Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  That is not to say that he raped Mary; rather that he maneuvered her into a position wherein she dared not refuse, and thus was forced to submit to him.

  In attempting to chart the course of Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn, we often stumble upon clues that turn out to be red herrings, because the facts tend to support more than one interpretation.

  We might begin our search for clues by looking at Sir Thomas Boleyn’s career. In Tudor times it was “not unusual for the males of the family to reap the benefits of a daughter’s success,”48 and it has been claimed that “Henry’s lust for Mary” brought “rich pickings” for the Boleyns.49 Many writers50 have seen these particular awards as resulting from Sir Thomas’s daughter’s affair with the King, Henry’s pleasure “being measured by the pains he took to advance the complacent father”51—and a thank-you for Boleyn’s compliance, or “turning a blind eye.”52 That is indeed possible, but, again, they could also have been bestowed on him because he had earned and deserved them, and because he stood high in favor with Henry VIII and had served him well.53 Only one historian has claimed that Mary’s connection with the King “did not much benefit Sir Thomas.”54 We cannot say that for certain.

  By the early 1520s, Sir Thomas Boleyn’s career was going from strength to strength, but it could easily be demonstrated that it was clearly on his own merits, and not necessarily due solely to the King’s interest in both his daughters successively, which came long after Boleyn had risen to prominence. By 1522, the year in which Mary probably became Henry’s mistress, Boleyn was forty-five, with a long and distinguished record of service behind him; he had been a favorite of the King for years, long before Henry’s eye alighted on his daughter. Therefore one could reasonably expect to find Boleyn receiving a string of honors such as those that were now coming his way; they were nothing out of the ordinary for a man of his standing.

  In February 1516—a mark of high honor indeed—Sir Thomas was one of four persons who bore a canopy over Henry VIII’s daughter and heir, the Princess Mary, at her christening at Greenwich.55 When Henry’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, visited London in 1517, Boleyn—who had escorted her north to her marriage years before—was appointed her carver,56 a privilege reserved only for men of rank, the ability to carve being the mark of a nobleman.

  In October 1518, Sir Thomas Boleyn was a signatory of the Treaty of Universal Peace between England and France, which provided for the marriage of Princess Mary to the Dauphin.57 He was ambassador to France from January 1519, and while there, on June 5, 1519, he acted as proxy sponsor for Henry VIII at the baptism of Francois I’s son, Henri, Duc d’Orléans, carrying out his duties “with all possible honor,” as King François wrote to King Henry a week or so later.58 Henry VIII was appreciative of Boleyn’s good service at the French court, but aware of his limitations, for he was businesslike rather than courtly, and persnickety and plodding in his manner. In February 1520 the King replaced him with the more experienced Sir Richard Wingfield, who was better qualified to lay the diplomatic foundations for the proposed summit between the two monarchs that would later become famous as the Field of Cloth of Gold.59

  In June 1520, Boleyn was present at the Field of Cloth of Gold, which he had helped to arrange. He was now a wealthy man and an active and committed Privy Councillor; that year he was appointed Comptroller of the King’s Household,60 and on April 24, 1522, its Treasurer, a post he held until 1525.61 On April 29 he was made Steward of Tonbridge (then called Tunbridge) and Keeper of Penshurst, both near his home in Kent.62 This was around the time when Mary Boleyn probably became Henry VIII’s mistress, so these important appointments may not have been pure coincidence, yet Sir Thomas could equally have been granted such offices as rewards for his long service, and in particular for sitting on the special commission before which the indictment against the Duke of Buckingham had been brought the previous year, an indictment that had led to the duke’s execution for treason and the enrichment of the King through the confiscation of his forfeited lands.63

  Clearly Boleyn was admired for his diplomatic and linguistic skills: in 1521, Cardinal Wolsey sent him and the Prior of St. John’s, Clerkenwell, on a “mission of mediation” to the Emperor Charles V,64 and Boleyn was present at Windsor in June 1522 at the signing of a new treaty between Henry and Charles. With Dr. Richard Sampson, he was joint ambassador to Charles V in Spain from October 1522 to May 1523.65

  In 1523, 1524, and 1525, Sir Thomas was granted further lucrative stewardships and keeperships in Kent, Essex, Norfolk, and Nottinghamshire, and on April 23, 1523, he was made a Knight of the Garter.66 Given his career, his connections, and his closeness to the King, this was not, as has been claimed, “an unusual honor for a mere knight.”67 He was also appointed Vice Chamberlain of the Household, then promoted to Chamberlain. In July 1524 the King granted the manor of Grimston in Norfolk to Boleyn’s heir, George, who had just married Jane Parker,68 daughter of the erudite Lord Morley.

