Mary Boleyn or Frances Brandon?

In her new book on Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir devotes an appendix to the subject of portraiture, including the identity of the sitter in this well-known painting, usually identified as one of Mary Boleyn:

Weir writes that because the sitter was wearing ermine, the portrait is unlikely to have been Mary Boleyn, because ermine was a “fur reserved exclusively for royalty and peers of the realm.” She also notes that six versions of the portrait exist and questions whether there would have been sufficient interest in Mary to merit multiple copies. Instead of Mary Boleyn, Weir suggests, this may be a portrait of Frances Brandon, made to mark her marriage to Henry Grey.

I don’t pretend to have researched Tudor costume, Tudor portraiture, or Tudor sumptuary laws in depth, but my search of what materials I have on hand doesn’t suggest that the wearing of ermine was as restricted as Weir claims.  In her book Rich Apparel, Maria Hayward  summarizes the four acts of apparel enacted during Henry VIII’s reign. By 1533, sable had been restricted to the king and his family, while black genette or lynx was restricted to dukes, marquesses, earls, and their children, or barons unless they were a knight of the Garter. Ermine, however, is not mentioned at all.

Notably, Elizabeth, Lady Vaux, wife of Thomas Vaux, a mere baron, is shown below conspicuously wearing ermine, which suggests that the fur wasn’t reserved for the highest  echelons of the nobility. (Fun Queen of Last Hopes fact: Thomas Vaux was the grandson of Margaret of Anjou’s devoted lady-in-waiting, Katherine Vaux.) Here is Lady Vaux showing off her stoats:


Hayward also notes that an Elizabeth Speke left in her will a black satin gown “purfled [edged] with powdered ermines.” It therefore seems to me that the ermine in itself isn’t enough to rule out Mary Boleyn as the subject of the first portrait, especially since Mary gained status after her father was made a viscount in 1525 and an earl in 1529. Whether there was sufficient interest in Mary for multiple copies of the portrait to be made is another question, but I would think the same objection would apply to Frances, who is known to us today mainly because of her daughter. In any case, if the portrait is not one of Mary, it could be of any number of ladies who were sufficiently well-off to afford ermine.

19 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn or Frances Brandon?”

  1. What a great article! I wrote an article about this portrait as well. I didn’t know that Elizabeth Cheney was portrayed in ermine fur … Ermine was always considered as a status of nobility/royalty. I noticed also that sitter from ‘Mary Boleyn’ portrait wears a characteristic necklace, similar to those worn by Tudor queens. Interesting. Do you think that there’s a chance that the sitter is in fact Anne Boleyn?
    Take care,

  2. Excellent observation.

    As you say, ermine is not restricted to just the royal family by law at all. In addition, many people would make their own “ermine” by using cheaper white rabbit fur or another cheaper white fur and simply using ermine tailes to make it look like ermine. In fact, the ermine lining for most peers robes tends not to actually be ermine.

    1. Thanks, Bess! That’s useful to know.

      I wonder also if artists doing portraits added accessories that the sitter might not have owned, or made clothes look more expensive than they were, to please their subjects?

  3. Susan, thank you for stopping by my blog too! 🙂

    I agree with you, that ‘Mary Boleyn’ bears no resemblance to the famous Anne Boleyn’s portraits (NPG,, Hever). But I think that there is something very interesting/intriguing about those portraits of Anne. Try to compare those three portraits of Elizabeth Tudor and Anne Boleyn ;
    Elizabeth bears a striking resemblance of her mother, which is very visible in this video ;
    And here is another example ;
    What I wonder is how two different portraits of Anne Boleyn (NPG,Hever) can be so similar to two different portraits of Elizabeth Tudor (see above). It’s kinda strange , and that makes me think if someone didn’t just copied Elizabeth’s features and used them in Anne Boleyn’s portraits.
    There is a certain similarity between ‘Mary Boleyn’ and a medal with Anne’s image struck in 1534. Although on medal Anne’s cheekbones are higher and her face looks more oval and slim, while ‘Mary Boleyn’s’ face is a bit chubby. So I am not sure of whether it’s Anne Boleyn or not, but there is a slight possibility that ‘Mary Boleyn’ is in fact Anne.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sylwia! I think just about anything is possible in the world of Tudor portraiture. Dr. Stephan Edwards has a site devoted to Jane Grey in which he discusses the various portraits that have been claimed to be of her, and it’s unsettling to realize how many attributions have been proven wrong or are still uncertain.

