Modern history



As the queen, Anne was placed in charge of arranging the household of her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as well as the arrangements made for the care of her teenage stepdaughter, Princess Mary. Understandably, when it was decided that the two girls were to share the same household, Anne was determined that it should be headed by those loyal to her, appointing her mother’s half-sister, Margaret, Lady Bryan, as Elizabeth’s lady mistress and her father’s two sisters, Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, and Alice Boleyn, Lady Clere, as its chief female officers. Her uncle, Sir John Shelton, was appointed as steward of the household, something that meant he was in charge of their domestic guard.1

The elder Anne Boleyn was the sister of Sir Thomas Boleyn. She married a Norfolk neighbour, Sir John Shelton, whose family was closely connected with her own. The family was a prosperous and well-respected one, with at least one member of every generation knighted since a Ralph de Shelton fought for Edward III at the Battle of Crecy.2 They had lived at Shelton in Norfolk, which is now a small village, since at least the early thirteenth century, taking their surname from the manor.3 As prominent Norfolk families, the Boleyns, Sheltons and Cleres were highly interconnected and the marriage was arranged to complement that of her sister, Alice, to Sir Robert Clere. Sir John Shelton was prominent in the county, serving as sheriff before their marriage, which took place in 1512 when John was in his mid-thirties and Anne some years younger.4 The couple settled at Shelton Hall, which survives today as a ruin.5 In Lady Shelton’s time it was a grand building surrounded by a high, towered wall and a moat.

Towards the end of his life Sir John Shelton commissioned fine stained-glass windows for the chancel at Shelton Church. The windows survive today and depict John’s parents, as well as John and Anne at three stages in their lives. The earliest chronologically shows the couple kneeling in church facing each other on separate panes of glass. John is depicted as a long haired, heavy-featured and well-built young man, dressed in a fine robe of red, a long furred collar and hanging sleeves. Anne is dressed stylishly for the end of the fifteenth century, wearing a tight-fitting red dress with hanging sleeves and a black hood with a veil. Her dress is low-cut and her features youthful and more delicate than her husband’s.

In the second depiction chronologically, the couple again face towards each other but on separate panes. Both kneel in church with open prayer books before them. Sir John looks older in this image, with long fair hair and a heavy beard. Beneath his heraldic mantle he wears armour, suggesting that he was depicted at around the time of his marriage in 1512, when England was at war with France. Anne also looks more mature, with a serene expression. Beneath a long heraldic mantle displaying the Boleyn family arms and bull motif, she wears a fine green dress, decorated with gold. She also wears a long gold gable hood, which was highly fashionable early in Henry VIII’s reign.

The final depiction shows the couple as they would have appeared towards the time of John’s death in 1539 when he was sixty-two.6 Unlike the other depictions, the couple are portrayed close together on the same pane of glass. Touchingly, as John kneels with clasped hands, he gazes at his wife while Anne solicitously reaches out to his shoulder with her hand. John looks considerably older in this depiction, with shoulder-length grey hair surrounding an entirely bald crown of the head. By this time he had shaved off his beard, although he retained a moustache. Once again John wears a rich red gown decorated with fur, while Anne wears a tight red dress decorated with gold. Anne’s face, which appears beneath a long black cap, is older, with a loving expression as she gazes at her husband. Clearly the couple were fond of each other, something that is also demonstrated by the high number of children born during their marriage. As well as their heir, John, the couple produced sons Thomas, who served as a groom porter of the Tower, and Ralph.7 There were a number of daughters, with both the eldest, Amy (or Emma), and the second, Elizabeth, remaining unmarried. Margaret married a Thomas Wodehouse, while Gabrielle became a nun. The youngest was Mary Shelton.

