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, queentohistory.com, 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 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/70719, 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.