Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  Wolsey, seeing the epidemic as the manifestation of God’s wrath, begged his master to abandon all thoughts of divorce, but “the King used terrible words, saying he would have given a thousand Wolseys for one Anne Boleyn. “ ‘No other than God shall take her from me!’ ” he shouted.92 But God, it seemed, was not on Henry Tudor’s side, for by June 22 the King had been given the dreaded news that Anne and her father had fallen victim to the sweating sickness and taken to their beds at Hever. Immediately, Henry sent his own physician, Dr. William Butts, to attend her.

  This was a difficult time for Mary Boleyn too, for that same day, William Carey also contracted the dread disease. It is clear, from an exchange of letters between Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Heneage, that Carey had not accompanied Henry to Hunsdon; the King was now retaining very few attendants, their number having diminished daily as he moved from house to house to escape the contagion.93 William had probably been one of the courtiers dismissed at Greenwich, as Henry VIII (in a letter written to Anne Boleyn after the court left Waltham Abbey) does not include him in the list of those of their acquaintance who had sickened there. It has been claimed that he was taken ill while playing truant from court to go hunting,94 but there is no contemporary evidence to support this, or the assertion that Carey was one of those “left to die in manors Henry successively abandoned in his scramble for safety.”95

  If William Carey had been left behind at Greenwich—which seems probable, as Thomas Heneage was with him—the likelihood is that Mary was there too. If she, Heneage, or anyone else had had the courage to minister to William, they would probably have followed contemporary advice to tuck the fully clothed patient warmly in bed in a room with a roaring fire, so that he could sweat out the illness, which must have been misery on a June day; or to give him beer, treacle, herbs, or exotic potions made from powdered sapphires or gold. Or they might have tried the King’s own herbal remedy for the sweat, and the pills of Rhazis (named after an Arab physician) that he had recommended to Cardinal Wolsey.96 At all costs, the patient was to be kept awake and not allowed to lapse into a coma.

  In this case, any curative measures were in vain, for on Monday, June 22, 1528, “in this great plague, died William Carey Esquire, whom the King highly favored.”97 He was thirty-two. The end had come with deadly swiftness: Jean du Bellay, the French ambassador, reporting that “many of [the King’s] people died within three or four hours,” names Carey as one of them.98 Thomas Heneage, who was apparently present at the end, informed Wolsey the next day that the dying Carey had uttered a final wish, humbly beseeching the Cardinal “to be a good and gracious lord to his sister, a nun in Wilton Abbey, to be Prioress there, according to your Grace’s promise.”99 Evidently William had not expected Eleanor to be successful in her bid to be Abbess, and he may have had good reason for that.

  “This night, as the King went to bed, word came of the death of William Carey,” wrote Cardinal Wolsey from Hunsdon to Heneage. Henry must have been deeply saddened by the news, which would surely have filled him with dread, knowing that his beloved Anne was suffering from the same deadly illness. Anne, however, was luckier than her brother-in-law: by the time Dr. Butts arrived, she was on the mend, and the following morning the King was given the good news that she and her father were “past the danger” and making “a perfect recovery.”100 Henry wrote to Anne to tell her that John Carey, William’s brother, had also fallen ill of the sweat—and recovered.

  The epidemic had carried off not only William Carey, but also two more of the King’s most favored gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, Sir William Compton and Sir Edward Poyntz. In each case, a promising career was cut tragically short—and Henry had lost three of his friends.

  William Carey’s last resting place is not recorded. Probably his body was hurriedly consigned to a grave pit with others who had succumbed to the sweating sickness. Given the danger and fear of contagion, it is unlikely that his remains were accorded a more fitting burial with his ancestors in Wiltshire.

  Mary may not have mourned her husband deeply. Their arranged marriage was probably not a love match to begin with, and there is no evidence that it ever became one. Nevertheless, had William Carey lived, and continued in the King’s favor, he could, on past form, have risen very high indeed, and might—once Anne Boleyn became Queen in 1533—have won greater rewards101 and possibly even been elevated to the peerage. Then Mary’s life would have been very different. Instead of incurring further opprobrium and fading into obscurity, she might well have ended her days as one of the great ladies of the land.

