Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  William’s growing closeness to the King, and his importance at court, is underlined by a gift made to him in August 1523, when it was reported that “the Sieur de Revel has been here, bringing the King twelve Neapolitan chargers, and two for Master Carey, very fine and honorable presents”102—and very expensive ones. The fact that Carey was singled out for the gift of such fine horses, horses that had been bred for a king, is evidence that he was well thought of not only in England but also in France, where he had given a good account of himself at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

  Just before Christmas 1524, William was one of fourteen lords and gentlemen of the King’s household who “enterprised a challenge of feats of arms,” which the King and Queen “graciously consented” to attend. “For this enterprise was set up in the tiltyard at Greenwich a castle,” and on the appointed day, when Katherine and her ladies had taken their places in the stands, two “ancient knights” rode up before her, begging her for license to take part in the contest, despite their age. When she consented, they threw off their robes to reveal the King himself and the Duke of Suffolk. After the jousts, there was supper, a masque and dancing,103 in which Mary Boleyn may have joined. William’s involvement in these jollifications shows that he enjoyed a warm camaraderie with the King, and that he was at the center of fashionable society at court.

  In January 1526, when Cardinal Wolsey drew up the Eltham Ordinances, which were aimed at reducing waste and inefficiency in the royal household, and restricted the number of gentlemen of the Privy Chamber to six, William, who had been promoted to that rank by then, was one of those retained; his older brother John was one of four grooms of the Privy Chamber.104 The same year, William Carey was appointed Keeper of Greenwich Palace105—almost certainly a reward for his own good service—with the right to official lodgings there.

  After his promotion, he had been allocated a courtier lodging on the King’s side of the court, rather than on an outer courtyard alongside less privileged courtiers; lodgings near the King were the most sought after, and were only allocated to those high in royal favor. It might be argued that such a lodging would be conveniently situated for the King to visit his mistress, but by 1526, Henry’s affair with Mary had probably been over for more than a year. Even had this not been the case, and assuming that William Carey was indeed a complacent husband, such an arrangement would surely have given rise to some scandal or comment. In 1536, when the King’s Principal Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, vacated his lodging at court for Jane Seymour and her family, so that the King could visit her via a secret passageway, people soon got to hear about it, among them foreign ambassadors.

  Years after Mary’s affair with the King had ended, Anne Boleyn, ambitious to be Queen, was to consider it well worth courting the influential William’s support (see Chapter 9), which suggests that he had earned the favor he enjoyed, and that it owed little to her or her sister.

  Possibly the grants made to William Carey were not on the scale of those given to Gilbert Tailboys and Elizabeth Blount,106 but they were substantial enough, and we must remember that Elizabeth had borne the King a son. William’s income was sufficient for him to be assessed for half the amount of tax paid by his wealthy father-in-law, Sir Thomas Boleyn.107 Yet while it is possible that Henry VIII did grant some gifts to William as incentives to Mary or indirect gifts to her, or even as compensation for his “indulgent complicity”108 in his wife’s infidelity, it is far more likely that most, if not all, of them were the rewards that an upcoming man in Carey’s position might expect to receive.

  It is just possible, considering how discreetly the King conducted his extramarital affairs, that William Carey was not even aware of what was going on, despite claims that the arrangement was apparently satisfactory for all involved109 and that the “long-suffering” Carey110 was “pliant.” The unsupported assertion that he did know, “and realized that there was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost (including his head) by challenging the King,”111 is a farfetched assumption, as is proved by Thomas Wyatt suffering no ill consequences when, around 1525, he locked with Henry in open rivalry for Anne Boleyn’s favors.112 Yet it is hard to believe that, serving the King as intimately as he did as an Esquire of the Body, one of those who had “their business in many secrets,” Carey did not know what was going on. He may even have been ambitious and cynical enough to hope to profit from his wife’s adultery with his sovereign.

  All arguments considered, we cannot interpret the grants made to William Carey as hard evidence for the affair between his wife and the King. If they were rewards or inducements, they were “not such as would raise undue comment”113—which they certainly did not. And it seems that, rather than being manipulated by her family, Mary Boleyn was manipulated by the King.

  7

  Living in Avoutry

  Mary’s experiences as a royal mistress illustrate the moral tone of Renaissance courts and the double standards that prevailed in regard to male and female promiscuity.

  The influence of the pre-Reformation Church over moral issues was then considerable.1 The Church had always taught that marriage was the proper context for sexual relations, and that sexual intercourse was only for the purpose of procreating children. Lust, even within marriage, was seen as evil, and there was an ancient perception, derived from St. Jerome, that married couples who had sex purely for enjoyment were no better than adulterers.

