roots in France, with Anne making no secret of the fact that she “blamed Mary Tudor for her sister’s wild behavior and all its consequences”;92 for although Mary Boleyn’s behavior may not have been so wild, still her virtue had been lost. It is said that, if Anne had somehow conveyed her anger to Mary Tudor, that could have accounted for her remaining at the French court, instead of returning home in the French Queen’s service. Yet this seems a highly unlikely scenario, unsubstantiated by any source, and there was probably a much more positive and compelling reason for Anne remaining in France.

  It was doubtless due to her own abilities and talents—or to Sir Thomas Boleyn’s influence—that Anne was offered a place in the household of the virtuous Queen Claude. To be appointed to serve the Queen was a high honor, as competition for places in her household was fierce, and it is unlikely that Anne Boleyn would have secured hers without having displayed the kind of qualities that the young Claude—and, more importantly, her formidable mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy—admired. For Thomas Boleyn, this placement no doubt brought with it the hope that Anne would secure a rich and titled husband in France.

  Anne’s life in Queen Claude’s household was probably quite dull, for it was like living in a nunnery. It was here that she spent her formative years, in company with nearly three hundred other well-born young ladies. She would have been expected to follow the Queen’s example and conduct herself modestly and decorously, and her days were governed by an almost convent-like routine of prayers and good works. Above all, she was expected to guard her chastity.

  Claude’s life had been difficult. A cripple, she had been lame from birth, yet she was constantly pregnant during these years. François I was serially unfaithful to her, and she was dominated by her mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy. Because she was ill at ease in the hothouse atmosphere of the court, Claude resided mainly at the beautiful chateaux of Amboise and Blois in the Loire Valley, and on the rare occasions when she was obliged to go to court, she kept a watchful eye on her female attendants, knowing that they were likely prey for every predatory male there.

  Anne’s long sojourn at the French court is well documented. In 1536, Lancelot de Carles, who was attached to the French embassy in London during her lifetime, and was clearly not aware that she had previously been in Brussels, wrote that she “first went out of this country [England] when Mary [Tudor] left it to go and seek the King of France” in 1514; and that when Mary returned to England in 1515, Anne was “retained by Claude, the new queen, at whose court she became so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman but for a Frenchwoman born.” This is corroborated by the contemporary author of the so-called Spanish Chronicle, who wrote: “This Anne Boleyn was brought up in France at the court of the King.”93

  In 1583, Charles de Bourgeville, in his Les Recherches et Antiquités de la Province de Neustrie, referred to Anne Boleyn being “brought up in France” after “she came there when King Louis XII married the sister of the King of England.” William Camden stated that Anne was maid of honor firstly to Queen Claude and later to King François’s sister, Marguerite of Valois, Duchess of Alençon. Lord Herbert also wrote that Anne “lived some time in France, whither, in the train of the Queen of France, she went A.D. 1514 … After the death of Louis XII, she did not return with the Dowager, but was received into a place of much honor with the other queen [Claude], and then with Marguerite, Duchess of Alençon, with whom she remained till some difference grew betwixt our King and François in 1522.”

  The French sixteenth century historian Jean du Tillet also recorded that Anne finally went back to England in 1522. Early that year, François I had complained that the popular “daughter of Mr. Boleyn” had been summoned home. This could not have been Mary, as she had been married in England in February 1520.94

  George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher, obviously got his information rather muddled when he recalled that “Mistress Anne Boleyn, being very young, was sent into the realm of France, and there made one of the French Queen’s women, continuing there until the French Queen died.” He was not referring to Mary Tudor (who died in England in 1533), but to Queen Claude, who passed away in 1524, two years after Anne returned home, but he clearly knew that Anne had been appointed to serve Claude while in France, and he may mistakenly have thought that Claude had died before Anne left the French court in 1522.

  The evidence that it was Anne Boleyn, and not Mary Boleyn, who remained at the French court, and spent several years there, is therefore overwhelming. But historians have sought in vain for any record of Mary’s presence at the French court between 1515 and 1520. So what became of her?

  We hear nothing of Mary in the five years after her possible return to England. One historian states that she remained at the English court,95 but there is no evidence of her being there. Some historians assert that when she returned to England, she became one of Queen Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting,96 but again there is no evidence that she was ever appointed a maid of honor in the Queen’s household. Nor is there any contemporary record of a “darkening cloud of scandal and gossip” accompanying her return,97 which might have precluded her being chosen to serve the virtuous Katherine of Aragon.

  Did Mary Boleyn remain in the service of Mary Tudor? Although the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk found it a struggle to keep up the payments of their fine owed to the King, and to maintain sufficient state to appear at court, Mary Tudor kept a household appropriate to her rank, and we know that she retained at least one of the girls who had attended her in France. This was Anne Jerningham, who (probably in 1515) married Sir Edward Grey. In 1516, Lady Grey carried her mistress’s firstborn son, Henry Brandon, at his christening, and she was still in Mary Tudor’s household in 1517, when Queen Katherine visited her sister-in-law.

  Of the other girls who had served Mary Tudor in France, Florence Hastings had been widowed in 1505, and as genealogies often incorrectly show her as dying after 1511, no one has until now identified her as the only possible “Lady Grey of Wilton”98 who could have been in Mary Tudor’s household, so clearly she lived at least until the spring of 1515, but nothing further is known of her. Like Anne Boleyn, both Lady Elizabeth Grey and Mary Fiennes stayed on at the court of France, where they served Queen Claude after Mary Tudor’s departure. Jane Bourchier seems to have married Edmund Knyvett soon after her return to England, as their son John was born in c. 1517–18; there is no record of her in Mary Tudor’s English household.

  Thus we have a record of just one of those six girls being retained by the “French Queen” (as Mary Tudor was now known in England), and as there is no further mention of Mary Boleyn being in her service, it seems likely that she had been dismissed with the rest99 when her mistress returned to England—and dismissed, possibly, for her misconduc
t. Mary Tudor, having only recently, and with great difficulty, extricated herself from the scandal of her ill-advised marriage, would not have wanted a girl of dubious moral probity in her household. Where she herself had erred merely in making a secret marriage, with the blessing of the Church, Mary Boleyn had committed the sin of fornication, which could not be condoned.

  It seems that the termination of Mary’s service was managed amicably, and perhaps of necessity discreetly, because Mary Tudor remained—at least for a time—friendly toward the Boleyn family, and in 1517, when her daughter Frances was christened at Hatfield, Anne Tempest, the wife of Mary Boleyn’s uncle, Sir Edward Boleyn, stood proxy for the Queen as godmother.100

  So if Mary was not in the service of Queen Claude, Katherine of Aragon, or Mary Tudor, where was she in these years? Maybe she returned to Hever Castle to await the marriage that her father would in time arrange for her.

  But there is another possibility—a possibility that arises from her having been confused with her sister by two sixteenth century writers. According to Lord Herbert, William Rastell—Sir Thomas More’s editor and biographer, and therefore a hostile source—claimed that when Anne Boleyn was fifteen, she was caught in a compromising situation with one of her father’s servants and was sent to France in disgrace. Here, she “behaved herself so licentious that she was vulgarly called the Hackney of England, till, being adopted to that king’s [François I’s] familiarity, she was termed his mule.” A hackney, in sixteenth century parlance, was a horse for hire and another name for a prostitute; the French once derisively called Elizabeth I “the hackney of her own vassals.”101 A mule, then as now, was an infertile hybrid breed with a reputation for being stubborn; probably Rastell’s reference to a mule was meant to imply an incapacity to bear children—he knew of course that Anne Boleyn had produced just one daughter and not the desired son.

 
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