Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  The late 1530s brought more tragedy to Mary. Not two years after the brutal deaths of her estranged brother and sister, she lost her mother too—probably without ever having been reconciled to her. Elizabeth Howard died on April 3, 1538 at the Abbot of Reading’s house beside Baynard’s Castle in London; four days later she was buried with suitable state in the Howard aisle in Lambeth Church.32 Apparently she had already been ailing at the time of her children’s arrests in 1536,33 so the horror of their executions, the pain of their loss, and the humiliation of the family’s disgrace had perhaps broken her.

  Not so her husband, Mary’s father. The only clue as to his state of mind in the wake of the savage destruction of two of his children, in which he had been complicit, was his request to the humanist scholar Erasmus, in the year after their deaths, to write a short commentary on the 23rd Psalm, to be dedicated to himself. But Wiltshire was a survivor. Although he was deprived of his office of Lord Privy Seal after Anne’s fall, he retained his place on the King’s Council. Only months after Anne and Rochford died, he was helping to suppress the rebels who led the northern Pilgrimage of Grace against the King’s religious reforms. In October 1537 he attended the christening of Prince Edward, the son born to Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who had supplanted his daughter in the King’s affections, and whom Henry had wed only ten days after Anne’s execution.

  Wiltshire kept in with Cromwell and other influential people at court, was prominent at state functions and in the ceremonies of the Order of the Garter, and, by 1538 was again “well entertained” at court, where it was rumored that he was about to wed the King’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas.34 But he did not long outlive his wife, passing away on March 12, 1539, at Hever Castle, aged sixty-one.35 There is little evidence to support Sander’s assertion that he “died of grief,” yet it might be fair to assume that grief had played its part in hastening his end.

  “My good lord and master is dead,” wrote his auditor, Robert Cranewell, to Cromwell. “He made the end of a good Christian man.” The letter was dated “Hever, March 13.”36 Wiltshire was buried in thirteenth century Hever Church, where a fine memorial brass showing him wearing his Garter insignia marks his resting place. The King himself ordered Masses to be said for his soul.37 If Mary had been in Calais since 1534–35, which is likely, then she would never have seen her parents again, or made her peace with them. It is probably significant that it was only after their deaths that she came back to England, so that she could take possession of her inheritance.

  Wiltshire had left no male heir. In February 1538, the disputed earldom of Ormond was granted to his cousin, Piers Butler. Because Boleyn’s heir had died under attainder, the viscountcy of Rochford and the earldom of Wiltshire, which had been granted in tail male, fell into abeyance, the latter bestowed in 1550 on William Paulet, later Marquess of Winchester. It would not be until 1621 that the viscountcy of Rochford was revived for Mary Boleyn’s great-grandson, Henry Carey, 4th Lord Hunsdon.38

  Wiltshire’s two co-heiresses were his daughter, Mary, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn. Anne’s share of his estates had been confiscated by an Act of Attainder passed in June 1536 after her execution, and her child had been declared illegitimate and unfit to inherit. So when Boleyn’s extensive property was divided, half of it, including Hever Castle, Seal, and Blickling, reverted to the Crown. It has already been noted that Blickling was transferred by Act of Parliament in 1539 to Lady Rochford.

  The Crown did not wait long to seize what was due, but when Cromwell’s letter arrived at Hever Castle on March 26, just two weeks after Wiltshire’s death, Boleyn’s man in Kent, John Tebold of Seal, had to confess that “much of the goods in the manor place of Hever had been removed by advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury.”39 By a royal grant of July 1538, Archbishop Cranmer enjoyed “the full jurisdiction and authority of the Crown” in many “churches, vicarages, villages, and parishes” in Kent, including Hever;40 thus he was able to save some of Wiltshire’s goods for the elderly Margaret Butler, Lady Boleyn, and her granddaughter Mary, proving himself once again a friend to the Boleyns, whose chaplain he had been. “Part of the stuff and all the implements yet remain,” Tebold assured Cromwell. He had “stayed them,” on the advice of Sir Thomas Willoughby, “till the King’s further pleasure.” Willoughby himself wrote to Cromwell that very day to say he would “give Tebold his aid in taking possession of the manor of Hever, and in entertaining the old Lady Boleyn there in best wise to her comfort.”41

