Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  Most historians believe that his affair with Mary had ended by 1524–26.8 It has been suggested that the grant of the keepership of Greenwich Palace to William Carey in May 1526 “must signal the end of the King’s affair with Mary,”9 but, as has been demonstrated, it probably had nothing to do with her.

  The truth is, we do not know when—or why—it ended; but certainly it was over by February 1526, when the King gave a very public signal that he had a new love. If one accepts that Katherine Carey was Henry’s child, and Henry Carey was not—as the evidence strongly suggests—then the chances are that relations between Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn had ceased by 1524.10

  Possibly Henry simply tired of Mary. Pole implies that she was not successful at holding his interest, and it has more recently been suggested that she “did not have that sharp, incisive mind that enabled her sister Anne to hold onto her conquest” in the years to come,11 and that she had probably “begun to bore” the King.12 The most convincing theory is that Henry lost interest13—or was scared off—when Mary became pregnant—probably by him—in 1523,14 since, earlier on, he seems to have broken off with Elizabeth Blount when she was having his child, pregnancy having had “the effect of dampening his lust”15—which it surely would have if Mary had been expecting her husband’s baby. It may be that Mary did not want the King near her during her first pregnancy,16 sex being regarded as potentially harmful to the unborn child, and that Henry sought satisfaction in other arms.

  It is unlikely that Mary—or Elizabeth Blount before her—got pregnant deliberately, after practicing contraception with her royal lover for years, and that Henry felt betrayed, as has been suggested;17 what would Mary have achieved by doing that? Not a good marriage, like Elizabeth Blount, for she was already wed, but scandal and notoriety—exactly what the King, in maintaining strict secrecy, and Mary, by her absolute discretion, had tried to avoid.

  There is also nothing to support the assertions that, when the affair ended, Mary “wasn’t too upset about it,”18 or that she “settled back into court life quite contentedly as Carey’s wife.”19 There is no evidence that she was “pensioned off” by the King20 or “paid off”21 when he tired of her. The later grants to Carey have been seen as “a gesture of thanks” to a mistress who had not been “exactly seduced and abandoned.”22 Nor is it true that, after Mary had been “cast off,” her husband “was obliged by the King to send her away from court,”23 or that she voluntarily left.24 In all probability, Mary did not leave the court when the affair ended, but remained there, living with her husband as before. Nor did she “fade into obscurity,”25 for she had never been flaunted publicly as the King’s mistress.

  It is often assumed that Mary was replaced in the King’s affections by her sister Anne,26 who was to be the great love of his life, and whom he began courting probably in 152527—and certainly by February 1526.28 Again, we cannot say for certain that Anne supplanted her sister, or that Mary was jealous when she witnessed “the man she loved” falling for her sister,29 for, as has been argued, her affair with the King was probably over by the end of 1524, many months before Henry set his sights on Anne.

  The Gentleman Usher George Cavendish, who wrote a biography of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, clearly got his dates wrong in claiming that Anne returned to England after Queen Claude’s death in 1524, and that the King then set his sights on her, and ordered Wolsey to put an end to her dalliance with Lord Henry Percy, heir to the 5th Earl of Northumberland (and a first cousin of William Carey), because he wanted her for himself. Anne had come home in 1522, and the courtship with Percy probably developed in 1523, for he had been employed in the north as Warden of the East and Middle Marches from late 1522 to early 1523.30 His kinship with William Carey, Anne’s brother-in-law, would have been a good pretext for contriving an introduction to Anne.31

  The affair between Anne and Percy cannot have lasted long, for Wolsey must have intervened in the late summer of 1523. The young couple had indeed wished to marry, but Percy was already promised to Lady Mary Talbot;32 his father was sent for, to talk some sense into the boy, and the formal betrothal to Lady Mary had been arranged by September 1523.33 Anne, burning with resentment against Wolsey, was sent home in disgrace to Hever.34 There is no evidence that Henry VIII showed any interest in her for some time after that, so it is more likely that he—or Wolsey—had objected to her making marriage plans with Percy on the grounds that the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury was a much better match for Northumberland’s heir than Anne Boleyn, the daughter of a mere knight.