  Since intercourse was supposed to be purely for procreation, contraception was frowned upon, although rudimentary forms of it were known and practiced. Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, for example, admitted that she knew of ways to prevent a pregnancy. Rarely were these methods effective, for many relied purely on superstitions and folk remedies, such as drinking the urine of a sheep or hare before having sex, or taking various herbs, or on coitus interruptus. Other methods of preventing pregnancy included inserting pepper or a sponge soaked in vinegar into the vagina, sealing the cervix with beeswax, having anal sex, or doing some “hard pissing” after intercourse. Condoms as a method of birth control were unknown prior to 1564. Contraception, then as now, was frowned upon by the Church, and because it was often unreliable, if it was used at all, royal love affairs often led to the birth of bastard children. But although the moralists might claim that it “impoverished the public weal,” there was no great stigma attached to illegitimacy and little shame in acknowledging natural children; indeed, royal bastards often enjoyed high status and political importance. It was not until the advent of Puritanism in the late sixteenth century that attitudes to illegitimacy changed and there was greater social disapproval. Even so, as the example of the promiscuous “merry monarch” Charles II (who reigned in 1660–85 and acknowledged more than a dozen bastard children) shows, kings continued to flaunt their mistresses and advance the living fruits of their affairs.

  Morality in the early Tudor period was based mainly on biblical precepts, and the pre-Reformation Church—and often civil law—forbade many sexual practices, including masturbation, prostitution, oral sex, homosexuality, and bestiality, and viewed adultery as a grievous sin worthy of stern punishment. Since the fourteenth century, political capital had been made out of the sexual excesses of English kings and public figures, and as recently as 1483, the late Edward IV’s mistress, Elizabeth (“Jane”) Shore, had been accused by his brother Richard III of sorcery and sentenced to do public penance, dressed as a penitent in only a sheet, and carrying a lighted candle in procession to Paul’s Cross in London.

  There was a real gulf, however, between the dictates of the Church and what went on in real life, and lay attitudes to sex were often more tolerant, though only to a point. Because the laws of inheritance were generally sacrosanct, especially in the higher ranks of society, a double standard had long been in play, whereby men could sow their wild oats with impunity and get away with it, but women—who were then regarded as more sexually rapacious than men—were expected to remain above reproach. Thus Mary’s betrayal of her husband wo
uld have been regarded as reprehensible, even with the King.

  Fortunately, things had moved on a little since 1483, and the example of Elizabeth Blount showed that, where a gentle- or noblewoman would invariably spoil herself for the marriage market by fornicating with a lesser man, sleeping with the King brought its own advantages, for it could lead to financial rewards and a good marriage. But there was still a moral stigma attached to it, because aristocratic women were key players in the dynastic and landed property market, and were supposed to be above such things.

  Yet it was almost acceptable, even expected, for a man of rank to fornicate with women of the lower orders, in order to avoid the kind of trouble that might ensue from liaisons with his own kind; it was also thought that common women were more satisfactory in bed, and were better formed for experiencing sexual pleasure. In this context, Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn was doubly reprehensible, for she was the daughter and the wife of landed men, and should have been untouchable. But of course, such things did go on in the hothouse environment of a court where men usually outnumbered women by more than ten to one, and where many men—younger sons without real prospects—had little hope of making a good marriage.

  Henry VIII prided himself on being a moral man. He would not permit open displays of wanton behavior at his court, and would command his Knight Harbinger to banish “lewd women” from its precincts. In 1546 he closed down the brothels in Southwark because of what he termed “their abominable and detestable sin.” Even so, some considered the ladies of his court to be of easy virtue. In 1536, Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, would write cynically to Charles V of Jane Seymour’s much-vaunted chastity: “You may imagine whether, being an Englishwoman, and having been long at court, she would not hold it a sin to be still a maid.”2 When the King’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, was found to have been indulging in an illicit affair with Lord Thomas Howard, one observer commented that it would not have been surprising if she had had sex with him, “seeing the number of domestic examples she has seen and sees daily.”3

  Mary Boleyn would no doubt have witnessed similar examples of covert dalliance and worse. Yet women who went to court and became royal mistresses were often taking the same kind of advantage of the King’s ability to bestow patronage, rewards and favor as the male courtiers who vied for place and precedence by offering good service and congenial companionship.4

  Certainly there were some who disapproved of ladies who slept with the King. We have seen how people regarded Elizabeth Blount’s prestigious marriage as the wages of sin. Nevertheless, there was a general perception that it was normal for kings and nobles to take mistresses. Married off for political or dynastic advantage, there was no guarantee that they would find love with their wives, or satisfaction between the sheets, although of course it was the duty of married couples to love each other, which wasn’t quite the same thing. So it was only to be expected that highborn men might look elsewhere for that which they had failed to find in marriage. When Henry VIII sought out Mary Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon was almost at the end of her childbearing years, had put on weight, and was “rather ugly,” according to one ambassador,5 and “old and deformed” in the cruel opinion of François I. Never before had her six years’ seniority over Henry been so glaringly apparent. Probably he still loved and respected her, but we can be almost certain that any passion they had shared had long since died; certainly it had never been enough to stop him straying from her bed on earlier occasions.