  By the end of that year of 1539, Mary and William had come home to England, and he was back at court. In November, “young Stafford that married the Lady Carey” had been among those appointed to attend upon the Lord Admiral, the Earl of Southampton—the former Sir William FitzWilliam, who had been active in the overthrow of the Boleyns—on December 11, at St. Pierre, a mile south of the Lantern Gate at Calais, for the reception of Henry VIII’s fourth bride, Anne of Cleves, upon her arrival in Calais, en route to England. Wearing their “best array,” these lords and gentlemen escorted Anne into the town, and as she passed through the Lantern Gate, the cannon along the quayside exploded in a salute. Just inside the gate, Lady Lisle and a host of ladies and gentlewomen sank into deep curtsies as the Princess appeared. Mary Boleyn may well have been one of their number, for she was acquainted with Lady Lisle, who had danced with her in a masque during Henry VIII’s visit to Calais in 1532; they must have known each other at court before then, and it follows that they had met in recent years in Calais, William being in the Lisles’ service.

  After Anne of Cleves had inspected the King’s ships in the harbor, she rode through the narrow streets of Calais to the Exchequer Palace, escorted by the Admiral and his chosen gentlemen, with William Stafford among them. And so they brought her to her lodgings, and “there attended on her daily” until she was ready to sail to Dover. William and Mary would probably have been present at the jousts held on the day after Anne’s arrival, and, with bad weather delaying the future Queen’s departure, they may also have been present at the banquets and tournaments that were subsequently organized to keep her entertained. It was not until December 26 that a fair wind blew up and the Admiral was finally able to escort the Princess on board the ship that was to take her to England. The crossing was to take seventeen hours.42

  It seems that Mary and William returned to England with Anne of Cleves. We can only speculate that Lord Lisle must have praised William’s good service and given him a very warm recommendation, and that Southampton acted on it; or that William’s prominence at the reception of Anne of Cleves implied that his return to royal service had already been approved. It would have been known that he needed to return to England to take charge of his wife’s inheritance, and his immediate restoration to the King’s good graces, and promotion to a sought-after place at court, might not only have been well deserved—given the abilities he was to show in royal service in the years to come—but could also have been a reward for the care he had taken of Henry’s bastard daughter since his marriage to her mother.

  In January 1540, Stafford is recorded as a Gentleman Pensioner in the King’s household. It seems that his appointment had taken effect almost as soon as he arrived in England. The Gentlemen Pensioners had been refounded the year before (they had originally been instituted in 1509), as an elite guard for the King, and it was their duty to keep watch in the presence chamber. Their members were the scions of noble houses or from the greatest gentry families, and they were well paid. The equivalent of a household cavalry, they were fifty in number, and served under the captaincy of the respected courtier, diplomat, and statesman Sir Anthony Browne. They wore either dark velvet doublets or liveries of red and yellow damask, with gold medallions on chains of office around their necks, and were expected to provide their own weapons: a poleaxe, a dagger, and a sword.

  There was so much demand for places among the Gentlemen Pensioners that the King had to create a separate band called the
Gentlemen at Arms, but that did not satisfy the clamor, and by the end of his reign there were 150 Gentlemen Pensioners. Stafford had been very lucky to secure such a prestigious post, and to be one of the company of fifty Gentlemen Pensioners drawn up on Blackheath as the King passed through their ranks to receive Anne of Cleves on January 2, 1540.43

  With one half of her father’s estate now in the hands of the Crown, and the rest in the hands of executors, pending its transfer to herself as his sole surviving heiress, Mary, now probably in her early forties, may have had concerns as to where she would live on her return to England. Gentlemen Pensioners were entitled to lodgings at court only when they were on duty, based on a rotation, so it would not now have been possible for her to live there with her husband.

