Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  Gossip was already lively in 1529. After the new Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys—a man who was to prove indefatigable in Queen Katherine’s cause—arrived in England that year, it did not take him long to find out about Henry’s relations with Mary Boleyn. In December he wrote to the Emperor: “Had [the King], as he asserts, only attended to the voice of conscience, there would have been still greater affinity to contend with in this intended marriage than in that of the Queen, his wife; a fact of which everyone here speaks quite openly.”33

  As he often did, Chapuys was probably exaggerating when he referred to “everyone,” as many courtiers would surely not have deemed it politic publicly to cast aspersions on the King’s doubts of conscience; and the gossip could not have been that widespread, since other sources would have recorded it, and Henry’s opponents—not to mention the Queen—would have made more political capital out of it. As it was, only two people are known to have spoken of Mary Boleyn: George Throckmorton and John Hale. As we have seen, in 1533, Elizabeth Amadas, whose husband was goldsmith to the King, and the priest at Chepax, Yorkshire, were not aware of Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn. Yet even with all this discretion being maintained, the revelation that Henry stood in the same degree of affinity to Anne as he did to Katherine must, in certain privileged circles, have undermined his credibility, integrity, and sincerity. Nor can the inevitable besmirching of Mary Boleyn’s public reputation have done anything for that of her sister, which had already, in the eyes of many, been severely compromised.

  In January 1530, when Charles V received Chapuys’s report, he summoned Dr. Richard Sampson (later Bishop of Chichester), the English ambassador at his court, and declared that Henry VIII’s scruples of conscience did not appear to be justified, especially “if it were true, as his Majesty had heard (although he himself would not positively affirm it), that the King had kept company with the sister of her whom he now wanted to marry.” Sampson, who enjoyed Anne Boleyn’s patronage, did not respond to this challenge.34 The Emperor, understandably, was not satisfied, but he let the matter rest there, being preoccupied with other, more pressing business and about to leave for Bologna for his long-delayed crowning by the Pope.35 It is one of the great enigmas of the divorce that Charles V never made an issue of the King’s affair with Mary Boleyn; yet the reason may lie in Charles’s doubts as to whether there had actually been one.

  On December 8, 1529, Thomas Boleyn was created Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond,36 and Mary became entitled to style herself Lady (or Dame) Mary Rochford, after his subsidiary title,37 which would soon pass to his son, George, who had been knighted in 1529 and was created Viscount Rochford before July 1530. All the Boleyn siblings now used the badge of a black lion rampant, as previous heirs to the earldom of Ormond had done.38 Henceforth, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, would be one of the chief peers of the realm, and would continue to serve the King energetically at home and abroad, and to advance the fortunes of his daughter Anne and himself.

  In November 1530, Henry VIII gave Anne Boleyn £20 (£6,500) to redeem a jewel from Mary;39 either it was one he had given her during the course of their affair, or—more likely—she had won it from him by gambling.40

  The following summer Henry VIII sent Katherine of Aragon away from court; he would never see her again, nor would she be permitted contact with her daughter, Princess Mary. That Christmas, people remarked on the absence of mirth from the festivities at Greenwich, without the banished Queen and her ladies being present; even Anne Boleyn was absent, but on New Year’s Day 1532 she returned to court and was “lodged where the Queen used to be, and is accompanied by almost as many ladies as if she were Queen.”41 For his New Year’s gift, Henry gave her a room splendidly hung with cloth of gold and silver and heavy embroidered satin. All the Boleyns presented Henry with gifts, and in return for her present of “a shirt with a black collar,” which she may have stitched herself, “Lady Mary Rochford” received from Henry a piece of gilt plate, either a cup, salt cellar, bottle or goblet.42 Being the recipient of such a gift on this occasion strongly suggests that Mary was back at court, probably as one of Anne’s vast train of ladies, and other evidence shows that she was periodically in attendance on her sister from this time—if she had not been before.