Alice Boleyn married as his second wife Sir Robert Clere of Ormesby, who was some years older than her and had already served as Sheriff of Norfolk in 1501.8 He was wealthy and had been knighted by the future Henry VIII in 1494, when the prince was still an infant.9 The couple were married at some point before 1506, with Margaret Butler Boleyn paying a dowry of 500 marks in exchange for Sir Robert’s promise of a substantial dower for his wife in the event that she was widowed.10 Sir Robert, who had continued to be prominent into the reign of Henry VIII and attended the great meeting between the English and French kings known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, lived to a venerable age, dying in 1529. He was pious and asked in his will that his executors should arrange 100 Masses for his soul. He also requested that if anyone had proved that he had wronged them then his executors should compensate them.

Alice bore three sons, with the eldest, John, later having the good fortune to inherit Blickling through his mother when the direct line of the Boleyn family died out. Alice Boleyn Clere survived her husband by some years, dying in 1539. It is a testament to the fact that she took pride in her Boleyn lineage that the arms of the City of London were proudly displayed among other heraldry on the Clere brass at Ormesby.11 Evidently Alice and her family saw no stigma in the fact that the family fortune was founded on trade and the endeavours of her grandfather, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, who, as a former Lord Mayor of London, was able to make use of the arms of the city. Alice found favour under her niece, Queen Anne Boleyn, who appointed her to assist her elder sister, Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, in the management of the household of Princess Mary in 1533. In her will, which was dated to October 1539, Alice made a bequest of a gold rosary to her youngest son, Thomas, ‘which Queen Anne gave me’, something which suggests that she, for one, did not consider her niece’s marriage to have been invalid.12 She was also close to her siblings and their children. Without any daughters of her own, she made bequests to a number of her nieces, such as her emerald ring, which was passed to her eldest surviving sister’s daughter, Elizabeth Shelton. To her grief, Alice’s second son, Richard, died young. She therefore divided the bulk of her estate between her surviving sons, John and Thomas, making particularly careful provision for Thomas, the youngest of the three brothers.

Alice’s motivation for taking a post in Princess Elizabeth’s household is not easy to understand, given that, following the death of her husband she had been left a very wealthy woman. On Sir Robert’s death, Alice received twenty manors as her jointure, including her marital home of Ormesby, which her husband instructed should be fully equipped for her use.13 She also received a house at Norwich together with plate and household stuff to allow her to live comfortably in her widowhood. Alice certainly had no financial need of the appointment. Additionally, she must have been aware that any position with the king’s bastardised daughter, Mary, was likely to be troublesome and even potentially politically dangerous. It may simply be that she was fond of her niece, who is known to have made her personal presents, and agreed to the appointment as a favour to her. She may also have been pressured by her sister, Anne Boleyn Shelton, to assist her in the governance of the ex-princess.

Queen Anne Boleyn was a devoted mother to her daughter, reputedly refusing to let her out of her sight and having a special cushion produced for the infant to lie upon when she sat in state as queen.14 It must therefore have been a wrench for her when, in December 1533, Elizabeth was given her own household and sent in great state to live at a variety of smaller palaces outside of London. Both Anne and Henry remained in regular contact with their daughter, visiting her often and delighting in showing her off to the world. A visit to Elizabeth in April 1534 was typical, with Sir William Kingston, one of the gentlemen present, declaring that the baby was ‘a goodly child as hath been seen, and her Grace is much in the king’s favour as a goodly child should be’.15 In March 1534 Elizabeth was officially declared heiress to the crown by Parliament, with the same enactment ruling that her elder half-sister was illegitimate and unfit to inherit the crown.

Mary had not been permitted to see her mother since 1531, although the pair continued to correspond secretly, with Catherine writing in September 1533 to warn her daughter that she had heard that ‘the time is come that Almighty God will prove you’.16Catherine’s information was sound and that same month the princess’s household servants were ordered to remove their livery and replace it with that of the king: a public announcement of her illegitimacy.17 Henry also sent a deputation to Mary to order her to relinquish her claim to be Princess of England, something that she absolutely refused to do.18 Mary’s refusal infuriated Anne and Henry, with the king ordering that his eldest daughter’s household be broken up in November 1533, and that she move to join Elizabeth as a maid of honour, something that was deeply humiliating for Mary.19 Mary was allowed to take only a few attendants when she set out to join Elizabeth in December, with her governess, the Countess of Salisbury, being refused permission to remain with her.20Instead Anne appointed her aunts, Lady Shelton and Lady Clere, to have governance over the former princess, something that demonstrates that she was closer to them than another aunt, the Duchess of Norfolk, whom she had had banished from court for sending secret messages of support to Catherine of Aragon.

Mary was taken to join Elizabeth with only two maids: something that must have been humiliating for a girl who had once been heiress to the crown. Upon her arrival, her defiance continued, declaring when asked if she would like to pay court to the princess that ‘she knew of no other princess in England but herself; that the daughter of Madame de Pembroke was no princess at all’.21 When the Duke of Suffolk refused to carry a message to the king in which she referred to herself as Princess of Wales, she simply told him, ‘Then go away, and leave me alone.’ Lady Shelton and Lady Clere must have realised that they would have their work cut out with Henry’s eldest daughter. As a punishment for her disobedience, Mary’s two maids were discharged, leaving her with only one serving maid to attend her.22 The maid was also forbidden to taste the princess’s food as a safety precaution, something that would later cause Lady Shelton great anxiety.

It is not always possible to determine which of the two sisters was responsible for actions reported in Elizabeth and Mary’s household, with Chapuys, for example, referring to Lady Shelton and Lady Clere simply as Anne’s aunt or the princess’s governess, rather than by name. It appears more likely that his references to Mary’s governess are to Lady Shelton, since he would later refer to a letter received by the governess from the queen which is known to have been addressed to Lady Shelton. Regardless of some uncertainty, it is clear that both were considered loyal by their niece, who sent them direct instructions as to how she wished her stepdaughter to be treated. In one despatch, for example, written in February 1534, Chapuys recorded that

a worthy gentleman of this place has told me that Anne has sent a message to her father’s sister, in whose keeping the Princess now is, that she ought not to tolerate her using her title; should she continue to do so she was to slap her face as the cursed bastard that she was. And because the Princess has hitherto been in the habit of breakfasting in her own room, and, when obliged to go down into the hall, has refused to eat and drink anything, the said Anne is in despair, and has for this reason given orders that no food or drink should be served to her in her chamber.23

In September 1534 Mary became unwell and Lady Shelton sent for an apothecary whose medicines only made the king’s daughter sicker. To Lady Shelton’s horror, there were immediately rumours that Mary had been poisoned, particularly since, in accordance with her orders, she refused Chapuys’s servant permission to see her when he arrived to enquire about Mary’s health. The rumours were treated with such seriousness that the king sent both his own doctor and Catherine’s to attend her, as a mark of his good faith towards his daughter.24 Lady Shelton enjoyed the king’s trust, who would later inform Chapuys that she was an expert in ‘such female complaints’ as Mary was suffering from.25 By February 1535, when Mary was ill again, Lady Shelton was terrified, weeping at the thought that if anything happened to her charge she would be condemned as her murderer. She was particularly unpopular in London where rumours circulated that she was attempting to poison Mary.

If Queen Anne Boleyn hoped that her aunts would enforce a strict regime with her stepdaughter, she soon found herself both disappointed and frustrated. Lady Shelton, in particular, gradually began to befriend her charge, with both she and her daughters featuring regularly in Mary’s accounts when she was back in favour after Anne’s fall, something which must indicate that there was no lingering resentment. For example, in January 1544 Mary gave her former governess two cushion covers worth over 7 shillings.26Lady Shelton and her daughter-in-law, Margaret, sister of Jane, Lady Rochford, presented New Year’s gifts to Mary in 1528 and 1537, while Mary in her turn made presents of cash in 1537 to Elizabeth and Mary Shelton, two of Lady Shelton’s unmarried daughters.27 The princess may well have first come across Lady Shelton’s daughters during her time under their mother’s charge and she does genuinely seem to have been fond of them. There were further cash gifts to Elizabeth and Mary Shelton in January 1540, while the eldest sister, Amy, received cash in July 1538.28 Amy also received the valuable gift of an antique brooch from the princess on another occasion.29

