Mary Shelton, was the youngest daughter of Sir John Shelton and his wife, Anne Sheldon, was born in about 1520. She had three brothers and six sisters, John, Anne, Ralph, Gabriella, Elizabeth, Margaret, Thomas and Emma, and they lived at Sheldon Hall, Sheldon, Norfolk. (1)
Mary's mother was the sister of Thomas Boleyn and became the governess of Princess Mary. It has been claimed that "Mary was bullied unmercifully by the Sheltons, humiliated, and was constantly afraid that she would be imprisoned or executed." (2) Instructions were given to Sheldon that if Mary used the banned title of "Princess", she was to have her ears boxed "as the cursed bastard that she was". However, there is evidence that Lady Sheldon seems to have been reluctant to exercise the full rigour of her instructions, and was sharply criticized by both Norfolk and Rochford for her leniency." (3) Alison Plowden has concluded that the treatment Mary received "turned a gentle, affectionate child into a bigoted, neurotic and bitterly unhappy woman." (4)
Anne Boleyn married Henry VIII in January 1533. Soon afterwards Mary Sheldon became one of Anne's lady-in-waiting. (5) On 24th February, 1535, Eustace Chapuys reported that Henry had a new mistress: "The young lady who was lately in the King's favour is so no longer. There has succeeded to her place a cousin of the concubine, daughter of the present governess of the Princess." (6) In later communications with Charles V Chapuys makes it clear that the woman having the relationship with the king is "Mistress Shelton".
Some historians such as Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir have claimed that Chapuys was referring to Margaret Sheldon. However, after looking at all the evidence available, Kelly Hart, the author of The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009), makes a convincing case that it was her sister, Mary Sheldon, who was Henry's new mistress. (7) This is supported by the research of Elizabeth Heale. (8)
Philippa Jones, the author of The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010) has suggested that "Since she caught the King's eye, it can be assumed that Margaret (Mary) was a beauty. She was certainly the kind of lady whom Henry found attractive - possibly fair, and quite possibly quieter and more subservient than her forceful cousin. The difference in temperament may account for the briefness of the affair and explain why the King eventually returned to Anne. He still found her wit, learning and beauty exhilarating." (9)
Alison Weir has suggested that Anne Boleyn might have encouraged Henry to have had a relationship with Mary Sheldon: "Anne persuaded Madge (Mary), who seems to have been quite amenable to the arrangement, to encourage Henry's advances. In no time at all, Madge was in the King's bed, where Anne hoped she would use her influence to make Henry a little kinder to his long-suffering wife. However, the short affair resulted, predictably, in Anne once more suffering pangs of jealousy; nor did it improve her situation at all." (10)
In about 1536 she became betrothed to Sir Henry Norris, a close friend of Henry VIII. This could have been a cover for his continuing relationship. Philippa Jones has argued that Henry's affair with Bessie Blount resulted in the birth of a child, Henry Fitzroy, taught him a valuable lesson. From then on his mistresses had husbands that could hide any child born to such a relationship. (11)
In early 1536 Henry approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne Boleyn. He suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. (12) Philippa Jones has pointed out: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession." (13)
In April 1536, a Flemish musician in Anne Boleyn's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested and interrogated at the house of Cromwell. He eventually broke down and confessed to having a sexual relationship with Anne Boleyn. David Loades has suggested that the story was "certainly fictitious, and probably a fantasy produced by psychological pressure". (14)
Peter Ackroyd, the author of Tudors (2012) believes that Smeaton was tortured on the rack. (15) This is based on the evidence provided by George Constantyne he was "grievously racked for almost four hours". (16) Cromwell now had the evidence he needed. It seems that Smeaton had told him that Henry Norris had been Anne Boleyn's lover.
On 1st May, Henry Norris took part in the May Day jousts at Greenwich. While returning to London he was accused of committing adultery with the queen. He fiercely denied this, even though Henry promised to pardon his offence if he confessed. Norris was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (17) Norris refused to confess. So did Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber, and her brother, George Boleyn, who he had charged with incest. (18)
On 12th May, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, as High Steward of England, presided over the trial of Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston and William Brereton at Westminster Hall. (19) Except for Smeaton they all pleaded not guilty to all charges. Thomas Cromwell made sure that a reliable jury was empanelled, consisting almost entirely of known enemies of the Boleyns. "These were not difficult to find, and they were all substantial men, with much to gain or lose by their behaviour in such a conspicuous theatre". (20)
Few details survive of the proceedings. Witnesses were called and several spoke of Anne Boleyn's alleged sexual activity. One witness said that there was "never such a whore in the realm". At the end of the trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the four men were condemned by Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley to be drawn, hanged, castrated and quartered. Eustace Chapuys claimed that Brereton was "condemned on a presumption, not by proof or valid confession, and without any witnesses." (21)
In 1538 Henry VIII was looking for a new wife. One candidate was Christina of Denmark, the sixteen-year-old widowed Duchess of Milan. Henry received a promising report from John Hutton. "She is not pure white as (Jane Seymour) but she hath a singular good countenance, and, when she chanceth to smile there appeareth two pits in her cheeks, and one in her chin, the witch becometh her right excellently well." He said he was bound to like her as she looked like Mary Shelton. (22)
By 1546 Mary Sheldon married Sir Anthony Heveningham. Mary gave birth to five children, including Arthur Heveningham, who is thought to be an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. (23) After the death of Heveningham in 1557 she married Philip Appleyard, she was then around thirty-eight.
Mary Sheldon died in January 1571. Her daughter, Abigail Heveningham, was in attendance on Queen Elizabeth in 1588. (24)
For many years it was thought that Chapuys, in his writings, was referring to Margaret, or Madge, Shelton. Mary did have both a sister and a sister and a sister-in-law called Margaret; the confusion was probably caused by how the "y" was written, making "Mary" look like "Marg" for Margaret. However, it is clear from two contemporary sourceswhich name is correct, and that it was Mary who was Henry's lover.
Since she caught the King's eye, it can be assumed that Margaret (Mary) was a beauty. She was certainly the kind of lady whom Henry found attractive - possibly fair, and quite possibly quieter and more subservient than her forceful cousin. The difference in temperament may account for the briefness of the affair and explain why the King eventually returned to Anne. He still found her wit, learning and beauty exhilarating.
Anne persuaded Madge (Mary), who seems to have been quite amenable to the arrangement, to encourage Henry's advances. In no time at all, Madge was in the King's bed, where Anne hoped she would use her influence to make Henry a little kinder to his long-suffering wife. However, the short affair resulted, predictably, in Anne once more suffering pangs of jealousy; nor did it improve her situation at all.