In her latest book ‘Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore’ Alison Weir points out that the famous portrait of Mary Boleyn may actually be a portrait of Frances Brandon, mother of Jane Grey. On her website, Alison Weir gives an explanation of this theory :
‘I’ve written a whole appendix on the subject of portraits of Mary Boleyn and William Carey. The fact that there are at least six versions of the ‘Mary’ portrait indicates that there was demand for a portrait of the sitter, and she is wearing ermine, a fur restricted to the upper nobility and royalty. So I suspect, given the proliferation of the image, that the sitter was royal. Anyway, the costume is that of the mid-1530s. There would not have been any demand for Mary at that time, given that she was little known and in disgrace (and probably living abroad) from 1534. The sitter bears no resemblance to portraits of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour or Margaret Douglas. She is too young to be Mary Tudor, who died in 1533. Could this be Frances Brandon? A wedding portrait from 1533? There is a resemblance in the nose to Charles Brandon in his ‘marriage’ portrait (yes, I think it is him, having done some digging last night, although I think it’s later than 1515/16.) Even so, that doesn’t quite explain the demand for pictures of Frances – she wasn’t that well known either! It would help if we could identify any clue or reference in the pendant or brooch, or the flowers, but they are too indistinct.‘
For a very long I’ve been thinking about Mary Boleyn portrait, and something was not right. I agree with Alison Weir in few points :
- the sitter must be royal because she is wearing an ermine fur ;
- sitter’s costume indicates that the portrait was painted in 1530′s
- it’s not Mary Boleyn
Why this cannot be Mary Boleyn? There are few reasons ;
- Mary Boleyn was Henry’s former mistress and Queen’s sister, but she was not entitled to wear ermine ;
- In her book ‘Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress’ Josephine Wilkinson points out that between 1528-1532 Mary was an ‘an unwanted and unloved daughter, the discarded mistress’ (p. 123) . Also prof. Eric Ives writes that ; ‘Mary should have been under no illusions. As early as November 1530 the king had given Anne £20 to redeem a jewel Mary possessed, presumably one he had given her. Anne, the wife, wanted no one to remember Mary, the mistress.’ It seems highly unlikely, considering the circumstances, that Mary would be honoured by having such a portrait.
- She was banished from court in 1534, after she disgraced her family by marrying a man beneath her station.
So if it is not Mary Boleyn on this portrait, than who is it? Is it Frances Brandon, as Alison Weir suggests? It is possible, considering the resemblance between ‘Mary Boleyn’ portrait and other portrait of Frances Brandon. The eyes and face structure is similar although the lips are different – on ‘Mary Boleyn’s’ portrait they are fuller and on Frances Brandon’s portrait they are prim.
The only thing I wonder is why would there be 6 versions of this portrait? After all Frances Brandon was not that important figure on the Tudor court.
There is one portrait sometimes inscribed as Anne Boleyn, however it is probably Anne and Mary’s mother, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn. There are certain facial similarities between this portrait and ‘Mary Boleyn”s portrait. But if it is not Mary, could it be … Anne Boleyn?
Alison Weir states that ;
‘The sitter bears no resemblance to portraits of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour or Margaret Douglas.’
I have to disagree. The sitter’s oval face, full lips, dark eyes and dark skin indicate that this actually might be Anne Boleyn. The only thing that does not match is her hair – the colour of eyebrows indicates that hair colour is perhaps brunette with reddish hue, or sandy/reddish blonde.
The thing that I noticed is sitter’s jewellery. I compared her necklace/pendant with other Tudor jewellery from portraits. This necklace/pendant looks almost the same as the one worn by Queens on few portraits :
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein c. 1536
Catherine Parr c. 1548
Unknown Lady, probably Catherine Howard c. 1541
Mary Tudor, c. 1544
It is not entirely the same jewellery (in portraits above queens wear a double strand of pearls and stone with characteristic pendant while the sitter on ‘Mary Boleyn’ portrait has something that appear to be a neck-chain with characteristic pendant).
What about the brooch and flowers? In my opinion flowers are roses and they indicate (as roses on every Tudor portrait) ;
‘The Tudor rose was used in Elizabeth’s portraits to refer to the Tudor dynasty and the unity that it brought to the realm. The rose also had religious connotations, as the medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary, and was used to allude to the Virgin Queen as the secular successor to the Virgin Mary.’
Hever Castle of Anne Boleyn also shows Anne holding a rose. Mary Tudor and Elizabeth were also portrayed holding roses.
It is hard to say what is on the sitter’s brooch, but we can notice the peraldrop hanging from it.
An interesting thing is why is Mary Boleyn’s name written of one of those portraits? Alison Weir states that it ‘has been written in a much later hand‘ and I agree with that. Who and why wrote Mary’s name there?
Conclusion : I believe that the portrait does not depict Mary Boleyn. Perhaps it’s Anne Boleyn, but the further investigation must be done in order to identify the sitter. I am very happy that Alison Weir decided to point out that this portrait is not portrait of Mary Boleyn, it was quite obvious considering the ermine fur. I hope something more will be soon revealed about this matter.
What do you think?
 Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p. 210