Not surprisingly, given her links to Lord Morley, Mary was closest to Lady Shelton’s daughter-in-law, Margaret Parker, for example standing as godmother for her child in October 1537 and making her a gift of clothing in January of the following year.30 The gift of a bottle of wine delivered to the princess in June 1543 by ‘Mr Shelton’s servant’ is also likely to have come from his wife.31 There is clear affection for Lady Shelton, however, who gave the princess the rich gift of two cushion covers garnished with gold and silk at New Year 1543.32 Clearly, Princess Mary did not bear a grudge against the Shelton family, suggesting that they at least always treated her fairly during Anne Boleyn’s time as queen, something that seems to have infuriated Lady Shelton’s niece.

There is contemporary evidence that Lady Shelton, while prepared to enforce her niece’s orders, was not prepared to enforce them with malice. In February 1534 Chapuys recorded that Mary was being kept with very little to wear, forcing her to send to her father to request funds. At the same time she requested permission to hear mass in the local church, something which was refused her due to the cheers that she received whenever she was seen by the local population.33 While Lady Shelton was in charge of day-to-day decisions in relation to Mary, she was kept under close scrutiny by other members of the family, with the Duke of Norfolk and her nephew, George Boleyn, summoning her to them to berate her for treating Mary ‘with too great kindness and regard, when she ought to deal with her as a regular bastard that she was’. To this Lady Shelton replied that ‘even if it were so, and that she was the bastard daughter of a poor gentleman, her kindness, her modesty, and her virtues called forth all respect and honour’.

Lady Shelton was forced to spend a great deal of time with her young charge: in March 1534, when Mary refused to travel with the household to a new residence she was forcibly placed in a carriage with Lady Shelton for what must have been a very uncomfortable journey for them both.34 Matters were certainly tense. When, in April 1534, Anne and Henry came to visit Elizabeth, they ordered that Mary be kept in her room with an armed guard at the door.35 The royal couple doubtless had some strong words for Lady Shelton about how they expected her to make Mary behave since she appears to have taken this out on the girl, informing her that ‘the king, her father no longer cared whether she renounced her title willingly or not, since by the last statute she had been declared illegitimate and incapable of inheriting, and that if she were in his (the king’s) place she would kick her (the Princess) out of the king’s house for her disobedience’. Lady Shelton took this harsh line in an attempt to make Mary comply, something that would both make her life easier as governess and protect Mary, given that the king had reportedly threatened her with execution if she would not obey.

As a first cousin of the Holy Roman Emperor Mary was probably safe, although Henry, as her father, was recognised by convention to have absolute control over the disposal of her person. Lady Shelton came under direct pressure from the king to enforce Mary’s conduct. The following month, Henry asked her of Mary ‘whether there were signs of her rebellious spirit and stubborn obstinacy being in any way subdued’, to which the queen’s aunt was forced to reply that ‘she continued the same’.36 Henry then declared, ‘Then there must be someone near her who maintains her in her fanciful ideas by conveying news of her mother to her.’ Lady Shelton, no doubt anxious to avoid any blame herself, named a maid of the princess who was promptly dismissed: for Lady Shelton, governing Mary was a thankless task and one which she does not seem to have relished.

There was another reason for the strained relationship that developed between Queen Anne Boleyn and her aunt. On 25 February 1535 Chapuys recorded that ‘the young lady who was lately in the king’s favour is so no longer. There has succeeded to her place a cousin german of the Concubine, daughter of the present governess of the Princess.’ Chapuys later made it clear that this lady was ‘Madge’ Shelton and that while few other details of the affair are known, this Mistress Shelton remained in the king’s favour, and presumably as his mistress, for six months.

