Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir

  Dr. Dyby also mentions another malady that can cause kidney failure, gangrene, blindness, as well as other symptoms: by-proddiabetes. Aristocrats at that time certainly had the lifestyle to induce it, not to mention all the lead and mercury and woodsmoke to which they were exposed. Therefore, we should not discount the possibility that John of Gaunt was an untreated diabetic.

  As Dr. Dyby points out, two factors militate against accepting Gascoigne’s account. Apart from the documentation of John’s extramarital affairs, there is no evidence dating from his lifetime or soon afterward, to suggest that his final illness was a venereal disease. Would Richard II, who possibly had the callousness to throw unpaid bills on Gaunt’s deathbed, have refrained from comment at what he had been shown, or from making political capital out of the fact that the Duke was dying from his “sinfulness,” especially when he had the chance to discredit John with a view to seizing his estates? Then there is the Duke’s request to leave his corpse for forty days in state, above ground; if he was so badly diseased, would he have inflicted such a horrific charge on his widow and family?

  Dr. Dyby suggests that Katherine Swynford might have died of tuberculosis, given that Kettlethorpe was moated, situated on a river, and humid. Rheumatic fever was also very common in those days, and can have a nasty affect on the heart. This might account for Katherine’s frailty, and thus her absence from the records, in her declining years.

  The evidence for John of Gaunt’s final illness is still inconclusive, of course, and we can only speculate as to the cause of Katherine’s death, but these theories are an invaluable contribution to the debate.

  I am indebted to Dr. Susanne Dyby and to Dr. Cynthia Wolfe for supplying much of this information, and for so generously giving me permission to include it in the book.

  Don’t miss

  Alison Weir’s

  next book,

  The Lady in the Tower:

  The Fall of Anne Boleyn


  The Solemn Joust

  May Day was one of the traditional highlights of the English royal court’s spring calendar, and was customarily celebrated as a high festival. The May Day of 1536 was no exception, being marked by a great tournament, or “solemn joust,” which was held in the tiltyard at Greenwich, the beautiful riverside palace much favored by King Henry VIII, who had been born there in 1491. It was a warm day, and pennants fluttered in the breeze as the courtiers crowded into their seats to watch the contest.1 At the appointed time, the King took his place at the front of the royal stand, which stood between the twin towers of the tiltyard, in front of the recently built banquet hall. He was not yet the bloated and diseased colossus of his later years, but a muscular and vigorous man of forty-five, over six feet tall,2 red-bearded and magnificently dressed: “a perfect model of manly beauty,” “his head imperial and bald.”3

  His queen of three years, Anne Boleyn, seated herself beside him. One of the most notorious women in Christendom, she was ten years younger than her husband, very graceful, very French—she had spent some years at the French court—and stylishly attired, but “not the handsomest woman in the world”: her skin was swarthy, her bosom “not much raised,” and she had a double nail on one of her fingers; her long brown hair was her crowning glory, and her other claim to beauty was her eyes, which were “black and beautiful” and “invited to conversation.”4

  It was outwardly a happy occasion—May Day was traditionally the time for courtly revelry—and there was little sign of any gathering storm. Henry “made no show” of being angry or in turmoil, “and gave himself up to enjoyment.”5 He watched as the contestants ran their chivalrous courses, lances couched, armor gleaming. At this “great jousting,” the Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, was the leading challenger and “showed his skill in breaking lances and vaulting on horseback,” while Sir Henry Norris, one of the King’s most trusted friends and household officers, led the defenders, “presenting himself well-armed.” When Norris’s mount became uncontrollable, “refused the lists, and turned away as if conscious of the impending calamity to his master,” the King presented him with his own horse.6 In the jousting, the poet-courtier Thomas Wyatt “did better than the others,” although Norris, Sir Francis Weston, and Sir William Brereton all “did great feats of arms, and the King showed them great kindness. The Queen looked on from a high place, and often conveyed sweet looks to encourage the combatants, who knew nothing of their danger.”7