  She may have gone to her grandmother for a short time. Old Lady Boleyn did not long survive her son, dying sometime between September 30, 1539, and March 20, 1540. An inquisition postmortem on the Earl of Wiltshire, taken on September 30, 1539, while his estate was being wound up, reveals that the elderly Lady Boleyn had been incapable of managing her affairs for the past twenty years, during which time Wiltshire had assumed control of her estates; shortly before his death, “my Lord [of Wiltshire] covenanted that my lady his mother should have 400 marks [just £130] a year out of them. The deed was made last year and enrolled in Chancery.”44 This was a mere pittance, given her rich estates, which had enabled her son to live in wealth for years. Thus, if Lady Boleyn was still alive when Mary returned to England, it is therefore unlikely that she was able to offer her granddaughter much support.

  We might infer from Sir Thomas Willoughby’s undertaking to entertain “the old Lady Boleyn [at Hever Castle] in best wise to her comfort”45 that the King had permitted her to live out her days there. Thus Mary may have returned to Hever to succor the old lady until she died—or, if she was already dead, then Mary possibly went to stay temporarily with her father-in-law, Sir Humphrey Stafford, at Cottered. Lady Boleyn’s death, at the age of seventy-five, must have come as a merciful release,46 and meant that Mary could look soon to inherit her grandmother’s share of the rich Ormond inheritance, and become a wealthy woman.

  In July 1540, Henry would grant the manors of Hever and Seal to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as part of their nullity settlement; Hever Castle would never revert back to the Boleyns, and now passed into peaceful obscurity, in which state it would remain until William Waldorf Astor purchased it in 1903 and set in train its lavish transformation.

  In November 1539, when Katherine Carey was fifteen, she had been appointed, against great competition, a maid of honor to Anne of Cleves. Her great-uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, had secured similar positions for two of his other great-nieces, Katherine Howard and Mary Norris, at that time,47 but he had not visited Calais for some time, and was probably still estranged from Mary Boleyn, so it is unlikely that Katherine’s appointment owed anything to his influence.48 However, if Katherine was the King’s daughter, then Henry VIII himself may have ordered her appointment. Unlike her brother, Katherine was not the King’s ward, and he was not obliged to make provision for her, although, of course, if she was his child, his interest in her is easily explained; if not, he may have shown her favor for the sake of her brother or her good service to the Lady Elizabeth. But it is perhaps telling that, of all the girls of noble and gentle birth who might have been lucky enough to gain places in the new Queen’s household—and the clamor for such places was great—Katherine, who had little merit as the daughter of Henry’s former mistress and niece of his executed wife, was one of the few that were chosen. Soon afterward she was to make a good marriage to an up-and-coming courtier. This all points to Henry doing his duty as a father in providing for her.

  Katherine came to court ready to serve the new Queen prior to the latter’s arrival in January 1540. It turned out that she, the daughter of one of Henry VIII’s mistresses, was to serve alongside another, for one of Anne of Cleves’s ladies-in-waiting was Elizabeth Blount, now the respectable Lady Clinton.

  When, in April 1540, William Stafford, on Mary’s behalf, petitioned Thomas Cromwell for “the profits of the Ormonds’ lands in Essex,” he was probably shocked to be told, “That cannot be.” As Wiltshire’s auditor, Robert Cranewell, explained to Master Secretary, “After my lady’s [the Countess of Wiltshire’s] decease, my lord often told me that he had promised the King to make all the Ormond lands sure in fee simple to the Lady Elizabeth for default of issue male of his own body.”49 Evidently Wiltshire was still sufficiently angry with Mary to consider depriving her of her share of the Ormond inheritance and arranging for it to go to his niece. But an unwritten promise to the King had no force in law, and it seems that Wiltshire had either had second thoughts, or just never got around to formalizing his wishes. Even so, it seems that the Crown pressed its claim, presumably in the hope that some documentation of Boleyn’s promises actually existed. As a result, Mary and William were obliged to wait three years before they could take “livery,” or possession, of her grandmother’s property.50

  It is often claimed that when her grandmother died, Mary inherited Rochford Hall in Essex and made it her home. Rochford Hall was “an important building on a grand scale,” situated four miles east of Rayleigh and three miles north of Prittlewell (the south end of which became the modern Southend-on-Sea). The hall had been built in the fifteenth century on the site of an earlier house (c.1216) by Mary Boleyn’s forebears, the Butler earls of Ormond, who owned the property until 1515, when it passed to Wiltshire’s mother, Lady Margaret Butler.51 The nearby church of St. Andrew, standing only a hundred yards from the house, was probably built by her father, Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond, whose arms appear on a stone shield above the west door.

