Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  A distinguished soldier, a good jouster, and a “valiant man,”38 Hunsdon was appointed Governor of Berwick in 1568, retaining the post for twenty years. That year, he was in York as one of the English commissioners at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth proposed his eldest son, George Carey, as a putative husband for Mary, who had fled to England some months earlier and been taken into custody, as she posed a great danger to Queen Elizabeth’s security. This “remarkable” proposal has been seen as indicating that George Carey must have had royal blood to be considered a suitable match for the Queen of Scots,39 but only four years earlier, Elizabeth had proposed Sir Robert Dudley, her Master of Horse, as a bridegroom for Mary, and he was certainly not of royal blood.

  As Lieutenant General of the Queen’s forces in the north, Hunsdon was instrumental in suppressing the Northern Rebellion of 1569–70, one of the most dangerous crises of Elizabeth’s reign; in February 1570; although heavily outnumbered, he decisively defeated the rebel army under Leonard Dacre, and chased the latter over the Scottish border. As he himself put it, it was “the proudest charge, upon my shot, that ever I saw.”40 When Elizabeth was given the news, she added a note in her own hand to the official letter of congratulation:

  I doubt much, my Harry, whether that the victory were given me, more joyed me, or that you were by God appointed the instrument of my glory; and I assure you that, for my country’s good, the first might suffice; but for my heart’s contentation, the second pleased me … Your loving kinswoman, Elizabeth R.41

  The next year, Hunsdon was made warden of the East Marches of the Scottish border, and played a key role in striving to keep Scotland peaceful during the turbulent period of regencies that followed the flight of the deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, to England. In time, he became Captain General of all the English forces defending the northern border.

  Hunsdon was not a faithful husband. He kept at least two successive mistresses, and fathered several bastards. While posted in the North, he lived with a woman who later married one Hodson; she bore him a son, Valentine Carey, who was to enjoy a successful career as a soldier under his father’s command before becoming Bishop of Exeter. There is a suggestion, in an anonymous doggerel of the period, that Hunsdon underwent mercury (quicksilver) treatment for venereal disease:

  Chamberlain, Chamberlain,

  He’s of her Grace’s kin,

  Fool hath he ever been

  With his Joan Silverpin:

  She makes his cockscomb thin

  And quake in every limb;

  Quicksilver is in his head

  But his wit’s dull as lead

  —Lord, for thy pity!42

  When the threat of the Spanish Armada was looming in 1588, Hunsdon was summoned south to command a force of 36,000 men at Tilbury Fort, and was expressly enrolled by the Queen on July 20 as Lieutenant, Principal Captain, and Governor of the Army “for the defense and security of our own Royal Person”;43 in this capacity, he was present on the day she went to Tilbury to rally her troops and deliver her famous, inspired Armada speech. “He had the charge of the Queen’s person both in the court and in the camp at Tilbury.”44 In 1590, Hunsdon was appointed joint Earl Marshal of England with William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Admiral Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham. Two years later he was one of the commissioners who tried Sir John Perrot, the reputed “bastard son” of Henry VIII.

  Hunsdon was not always in Elizabeth’s good books. When he once outstayed his leave of absence from court, the Queen became incandescent with rage, and exploded to his son: “God’s wounds! We will set him by the feet and set another in his place if he dallies with us thus, for we will not be thus dallied with withal!”45 The storm soon blew over, though, for Elizabeth could not stay angry with her cousin for long.

  Hunsdon shared with his fellow nobles the contemporary passion for collecting exotic plants and medicinal herbs.46 He was a patron of the painter Nicholas Hilliard, and it was he who commissioned one of that artist’s finest miniatures of Elizabeth I, which shows her seated on a chair playing a lute.47 As Lord Chamberlain, carrying his white staff of office, he is depicted posthumously, walking before the Queen’s chariot in a painting of c. 1601, attributed to Robert Peake, which shows her being carried in procession to Blackfriars; it is now at Sherborne Castle.48

