Mary Boleyn: A Great and Infamous Whore?

Mary Boleyn was the older sister of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and Queen Consort of England. Mary was born in approximately 1500 at Blickling Hall, the first child of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Mary’s childhood is relatively unknown but it is assumed that she was educated with the qualities and skills needed of a young woman of the time and was raised in the Catholic faith.

In 1514, at the age of fourteen, Mary obtained a position as a maid of honour to Mary Tudor who was to become the future Queen of France. Mary travelled from Dover to France as part of Mary’s entourage and was most likely present when the English Princess married King Louis XII. However, Mary’s time as a lady in waiting was to be short as after only a few months Louis XII died. After the death of the French, Princess Mary married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk before returning home to England. There are several trains of thought regarding Mary’s whereabouts between this time and 1520 when she was recorded as being in England. Some historians suggest that Mary also returned with the Dowager Queen to England and became a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. While others propose that Mary, as with her sister Anne, stayed in France to serve the new King’s wife, Queen Claude. In her latest book ‘Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings’ Alison Weir proposes that Mary was not at court as a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, nor was she retained in Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk’s attendance once she returned to England. Weir suggests that Mary’s father Thomas sent her to Brie-sous-Forges (nowadays known as Fontenay-les-Briss), a house in France owned by the new King, Francis I’s cupbearer. Here, while still in France, Mary could finish off her education and polish all the necessities needed to be a noble lady.

It is here in France during the latter part of 1514 or the early part of 1515 that Mary Boleyn reportedly gained the reputation of being a “great and infamous whore”. It has been alleged that Mary became the mistress to Francis I, the new King of France and through this affair she gained a reputation as being ‘a great wanton and an English mare’.

Yet I would like to challenge this accusation that Mary Boleyn was a “great and infamous whore”. In fact, in this article, I propose that Mary Boleyn was anything but a great whore and that there is speculation that she even had an affair with King Francis I. If she did have a liaison with Francis I then certainly it was only short and her activities were not enough to create such a scandal as to be labelled a great whore.

When the facts and details about this allegation are studied in detail one finds that there are only three pieces of evidence which refer to Anne and Mary Boleyn’s sexual activities in France. Of these three only one single piece of evidence actually speaks about Mary Boleyn’s sexual activities.

The piece of evidence used to state that Mary Boleyn had been the mistress of Francois I is a letter written by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza on March 10th 1536. In his letter he writes that:

“Francis said also that they are committing more follies than ever in England, and are saying and printing all the ill they can against the Pope and the Church; that “that woman” pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France ‘per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte.’” – “a great prostitute and infamous above all”.

When looking at this letter there are some statements that need to be questioned. First, how could Mary have been with her sister when Anne miscarried in 1536? Mary Boleyn was banished from court in 1534 when she dared to marry her second husband, William Stafford, without the permission of her father, her sister the Queen or the King. It would be extremely unlikely that Mary would have been banished and then returned to court and then banished again as there is not a single mention of her during Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution which happened less than four months after Anne’s miscarriage. Already this inaccuracy in Pio’s letter casts a shadow over the authenticity of his words.

Secondly, I would like to point out that Pio writes that “that woman pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child”. We know for a fact that Anne Boleyn was pregnant and that on January 29th 1536 she did miscarry a male foetus which was believed to be approximately three months. Even Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador to the English Court, and well known for his dislike of Anne Boleyn, wrote to his master Charles V that Anne had miscarried a male foetus.  For a second time in one letter, Bishop Pio is proved to be inaccurate.

Thirdly it should be noted that the letter was written twenty-one years after Mary Boleyn was in France. This quote came a long time after Mary Boleyn’s stay in France. Much can happen over the course of two decades. The relationship between England and France was sketchy at the best of times and it is clear from the tone of this letter that Francis I had little opinion of the happenings in England or of Queen Anne Boleyn. With such a sour tone who is to say that what he was boasting about Mary Boleyn is the truth? He could have simply made the statement to blacken the name of both Mary and more so of her sister Anne.  In addition to this Bishop Rodolfo Pio was a Catholic and may have thought very little and even been quite critical of the Boleyn’s who were sometimes seen as quite Evangelical.

Fourthly how can we even be sure that what Bishop Pio wrote is the exact words that King Francis I spoke? Second-hand sources always have the disadvantage of being tainted by the person’s own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. It could very well be that Francois I was not even referring to having slept with Mary, he may have just meant that he believed Mary to have been a whore. It depends on how one interprets the word ‘knew’ in the statement. Perhaps Francois was saying he had known her in a carnal way, or perhaps he was just saying that he believed, from other sources, that Mary was a whore. Once again with second or third-hand sources and a lack of direct evidence it can only be proposed that Francois and Mary had any sort of relationship at all.

The next two pieces of evidence that have been used to support the idea that Mary was a great and infamous whore are books written after Mary Boleyn’s death and more importantly are not even about her life!

The first of these two pieces of supposed evidence was written by Nicholas Sander in his 1585 book ‘Rise and Growth of the English Schism’:

“Soon afterwards she appeared at the French court where she was called the English Mare, because of her shameless behaviour; and then the royal mule, when she became acquainted with the King of France.”

In this statement, Sander is actually referring to Mary Boleyn’s older sister Anne and not Mary herself. Sander was a staunch Catholic and this book was written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I when England was considered to be a Protestant nation. Queen Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and these words were quite obviously written in an attempt not only to discredit and blacken the name of Anne Boleyn but also in doing so to blacken the name of Queen Elizabeth.