There is a great deal of debate over who this ‘Madge’ Shelton was, with two of Lady Shelton’s daughters, Margaret and Mary, being possible due to the similarity of their names.37 The fact that Margaret Shelton is nowhere mentioned in Princess Mary’s accounts while her sisters, Amy, Elizabeth and Mary are, probably indicates that Margaret was not known to the princess and is therefore unlikely to have stayed with her parents during their time in the princess’s household. This does suggest that it was Mary, rather than Margaret, who was present at court in the household of Anne Boleyn. It is also known for certain that Mary was a member of Anne Boleyn’s household, serving as one of her maids.38 Margaret, on the other hand, is only potentially named by Chapuys as the disputed ‘Madge’. Otherwise, her presence at court can only survive in references to a ‘Mistress Shelton’ who, of course, could just as easily have been Mary.

One thing that might point against the identification of Mary Shelton as Henry VIII’s mistress is contained in a letter written by John Husee, the London agent of Lady Lisle on 3 January 1538:

The election lieth betwixt Mrs Mary Shelton and Mrs Mary Skipwith. I pray Jesu send such one as may be for his Highness’ comfort and the wealth of the realm. Herein I doubt not but your lordship will keep silence till the matter be surely known.39

Given the reference to the ‘wealth of the realm’ and the fact that the letter was written a few months after the death of Jane Seymour and before Henry had decided upon a fourth bride, it is possible to interpret Husee’s comments as suggesting one of the two women was being considered as a bride for the king. When Henry had first raised the possibility of divorcing Catherine of Aragon there had been rumours that he would marry Bessie Blount and legitimise their son, something that Henry himself never countenanced.40 His thoughts had only turned to marriage in relation to Anne Boleyn when she had refused to become his mistress, while the Catherine Howard debacle and Henry’s doubts as to Anne of Cleves’ virginity would later show that he wanted his bride to be chaste. It is therefore improbable that he would consider marrying a woman who had already been his mistress, suggesting that the Mistress Shelton of 1535 was a different sister to the Mistress Shelton of 1538. The lady in 1538 may in fact have been Margaret rather than Mary, as it has now been convincingly argued that ‘Mary Skipwith’ was actually Margaret Skipwith of Ormesby who, confusingly, also had a sister called Mary.41 The evidence suggests that Margaret Skipwith, who was married to Bessie Blount’s second son in April 1539 and effectively pensioned off by the king, became his mistress in preference to Mistress Shelton. It may therefore be that Henry was seeking a mistress rather than a bride all along, particularly as, by January 1539, negotiations had opened for a foreign marriage. Henry, who appears to have resumed his affairs with both Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn after their pregnancies might well have been prepared to resume an affair with an earlier mistress in 1538, suggesting that both Mistress Sheltons were the same lady. That Mary Shelton, along with Margaret Skipwith (who was by then Lady Tailbois), were part of a group of ladies invited by the king in August 1539 to view his fleet at Portsmouth, strongly suggests that it was Mary Shelton in January 1539. This and the absence of records for Margaret Shelton, alongside the numerous references to Mary at court, implies that, in both cases, the lady who caught Henry’s attention was Mary Shelton.