  Instead, she had been left poor and in debt by the death of her husband, who died intestate; and she had two young children to support.

  10

  In Bondage

  The lands granted to William Carey by the King were inherited by his lawful, acknowledged heir, three-year-old Henry Carey.1 William had not been a man of substance. In March 1527, as we have seen, his lands had been valued for a subsidy at just £333.6s.8d (£107,500).2 These became the property of his heir. His lucrative offices and keeperships, along with their revenues, immediately reverted to the Crown, and suit was at once made for them after his death.3 For Mary, there was nothing, and probably nowhere to live, as she had no right to stay in the courtier lodging that had been assigned to her husband. All she had to survive on were the rents from his Essex manor,4 and the annuity from Tynemouth Priory.

  She appealed several times to her father for succor, but Thomas Boleyn remained impervious to her pleas, and would not even receive her. It may well be that, as has been suggested, “his affection for his children lasted only as long as they were useful to him,”5 for he appears to have proved that, in regard to Mary, on several occasions. Possibly he felt there was no mileage in wasting his wealth on someone who could bring him no advantage, even if she was his daughter; he might too have realized that, as she was poor and probably past thirty—middle-aged by Tudor standards—Mary would now find it hard to secure a worthy husband, and could end up being at his charge for good. Or they may have quarreled, possibly because he had disapproved of her affair with the King. She had not only compromised her honor a second time, but “had not collected on her investment.”6 This theory is even more credible if, outraged at her risking her good name at the French court, Thomas had sent Mary to rusticate at Brie in 1515.

  By Tudor standards, Mary had been promiscuous, and it is easy to see why her father, her sister, her family, and Henry VIII all saw her as an embarrassment. It has credibly been suggested that her ambitious parents had even “developed feelings of dislike” for her,7 and that Sir Thomas’s treatment of Mary strengthened Anne’s resolve not to give in to the King and so end up like her sister.8

  It is unfair to state that “William Carey dead made rather more impact than he had living,”9 yet his death revealed how fully Henry trusted Anne Boleyn’s “judgment and ability to manage things.”10 Early in July, the King granted her the wardship and marriage of Henry Carey.11

  Making provision for fatherless heirs to estates was the responsibility of the sovereign. In Tudor times a grant of wardship gave the guardian custody of the lands of his or her ward during the child’s minority, until he reached the age of twenty-one, and the right to use the income from them. In return, the guardian was obliged to maintain the estates of the ward and ensure that he was properly cared for and educated. Putative guardians usually paid a hefty fee for the privilege of acquiring a wardship, which could prove highly lucrative and repay the investment with interest. Wardships were vigorously enforced by the Tudor monarchs, who used them to increase their personal revenue. In 1535, Henry VIII passed the Statute of Uses, which asserted the rights of the Crown over wards, and in 1540, he founded the Court of Wards to regulate the system. In the case of Henry Carey, it is likely that the wardship was a gift from the King for the lady with whom he was by now so besotted that he would have given her anything within his power.

  Thralldom aside, Henry was right in thinking that Anne would be
far more more able and better placed to do much for her nephew than his impoverished and possibly unambitious mother, whom he clearly judged less competent and in no good position to exercise control of her son’s lands and income. This would hardly have taken “a great weight off Mary’s mind,”12 and relieved her of the burden of providing for her son,13 for it deprived her of the use of his revenues, which had been diverted to her sister, and left Mary in penury and with no legal authority over her child. Above all it can only have caused bad blood between the sisters, and given Mary further cause for envy or jealousy.