  Fifty years later, Nicholas Sander, a hostile Catholic historian, would claim that “the Queen dropping her handkerchief, one of her gallants [traditionally assumed to have been Henry Norris] took it up and wiped his face with it,” and that Henry VIII, observing this and seething with jealousy, construed the gesture as evidence of intimacy between them, and rising “in a hurry,” left the stand; but there is no mention of this incident in contemporary sources such as the reliable chronicle of Charles Wriothesley, Windsor Herald. In the late seventeenth century, Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, who painstakingly researched Anne Boleyn’s fall in order to refute the claims of Sander, would conclude that the handkerchief incident never happened, since “this circumstance is not spoken of by [Sir John] Spelman, a judge of that time who wrote an account of the whole transaction with his own hand in his commonplace book.”

  Halfway through the jousts a message was passed to Henry VIII, and suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, especially the Queen’s, “the King departed to Westminster, having not above six persons with him,”8 leaving Anne to preside alone over what remained of the tournament. “Of which sudden departing, many men mused, but most chiefly the Queen.”9 She must have felt bewildered and fearful at the very least, because for some days now, the King had been distant or simmering with rage, and she had very good reasons to suspect that something ominous had happened—and that it concerned herself.

  She was the Queen of England, and she should have been in an invincible position, yet she was painfully aware that she had disappointed Henry in the most important thing that mattered. She could not have failed to realize that his long-cherished passion for her had died and that his amorous interest now had another focus, but she clearly also knew that there was more to this present situation than mere infidelity. For months now the court had been abuzz with speculation that the King might take another wife. But that was not all.

  A week before the tournament, Anne’s brother—one of the most powerful men at court—had been publicly slighted. That could have been explained in a number of ways, but many saw it as a slur upon herself. Since then, her father, a member of the King’s Council and privy to state secrets, who could have told her much that would frighten her, may have said something that gave her cause for alarm. She had perhaps guessed that members of her household were being covertly and systematically questioned. How she found out is a matter for speculation, but there can be no doubt that she knew something was going on. Just four days earlier she had sought out her chaplain and begged him to look to the care of her daughter should anything happen to her, the Queen. Plainly, she was aware of some undefined, impending danger.

  She knew too that, only yesterday, her tongue, never very guarded, had run away with her and that she had spoken rashly, even treasonously, overstepping the conventional bounds of courtly banter between queen and servant, man and woman, and also that her words had been overheard. She was fretting about that, and had gone so far as to take steps to protect her good name. But it was too late. Others were putting their own construction on what she had said, and it was damning.

  Anne seems to have feared that the King had been told of her compromising words. On the day—or the morning—before the tournament, she had made a dramatic, emotional appeal to him, only to be angrily rebuffed. Then late that evening, come the startling announcement that a planned— and important—royal journey had been postponed.

  The signs had not been good, but the exact nature of the forces that menaced Anne was almost certainly a mystery to h
er. So she surely could not have predicted, when the King got up and walked out of the royal stand on that portentous May Day, it would be the last time she’d ever set eyes on him, and that she herself and those gallant contestants in the jousts were about to be annihilated in one of the most astonishing and brutal coups in English history.

  Read on for an excerpt from Alison Weir’s

  Mary Boleyn


  The Eldest Daughter

  Blickling Hall, one of England’s greatest Jacobean showpiece mansions, lies not two miles northwest of Aylsham in Norfolk. It is a beautiful place, surrounded by woods, farms, sweeping parkland and gardens—gardens that were old in the fifteenth century, and which once surrounded the fifteenth century moated manor house of the Boleyn family, the predecessor of the present building. That house is long gone, but it was in its day the cradle of a remarkable dynasty; and here, in those ancient gardens, and within the mellow, red-brick gabled house, in the dawning years of the sixteenth century, the three children who were its brightest scions once played in the spacious and halcyon summers of their early childhood, long before they made their dramatic debut on the stage of history: Anne Boleyn, who would one day become Queen of England; her brother George Boleyn, who would also court fame and glory, but who would ultimately share his sister’s tragic and brutal fate; and their sister Mary Boleyn, who would become the mistress of kings, and gain a notoriety that is almost certainly undeserved.

