Modern history

6

MARY BOLEYN, ROYAL MISTRESS

While Elizabeth Howard Boleyn was rumoured to have been a mistress of Henry VIII, it is certain that her eldest daughter, Mary Boleyn, shared the king’s bed. Mary has been subject to an upsurge in interest in recent years, with two biographies recently released.

Mary Boleyn began her career in France. Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, was betrothed in childhood to Charles of Castile, the future Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. Although the groom’s aunt and guardian, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, was enthusiastic about the match, Charles’s two grandfathers, the Emperor Maximilian and Ferdinand of Aragon, were less enthusiastic, employing delaying tactics when Henry pressed for the marriage. In 1514 the English king finally lost patience, breaking the betrothal and, instead, engaging his beautiful young sister to the ‘feeble old and pocky’ Louis XII of France.1 The bride was, unsurprisingly, unenthusiastic, but she gave her consent. She travelled to France in October 1514 with a large train of attendants, including Mary Boleyn.2 She would have attended the royal marriage in the cathedral at Abbeville on 9 October and also the new queen’s Coronation later in the month. For Mary, this was a prestigious appointment, and she was soon joined by her sister, who journeyed to France direct from Brussels.

Soon after the wedding, Louis caused consternation in his wife’s household by sending most of her English attendants home, including the new queen’s governess, Lady Guildford. Both Boleyn sisters found favour with the French king, perhaps due to Anne’s language skills, and they were allowed to stay. Louis was besotted with his beautiful young bride and, apart from the disagreement over her attendants, the marriage was harmonious. It was also particularly short, with Louis, exhausted by his efforts to keep up with his wife, dying on 1 January 1515, leaving his son-in-law and kinsman, Francis of Angoulême, as King of France.

As the king’s widow, Mary Tudor was expected to spend time in seclusion, moving with her household to the palace of Cluny. Both Boleyn sisters were with her and were witnesses to the dramatic events that unfolded during the French queen’s period of mourning. France had the Salic law, which barred the inheritance of women or of men descended from the royal line through women, something which meant that Louis’s two daughters were unable to succeed to the crown, with Louis’s heir male, Francis, marrying Louis’s eldest daughter as a courtesy. It was therefore of paramount importance to Francis that Mary did not bear a son and he took an active interest in the widowed queen’s establishment at Cluny. Francis had some romantic interest in Mary himself, with rumours of an attraction between the two before Louis’s death. Francis was warned not to take any action for fear that he should father a child with her which would be attributed to Louis, leading to him remaining ‘plain Comte d’Angoulême, and never King of France’.3Once it was clear that Mary was not pregnant, the licentious new king did indeed make advances towards his wife’s stepmother, something which must have increased the attitude of unease that pervaded at Cluny. Francis was also anxious that Henry would bestow Mary in marriage with Charles of Castile, something that would be dangerous to France, and he therefore encouraged her in her affection for Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had come to bring her home to England. With Francis’s encouragement and her own fears that her brother would arrange a second match for her, Mary did the unthinkable and secretly married Suffolk. When Henry found out, he was furious, but he soon accepted the fait accompli, with the couple returning to England in May 1515. Her two Boleyn attendants, Mary and Anne, had been witnesses to all that had happened at Cluny. Anne definitely did not return home to England with Mary Tudor, instead transferring to the household of the new French queen, Claude. Mary’s whereabouts are less certain. She may have also moved to Claude’s household, although there is no record of her there. Alternatively she may have returned to England with Mary Tudor or soon afterwards.4 In any event, Mary Boleyn’s relations with King Francis must have been of only a brief duration, occurring during the early months of 1515.

The new Queen of France was fifteen and a rather unprepossessing figure. During her marriage she suffered near-annual pregnancies which ruined her health and also ensured that she was unable to have any real presence at court, instead being overshadowed by her husband’s more dynamic mother, Louise of Savoy, and his sister, Marguerite of Angoulême. Claude was pious to the point of saintliness. Francis always showed his wife respect in public, but he was notoriously licentious. Chasing women was one of his chief pastimes and, according to a near contemporary, Seigneur de Brantôme, the best way to please him was

by offering to his view on his first arrival a beautiful woman, a fine horse and a handsome hound. For by casting his gaze now on the one, now on the other and presently to the third, he would never be a-weary in that house, having there the three things most pleasant to look upon and admire, and so exercising his eyes right agreeably.5

Following Francis’s accession, there were reports of the ladies of his court that ‘both maids and wives, do oft-times trip, indeed do so customarily’. This was an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that Francis I’s court was an easy place for a woman to lose her virtue if she so chose.

