22 December 2012

Mary Boleyn: A bad reputation?

Mary Boleyn grew up the most idyllic of surroundings.  With the surrounding lush woods and gorgeous ancient gardens, Blickling Hall was one of England's most beautiful mansions.  Mary was raised to be a lady of excellent breeding and expected to be worthy of her honorable antecedence.

It must be noted however, that Mary is most remembered for two reasons:  that she was once the mistress of King Henry VIII, and that she had a dreadful reputation. The actual words used to describe Mary are too cruel and too offensive to warrant mention here.

Did Mary Boleyn earn her reputation? What had she done in her short lifetime to deserve such abusive terms to describe her person?

It is largely assumed that the beginnings of Mary's injured reputation were when she served in the French  court, a court infamous for its wanton ways. Francoise I would have been a 21 year old prince at this time and was already known as a hopeless womanizer. Francis likely bragged to courtiers of Henry VIII's court that Mary had been one of the innumerable young ladies that he had conquered.  Whether Mary had actually been a sometime mistress to Francis is a matter of debate. We only know with certainty that Mary had, for a time, been a mistress to Henry. The amoral climate of the French court during Mary's time of service to Queen Mary of France was so licentious that English courtiers were shocked when visiting, or at least pretended to be. "Rarely did any maid or wife leave that court chaste," one contemporary famously said.
The view the English courtiers held of the French court certainly did nothing to help Mary's reputation. But it seems that the only suggestion that Mary had been Francoise's mistress during her servitude in the French court, the only one that might give pause, came from Rodolfo Pio, the Bishop of Faenza.  He described Mary Boleyn as "a very great whore, and infamous above all."  In fact, many contemporary sources described Mary Boleyn has having been so wanton that "she would sleep with anyone on both sides of the Channel." While Mary had certainly not have been a paragon of virtue as was involved in a fairly lengthy extra-marital relationship with the married King Henry VIII whilst she herself was married, the aforementioned description of Mary seems unfair, and likely untrue. Pio was known to despise the Boleyns for being anti-papist  and he had made exaggerated claims about the family in the past. Though Pio's attitude toward Mary might be very suspect, it should also be noted that Francis described Mary Boleyn in much the same ugly manner as had Pio. However, if Mary had carried on any dalliance with Francis, it was not well-known, making it more unlikely given the rampant gossip that ran through both the French and English courts at that time.

There was likely another factor in the evil reputation that followed Mary Boleyn, and this would have been the incredible unpopularity of her sister Anne, in both the English and French courts. Anne was hated in England, and often spoken of with vile in France as well. That people would have also described Mary in such shocking tones would not have been surprising.

In truth, there is very little evidence to suggest that Mary Boleyn had done anything to deserve the epitaphs which follow her to this day. It must also be considered that Mary was the mistress of the misogynistic King Henry VIII, and it is almost certain that he would have not taken as a mistress a woman of infamous and foul reputation. Almost certainly it can be assumed that other factors weighed on Mary's acceptance of Henry's adulterous attentions. Henry's subjects were not in the habit of denying the great king anything, and Mary may have also been pushed into Henry's attentions by her ambitious parents. The true origins of Mary's poor reputation were likely of the very same stuff as that which whispered that Anne Boleyn had six fingers, a snaggle tooth, and a huge ugly wen under her chin. Anne Boleyn was viewed as a usurping upstart, a dangerous dark eyed temptress, who had successfully seduced King Henry from his rightful queen, the entirely beloved Katherine of Aragon.

No comments: