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Very Handsome Young Ladies

March 18, 2015

There had been a “very handsome young lady” in the autumn of 1534, according to Chapuys. She had displayed an attachment towards “the Princess” — by which Chapuys of course meant Mary not Elizabeth — at which point the fickle court began to treat Mary with more reverence too. Then there was Madge [Shelton] whose enjoyment of the royal favours seems to have lasted for about six months.

— Antonia Fraser, The Wives Of Henry VIII, 217

George Boleyn’s wife had been forbidden the court because she had plotted with Anne to pick a quarrel with Henry’s new fancy and force her to withdraw … The affair was still going on in December, when the king was again annoyed at Anne’s complaints, but by the end of February [1535] it was finished.

Eric Ives, The Life And Death Of Anne Boleyn, 194

Conspicuously absent from all accounts of this “very handsome young lady” is one basic fact: her name. This is less surprising when we remember that the sole reason we even know she existed was because Chapuys mentioned her in a few letters — and as she never made quite enough of a stir to justify his naming her, she has remained anonymous down through the centuries. This isn’t to say that her name is entirely lost; the odds are good that we do know it, but that we know it as the name of one of Anne’s maids of honour or one of her many other women about court. We simply don’t know which particular name is the right one to attach to the handsome young lady, and it’s unlikely that we ever will. According to both Ives and Fraser, however, there is one name that can definitely be ruled out — Jane Seymour. When Chapuys first mentioned Jane Seymour’s name (as “Mistress Semel”) in February 1536, he gave no indication then or later that she had had any previous connection to Henry. This hasn’t stopped a few writers, of course, but on the whole, authors have been oddly reluctant to put any name — real or fictional — to the young lady.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that this presumed mistress began turning up much in books at all. It’s not hard to see why — most of the works about Anne before then were plays, which wouldn’t benefit from the introduction and then dropping of a minor antagonist when there were already so many major ones. Novels tended to be more about the arc of the story and less about conscientiously cataloging every one of Henry’s real misdeeds. And it’s true that dramatically, the very handsome young lady can be hard to justify, since she appears and disappears so fast (though the real woman may, of course, have stayed on at court for some time). For storytelling purposes, it makes much more sense to either collapse her and Jane Seymour’s characters together or simply omit the episode, along with Lady Rochford’s rustication, altogether. Given that that the earlier novels tend to concentrate more on the courtship and often either skip 1534 over with a few sentences or tell them from an outsider’s viewpoint, it’s no shock to discover that the young lady remains thoroughly obscure in most of them.

An early (though not the earliest) exception is The Queen’s Confession (1947) in which states that “there was a lady — I’ll not recall the strumpet’s name! …. One of my ladies she was and I’d have dismissed her had I dared, the insolent jill to play her whore’s game in my chambers, ogling the fool of a king, pampering his vanity, making him think himself wise, strong, handsome … what fools are men!”

In this instance, she knows the woman’s name but refuses to say it; in many subsequent books she would be even more coy about it — and sometimes, just as baffled as everyone else by the woman’s identity.
In Murder Most Royal (1949), the young lady is apparently so good at blending into the background that even the ever-spying Lady Rochford can’t quite recall who she is. “I forget her name,” says Lady Rochford, “She is so quiet, one scarcely notices her. She is a friend of Chapuys; she is of those who would very gladly see the Queen displaced from the throne …”

“The new favourite was so well hidden away in some castle of Sussex that we could never discover her name,” says the narrator of Anne Boleyn (1985) “The court naturally spent a great deal of time conjecturing; the queen and I likewise. People even asked if it might not be an incest: had Henry fallen for some bastard daughter of his father’s who had come to light? All that Anne was able to deduce from the king’s altered behavior to her was that the hidden influence of the lady was being exerted at her expense and in favour of Catherine and Mary.”

A Lady Raised High (2006) also has the mistress being kept hidden. “I never learned this lady’s name. She could not have been a woman of the court, because, were that the case, all of us would have known who she was … I speculated that the lady might have been a noblewoman Henry met on his progress during the summer, when he’d been without Anne. A smitten or ambitious woman would no doubt take full advantage of finding Henry alone.”