The hostile Elizabethan writer, Nicholas Sander, claimed that, at the French court, Anne Boleyn became known as ‘the English mare, because of her shameless behaviour; and then the royal mule, when she became acquainted with the King of France’. Sander believed that Anne had disgraced herself in France by indulging first in sexual relations with members of Francis’s court and later with Francis himself. It must however be remembered that it was also Sander who claimed that Anne had first been sent to the Continent after disgracing herself in a relationship with her father’s butler and Sander’s tales can certainly be dismissed as fanciful.

While there is no evidence that any hint of scandal ever attached itself to Anne Boleyn, who appears to have acquitted herself well and honourably during her years in France, becoming French in all but birth, there is some evidence that Mary Boleyn’s reputation was not entirely spotless. It is not at all impossible that Sander confused the two sisters in his account and that there was therefore a grain of truth in his claims of an ‘English mare’ and a ‘royal mule’. Francis I, in spite of his love of women, was not known for his gallantry, later describing Mary Tudor as ‘more dirty than queenly’. Some years after both Boleyn sisters had left his court, he recalled Mary Boleyn ‘as a very great whore and infamous above all’.6 It is possible that Francis referred to Mary’s later affair with Henry VIII in this remark, although, given that he himself had a number of mistresses, it is unlikely that an affair with one monarch would be enough for Francis to brand Mary quite so viciously. It therefore does seem more likely that he was aware of Mary being considerably more promiscuous than her two marriages and affair with Henry VIII would suggest. When Anne Boleyn visited the French court in late 1532 she and Francis sat together and spoke privately for some time, indicating that they were indeed acquainted and that the French king remembered his first wife’s former maid. Given his comments on Mary Boleyn, he is also likely to have recalled her. Although the evidence is highly limited, it does seem likely that she had something of a reputation for promiscuity while in France and that the king himself was aware of this, suggesting an affair with him or, at least, members of his court close to him. If Sander’s comments are considered to have any basis in fact then it is possible that Mary slept with Francis himself, although she cannot have been more than a casual lover for the King of France. The evidence, such as it is, suggests that Mary embarked on her career as a royal mistress while in France and that she did not keep herself chaste.

Whispers of misconduct may account for the fact that she does not appear again in the sources until 1520. Her sister, Anne Boleyn, would later be rusticated from court for carrying out an illicit relationship with Henry Percy, spending some years at home at Hever. This would have allowed any rumours to die down. Alternatively, since there is no evidence of her actually returning to England in 1515 Mary may have remained in France as her recent biographer has suggested, staying at Brie-sous-Forges with an acquaintance of her father’s, well away from the court.7 That Mary’s conduct was not widely known is clear from her appointment in the household of Catherine of Aragon by 1520. However, her sexual experience may have served to pique Henry’s interest in his wife’s new attendant when whispers of Mary’s reputation did begin to reach England. The sixteenth-century Nicholas Sander believed that Henry had seen Mary on visits to her mother and ordered her to be brought to court so that he could ruin her.8 More likely, however, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn was able to use her own court connections to secure a place for her eldest daughter. It was at court that Henry VIII first became interested in Mary Boleyn.

Unlike her sister, Anne Boleyn remained in the household of Queen Claude, flourishing in the cultured atmosphere of the French court. There is very little record for her time with Claude. She probably took part in the queen’s Coronation in May 1516 at St Denis, as well as her state entry to Paris. She also became acquainted with Francis’s sister, the accomplished Marguerite of Angoulême, who was later known for her support for the religious reform movement. Anne may, perhaps, have first become exposed to these ideas with Marguerite. One critical writer claimed that it was while she was in France that she first ‘embraced the heresy of Luther’. Given that Anne’s own father and brother also supported reform, however, this must be questionable: religious reform was highly fashionable in the early sixteenth century and Anne could very easily have come upon the ideas in her own home before she embarked on her court career.