  The name “Mary Rochford” also appears in the list of recipients for New Year’s gifts in 1534; the list for 1533 is missing, but doubtless she featured in that too.43

  On October 7, 1532, when Henry VIII rode out from Greenwich on the first stage of his journey to Calais to meet once more with François I, taking with him Anne Boleyn and two thousand lords, gentlemen, and attendants, Mary went too, as one of the twenty or thirty44 ladies whom the King had summoned to accompany his “dearest and most beloved cousin,” as he diplomatically referred to Anne.45 The Boleyn sisters’ uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was also in the King’s entourage.46

  When Anne had assembled her train of ladies in August, she had written to Mary, bidding her to prepare for the journey, and confiding to her that “that which I have so long wished for will be accomplished.”47 She had high hopes of King François using his influence with the Pope on Henry’s behalf, and she was also aware that, with the death of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, that month, a major obstacle to Henry’s taking matters into his own hands had been fortuitously removed. Even before that, there had been speculation at court that the King himself would declare his marriage to Katherine null and void and marry Anne. But, Chapuys wrote to the Emperor on August 9, “even if he could separate from the Queen, he could not have her, for he has had to do with her sister.”48 Evidently Chapuys did not know about the dispensation issued in 1528, while Charles V seems to have continued to pay little heed to what he probably dismissed as scurrilous gossip.

  After spending a night at Stone in Kent, where Bridget, Lady Wingfield, entertained the royal party at her castle, the great cavalcade, more than two thousand strong, rode on to Canterbury, where Mary probably witnessed Elizabeth Barton, the notorious “Nun of Kent,” publicly declaiming her seditious prophecies before the King, who merely ignored her and went on his way to the house of Sir Christopher Hales, where he and Anne, and probably Mary too, lodged overnight.

  Before dawn on October 11, after spending the third night of the journey in Dover Castle, Mary sailed to France on The Swallow with her sister and the King; the weather was good. It was a smooth crossing, and the royal party made land at Calais at ten o’clock in the morning, to be greeted by a thunderous royal salute.49 They were afforded a civic reception by John Bourchier, Lord Berners, the Governor of Calais, and then conducted in a torchlit procession to the church of St. Nicholas to hear Mass. Mary was accommodated with Anne’s other attendants in the seven fine rooms assigned to her sister in the Exchequer Palace in Calais.50 This was a large residence with a long gallery, a tennis court, and gardens on both the King’s and Queen’s sides of the building.51

  Being in such close daily proximity to Anne and the King, Mary may well have been aware that Henry and Anne had interconnecting bedchambers,52 proof that Anne—who now had marriage within her sights, with the prospect of the Boleyns’ chaplain, the sympathetic reformist Thomas Cranmer, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury—had at last surrendered to the King. “[He] cannot be an hour without her,” Chapuys observed,53 while a Venetian envoy reported that Henry was now accompanying Anne to Mass and everywhere [author’s italics], as though she were Queen already.54

  François I was to bring no train of ladies with him to Calais; his second queen, Eleanor of Austria, was the Emperor’s sister and Katherine of Aragon’s niece, and under no circumstances would she have been willing to receive Anne Boleyn. The other French royal ladies had shown equal disdain, and so Anne and her female attendants perforce had no official place in the proceedings, and had to be left behind at Calais when Henry sallied forth to Boulogne to spend four days with his brother monarch. But Anne made the best of a bad situation, and throughout the ten days of me
rrymaking that marked their stay, Mary would have joined the courtiers in hawking, gambling, and feasting on delicacies sent by the French: carp, porpoise, venison pasties, and choice pears and grapes.

  On Friday, October 25, King Henry arrived back at Calais, bringing King François with him. It seems that Anne and her ladies were not present at the lavish welcome ceremonies, although they would have heard the three-thousand-gun salute fired in the French king’s honor, and Anne would have been gratified to receive the costly diamond he sent her by the Provost of Paris.

