Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  According to a tradition maintained by his descendants,83 the poet and playwright Richard Edwards (or Edwardes) is supposed to have been Henry VIII’s son by Agnes Blewitt, born in the early 1520s, possibly around 1523–25.84 Agnes is said to have been permitted to display the Tudor rose on her coat of arms. She was the wife of William Thomas Edwards of North Petherton, Somerset, and she herself hailed from Holcombe Regis, Devon. It is claimed that she was at court before she became pregnant—which seems unlikely—and that Henry VIII provided a stipend for Richard’s upbringing, gave Agnes land in Scotland (even more unlikely, as he did not own any in that kingdom), where the boy was brought up, and paid for him to be educated at Oxford University, where he studied law. Edwards did not practice as a lawyer, but entered the Church of England, and later wrote plays such as Palamon and Arcite, which were performed before Elizabeth I. He died in 1566.

  Agnes is said to have stayed with Henry VIII at the royal hunting lodge at Huntworth in Somerset. Her son was born at North Petherton. The family’s claim that Edwards was the King’s son rests solely on the fact that he received a university education that his family could never have afforded,85 but that could be explained in any number of ways.

  The first problem with this tale is that, as has been noted, Henry VIII only ever visited the West Country in 1535; and the second problem is that there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever on which to base Henry’s paternity.

  Henry VIII is convincingly credited with the paternity of just one of these alleged bastards, Etheldreda (or Audrey, or Esther) Malte, although he did not acknowledge her as his daughter. She is said to have been born in the late 1520s—again, at the time when Henry was deeply involved with Anne Boleyn, so the date is suspect—and to have been the fruit of a liaison between the King and a royal laundress called Joan Dingley (or Dyngley).86 We know, from the experience of William Webbe, that Henry was not above seducing women of the lower orders.87

  There has been a credible suggestion that the little girl was named Etheldreda because she was born on the feast of the Saxon royal saint of that name, June 23.88

  Henry is said to have persuaded John Malte, his tailor from at least 1527 to 1545,89 to raise Etheldreda as his own bastard daughter, and paid him well to do it. Joan Dingley had probably married a Mr. Dobson by then. Etheldreda took the surname Malte. In his will, drawn up on September 10, 1546, John Malte left a sum of money to “Audrey Malte, my bastard daughter, begotten on the body of Joan Dingley, now wife of one Dobson.”90

  In 1545, Etheldreda was betrothed to Richard Southwell, but the contract was formally broken. In autumn 1546 she married the cultivated poet John Harington, who held office as treasurer of the King’s camps and buildings at Stepney, enjoyed Henry’s “good countenance,” and later served the Lady Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I), when she was residing at Hatfield Palace. Even though “the goodlie Esther”91 was probably the King’s daughter, her mother was of lowly estate, so Henry had done rather well by her in finding her such a husband.

  In 1656, Jonathan Lesley, Deputy Clerk, wrote to a descendant of Harington describing how “the great King Henry the VIIIth matched his darling daughter to John Harington, and though a bastard, dowered her with the rich lands of Bath Priory”; he added that his information had come from Sir Andrew Markham, a collateral descendant of Harington’s second wife.92 The King did indeed make Etheldreda a large grant, as her dowry, of monastic lands forfeited by the dissolved nunnery of Shaftesbury, namely Kelston, Batheaston, and St. Katharine’s in Somerset, and the capital messuage of (St.) Catherine’s Court. This was a generous gesture indeed when aspiring courtiers and nobles were competing to purchase the estates of dissolved monasteries. The grant, dated September 23, 1546, was made to “John Malte, tailor, and Etheldreda Malte, alias Dingley, bastard daughter of the said John by Joan Dingley alias Dobson.”93

  Is it likely that such a lavish grant would have been made to the bastard daughter of a humble tailor and laundress? It is this that has been seen as prima facie—and credible—evidence for Henry’s paternity. Moreover, in May 1541 the humble John Malte had received two manors and the revenues of two estates in Berkshire,94 which he left to Etheldreda.95 This was probably the King making provision for his daughter.