Anne had a number of opportunities to meet with her father during her time in France. In early 1519, for example, Thomas was part of a mission to France headed by the Bishop of Ely and the Earl of Worcester which coincided with the birth of Claude’s son, Henry, Duke of Orleans. Thomas Boleyn attended the christening, an event that Anne is also likely to have attended. Both of Anne’s parents, her sister and many other family members attended the grand meeting between Henry and Francis in June 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.9 Once again, Anne’s own attendance is not recorded, but, given her language skills, she is very likely to have attended Claude, who played a prominent role in the celebrations. Over 6,000 people attended Francis and his queen at their base at Ardes, while a similar number attended Henry at the English camp at Guisnes. For Anne and the other Boleyn women present, the Field of the Cloth of Gold must have been a grand spectacle, with the two kings seeking to outdo each other in magnificence and display.

If Anne had not previously seen Henry VIII while in the household of Margaret of Austria, this would have been the first time that she laid eyes on her future husband who, while still in his late twenties, remained a glittering and splendid figure, acquitting himself well in dancing and sporting prowess at the meeting. On more than one occasion Henry dined with Claude while his French counterpart visited the English queen. Anne Boleyn would have been one of the French ladies who danced before the English gentlemen, while Mary Boleyn would have done the same to entertain Francis and his men. It may have been an uncomfortable meeting for Mary and the French king. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, later praised the queens for being ‘accompanied with so many of other fair ladies in sumptuous and gorgeous apparel’ at the meeting: Anne and Mary Boleyn, their mother, Elizabeth, and aunt, Anne Tempest Boleyn, took their places among these women to take part in the dancing and feasting which accompanied one of the most costly, and grandest, events of Henry VIII’s reign, which Bishop Fisher declared to be ‘wonderful sights as for this world’.

Mary Boleyn was already married when she attended the English queen in France, taking William Carey as her husband on 4 February 1520. Carey, who was a similar age to his bride, was a younger son of Thomas Carey of Chilton Foliat in Wiltshire. The family were prominent in the local gentry, with Thomas Carey sitting as a Member of Parliament in Henry VII’s reign. Through his mother, William Carey was related to the Earl of Northumberland. By 1519 he had joined the court, serving in the king’s household. With his association with the king, Carey represented a solid, but not brilliant, match for the daughter of the ambitious Thomas Boleyn. It may be that Carey was the best match that Mary could obtain following her behaviour in France. Alternatively, the couple, who were both resident at court, may have made a love match, although Carey’s later acquiescence with regard to her affair with Henry VIII does not suggest a man deeply in love with his wife. More likely Carey’s court connections and kinship with the Earl of Northumberland were sufficient for her family. Mary’s father had, after all, risen through his court service and he may have hoped that his son-in-law would do the same. Neither Mary nor Anne Boleyn were heiresses, and, as Anne’s later relationship with Henry Percy showed, neither was of great worth on the aristocratic marriage market. There is no evidence that Mary’s marriage was arranged to cover a relationship with the king. In February 1520 Henry’s mistress, Bessie Blount, who had borne his son, Henry Fitzroy, in June 1519, was in Essex, awaiting the birth of a second child who can probably be attributed to the king.10 As with all his affairs, Henry was discreet when he began his relationship with Mary, something which makes the dating of his affair very difficult. William Carey began to receive significant royal grants early in 1522, suggesting that the affair may have begun around that time.11 Given that Henry VIII’s mistress, Bessie Blount, was married off at around the same time, it would seem plausible to date his interest in Mary to the waning of his interest in the mother of his only acknowledged illegitimate son.