  It should be remembered that Henry VIII bestowed no comparable honors on Sir John Blount of Kinlet, the father of Elizabeth Blount, the mistress who had borne the King a son, and whose affair with Henry almost certainly lasted longer than Mary Boleyn’s. Although Sir John Blount came from a distinguished and renowned knightly family, he has aptly been described as “unremarkable,” and certainly he never enjoyed—and probably never merited—the kind of career and intimacy with the King that was Thomas Boleyn’s. After serving in Henry VIII’s forces in the French campaign of 1513, he was for a time an Esquire of the Body to the King, but did nothing else of note, apart from serving as Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1526–27, and engaging in a feud with Sir William Compton over property rights;69 maybe he had long resented Compton’s familiarity with his daughter. He was not knighted until 1529.70 The only grants he received that could be seen as rewards for his daughter’s services to his sovereign were those of the keepership of Cleobury Park and the joint stewardship with his father of Bewdley and Cleobury Mortimer; these modest favors were conferred in February 1519,71 when Elizabeth Blount was pregnant with Henry Fitzroy. This record strongly suggests that Henry VIII was not in the habit of handing out favors simply because a man’s daughter had bedded with him, even if she had done him the supreme favor of bearing a son.

  Sir Thomas Boleyn was particularly fortunate in that, having broken off an affair with his elder daughter, the King began ardently pursuing the younger. We do not know for certain exactly when Henry VIII first conceived an interest in Anne Boleyn, but it was probably in 1525. Cavendish, who erroneously suggests that the King’s eye lighted upon her in 1523, avers that Boleyn was “promoted to higher dignities because of the King’s love for his daughter.” Yet he was obviously referring to the honors that came Sir Thomas’s way after 1525, which were in fact more likely to have been inducements, because Anne was famously to hold out for marriage, with her family’s staunch support.

  It would be unwise therefore to attempt to chart Mary’s affair with the King through instances of royal favor shown to her family. As has been demonstrated, Sir Thomas Boleyn had already received many preferments prior to 1522, and the rewards he received thereafter were commensurate with his years of service and his friendship with Henry VIII. However, it is quite conceivable that a father who, in time, was to show himself willing to be complicit in the ruin of his children, in order to preserve his own life and position, should be happy to reap the benefits of a daughter’s adultery with the King. Indeed, Sir Thomas Boleyn would have had good reason actively to encourage both his daughters in their dealings with Henry VIII so that he could profit from them and advance himself and his family’s fortunes. Even if he was privately unhappy about Mary becoming the King’s mistress, he may nevertheless have greedily anticipated the benefits that might well come his way as a result of it,72 the gifts of a grateful king. There was every incentive for him to turn a blind eye to the affair—and perhaps to encourage his son-in-law, William Carey, to do likewise. As David Starkey points ou
t, “these transactions might seem to turn Mary into the merest prostitute, with her husband and father as her pimps.”73

  That is certainly how some of Boleyn’s contemporaries saw it. In 1533, Mrs. Elizabeth Amadas, whom the King had once tried to seduce, would claim, among many wild assertions, that “my Lord of Wiltshire [as Sir Thomas Boleyn later became] was bawd both to his wife and his two daughters.”74 We should not place too much reliance on her words, for she was a hostile and possibly unbalanced witness, yet her assertion may well reflect contemporary gossip. It has even been claimed, more recently, that Boleyn “approved the King’s intimacy” with Mary,75 or that he probably encouraged it.76 But we cannot be certain that was how it was.

