Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  Nicholas Sander—no reliable source, and no partisan of the Boleyns—embellished this story in 1585, stating that, after discovering that fifteen-year-old Anne had had affairs with his butler and his chaplain, her father sent her to France, where she was “placed, at the expense of the King [Henry VIII] under the care of a certain nobleman not far from Brie.” This place name has been variously given by Sander’s translators as Brière, Briare, or Brie. The only place called Brière lies in the vast lush, marshy area north of the Loire estuary in Brittany, much of which was forest and only navigable by boat. Paul Friedmann thought that Brière should read Briare, a town situated 240 miles south of Paris, but this sounds improbable, while there is a link between the Boleyns and a town called Brie.

  Adam Blackwood, writing in 1587, states that the French nobleman with whom Anne supposedly stayed was a friend of her father’s. According to Sander, “soon afterward, she [Anne] appeared at the French court, where she was called the English mare, because of her shameless behavior, and then the royal mule, when she became acquainted with the King of France.” It is easy to see where Sander got some of his information.

  Clearly both accounts, Rastell’s and Sander’s, are flawed, since Anne was probably fifteen in 1516, when, according to most reliable sources, she was in the service of Queen Claude. (Even if one accepts her date of birth as 1507, making her fifteen in 1522, the tale does not fit, because that year saw her returning to England from France.) Sander says that Anne was sent to Brie to be placed in the care of that certain nobleman before she went to the court of France; there is, indeed, a gap of four months in which her whereabouts cannot be accounted for, but she went to the French court from Brussels, not Hever. After she arrived there, she served in turn Mary Tudor, Queen Claude, and Marguerite of Valois, before returning to England. Thus we know what she was doing during those seven years.

  Furthermore, if Anne Boleyn, who became Queen of England and notorious in Catholic Europe, had acquired a licentious reputation in France, we would certainly know about that too. That she did not is made clear by the fact that neither François I nor anyone else sought to make political capital out of it, when it might have been to their advantage to do so. If Anne had been so promiscuous, it would have been mentioned by her enemies in the years when Henry VIII was trying to divorce Katherine of Aragon in order to marry her. So Rastell’s account, on which Sander drew, appears to have been an invention aimed at discrediting Anne,102 with the reference to a mule probably being made with hindsight. It is hardly possible, after forty years, that there was any gossip about Mary Boleyn and François I that he could have heard, which he might have mistakenly thought related to Anne. Knowing that Anne had been at the French court, he may well have concluded, like Brantôme, that no woman left that court chaste—and embellished this with a few salacious details.

  Yet many historians (with your author following suit in previous books) have associated these calumnies with Mary Boleyn: it is she who is invariably assumed to have been called the French king’s “hackney” or “mule,” and this has only served to embellish the myth of her notorious reputation. Clearly there has long been a consensus that this could not have been Anne, and that these accounts give credence to Rodolfo Pio’s statement about Mary being an infamous whore.

  Both Rastell and Sander were determined to vilify Anne Boleyn and her family, while Sander was not above reporting rumor as fact, and may even have been guilty of making things up to bolster his case; not for nothing has he been called “Dr. Slander.” It was he, after all, who had asserted that Anne was her mother’s daughter by Henry VIII. For this reason, little credence can be given to his assertions.

  But could it be that Sander was referring to Mary Boleyn being sent by her father to rusticate at Brie, after compromising her reputation at the French court? Several writers have suggested that he and Rastell confused Anne with her sister Mary,103 when referring to Anne being called the French king’s hackney or mule,104 but although Sander was probably wrong in following Rastell in this error, what he says about Brie may be based on truth—and may relate to Mary rather than Anne.