  To his credit, the King made Thomas Boleyn face up to his responsibilities as a father. Around June 15, having evidently discussed the problem of Mary with Anne, he wrote to her: “As touching your sister’s matter, I have caused Walter Walshe to write to my Lord [Rochford] mine mind therein; whereby I trust that Eve shall not have power to deceive Adam; for surely whatsoever is said, it cannot so stand with his honor, but that he must needs take her, his natural daughter, now in her extreme necessity.”14

  The King’s reference to Eve deceiving Adam has been seen as moralizing on Henry’s part about Mary as “a sinful Eve,”15 or as evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to her husband. It has been asserted that the words “whatsoever is said” refer to gossip about Mary’s poor reputation, and suggest that questions were being raised “as to whether she [Eve] would prove to be pregnant,” and, if so, whether or not the child was her husband’s—or if Mary was pretending to be pregnant in order to obtain help from her father.16 While these possibilities are all plausible, there is no proof to support them, or that Mary had “drifted from one unsavory situation to another at the Tudor court,”17 and a deeper reading of the letter suggests that Henry’s words probably do not refer to Mary at all, but imply that some female—possibly Mary’s own mother—was influencing her father against her.18 Clearly Henry did not want “Eve”—whoever she was—to prejudice Sir Thomas Boleyn against his daughter. If he had been referring to Mary, he would surely have wanted her to keep quiet about anything that might do that, because he wanted Sir Thomas to help her. This was hardly a “cavalier attitude”19 toward his former mistress.

  Boleyn now had no choice but to take Mary under his roof and maintain her, and it seems that she returned to Hever Castle. But on December 10, 1528, again at Anne’s behest, Henry assigned Mary a substantial annuity of £100 that had formerly been paid to her late husband.20 This was a generous gesture, since £100 in present-day values would be the equivalent of at least £32,000. It gives the lie to those who claim that Mary got nothing out of her affair with the King. For Henry had no need or obligation to assign that allowance to her. Her father had been constrained to be responsible for her, and she was living under his roof, at his charge. Her son’s future had been assured by the grant of his wardship to her sister Anne. Why, then, was Henry so generous?

  Was it to please his new love, Anne Boleyn? Probably, to a degree. But it is also possible that the King was making provision for Katherine Carey, now that William Carey was no longer around to be a surrogate father to a royal bastard. That would certainly account for Henry’s open-handedness, which is comparable to the inexplicably large grant that he made to Etheldreda Malte, who was almost certainly his bastard daughter, some eighteen years later. Bolstered by the other circumstantial evidence, this is one of the most compelling arguments for Henry’s paternity of Katherine Carey.

  Mary now had a comfortable income—her father, with his ever-expanding family, had once existed on half that amount. There is no record of her leaving the parental roof for a house of her own, though; it seems she stayed at Hever Castle, notwithstanding her father’s diffident attitude toward her, and, probably, her mother’s. Later, she was to refer to her life at this time as being “in bondage.” Maybe she stayed for the sake of her daughter, so that she could put money aside for her—Katherine would need a dowry one day, and the greater it was, the more chance she would have of making a good match. And Thomas Boleyn was often away at court, leaving behind him a household of women: his burdensome daughter Mary; his possibly estranged wife, who may have resented Mary’s presence at Hever; his insane and aging mother; and his four-year-old fatherless granddaughter. It cannot have been the happiest of households.

  No one seems to have made an effort to find Mary a second husband, even though she now had a reasonable fortune and powerful connections.21 But Thomas Boleyn had shown himself somewhat laggardly in arranging marriages for both his daughters when they were younger, so may not have felt inclined to bestir himself now on the unrewarding Mary’s behalf; and it may be that, as the 1530s approached and her affair with the King became the subject of whispered court gossip, prospective suitors were put off. Few landed Tudor gentlemen wanted flighty wives who might compromise their inheritance.

  With William Carey dead, Anne Boleyn was ready once more to take up the cudgels on behalf of his sister Eleanor’s advancement, using it to score a point over the man she regarded as her secret adversary, Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey, however, had preempted her and sent a commissioner, Dr. John Bell, Archdeacon of Gloucester, to Wilton to examine the nuns and arrange matters to his satisfaction; he supported the view of most of the convent that the Prioress, Dame Isabel Jordan, was the best candidate.