  As Lord Chamberlain, it was Hunsdon’s responsibility to arrange masques, plays, and other entertainments for the Queen. He clearly had a great love of the theater, and following in the steps of Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester, and other noblemen, he gave his name and his patronage to a company of players, becoming, in 1594, the first patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, among whom were such luminaries as William Shakespeare and the actors Richard Burbage, Thomas Pope, and William Kemp. It was, initially, a political appointment, because, in the wake of Shakespeare’s controversial Titus Andronicus, these actors were regarded by the Privy Council as seditious, and the loyal Hunsdon was seen as the right man to keep them in check—as he did.49 Shakespeare immortalized him as Philostrate, Master of the Revels to King Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an uncontentious play written to please his patron. He also celebrated Hunsdon’s great victory over the Northern rebels in 1569 in Henry IV, Part 1.50

  Hunsdon’s company performed at the Theatre in Shoreditch, the first purpose-built London theater;51 under his patronage they produced many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and, in 1599, built the Globe Theatre in Southwark. Sadly, Hunsdon did not live to see this.

  As Lord Chamberlain, Hunsdon was also in charge of the Queen’s Players, and through them, around 1592, he met Emilia (or Aemilia) Bassano, the gifted daughter of Baptista Bassano, musician to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The beautiful Emilia, whom A. L. Rowse once identified as the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets,52 became the mistress of Hunsdon in his old age. His junior by forty-four years, she was an accomplished player on the virginals and, in publishing a book of religious verse, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, she became the first professional female English poet. After Hunsdon’s death, she told the astrologer and reputed magician Dr. Simon Forman that she had been “maintained in great pride” by her aging lover, who “loved her well” and was generous to her with money and jewels. Hunsdon even got her pregnant, and, to maintain discretion, “she was for color married to a minstrel,” an Italian called Alfonse Lanier (or Lanyer), with whom she was reputedly unhappy. The boy she bore in 1593 was called Henry Lanier, and his doting father settled on Emilia a life annuity of £40 (£5,000).53 Henry Lanier would grow up to become a court musician to King Charles I.54

  Hunsdon had always lived in hope that the Queen would bestow on him the earldoms of Wiltshire and Ormond, which had been borne by his grandfather and earlier forebears. There is a story that, as he lay dying on July 23, 1596, in his lodgings at Somerset House (of which he was keeper) in London, Elizabeth “gave him a gracious visit” and caused a patent creating him Earl of Wiltshire, and the robes she had had made for him, to be laid on his deathbed. But Hunsdon “could dissemble neither well nor sick.”

  “Madam,” was his characteristically blunt response, “seeing you counted me not worthy of this honor while I was living, I count myself unworthy of it now I am dying.”55 His death—coming within a week of that of his brother-in-law, Sir Francis Knollys—plunged Elizabeth into a melancholy mood.

  Lord Hunsdon was buried in a princely tomb in St. John the Baptist’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey56 that—according to the inscription thereon—was built by his widow, Anne, and his heir, George Carey.57 It was not, as some writers claim, paid for by the normally parsimonious Queen,58 although she did pay out £800 (£80,500) for his obsequies,59 which demonstrates how deeply she held him in affection. At thirty-six feet in height, his monument was—and remains—the highest in the abbey, and it is certainly one of the grandest. It was constructed of marble and alabaster, painted in black and white and then gilded, with a sarcophagus in an arched recess framed by classical columns, trophies, p
edestals, obelisks, and heraldic shields displaying the Boleyn bull and falcon, all crafted in the Italian style by an unknown sculptor. The underside of the arch was paneled with Tudor roses, as in Queen Elizabeth’s own tomb, and in the center are prominently displayed the Carey arms, surmounted by domed and balustraded pavilion supporting a swan.60 All that was omitted was an effigy. The heading of the inscription reads Sepulturae Familiae de Hunsdon, Consecratum, and it has been pointed out that the use of the name Hunsdon rather than Carey is “striking,”61 although in fact members of the peerage were commonly referred to by their titles. Hunsdon’s tomb has been called “an overwhelming example of Elizabethan monumental art”62 and “an unabashed celebration of worldliness,”63 and some have seen it as a monument to an unacknowledged prince. That, of course, is unlikely.

  Seven of Lord Hunsdon’s children survived him. He was succeeded in his title by his eldest son, George Carey, who died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth I. The next son, John, then became the 3rd Baron Hunsdon. He died in 1617, when his son Henry took the title. It was for Henry that James I revived the title of Viscount Rochford in 1621. Henry was succeeded in 1666 by his son John, who died without male heirs in 1677, when the titles Baron Hunsdon and Viscount Rochford became extinct.

