Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  This portrait, by Steven van der Meulan (d.1563), is dated 1562; it is now in the Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and has been traditionally identified “probably” as Katherine Carey, whose last child, as we have just seen, was born in May 1562.54 Some perceive “a plausible resemblance” between the sitter and the effigy of Katherine at Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire,55 which may not be apparent to everyone, but what is striking is that both sitter and effigy are wearing what appear to be identical pendants, fashioned from pearls and diamonds in a circular setting around a central stone.56 This is fairly convincing evidence that they both depict the same person, and that the sitter in the portrait is indeed Katherine Carey, although the evidence in the diary does not conclusively “prove for the first time that the details on Katherine’s portrait are correct.”57 Nevertheless, the provenance of the picture tends to support that identification, as it was in the possession of Katherine’s descendants until 1974, when it was sold, along with other Knollys family portraits, at Sotheby’s.58 This is bolstered by the existence of a portrait of Katherine’s brother, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, also attributed to Steven van der Meulan,59 which has been dated to 1561/3, the same period. Van der Meulan painted Elizabeth I and luminaries of her court, so it is credible that both her Carey cousins commissioned him to execute their portraits.

  The portrait of the expectant lady bears what is almost certainly a contemporary inscription—Aetatis suae 38 Ao Dom 1562—which shows that the sitter was in her thirty-eighth year when it was painted. If this is a heavily pregnant Katherine and her child was born on May 9, 1562, the picture must have been painted in the weeks before she gave birth, probably in March or April, and she would therefore have reached the age of thirty-eight between spring 1562 and spring 1563; thus she must have been born between spring 1524 and spring 1525, and conceived between summer 1523 and summer 1524. Given that her brother was born in March 1525, she was probably born in March or April 1524. It is possible that Mary Boleyn’s affair with the King was still going on in the summer of 1523;60 possible too that Henry VIII was indeed Katherine’s father, and that Mary’s pregnancy put an end to the affair, as seems to have been the case with Elizabeth Blount. The taboo against sex during pregnancy would have created a natural distancing between the couple; furthermore, Henry may have wanted to disassociate himself from a gravid Mary so that no one would question the child’s legitimacy.

  Possibly Mary became pregnant by William Carey, and that put an end to her relationship with Henry; or she conceived “as soon as she left Henry for her husband,”61 for it is also possible that the affair had ended in 1523, before Mary became pregnant with Katherine. The information in Sir Francis’s dictionary is not, therefore, “evidence that his wife, the Lady Katherine, was Henry VIII’s daughter,” nor does the discovery of the dictionary put it “beyond reasonable doubt that Mary’s daughter, at least, was a royal bastard”;62 such evidence as the dictionary provides is purely circumstantial. It does not confirm “that Katherine was born in the years when Mary was the King’s mistress”63 because we do not know exactly when Mary was the King’s mistress, or if their affair was still going on in 1523. Nor does it follow that, even if Katherine was Henry’s child, “there is but one conclusion: both of Mary’s children were Henry’s bastards.”64

  If the King was Katherine’s father, Mary would have had every reason to keep that as secret as she had her royal liaison. Naming the child after the Queen could have been a ploy to deflect any covert speculation or gossip, or to forestall Katherine’s suspicions, and anyway there was that presumption under English law that her children were the lawful issue of William Carey. Henry VIII could not have taken advantage of that in the case of Henry Fitzroy, whose mother had not been married when she bore him; he had had to acknowledge the boy, and seems to have been proud to do so, if only to prove to the world that he could father sons. Yet if Mary Boleyn had borne him a child, whatever rumor whispered, it could easily have been passed off as her husband’s, and the King would have been absolved of all responsibility for it—and Mary protected from the stigma of bearing a bastard. Henry would have had good reason to be relieved that his paternity of Katherine did not have to be acknowledged; he could preserve his carefully cultivated image of a virtuous king, and he was not obliged to own another bastard “whose existence only emphasized his lack of legitimate heirs.”65 And Katherine was, after all, a mere girl, and therefore unimportant.