  Sander has been responsible for spreading some blatant calumnies about Anne Boleyn—although he himself may have believed them. So it is unlikely that Thomas Boleyn had caught Mary in flagrante delicto with a member of his household. If he had found her to be that promiscuous at an early age, he would surely never have risked sending her to France in the train of the King’s sister.105

  There is other evidence for this French connection. In his life of the great French jurist Charles du Moulin (or Dumoulin) (1500–66), Jean Brodeau, whose work was published in 1654, states that Anne Boleyn was brought up in Brie-sous-Forges by a relation of du Moulin. He has been identified as Philippe du Moulin (d.1548), Seigneur of Brie and cup-bearer to François I,106 who had married one Marie de Boulan, who is said to have been distantly related to the Boleyns a long way back.107 The Almanac of Seine-et-Oise, published in 1790, states: “At Brie-sous-Forges, we see in this place the remains of the old castle where they claim was brought up the famous and unfortunate Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII of England and mother of Elizabeth I.”108

  Brie-sous-Forges, which lies southeast of Paris, is now called Fontenay-les-Briis, and the Tour Anne Boleyn, which dates from around 1200, is now privately owned. There is a well-established local tradition that Anne Boleyn lived here sometime in her youth—toward 1520, according to one account109—and there is even a street named after her. It has been suggested that she may have lodged briefly at Brie-sous-Forges on her way home from France,110 yet local folklore claims that she lived there for some time, and was even brought up there.111 Such beliefs are not always reliable—there are historic houses in England that claim royal links that can be disproven—but the tradition in Brie goes back to the sixteenth century. Furthermore, it is documented as fact by other early historians: John Bale, in the sixteenth century, Bishop Burnet in the seventeenth, and David Hume in the eighteenth, as well as by several eminent French historians.

  Philippe du Moulin is said to have known Sir Thomas Boleyn when the latter was ambassador to France in 1519–20. Nineteenth century French historians claimed that Sir Thomas placed Anne, who is described as a child, with Philippe du Moulin at Brie because her mother was having an affair with Henry VIII, and that Philippe promised to bring her up as a “young lady of high quality.” Later he is said to have presented her at the court of François I.112

  There are obvious problems with this version, which does not take into account the four years between 1515 and 1519, when Anne was already at the French court in the service of Queen Claude. Nor was she a child in 1518, but a young woman of marriageable age. Again there is a tale of some scandal having been the cause of her being sent to Brie—this time, nothing to do with her having affairs with her father’s butler or chaplain, but concerning her mother and the King of England. Yet it has already been established that Elizabeth Howard is unlikely to have had an affair with Henry VIII, so again we might infer that Brie had no connection with Anne Boleyn, and that it was in fact Mary Boleyn who was sent to live there with a respectable noble family.

  This theory makes more sense—far better sense than any involving Anne. Maybe there was a family connection with the du Moulins; certainly there had been a scandal involved—that of Mary’s illicit relations with François I. Possibly, at Sir Thomas Boleyn’s behest, Mary Tudor was able to arrange for Mary Boleyn to be taken into the household of the French king’s cup-bearer. In the protection of a respectable noble family, her reputation could be preserved and she could learn acceptable conduct. There was nothing remarkable in this: it was not unusual for girls of good family to be sent to live in a noble establishment to learn good behavior and complete their education. It may be that Mary stayed at Brie until a marriage was arranged for her, more than four years later, and that, in the wake of Anne Boleyn becoming Queen of England, people forgot that there had been two Boleyn sisters, and rememb
ered only that one had lived at Brie—and thus the legend grew that it was Anne. We will never know the whole truth of the matter, yet the theory is credible.

  Others have reached a similar conclusion, but offer a different version of this story. It is agreed that the loss of Mary’s honor in a brief affair with King François might well have “horrified her family in England,”113 but it has been suggested that Sir Thomas Boleyn, discovering that his daughter had disgraced herself at the French court, and not regarding that in any way as “an ambitious career move,”114 arranged for her to disappear from society and enter a convent, ostensibly for educational purposes, but effectively to teach her virtuous behavior. This echoes Sarah Tytler, who, writing in 1896, referred to Anne—at her father’s wish—entering a convent school at Brie to complete her education; Tytler too stated that Anne had been confused with her sister Mary, and that it was Mary who entered the convent. Yet there is no other source that mentions a convent.