  Ormond’s Rochford Hall was extended and upgraded in Tudor times. In 1923 the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments concluded that the present fabric dates probably from 1540–50. It is unlikely, however, that the rebuilding began under the auspices of Mary Boleyn and William Stafford; it was probably Henry Carey who was responsible for ordering the works, which were carried out according to the very latest architectural fashions and building techniques.52

  Fragments of carved stonework found in the walls indicate that spoils from dissolved monasteries were used in the rebuilding of the house; these were perhaps acquired by William Stafford, who later, during the iconoclastic holocaust unleashed in the reign of Edward VI, would gain a bad reputation for forcibly carrying off the bells of the churches of Rochford, Ashingdon, South Shoebury, Hawkwell, and Foulness for his own benefit; he sold off three of them to raise money to repair sea walls on the nearby coast.53

  Rochford Hall stood in an eight-acre walled park; the northern boundary wall, with its Tudor diapered bricks, still survives today. Tradition has it that, in 1540, Mary had a circular dovecote with a thatched roof erected in a meadow to the south of the hall—but Mary was not living at the hall in 1540. The dovecote was taken down after being struck by lightning in 1888. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, Rochford Hall was turned into one of the most palatial houses in the country, and thus it remained for a century and more, but in 1760 about half of it was destroyed by a disastrous fire and either pulled down or left in a ruinous condition; in 1893 the place was said to have “a ghostly air about it, even more so than most decayed mansions.”54 Further damage was done by German bombers in 1940. Rochford Hall was partially restored in 1987, but nevertheless, substantial parts of the house that Mary and her family knew survive today, although the great hall and chapel have long since disappeared.

  Desirable property that it was, Mary could not inherit Rochford Hall until the matter of the Ormond inheritance was resolved, and she and William must have been frustrated at the delay, for gaining possession of her grandmother’s lands would have brought them considerable wealth.

  However, it was not long before they came into the Boleyn inheritance, the legacy of Mary’s father. On April 15, 1540, at Hampton Court, the King grante
d to “William Stafford and Mary, his wife, livery [possession] of lands, the said Mary being daughter and heir of Thomas, late Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, and kinswoman and heir of Margaret Boleyn, widow, deceased, late wife of Sir William Boleyn, deceased.” The lands in question were “the manors of Southt, alias Southtboram [Southborough, between Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge] and Henden in Henden Park,55 and all lands in Hever [excepting the castle] and Brasted,56 Kent, which belonged to the said earl.”57 These lands were worth £488 (£150,000) annually.58

  The Boleyns had long had a connection with the manor of Brasted (pronounced Braystead). Along with Tonbridge, it had been one of the manors of the Duke of Buckingham that the King retained after the duke’s execution in 1521, appointing the then Sir Thomas Boleyn a life interest in their management.59 In 1531 the King granted the manor of Tonbridge to Boleyn, now Earl of Wiltshire, and in default to his daughter Anne. A little later Wiltshire was also given the manor of Brasted. There is no surviving record of this grant, which is known only through a subsequent grant of 1540. On Wiltshire’s death in 1539, Brasted and Tonbridge reverted to the Crown along with Hever and other lands, and the following year, Henry VIII bestowed Brasted on Sir Henry Islay. What the Staffords received from the King in April 1540 were certain detached lands in Brasted, Hever, Chiddingstone, and Sundridge, as well as the manors of Henden and Southborough in Kent.

  Southborough, which had been held by Sir Thomas More before it was granted to Lord Rochford in 1535, was some distance from Hever, but Henden, at Ide Hill, the highest point in Kent, was nearby. Henry VIII had granted it to Sir Thomas Boleyn in 1516. The sixteenth century timbered manor house, with a moat that may have surrounded an earlier building, still survives, much altered; in Mary’s day it stood in a park of three hundred acres. The Staffords may have resided there for a time, but their tenure would be brief.

 
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