  After their marriage, Etheldreda and her husband settled at Kelston, near Bath, on Etheldreda’s estate. In 1554, in the reign of Mary I, they were both in attendance on the Lady Elizabeth when she was a prisoner in the Tower. “My wife is her servant, and does but rejoice in this our misery, when we look with whom we are held in bondage,” Harington wrote to Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, the Lord Chancellor. “Our gracious King Henry did ever advance our family’s good estate, wherefore our service is in remembrance of such good kindness.” Harington went on to describe how Elizabeth “does honor us in tender sort, and scorns not to shed her tears with ours.”96 Given the magnitude of Henry VIII’s bounty to Etheldreda, and her closeness to Elizabeth (to which this letter is testimony), it is highly likely that she was the King’s child.

  Etheldreda was still alive in October 1555,97 but had died before 1559,98 as her husband remarried probably that year, his second wife being Isabella Markham, a maid of honor to the future Queen Elizabeth; he had been in love with Isabella for some time, probably since 1549, and wrote poems for her.99 Their eldest son, another John, to whom Elizabeth stood godmother, was christened in August 1560, and became famed as the inventor of the water closet. As Etheldreda left no male issue—she appears to have had a daughter, Hester (or Esther), who lived until 1568100 at least—Harington inherited all the lands King Henry had granted her, and thus made his fortune.101 He died in 1582. A portrait of Etheldreda in an embroidered gown is said to have been sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 1942 to an anonymous bidder, but its whereabouts is now unknown.

  Since Etheldreda was almost certainly Henry VIII’s daughter, why did he not acknowledge her? It must have been because her mother was of lowly birth, which would have precluded Etheldreda making a grander marriage; it was one thing to acknowledge the bastard son he’d had with the gently born Elizabeth Blount, but quite another to proclaim his paternity of the humble Joan Dingley’s child.

  Establishing that Etheldreda was in all probability Henry’s daughter, even though he did not acknowledge her, bolsters the case for his having had a bastard daughter whom he also did not acknowledge by Mary Boleyn. It is therefore not possible to take a broad view that Henry VIII would have acknowledged all his bastards as he had Henry Fitzroy, and that his doing so is the only proof of their paternity. Clearly, acknowledgment depended on political considerations, the sex of the child, the status of its mother, and the circumstances of its birth.

  On June 18, 1525, at Bridewell Palace in London, Sir Thomas Boleyn was advanced to the peerage as Viscount Rochford.102 This was the latest in a string of honors bestowed on Mary’s father. It has often been assumed that this ennoblement, like some earlier honors bestowed on him, was a reward to a complacent father for services rendered to the King by Mary;103 but in fact that title devolved on him through his mother, one of the two co-heirs of the Irish barony of Ormond.104 Mary Boleyn had not been recorded at court during the three years prior to her father’s ennoblement, and it was probably in 1525 that the King first became enamored of her sister Anne. There is no evidence that the affair was sufficiently serious in June of that year to account for Boleyn’s ennoblement.

  On the same day that Boleyn was raised to the peerage, the King made Henry Fitzroy a Knight of the Garter, which was the most prestigious honor he could have conferred on his son. He also created him Duke of Richmond and Somerset. These were two royal titles: the earldom of Richmond had been held by Henry VII before he ascended the throne, while the dukedom of Somerset had been bestowed on Edmund, a short-lived brother of Henry VIII, and before that had long been associated with the King’s Beaufort ancestors. Although only six years old, Fitzroy was now appointed Lord High Admiral of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Gas
cony, and Aquitaine (even though the last three duchies had long been lost to the English Crown), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Warden of the Cinque Ports, King’s Lieutenant north of the Trent, Warden General of the Marches of Scotland, Chamberlain of Chester and North Wales, Receiver of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire, and Constable of Dover Castle. He was also given a magnificent household of his own at Durham House in London, with 245 liveried attendants, as would have befit a legitimate prince. “Great feasts and disguisings” marked the elevation of Fitzroy, Boleyn, and others.105

