Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir


  If so, it is unlikely to have been with Henry VIII. Even when Henry was of an age to have sexual relations, he was supervised so strictly by the King his father that he was not permitted to leave the palace unless it was by a private door into the park, and then only in the company of specially appointed persons. His apartments could only be reached through those of Henry VII, and he spent most of his time in the tiltyard or in a bedchamber that led off his father’s, and appeared “so subjected that he does not speak a word except in response to what the King asks him.”38 No one dared approach him or speak with him, and nothing escaped his ever-vigilant father’s attention. It is likely therefore that he was still a virgin when he came to the throne. Speculation that his first affair had been with Elizabeth Denton, his mother’s lady-in-waiting,39 is unconvincing, and the extraordinary theory that the pious Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s grandmother, selected her for his first sexual experience40 even less so; in fact, the evidence we have suggests that Mistress Denton was rewarded by the new King not for sexual favors, but for faithful service to his family.

  Despite Henry’s denial and the other strong evidence against his having had an affair with Elizabeth Howard, a number of more recent writers still assert that she had “briefly graced the royal bed”41 and that Henry enjoyed “the sophisticated embraces” of “Lady Howard [sic.].”42 There have been imaginative claims that the affair took place in 1508, when Henry was seventeen;43 that Elizabeth was “not averse from instructing her young master in the arts of love”;44 that Thomas Boleyn’s advancement in the King’s service “was probably due to a liaison between his wife and Henry”;45 that Elizabeth was “flattered by the young Prince’s attentions” and began preening herself at court;46 and that Mary Boleyn “gaily followed her mother into the King’s bed.”47 There is no evidence for any of this.

  How did the calumny that Elizabeth Howard was Henry’s mistress come to be spread in the first place? Possibly there were rumors in the early 1520s that the King was having an affair with one of the Boleyn ladies, and the gossips conjectured that it was Elizabeth Howard, given her reputation. It has been convincingly suggested that some people at court confused Elizabeth Boleyn with Elizabeth Blount—the name Boleyn was variously spelled, and one form of it, “Boullant,” could easily have been mistaken for Blount;48 given how discreetly Henry VIII conducted his amours, this is entirely believable.

  There is sounder evidence for Henry having a brief liaison with a French lady during his triumphal sojourn at Tournai in September and October 1513, in the wake of taking the besieged town. There, he entertained Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, before visiting her court at Lille, where he is recorded as spending “almost the whole night dancing with the damsels.”49 The evidence for this affair is in the form of a letter dated August 17, 1514. Translated from the original French, it speaks of a bird (probably a singing bird) and some (probably medicinal) roots “of great value, belonging to this country” that the writer has sent the King, then continues:

  When Madame [Margaret of Austria] went to the Emperor her father and you at Lille, you named me your page, and you called me by no other name, and you told me many beautiful things … about marriage and other things; and when we parted at Tournai, you told me, when I married, to let you know, and it should be worth to me ten thousand crowns, or rather angels. As it has now pleased my father to have me married, I send [the] bearer, an old servant of my grandfather, to remind you.

  In your house at Marnay by Besançon, 17 August.

  The most of your very humble servants, G. La Baume.50

  According to the seventeenth century French genealogist Père Anselme, the initial G could have been an E; and the writer could therefore be identified as Etiennette, daughter of Marc de la Baume, Seigneur of Chateauvillain and Count of Montreval; she married, on October 18, 1514, as his third wife, Ferdinand de Neufchâtel, Seigneur de Marnay and Montaigu (1452–1522).51 Her bridegroom was then sixty-two, and she bore no child during the seven years of their marriage.52 She died in 1521.53

  Her letter gives us tantalizing insights as to how Henry VIII may have conducted his love-play: the reference to Etiennette pretending to be his page and his calling her by that name reveals him as a young man who conducted his amours with humor and who enjoyed sexual role-playing and, naturally, taking the dominant part. Is there a hint of blackmail here? Did Henry pay up? We have no record of him doing so, but that is not to say that he never did. Nor is there any record of a house owned by him in Marnay. Probably it was just the one in which he had stayed during his visit.