  It would have taken an Act of Parliament to nullify the legal presumption of paternity,66 and there was no reason why Henry VIII would have wanted to pursue this course, or court scandal by doing so.

  What is persuasive about the portrait called “Katherine Carey” is that the sitter bears a striking facial resemblance to both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. This is subjective evidence, of course, but there is a strong similarity in the setting of the eyes; the Tudors had distinctive heavy lower lids, and this, and the familial winged eyebrows, can be seen in portraits of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Arthur Tudor, and Henry Fitzroy, and came from the Plantagenets, as portraits of Henry VIII’s grandfather, Edward IV, show. Katherine Carey has these same features. She also has a prominent chin and rounded jowls, like those that are apparent in portraits of Henry VIII and his mother, Elizabeth of York. She has red hair, as did nearly all the Tudors, whereas William Carey’s was brown; the color of Mary Boleyn’s hair is not known, nor is it known if red hair featured in the Boleyn and Carey families. Katherine’s nose is not hooked like Henry’s, and her mouth is wider, but those characteristics could have come from her mother’s side, while her resemblance to Elizabeth can be explained by the fact that their mothers were sisters.

  This is not, of course, conclusive evidence, for it could be entirely coincidental that Katherine resembled the King in some facial respects; they were already related by blood, and portraits of William Carey show that he too had distinctive lower lids and winged brows, heavy jowls and a wide mouth, like Katherine’s. Yet her overall resemblance to Henry VIII, especially around the eyes, is stronger, and impacts immediately on the viewer.

  Apart from this portrait, there is no other known likeness of Katherine to aid the debate.67 There is no resemblance to Henry VIII in portraits of Henry Carey, despite assertions to the contrary;68 and we can ignore unfounded claims that “contemporary rumor said Master Carey looked very much like the King,”69 for he had the dark hair and the long, thin face of the Boleyns.

  Even more compelling evidence that Katherine Carey was the King’s child was to emerge after William Carey’s death, long after Mary Boleyn had ceased to be Henry’s mistress, in the form of an annuity granted to her, as will be seen.

  Recently, Sally Varlow uncovered further evidence suggesting that Katherine’s royal paternity was no secret to some at the Elizabethan court. In 1582, Sir Philip Sidney was amorously pursuing Katherine’s granddaughter, Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich, and it has long been established that he addressed Penelope as Stella in “Astrophil and Stella,” his famous cycle of poems and songs about lovers. Varlow cites one possibly significant reference, in which Sidney calls Stella “rich in the riches of a royal heart.”70 But there are other, perhaps more blatant, hints: he gives her the royal title of “her Grace” in two places, and, in a verse that refers to strange tales “broidered with bulls”—a clear reference to the Boleyn arms—speaks of “hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.” He calls her “Princess of Beauty,” or “a princess high, whose throne is in the mind,” refers to Stella being “so right a princess,” or “a queen,” and says how her “humbleness grows one with Majesty,” which are possibly other allusions to her royal blood. In fact, the royal theme, and the language of majesty, recurs throughout the cycle. We might infer from this that Sidney knew that Tudor blood ran in Penelope’s veins, and although his poem is not prima facie proof of that, given that poetic language is subject to various interpretations, taken with the other evidence it acquires a certain significanc
e.

  If Katherine were the King’s child, again, discretion was deliberately maintained, even after the deaths of Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and Henry VIII, with only a very few people being in on the secret. By then Mary Boleyn’s name had acquired a certain notoriety, and Katherine, as she grew older, probably had no wish to blacken it further or dishonor the memory of both her parents; in this, she may have showed respect for her mother’s wishes.