  Blickling was where the Boleyn siblings’ lives probably began, the protective setting for their infant years, nestling in the broad, rolling landscape of Norfolk, circled by a wilderness of woodland sprinkled with myriad flowers such as bluebells, meadowsweet, loosestrife, and marsh orchids, and swept by the eastern winds. Norfolk was the land that shaped them, that remote corner of England that had grown prosperous through the wool-cloth trade, its chief city, Norwich—which lay just a few miles to the south—being second in size only to London in the Boleyns’ time. Norfolk also boasted more churches than any other English shire, miles of beautiful coastline and a countryside and waterways teeming with a wealth of wildlife. Here, at Blickling, nine miles from the sea, the Boleyn children took their first steps, learned early on that they had been born into an important and rising family, and began their first lessons.

  Anne and George Boleyn were to take center-stage roles in the play of England’s history. By comparison, Mary was left in the wings, with fame and fortune always eluding her. Instead, she is remembered as an infamous whore. And yet, of those three Boleyn siblings, she was ultimately the luckiest, and the most happy.

  This is Mary’s story.

  Mary Boleyn has aptly been described as “a young lady of both breeding and lineage.”1 She was born of a prosperous landed Norfolk family of the knightly class. The Boleyns, whom Anne Boleyn claimed were originally of French extraction, were settled at Salle, near Aylsham, before 1283, when the register of Walsingham Abbey records a John Boleyne living there,2 but the family can be traced in Norfolk back to the reign of Henry II (1154–89).3 The earliest Boleyn inscription in the Salle church is to John’s great-great-grandson, Thomas Boleyn, who died in 1411; he was the son of another John Boleyn and related to Ralph Boleyn, who was living in 1402. Several other early members of the family, including Mary’s great-great-grandparents, Geoffrey and Alice Boleyn, were buried in the Salle church, which is like a small cathedral, rising tall and stately in its perpendicular splendor in the flat Norfolk landscape. The prosperous village it once served, which thrived upon the profitable wool trade with the Low Countries, has mostly disappeared.

  The surname Boleyn was spelled in several ways, there being no uniformity in spelling in former times, when it was given as Boleyn, Boleyne, Bolleyne, Bollegne, Boleigne, Bolen, Bullen, Boulen, Boullant, or Boullan, the French form. The bulls’ heads on the family coat of arms are a pun on the name. In adult life Anne Boleyn used the modern form adopted in this text. Unfortunately, we don’t know how Mary Boleyn spelt her surname, as only two letters of hers survive, both signed with her married name.

  The Boleyn family had once been tenant farmers, but the source of their wealth and standing was trade. Thomas’s grandson, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, made his fortune in the City of London as a member and then Master of the Worshipful Company of Mercers (1454); he was Sheriff of London from 1446–47; MP for London in 1449; and an alderman of the City of London from 1452 (an office he held for eleven years). In 1457 he was elected Lord Mayor.4 By then he had made his fortune; his wealth had enabled him to marry into the nobility, his wife being Anne, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas, Lord Hoo and Hastings, and she brought him great estates. Stow records that Sir Geoffrey “gave liberally to the prisons, hospitals and lazar houses, besides a thousand pounds to poor householders in London, and two hundred pounds to [those] in Norfolk.” He was knighted by Henry VI before 1461.

  In 1452 (or 1450), Geoffrey had purchased the manor of Blickling in Norfolk from his friend and patron, Sir John Fastolf.5 The manor had once been the property of the eleventh century Saxon king, Harold Godwineson,6 and the original manor house on the site had been built in the 1390s by Sir Nicholas Dagworth, but it was evidently outdated or in poor repair, because—as has recently been discovered—it was rebuilt as Blickling Hall, “a fair house” of red brick, by Geoffrey Boleyn.7 Geoffrey also built the chapel of St. Thomas in Blickling church, and adorned it with beautiful stained glass incorporating the heraldic arms of himself and his wife, which still survives today; in his will, he asked to be buried there if he departed this life at Blickling. In the event, he died in London.

