My Lady Carey

The 16th century was full of music, a packet of jewels that sparkled with a metallic radiance, their facets an alchemy of wonder and spliced colors.  Galliards, pavans, madrigals, motets, rondeaus, bergerettes…ethereal rhythms that decorated the foggy skin of history.

The exotic, feminine names say it all.  But there is one that stands outside this musical fairy ring:  dompe…a dour word, it means lament, or dirge.  It possibly comes from the French “tombeau” (lament), or the German “dumpf” (dull or dazed).  But ultimately its source is a mystery:  an etymological curiosity.  

Most of these laments have been forgotten.  But there is one, written in the mid 1520’s, famous enough to be included in the echelon of the very best of Renaissance minstrelsy.  It is called ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  Its tune is golden and complex – its threads twisting like the helix of a DNA.   Moving with Byzantine grace, it is a filigree that curls through the air.

So – what was Lady Carey’s lament?  In the shadows of the court, amidst perfume and dogs, pearls and plague…why did she grieve? She was bold, pretty and shallow.  She was given to pursuing pleasure using her dark eyes and charming stupidity as her weapons.  Her name was Mary.  And she collected kings.

In 1514, at the age of 15, she arrived at the French court as maid of honor to Mary Tudor – the future, and very unwilling, bride of King Louis XII (Louis was nearly four times her age; he died three months after their wedding).  Even though the Queen Dowager left for England shortly thereafter, Mary stayed in Paris and before 1519 became the mistress of Louis’ son, King Francis I.  Her voluptuous reputation was already established; Francis himself referred to her as an ‘English Mare’ and ‘infamous above all’.

My Lady

In 1519 she returned to England, as maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon.  In 1520 she married Sir William Carey – handsome, athletic, a distinguished art collector. 


On that happy day they were proud to receive a special guest:  King Henry VIII.  In a year it was only she who was receiving King Henry – ever a victim to the type of girl who would flirt even on her own wedding day.

Their affair lasted five years, a hidden event full of whispered logistics and secret arrangements.  The two children born to her might have been her husband’s, they might have been future princes.  By 1526 she had lost the king’s affections to a darker, sharper girl:  her sister, Anne Boleyn.  Mary’s lazy charms had only created a man yearning for a quick wit.

And in 1526 an anonymous, sympathetic composer wrote ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  In her sloe-eyed, languid way, Mary accepted the intricate tune – so unsuited to the subject – as she took affection, gifts, her ill fame:  unthinking and willingly.

In 1527 she  became  sister to a Queen.  In 1528 she was a widow – ignored and in debt.

Mary married again in 1534 – to a soldier, William Stafford.  Anne was furious that her sister had chosen to marry without her permission, and beneath her station.  Her place on the throne was a shaky one, and she could not afford to be related to a commoner.  In two years Anne would be dead.

Disowned by her family, Mary’s financial situation became so desperate that she resorted to begging the King’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf.  What she told him could have been set to her own lament:  “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom.  And I believe verily…he would not forsake me to be a king.”


13 responses to “My Lady Carey

  1. This reminds me, I was in the middle of the first season of The Tudors before I put my Netflix on hold. The story is condensed for time, but her reputation at the French court, the “English Mare” comment and the dalliance with Henry VIII were included. However, I don’t remember her being married. I suppose they can only tell so much of a story in an hour a week.

  2. I’ve almost finished reading, “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel which covers this period although it focuses on Henry VIII divorce from Katherine and his marriage to Anne Bolyen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Mary does feature through and her relationship with the King.

    I’m not sure about the Dompe though – technically, I think it would be difficult to play so I admire the recording on that basis but the plodding left hand and the almost manic right hand kind of set me on edge. It’s very interesting to hear it though, so thank you for posting.

    I’d recommend Wolf Hall, by the way, if you’ve not read it yet.

  3. I do remember her character from the Tudors, thank you extremely, Aubs for filling in the blanks of what they skipped over. It’s all fascinating.

  4. amy – I’ll have to have ‘The Tudors’ props, as the ‘English Mare’ epitaph was a new one on me. Yes, she married – maybe as a gift to the groom (she WAS kind of pretty), possibly as a gift to her; giving her a title, albeit a minor one.

    Jando – I first heard this piece on ‘Elizabeth R’ – the second episode. The young queen was playing it on a spinet and it sounded wonderful: complicated, twisted, yet smoothly performed. This one is rather rocky, but the only other piece that I liked was performed on a lute and viol, and I believe it was originally written for a keyboard.

    ‘Wolf Hall’ sounds interesting – does Jane Seymour play a large part in this? Wasn’t she born there?

    JC – Pretty and pathetic I would call her. So much overshadowed by her dark sister.

    • Jane Seymour was born there – she plays a small part in the book as she was in Anne Bolyen’s service and then later with Mary. In an interview with Hilary Mantel, she says she named the book after it’s end point, the last words are “To Wolf Hall”, but she also said that Wolf Hall accurately describes the court of Henry VIII in that period. I’ve finished it now and am hoping for a sequel.

  5. A couple of years ago I saw “The Other Boleyn Girl” (movie) – I don’t think I realised Anne’s sister was so “involved” until seeing that. I love the idea of “charming stupidity” as a weapon.

  6. I read about Mary some years ago and she always seemed such a used and abused woman. You brought her to life beautifully.

  7. You have such a sharp, brutal way of telling a tale, perfectly suited to this one in particular. Thanks for including the clip of the dompe…being able to actually hear the song while understanding the context of it makes it so much more enjoyable.

  8. Fascinating – I don’t know much about this time period in history but I often feel sorry for the women who were tangled up romantically with royalty. Their financial, emotional and physical security by any measure was precarious at best…

  9. fascinating indeed! i just found your blog and i have to say i already love it 😀

  10. Ms. Aussie – This was a time when a sharp-witted girl was a threat…Mary’s sister had a peculiar hold on Henry, but not all men thought that way! Mary seemed to fit into that 16th century ideal: pale, plump, pretty.

    FD – Yes, she was helpless, I think, and not even aware of it. Still, she was brave enough to marry for love, in the face of her family’s anger.

    indiaink – Yes! I found myself writing this from an unsentimental point of view; I don’t know why the story struck me that way – I seemed to be writing this from a distance (besides the obvious distance of years).

    Barbara – Very few came out of their royal attachments happily. The extraordinary woman – Diane de Poitiers, Madame Pompadour, even Nell Gwynne – were able, however, to wield their influence as well as any man.

    Christina – Welcome! Thanks for the complement; come back any time – the cafe’s door is always open.

  11. Your language, threading “pearls” with “plague,” always plucks out such wonderful notes, such musical stuff. and calls my attention to things/history I might have utterly bypassed.

    I did read THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL and though it was seriously fictionalized, the threads of some truth run throughout thus i enjoyed this entry of yours even more. And now, to listen to the dompe which you attached….

  12. A fascinating period in history, which you have fleshed out so well for me here. I very much enjoyed reading it while listening to the ‘Dompe’ for the second time after enjoying the Byzantine art video.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s