Margaret may never have been resident at court. Little is known about her life. She married Thomas Wodehouse, Esquire, of Kimberley in Norfolk.42 Wodehouse was from an old Norfolk family which could be traced back to the reign of Henry I. Margaret’s brother, Ralph Shelton, married her husband’s sister, Amy, at the same time as her marriage, creating a double alliance. Margaret lived a comfortable but undistinguished life, bearing four sons and four daughters and surviving her husband.43 The Heraldic Visitations for Norfolk suggest an all too common tragedy for the family, with Margaret’s second daughter, Elizabeth, dying young to be replaced by another child named in memory of her. Margaret herself had died before December 1555, as no mention is made of her in the otherwise full list of her siblings contained in their mother’s will.44 Her husband was still living in 1553 when he served as Sheriff of Norfolk, an indication of his prominence in the county.45 He sat as a Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth in 1557 and 1558.46 Margaret’s third son, John, was evidently a favourite of his great-uncle, Sir James Boleyn, who left a substantial bequest to him at his death in 1561, on the condition that John married a woman to whom he was already ‘handfasted’.47

Mary Shelton was beautiful, with Henry’s ambassador to the Netherlands later commenting of Christina of Denmark, whom Henry hoped to marry, that ‘she resembles one Mistress Shelton that used to wait on Queen Anne’ – something that was obviously considered desirable.48 A surviving drawing by Hans Holbein, depicting Mary, supports this, showing a thin young woman with a distinguished nose, pointed chin and gable hood – something which may suggest that it was produced following Anne Boleyn’s death at a time when Queen Jane Seymour was insisting that they were worn at court. Mary resembles her cousin, Queen Anne, in the drawing, something which is likely to have drawn the king towards her. She was well educated and intelligent, with her literary endeavours hinting at a spirit as independent and strong-willed as her cousin the queen. She was also at least eleven years younger than Anne and possibly as much as nineteen years younger.49 It is therefore easy to see why the king was interested in her. It has been suggested on a number of occasions that Anne herself supplied Mary to the king, reasoning that, if he was going to take a mistress regardless, he might as well take one favourable to her.50 There is merit in this argument as Henry’s mistress in the summer of 1534, who supported Catherine and Mary, undoubtedly caused Anne’s position harm, while Jane Seymour, who was equally hostile, actually supplanted her. However, there is in fact strong evidence that Anne was anything but happy with her cousin’s relationship with the king.

Anne always reacted angrily to Henry’s affairs. Where the lady in question was a member of her household, she had particular power over them, something that the ladies often found to their cost. When Anne found Jane Seymour wearing a locket with a picture of the king round her neck, for example, she snatched it from her forcibly, while on other occasions the two actually came to blows, scratching and fighting. Mary Shelton also felt the force of her cousin’s anger. According to Anne’s chaplain, William Latymer,

there was a book of prayers which belonged to one of her maids of honour called Mrs Mary Shelton presented unto her highness wherein were written certain idle posies. She would not be satisfied by any means before she understood certainly to whom the book pertained. The matter was covered a while because of the express threatening of her majesty, but nothing can long escape the piercing eyes of princes, especially in their own palaces, so that at length the pensive gentlewoman (to whom the book appertained) was discovered. Whereupon the queen her majesty, calling her before her presence, wonderful rebuked her that would permit such wanton toys in her book of prayers, which she termed a mirror or glass wherein she might learn to address her wandering thoughts; and upon this occasion commanded the mother of the maidens to have a more vigilant eye to her charge to the end that at all times and in the time of prayers especially they might comely and virtuously behave their selves.51

Given that Anne had once exchanged similar verses with Henry in a prayer book of her own, the incident with Mary Shelton’s prayer book is highly significant. It is possible that the verses were exchanged with Henry himself. More likely, their discovery was used as a pretext by Anne to allow her to upbraid a cousin who was romantically involved with her husband. The discovery allowed her to attempt to bring the affair to an end by having her cousin more closely watched and, thus, no longer affording her an opportunity to meet with the king. It was a policy that was followed by Anne’s later successor as queen, Catherine Parr, in relation to Anne’s own daughter. When Catherine realised that her stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth, was becoming inappropriately involved with her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour, she complained to Elizabeth’s governess that the girl had been seen embracing an unidentified man. Elizabeth’s governess strongly suspected that this incident had been fabricated by the queen in order to give her a reason for ordering better care to be taken of the princess and it is highly likely that Anne responded in a very similar way in relation to Mary Shelton. Mary’s affair with Henry was not long-lasting but the origins of Anne’s hostility towards her aunt, Lady Shelton, may lie in her anger over Mary’s affair, with Lady Shelton herself angered by the queen’s treatment of her daughter. Certainly, by May 1536 Anne was referring to her aunt as someone that she had never loved.

