The Tudor Society

Unravelling Mary Boleyn by Sarah Bryson

Mary_BoleynToday we have an article by Sarah Bryson, author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell and a regular contributor to the Tudor Society.

Mary Boleyn is most certainly a woman of mystery. Her younger sister was Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and Queen consort of England. Mary's brother was a well-known member of Henry VIII's court, who was evangelical in his religious beliefs and who, like his sister Anne, ended up on the scaffold. Mary's father was also an important member of Henry VIII's court. Thomas Boleyn was a talented man, who was fluent in French and who was sent on many missions as an ambassador for England. He was cunning and smart and used his skills and wits to provide a fantastic education for his children, as well as to further himself and his family at court. And yet when we look at Mary's life compared to her famous siblings and father so little is known.

Mary Boleyn was the first child born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. She was most probably born in 1500 and she spent the first fourteen years of her life at Blickling Hall and then at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was approximately fourteen years of age, she was chosen as a maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor and she accompanied the Princess to France. Mary attended the Princess when she married King Louis XII and stayed with the Dowager Queen after the death of the French King.

Frustratingly, we know very little about Mary's whereabouts between 1515 and 1520. History suggests that sometime during her time at the French court Mary Boleyn became the mistress of Francis I, the new King of France. This idea comes to us from a letter written by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza on March 10th 1536. In his letter Pio writes that:

"Francis said also that they are committing more follies than ever in England, and are saying and printing all the ill they can against the Pope and the Church; that “that woman” pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France ‘per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte.’ [a great prostitute and infamous above all]"

There are several inaccuracies in this letter. Firstly, we know that in 1536 Mary could not have been with her sister Anne as Mary had been banished from court in 1534. Secondly, Anne Boleyn did not pretend to miscarry a child, she really did miscarry in January 1536. Thirdly, this letter was written twenty years after Mary Boleyn had been in France, so why in the past two decades had not a single word been spoken about Mary Boleyn's alleged affair with Francis I? Within a close court it is hard to keep secrets, so how could Mary's affair have been kept a secret for more than two decades? Fourthly, how do we even know that the words written by Pio are the truth? So the question remains, did Mary Boleyn have an affair with King Francis I of France? There is no evidence to suggest that she did and it is most likely that the words of Rodolfo Pio are nothing more than a fabricated lie to discredit Mary and her sister Anne.

Mary's whereabouts between 1515 and 1520 also remain a mystery. It could be possible that she returned to England with the Dowager Queen of France, Mary Tudor, and continued to be a maid of honour. She may also have returned to England and become part of Queen Catherine of Aragon's household.

On February 4th 1520, in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich, Mary married Sir William Carey, a handsome young man who became a gentleman of the privy chamber. The King attended the wedding ceremony giving the couple a present of 6s and 8d.

It is also known that Mary Boleyn became the mistress of King Henry VIII. It is estimated that the affair began in 1522. Henry rode out during the Shrovetide Joust of 1522 wearing on his horse the motto “elle mon coeur a navera” which means “she has wounded my heart”. With this Henry VIII may have been referring to Mary Boleyn. The affair lasted for about three years and ended around 1525. During these years Mary gave birth to two children: first a daughter, Catherine, in 1524, and then a son, Henry, born in 1526. The conception dates of both these children coincide with Mary Boleyn's affair with Henry VIII. So the question is, did Henry VIII father Mary Boleyn's children? Again, frustratingly, we simply do not know. All that is known is that Henry VIII never acknowledged either child as his own.

Tragedy struck Mary on June 22nd 1528 when Mary's husband William Carey died of the Sweating Sickness. With her husband's death, Mary was left a widow without any means of supporting herself. Her young son became a ward to her sister Anne, who was at this time being courted by Henry VIII. It is presumed that Mary took her daughter Catherine Carey and returned to Hever Castle for a time. This may have been a difficult time for Mary as it is believed she was not well-liked by her parents, especially by her father Thomas Boleyn. Josephine Wilkinson, in her book The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress states that Mary's father turned his back on his oldest daughter as she was no longer mistress to the King and therefore not a means of advancement for the family.
We do know however that Henry VIII stepped in and asked Thomas Boleyn to support his daughter. He also granted Mary an annuity of £100 a year which has previously been given to her late husband William Carey.

Once more, we lose track of Mary Boleyn and we only see glimpses of her life between 1528 and 1534. During this period, Mary's sister was created Marquis of Pembroke and then, in 1533, married Henry VIII and became Queen consort of England. We know that during the New Year celebrations of 1532 Mary gave Henry VIII a gift of a shirt with a blackwork collar and in October 1532 Mary accompanied her sister and King Henry VIII to France where they went to meet King Francis I. Records state that Mary was one of the ladies participating in a masquerade to entertain the French King in a banquet held on October 27th. Mary also appears in the records during her sister Anne's coronation on June 1st 1533. During the procession, Mary rode in the third coach behind Anne, with their mother Elizabeth, and she wore a dress made of seven yards of scarlet velvet. Records also show that during the coronation ceremony Mary attended her sister wearing a gown of scarlet velvet and an ermine cloak and bonnet.