Henry VIII later admitted that he had enjoyed a love affair with Mary Boleyn and there is no reason to doubt that the pair were lovers. It seems unlikely, as recently asserted, that Henry raped Mary, forcing her to begin an affair with him.12 This was a very serious charge, even for a king: Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV, allegedly held a dagger to the throat of a young widow, Elizabeth Woodville, intending to force himself upon her. When she resisted, he stopped short of the act, instead marrying his intended victim. Henry VIII did not force himself upon Anne Boleyn when she resisted him, something that suggests that he was no rapist. His ancestor, King John, earned notoriety in the early thirteenth century, partly for allegedly forcing himself upon noblewomen, something which helped to earn the enmity of his barons. Although a king, Henry VIII was not free to act outside the constraints of society and the rape of a gentlewoman who was closely related to a number of prominent figures is simply implausible. Mary Boleyn would have been a willing occupant of the king’s bed, particularly as, in 1522, the king was still a very handsome specimen, renowned as one of the most handsome princes in Europe.

Details of the pair’s relationship are scant, although Mary featured prominently in a court masque in March 1522. Her husband’s acceptance of the relationship was bought with a number of royal grants, including the keepership of New Hall in Essex, a fine palace that Henry had used as his base when visiting Bessie Blount at her residence at Blackmoor Priory: the significance of the palace’s connection with a former mistress was probably not lost on Mary or her husband.13 In July 1522, Carey and another courtier were jointly granted the valuable wardship of one Thomas Sharpe of Canterbury, allowing them to make use of his lands and income.14 This was followed by other grants, including a pension of 50 marks per year. It may have been due to Mary that her father was made treasurer of the household in April 1522 and a Knight of the Garter in April 1523. This honour was followed in June 1525 when Thomas Boleyn was created Viscount Rochford on the same day that Henry created his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. Thomas’s promotion, although it could be seen as the reward for his years of royal service, is more likely linked to the king’s relationship with Mary, particularly since he would later acquire two earldoms due to Henry’s love for his younger daughter.

When discussing Mary Boleyn and her relationship with Henry VIII, the question must of course be asked as to whether either of her two children, Catherine and Henry Carey, can be considered to have been fathered by the king. Henry VIII acknowledged only one illegitimate child during his lifetime, his son, Henry Fitzroy, by Elizabeth Blount. However, there is good reason for believing that Fitzroy’s sister, Elizabeth Tailboys, may also have been born to the king and other children have also been attributed to him.15

Henry Carey’s birth date of 4 March 1526 is known due to the evidence of William Carey’s inquisition post mortem.16 Catherine’s birth date is less clear although she was appointed as a maid of honour to Anne of Cleves at the end of 1539, an appointment for which she must have been at least twelve years old. Catherine married in 1540 and her first child was born in 1541, something that would suggest a birth date of around 1524.17 This is supported by the portrait of a heavily pregnant woman which is usually identified as Catherine and is inscribed with the date 1562, as well as recording that the sitter was thirty-eight.18 The lady strongly resembles an effigy known to be Catherine and there is no reason to doubt the identification, indicating that 1524 is likely to be correct.

It has recently been pointed out in one academic study that the paternity of Mary Boleyn’s children remains ambiguous.19 Henry VIII did not have problems in impregnating his sexual partners, simply that the pregnancies rarely produced healthy male offspring, and it is therefore not impossible that he produced more surviving children than previously acknowledged. There were certainly contemporary rumours as to their paternity, with the Vicar of Isleworth stating during his examination by the royal council on 20 April 1535 that ‘Mr Skidmore did show to me young Master Carey, saying that he was our sovereign lord the king’s son by our sovereign lady the queen’s sister, whom the queen’s grace might not suffer to be in the court’. A sexual relationship with Mary Boleyn potentially invalidated Henry’s marriage to her sister, something that would make both Henry and Anne reluctant for Mary’s children to be seen as of royal blood.

There is some evidence of royal favour shown to the Carey children which has been pointed out by historians. Following their marriage, Catherine Carey and her husband, Francis Knollys, were the beneficiaries of an Act of Parliament which gave them joint ownership of the Knollys manor of Rotherfield Greys; this was a method of providing for a favoured female courtier without actually incurring any expense himself that Henry had earlier utilised in relation to Elizabeth Blount following her marriage. It has also been suggested that Henry Carey may have been raised with his cousin (or half-sister) Princess Elizabeth, given their later closeness and the fact that he was later created Baron Hunsdon by Elizabeth, a reference to one of her known childhood residences.