  We know virtually nothing about the manner in which Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn was conducted, or their feelings for each other. Given that, it is probably overstating the case to say that from 1522, Mary “would continue to be at the center of Henry’s world for the next three years or so.”6 On the contrary, the King kept the liaison “very much in the background,”7 and the absence of any references in strictly contemporary sources to Mary Boleyn being the King’s mistress is proof that their affair was carried on with the maximum discretion and known only within a small circle that encompassed Mary’s own family, the King’s closest associates and, no doubt, the all-seeing, all-knowing Cardinal Wolsey.8

  Contrary to widespread belief, therefore, Henry’s adultery clearly did not create “something of a stir in the court” or lay him “open to damaging gossip.”9 Mary did not earn notoriety10—at least, not at the time—and there is no evidence that “in a short time the whole court was aware that [she] had admitted the King to her bed”11 or that the affair was “an open secret.”12 There is no report of any public scandal while the affair was going on; and it is highly unlikely that Mary came to this liaison with a “reputation for licentiousness” that “stemmed from her earlier affairs”13—because, as we have seen, there is no evidence of any affairs other than a fleeting, unremarked encounter with François I. Later, those in the know about her relations with Henry VIII would have had good reasons for maintaining secrecy. Her poor reputation has been exaggerated, “thanks to single-source stories”14 about her conduct at the French court.

  In fact, after her appearance in the pageant, Mary faded into anonymity. After 1522 it was Anne Boleyn who quickly became one of the bright young stars of the English court, setting trends in fashion, fascinating the gentlemen with her black eyes that “invited to conversation,” and impressing everyone with her graceful accomplishments. But no one thought to praise her sister in a similar way, even though Mary was almost certainly the King’s mistress at this time. No chronicler lauded Mary’s beauty as Hall had done Elizabeth Blount’s, which they might have done had her intimate connection with Henry VIII been known. And Mary seems to have lacked her sister’s charm; no one ever claimed that there was anything exotically French about her, and although she must have known a lot about French fashions, she was probably not as stylish as Anne, or as fascinating. In a word, she was eclipsed by her younger sister.

  The pageant of 1522 was the last occasion on which Mary Boleyn was recorded at court for many years, so if her affair with the King continued well beyond this date, discretion must have been skillfully maintained. No contemporary source mentions the Queen being aware of it, although it has often been assumed or claimed that she “and almost everyone else” knew of this “public” affair.15 This is just one example of the many unfounded assumptions that have been made about Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn, although in this case we know that the myth originated in the creative imagination of one Victorian writer.

  Back in 1858, Francis Lancelott, in his memorials of The Queens of England and their Times, had Henry VIII entertaining “a tender penchant for Mary Boleyn” and being taxed by Katherine of Aragon about it. “The King denied the charge, but Mary admitted that she had overstepped the bounds of discretion, and, probably by the Queen’s advice, was married to William Carey on the thirty-first of January, 1521 [sic.].” This, of course, was all pure fiction, as indeed are the more modern assertions that the Queen was “secure in the knowledge that Henry’s passion usually grew tepid after the first passionate excitement of the chase and capture,” and that she “waited patiently for his affair with Mary to grow cool and end like the others.”16 There is no evidence that Katherine was aware that much of Henry’s time was spent with Mary, and had more cause to be jealous of her because Mary was “more acceptable” and better connected than Elizabeth Blount had been;17 or that the King “had never attempted to conceal his relations with Mary Boleyn” from his wife, and that Katherine “more or less philosophically accepted the situation.”18 There is nothing to say that she “was forced to look past these indignities without complaint.”19 Instead, there is compelling evidence that the Queen did not know about the affair.

  There is no record of her complaining about it,20 possibly because Henry “conceded not one iota of the deference due to her as his consort and wife,”21 and she had learned through bitter experience to keep her mouth shut and endure with dignity his infidelities. But—more significantly—in later years, Katherine did not seek to ma
ke political capital out of Henry’s connection with Mary Boleyn, when it would have been in her best interests to do so; as Froude put it, Katherine never alluded to Mary “in the fiercest of her denunciations,” and in all the many letters in which she wrote of the wrongs done to her, there was no word of Mary Boleyn.

  This is strange, considering that from 1527, Henry was negotiating with the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn; he claimed that his marriage to Katherine was incestuous because she had been his brother’s wife. Had Katherine known that Mary, Anne’s sister, had been Henry’s mistress, she could have used that as a powerful argument to demolish his claim that his conscience was troubled by his incestuous marriage, because his marriage to Anne would be equally incestuous, and on the same grounds. She could have exposed his scruples as hypocritical and fatally undermined his case. Yet Katherine did no such thing. It seems incredible that she would not have used such a useful and deadly weapon if it had been readily at her disposal.

  All this strongly suggests that Katherine was not aware of any relationship between her husband and Mary, rather than that she had chosen to maintain a dignified silence whenever Henry strayed.22 Probably their marriage “was little affected” by this “transient” affair.23 It is pure fancy to say that Mary was fearful of the Queen, “who had always been kind to her,” and did not wish to hurt her,24 for we lack any source that makes us privy to Mary’s inner thoughts.

  Apart from the pageant of the Château Vert, there is no surviving memorial of Henry and Mary being together.

  Where, then—given that secrecy was the order of the day—did the couple enjoy their trysts? It may not have been too fanciful of Paul Rival to imagine Mary waiting for the King “in secret chambers, in houses concealed in the depths of his parks, far from Katherine and the conjugal bed.”

 
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