In 1534, Mary Boleyn caused quite a scandal by returning to court not only as a married woman but also as a pregnant one! Sometime in 1534, Mary had married William Stafford, a soldier at the garrison of Calais. As the sister of the Queen, Mary had married far beneath her station in life and, what's more, had dared to marry without her sister or father's permission. Outraged, Anne banished her sister from court.

What happened to the child that Mary was carrying is unknown, but most likely she either miscarried or the child did not live long after birth. Also, in another point of frustration, we do not know where Mary went after her banishment. Since her new husband was a soldier at Calais it is most likely that she returned there with him. We do know that in 1539 William Stafford was chosen as one of the members assigned to welcome Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife, to Calais.

On May 19th 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed with a French executioner's sword. She had been found guilty of trumped up charges of incest, adultery and treason. Her brother George had been found guilty of treason and incest with his sister and had been beheaded on Tower Hill two days previously. On the same day as George Boleyn's execution, Anne's marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, most likely due to his previous affair with Mary. Anne and Henry's daughter Elizabeth was declared a bastard. Mary's parents died in 1538 and 1539, and it appears that Mary had never been reunited with her parents. Sometime in early 1540, Mary and her husband William returned to England where Mary received some of her father's inheritance, including the lavish Rochford Hall. It was here that Mary spent her final years.
Mary died either on July 19th 1543 or July 30th, the exact date is not known. As to where Mary's body rests, that too remains a mystery. We can't even pay our respects at the resting place of this mysterious woman.

You can read about Mary Boleyn's inquisition post mortem, which was taken at Brentwood in Essex, in Claire Ridgway's article from 2014 over at The Anne Boleyn Files - click here. Claire also has a different view on Mary Boleyn's relationship with Henry VIII and you can read this over at the Anne Boleyn Files - click here.

Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website,, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day.

Notes and Sources

  • Abernethy, Susan. ‘The English Sweating Sickness’, The Freelance History Writer, 6 June 2015.
  • Hart, Kelly. The Mistresses of Henry VIII. The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2009.
  • Jonathan Hughes, ‘Stafford , Mary (c.1499–1543)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009, accessed 6 June 2015.
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII. Edited by J SBrewer.
  • Licence, Amy. The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2014.
  • Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Ballantine Books, New York, 2011.
  • Wilkinson, Josephine. Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2010.

There are 30 comments Go To Comment

  1. A

    I was told this as a child she lay to rest some where near Hever castle because great of my family told this because she was told when was 15 and she died in 2007

  2. P

    Mary Boleyn is my 12th Great Grandmother and I am doing some searching on her. I think it has come up she is buried somewhere in St Peter’s Church Cemetery, Hever, Kent. But I am always looking for information about her.

    1. C

      How exciting!

    2. S

      I just discovered through DNA matches that Mary Boleyn is my 13th Great Grandmother as well. My daughter is researching this further.

      1. P

        This is crazy reading the comments. Mary is my 16th great grandmother.

      2. S

        I often wonder if people who should, be related to some of these people now find through DNA that they are indeed, not related to those they thought they were. Since there was a certain amount of filandering back then, which would then scew the family lineage.

  3. E

    Is there any reason for believing that the “she has wounded my heart” notation at the Shrovetide joust refers to Mary Boleyn, as opposed to some other, unnamed lady? I find it odd that Henry would not have acknowledged Mary’s son if he had any reason to believe that the boy was his … especially since there was an act of Parliament in 1536 allowing him to leave the throne to any one he chose in his will, and, Henry Fitzroy was dead.

    1. S

      There’s always a lot of controversy regarding who fathered Mary’s children, but in reality, Mary was a married woman and why would Henry VIII recognise a child that could or could not have been another man’s? Legally the child was William Carey’s, even if it was biologically Henry’s.

      1. M

        I have read that Henry VIII and Mary were cousins. Is that true? If so, then anybody related to Mary is also related to Henry VIII.

    2. J

      I have always assumed that Henry recognised Fitzroy because, at the time of his birth, Henry had no male heirs. At the time of Henry Carey’s birth Fitzroy was still living and when he died in July 1536 Henry was married to Jane Seymour and fully expecting to have a son. Perhaps if Jane had given birth to a girl in October 1537 it might have been different. Although, as Henry had been very determined to eradicate Anne from history, wouldn’t he have been wary of advertising such a strong link to the Boleyns by recognising Carey (who was Anne’s nephew and former ward) as his son and acknowledging his affair with Mary?

  4. S

    Mary Boleyn was my17th Great Grandmother, Catherine Carey my 16th Great Grandmother, I recently had my DNA analysis done. One part of these DNA results can Pinpoint what part of the world and what percentage of your direct lineage comes from. Being a 10th generation American, you can imagine my surprise when the results told me I was 50% Great Britain, 14% Irish, 25% Europe West and a little bit from Scandinavia pretty much matched the Boleyn and Tudor linage and written heritage. Do you know if there have been any DNA studies of the Tudor line? I am sure Mary Boleyn was my Grandmother, the question is who was my Grandfather..

