Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  The full text of Mary’s letter, the second of only two written by her to survive, is as follows:

  Master Secretary,

  After my poor recommendations, which is smally to be regarded of me, that am a poor banished creature, this shall be to desire you to be good to my poor husband and to me. I am sure that it is not unknown to you the high displeasure that both he and I have, both of the King’s Highness and the Queen’s Grace, by reason of our marriage without their knowledge, wherein we both do yield ourselves faulty, and acknowledge that we did not well to be so hasty nor so bold, without their knowledge. But one thing, good Master Secretary, consider: that he was young, and love overcame reason; and for my part, I saw so much honesty in him that I loved him as well as he did me; and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty.

  The groveling tone is typical of letters of the period sent by those suing for favors or forgiveness: in each case, petitioners laid on the flattery with a trowel, or abased themselves. But this is more than a begging letter. Mary’s reference to being “in bondage” betrays how unhappy she had been living for so long under the strict control of a father who evidently had a low opinion of her—and in the shadow of a sister who also appears to have thought her of little account. No wonder that, in her early to mid-thirties, she had seized what might be her only opportunity of happiness and freedom, and escape from a family who, while paying lip service to her position as the Queen’s sister, apparently expected her to remain invisible in case the sight of her gave people cause to question the legality of that sister’s marriage.

  It is clear from this letter that Mary, at last, was loved for herself, and that William—a considerably younger man—had fallen in love with her before she, in time, came to reciprocate; this boost to her confidence would have been incalculable, and no doubt gave her the courage, for once in her life, to defy those who had always dictated to her.

  Maybe, in the mayhem and excitement of Anne’s coronation day, she had grasped the rare chance to enjoy a little dalliance, and gone on grasping it whenever she could escape Wiltshire’s vigilance, which would have lent a certain spice to her love affair and invested it with the excitement of forbidden fruit. It would have been easy, in the chaotic world of the court, to indulge in clandestine meetings, or go missing for a short time … and it only required two witnesses and a compliant priest to make a secret marriage.

  Mary’s sense of liberation must have been powerful, and although she freely admitted that she had erred in marrying so impulsively, she was clearly not regretting it. Her letter continued, rather poignantly:

  So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him. And so I do put no doubt but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the King’s gracious favor and the Queen’s. For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well, nor a more honest man. And besides that, he is both come of ancient stock, and again as meet (if it was his Grace’s pleasure) to do the King service as any young gentleman in his court.

  Mary’s statement, that “all the world did set so little store by me,” betrays just how unhappy and unloved she had felt, probably for years. Small wonder that she felt such love for, and pride in, her husband, the man who had rescued her, which comes across so movingly in this passage.

  Nevertheless, she knew that if her plea was to succeed, she must acknowledge herself to be grievously at fault:

  Therefore, good Master Secretary, this shall be my suit to you, that, for the love that well I know you do bear to all my blood, though for my part, I have not deserved it but smally, by reason of my vile conditions, as to put my husband to the King’s Grace that he may do his duty as all other gentlemen do.

  Here, Mary was asking for Stafford to be restored to his post at court, even though she knew she could merit little consideration as a result of the “vile conditions” of her disgrace. She continued:

  And, good Master Secretary, sue for us to the King’s Highness, and beseech his Highness, which ever was wont to take pity, to have pity on us; and that it would please his Grace, of his goodness, to speak to the Queen’s Grace for us; for, so far as I can perceive, her Grace is so highly displeased with us both that, without the King be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigor and sue for us, we are never likely to recover her Grace’s favor, which is too heavy to bear. And seeing there is no remedy, for God’s sake, help us, for we have been now a quarter of a year married, I thank God, and too late now to call it again; wherefore it is the more alms to help us. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, Master Secretary, for my little time, I have spied so much honesty to be in him that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.

  It is clear from this that Mary believed the King to be more likely to show compassion than Anne, which suggests that her relationship with him had been less complicated than that with her sister. It also suggests that she was sensible of his kindnesses to her, and that there was still some affection between them.

  She concluded:

  Therefore, good Master Secretary, seeing we are so well together and does intend to live so honest a life, though it be but poor, show part of your goodness to us as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you, you have the name to help all them that hath need, and amongst all your suitors I dare be bold to say that you have no matter more to be pitied than ours; and therefore, for God’s sake, be good to us, for in you is all our trust.

  And I beseech you, good Master Secretary, pray my Lord my father and my Lady my mother to be good to us, and to let us have their blessings, and my husband their goodwill; and I will never desire more of them. Also, I pray you, desire my Lord of Norfolk [her uncle] and my Lord my brother to be good to us. I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us. But if with any pain I could take my life [that] I might win their good wills, I promise you there is no child living would venture more than I. And so I pray you to report by me, and you shall find my writing true, and in all points which I may please them in I shall be ready to obey them nearest my husband, whom I am bound to; to whom I most heartily beseech you to be good unto, which, for my sake, is a poor, banished man for an honest and goodly cause. And seeing that I have read in old books that some, for as just causes, have by kings and queens been pardoned by the suit of good folk, I trust it shall be our chance, through your good help, to come to the same; as knoweth the [Lord] God, Who send you health and heart’s ease.