Another suggestion that the Carey children might have been commonly believed to have been fathered by Henry VIII is found in Sir Robert Naunton’s Fragmenta Regalia. Naunton was born in 1563 and had connections to the court of Elizabeth I, eventually serving as secretary of state to James I. In an anecdote concerning Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Naunton recorded that:

And for my Lord Hunsdon [Carey], and Sir Thomas Sackville, after Lord Treasurer, who were all contemporaries, he was wont to say of them that they were of the tribe of Dan, and were noli me tangere, implying that they were not to be contested with, for they were indeed of the queen’s nigh kindred.20

On the face of it, this remark refers only to the fact that both Hunsdon and Sackville, who was related to the Boleyns but not descended from Mary Boleyn, were considered to have a special position at court due to their relationship to the queen’s maternal family. However, the reference to the tribe of Dan is an interesting one. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses called Dan a ‘lion’s whelp’ and this has been taken to mean that a reference to the Careys as the tribe of Dan might also suggest their descent from a lion – the king himself.21 Another point that should be raised in relation to this is the line noli me tangere, or ‘touch me not’. While again, this can be given its literal meaning to demonstrate the special status of the queen’s maternal kin, it is also potentially another covert reference to the Careys’ paternity. In a well-known poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, which clearly refers to Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn, the poet included the line ‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am’ in reference to the king’s possession of Anne Boleyn. Given the continuing popularity of Wyatt’s poems in the later sixteenth century, this reference would have been widely known: it is just possible that the words ‘Noli me tangere’, as uttered by Dudley, were also meant to imply that the Careys belonged to ‘Caesar’ or Henry VIII.

There is a difficulty in interpreting the tribe of Dan remark to refer to the paternity of the Carey children. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob referred to Dan as a serpent that bites a horse’s heels to make the rider fall backwards, while he instead calls his fourth son, Judah, a ‘lion’s whelp’.22 It is therefore clear that Dan was not the only lion’s whelp among the sons of Jacob and a reference to the tribe of Dan in order to infer royal paternity in the sixteenth century need not have been immediately apparent. In addition to this, Dudley, who was politically opposed to the Careys, might have meant to refer to their treachery in his remark, referring to them as biting a horse’s heels to make a rider fall backwards.

Another counter-argument to the tribe of Dan remark is that it may have been meant to have another connotation. The tribe is listed in the Book of Numbers as the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it has been estimated that there were approximately 103 members of the Carey family alive during the reign of Elizabeth I due to the great fertility of Henry and Catherine Carey.23 Given that Elizabeth always showed these cousins great favour, it is likely that their high numbers were resented at court and this could certainly have been the rationale behind Dudley’s remark. Also, of course, Dudley was not born when Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn were conducting their affair and, while he might have heard rumours and even had some more specific knowledge from the queen herself, he was hardly in a position to know for certain whether the Carey children were the king’s. Henry VIII, after all, never acknowledged them. It is therefore possible that, even if he did indeed mean to imply their potential royal paternity in his remarks, he may only have been repeating rumour and not speaking from actual fact. That said, however, Elizabeth I would presumably have been aware if the Careys were her half-siblings and it is not at all impossible that she could have imparted this information to her favourite.

William Carey received a royal grant on 20 February 1526, twelve days before Henry Carey’s birth.24 One historian who considered that both Carey children were the king’s considered that ‘significantly, this royal grant included the borough of Buckingham which was granted to William Carey “in tail male”. It is impossible not to be struck by the coincidence of this entailment to a male “heir”, just twelve days before the date of record on which William Carey’s wife gave birth to a male child said to be the king’s son.’25 However, it would seem implausible that this grant was intended to provide for the king’s own son, given that this ‘son’ had not yet been born, with Mary’s second pregnancy as likely to result in a daughter as her first. It would seem more arguable that the child that Mary was carrying was her husband’s, unlike her earlier daughter who can be attributed to the king. William Carey’s quiet acceptance of his wife’s relationship with the king had to be bought, as can be seen by the royal grants to him. It seems likely that it was also agreed that the king would make some provision for Carey’s own heir, perhaps as a reward for Carey raising the king’s daughter as his own. The entail on male heirs for this grant was in order to ensure that Catherine Carey, whom the king knew to be his daughter and intended to provide for in due course, would not inherit. Instead, the property would pass to the sons that Mary Boleyn would bear her husband.

