Mary Boleyn, Lady Carey: I Had Rather Beg My Bread
When the late Eric Ives famously told Claire Ridgway that “What we know about Mary Boleyn could be written on a postcard with room to spare,” he was not, of course, speaking quite literally — you’d have to work pretty hard to squeeze that letter of hers on to any but the most generously proportioned postcard — but his larger point is well taken. Like Shakespeare’s, hers is indeed a negative history — we know that
— She was born on an indeterminate date, probably before her sister Anne (Henry Carey claiming a title through his mother’s being the elder being the main prop for that assertion)
— She went to France
— She may have been mistress to Francois I
— She returned to England and married William Carey on February 4 1520
— She became Henry VIII’s mistress at an indeterminate date, and the affair ended on another indeterminate date
— She gave birth to two children, paternity unknown
— She was widowed on June 22 1528
— She married again, to William Stafford, on an indeterminate date — by her own account, it was a love match, but she declines to tell us when it took place
— She may have had a third child on an indeterminate date
— She spent a long period of time living in an indeterminate location, possibly Calais, possibly not.
— She died on an indeterminate date in July 1543
The thinness of primary evidence can be startling to someone who’s read too many novels — the sole reference made during her lifetime to Mary’s supposed misbehavior in France was in March of 1536 (entry 450) when one Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza, passed on a bit of sour commentary from Francois I regarding Anne Boleyn’s last miscarriage, saying that she in fact had not been pregnant and that her sister Mary had helped her in a deception; that Mary was, in a phrase that would echo down the centuries, “Una grandissima ribalda et infame sopra tutte,” which my history books helpfully translate as “A great whore, infamous above all.” Even if Francois, who was not exactly the image of chastity himself, really did make this gallant observation, its truthfulness could be called into question. He was feeling less than tender towards England at the time and may have been simply dishing out insults to everyone. Of course, he was also wrong to say both that Anne had faked a miscarriage and that Mary was at the English court at the time — wherever she was, that was about the last place to look for her as she’d been thrown out about a year and half earlier. But he may have remembered something about her behavior in France — or he may have chosen to embroider. From this acorn many fictional oaks would eventually grow.
The same is true of Mary’s affair with Henry VIII, for which is there more solid if not exactly overwhelming evidence — including, entertainingly, his dispensation for his marriage to Anne which included provision for the consanguinity created by having slept with a sibling, and his eventual annulment of his marriage to Anne, based on the exact same thing. At some point the affair ended, and whatever she may have gained from it, it wasn’t enough to keep her from suffering a severe lifestyle downgrade when her first husband died. It was when Mary married her second husband that she managed to do something which even her sister couldn’t manage —
if the Bishop of Faenza, with one sentence, unwittingly mapped out the first half of Mary Boleyn’s life in fiction, Mary herself, in the space of a few sentences, mapped out the second half. I quoted a good deal of her letter (entry 1655) last week, but I would like to draw attention to one sentence in particular: “I have tried so much honesty to be in him, that I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest Queen christened.” Strong words even if her sister were not, in fact, a queen — but since she was, the implications could not go unnoticed, and why should they? If your goal is to write an exciting story, failing to use that kind of material — sisterly rivalry! True love versus earthly glory! She who humbles herself shall be exalted, or at least not beheaded! — would be a criminal waste.
Or so you would think, but for a long time Mary’s importance as a character tended to rank right around that of James Butler, meaning that for three and half centuries after her death her place in fiction was nonexistent. George Boleyn, being central to the story and dying a highly dramatic death, got plenty of attention (though not universally — he’s not in Shakespeare’s play, for instance), but Mary, having few notable accomplishments to speak of except surviving, remained unmentioned. Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) goes so far as to have a rejected Anne consoling herself with the thought of her family:
I’ve still a noble Father, and a Brother
And, Powers of grace! My Mother – kill her not,
Break not her heart, for sure ’twill break to hear it.