In Brazen (2014) the question is neatly ducked when Mary Howard, shocked at finding out from Madge Shelton that Henry is having an affair, asks “With whom?” and is told merely, “Does it matter?” Mary thinks it matters quite a bit — “The queen will want to know. Is it a friend? A rival? Or just a dalliance?” Madge and Mary, unable to decide whether or not to tell Anne, end up taking the news to Lady Rochford, who passes it along to Anne. The end result is the quarrel in which Henry tells Anne that he can lower her as much as he raised her, and Lady Rochford is sent away from court for telling tales, but nobody involved happens to drop the lady’s name while all this is going on, so as in all those other books, we never find it out.

A few modern books follow the example of earlier times in simply deleting the young lady. In Kiss of the Concubine (2013) and The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) the very handsome young lady doesn’t even get a chance to arrive on the scene, as the Boleyn family enlists Madge Shelton to distract Henry before any woman from a hostile family can move in on the king. “She’ll keep him busy and she knows her place” says Thomas Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl, but Anne nonetheless insists that she be made aware that there will be no “flaunting of herself around me,” which seems a little much considering how Anne got to her present position. However, at least once, Anne is justified in her worries — in To Die For (2011) Madge Shelton, far from being there to forestall or supplant the very handsome young lady, is actually the young lady herself. This Madge is deplored by the rest of the ladies at court for having a “loose shift” and ends up carrying water for Mary and betraying Anne apparently out of sheer jealousy that her reputation is better than Madge’s.

Madge is cast in a more heroic light in At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012), where she’s once again in her accustomed role of saving Anne from a hostile mistress, but in this case the mistress in question is Jane Seymour; probably the only person at court who can be ruled out as a candidate! But as you’ll have noticed, authors are remarkably reluctant to name real people not already ineluctably associated with Henry as candidates as having been his mistress. It’s certainly polite of them, but considering some of the things that have been said about other participants in the story, it seems like a strange place to draw the line.

A few authors have been courageous enough to pick real women as candidates — the earliest instance I can find of this is in Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) in which the young lady is Joan Guildford, “fresh at court, a dark thing with laughing white teeth, adroit and beautiful, who could easily amuse Henry. That warm resistance he found enticing.” There was certainly a real Joan Guildford at court at the time, but she seems not to have been a partisan of Princess Mary and, even more fatally, was about twenty-five years older than Henry VIII; she was in fact the “Mother of the maids” when the elder Mary Tudor was sent to France in 1514. Whether the author was having a joke or just got unlucky when picking a name from a list of maids isn’t clear, but it seems safe to put her name alongside Jane Seymour’s on the list of not-possibles.

Two more plausible candidates appear in Perseverance and Le Temps Viendra, Vol. II (both 2014). In the former, she’s named as Elizabeth Harvey (or Hervey), and in the latter, interestingly enough, as Elizabeth Somerset, Lady Worcester. Lady Worcester, of course, is often supposed to have been the source of some highly damaging if probably twisted remarks about Anne, but in the book Anne describes Elizabeth has having become something of a friend after Henry had left her. Unfortunately, the relationship doesn’t get the attention it needs to become convincing, but there’s the seed of an interesting subplot there nonetheless.

And finally, of course, are the names and histories which are flat-out invention. In The Uncommon Marriage (1960) her name is Sara Hogden, “second daughter of Ralph Hogden, gamewarden, whose wife was a gypsy before she died in childbirth.” Henry encounters the beautiful Sara during a hunt and soon afterwards she’s “brought, bathed, perfumed, hair brushed and combed – a white rose atop and golden earrings aside — sheathed and protuberant in ivory sendal, to a wall-eyed entrance of the Royal chambers by Jane Rochford.” Sara is implied to be Jane Rochford’s puppet politically as well; she herself has few opinions about Henry’s treatment of Catherine and Mary, but Jane has a lot of them and uses Sara as her mouthpiece. Unfortunately for Jane, a secret letter of hers promising support to Catherine is intercepted and she’s promptly banished, though not for picking a fight with the mistress, which is what seems to have really happened.