A similar pattern occurred with Bessie Blount. While the king acknowledged her first child, Henry Fitzroy. Her second child, a daughter born nearly two years before her marriage, was raised as a child of her husband, Gilbert Tailboys, something which caused considerable family friction when that daughter unexpectedly inherited the Tailboys’ patrimony.26 Where a husband acquiesced to his wife’s relationship with the king in return for offices and lands, there was little reason for him to not also raise an illegitimate daughter of the king’s as his own, particularly if the king agreed to provide for this daughter at her marriage as he appears to have done for Catherine Carey. Such a husband is, however, highly unlikely to have agreed to raise a son in a similar manner, since that son would inherit his property at his death. This must be the strongest evidence that Henry Carey was not the king’s son, although his sister may well have been a royal daughter. It has been suggested that Mary and Carey had a non-sexual marriage, with their relationship merely being a sham to cover her love affair with Henry VIII.27 There is no evidence to support this. Mary may have abandoned sleeping with her husband during her relationship with the king but, equally, she may not, something which would further throw the paternity of at least her eldest child, Catherine Carey, into doubt.

Anne Boleyn left Claude’s household early in 1522, returning to England as negotiations were opened for her marriage with James Butler in order to settle the Ormond inheritance. Like her sister, she found a place at the English court, something that was not surprising given her importance to the king’s administration of Ireland. Her sister may also have helped secure her position. Mary is highly likely to have been instrumental in arranging for Anne to take a prominent role in a court masque held at Greenwich within weeks of her arrival in March 1522. The masque was to be one of the most spectacular of Henry’s reign, with a large mock castle built within the palace for the occasion. Once the guests were seated, eight ladies wearing gowns of white satin and caps of gold and jewels appeared at the top of the castle, representing the virtues of beauty, honour, perseverance, kindness, constancy, bounty, mercy and pity. Henry’s sister, Mary, the former Queen of France, played Beauty. Mary Boleyn played Kindness, a virtue that aptly reflects her character. Even more appropriately, as it turned out, Anne took the role of Perseverance. Jane Parker, who may already have been betrothed to the sisters’ brother, George, also took part, although her virtue is not recorded. The eight ladies defended their castle with rosewater and comfits as it was stormed by eight lords dressed in cloth of gold and blue satin. Eventually, the lords drove away a further eight women dressed to represent vices, with the virtues then coming down joyously from their tower to dance with the gallants. Anne’s partner is nowhere recorded. Henry, who was one of the participants, probably danced with his sister or, perhaps, Mary Boleyn. This was Anne Boleyn’s court debut but she and her future sister-in-law, Jane Parker, must have been overshadowed by the radiant Mary Boleyn.

As well as ensuring the appointment of her sister as one of the dancers in the masque, Mary may also have used her influence on behalf of Jane Parker. Surprisingly, there are few sources relating to the life of Jane Parker, who would later become the notorious Lady Rochford. Jane was the daughter of Henry Parker, who as the son of Alice Lovel, the heiress to the Morley family, was created Lord Morley by the king in 1520.28 The Parker family, like the Howards, had been conspicuous in their support for Richard III at Bosworth Field, with Jane’s grandfather, Sir William Parker, serving as the last Yorkist king’s standard bearer in the battle. Given this association William’s son, Henry, was lucky to gain a patron in Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who took him into her household as a carver or cupbearer.29 Margaret, who was a noted supporter of scholars and the universities, may have recognised Henry’s intelligence as he became one of the most noted scholars of his day. He remained devoted to the memory of his patron, years later writing a highly flattering memoir of her for her great-granddaughter, Mary I. Margaret was fond of the young Henry, arranging for him to marry Alice St John of Bletsoe, who was the daughter of her half-brother. The couple had three surviving children, Henry, Margaret and Jane, with the earliest mention of Jane in surviving sources being her participation in the Greenwich masque in 1522. This suggests that she had already obtained a court position, something that was not too surprising given the fact that her mother was a first cousin of the king’s father. William Cavendish, who had been resident at court during the 1520s, later put words into Jane’s mouth, claiming:

Brought up in court all my young age,
Withouten bridle of honest measure,
Following my lust and filthy pleasure.30

While this account was written with the hindsight of Jane’s scandalous fall, Cavendish is likely to have known her and it may be accurate. The account suggests that she spent much of her youth at court and, perhaps, enjoyed a less than spotless reputation. No scandal has been linked to Jane before the last year of her life, but it should be noted that the court was a place where flirtations were rife and conduct could be somewhat free. The Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, for example, famously noted that he doubted that Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, could have been a virgin at the time of her wedding given that she had spent some years at court.