That there wasn’t room for even a nod to her sister’s existence in the list seems a little cold, though not on the level of My Friend Anne (1900) in which a lonely Anne wishes aloud that she had had a sister and asks that the narrator be a sister to her since that’s the closest she’ll ever get to having one. Whether these omissions were prompted by Mary’s dubious reputation or because the authors simply didn’t know about her I can’t begin to guess. Mary gets her first mention in The Favor of Kings (1912), where Anne’s “elder sister, Mary, obscurely married after a whispered scandal at court, was a faint and shadowy figure in her life for whom she felt only a good-natured contempt.” Faint and shadowy is a good descriptor for this Mary — we never see or hear from her directly, although we receive periodic progress reports, in which we learn that she and the poor, obscure William Carey are keeping well away from court, and, much later, that she has married again, and not under the sort of circumstances 1912 thought particularly romantic:
Mary Carey, Anne’s sister, a widow for some six years now, had lately married again and there was some haste to have the ceremony catch up with her good name — if indeed she had any left.
“Whom was’t she married?” Mary Wyatt murmured after a pause.
“Some officer — an unknown, for she hath a talent for obscurity which Anne doth not share. Mary is all whispers and twilight; Anne is the sunshine.”
One thing that is made clear, however, is Mary’s status as Henry’s former mistress; Anne has heard rumours which the dispensation confirms, although she phrases it rather elliptically. “Do you recall my sister Mary?” Anne says to Cranmer during her last days, as he puzzles over possible causes for annulment. “She was fair.”
He, and we, understand.
We see Mary in the flesh in Anne Boleyn (1932) in which Mary is the younger sister (a minority, most Marys are older) and while she only has a bit part, she’s remarkably similar in personality to her successors who went on to star in novels of their own. She’s all for love, without a spark of ambition and so out of step with her ambitious family, and her father is angry not at her amour with Henry but at the fact that she didn’t gain by it. Interestingly, the reader is left vague on the question of whether or not they had a full-blown affair or simply a flirtation gone too public. “If the king did make love to me, I did not yield,” Mary tells Anne, later informing her that “When I love a man I kiss him, but I do not ask a coin for a kiss …. The Queen would never tell! A good woman, poor soul, and I pitied her — I did! I care nothing for you, but I pitied her.” Mary having been banished to Hever after her misadventures at court, she rusticates there until eloping for love with one George Carey, a Carey/Stafford composite spouse, and disappearing from the story. In one respect, though, this Mary differs from her successors: she and Anne are extremely similar physically, both with brown hair and amber eyes. In fact, they’re so similar that when Anne first arrives at court, Catherine of Aragon briefly mistakes her for Mary and an awkward moment ensues.
Mary’s appearances in Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) and Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) keep her scandalous past within the borders of England; no reference is made to any foreign adventures. It’s in Murder Most Royal (1949) that Mary starts to assert her own claim to the title of “the scandal of Christendom.”
Mary had returned to England from the Continent with her reputation in shreds; and her face, her manner, her eager little body suggested that the rumour had not been without some foundation. She looked what she was — a lightly loving little animal, full of desire, sensuous, ready for adventure, helpless to avert it, saying with her eyes, “This is good; why fret about tomorrow?”
Mary’s career as the softhearted Girl Who Can’t Say No now cut a swath through two countries, not just one, and it continued steadily throughout the subsequent decades — in The Concubine (1963) Mary has described as having had several “affairs” in France (with whom is unspecified) before taking up with and being dropped by Henry, and dark hints are dropped about her previous activities in Anne Boleyn (1967). In both books, incidentally, her colouring is explicitly distinguished from Anne’s — Anne is the dark, unconventionally attractive sister, whereas Mary is all blonde hair and blue eyes, hence the wonderful scene in The Concubine where Anne rejects her dressmaker’s new bolt of cloth — “It is very beautiful, but I never wear blue” — but then orders some anyway because she thinks a dress in that colour will suit Mary’s fair colouring. Poor Mary ends up dodging and making excuses to avoid being measured for her new dress until she finally has to confess that she’s pregnant with William Stafford’s baby.