  One reader has suggested that Mary was perhaps sent to Brie because she was pregnant by King François, but there is no evidence for this, and history credits François, that legendary lover, with only one dubious bastard child, Henri de la Rue.

  Given the confusing nature of the evidence for Mary’s possible sojourn at Brie, it is hardly surprising that Sander and other historians either mistakenly or deliberately confused her with her sister Anne.115

  Thomas Boleyn’s loyal and efficient service, and the recognition he received at home and in foreign courts, continued to bring its rewards for his children. It was at one time claimed that he sent his son George to be “educated among the Oxonians,”116 but that is unlikely, because between 1500 and 1600, records show that the age of entry to Oxford University was invariably seventeen.117 What is certain is that a “Master Boleyn” took part with his father in the revels at court at the Christmas season of 1514–15.118 It is invariably assumed that this was George, but it was probably his older brother Thomas, and it may well have been Thomas who was sent to Oxford, for he must have been born before 1500, and lived long enough to go to university. Moreover, it is more likely that Sir Thomas Boleyn would have provided his heir with a university education, rather than his younger son. George, who was only about eleven in 1514, became a page to the King soon afterward,119 holding the post until 1524, so it is unlikely that he went to university at all, although he did receive an excellent education, excelling at languages like his father.

  There is no shred of evidence that Mary was ever close to her brother George,120 and the sparse sources we have tend to support the view that neither George nor Anne had much time or use for Mary.121

  On August 3, 1515, an event that was to have long-term consequences for Mary occurred: her grandfather, the Earl of Ormond, died, aged either eighty-five or ninety.122 “I understand to my great heaviness that my Lord my father is departed this world,” Lady Boleyn wrote to her son, Sir Thomas. Having no male heir, the earl had directed in his will, dated July 31 that year, that his extensive property (which also embraced the Hankeford inheritance that had come to him on marriage) was to be divided between his two co-heiresses, Anne, the wife of James St. Leger, and Margaret, Lady Boleyn.123 Each daughter received thirty-six manors, and among the property inherited by Margaret Butler was the great lordship of Rochford in Essex, including Rochford Hall, a fine manor house that would one day—briefly—be owned by Mary Boleyn. Another was New Hall in Essex, which Sir Thomas Boleyn sold in 1516/17 to the King, who rebuilt it as the palace of Beaulieu. To his grandson, Thomas Boleyn, the earl left a hunting horn of ivory and gold, which had been in his family for generations; tradition held that Thomas Becket, the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury, had once drunk from it.

  Control of an heiress’s inheritance was usually vested in her husband, who enjoyed all rights to it, but when the heiress was a widow, control remained in her hands. Since the fourteenth century, some landowners had tried to limit female inheritance by imposing an entail, the most popular form of which was the male tail, which restricted the descent of land to men, but the Butler lands were not entailed. Nevertheless, the widowed Lady Margaret appears to have allowed her son to assume control of her inheritance, for on October 26, 1517, he was granted a license to export wood and other commodities “made within the lordship of Rochford” in his ship the Rosendell.124 By 1519—as we know from later records—Margaret Butler had become insane and incapable of managing her own affairs, so Thomas Boleyn assumed responsibility for her estates.125 That meant that he henceforth had substantial landed resources at his disposal.

  The earldom of Ormond should have descended to Thomas Butler’s nearest male relative, his cousin Piers Butler, who assumed the title, but the late earl’s two daughters, with Margaret being backed vigorously by her son, Thomas Boleyn, all took steps to prevent Piers from coming into his rightful inheritance. The dispute would drag on until December 1529, when Thomas Boleyn, as heir general, was finally granted the earldom of Ormond, along with that of Wiltshire, by Henry VIII.

  Wherever Mary was living between 1515 and 1520, she did not see her sister for several years. Anne Boleyn was to remain in France, in the service of Queen Claude, until early 1522, when a war between Henry VIII and François I was looming. But before then, Mary was to be married. Her family had arranged a most advantageous match for her.