  At the abbey, Bell interviewed Eleanor Carey, and (as Henry VIII later informed Anne Boleyn) she “confessed herself to have had two children by two sundry priests,” and that she had recently left her convent for a time to live with a servant of Lord Willoughby de Broke as his mistress.22 Bell then considered the merits of Eleanor’s older sister, Dame Anne Carey, but she too was found to have loose morals. Clearly, both sisters were prime examples of women with no vocation who had been pushed into a convent by their family, possibly because the latter could not afford a dowry for them, or because they wished to dedicate a child to God in return for blessings they believed He had bestowed on them—or even, in this case especially, to hush up scandal.23 The Carey sisters’ conduct is symptomatic of the kind of laxity that would soon be made prima facie grounds for the dissolution of the monasteries.

  The fact that William Carey, on his deathbed, had asked for Wolsey’s help in making Eleanor Prioress, rather than Abbess, suggests he had been aware that she would be lucky to get either. It might be inferred from this that he had known about her promiscuous life; if so, then pushing for her election to high office marks out both him and his brother John as pragmatic men with few ethical scruples. One is tempted to wonder if William had taken a similar view of Mary’s adulterous affairs, and if his ambition had overridden any resentment or distaste he may have felt.

  When the King found out the truth about Eleanor Carey and her sister, he commanded—in the interests of placating his beloved—that neither they nor Isabel Jordan should be Abbess, on the grounds that all three had at some time been guilty of misconduct; possibly Anne’s partisans had either made it up about the Prioress or had raked up some old scandal,24 but in the light of this revelation, Henry wrote to Anne to explain the situation, saying he would not, “for all the gold in the world, clog your conscience nor mine to make [Dame Eleanor] ruler of a house which is of such ungodly demeanor; nor, I trust, you would not that, neither for brother nor sister, I should so distain mine honor or conscience.”25 His reference to “brother or sister” implies that Mary had put pressure on Anne, on her sister-in-law’s behalf, and that George Boleyn too was supporting Eleanor. From this it might be inferred that the King was irritated by Mary’s interference.26

  And [Henry went on], as touching the Prioress [Isabel Jordan], or Dame Eleanor’s eldest sister, though there is not any evident case proved against them, and that the Prioress is so old, that of many years she could not be as she was named; yet, notwithstanding, to do you pleasure, I have done that neither of them shall have it, but some other good and well disposed woman, [and] the house shall be better reformed, and God the much better served.27

  Anne was most put out, therefore, when,
in July 1528, Wolsey forced the election of the Prioress, Dame Isabel Jordan.28 This earned him, on July 14, a scorching reproof from the King, who had been well aware of Anne’s preference for Eleanor Carey,29 for it seemed that the Cardinal had gone out of his way to offend her. The next day, Wolsey made a groveling apology to Henry for his hasty action, and hastened to send Anne “a kind letter” and a “rich and goodly present,” for which she thanked him profusely in an extravagantly worded response;30 and thus the matter was diplomatically brought to a satisfactory conclusion—for Wolsey at least. Even the late William Carey could not have complained about the passing over of his naughty sister.

  By November, when the furor had died down, Isabel Jordan had been quietly installed as Abbess.31

  For a time, Mary Boleyn apparently resided at Hever, living on the King’s pension, rearing her daughter Katherine and coming to terms with her widowhood. Her son may have been left in her care until it was time for his education to begin; he was, after all, rather young to be parted from his mother.

  Very little is recorded of Mary during the six years of her widowhood. She was a silent witness to the meteoric career of her sister Anne and the ascendancy of her family, but either she preferred to remain in the background, or it was deemed fitting by others that she should do so. It has been perspicaciously observed that “in the brilliant advancement of her sister, she seems to have been eclipsed and neglected.”32 She is not mentioned at court for a long time, and it may be that while Anne remained in her anomalous position—neither mistress nor wife and queen—she was not wanted there, even to attend upon her sister. Secrecy about Mary’s affair, and the dispensation covering it, had been successfully maintained for several years, but somehow or other, as the furor over the divorce escalated, word got around that the King had kept Anne Boleyn’s sister as his mistress. Although their affair would never become an open scandal, there was talk of it at court, at the very least. The presence of the former mistress with whom Henry shared a compromising bond of affinity might have been just too uncomfortable for him, and the Boleyns, at a time when a favorable decision from the Pope was eagerly anticipated.

 
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