  Without doubt Boleyn was an ambitious man. He had wanted his girls to make good marriages in the Boleyn family tradition; indeed, he was very well placed to do that. It may seem strange that he did not make much effort to find rich or titled husbands for them while they were young, for they had reached marriageable age—which was twelve for girls in those days—long before the King took an interest in them. Prior to 1520, the year Mary was married, and Sir Thomas proposed a marriage between nineteen-year-old Anne and James Butler, there is no hint of any early negotiations or discussion of betrothals, as was customary among the landed classes. As we have seen, Boleyn’s own family had a tradition of climbing the social ladder through ever grander marriages, so it seems strange that he did not make more effort to marry his girls off all the sooner, to his advantage. Mary was more than twenty when Sir Thomas found her a husband, and between 1522, when the Butler match fell through,77 and 1525, when the King probably began pursuing Anne, Boleyn seems to have made no further effort to make a good match for his younger daughter. Is this what one would expect of a man hell-bent on furthering his family’s fortunes by any means?

  It seems unlikely that Boleyn, that ambitious father, would have approved of Mary sleeping with the notoriously licentious Francois I, and risk spoiling herself for the aristocratic marriage market in the process. He certainly did not profit from Mary’s amorous adventure in France and, as we have seen, he may have taken steps to limit the damage and have her taught better conduct. His explosive reaction in later years to her secret, unsuitable second marriage shows him to have been somewhat contemptuous of her morals and judgment, and angered at the scandal she had brought upon his family, while the vehemence of that reaction—they were probably never reconciled—may have had its roots in these earlier episodes in which she had grievously disappointed him. In each case there was probably a marked degree of self-interest involved on his part.

  Boleyn may have feared further scandal when Mary succumbed to Henry VIII’s advances, yet, whatever his private feelings, he was probably content to make the best of things, and, of course, he really had no choice in the matter. Anyway, with Mary being a married woman when the King took her, she was no longer her father’s responsibility, but her husband’s. Boleyn’s grasping soul may have warred with his pride in his family’s honor and rising status, but there is no real evidence that he was “conniving”78 or actively sought to profit from his daughter’s immoral conduct.

  It might be argued that Sir Thomas Boleyn did not even know what was going on between his daughter and the King, given the secrecy that surrounded the affair. Yet his subsequent contemptuous and dismissive behavior toward Mary strongly suggests that he did, and that he did not ultimately approve—not so much on moral grounds, but because this was the second time she had compromised her reputation with a king and come out of it with nothing.

  Certainly George Boleyn’s rise to prominence owed little to Mary’s liaison with the King. He was made Henry’s cup-bearer in 1526,79 at a time when Henry’s passion for his sister Anne was increasing; but it was another two years before George was appointed a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, at a salary of fifty marks (£4,500).80 Thereafter, like his father, he would accrue various offices and stewardships, as Henry VIII became more and more determined to marry Anne Boleyn. There can be no doubt that the later advancement of the Boleyns had much to do with this, for it was politic to load with honors the family of the future Queen of England, and thus elevate her status. In 1529, following in his father’s footsteps, George embarked on a career as a diplomat. By then he had become enormously influential at court.

  As with Thomas Boleyn and his preferments at court, a series of royal grants made to William Carey between 1522 and 152681 are often claimed to have been rewards for his complacency in regard to his wife’s dalliance with the King.82 Such generosity on the part of the King was hardly “casual royal bounty,” as it has been described,83 but, it is said, probably reflected Henry’s regard for a man who served him daily.