If Anne did not direct Henry’s interest towards Mary, it may be that her friend, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, unwittingly did. It was Wyatt in his pursuit of Anne that first brought her to the king’s attention. By the 1530s he had turned some of his attention towards Mary herself, writing a poem expressing his love for her in which the first letter of each line tellingly spelled out ‘Sheltun’. This echoes a similar, earlier poem where the initial letters spelled out ‘Anna’, which is usually associated with Anne Boleyn. Wyatt met with no greater success in his pursuit of Mary than he had previously done with Anne. In the manuscript in which the poem was written, Mary herself contributed the lines beneath the poem: ‘Undesired fancies require no higher Mary Mary Shelton.’52 That there was some flirtation is clear, with a margin note next to the poem written by Lady Margaret Douglas saying, ‘Forget this,’ to which Mary replied, ‘It is worthy.’ As with Anne Boleyn’s own relationship with Wyatt, the surviving evidence suggests a playful game of courtly love, particularly as Wyatt was still married and involved in a more lasting affair with another mistress. However, Wyatt had a knack for drawing attention to himself, and those he favoured; perhaps he and Henry had their own game of bowls over Mary Shelton? More likely Wyatt’s interest served to bring the teenager into the king’s own circle, to the queen’s anger and alarm.

Wyatt was not the only suitor interested in Mary. According to a recent work on the mistresses of Henry VIII, she was engaged to Henry Norris, a gentleman in Henry’s household to whom he was close.53 The evidence for this comes from Queen Anne Boleyn herself when, in the Tower following her arrest, she declared that ‘Weston told her that Norris came more unto her chamber for her than for Madge’.54 This ‘Madge’ may be Mary Shelton if it accepted that she really was known as Madge and that this was not simply a misreading of sixteenth-century handwriting. More certain are Anne’s comments regarding Francis Weston ‘that she had spoke to him because he did love her kinswoman Mrs Shelton and that she said he loved not his wife; and he made answer to her again that he loved one in her house better than them both; she asked him who is that? To which he answered that it is yourself.’ Weston was young and handsome and an affair between him and Mary, in spite of his recent marriage, is not impossible. It cannot have improved her relationship with the queen if Mary considered Anne, albeit unwittingly, to be her rival in love again.

While Anne worried about her troubled marriage, the woman who still believed that she was Henry’s true wife was in increasingly bad health in her exile from court. With the annulment of her marriage, Catherine of Aragon had been placed under considerable pressure to use the title of Princess Dowager of Wales. When she had first been officially informed of this in July 1533, she had fully demonstrated to Henry and Anne that she would continue to fight, forcibly scoring through any reference to ‘Princess Dowager’ in a copy of the orders sent to her and replacing them with ‘Queen’. Henry spent the next few years trying to break his ex-wife’s will, ordering her removal further and further away from London. This did not always go according to plan, however. One move turned into something of a triumphal progress, with crowds rushing to greet her. In December 1533 when she was ordered to move to Somersham, a house surrounded by marshes which Catherine considered to be ‘the most unhealthy house in England’, she refused absolutely to go, humbling the Duke of Suffolk who had been sent to enforce the orders in the process.