And finally, there is Tamsin Lodge, heroine of the first and (so far as I know) only book to make the “very handsome young lady” into the protagonist: The King’s Damsel (2012). Tamsin is a former member of Princess Mary’s household who is reluctantly moved to Anne’s household by her evil guardian, but takes advantage of the fact to do some spying, learn how to send messages in code, and accidentally kill Anne’s dog Purkoy with some “sugared” almonds (sent to her by a jealous Anne) which turn out to be coated with arsenic. There’s so much going on that Henry VIII almost fades into the background, which you’ll admit takes some doing.

As for my own personal preference — if I ever write my own Anne novel, I think my preferred candidate for the handsome young lady will be Margery Horsman. Considering that she was a real, breathing maid of honour, who managed to serve all six queens no less, she’s long overdue for some fictional attention.

From → Essays

  1. Annalucia permalink

    “Ralph Hogden…whose wife was a gypsy before she died in childbirth.”

    Code Red, we need a proofreader immediately. Code Red …

    Oh well, Margery Horsman it is, then. Serving all six queens, and living to tell the tale, is accomplishment enough.

    • sonetka permalink

      Margery never gets a lot of attention, and I really can’t figure out why. Maybe her last name is discouraging?

  2. Fascinating! Absolutely fascinating! It’s amazing to see how so many different novelists danced around the issue of her name in different ways!

    You’d think someone would have been all over Margery, there’s a potential for six books there, if not a novel about someone who served all six queens would surely capture the imagination??

    • sonetka permalink

      I’m not sure if they genuinely thought it was a mystery to people at the time, as opposed to Chapuys just not bothering to mention it, or if — the earlier ones, especially — were just reluctant to name a woman as Henry’s mistress with no evidence pointing directly to her. Today, of course, we have the opposite problem; there are books which confidently state that Henry’s mistresses include any woman whose name was ever mentioned in the same sentence with him!

  3. Now this is downright fascinating. Thanks so much, Sonetka! I love it when you post these articles–it always gives my brain a buzz and gets me thinking. 😀 So odd, how what might have been common (if scandalous) knowledge back in the day is now a historical mystery.

    • sonetka permalink

      Always glad to give someone’s brain a buzz :). I’m sure it must have been common knowledge at the time — privacy was elusive even (especially) for a king and besides, the lady wouldn’t be able to exert much influence if nobody knew who she was. Chapuys just didn’t take a moment to write down her name, and as a result, posterity transformed her into a Mysterious Inamorata.

  4. Charlene permalink

    I wonder if she was one of Chapuys’s spies, which might have caused him to omit her name in case his letter was intercepted.

    PS Joan Guildford wasn’t the Mother of the Maids at Henry’s court as far as I know. She acted as Mother of the elder Mary Tudor’s maids at the French court, at least until Louis XII sent her home in a huff. Catherine of Aragon’s Mother of the Maids was Katherine de Montoya…who was also the mother of Chapuys’s principal secretary.

    • sonetka permalink

      You’re right — I got careless; she was Mother of the Maids for Mary Tudor and then later (possibly) a straight-up attendant on Catherine of Aragon but not acting as Mother of the Maids. I’ll correct that. Thanks for pointing that out! In any case, she was clearly well past the age where she could be the “very handsome young lady” (not to mention that she seems to have given evidence implying that Catherine and Arthur’s marriage was consummated, so whatever her feelings on Princess Mary it seems unlikely that she was Mary’s strong partisan).

      I’d never thought of the spy angle before; very interesting and plausible. Though since he doesn’t pass along news which is credited directly to her, there’s no particular reason for him not to name her even if she really was slipping information to him. Besides, anyone intercepting the letter would probably have known who she was anyway, or been able to find out via other channels so there’d be no reason for him to go out of his way to conceal her name.

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