  Contrary to what has been portrayed in films, there is no evidence whatsoever that Mary, pregnant with the King’s child, ever “took to her chamber” for six weeks, as was the custom prior to a royal birth. This tradition had been laid down in the previous reign by Henry VIII’s grandmother, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, for the births of legitimate royal children. Great ceremony surrounded a queen taking to her chamber, with all her male officers being replaced by female ones; this was virtually a state occasion, and one of the King’s mistresses usurping that queenly role would have provoked outraged comment. Nor would it have been in keeping with Henry VIII’s policy of complete discretion in regard to his extramarital affairs.

  The rest is speculation. We cannot ever know for certain the truth of the matter, only that there is a strong possibility that Katherine was the King’s child.

  There have been claims that Henry VIII fathered other bastard children, although only one is based on compelling evidence.71 It has often been said that Henry would have had good reason to acknowledge any natural child born to him, and this has been used as an argument against claims that Mary Boleyn’s children were his. But it seems that Henry had another bastard whom he did not acknowledge, which strengthens the theory that Katherine Carey was his daughter.

  In all but that one case, the evidence for Henry’s paternity is slender indeed. In 1592, Sir John Perrot (1528–92), when on trial for high treason, “boasted that he was King Henry’s son.”72 The husband of his granddaughter Penelope Perrot, Sir Robert Naunton (1563–1635), in his Fragmenta Regalia, published posthumously in 1653, also claimed that Perrot was Henry VIII’s son. “Compare his picture, his qualities, gesture, and voice, with that of the King’s, which memory retains yet amongst us,” Naunton wrote. “They will plead strongly that he was a surreptitious child of the blood royal.” The portrait of Sir John Perrot in Haverfordwest Town Museum, Pembrokeshire, certainly does bear a resemblance to Henry VIII.

  However, it seems more likely that Sir John was the son of Thomas Perrot, who died in 1531, and whose Inquisition Post Mortem73 shows that his son and heir, John, had been born on November 7, 1529. Yet an inquisition made on April 14, 1549, terminating John’s minority, states that he had reached the age of twenty-one in November 1549, in which month he had been knighted. This is likely to be the more reliable source—inquisitions postmortem were not always accurate—so we may safely assume that Sir John Perrot had been born in November 1528.74

  It is unlikely that Henry VIII would have fathered a bastard in February 1528, when he was headily in love with Anne Boleyn and desperate to marry her, and doing his very best to prove to the Pope and the world at large that he was a moral man and that his scruples of conscience over his marriage were genuine ones. At such a crucial juncture he would hardly have risked compromising a happy outcome to his “Great Matter,” or his relationship with his “entirely beloved” Anne (as he called her in a letter sent in June 1528), by taking a mistress. That year, the Pope’s legate, having observed Henry and Anne together, reported to his master: “He sees nothing, he thinks of nothing, but Anne. He cannot do without her for an hour.” Is a man in such thralldom likely to take a mistress? It has been suggested that he did, that he continued “to enjoy other brief, lighthearted affairs,” and that the births of the children that perhaps resulted were probably “accidents.”75 But a closer look at the facts would suggest otherwise.

  Thomas Perrot’s wardship had been purchased by Maurice, Lord Berkeley, in 1523. Berkeley had also bought the wardship of his niece, Mary, the daughter of his brother, James Berkeley of Thornbury, Gloucestershire. Mary had been born around 1510, and Berkeley married her to Thomas Perrot, probably after the latter attained his majority and was knighted in 1526. As Berkeley’s wards, they had lived at Berkeley Castle, but after their marriage, they resided at Haroldstone St. Issells in Pembrokeshire, the home of Perrot’s forebears. Mary bore a son, John, and two daughters who married Welsh gentlemen. After Thomas Perrot died in 1531, she married twice more, dying after 1586.

  All this places Mary Berkeley very firmly in the West Country and Wales in the period when she is supposed to have slept with Henry VIII, but the only visit Henry ever paid to the western parts (he never went further than Gloucestershire) was in 1535, by which time John Perrot was seven years old. Nor is there any record of Mary ever coming to court. Some modern writers76 state that she was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, but I can find no contemporary evidence for this. In fact, there is no evidence at all, beyond his own boast—made perhaps in the hope of saving his life—to show that Sir John Perrot was Henry VIII’s natural son.

