William Stafford: So Much Honesty In Him
When Mary Boleyn was banished from court around September of 1534, she left on the arm of William Stafford, her second husband. He was also, of course, the catalyst for her departure; as a respectable but hardly well-situated man, he was in no way considered a good match for the sister of the Queen of England, and Mary had flouted authority doubly, first by marrying without permission and second by choosing someone whom she would never have obtained permission to marry anyway. That it was a love match, on her part at least, is clear from the much-quoted letter (entry 1655) which she sent to Cromwell after she was banished.
But one thing, good master Secretary, consider; that he was young, and love overcame reason. And for my part I saw so much honesty in him, that I loved him as well as he did me; and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty; so that for my part I saw that all the world did set so little by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and forsake all other ways, and to live a poor honest life with him …. For well I might a had a greater man of birth and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved so well nor a more honest man …. I had rather beg my bread my bread with him than be the greatest Queen christened.
The subject of this encomium is hard to pin down except in the sketchiest way, but along with a number of novelists, I’ll try.
William Stafford was a commoner, albeit distantly related to the Stafford family, and was born, according to this biographical account “before 1512” — probably not too long before, if Mary Boleyn’s repeated reference’s to her new husband’s “youth” are to make any sense. (Wiki gives his birthdate as c. 1500, but that seems far too early — it’s hard to imagine a Tudor-era man north of thirty being excused anything on the grounds of being young and impetuous). When it comes to his involvement with Mary Boleyn, much about their life together is frustratingly vague: they met at some point (he was at Anne’s coronation, and possibly also at Calais), married secretly at some point, and either before or after their wedding, Mary became pregnant with a child whose ultimate fate we don’t know, except that it almost certainly did not survive to adulthood. Where they went initially after their banishment is unclear, but it may have been to Stafford’s own property. Whether Mary’s appeal to Cromwell succeeded in bringing forth financial help is unknown, but she and Stafford did eventually prosper, thanks largely to the disaster that struck their family in 1536; with the deaths of George and Anne, Mary became the only surviving Boleyn child and inherited a great deal of property when her father died; a few years later she received even more when Jane Boleyn was executed. Some of this property Stafford inherited when Mary died in 1543.
A few years after her death he married again, this time to a distant cousin, and had several children; in the interval between wives he was knighted, so while he’s gone down in history as Sir William Stafford, Mary was never Lady Stafford during her lifetime. With his second wife he had a number of surviving children, at least one of whom was born abroad; when Mary came to the throne he went to Geneva, where his son John was baptized with John Calvin as his godfather. He also seems to have styled himself Lord Rochford, which he wasn’t, but then, it wasn’t like anyone else was using the title at that point. He died in 1556, having outlived his first wife by thirteen years and two monarchs.
Stafford had an eventful life, and even in books which center on Mary Boleyn we usually only see the slice of it which took place between roughly 1533 and 1536. Despite Mary’s own characterization of him as “young”, and likely at least a decade younger than herself, the age gap is seldom stressed. One exception is Blood Royal (1988) in which Mary says of Stafford that “He was young, in his early twenties, I guessed. And instantly I thought of something that had not troubled me before — that in a year I would be thirty years old.” Another is The Concubine (1963) in which Henry VIII describes Stafford as a “silly young cub” and Mary as “Years too old. And shop-soiled.”
More characteristic is the Stafford of The Last Boleyn (1983) who makes his first appearance in France when Mary is in her mid-teens — he’s young, but certainly not younger than her and probably a few years older, and is as handsome, brash, honest, and did I mention handsome? (In a nice touch, his horse is named Sanctuary after the sanctuary that a disgraced post-Bosworth relative failed to obtain, so Stafford has taken care to always bring Sanctuary with him). The Stafford of Feather Light, Diamond Bright (1974) has “broad shoulders and strong capable hands [which] made her long to relinquish her burdens into his care …. his eyes could wrinkle into slits of merriment and when he laughed he showed strong white teeth. His hair was black, and curled carelessly across his broad forehead, and his beard was small and neat.” In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), he is “a handsome man, broad-set with an honest open face. I imagined that he was a Stafford ruined on the execution of the disgraced Duke of Buckingham. He certainly looked like a man who had been born and bred to something more.” These Staffords also share another appealing characteristic — they’re good with kids, and as Mary comes pre-equipped with two small Carey children, their rapport with these children helps move Mary along from “How dare you speak to me thus?” to becoming just a bit more appreciative.
Stafford’s appearances in books not centered around Mary are inevitably brief; he swoops onstage to declare his love, and swoops off again with a pregnant Mary, usually leaving Anne miserably jealous and thinking that she would rather be loved by (not to mention pregnant by) a poor man rather than be Henry’s now-unvalued wife. “That silly young whelp found [Mary] blubbering in a corner, took her by the hand and burst in on me to make a full confession. While I was having my beard trimmed!” Thus Henry VIII, in The Concubine. Other times we don’t see him at all and Mary simply describes him, often with language taken straight from her letter. In Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) we see one of the earliest examples of this.