  Scribbled with her ill hand, who is your poor,

  humble suitor, always to command,

  Mary Stafford.

  The letter was addressed to “The right worshipful &c. Master Secretary.”35

  J. S. Brewer, writing in the Victorian age, and believing that Mary was a woman of loose morals, thought that this was not the letter of “a woman of strong character or decided principles.”36 But that is hardly fair, because, in defying her family and making a marriage of which she must have known they would disapprove, and in defending it passionately, Mary was probably calling upon strengths in her character that she may not hitherto have known she had. It could be said that she was now paying the price for showing a reckless disregard for the wider consequences of her actions, yet today we would hardly blame her—as the Victorians might have done—for seizing her chance of happiness and freedom. It has been claimed—somewhat fancifully—that the letter betrays “liquidity, an April-like glisten and quiver” to Mary’s character, and shows her to be “without calculation,”37 and it has also been convincingly described as the work of “an articulate and passionate woman.”38

  Yet some passages in Mary’s letter do reveal a glaring lack of tact and insight, and also anger at t
he way she had been cut off by her family. One can sympathize with her for being unable to hide that, yet she probably did herself no favors by her sometimes defiant, unrepentent tone, and her rather self-centered claim that her plight was more deserving of pity than anyone else’s; or by making so many peremptory demands of Cromwell, as if she were still riding high in favor as the Queen’s sister. Yet the erratic nature of the letter—the veering from pleading to defiance—strongly suggests that Mary was in turmoil when she wrote it, and not thinking clearly about the consequences. There is a sense of her rushing to commit all her thoughts and emotions to paper, without calculation, and perhaps unaware that she was revealing rather more than she had intended.

  What drove her to write the letter was probably the final collapse of her hopes that the story of her impulsive marriage would have a happy ending, with everyone coming to understand how beneficial it really was, and receiving her back into the fold; and, more immediately, her fear of rapidly encroaching poverty—because it is doubtful that she found the loss of Anne’s favor “too heavy to bear” on a personal level. If she was really hoping for a reconciliation with her sister, she was surely going about it the wrong way, deliberately highlighting the fact that, even in disgrace, she now enjoyed a far happier marriage than Anne did. “For well I might a had a greater man of birth,” she had written, “but I ensure you I could never a had one that loved me so well. I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened.”

  It is this letter that provides the best clue to the relationship between the sisters. Maybe there had never been much love lost between them, or they clashed often, flaring up in anger or resentment, only to make up just as readily, as sisters do. Maybe Mary had always been unable to restrain herself with Anne, and was given to venting her feelings with biting honesty. Almost certainly she had been jealous. That jealousy may have had its roots in Anne, the more charming and intelligent of the two, being found a court position before she, the elder sister, did, and shining in that milieu; it would have been fed by Anne snaring the King, who had perhaps rejected Mary, and becoming Queen; it must have festered as a result of Mary being treated as if she were of little account. Now she was making the rather cruel point that she had done better in marrying for love than Anne had done in marrying for ambition. She must have known that was unlikely to impress her family, or Cromwell, or the King, so she had probably dashed it all down angrily in revenge for Anne’s treatment of her. Her words exposed the bitter irony of their respective situations: here was Mary, the King’s discarded mistress, who had never sought more for herself, but who had ended up happily married—and Anne, who had held him off for years in order to gain the ultimate prize, but had ended up trapped in unhappy and insecure wedlock.39

  Anne almost certainly got to see what Mary had written, or Mary had said as much to her face-to-face,40 and she was incensed at the obvious jibe, which shattered any possibility of Mary being restored to favor. It seems that she and her new husband were never again received at court, for there is no record of her being there after that time; in April 1535, as we have seen, John Hale mentioned that “the Queen’s Grace might not suffer [her sister] to be in the court,”41 and so it is unlikely that Anne and Mary were ever reconciled.

  Mary’s letter evidently did her no good with Cromwell either, for he apparently lifted no finger to help her.42 His reply—if there was one—does not survive, but there was little advantage for him in supporting such an errant couple and risk incurring the royal displeasure.

  Anne, however, may secretly in the long run have come to wonder if dismissing her sister was foolish,43 for it would, in a short time, become clear that many of her supporters were abandoning her and that she needed all the friends she could get, especially in her own privy chamber, although it is unlikely that Mary had the influence to be “a potentially useful ally,” as has been suggested.44 This may explain why Anne did relent slightly and perhaps gave Mary money and a gold cup;45 or maybe her conscience was troubled at Mary’s plight. But there is nothing to support the claim that she “provided assistance through Cromwell,”46 and it is unlikely that the sisters ever met again.

