Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – France by Sarah Bryson

François I
King Francis I, painted in approximately 1515.

Following on from her previous three posts on Mary Boleyn, Sarah Bryson considers Mary’s time in France…

It is most commonly accepted that during her time in France Mary Boleyn became the mistress of King Francis I. During her time at the French court she reportedly gained a reputation for being a woman of loose morals who was to become a great and infamous wh*re. In part four of my series on Mary Boleyn I would like to challenge this common perception of Mary and propose that in fact she was not a great and infamous wh*re and perhaps, just perhaps, she did not even become the mistress of Francis I.

In 1514 Mary obtained a position as a maid of honour to Mary Tudor whom 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 King, 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 Katherine of Aragon. While others propose that Mary, as with her sister Anne, stayed in in France to serve King Francis I’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 Katherine 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. There is a tradition that Anne Boleyn lived in Brie-sous-Forges for a time, but since we know that she was retained in Queen Claude’s house it is quite plausible that it was in fact Mary and not her sister Anne that went to live at Brie-sous-Forges. Unfortunately as with much of Mary Boleyn’s life this is just one theory as to the whereabouts of this mysterious woman during 1515 – 1520.
Whether Mary stayed only a short time or several years in France it is often written that during her time in the country Mary became the mistress to Francis I, the new King. Her sexual activities some say, were so well known that even the French King referred to her as ‘The English Mare’ and she was said to be ‘a great wanton and notoriously infamous.’

In her book ‘The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards’ Philippa Jones states that she does not believe that Mary Boleyn was even the mistress of King Francis I. In fact she believes that Mary only slept with three men during her life time, those being Henry VIII, her first husband William Carey and her second husband William Stafford. When examining the evidence that is used to support the assumption that Mary was the mistress of Francis I, Philippa Jones’ proposal certainly gains more weight.

In fact there are only three pieces of recorded evidence which refer to Mary Boleyn’s sexual activities in France. The first 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 one 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 and a half 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. 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 Boleyns who were sometimes seen as quite Evangelical.

Fourthly how can we even be sure that what Bishop Pio wrote were 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 wh*re. It depends on how one interprets the word ‘knew’ in the statement. Perhaps Francis 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 wh*re. Once again with second or third hand sources and a lack of direct evidence it can only be proposed that Francis and Mary had any sort of relationship at all.

The second piece of evidence to support the idea that Mary was a great and infamous wh*re 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 younger 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 whom was extremely prejudice 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 third 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 wh*re? In a court full of loose morals a woman would have to do something truly outrageous to be known as an infamous wh*re, 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. All three pieces of evidence were 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. How therefore can we accept any truth behind their words?

At the end of the day we will never know if Mary did have an affair with Francois I. Personally I believe that she may have had an encounter with the French King, how deep or sexual this encounter was I simply cannot say. I do not find any truth in the letters written by Bishop Pio or in the work of Nicholas Sanders and William Rastall, but I do question why Francis I would refer to having known Mary Boleyn and calling her a great and infamous wh*re. What I would give to go back in time, catch Mary Boleyn by the arm and pull her into an alcove and delve into her deepest secrets! One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Mary Boleyn is the million dollar question: did she or didn’t she sleep with Francis I?


  • 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 12th November 2011, Available from Internet
  • Wikipedia 2011, ‘Nicholas Sander’, viewed 12th November 2011, Available from Internet,
  • 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.

Sarah Bryson runs the popular “Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History” Facebook page and you can catch up with her previous Mary Boleyn articles by clicking on the links below:-

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