  Ten years later, in 1462, Geoffrey bought the manors of Hever Cobham and Hever Brokays in Kent from William Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele,8 as well as thirteenth century Hever Castle from Sir Thomas Cobham. Sir Geoffrey now moved in the same social circles as the prosperous Paston family (Norfolk neighbors who knew the Boleyns well, and whose surviving letters tell us so much about fifteenth century life), the Norfolk gentry, and even the exalted Howards, who were descended from King Edward I, and at the head of whose house was John Howard, first Duke of Norfolk; the friendship between the Boleyns and the Howards, which would later be cemented by marriage, dated from at least 1469.9

  When he died in 1463,10 Geoffrey was buried in the church of St. Lawrence Jewry by the Guildhall in London. His heir, Thomas Boleyn of Salle, was buried there beside him in 1471,11 when the family wealth and estates passed to Geoffrey’s second son, William Boleyn, Mary’s grandfather, who had been born around 1451; he was “aged 36 or more” in the inquisition postmortem on his cousin, Thomas Hoo, taken in October 1487.12

  The Boleyns had arrived; they were what would soon become known as new men, those who had risen to prominence through wealth, wedlock, and ability. William Boleyn, who—like his father—had supported the House of York during the Wars of the Roses, was dubbed a Knight of the Bath at Richard III’s coronation in July 1483, became a Justice of the Peace, and made an even more impressive marriage than his father, to Margaret Butler, who had been born sometime prior to 1465,13 the younger daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond.14

  The Butlers were an ancient Anglo-Norman family, whose surname derived from the office of butler (an official who was responsible for the provisioning of wine), which their ancestor, Theobald Walter, had borne in the household of the future King John in 1185. They too were descended from Edward I, and had been earls of Ormond since 1329.15 Thomas Butler was one of the wealthiest peers; he had inherited a fortune of £40,000 (£20 million), and was lord of no fewer than seventy-two manors in England. He sat in Parliament as the premier baron and served as English ambassador to the courts of France and Burgundy. His wife was Anne, daughter and heiress of a rich knight, Sir Richard Hankeford.16

  Before he had come into his inheritance in 1477, Butler had been chronically short of money, and Sir William Boleyn and his mother had continually come to the rescue;17 Butler repaid his debts with the hand of his daughter, and
a dowry that would handsomely enrich the Boleyn family.

  Lady Margaret Butler bore Sir William Boleyn eleven children, of whom there were four surviving sons: Thomas, James, William, and Edward. Thomas was the eldest,18 being born in 1477,19 when his mother was probably quite young, although perhaps not as young as twelve, as her mother’s inquisition postmortem suggests. After Richard III, the last Plantagenet monarch, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the Boleyns prudently switched their allegiance to the new Tudor dynasty; in 1490, Sir William was appointed Sheriff of Kent, by which time he was probably dividing his time between Blickling and Hever. King Henry VII, the first Tudor sovereign, demonstrated his trust in him by making him responsible for keeping the peace in his locale, delivering prisoners to the assizes, and placing and guarding the beacons that would herald the approach of the King’s enemies, giving William a commission of array against an invasion by the French, and appointing him Sheriff of Norfolk in 1501. The next year he was made the third of only four Barons of the Exchequer, who sat as judges in the Court of the Exchequer.20

  In 1497, Sir William Boleyn and his son Thomas, now twenty, fought for King Henry VII against the rebels of Cornwall, who had risen in protest against excessive taxation. Again and again the Boleyn family would demonstrate its solid loyalty to the Crown, and in so doing would win the notice and favor of the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who valued “new men” who had risen to prominence through trade and the acquisition of wealth, as opposed to the older nobility, whose power, hitherto boosted by private armies, they strove to keep in check.

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