  4. Hello- it’s a really interesting idea, this notion of reattributing portraits. I was wondering about the jewellery- the motif which looks like a spray of something- perhaps two little leaves above and two drooping blooms and whether this might signify a family’s heraldic device. I know a recent picture considered to be Jane Grey has been reexamined and could possibly be of Amye Dudley, as she wears a spray of oak leaves that Robert used. Might provide more clues… great post, thanks.

  5. Really enjoyed this post! I have Weir’s book and have skimmed it. You only have to look at Weir’s captions for her pictures – Mary Boleyn MAY be featured in a tapestry, Mary Boleyn MAY be buried etc, Mary Boleyn’s second husband MAY have tried Catherine Howard, and so on. And I’m confused by the portrait of Queen Claude on the cover. Not surprised Weir questions the portrait with no real evidence.

  6. We know very little about Mary Boleyn, but I’m intrigued as to why Henry VIII would name a ship after her.

    1. Henry bought the ship of Thomas Boleyn. In fact Henry bought two ships, the Anne Boleyn and the Mary Boleyn, both from Thomas Boleyn. Henry kept the name of the ships when they transfered to his navy.

  7. Ermine update: I looked through the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. The sumptuary legislation from Edward IV’s 1463 Parliament reads, “And also to ordain and decree that no esquire or gentleman, or anyone else below the degree of knight, or their wives, except the sons of lords and their wives, the daughters of lords, esquires for your body and their wives, shall use or wear, from the said feast [of the Purification of Our Lady next], any velvet, satin brocade, or any cloth of silk simulating them, or any bands made to imitate velvet or satin brocade, or any fur of ermine, on pain of forfeiting 10 marks to your said highness for every offence. . . . Provided always that the steward, chamberlain, treasurer and controller of your honourable household, and the carvers and knights for your body, and their wives, may use and wear furs of sable and ermine.”

    I haven’t found Tudor legislation specifically dealing with ermine. William Carey was an esquire for the body. So assuming the 1463 legislation still applied to ermine, it seems that Mary Boleyn could have worn ermine as the wife of an esquire for the king’s body,

    William Carey is wearing a fur in the painting of him–can anyone tell what kind it is?

    1. I have read that Dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons are all entitled to wear ermine – and also their children. Thomas Boleyn was a Viscount and if this is true then Mary would have been entitled too wear it also. And as you say if esquires of the body would wear it, as the wife of William Carey Mary would have doubly been allowed to wear it. PLUS as sister of a Marquess wouldn’t Mary been allowed to wear it for a third time?

      Sarah xx

  8. I have just started the Loades book – sounds more likely Thomas Boleyn owned the ship. Am loving the ‘fur/ermine’ research!

  9. <>Frances was Mary Tudor’s daughter with Charles Brandon; Mary was Henry Vlll sister, and therefore a princess.

  10. Hi Susan:

    Sister HNS author Karen Harper here. I found you website fascinating. I also read the Weir book on Mary Boleyn. Since that debatable-Mary portrait appeared on my THE LAST BOLEYN, I was really interested to hear Weir’s take on it. I was struck by how many times she had to say, “We just don’t know” about Mary. Looking forward to your Frances Brandon book! My next novel takes place in 1500, so I feel it has one foot in Medieval times, one in Tudor times.

  11. Hi Susan,
    Your comment about portrait painters just painting items into the portraits of the sitters is an interesting thought. I’ve read and been told that Colonial American painters often traveled around to plantations and homes with a supply of canvases which they’d already painted bodies, clothing, etc., and basically just added the sitter’s face and a few other personal details. Saved them a lot of time and they could paint more portraits during a swing through the area. I don’t imagine that was a new idea, but wonder if it could have begun as early as Tudor times…

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