  It is possible that, between ending his affair with Mary Boleyn and falling for her sister Anne, Henry pursued Elizabeth Amadas, the wife of the goldsmith Robert Amadas, who was made Master of the Jewel House in 1524; and that it was only after Henry VIII had tired of chasing Elizabeth Amadas, or been spurned, that he embarked upon his pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

  Robert Amadas was the most successful goldsmith working at the Tudor court, and indeed, the richest in England. By 1521 he was supplying commissions to the King, Cardinal Wolsey, and many lords and courtiers. Elizabeth Amadas was of Welsh descent, the daughter of a courtier, Hugh Bryce, whose father had also been a royal goldsmith. Her date of birth is not known, but she was still unmarried and not yet of age in 1498. Her daughter, of the same name, was born in 1508, and married Richard Scrope of Castle Combe in 1529, so if Elizabeth Amadas had married at twelve, the youngest age at which the Church permitted a wife to cohabit with her husband, and bore her daughter a year later, she would have been in her mid-twenties in the early 1520s, and—more realistically—may have been about the same age as the King.

  A volatile woman, given to tantrums and strange visions, she was not prepared to maintain the kind of discretion required by Henry, and later had no compunction in revealing that “the King had often sent her offerings and gifts, and that Mr. Dauncy had come as bawd between the King and her to have had her to Mr. Compton’s house in Thames Street.”35 She did not say whether she had actually gone there, and, as a supporter of Queen Katherine, it is unlikely that she would have wanted to, or that she in fact did. In the absence of any other evidence for her having an affair with the King, we should assume the latter.

  “Mr. Dauncy” was probably Sir John Dauncey, a Knight of the Body and Privy Councillor to Henry VIII, whose son William married Sir Thomas More’s daughter Elizabeth in 1525. Sir William Compton, it will be remembered, had abetted Henry in his intrigues with the Stafford sisters in 1510 and seems to have shared his amorous interest in Elizabeth Carew and Elizabeth Blount in 1514; he may well have acted as “bawd” between these ladies and the King. Given this, Mrs. Amadas’s account of Henry’s pursuit of her does ring true. Since Compton died in 1528 (Dauncey died many years later), the affair (if affair it was) with Mrs. Amadas must have been played out well before that year, because the King almost certainly began courting Anne Boleyn in 1525, and thereafter had eyes for no one but her; and, of course, this episode with Mrs. Amadas may even have belonged to the earliest years of his reign.

  It was in July 1533 that Elizabeth Amadas, calling herself “a witch and prophetess,” publicly predicted, along with many other wild prophesies, that “my Lady Anne [Boleyn, then Queen of England] should be burned, for she is a harlot.” Mrs. Amadas had even drawn up a painted roll of her predictions, and asserted that they had been known to her for twenty years. Naturally, her “ungracious rehearsals” incurred the wrath of the authorities, but she remained unbowed. Under interrogation, she asserted that because the King—the cursed “Mouldwarp” (an ancient name for a mole, one who works in darkness)—“has forsaken his wife, he suffers her husband to do the same.” She insisted that she was “a good wife,” in common with Queen Katherine and Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk, for her spouse had forsaken her like theirs; and, to underline the King’s perfidious nature, she revealed that she had once been the object of his amorous interest.

  Robert Amadas might have abandoned his wife, but immediately after she was a
rrested, he was sued by the King—on the “information of certain words spoken by Mistress Amadas”—for a huge sum of money in respect of some plate that was conveniently found to have been missing from the Jewel House; it may have been the price of his wife’s freedom.36

  Mary Boleyn almost certainly “went quietly,”37 but even if she was not supplanted in the King’s affections by Elizabeth Amadas, by 1526 there can be no doubt that Henry had eyes only for her sister.