  Legend long had it that Katherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, Hunsdon’s eldest daughter, withheld from Queen Elizabeth the famous “Essex ring,” which the Queen had given to her favorite, Robert Devereux, declaring that if ever he found himself in trouble, he was to send it to her. Accordingly, when Essex was sent to the Tower on a charge of treason in 1600, he is said to have contrived to send the ring to his cousin, Lady Nottingham, with a message begging her to take it to the Queen, but his enemy, Robert Cecil, dissuaded her, with the result that Essex perished on the block. When Lady Nottingham was on her deathbed, in February 1603, she is said to have confessed all to the Queen, who had hitherto been a close friend.

  “God may forgive you, but I never can,” Elizabeth is supposed to have replied,64 angrily taking the dying woman by the shoulders and shaking her in her bed.

  A ring that Elizabeth had given Essex did exist, and three centuries after her death it was placed under glass at the side of her tomb; it is now in the Norman Undercroft Museum in Westminster Abbey. The rest of the tale is nothing but a legend, and Elizabeth sincerely mourned Lady Nottingham, whose death in February 1603 is thought to have hastened the Queen’s own end.

  The Careys played a pivotal role in the events surrounding the finale to the Tudor dynasty and the accession of the Stuarts. Two of Mary Boleyn’s grandchildren—Robert Carey, later Earl of Monmouth, and Philadelphia Carey, Lady Scrope—supported the ailing Queen Elizabeth in her last illness. Another legend involving a ring had it that when the Virgin Queen finally died at Richmond Palace in March 1603, Lady Scrope removed her coronation ring from her finger and dropped it from a window of the gatehouse to Robert Carey, who was waiting on his horse below, ready to ride north to Scotland to bring King James VI news—and proof—of his accession. Of course, the Queen did not die in the gatehouse, as the legend claims, and the ring was sawed from her finger while she still lived, but Carey certainly bore it to Edinburgh, having—as we may infer from his own account—acquired it by stealth.65

  According to her memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey, Katherine Carey and Francis Knollys had sixteen children—eight boys and eight girls—of whom at least eleven survived infancy. Only fifteen are shown in effigy as kneeling weepers on their parents’ magnificent but empty tomb at Rotherfield Greys, built in memory of Francis and Katherine by their son William in 1605. There are seven sons on one side, seven daughters on the other, and an infant lying beside the effigy of its mother.

  The births of the children—who may well have been Henry VIII’s grandchildren—were recorded “in order” by Knollys himself in his Latin dictionary;66 he listed fourteen children: eight sons and six daughters, and the last to be recorded was Dudley, born in 1562, the only one of the brood who is known to have died young, being “killed” in the year of his birth. It is almost certain that he is the infant lying with the recumbent figure of Katherine Carey at Rotherfield Greys.67

  So how can we account for the missing daughter? The Westminster Abbey plaque is likely to be correct, as it was mentioned by William Camden in his memorial of Westminster Abbey in 1600, and had probably been in place long before Knollys’s death in 1596.68 Probably the unnamed daughter died at birth, or was stillborn—reason enough for her father not to list her in his diary. Some modern genealogists claim that there was a daughter called Cecilia who served Elizabeth I, but there is no mention of her in the Knollys family papers. It would appear that she has been confused with her sister Elizabeth, whose portrait bore an incorrect inscription in the seventeenth century.69

  Unlike her brother, Katherine called one of her daughters (the eldest) Mary, almost certainly in honor of her mother, and another was called Anne, perhaps after her aunt, Anne Boleyn. One son was called William, probably after William Stafford, suggesting that the latter had become a much-loved stepfather.

  After Edward VI came to the throne in 1547, Francis Knollys distinguished himself in the war against the Scots, and for this he was knighted by the King’s uncle, Lord Protector Somerset. A staunch Calvinist, Knollys was forced—like his stepfather-in-law, William Stafford, to flee abroad when Queen Mary I began burning Protestants for heresy. Katherine followed him before June 1557; there is a gap of nearly three years between pregnancies, which suggests that they were apart for a considerable time. At least five of their children went with them. When Katherine left England, her “loving cousin,” the future Elizabeth I, wrote a sad letter of farewell, and signed it “cor rotto” (broken heart).70 This is evidence that the two women had already become close and laid the enduring foundations of future friendship. The shared bond of religion had surely brought them closer in the difficult days of Bloody Mary’s reign, and Elizabeth’s assurance that she would wait “with joy” for Katherine’s “short return” betrays her hope that her sister’s rule would not last long.