  The Church, and society at large, expected a man to provide for his bastards, and help them to make their way in the world. Defaulting on this was generally regarded as a moral failure.106 Henry VIII had more than fulfilled his responsibility in this regard, for never before had an English royal bastard been showered with such honors, and no natural son of a monarch had been given a title since the twelfth century. But the King had had to face the fact that his wife was “past the ways of women” and would never have another child, and his elevation of Fitzroy suggests that already he was contemplating pushing through an Act of Parliament that would make the boy his lawful heir. There was also talk that Henry meant to make him King of Ireland. From now on Fitzroy would be “well brought-up like a prince’s child” and “furnished to keep the state of a great prince”; there was talk of bolstering his status by marrying him to a foreign princess, and at one stage Henry would even toy with the idea of marrying him to his half sister, Mary. Ambassadors were instructed to refer to his son as “one who is near of his blood and of excellent qualities, and yet may easily by the King’s means be exalted to higher things.”

  The fact that Henry VIII was prepared to do so much for his acknowledged natural son makes it even less likely that Henry Carey was his bastard issue, for the isolated instances of favor shown to Carey are in glaring contrast to the extravagant bounty that was heaped upon Henry Fitzroy.107 Nor could it credibly be claimed that the King had scruples about upsetting Queen Katherine, for when Katherine had protested at the elevation of Fitzroy, Henry promptly dismissed three of her ladies for inciting her to do so, whereupon she was “obliged to submit and have patience.”108

  Two of the six versions of the portrait said, probably erroneously, to be of Mary Boleyn.

  Is this Mary Boleyn? Miniature of an unknown woman, sometimes called “Anne Boleyn.”

  Miniature of the same unknown woman.

  Mary’s father, the ambitious Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire. Brass in Hever Church, c.1539.

  Mary’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk.

  Blickling Hall, Norfolk, where Mary Boleyn was probably born. In this drawing of the Jacobean mansion built in 1619, made by Edmund Prideaux in c.1725, the Tudor gable and windows of the Boleyns’ earlier red-brick house can be seen.

  Mary’s younger sister, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn.

  Hever Castle, Kent, where Mary spent many years of her life, during her childhood and widowhood.

  “The Yule Log” by Robert Alexander Hillingford, shows the great hall at Hever Castle much as Mary knew it.

  The courtyard at Hever: a fanciful but architecturally accurate representation. Drawing by Joseph Nash from The Mansions of England in Olden Time, 1849.

  The long gallery at Hever, which was built by Mary’s father, is here shown as the imagined setting for Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn. Drawing by Joseph Nash from The Mansions of England in Olden Time, 1849.

  Henry VIII c.1520, two years before his affair with Mary probably began.

  Henry VIII in 1525/6, around the time he fell in love with Anne Boleyn.

  Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, who is unlikely to have known anything of her husband’s affair with Mary Boleyn.

  Mary’s predecessor, Elizabeth Blount, mistress of Henry VIII from around 1514 to 1519. Memorial brass, c.1539/4.

  Duke Humphrey’s Tower, seen on top of the hill behind Greenwich Palace. Henry VIII is said to have had trysts with his mistresses here. Drawing by Anthony van der Wyngaerde, 1558.

  Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, natural son of Henry VIII by Elizabeth Blount, the only bastard child acknowledged by the King. Miniature by Lucas Horenbout, c.1533/4.

  Letter from Anne Boleyn to her father, written at La Veure, 1514. The handwriting is that of a teenager at least, which supports a birthdate c.1501. Mary Boleyn must therefore have been born before that date.

  Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, in whose train Mary Boleyn went to France. French School, c.1514.

  Tapestry depicting the marriage of Louis XII and Mary Tudor in 1514. Mary Boleyn may be among the female attendants. Tournai tapestry, c.1525.

  François I, King of France. It is likely that Mary was his mistress for a brief spell. School of Jean Clouet.

  Claude de France, the virtuous Queen of François I. Tomb sculpture by Pierre Bontemps, 1549, Basilica of St. Denis, Paris.

  The Hôtel de Cluny, Paris, where Mary and Anne Boleyn attended upon Mary Tudor during the enforced seclusion of her widowhood. Print c.1835.

  “Cloth of Gold do not despise, tho’ thou art matcht with Cloth of Frieze; Cloth of Frieze, be not too bold, tho’ thou art matcht with Cloth of Gold.” Wedding portrait of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, 1515.