In the accession of the Boleyns, Mary had no share. Anne had taken her to Calais, but from then she was left in the cold. The usher with whom she had fallen in love was a Stafford, but he had no fortune. Anne was brutally hard. She drove Mary from court with merciless speed.
“I saw that all the world did set so little by me,” pleaded Mary to Cromwell, “and he so much, that I thought that I could take no better way but to take him and forsake all other ways and to live a poor honest life with him.”
Cromwell glanced down. After all, Mistress Carey had two sons who might make their way.
“Write me a letter, ma’am,” he said curtly. “Put it all down. I’ll say a word for you.”
Sixty years later, Mary is still doing the same thing. In Doomed Queen Anne (2002):
Mary confessed that some months previously she had secretly married one William Stafford, a man of neither wealth nor rank. “The child is his,” she whispered.
I was stunned. “You are nothing but a fool!” I cried. “Not only have you married far beneath you, but you have married without royal permission! Your life is ruined, as you must surely realize.”
“Love overcame reason,” Mary sobbed. “I loved him as well as he did me. Knowing how little the world thinks of me, I decided to forsake all other ways to live a poor and honest life with him.”
The quotations usually stand awkwardly against the more modern dialogue surrounding them, but sometimes modernization goes too far the other way. In A Lady Raised High (2006) Mary tells Anne that “I married him to seize a bit of happiness. I did not want a throne; I wanted someone to love me.” Fair enough, but she goes overboard when she slams her way out of the room with “I’ve had enough of court and lies and you.”
Stafford as a husband gets even more gracious treatment than William Carey; he’s either a boyishly devoted young man who thinks Mary is wonderful, or the older, tougher man who thinks Mary is wonderful. They almost always end up on his property — at Chebsey, Wivenhoe, and various other locales — enjoying a pastoral existence with their child, although we seldom see them after about June of 1536. Stafford is invariably strong, patient, a shoulder for Mary to cry on (literally) and grimly cognizant of the evils of the court they’ve left behind. Only once does he exhibit less than noble sentiments during the crisis. In The Concubine we get a glimpse of Mary — silly, goodhearted, but a terrible judge of situations — talking in circles about how dreadful the charges are and reproaching Stafford for not letting her go to London to plead with Henry or at least give a dramatic farewell to Anne. He tells her:
“You must console yourself by thinking that I forbade you to draw any attention to yourself just now. Remember we’re still banished from Court. For you to go trying to break in on the King, weeping and wailing and mentioning her name, would have been dangerous. And fatal to our hopes.”
“Our hope of being reinstated, my dear silly girl. I still contend that it was her influence that kept us banished all this time. The King will marry Mistress Seymour and everything will be reversed …. You’ll live to thank me for restraining your foolish impulse.”
Not his most glorious moment, fictionally speaking, but probably one of his more realistic ones.
Stafford’s story in fiction usually ends in 1536, but a couple of times it’s extended further; strangely, on both of these occasions he dies before his time. In Blood Royal he dies in Calais in 1542, and Mary’s death in 1543 is attributed his death having “taken something from her.” In Feather Light, Diamond Bright we’re informed that “William Stafford died six years after Anne was beheaded, and Mary did not marry again.” Considering that both books give the same year for his death, I’m sure there must be a common source from which both authors drew this mistaken information. I don’t know which book this would be, but I’m willing to bet it’s out there, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a genealogical mixup caused confusion — witness Elizabeth Howard’s supposed premature decease as described by Agnes Strickland. And while there are quite a few books in which Stafford isn’t mentioned at all, because Mary either isn’t a character or fades out early, special mention should be made of the one in which Stafford’s place is usurped by his own predecessor: The Tudor Sisters (1971). In this one, William Carey serves as an amalgam of both of Mary’s husbands: married off to her for the king’s convenience, but also low-ranking, in love with her, and finally living happily with her in rural obscurity, having unhistorically survived the sweating sickness.
William Stafford’s life would not make a bad novel in itself; rather like his sister-in-law, he climbed from obscurity into an estate which few would have imagined he could attain, and if that estate was a bit less glorious when he died, he still had quite a few adventures along the way. He resembles the young Anne in another way when it comes to fiction; his youthful love affair with a person of much higher status is inevitably sincere; much as Anne almost always loves Henry Percy without regard for his status, William Stafford loves Mary Boleyn for herself alone, and not her yellow hair, or even her family influence. It’s just as well for him, since while unlike Anne he manages to marry his beloved, he gets nothing out of it except a bride who has just been cut off without a penny and has no immediate prospects of anything except a baby. For the sake of Mary and their short-lived child, let’s hope that her description of him was as justified in life as it is in fiction.