Who was Mary Boleyn? 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’s court, and followed his sister Anne to his own tragic death. Mary’s father was also an important member of Henry VIII’s court. Thomas Boleyn was a talented man fluent in French 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 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 oldest child born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. She was most probably born in 1500 and spent the first fourteen years of her life first 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 went with the Princess to France. She attended upon 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 within this letter; firstly 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 of a child, she really did miscarry a three and a half month old foetus in January 1536. Thirdly this letter was written over twenty years since Mary Boleyn had been in France, 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 been kept a secret for more than two decades? Fourthly how do we even know that the words written by Pio are the truth? They could be made up, fabricated or elaborated upon just to discredit Mary and her sister Anne.
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 know 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 Carey, in 1524 and a son, Henry Carey 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? 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 at 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, Thomas Boleyn, 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.
It is also known that during the New Year’s celebrations of 1532 Mary gave Henry VIII a gift of a shirt with a black collar. In October 1532 Mary also 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 again 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 pregnant! Sometime in 1534 Mary 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 more so he 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 pregnant with 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 beheaded upon Tower Hill two days previously. On the same day as George Boleyn’s execution Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, most likely for his previous affair with Mary. Anne and Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was declared a bastard.
A little over three years later Mary had lost not only her brother and sister but also her father and mother and it is most likely that she was never reunited with her parents before their deaths. 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. Not even in death may we mourn the resting place of this mysterious woman.
Miniature of a woman thought to be Mary Boleyn, by Lucus Horenbout (image from Wikipedia)
Abernethy, Susan. ‘The English Sweating Sickness’, The Freelance History Writer, 19 July 2017. <https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2012/08/25/the-english-sweating-sickness/>.
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 19 July 2017]
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 Th e True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2010.