  The “Donjon d’Anne Boleyn” at Briis-sous-Forges. It is possible that Mary was sent here after leaving the French court.

  William Carey, Mary’s first husband, a man set for a glittering career at court. Possibly by or after Hans Holbein.

  William Carey. Elizabethan copy of a lost portrait of 1526.

  The Chapel Royal, Greenwich Palace, where Mary Boleyn and William Carey were married, can be seen to the left of the picture, behind the wall, with the great hall behind. Drawing by Anthony van der Wyngaerde, 1558.

  Syon Abbey, as it would have looked around 1535, when Henry Carey was sent there to be taught by Nicholas Bourbon. Painting by Jonathan Foyle, 2004.

  Nicholas Bourbon, the reformist tutor of Mary’s son, Henry Carey. Drawing by Hans Holbein, 1535.

  Sir John Russell, who may have been Henry Carey’s guardian for a time. Drawing by Hans Holbein.

  Mary Boleyn’s signature, “Mary Carey,” from a letter dated February 13, 1534. Only two of Mary’s letters survive.

  Anne of Cleves, who was welcomed to Calais in 1539 by, among others, William Stafford and probably Mary Boleyn. Miniature by Hans Holbein, 1539.

  This portrait may well depict Katherine Howard, against whom William Stafford may have testified. Miniature by Hans Holbein.

  Henden Manor, Kent, where Mary perhaps lived for a short time with her second husband, William Stafford.

  Rochford Hall, Essex, much altered now, which Mary inherited from her grandmother, Margaret Butler, and which was in her possession for just four days.

  St. Andrew’s Church, Rochford, where Mary may be buried.

  Elizabeth I, who was close to her Carey cousins. Steven van der Meulan, c.1563.

  Mary’s son, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Artist unknown, 1591.

  Lord Hunsdon’s magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey.

  Portrait of a pregnant lady, probably Katherine Carey, Lady Knollys. Steven van der Meulan, 1562.

  This close-up shows a striking resemblance to Henry VIII. (Detail)

  The empty tomb of Katherine Carey and Sir Francis Knollys in Rotherfield Greys Church.

  9

  The Sister of Your

  Former Concubine

  Although it is often claimed that Mary Boleyn’s affair with Henry VIII was of great significance and duration, it does not appear to have lasted very long. Reginald Pole, in 1538, wrote that Henry had “soon tired” of her, although in the next few lines he rather contradicts that and says the King kept her “for a long time” as his concubine. Maybe it was a long time compared to his other affairs. Mary is not recorded at court after 1522, which suggests that her liaison with the King was brie
f. But how brief is a matter for conjecture—the term itself is relative, as is “a long time.” An affair lasting one or two years could well be described as brief as lasting a long time. Did this one last weeks, months, or even years? We do not know, although it has been claimed that it was a long-term relationship that endured for four or five years,1 and that—unusual in the history of Henry VIII’s extramarital affairs—it went on longer than any of the others,2 although that may not have been the case, as Elizabeth Blount was probably his mistress for four or five years. Another claim is that “the affair with Mary was over well before [her son Henry] was conceived,” i.e., before summer 1524,3 but there is nothing to support that assertion beyond speculation.

  It has been pointed out by many writers that in September 1523, Henry VIII had in his navy a hundred-ton ship called the Mary Boleyn, and some claim that this had been named in honor of Mary, who was supposedly still his mistress at that time,4 even going as far as to say that Mary was the King’s acknowledged mistress by 1523,5 although there is no record of him ever acknowledging her. Yet in December 1526, Henry’s “expenses of war” included payment “to my Lord of Rochford for a ship called the Anne Boleyn.”6 This strongly suggests that both vessels had in fact been owned—and named—by Thomas Boleyn, and that Henry bought both ships from him.7 The fact that the Mary Boleyn was not called the Mary Carey implies that she had been built before 1520. In any case, it is highly improbable that Henry VIII, who was so covert in conducting his extramarital affairs, would have blazoned his mistress’s identity to the world on the prow of a ship; that would have been against all the accepted rules of courtly love.

 
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