  Mary may well have been relieved to be gone from the court, with all its “hypocrisy, backbiting, and intrigue,”47 and indeed she would have good cause to be thankful for it within a year or so, for time would prove, dramatically, that she was to end up by far the more fortunate of the two Boleyn sisters.48

  Mary and William were to pass the rest of their married life in relative obscurity—and, for some years, in “obscure poverty.”49 Unless Mary miscarried, a child was born to them in 1535. There has been speculation that this was probably a daughter called Anne, after the Queen, and that the couple also had an unnamed son who had died by 1543.50 But there is no contemporary evidence for a second child, or for the sex and name of the child Mary may have borne in 1535, the fruit of her scandalous pregnancy. We do not even know if she carried it to term. If it was a boy, he must have predeceased Mary, otherwise the manor of Abinger and other properties and rights, which William Stafford inherited from her at her death, would surely have passed to their son.

  By 1535, Mary’s elder son, Henry Carey, now ten, had been removed from her care, and—as John Hale’s testimony suggests—was living at Syon Abbey, a Bridgettine nunnery at Isleworth in Middlesex, once much favored by Katherine of Aragon. Founded in 1415 by Henry V, it was one of the wealthiest abbeys in England, and was renowned for its magnificent library of over fourteen hundred books, its spiritual ethos, and the quality of its preachers. It would not be suppressed until 1539. Syon Park—as it is now called—has been remodeled several times over the centuries, and all that remains today of the abbey where Henry Carey resided is the quadrangle (the site of the former cloisters), the vaulted undercroft below the great hall, and a brick barn. Contrary to what has been suggested, young Carey was not “kept out of sight” here and “given no attention whatsoever”51—he was at a great abbey, which enjoyed royal patronage, to be educated, and “benefited enormously from his position as ward of the Queen.”52

  For Anne Boleyn took her responsibilities as her nephew’s guardian seriously. In 1535 she found him a distinguished tutor, the celebrated French humanist and poet Nicholas Bourbon (1503–50). Before May of that year, Bourbon had been granted asylum in England after falling foul of the French authorities for attacking the worship of saints and for his evangelical reformist beliefs—beliefs that Queen Anne shared. After the French ambassador, Jean de Dinteville, had drawn the King and Queen’s attention to his plight, they secured his release from prison and extended to him a warm welcome and their patronage. Bourbon was first lodged in the house of the King’s physician, Dr. William Butts, a fellow humanist, and later moved in with the King’s goldsmith, Cornelius Heyss.

  Butts recommended Bourbon to Anne as tutor to her ward Carey, and thus Anne was doing Bourbon a favor when she appointed him to teach her nephew and two other boys: Henry, the heir of Sir Henry Norris, Groom of the Stool and Head of the Privy Chamber, and Thomas, son of Sir Nicholas Hervey, another reformist courtier of the Queen’s circle.53 “You, O Queen, gave me the boys to educate!” a thankful Bourbon enthused, in the book of verse (dedicated to Henry VIII and François I) he was to publish two years later. “I try to keep each one faithful to his duty. May Christ grant that I may be equal to the task, shaping vessels worthy of a heavenly house.” Young Carey could not have had a more respected tutor, for Bourbon was the friend of modern thinkers such as Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, Nicholas Kratzer, the astronomer and mathematician, and the painter Hans Holbein, for whom he sat.54 In December 1535, Anne Boleyn visited Syon Abbey, possibly to see her ward, and while there harangued the nuns about their popish forms of worship.

  It is entirely credible that Bourbon did a good job of imparting his staunch reformist and evangelical principles to Henry Carey, as Anne had surely intended, and indeed, his teachings probably found fert
ile ground in which to take root. It has been asserted that—“with the possible exception of Mary,” which is hard to believe—the Boleyns were devoted to “the reformed faith,”55 but athough a study of the books owned by Rochford suggests that he came quite near to becoming a Lutheran, Anne and her father died as orthodox Catholics, so it would be more accurate to say that the Boleyns were zealous for the cause of reform within the Catholic Church.

  Given her background as a member of a family notorious in Henry VIII’s reign for its aggressive reformist opinions, and rumored to be “more Lutheran than Luther himself,”56 Mary probably shared these views and approved of the education afforded her son, especially after her second marriage. For William Stafford later revealed himself to be so staunch a Protestant that he was prepared to choose exile in Geneva during Mary Tudor’s reign rather than suffer persecution for his beliefs, and there became a friend of the austere reformer John Calvin. It is entirely plausible that he had embraced the cause of reform, if not the Lutheran faith, before or during his marriage to Mary Boleyn. Indeed, part of her attraction for him may have been the fact that she came from such a famously reformist family. Mary’s daughter, Katherine Carey, would marry a man who was “well affected to the Protestant religion.” It would be surprising therefore if Mary herself did not support the cause of reform, at the very least. Since she died before it became acceptable—and safe—to “come out” as a Protestant, there is no way of proving this, but in view of her background and her family connections, it is a credible supposition. Like her sister Anne, however, she probably remained, outwardly at least, an orthodox Catholic to the end of her days, dying in the faith of her forefathers.

 
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