  In February 1526, on Shrove Tuesday, Henry VIII appeared in the tiltyard at Greenwich in a magnificent jousting outfit of cloth of gold and silver embroidered in gold with the words Declare je nos (“Declare I dare not”), which was surmounted by a man’s heart engulfed in flames.38 There can be little doubt that the object of his new passion was Anne Boleyn. In one of Henry’s love letters to Anne, probably written in 1527 (or possibly even earlier),39 he wrote of having been “struck by the dart of love” for more than a year. In the spring of 1526, having in mind the kind of courtly symbolism that he had displayed four years earlier when probably pursuing Mary Boleyn, he ordered from his goldsmith four gold brooches: one represented Venus and Cupid, the second a lady holding a heart in her hand, the third a gentleman lying in a lady’s lap, and the fourth a lady holding a crown.40

  It would be foolish to conjecture that Henry had already envisaged making Anne his second queen, but a crown could also symbolize aloofness or virginity, which would both have been more apposite, for—unlike her sister—the bolder Anne seems from the first firmly to have proclaimed her virtue and to have kept her royal suitor at arm’s length. No doubt Henry initially expected the younger sister to fill the same role as the elder had done,41 but Anne had learned a salutary lesson from the experiences of Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth Blount—Mary was a “living example of Henry’s fickle nature”42 and had gained little personal advantage or material benefits from taking the King as a lover,43 at least while their affair was going on. Although there is no evidence to support the claim that Anne had “witnessed her own sister in tears, the scapegoat of Henry’s black mood or whim,”44 Mary’s failure to hold the King’s interest and affections was a salutary warning to her younger—and sharper—sister, and evidence of “the pitfalls of court life”45—and clearly Anne did not intend to risk becoming another discarded royal mistress.

  That was the way her contemporaries saw it. In 1538 the King’s cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, from the safe haven of Italy, where he had chosen exile in January 1532, unwilling to become embroiled in Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” published his treatise, Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione (A Defense of the Unity of the Church), addressed to the King (and based on an earlier letter to Henry), stating in no uncertain terms Pole’s views on his sovereign’s marriage to Anne Boleyn:

  At your age in life, and with all your experience of the world, you were enslaved by your passion for a girl. But she would not give you your will unless you rejected your wife, whose place she longed to take. The modest woman would not be your mistress; no, but she would be your wife. She had learned, I think, if from nothing else, at least from the example of her sister, how soon you got tired of your mistresses; and she resolved to surpass her sister in retaining you as her lover.

  Now what sort of person is it whom you have put in place of your divorced wife? Is she not the sister of her whom first you violated and for a long time after kept as your concubine? She certainly is. How is it, then, that you now tell us of the horror you have of illicit marriage? Are you ignorant of the law which certainly no less prohibits marriage with a sister of one with whom you have become one flesh, than one with whom your brother was one flesh? If one kind of marriage is detestable, so is the other. Were you ignorant of the law? Nay, you knew it better than others. How did I prove it? Because, at the very time that you were rejecting your brother’s widow, you were doing your very utmost to get leave from the Pope to marry the sister of your former concubine.

  No one had ever dared to address Henry VIII in such accusatory terms. Pole’s treatise infuriated the King, and was to have fatal repercussions for his family, but that aside, we might wonder how he had come to know about Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn. He was abroad in Italy from February 1521 to 1527, so was not in England when it was flourishing. Of course, he could have found out about it at the English court, where he was active from 1527 until he went into voluntary exile in 1532; but his letter suggests that he got his information later at the Papal Curia, where he had seen, or been shown, a dispensation issued in 1528 (see this page), at the King’s request, permitting him to marry within the forbidden degrees of affinity. Without it, Mary Boleyn having been his mistress, Henry’s proposed marriage to her sister would have been incestuous.