  While this letter may be evidence of a sexual affair, it is not conclusive. It could as well point to the King enjoying banter with a young woman whom he much admired. She was of a noble family, and doubtless waiting for her father to find her a husband. Henry told her beautiful things about marriage, which might be thought unusual if he was committing adultery—or did he show her how beautiful the delights of the marriage bed could be? He promised her a dowry. Was that a chivalrous gesture, or was it a reward for sexual favors? Yet she was apparently still living in his house at Marnay a year later, which suggests that he had paid for it and installed her there. On balance, the evidence points to her having been his mistress, and to Henry having done—or promised to do—the “honorable” thing by her.

  Katherine of Aragon was visibly pregnant for the fourth time when, in June 1514, good relations between England and Spain collapsed. Convinced that he had been insulted and betrayed by Katherine’s father, Ferdinand V of Aragon, the King “spat out his complaints against her,” and her influence accordingly diminished. That autumn there was even talk, in Rome and in England, of a divorce. At that time, Katherine’s confessor referred to Henry having “badly used” the Queen.54

  He might, just possibly, have been referring to the King’s latest affair. In October 1514 one of Henry’s closest friends and courtiers, not to mention physical double, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, wrote to the King from France, asking him to remind “Mistress Blount and Mistress Carew that next time, I write unto them letters or send them [love?] tokens.”55 From this we may gather that the King, like Suffolk, was on terms of familiarity with both these young women, and probably enjoying flirtations—and perhaps more—with them. Mistress Blount and Mistress Carew may well have shared their favors; the hostile Nicholas Sander, writing in 1585, frequently repeated unsubstantiated calumnies about Henry VIII, but his assertion that the King was often “living in sin, sometimes with two, sometimes with three of the Queen’s maids of honor” may not be far off the mark. Henry gave Elizabeth Bryan, the wife of the rising courtier Nicholas Carew, “many beautiful diamonds and pearls and innumerable jewels,”56 which strongly suggests that at one time she was more to him than just a mere acquaintance, and certainly, at some stage, he enjoyed a sexual relationship with Elizabeth Blount, for she later bore him a son whom he acknowledged. Significantly, Queen Katherine was well advanced in her fourth pregnancy in October 1514, and Henry had every excuse for straying from the marital bed once more.

  Elizabeth, or Bessie Blount, as she was familiarly called, was then sixteen at the most, probably younger; her exact date of birth is unknown, but her father was only thirty-six in 1519,57 and as boys were then not considered to be capable of cohabiting with their wives before the age of fourteen, she cannot have been born much before 1498. She was one of the eleven children of Sir John Blount of Kinlet Hall, Shropshire, by Katherine Peshall of Knightley, Staffordshire, who had been a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon at Ludlow for a short spell in 1502, when Katherine had been married to Arthur, Prince of Wales. Lady Blount’s father had fought for Henry VII in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, which had established the Tudor dynasty on the throne.

  Effigies of the five sons and six daughters of Sir John Blount survive on either side of his tomb in the church of St. John the Baptist at Kinlet. Elizabeth had probably been born in the nearby manor house of the Blounts, which was demolished in the eighte
enth century (the site now being occupied by Moffat House School). Sir John, who died in 1531, was a kinsman of the Queen’s chamberlain, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, the noted humanist scholar. Probably it was Mountjoy who, in 1512,58 had secured for Elizabeth a post as maid of honor to the Queen.

  On the evidence above, it may well have been in 1514 that Henry VIII took Elizabeth as his mistress. According to the chronicler Edward Hall, “the King, in his fresh youth, was in the chains of love with a fair damsel called Elizabeth Blount, which in singing, dancing, and in all goodly pastimes, she exceeded all other, by which she won the King’s heart.” Henry, being a gifted composer, musician, and dancer, much admired these accomplishments in women. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, writing in the seventeenth century, and in a good position to know, since he was a neighbor of the Blounts of Kinlet,59 stated that “Mistress Elizabeth Blount was thought, for her rare ornaments of nature, and education, to be the beauty and mistress-piece of her time.” William Camden, writing in the early seventeenth century, records how the Blounts were “very famous” for their “golden locks,” so the chances are that Elizabeth was blond. Jones states that she wrote music, but does not cite her source.

