Sunday, 6 July 2014

Was Mary Boleyn Really 'The Mistress of Kings'?

Above: Portrait of a woman thought to be Mary Boleyn, c. 1525.

Philippa Gregory's bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) revitalised fascination with the Boleyn family and in particular Mary, the mysterious and unknown sister of Henry VIII's second queen. Mary Boleyn was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, born before 1502, and married William Carey in 1520 before briefly becoming Henry's mistress in the 1520s, before his attention turned to her enigmatic and attractive sister Anne. After she was banished from court in 1534 for making a clandestine second marriage, Mary survived the destruction of her family and died in obscurity in 1543 in her early forties.

Traditionally, historians have suggested that Mary was 'an infamous whore' who was the mistress of two kings, Francois I of France and Henry VIII of England. While it seems certain that Mary was indeed Henry's mistress, probably beginning in 1522 and ending before 1525 - Henry himself admitted to the affair and had to secure a papal dispensation in 1527 to marry the sister of a woman with whom he had had sexual intercourse - it is by no means certain that Mary was the French king's mistress. Indeed, historical evidence indicates that Mary never resided at the French court as a teenager.

Above: the Boleyn sisters, Anne (left) and Mary (right).

As Retha M. Warnicke points out, there is no evidence that Mary Boleyn served as a maid of honour at the French court. In 1514, Anne Boleyn travelled to Paris to serve Mary Tudor, queen of France, and later transferred to the household of Claude, wife of Francois I, but there is no evidence that her sister was there. Household accounts documented a 'M. Boleyn', but it seems likely that the 'M' referred to 'Mademoiselle' or 'Mistress', rather than 'Mary'. Contemporaries commented on Anne's presence in France. For example, George Cavendish, gentleman usher to Cardinal Wolsey, stated: 'This gentlewoman, Mistress Anne Boleyn, being very young was sent into the realm of France'. No contemporaries, however, referred to Mary dwelling in France, where she supposedly acquired a reputation for promiscuity and licentiousness.

At the English court, it has been asserted, Mary was best known for her 'reputation in bed' (Lacey Baldwin Smith, 2013) and 'the evidence is overwhelming that Mary had a reputation for sexual improprieties' (Warnicke, 1985). As Alison Weir has thoughtfully demonstrated, however, there is in fact little to no evidence to support these views. Henry VIII's affair with Mary was discreet and secret, and few seem to have known of it. Mary remains a shadowy figure and we know nothing of her thoughts and feelings. How long her relationship with Henry lasted, and whether she truly loved him, is impossible to say. It is, however, certain that she was his mistress for a brief time in the 1520s and quite possibly bore him at least one, if not two, children.

Above: Francois I of France. It is unlikely that Mary Boleyn was ever his mistress.

While Mary was undoubtedly Henry VIII's lover for a time, it is almost certain that she was not the French king's mistress, despite persistent rumours to the contrary. In 1536, the French king informed Ridolfio Pio that he had known Mary in France 'per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopra tutte' - in other words, 'a great whore, infamous above all'. However, Mary never resided at the French court, so Francois cannot have insulted her in relation to her supposed sojourn there in the 1510s. Unlike Anne, who had departed for Europe to acquire a splendid education, Mary remained at home, probably Hever Castle, where she acquired a more traditional education befitting the status of an English gentlewoman.

So what then did Francois mean by his comment? Weir has pointed out that Pio was hostile to the Boleyns. Every member of the family was defamed and attacked by hostile political commentators who resented Anne and the rejection of Katherine of Aragon. Thomas Boleyn was slandered as heretical, grasping and scheming; his wife Elizabeth was defamed as a whore and former mistress of Henry VIII; George Boleyn was cast as a heretic and hedonist; and Anne was consistently portrayed as a whore, murderess, heretic and witch. It is therefore in keeping with this general defamation and slander of the Boleyn family that Mary, too, would have been dishonoured and abused by chroniclers and commentators hostile to their cause. Nicholas Sander, for example, slandered her in his works while abusing and defaming her sister Anne Boleyn. 

It would therefore be ridiculous to accept such comments at face value. It is unlikely that Francois was referring to his own previous experiences with Mary. Possibly, as Warnicke credibly suggests, he only became acquainted with the new Queen of England's sister in 1532, when Mary accompanied Henry VIII and Anne to Calais. Francois may well have learned of Mary's former liaison with Henry and allowed it to cloud his view of her. His comment can hardly be read as admittance of a former relationship with Mary when she supposedly resided at his court as a teenager.

Aside from this one disparaging, insulting comment, there is no evidence that Mary was ever the mistress of the French king. There is no documentation of her stay in France, for the simple reason that she never served at the French court alongside her sister. In 1513, Anne Boleyn departed for Burgundy and later for France to serve in royal households. Her sister Mary, possibly because she was younger or possibly because she was less intellectual and brilliant than Anne, remained at home, before marrying William Carey in 1520. Shortly afterwards, she became the mistress of Henry VIII. We can say with some certainty that she was the lover of the English king, but we can equally be sure that she was never the mistress of his counterpart, the king of France.

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