  On Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, the Knollyses deemed it safe to return home, and Sir Francis was made a Privy Councillor, Vice Chamberlain of the Queen’s household, and Governor of Portsmouth. Amidst fierce competition for places at court, Katherine was appointed a Lady of the Privy Chamber, alongside her sister-in-law, Anne Morgan; her nieces, Katherine and Philadelphia Carey, were serving as maids of honor. The new queen had a policy of advancing her Boleyn relatives, but only on their merits; she liked Katherine for herself, and the Carey family were her closest blood relations on her mother’s side, toward whom she always behaved with far more familiarity than with other members of her court. The Knollys children, like their cousins, the young Careys, were all welcomed at Elizabeth’s court, and many of them made good careers or marriages there, some of the daughters waiting upon the Queen. They all basked in her favor, and may have been substitutes for the grandchildren she never had.71

  Elizabeth “loved Lady Knollys above all other women in the world.”72 Katherine had an attractive personality, being graced with “wit and counsel sound” and “a mind so clean [and] devoid of guile.”73 In 1560, Elizabeth granted her, jointly with her son Robert, the manor of Taunton for life. After the death of Elizabeth’s beloved former governess, Katherine Astley, in 1565, Katherine Carey became chief Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen, with whom she was “in favor, above the common sort,” according to Thomas Newton, who published An Epitaph upon the Worthy and Honourable Lady, the Lady Knowles in 1569. She was given “some of the most expensive presents Elizabeth ever gave,”74 and entrusted with the safekeeping of gifts presented to her mistress.75 However, Elizabeth’s love for Katherine was marred by selfishness: she wanted her in constant attendance, regardless of the needs of her cousin and her family; and the strain of this, balanced with the demands of a large brood of children, often drove Katherine to “weep for unkindness.”76

  To m
ake things worse, during the first decade of her reign, Elizabeth kept Sir Francis Knollys busy with diplomatic missions. In May 1568, when the deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, fled to England and was placed under house arrest, he was appointed her custodian. During the year that she was in his charge, he did his best to convert the Catholic Mary to Calvinist doctrines, but was ordered to desist by Elizabeth. Generally, though, he got on well with the latter, despite his poor opinion of her statesmanship, which he wisely took care to conceal.

  Knollys had pleaded to be allowed to take his wife with him when he was sent north to take charge of Mary in 1568, but Elizabeth had refused to be parted from her. Late that year, learning that Katherine had fallen ill with a fever, he begged in vain to be recalled. His repeated requests for leave of absence to visit his ailing wife were also ignored, and he was distraught at Elizabeth’s “ungrateful denial of my coming to the court.” In his last letter to Katherine, he wrote of how he desired them both to retire from the Queen’s service and live “a poor country life”77—much as his mother-in-law had done with William Stafford.

  In his absence, Katherine had to make do with being “very often visited by the Queen’s comfortable presence.”78 At one stage, she felt a little better and asked Elizabeth if she might travel north to be with her husband, but Elizabeth refused to allow it, arguing that “the journey might be to her danger or discommodity.” She too was fearful for Katherine’s health, and when her cousin suffered a relapse, she had her nursed in a bedchamber near to her own, and sat with her often.79

  The Queen of Scots was to blame Queen Elizabeth for Katherine’s early death at the age of forty-three, claiming that it was the consequence of her husband’s enforced absence in the North during the last months of her life.80 But it was probably years of relentless childbearing that had undermined Katherine’s health. She passed away on January 15, 1569, at Hampton Court, greatly mourned by the Queen, while Sir Francis was still absent, guarding Mary, Queen of Scots, at Bolton Castle. Afterward, Elizabeth collapsed in “passions of grief for the death of her kinswoman and good servant, falling for a while from a prince wanting nothing in this world to private mourning, in which solitary estate, being forgetful of her own health, she took cold, wherewith she was much troubled.”81 As for the bereaved husband, he was “distracted with sorrow for his great loss. My case is pitiful,” he wrote.82

 
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