  Elizabeth showed Henry “so much favor” that they became lovers in the fullest sense.60 But again, the King was discreet—so much so that very little is known about this affair; in 1519, when Elizabeth was still very much on the scene, the humanist Erasmus would even refer to the King as “the best of husbands” who set his subjects a shining example of “chaste and concordant wedlock.”

  His future pursuit of Anne Boleyn aside, Henry’s affair with Elizabeth Blount was the best documented of his affairs—which is not saying much—and the way it was conducted may well throw some light on his later, poorly documented liaison with Mary Boleyn; therefore it is useful to look at the surviving evidence for that affair.

  At Christmas 1514, Elizabeth featured prominently at a pageant performed at Greenwich, in which she, Elizabeth Carew, Margaret, Lady Guildford, and Lady Fellinger, wife to the Spanish ambassador, all dressed as ladies of Savoy in blue velvet gowns, gold caps and masks, and were rescued from danger by four gallant “Portuguese” knights, played by King Henry, the Duke of Suffolk, Nicholas Carew, and the Spanish ambassador. Queen Katherine was so enamored of the “strange apparel” worn by the performers that, before they unmasked themselves, she invited them to dance for her in private in her bedchamber. Here, Henry partnered Elizabeth Blount, and there was much laughter afterward when the masks were removed and the identities of the dancers revealed. The Queen thanked the King for such “goodly pastime” and kissed him.61

  The fact that Henry partnered Elizabeth Blount on these occasions suggests that they were already lovers. It has been stated that their affair began in 1518,62 but this fails to take account of this earlier evidence. It may be significant that, on Twelfth Night 1515, only a few weeks before the Queen gave birth to another son who died young, Elizabeth was not present when the same dancers performed in Dutch costume, her place having been taken by another lady of the court, Jane Popincourt.63 Possibly the Queen had grown suspicious; or Henry had feared to upset her in her condition, or that the affair might be exposed. Instead, Elizabeth appeared in a “disguising” featuring Sir Thomas Boleyn and his son, from which the King was notably absent.64

  Elizabeth Blount appears to have been the King’s mistress for at least four years. For most of this time there is no mention of her in contemporary sources. Given the length of the affair, there must have been more to it than just sexual dalliance; maybe the pair were in love, which is possible, although it may be overstating things to claim that Elizabeth “meant everything” to Henry.65

  On October 3, 1518, on the evening after an important treaty with France was signed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Cardinal Wolsey feasted the French ambassadors and the court at York Place (later Whitehall Palace), his London residence, in honor of the betrothal of the little Princess Mary to the Dauphin of France.66 Afterward, the King and his sister Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, led out a troupe of twenty-four masked dancers, of whom one was Elizabeth Blount.67 This was the last occasion on which Henry VIII and Elizabeth were recorded as appearing together in public; by this time, as Lord Herbert quaintly put it, “entire affection [had] passed between them, so that at last she bore him a son,” conceived during the Queen’s last pregnancy.

  A convincing theory has been put forward that Henry and Elizabeth had been using some form of contraception;68 after all, their affair had apparently been going on for four years before she conceived. It has also been suggested that Elizabeth deliberately got pregnant,69 presumably in order to profit in some way from her royal lover, although, given how Henry had maintained the utmost discretion throughout, she would have been foolish indeed to court such a scandal. Henry, it is argued, may have felt betrayed by his mistress purposefully conceiving a child, and this may have sounded the death knell to the affair.70 It seems far more likely that the pregnancy was an accident.

  Elizabeth had to leave court, of course, and Henry sent her to a house called Jericho, which he had leased from St. Lawrence’s Priory at Blackmore in Essex, near Chipping Ongar. It was not given to Elizabeth, as has been asserted,71 but made available to her at this time. It may be that the Augustinian canons at the priory gave her some support, and in this we might perceive the managing hand of Cardinal Wolsey.72

  Jericho might have been monastic property, but it was a house that later came to gain a poor reputation. It was surrounded by a moat and screened by tall brick walls that afforded a high degree of privacy. The moat was fed by the River Can, which was known to the local people as “the River Jordan”; this was how the place had acquired its name.