  Perrot was “a tempestuous and choleric character of Shakespearean proportions,”77 a larger-than-life man in every sense who enjoyed a varied and (for a long time) successful career. He served three Tudor monarchs: Edward VI—in whose reign he first came to court under the patronage of William, Lord Paulet—Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Edward knighted him, and Elizabeth appointed him one of the bearers of her canopy of estate at her coronation. In the years to come, she would reward him handsomely for his royal and military service. In 1570 he was appointed the First Lord President of Munster, and in 1584, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Perrot was now riding high, but he was a forceful and plain-spoken man, and his reckless conduct, blunt manner, and candid remarks proved his downfall. Often at loggerheads with the Queen, he angrily criticized her in public for not following a consistent policy in Ireland and for failing to give him adequate support in his difficult role. After four years he was recalled and preferred to Elizabeth’s Privy Council.

  In 1592, thanks to the machinations of the former Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton, whose daughter he had seduced, Sir John was tried for entering into a treasonable correspondence with Philip II of Spain, England’s enemy, and for making disparaging remarks about Queen Elizabeth, whom he had memorably called a “base bastard piss-kitchen.”78 There is a story that, when he was found guilty, he cried, “God’s death! Will the Queen suffer her brother to be offered up a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversaries?”

  Sentence was deferred. Had Perrot, already ailing, not died in custody in September 1592, Elizabeth might well have pardoned him; instead, she restored his estates to his son. Maybe there was some question in her mind about his paternity, but she too may not have been aware of the circumstances of his birth. Or perhaps she remembered his long and loyal service.

  The notorious spy, mercenary, rebel, pirate, and recusant adventurer, Sir Thomas Stucley (or Stukeley) (1525?–78)—whose checkered life would require another book to recount—was rumored, toward the end of his life, to be Henry VIII’s son. James FitzGerald, an Irish exile who met him in Rome in 1577–78, wrote that some said he was “an illegitimate son of Henry VIII,” although others described him as the son of an English knight or the offspring of Irish parents.79 Not knowing FitzGerald’s sources, we cannot place too much credence upon what he said. Again, the weight of evidence suggests that Thomas was fathered by the man whose surname he bore, Sir Hugh Stucley, a Devon knight whose wife, Jane Pollard, presented him with five sons. We have seen that Henry VIII never set foot in Devon, and only once traveled as far as the West Country, in 1535.

  The theory that Stucley was Henry’s son appears to rest on that one report of his rumored parentage, the fact that he was treated pretty leniently by the Tudor monarchs when he got into trouble—which could be explained in several ways, although Jones states that he, like Perrot, “got away with almost anything”—and a remark that Stucley made to Elizabeth I when he was pre
sented to her in the early 1560s. He told her he would prefer to be sovereign of a molehill than the subject of the greatest king in Christendom, and that he had a presentiment he would be a prince before he died. She is said to have replied, “I hope I shall hear from you when you are installed in your principality.” Stucley retorted that she surely would.

  “In what language?” she asked, referring to his foreign exploits.

  “In the style of princes, to our dearest sister,” was the cheeky reply.80

  Stucley’s allusion to the correct form used in letters between princes has been misinterpreted.81 When he referred to Elizabeth as his “sister,” he was using the word in this context, as one monarch would to another, and probably mischievously to boot.

  Despite his skill and daring in battle, Stucley was killed fighting in Morocco in 1578, when a cannonball took off both his legs. Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, later called him “a defamed person almost through all Christendom,” and wrote that “whole volumes” could be written “to paint out the life of a man in the highest degree of vainglory, prodigality, falsehood, and vile and filthy conversation of life, and altogether without faith, conscience, or religion.”82 He would hardly have spoken thus of a man he knew to be the Queen’s half brother. It is hard to take seriously claims that Stucley, a constant thorn in the side of the Tudors, was Henry VIII’s son.

 
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