    1. S

      It would have to have been William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s first husband as she did not have any surviving children with her second husband 🙂

      1. C - Post Author

        I think Sharon might have been referring to the idea that Henry VIII may have fathered one or both of the Carey children, although I personally believe that William Carey was their father.

        Sharon, there have never been any DNA studies of the Carey children, the Boleyns or Henry VIII and I don’t believe our present queen will ever let their remains be exhumed for testing. I think it will always be a mystery.

        1. S

          I doubt the Queen would allow that either, and I have to say, I totally support that position I read with great interest the results of the DNA studies of the two little Princes that were recently exhumed, I was trying to figure out if there would be a Known living descendant of Henry III that they could use as the base line. It seems to me doubtful any of his genetic code would still be around. Not having children who have children etc, does hurt the possibility.

          Thanks for your comments. If you hear any thing related to this issue, I would love to hear it. .

        2. J

          Prince Charles does want testing done tho I read an article on it so when the queen passes he can do what he wants and he is looking into the two boys in the tower x

      2. S

        They are wondering if it may be Henry V111

    2. V

      I have been looking into my family history. She is my 16th great grandmother.

    3. L

      We must be related. Catherine Carey is my 14th great Grandmother. I question if Henry VIII was her father due to the mental illness that Has been passed down and other genetic Illness.

      1. S

        The mental illness passed down by Henry the v111?

  5. C

    I have no information for you, but just wish to say how thoroughly exciting!

  6. S

    Mary Boleyn was also my many times over great Grandmother. It has been most exciting and interesting finding out so much information on my family line. We will never know the real “who” of the parentage of the two children of William and Mary. Either way we have enough of a connection to the Royal line through other lines.

  7. J

    I also was told by my great aunt that I was related to Mary Boleyn. My American great great great grandparents are from Virginia and also descendants of Patrick Henry and his second wife. I have been to Hever Castle, saw a portrait of Mary and was delighted. I will always wonder and be enlightened by her story. Joanne Jennings

  8. S

    There will be DNA about from Henry VIII but it would be unlikely that it would be revealed who they were now, as most of that field ploughing would have been done in the days that he was a young man and not expected to be king…he and his ‘lads’ went rousting through the servants gaining “experience’ and then moving the servants on…as there was no contraception it would have been highly likely there would be plenty of direct descendants about in the villages surrounding the castles Henry spent his youth…

  9. D

    Before I ever went on Ancestry my mother told me we were of Royalty which never meant anything to me, now I find out she was right & my Grandma Helena was always mistook for Queen Elizabeth , I’m most excited to be related to William & Harry & now Megan & Harrys Children! & My Grandma Mary Boleyn was not a whore she was caught up in the whole Tudor way of life .

  10. M

    I’m not of the Royal bloodline but some people thought I might have been as one of my ancestors was Sir John Perrot who some beloved was an illegitimate son to Henry viii as he resembled him and had the same temperament . He had a couple of castles himself and Henry Viii did like him . He ended up in the tower of London being held for high treason under Elizabeth 1st reign, He wasn’t hung but was poisoned after months of imprisonment..

  11. R

    Great post! I am descended from Mary Boleyn as well as other here.

  12. J

    As far I can see Mary Boleyn was my 12th great grandmother.

  13. J

    Mary Boleyn is my 13th Great Grand Mother thru her son Henry Carey. My 7th Great Grandparents may also have been a descendant of Catherine Carey Knowles, but I can not confirm that. Henry VIII ‘s Mother is half sister of my ancestor Arthur Plantagenet who was Edward IV ‘s son thru a mistress. Also a descendant of Elizabeth of York thru her ist marrage to Grey another of Henry VIII, uncles half brothers to the Princes in the Tower. I am related to 4 of Henry VIII wives and two of the mistresses.

  14. R

    Is it possible that Mary Boleyn became Henrys’ mistress earlier, in the missing 5 years? If Bess Blount was then pregnant with Firzroy, young Mary may have replaced her. Henry seems to garner his wives ladies in waiting as lovers. Then married Mary to William Carey. I believe Carey was cousin to King Henry so the Carey childrens’ resemblance explained. plus Marys’ 1st child was female. King Henry’s wives seemed never to birth two healthy babies consecutively. I know, just a thought.

  15. L

    I infer that Mary Boleyn was extremely wise to skirt around direct involvement in the court of Henry VIII. Even if she was the king’s mistress – did she have any choice? The mysogyny of that period was lethal – as demonstrated by Mary’s father and uncle, not to mention Henry VIII. Good for her for marrying William Stafford and getting the hell out of there – as well as away from her scheming father and uncle!

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Unravelling Mary Boleyn by Sarah Bryson