  As we have seen, it may well be significant that these grants began in February 1522,84 around the time Henry appears to have begun pursuing Mary. The first grant, on February 5, was of the keepership of the King’s house called Beaulieu in Essex, where William was given responsibility for the King’s wardrobe, and the right to lodge at Beaulieu whenever the need arose; William was also granted sixty cartloads of firewood annually for Beaulieu, and the right to let the premises to farm and to hire laborers to work in the King’s garden and orchard.85 Clearly the post was no sinecure, but required hands-on involvement. With it came the office of bailiff of the manors of New

  Hall, Walkeford Hall,86 and Powers (Hall End), Essex.87

  On May 12, 1522, William Carey and William West, a page of the King’s Chamber, were granted the joint wardship of the person and lands of Thomas Sharpe, an “idiot” of Canterbury, the Crown having a special obligation to care for those who could not care for themselves, notably “infants, idiots, and lunatics.”88

  In April 1523, “William Carey of the Privy Chamber” was granted an annuity of fifty marks (£4,500), the grant being signed by Cardinal Wolsey.89 Later he would be assigned a much more substantial annuity of £100 (£38,000), and the office of Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster;90 in this capacity, his role was to preside over local courts and supervise the Duchy’s regional officers. On April 26, 1523, William was appointed Receiver and bailiff of the ancient manor of Writtle, Essex, and Keeper of Writtle Park, with certain fees, herbage, and pannage,91 and granted, in tail male, jurisdiction over the large hundred of Kinwardstone that lay mainly in east Wiltshire;92 this hundred had formerly been held by the executed Duke of Buckingham, and encompassed William’s birthplace, Chilton Foliat, suggesting that he had retained links with the area.

  Since Saxon times shires had been divided into administrative divisions called hundreds (so called either because they originally extended over a hundred hides of land—about 12,000 acres—or were intended to support a hundred households), and this one comprised forty-five villages, twelve parishes, and the market towns of Hungerford, Marlborough, and Andover in neighboring Hampshire. Carey’s responsibility as lord of Kinwardstone was to act for the monarch in ensuring that justice was administered in the hundred courts that sat at regular intervals, and to maintain the King’s peace. In actuality, these duties were carried out by a constable and a reeve, and overseen by the sheriff of the county.

  Writtle, also previously owned by Buckingham, and famous as the probable birthplace of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, boasted only a decaying royal hunting lodge dating from 1211, called King John’s Palace after its builder. It is unlikely that William and Mary went there often, if at all.

  Carey was also made constable of the royal castle of Pleshey in Essex,93 where he also had the right to reside with Mary, although he probably rarely did so, as the castle had declined since its medieval heyday and was ruinous by 1557. The post seems therefore to have been something of a sinecure.

  On June 15, 1524, William Carey, “Esquire of the Body,” was granted the keepership of “the manor of Wanstead, Essex, with 2d. [£3] a day out of the issues of the manor.”94 The royal manor of Wanstead had been purchased by Henry VII in 1499, and Henry VIII, who sometimes stayed there for the good hunting t
o be had in Epping Forest, placed it in the custody of a succession of keepers, all chosen from among his close associates. Medieval Wanstead Hall, which stood three hundred yards south of St. Mary’s Church, served as a royal hunting lodge, and Carey, as keeper, had the right to lodgings there, which means that Mary may have stayed at Wanstead from time to time. That month, William and Mary were also granted three former manors of the Duke of Buckingham near Chipping Ongar, Essex.95

  In August and October 1524—proof of Henry’s opinion of his integrity, and of his increasing importance at court, and that the trust the King reposed in him did not stem from the attractions of Mary Boleyn—William was entrusted with a huge sum totaling £49,000 (£18.5 million), given him by the King “to be employed upon the wars” with France.96 In December that year, he was probably the “Master Karre” who was among the privileged few who were given Gascon wine by the King, while others were required to purchase theirs from the shipment.97

  On February 20, 1526,98 sometime after the King’s affair with Mary had probably ended, William received more substantial grants of estates and manors in Hampshire and Wiltshire: “To William Carey, Esquire for the Body. Grant of the manors of Parva Brykhill [Great Brickhill], Burton, and Easington, Buckinghamshire, and the borough of Buckingham, part of Buckingham’s lands, formerly held by John, Lord Marney, deceased.”99 With this came a license to hold fairs and markets, with other liberties, in Great Brickhill and Buckingham.

  Plainly William Carey, like his father-in-law, enjoyed Henry’s regard for his own sake, being one “whom the King highly favored.”100 However, he was never knighted, and Mary was never “Lady Carey,” as several writers101 style her.

 
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