  François was lodged in the Staple Inn on the main square of Calais, some way from the Exchequer Palace. Here, on the evening of October 27, Mary attended her sister at a lavish supper and banquet given by Henry in the great hall in honor of the French king. The hall looked magnificent, hung with gold and silver tissue and gold wreaths glittering with pearls and precious stones, which reflected the light from the twenty silver candelabra, each bearing a hundred wax candles. A dazzling display of gold plate adorned a seven-tier buffet. Henry VIII was dressed to impress too, in purple cloth of gold with a collar of fourteen rubies and two great ropes of pearls, from one of which hung the famous Black Prince’s ruby (now set in St. Edward’s crown, which is used for coronations). The company feasted on 170 dishes, with a lavish variety of meats, game, and fish cooked according to English or French recipes.

  Afterward, Mary and five other ladies took part in a masque led by Anne, who made her entrance in an outfit of cloth of gold slashed with crimson satin, puffed with cloth of silver and laced with gold cords. “My Lady Mary” followed immediately in Anne’s wake,55 having been given precedence over the ladies of higher rank, no doubt to underline the fact that her sister was soon to be the Queen of England. Mary and her fellow performers were dressed alike in gorgeous costumes “of strange fashion,” comprising loose gowns of cloth of gold slashed with crimson tinsel laced in gold, and all wore masks. Among these ladies were Mary’s sister-in-law, Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, her cousin, Lady Mary Howard (Norfolk’s daughter), her Howard aunts—Dorothy, Countess of Derby, and Elizabeth, Lady FitzWalter—and Honor Grenville, Lady Lisle. These ladies were escorted by four maids of honor wearing crimson satin and black tabards of cypress lawn.

  The ladies danced before the two kings, and afterward, Anne boldly advanced to King François and led him out onto the floor, at which Mary and her companions invited King Henry and the other gentlemen present to join them, the Countess of Derby choosing Henri d’Albret, King of Navarre, François’s brother-in-law. We do not know if Mary actually danced with Henry VIII on this occasion, but the King did take great pleasure in removing the ladies’ masks afterward “so that [their] beauties were showed.” After an hour spent dancing, King François had a long private conversation with Anne.56

  The next day, the two kings met to attend a chapter meeting of the Order of the Garter and to watch a wrestling match, and on the morning of October 29, Henry escorted François to the French border, where they said their farewells.

  It is possible that, during her sojourn in Calais, Mary met William Stafford, the man who was to become her second husband, who was then one of two hundred persons in the King’s retinue.57 It is sometimes averred that he was serving as a soldier with the Calais garrison at this time, but he does not seem to have taken up that post until after June 1533.58 Mary was later to reveal that it was Stafford who pursued her and fell in love with her before she did with him; but although William was distantly related to the noble family of Stafford, he was no match for the daughter of an earl and sister of a future queen. And even if some attraction and kindness—and perhaps a more intimate connection—did spring up between him and Mary in Calais, nothing was to come of it for some time.

  Violent storms in the Channel forced the English court to stay on at the Exchequer for a further fortnight,59 allowing Henry and Anne time to enjoy what was essentially their honeymoon, and perhaps affording Mary and her new suitor the opportunity to get to know each other better. The idyll came to an end at midnight on November 12, when the King seized the opportunity afforded by a favorable wind to sail home to England. The voyage took twenty-nine hours, and after landing at Dover, Mary rode through Kent with the royal party at a leisurely pace, lodging at Leeds Castle and Stone Castle before finally arriving at Eltham Palace on November 24.60 Soon afterward, the King returned to London.

  In January 1533, learning that Anne was pregnant, Henry secretly married her in a turret room in York Place, with her parents, her brother, Lord Rochford, and “two favorites”61 as witnesses; it has been suggested that Mary was one of them,62 but if so, she would surely have been listed with the family members, rather than being described as a “favorite.” Certainly, contemporary sources do not convey the impression that she was a favorite with Anne and the King, and although it might follow that Anne would have her sister and perhaps her sister-in-law as attendants, there were others to whom she was closer; the favorites might even have been gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber, men such as Sir Henry Norris, Sir Nicholas Carew, or Sir Francis Bryan.

  The King, convinced that his marriage to Katherine was invalid, and aware that his longed-for heir was on its way, had not waited for the formalities. Even so it was some weeks before his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared his marriage to Katherine null and void, and his union with Anne lawful. Anne first appeared in public as Queen at Easter 1533, much to many people’s shock and consternation, and Henry afforded her a lavish coronation in June.