Very little evidence survives relating to Jane’s childhood. Her father was a noted scholar who made translations of a number of important works. As such, it can be assumed that Jane received some sort of education, particularly as her signature on a surviving letter indicates that she was literate.31 A list of some of Jane’s possessions compiled in 1536 contained references to three books: a primer bound with silver and gilt, a book covered in black velvet and with a clasp of silver and a book covered in crimson velvet.32Jane was interested in education, with a letter from a William Foster surviving from 1536 in which he called Jane the ‘most special patroness of my study’.33 She remained close to her father after her marriage, with him continuing to guide her religious education. In a dedication written to the Princess Mary, for example, Lord Morley noted that the princess had translated a prayer of St Thomas Aquinas when she was aged eleven in 1527 or 1528. Morley commented that the prayer ‘is so well done, so near to the Latin’ that he marvelled at it that he had caused it to be copied into the books of his wife and his children ‘to give them occasion to remember to pray for your grace’.34 Jane’s loyalty to her father, who was a friend to Princess Mary, caused her problems with her husband’s family in the years following her marriage.

The Morleys enjoyed close connections with the Boleyns, which probably explains how the match came to be arranged. Jane’s grandmother, Alice Lovel, had taken Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s brother, Sir Edward Howard, as her second husband, while Jane’s sister married Thomas Boleyn’s nephew, John Shelton. Jane and George’s marriage agreement was signed on 4 October 1524, with the couple known to have been married by the autumn of 1525 at the latest.35 At the end of 1526 Thomas Boleyn received £33 6s8dfrom a servant of Jane’s father: a reasonably substantial sum which suggests that it was connected to the agreement made at the time of the marriage.36 Jane also later claimed that ‘the King’s Highness and my Lord my father paid great sums of money for my jointure to the Earl of Wiltshire [Thomas Boleyn] to the sum of 2,000 marks’.37 From this, Jane was assured an annual income of 100 marks in the event that she was widowed during her father-in-law’s lifetime, to increase to 300 marks per annum on his death.38The king’s involvement in her jointure suggests that he may have been involved in the negotiations for the match, perhaps to please his mistress, Mary Boleyn. Certainly, in the early 1520s Jane was socially superior to her husband, who was still a teenager. George had served as a royal page as a child and, in 1522, received the grant offices in Tunbridge jointly with his father, later also receiving the grant of a manor in Norfolk.39 This may, perhaps, have been to make him a more attractive proposition to the Morley family, although within a few years of the marriage the fortunes of the Boleyn family dramatically increased.

At the time of Jane Parker’s marriage to George Boleyn, his sister, Mary, was the pre-eminent member of the family at court. The end of her relationship with the king is nowhere recorded, but it was probably midway through 1525, perhaps shortly before the ennoblement of Thomas Boleyn, but before Mary conceived Henry Carey, who should be considered her husband’s child. This coincides with the return of her sister, Anne, to court, who was the woman that supplanted Mary in the king’s affections. Nicholas Sander claimed that Mary saw the king’s waning affection for her and his interest in her sister and, becoming jealous, went to the queen

and bade her be of good cheer; for though the king, she said, was in love with her sister, he could never marry her, for the relations of the king with the family were of such a nature as to make a marriage impossible by the laws of the Church. ‘The king himself,’ she said, ‘will not deny it, and I will assert it publicly while I live; now, as he may not marry my sister, so neither will he put your majesty away.’40

Sander is a highly prejudicial source but, on occasion, his work contains elements of the truth. It is certainly not impossible that there was some jealousy between the two sisters as Mary watched herself be supplanted in favour of her younger sister, Anne Boleyn.

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