Mary Boleyn – Was She really the Mistress of Francis I?

Francis I pointing out Mary to Henry VIII: "I call Mary my English Mare because I ride her so often".

As many of you know, I led a webinar on Thursday night for members of The Anne Boleyn Fellowship. The webinar, which was the second in my series on “The REAL Boleyns”, consisted of an hour long talk and slideshow on Mary Boleyn, based on my research into her life. I obviously won’t be sharing the content of the webinar here, as it was a members-only event, but I want to address an issue that I keep coming across in my research into the Boleyn family: assumptions and theories being written about as fact.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Galadriel’s words in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth”; well, in the case of the Boleyns it would be more accurate to say “Myth became history”. One example of this is the ‘fact’ that Mary Boleyn had a sexual relationship with Francis I (François I).

I have read many many books on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Tudor history and when it comes to Mary Boleyn all but one of them has assumed that she slept with the French king, although they point out that she was never his official mistress, a maîtress-en-titre like Françoise de Foix. That Mary was the mistress of two kings is a fact according to the history books.

Now, you know what I’m like – yes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have nothing on me, I blame it on reading far too many Agatha Christie’s as a teenager – when something is assumed to be a fact I have to find the primary evidence to prove it. So, whenever I found a sentence saying that Mary slept with Francis I I looked to see if the author or historian cited a reference or primary source so that I could go and check it for myself. Hallelujah, some historians actually did cite their sources! And the three that kept coming up were:-

  1. Rodolfo Pio the Bishop of Faenza’s letter to Prothonotary Ambrogio on the 10th March 1536 (LP x.450):-
    “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.'” – Here Faenza is claiming that Anne Boleyn did not miscarry a son in January 1536 but that she pretended to be pregnant and was helped by her sister, Mary, who the French king “knew” (in the Biblical way) for “a great prostitute and infamous above all”.
  2. Nicholas Sander’s words in “Rise and Growth of the English Schism” (1585):-
    “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.”
  3. Lord Herbert of Cherbury in “Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth” (1649) who 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.”

These are the only pieces of evidence cited in the history books I read that prove that Mary Boleyn was indeed the mistress of Francis I. Now, in her latest book, “Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous wh*re'”, Alison Weir challenges the idea that Mary Boleyn slept around at the French court, but I would like to go one step further and challenge the ‘fact’ that Mary Boleyn even slept with Francis I. I want to question the validity of the above three pieces of evidence for the following reasons:-

  • Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza, was a papal nuncio at the court of Francis I and was therefore biased against the evangelical Boleyns who had caused Henry VIII to break with Rome. Like the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, he does not even attempt to hide his disdain for Anne Boleyn, calling her “that woman” instead of “the Queen”.
  • We do not know that Pio was reporting Francis I’s words accurately and we do not know whether Francis I was exaggerating or lying in an attempt to denigrate the Boleyn name.
  • We know that the first part of Pio’s report is not true so why believe the second part? Pio claims that Anne Boleyn was never pregnant, and was lying, but we know from reports, such as the one by Chapuys where he states that Anne miscarried a “male child which she had not borne 3½ months” and also from Charles Wriothesley’s chronicle, that Anne did miscarry a baby on the 29th January 1536. How can we take Pio’s words seriously then?
  • Nicholas Sander and William Rastall are referring to Anne Boleyn, not Mary – Philippa Jones, in “The Other Mistresses: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards”, writes “Since these comments are obviously not applicable to Anne [i.e. we know she wasn’t sent to France in disgrace at the age of 15]… it has been assumed that they must apply to Mary when, in truth, they were written to discredit Anne and are largely based on vulgar invention, aimed simply at damaging her reputation.”
  • Both Sander and Rastall were Catholics and therefore biased against the Boleyns – Rastall was writing a sympathetic biography of Sir Thomas More and Sander was a Catholic recusant writing in exile during Elizabeth I’s reign. We can also see that Sander’s words were obviously based on those of Rastall.
  • Sander also wrote that Anne Boleyn had a projecting tooth, six fingers and a wen under her chin, and that she slept with her father’s chaplain and butler before being sent to France in disgrace. We don’t believe that do we, so why would we believe that the “English Mare” comment is true but that it refers to Mary?

It really does amaze me that historians dismiss such ‘evidence’ when it comes to Anne Boleyn but are quite willing to believe it when it comes to Mary? It doesn’t make sense, does it? Talk about double standards!

We also have to ask ourselves if Henry VIII would have chosen to sleep with a woman who had been the mistress of Francis I and who had such a dubious reputation.

I’m not saying that Mary Boleyn definitely did not have a sexual relationship with Francis I, but I’m challenging the widespread assumption that she did. The evidence is scant when it comes to Mary Boleyn, her whereabouts at various times in her life, her character, what she got up to in France etc. so wouldn’t it be better for us to hold our hands up and say “look, there are blanks in her life, we just don’t know what she did” or to make it clear when we are hypothesising, rather than perpetuating myth and legend when we fill in the blanks? So, I’m going out on a limb and saying that I won’t believe that Mary did sleep with Francis I unless I see conclusive evidence of it!

The more I read about the Boleyns, the more I realise just how much they have been maligned. Things have swung in Anne Boleyn’s favour, with people questioning the validity of works such as that of Nicholas Sander, but some are still willing to believe myths when it comes down to Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn, Mary, George and Jane Boleyn. Don’t believe everything you read, is what I’ve learned, question everything.

Notes and Sources

  • LP x.450
  • “Rise and Growth of the English Schism”, Nicholas Sander (1585), p25
  • “The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth”, the Right Honourable Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1649), p258-259
  • LP x.284, Chapuys
  • “The Other Mistresses: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards”, Philippa Jones, p106
  • Works by David Starkey, David Loades, Alison Weir, Kelly Hart, Marie Louise Bruce, Retha Warnicke, Paul Friedmann, Elizabeth Norton, Josephine Wilkinson, Eric Ives, Antonia Fraser…

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