Mary’s blonde contrast to her sister is emphasized in The Tudor Sisters (1971) in which a young Anne tells her dispiritedly “I wonder sometimes why you should be so fair and wholesome and I so dark and ill-favoured. Who would credit that we were born of the same mother? … You are beautiful, Mall, a picture of roseland gilt whom men will worship and long to possess.” The men who long to possess her include the explicitly stated Francois I (earlier novels usually don’t mention him, just vaguely specified antics in France). Mary loves every second of it, is “all innocent eagerness” and, as is her fictional wont, never asks for anything in return. The blonde and beautiful Mary of Feather Light, Diamond Bright (1974) lets her passion for the page boy Robert rip once she’s in France and is busted by Francois himself, who subsequently uses that as leverage to get her into his own bed. The Mary of The Last Boleyn (1983), possessed of “golden hair and sky colored eyes and an angel’s face” becomes infatuated with Francois and gladly goes to bed with him (once again asking nothing in return); luckily by the time she gets disenchanted with him (when he starts lending her out to his friends) William Stafford has turned up to give her “a rolling wave of rapture in her blood.” Her affair with Henry is equally impassioned, and she feels it would somehow cheapen it to ask favours from him. The Mary of Blood Royal (1988) is perhaps the ultimate example of this type: she is fair, pretty, a bit dim, and lives in the moment where men are concerned — she loses her virginity to a page boy (named Guillaume, this time), moves on to another underling, and is then picked up by Francois, who has fun with her for a bit before, once again, transforming her into a loaner mistress for the use of his friends. Mary takes it all in fairly good part and is unfailingly comfortable with every man in her life subsequently (including William Carey, long-suffering spouse), which even for this subcategory may be stretching it a bit. Blood Royal does get points, however, for mentioning birth control (very obliquely — we never learn what she does, but it is referred to in passing. I can’t think of another book which even attempts to account for the fact that a woman who was later shown to be inconveniently fertile somehow managed to avoid conception during ten years of frantic sexual activity).
Equally active but not nearly as happy about it is the Mary of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) and Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007), both by the same author, who seems bent on making Mary the embodiment of sixteenth-century female victimization. Thomas Boleyn, on one of his flying visits to the French court where his daughters are living, summons Mary and Anne to tell them their next moves, and the virginal Mary is hit with this:
“You are to give yourself to Francois.”
Mary’s peachy skin went suddenly the color of milk. The muscles round her mouth were twitching with the words she had not the courage to utter.
“He has lost interest in his current mistress and is ready for a new one. I’ve seen the way he looks at you. He desires you. I think he fancies a virgin.”
That final word opened Mary’s floodates. “But I am a virgin and stayed a virgin so that you could make me a good marriage, Father! Now you are saying –”
My father slapped Mary hard, very hard across the cheek. She was so stunned she did not even bring a hand to her face to hold the place that had turned bright, stinging red.
“Now I am saying,” he continued in a clipped, icy cadence, “you will go to the king’s bed and keep him happy until I tell you to stop.”
Poor Mary’s first encounter with Francois involves being raped both ways, and we’ll draw a veil over her subsequent treatment except to say that once again she becomes a loaner mistress. Hope momentarily revives when she’s brought back home to marry William Carey, who contrary to expectations turns out to be a decent, non-raping sort of guy, but the idyll is short-lived. After Henry VIII notices Mary at the Field of Cloth of Gold, she is subsequently summoned by her father and, as she weepingly tells a horrified Anne, “I am to become Henry’s mistress.” The dead-eyed victim that this Mary becomes has a glancing similarity to the Mary of The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), who has similar feminist-oriented reflections on how terribly women are victimized, and whose pathetic situation is enhanced by her being very young — fourteen at the start of the novel. She too is informed flat-out that she’ll become Henry’s mistress, and “No choice” is the answer when she says she doesn’t want to. At least this Mary becomes somewhat enamoured of Henry later on, which makes things easier on her. This Mary is, incidentally, also something of a throwback; she’s the only Mary of recent vintage who didn’t have an affair with Francois — or with anyone in France, for that matter. In fact, while her time in France is mentioned — she tells William Stafford that she was sent there at the age of four and presumably returned at eleven or twelve, before her ridiculously early marriage to William Carey — she seems to have no memories of the place; she never describes childhood memories or speaks French to Anne, and presumably anyone sent there at the age of four (or even, as in most other books, at the age of ten or so) would have few problems achieving fluency.
