Tuesday 9 February 2010

The strange case of Mary Baynton

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. But in the sixteenth-century, posing as another, particularly an important individual, was a dangerous act. We all know what happened to Arnaud de Tilh and Perkin Warbeck.

In 1533, an eighteen-year-old girl named Mary proclaimed in public the prophecies of her aunt, Mary Tudor, former queen of France, who foretold that her young niece would one day face great hardship. ‘Niece Mary, I am right sorry for you, for I see here that your fortune is very hard. Ye must go a-begging once in your life, either in your youth or in your age’ [1]. The young girl took this advice to heart and vowed to escape abroad ‘to mine uncle the emperor’, and avoid the impending hardships she faced at the hands of her father, the king.

Yet the girl who proclaimed such prophecies was not the daughter of Henry VIII. She had probably never even met him nor Mary, former queen of France, the ‘aunt’ of whom she spoke of. The storyteller’s name was Mary Baynton and for some months she went around impersonating Princess Mary.

Posing as a figure, even one that was currently alive was nothing new. Mary Tudor’s own grandfather, Henry VII, had faced two imposters, one claiming to be Richard, duke of York (youngest son of Edward IV). But why did Mary Baynton decide to pose as the young Princess Mary and why did she choose that moment?

Unfortunately we knew little about Mary Baynton’s life in order to deduce her exact motivations. Yet contemporary movements and sentiments may help us try to understand her bold behaviour. We know that Mary was the daughter of Thomas Baynton of Bridlington in Yorkshire [2]. Aged eighteen, she turned up in Boston, Lincolnshire and addressed herself as the king’s daughter, Princess Mary. By this time Henry VIII had married Anne Boleyn, had his marriage to Katherine of Aragon declared null and void, was expecting the birth of his first child with Anne and had established himself as the supreme figure of authority in the realm, assuming control of the English Church [3]. In short Mary Baynton belonged to a turbulent age. Yet she chose to involve herself in current events instead of keeping her head low. Whether she was the ‘self-deluded lunatic’ as some have dubbed her or was propagating a clear political and religious objective remains uncertain [4]. Ultimately Mary Baynton was knowledgeable about current affairs.

Perhaps Baynton exploiting the current situation for financial purposes? In the guise as Mary she called upon people to give her money so she may pay for her voyage to the Spanish court. She also claimed that the king had completely abandoned her and she was left to shift for herself, a reference to the real Mary’s downgrade in status. Subsequently she was given money although the amount of such sums and the individuals who assisted are unknown to us (though she allegedly attracted the attention of 'diverse and sundry persons, as well as men and women'). She evidently was of a concern for the authorities as she was subsequently arraigned and examined by Nicholas Robson, Thomas Brown and Robert Pulvertoft. She seems to have recanted her claims and disappeared from accounts, likely leading a more unassuming lifestyle.

The story of Mary Baynton is not just an interesting piece of trivia. It illustrates how individuals away from the central power of Westminster, were aware of contemporary developments. Evidently there was a degree of uncertainty for Baynton to succeed in gaining the trust of various individuals in her claims to be Mary. The real Mary was of course not in the north of England but at Hatfield, her own household having been disestablished in late 1533. Perhaps this piece of information was known to some of Baynton’s supporters but, desiring to show contempt for the monarch’s recent actions, they nonetheless supported this controversial figure. This story also indicates to us the prevailing and widespread sympathy for the real Mary’s plight, even as far away as the north of England, an area which Mary never visited. It is no coincident that two years after Baynton publicly declared herself to be Mary in a Lincolnshire town an uprising fuelled by dissatisfaction over the monarch’s actions emerged from the same region. And these rebels listed prominently amongst their demands their desire for Mary to be declared legitimate and granted a place within the succession. The Baynton episode was certainly not as grave a threat to the Crown as the Pilgrimage of Grace, though arguably it acted as a sort of pre-warning to the major events of 1536-37.

[1] James Gairdner (ed.), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign Henry VIII, Vol VI (London, 1882), 1193.
[2] Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (London, 1996), p. 131.
[3] The L&P place the interrogation of Mary Baynton shortly after the birth of Princess Elizabeth. However these records obviously mark the time Baynton was arraigned for her offence; she likely had been operating for some time beforehand. Perhaps the birth of Elizabeth, who Henry VIII perceived at that point to the first of his legitimate heirs, prompted the authorities to act swiftly against Baynton (and of course her alleged success in gaining supporters was viewed as perturbing by the crown).
[4] M.H. Dodds and R. Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536-1537 and The Exeter Conspiracy, 1538: Vol I (Cambridge, 1915), p. 87.

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