  5

  William Carey, of the Privy Chamber

  Mary’s marriage to William Carey was probably no hasty affair, as has been claimed by several writers, who assert that it came “out of the blue,”1 and who believe that the haste is the reason why people think it was arranged as cover for Mary’s affair with the King.2 Negotiations for it must have begun before January 1519, when Sir Thomas Boleyn left for France to serve as England’s ambassador. The existence of two receipts, dated 1496 and 1498, to the bridegroom’s maternal grandparents, Sir Robert Spencer and Eleanor Carey, Countess of Wiltshire, from James Butler, Earl of Ormond, and Thomas Carey (Mary’s future father-in-law), for part payment of an annuity payable during Ormond’s lifetime,3 proves that there was a long-established connection between the Carey and Butler families, and suggests that the marriage was mooted by Thomas Boleyn, or would have been pleasing to him.

  The King’s attendance at the wedding confirms that the marriage was made with his hearty approval, or even at his behest;4 there are many instances of his ordering or influencing the marriages of his nobles and courtiers, as was his traditional privilege, and he was to involve himself in negotiations for the marriage of Anne Boleyn later that same year. William Carey was his cousin and one of his intimates in the Privy Chamber, so it follows that he would have interested himself in finding Carey a bride. Of course, Mary, like so many well-born girls of the Tudor era, had little or no say in the matter.

  It is likely that the Howards had been involved too;5 they may well have stood proxy for the bride’s father in bargaining over the marriage contract and arranging the wedding in his absence. Boleyn may well have hoped to be back in England in time for the ceremony, arranged for February 1520, but was unable to leave France until he had completed his tour of diplomatic duty there and his replacement had arrived; in the event, he returned home early in March.6 As marriages were not supposed to be celebrated during Lent, when the devout were expected to abstain from sexual intercourse, it was no doubt agreed that the young couple should not be made to defer their marriage in order to await Sir Thomas’s coming.7

  William Carey, the husband chosen for Mary, was one of the privileged staff of the King’s Privy Chamber,8 an Esquire of the Body to the King9—an office that Thomas Boleyn had once held—and a man of good family. There is no evidence that he was ever a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, as has been claimed.10

  Contrary to popular belief, William Carey did not have “little to recommend him as a husband.”11 He was far more than the “undistinguished courtier” described by David Hume in the eighteenth century, which has been the prevailing view ever since. Yet it cannot tr
uthfully be said that he was “of no particular account,”12 “lowly,”13 a “fairly undistinguished member of the King’s household, never of much importance,”14 or “obscure.”15 He did not hold an “insignificant office,”16 but one of the most coveted positions in the royal household, and he has been described by David Starkey17 as “a major figure at court.” He was of good birth, a cousin to the King, who “highly favored” him,18 and all the signs were that he had a brilliant career ahead of him.

  The young couple were well matched in age and by birth. Their supposedly “poor” marriage was not “surprising,”19 nor was it “far below the [Boleyn] family’s expectations,” “a great disappointment” to them,20 or “scarcely the great match” they had hoped for.21 There is no basis for the astonishing theory that Mary’s disappointing marriage taught Anne Boleyn “a cautionary lesson that may have helped to teach her a deep fear of sex, which prevented her fulfilling what her manner promised.”22 Nor was Carey the kind of man on whom Mary, as “soiled goods,”23 could be palmed off; there is, in fact, no evidence that her “reputation” had preceded her. On the contrary, doubtless Carey was pleased to be marrying the daughter of a man of importance like Sir Thomas Boleyn. It has been said that he got an acceptable dowry with her,24 but no details survive.

  Even as a younger son, William could be considered “a prestigious match;”25 he was a fast-rising star, and we may surmise that Thomas Boleyn found it advantageous to have a son-in-law in such an influential position at court26—it may have been thanks in part to Carey’s influence with the King that Boleyn would obtain high office there within two years—and that, “politically and socially, Mary’s marriage served to bolster her family’s ambitions at court.”27 It also gave the Boleyns an advantage in their rivalry with Wolsey.28 So it was, in many respects, “a good marriage.”29

 
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