Or so you would think, but Mary’s French skills have been specifically denigrated in at least three books (Anne Boleyn 1967, The Tudor Sisters, and Blood Royal) and in most of the others are simply not mentioned while Anne’s French speaking and French habits are taking the English court by storm. Certainly the sisters never speak French to each other, nor does Mary ever evince a taste for French literature or French fashions. The consistency here is a little startling, considering that there’s no historical record at all of Mary’s French fluency or lack thereof. Of course, she may have been a poor French speaker, but the fact that she spent at least a couple of years there — not to mention that her father, sister and brother all had a strong aptitude for that language — means that it wouldn’t be stretching things to portray her as having similar tastes, and a similar fluency.
But Mary was not raised up from fictional obscurity just to demonstrate how similar she may have been to Anne and George — her ultimate fate, and the letter she wrote after choosing it, took care of that. Here was a Mary who seemed to show all the qualities Anne did not display: recklessness, romanticism, and hatred for the gaudy life of the court — and possibly for Anne herself, if that stinger about not wanting to be “the greatest Queen in Christendom” was taken as more than an impersonal figure of speech. So by a gradual process of shading, contrasting, and detailing, the fictional Mary has become almost as far from Anne and George as she was three hundred years ago, when she wasn’t mentioned at all. Now, because Anne was reputed to be dark, Mary is fair, because Anne and George were intelligent and fluent in French, Mary is just a bit dim and her French is poor, because Anne and George could be calculating and careful, Mary is warmhearted and reckless, because Anne lived apart from her daughter, Mary must be very maternal (in Feather Light, Diamond Bright, Mary rebukes Anne for not breastfeeding, and in Brief Gaudy Hour, 1949, Mary reassures a non-maternal Anne that “babies bring all the love they need.”) Because Anne and George were acquisitive as courtiers were, Mary cares nothing for property or titles. Finally, because Anne and George lived their lives at the court, Mary must want nothing more than to live in the country and her whole life was a struggle to achieve that goal. In every novel centered around Mary, a happy life in the country is her ultimate wish, and it’s what she gets. In The Other Boleyn Girl she lives her hated life at court for the sake of the summer months when she can go to Hever and her children — “I want to live in the country with you,” she tells William Stafford. “I want to bring up our children to love each other and fear God. I want to find some peace now, I have had enough of playing the great game at court.” “Dreaming you were home at Hever, I suppose,” sneers an unsympathetic Thomas Boleyn to Mary when he catches her daydreaming one day at court in The Last Boleyn. And whether the novel is centered around her or around Anne, Mary always welcomes her ultimate life of obscurity.
If obscurity was truly what she wanted, the last hundred years have ensured that she won’t have it again for a long time. On the basis of a handful of unverifiable sentences written under stressful circumstances, posterity has enshrined Mary Boleyn as a romantic, as a nymphomaniac, as a rape victim, and virtually always as a selfless woman who lacked the intelligence of her sister but who had the warmheartedness her sister lacked. I can think of one exception to this trend in which Mary Boleyn is still a distinguishable character, and that’s The Concubine — Mary is sympathetic, but not idealized, and her career is more a byproduct of her muddling through life than following an overarching goal of distancing herself from the corruption and ambition of court life.
Mary’s husband, William Carey, had been one of those who had died during the sweating sickness in one of the manors the King had just abandoned, and for the last three and half years had lived an aimless, rather unhappy life …. She had refused, with the stubbornness of the weak, to come to Court until Anne was married; then at last she had accepted invitations and made quite protracted stays. But she had changed; her sweetness had soured into a whining self-pity, and, most surprisingly, she often gave evidence of having inherited Sir Thomas’s facility for planting verbal barbs.
This portrayal of Mary may be no more accurate than the rest, but it’s still a well-done and believable portrait of a woman who has no gift for thinking ahead and whose life is saved more by haphazard circumstance than any innate virtue of her own. As for the real Mary, one wonders whether her pleasure at being portrayed as a heroine wouldn’t be outweighed by her horror at our current idea of what constitutes heroism. But as we’ll never know, I think there’s still room for more fiction about her, provided it takes the radical tack of assuming she resembled her siblings, and plotting the story accordingly.