Catherine could not endure forever, however, and by December 1535 word reached London that she was dying. Her friend, Chapuys, rushed to Kimbolton where she was staying to comfort her, with the former queen piteously declaring her gratitude that ‘if it pleased God to take her, it could be a consolation to her to die under my [Chapuys’s] guidance and not unprepared, like a beast’.55 Catherine lingered until 7 January 1536 before slipping peacefully away. Her last actions confirmed her continuing belief in her marriage: she refused to make a will, something that married women were forbidden by law to do, and dictated a letter to Henry, declaring, ‘Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things’.56

Anne and Henry received the news of Catherine’s death joyfully, with the king, rightly as it happened, exclaiming, ‘God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war.’ The next day he and Anne, along with their daughter, appeared wearing yellow as they were conducted in fine style to Mass before dinner and dancing, with the king behaving like one ‘transported with joy’. Anne was as overjoyed as her husband, watching with pride as he carried Elizabeth in his arms, showing her off to the court. Thomas Boleyn, who was present, was equally pleased, declaring that it was a pity that Princess Mary did not keep company with her mother, while Anne exclaimed that she was sorry about Catherine’s death ‘not indeed because she is dead, but because her death has been so honourable’. It is perhaps not surprising that groundless rumours soon arose that Catherine had been poisoned on Anne’s orders. Lady Shelton did not help matters by announcing the death to Mary with no ceremony or preparation, something which must have been devastating to the young woman.57

With Catherine dead, Anne decided that she would make one final attempt at befriending her stepdaughter. She had previously made overtures, only to be rebuffed, for example in March 1534 sending her a message as queen, only for Mary to reply that there was no queen in England except her mother, but that she would be grateful if the king’s mistress would intercede for her with him. Later, when they were both again in the same house, Anne was thrilled to hear that Mary had curtsied to her, replying that ‘if we had seen it, we would have done as much to her’. Unfortunately, Mary’s curtsey had been to the altar, something the girl was quick to point out. It is perhaps no surprise that Anne, doing all she could, ranted that she ‘intended to bring down the pride of this unbridled Spanish blood’.

Within days of the former queen’s death, she had written to Mary saying that ‘if she would lay aside her obstinacy and obey her father, she would be the best friend to her in the world and be like another mother, and would obtain for her anything she could ask, and that if she wished to come to court she would be exempted from holding the tail of her gown’.58 Anne must have felt that this was a very generous offer given the history between the pair, particularly as Mary’s loyalties were no longer divided between her parents. Anne was, in January 1536, also pregnant and confidently expecting a son, something which would have rendered Mary almost completely irrelevant. Lady Shelton certainly thought that it would be to both her and Mary’s benefit if the princess accepted, ‘continually begging and entreating her in the warmest possible terms to reconsider these offers’.59 It was therefore with fury that Anne received another rebuff from her stepdaughter, firing off a letter to Lady Shelton to complain about her young charge:

Mrs Shelton, my pleasure is that you do not further move the Lady Mary to be towards the King’s Grace otherwise than it pleases herself. What I have done has been more for charity than for anything the king or I care what road she takes, or whether she will change her purpose, for if I have a son, as I hope shortly, I know what will happen to her: and therefore, considering the word of God, to do good to one’s enemy, I wished to warn her beforehand, because I have daily experience that the king’s wisdom is such as not to esteem her repentance of her rudeness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no choice. By the law of God and of the king, she ought clearly to acknowledge her error and evil conscience if her blind affection had not so blinded her eyes that she will see nothing by what pleases herself. Mrs Shelton, I beg you not to think to do me any pleasure by turning her from any of her wilful courses, because she could not do me [good] or evil; and do your duty according to the king’s command, as I am assured you do.

While this letter was addressed to Lady Shelton, it was meant for Mary and Anne’s aunt showed it to her. Mary was unconcerned, with Chapuys recording that after reading the letter she ‘has been laughing ever since’, something which was hardly Anne’s desired effect.60 By May 1536 Lady Shelton and her niece had become estranged and this letter does not imply any warmth between the two women. In any event, Anne Boleyn’s time as queen was rapidly drawing to a close in January 1536 and Lady Shelton, along with other members of the Boleyn family, took steps to ensure that they were not implicated in the queen’s fall.

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