  Here, at Jericho, the King kept a private suite of rooms, and when he visited, he probably took with him only a few attendants—his “riding household.” Here, as at his other residences, “the King’s Highness have his privy chamber and inward lodgings reserved secret, at the pleasure of his Grace, without repair of any great multitude.”73 According to Philip Morant, an eighteenth century Essex historian, “this place [was] reported to have been one of King Henry the Eighth’s houses of pleasure, and disguised by the name of Jericho, so that, when this lascivious prince had a mind to be lost in the embraces of his courtesans, the cant word among the courtiers was that he was gone to Jericho.” This account may have been somewhat embellished, but certainly no one would have been encouraged to approach the King during his stay, and the pages and grooms of his privy chamber would have been routinely warned “not to hearken or inquire where the King is or goeth, be it early or late, without grudging, mumbling, or talking of the King’s pastime or his late or early going to bed.”74

  It is not inconceivable that Jericho was used by Henry as a trysting place where he could make love to Elizabeth Blount in privacy, and perhaps other women also—possibly even Mary Boleyn herself when her time came. If so, such covert pleasures would have come to an end in 1525, when the priory was dissolved by Wolsey and Jericho was sold.75

  Elizabeth Blount certainly resided for a time at Jericho, for around June 1519—and possibly on June 18, if her child was ennobled on his sixth birthday in 152576—she gave birth there to a son, “a goodly man child of beauty like to the father and mother.”77 The infant was given his father’s Christian name and the old Norman-French surname of Fitzroy, which meant “son of the King.”78

  The tragedy was that this son was born out of wedlock. By then Queen Katherine’s catastrophic obstetric career had ended in failure. Of her six pregnancies, only one daughter, the Princess Mary, born in 1516, had survived. For a king who needed a son to succeed him, this was a dynastic disaster, for there was a widespread conviction that women were not meant to wield sovereign power; that it was against all laws both natural and divine. The birth of a living son to his mistress was a triumphant vindication for Henry. It proved that he could father boys, and that the fault did not lie with him.

  It probably sig
naled the end of his affair with Elizabeth Blount. In accordance with the convention that it was unsafe and ungodly to have sex during pregnancy, he had probably stopped sleeping with her months before, and there is no evidence that they resumed having relations after the birth. Almost as soon as she had recovered from her confinement, Henry enlisted the aid of Cardinal Wolsey in arranging an honorable marriage for her with one of the Cardinal’s wards, Gilbert Tailboys. This must have taken place in the latter half of 1519, no later, as the eldest daughter born to the couple, also Elizabeth, was stated to be twenty-two years old in the inquisition postmortem on her brother, Robert, Lord Tailboys, in June 1542.79 Thus she had been born in 1520. The date of the marriage is not recorded, and Elizabeth is not referred to as Tailboys’s wife until 1522.80

  Gilbert Tailboys was the son of George Tailboys, Lord Kyme, “a lunatic” whose person and lands had been entrusted to the protective custody of Cardinal Wolsey in 1517, and whose estates were held in trust by the Crown.81 Lands in Lincolnshire and Somerset were released to Gilbert on his marriage, and Parliament, thanks to Wolsey’s influence, assigned Elizabeth Blount a handsome dowry. Wolsey was savagely criticized for his part in this, and accused of encouraging “the young gentlewomen of the realm to become concubines by the well marrying of Bessie Blount, whom we would yet by sleight have married much better than she is, and for that purpose changed her name.”82

  “The mother of the King’s son” continued to benefit from the King’s bounty after her marriage. On June 18, 1522, she and her husband were granted the royal manor of Rokeby in Warwickshire,83 and in 1524, an Act of Parliament was passed giving her a life interest in many of her father-in-law’s estates. In 1534 she was receiving a yearly grant of three casks of Gascon wine from the port of Boston.84 Thereafter, Elizabeth received the occasional New Year’s present from the King.85 It is, of course, possible that some of these grants were gifted in acknowledgment of further intimate services rendered by Elizabeth to the King, or as rewards for Tailboys being an accommodating husband—yet it is much more likely that the affair had ended in 1519, and certainly by 1522, because the evidence would suggest that Henry began pursuing Mary Boleyn that year. George, Elizabeth’s third child by her husband, was sixteen in March 1539,86 so he must have been born in 1523 at the latest, which means that her second child, Robert, had arrived in 1521–22. It is hardly likely that her affair with the King had continued through this period of successive pregnancies.

 
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