  With Anne in attendance on the Queen, the King would have seen her often about the court, while his friendship with her father and her brother-in-law, William Carey, and his dalliance with her sister, had already brought the Boleyns firmly into the royal circle, so Henry probably already knew Anne socially. Thus far can it be said that she “owed much of her swift rise to favor at court to her sister.”46

  Her banishment to Hever appears not to have lasted too long; if Mary was still the King’s mistress at that time—around 1523–25—she may even have interceded on Anne’s behalf with Henry and asked him to let her sister return to court; and it was probably after Anne reentered the Queen’s service that Henry’s courtship began. The psychologist J. C Flügel has suggested that, in pursuing the sister of his former mistress, the King was unconsciously impelled by his “craving for sexual rivals, for incest, and for chastity in his wives, thereby making his marriage couch a nightmare of recriminations, fears, and frustrations.”47 That is pure speculation; a more credible theory is that Henry saw much of Mary in Anne—“it is even possible that at first he saw little else especially if the Mary he had known had been lost to him through pregnancy and motherhood.”48

  We can only conjecture as to how this impacted on the relationship between the sisters. In a letter written by Mary in 1534 (see Chapter 11), there is more than a suggestion that there was some rivalry between them. Maybe what had passed between the King and her sister, the bastard child that may have resulted from their affair, and the affinity created by their relationship, made it difficult for Anne to consider taking Henry as a lover—unless, of course, she welcomed the opportunity to compete with her sister and, “if possible, to surpass her.”49

  Of course, Mary might not have been abandoned by Henry: the decision to part may have been mutual, or even hers. At the other extreme, Anne may have stolen her sister’s lover, and that certainly would not have made for good relations between them, and might have left Mary seething with jealousy.

  It is unlikely that Anne Boleyn feared being “tarred with the brush of her sister’s reputation,”50 because, as has been established, there is no evidence that, as a result of her affair with the King, Mary had “entirely lost her reputation”51—how could she have done that, with discretion having been so rigorously maintained?

  It may well be that Mary’s passive acceptance of the situation angered the Boleyns, for it would have flown in the face of years of the social and political advancement that was their creed. Ambitious as they were, they would have found it hard to understand. We might conjecture that, after the affair had ended, Mary’s father and brother felt only scorn and contempt for her52—and Anne may have too. Anne was not one to arouse her family’s disapprobation for not making the most of Henry VIII’s interest, and they would have no cause to complain of the way she handled it to her—and their—advantage. It has been suggested that when the King lost interest in Mary, her father, “in his selfish greed,” may “have sought to maintain his power by the means of the charms” of his younger daughter, Anne.53 Again, there is no evidence, but, given how suggestible Henry was, the theory might just be credible.

  According to Sander, when Mary saw that Anne was “preferred to her, and that she herself was slighted not only by the King bu
t by her sister,” she went to the Queen “and bade her be of good cheer; for though the King, she said, was in love with her sister, he could never marry her, for the relations of the King with the family [Sander is here alluding to both Mary and her mother having been Henry’s mistresses] were of such a nature as to make a marriage impossible by the laws of the Church.”

  “The King himself,” Mary is supposed to have said, “will not deny it, and I will assert it publicly while I live; now, as he may not marry my sister, so neither will he put your Majesty away.” Katherine is said by Sander to have thanked her “and replied that all she had to say and do would be said and done under the direction of her lawyers.”

  As has been explained already, the fact that Katherine did not use the canonical impediment created by Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn, either in an attempt to block his marriage to Anne, or to discredit his doubts of conscience in regard to their own marriage, is strong evidence that she knew nothing about his relations with Mary Boleyn. So it is almost certain that this conversation with Mary never took place, and that Sander made it up or repeated gossip that was informed by the benefit of hindsight. Moreover, the chronology is all wrong. Sander has Mary reacting to Henry abandoning her for her sister, but even if their liaison ended as late as February 1526, Henry did not pursue an annulment until the spring of 1527, and then in only the greatest secrecy.54

 
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