It should also be noted that Sander wrote that:

“Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat. In this she was followed by the ladies of the court, who also wrote high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth” (Ives 2004, p. 39).

Most certainly we can state that Anne Boleyn did not look as though she was troubled with jaundice or that she had a projecting tooth under her upper lip. We also know that she did not have six fingers on her right hand or a large wen under her chin. From descriptions of Anne Boleyn during her life we know that she was:

‘not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, a bosom not much raised and eyes which are black and beautiful’ (Ives 2005, p. 40).

In her book The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir describes Anne as being ‘slender and dark’ (Weir 2009, p. 16)

I find it hard to believe that King Henry VIII would have been interested for so long in a woman that had a projecting tooth, looked like she suffered from jaundice, had six fingers on her right hand and a large wen under her chin. Perhaps Anne Boleyn was not the most beautiful of women to have ever lived, but certainly, she was enchanting and had dark and beautiful eyes which were able to capture the attention of Henry VIII.

Also, I must point out that Sander’s description of Anne Boleyn was written forty-nine years after Anne Boleyn’s execution and most certainly would have to have come from second-hand knowledge. Once more with the passage of time and knowledge descriptions can change. In addition to this as I have previously, stated Sander was a staunch Catholic who was extremely prejudiced against Anne Boleyn and her daughter Queen Elizabeth I. If he was writing such false lies about what Anne Boleyn looked like, how can we believe anything else he had to write?

The second piece of alleged information was a book written by Lord Herbert of Cherbury in 1649, entitled “Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth”. In this book Lord Herbert quotes William Rastall, author of a biography of Sir Thomas More (c1557), who wrote of how Anne Boleyn was sent to France where:

“she behav’d herself so licentiously, that she was vulgarly call’d the Hackney of England, till being adopted to that King’s familiarity, she was termed his Mule.”

Once again this piece is referring to Anne Boleyn as being called a Hackney of England and suggesting that she was ridden by Francis I like a mule. William Rastall was a Catholic and the nephew of Thomas More. Thomas More was beheaded for not supporting Henry VIII’s resolve to seek an annulment of his first marriage so he could marry Anne Boleyn and for refusing to sign the oath which supported Henry VIII’s determination to become Supreme Head of the English Church. With his uncle’s execution tied up with Anne Boleyn, it is not surprising that these words were written to discredit Anne and taint her memory. It would appear that over the years these words have unfortunately been mixed up with Mary Boleyn when in reality they are not even about her.

With only three pieces of very doubtful evidence, how can it, therefore, be claimed that Mary Boleyn was the mistress of Francis I and that she was a great and infamous whore? In a court of loose morals whose King regularly enjoyed the entertainment of the fairer sex, a woman would have to do something truly outrageous to be known as an infamous whore, and yet at the time and for over two decades later nothing, not a single word, was mentioned about Mary Boleyn’s behaviour or actions at the French court. More so, if she was so well known to have jumped into the bed of Francis I, would Henry VIII still then have taken Mary to be his mistress? And if so why was no comment made about her actions?

So the question is, did she or didn’t she? Was Mary Boleyn the mistress of King Francis I for a period of time? Or was she able to keep her chastity and return to England as a maid? The evidence which suggests that Mary did become the mistress of Francis I is very sketchy at best. I ask how can only two pieces of information, written by men of the Catholic faith who were trying to discredit and blacken the name of Mary’s sister Anne, and Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I and also the second quite a period of time after Mary’s death, be used as factual evidence to prove that Mary Boleyn was a ‘great and infamous whore’? When I look at the evidence I cannot help but wonder if this hearsay and second-hand talk would really hold up in say a court of law?

It is often said that a man should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven guilty, and yet why are so many people so quick to judge Mary on such little evidence? I think to judge Mary Boleyn and call her ‘a great and infamous whore’ based on such poor and not credible evidence is to do a great injustice to the woman that Mary was.

Personally, I believe that she may have had an encounter with the French King, how deep or sexual or even how long this encounter lasted I simply cannot say. I do not find any truth in the texts written by Nicholas Sanders or William Rastall, and I strongly challenge the details that Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza wrote in his letter. I also find it notable that nothing at all at the time was said or written about Mary’s alleged affair, nor for some twenty-two years later. But on the other hand, I do question what Francis I meant by having “known” Mary Boleyn and why he would refer to her as a great prostitute and infamous above all.

So the great question is, was she or wasn’t she?  Unfortunately, unless another letter or account is discovered we shall never know, but for me, I do not wish to judge a person guilty without the evidence to support the claim. Perhaps Mary Boleyn did have an affair with Francis I, but the claim that she was ‘a great and infamous whore’ I certainly think not.

Mary Boleyn Signature

Mary Boleyn’s signature after her marriage to William Carey – Mary Carey (from google images)

Sources

Catholic Encyclopedia 2012, ‘St Thomas More’, viewed 26th January 2012, Available from Internet < http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14689c.htm> .

Jones, P 2009, The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards, Metro Books, New York.

Hart, K 2009, The Mistresses of Henry VIII, The History Press, Gloucestershire.

Ives, E 2005, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Australia.

Ridgway, Claire 2011, ‘Mary Boleyn – Was She Really The Mistress of Francis I?’, viewed 26th January 2012, Available from Internet < http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/15870/mary-boleyn-was-she-really-the-mistress-of-francis-i/&gt;.

Wikipedia 2011, ‘Nicholas Sander’, viewed 12th November 2011, Available from Internet < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Sanders&gt;.

Weir, A 1991, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Grove Press, New York.

Weir, A 2011, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Ballantine Books, New York.

Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberly Publishing, Gloucestershire.

 

 

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