  Prior to that, when Anne was assigned a household of two hundred persons, Mary Boleyn was among her ladies-in-waiting, in company with their sister-in-law, Lady Rochford; Lady Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece; Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk and cousin to the Boleyn sisters; Frances de Vere, who was married to another cousin, Norfolk’s heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; Mary Shelton, daughter of Sir John Shelton by Mary Boleyn’s aunt, Anne Boleyn; another aunt, Elizabeth Wood, wife of Sir James Boleyn; Anne Savage, Lady Berkeley; and Elizabeth Browne, Countess of Worcester,63 whose testimony would help to bring about Anne Boleyn’s downfall three years hence. One of the maids of honor was Jane Seymour, who would one day become Henry VIII’s third wife.64

  The fact that Anne was willing to have her sister wait upon her is perhaps further evidence that Mary’s liaison with Henry VIII was more a passing fancy than a grand passion, or an affair of the heart. Anne is hardly likely to have wanted a woman for whom her husband had entertained strong feelings brought into daily proximity to him, sister or not. And Mary is hardly likely to have wanted to be in that position, especially if she had loved Henry, or he had abandoned her.

  Aware of the need to give the lie to her poor reputation, Anne demanded that her ladies be above reproach. She gave them each a little book of prayers and psalms to hang at their girdles. She kept them busy sewing garments for the poor for hours on end. They were to attend Mass daily and display “a virtuous demeanor.”65 Anne’s silk-woman later claimed that she had never seen “better order amongst the ladies and gentlewomen of the court than in Anne Boleyn’s day.”66 Yet Mary’s life was not all dullness, for there was much “pastime in the Queen’s chamber”67 as well as courtly revelry, dancing, and feasting. And, as the Queen’s sister, she must have enjoyed a certain status.

  Yet it is clear that Mary did not feel appreciated by Anne, or by anyone else for that matter. In contrast to her successful siblings, Mary was the one who had compromised her reputation and done very little since to win respect or admiration. Only a year later she was to write, “I saw that all the world did set so little by me.”68 That implies a lack of self-worth, and we might even go so far as to imagine her not only having to endure the disapproval and disappointment of her family, but also secretly being despised by the courtiers who flocked around the brilliant Anne.

  Mary’s presence at court may have been disturbing to the King, not because he still cherished feelings for her, but because the implications
of their affair continued to haunt him. Now that he had broken with Rome, he was clearly concerned that the legality of his marriage should be beyond question, and in 1533 he had Parliament pass an act permitting marriage with the sister of a discarded mistress.69 But the act did not put a stop to gossip about his affair with Mary, which now seems to have spread beyond the court, for that year saw several people arrested for accusing the King of marrying the sister of his former mistress.70 The weight this lent to public disapproval of the marriage should not be underestimated.

  Mary was one of the “diverse ladies and gentlewomen” who attended Anne at her coronation. The celebrations began on May 29 with a magnificent river pageant. At three o’clock, royally garbed in cloth of gold, the new queen stepped into the barge she had appropriated from Katherine of Aragon, at Greenwich Palace, and was conveyed along the River Thames to the Tower of London, where—as tradition decreed—she would lodge before her coronation. Mary and the other ladies traveled with her, along with their father and many other noblemen. As Anne alighted at the Tower, to be greeted “with joyful countenance” by the King, the cannon on Tower Wharf was fired in a “marvelous” salute.71

  Two days later Mary was in Anne’s train as she went in procession through the streets of London to Westminster. She was not among the six ladies who rode on horseback immediately behind the new queen and the chief officers of her household, although her sister-in-law, Lady Rochford, by virtue of her rank, was of their number. Mary, in a rich gown of scarlet velvet—a costly material that, as the daughter of an earl, and a lady of the Queen’s privy chamber, she was entitled to wear—was relegated to the third of the chariots that followed, traveling with other ladies of the Queen’s household: her aunt, Lady Boleyn;72 Elizabeth Wentworth, Lady FitzWarin; Mary Zouche; Margery Horsman; and Alice St. John, Lady Morley.73

 
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