On June 22nd 1528 tragedy struck. Mary Boleyn’s husband William Carey became gravely ill and sometime during that fateful day he died of the sweating sickness. The sweating sickness had first struck in the 15th century and appeared on and off, one of the worst times being in 1528. The symptoms appeared to be something like influenza or phenomena, with the patient having pains and aches all over the body, headaches, a great thirst and also breaking out in a horrible sweat. Many people that caught the sweat were dead within twenty four hours. It is unknown where William Carey was buried; Alison Weir suggests that it may have been in a mass grave in which others whom had died of the sweat were also buried. This could be plausible considering the fear and worry that existed about catching the sweat during the time. Unfortunately there are no records or details which tell of Mary’s feelings towards the death of her husband. Nonetheless it was a great loss for Mary as she was now a widow with two young children and little means of supporting herself. From this time until 1534 it is difficult to track Mary’s whereabouts and there are very few records as to her activities.
Upon William Carey’s death Mary Boleyn was not only left a widow but she had little means of supporting herself without a husband. In addition to this 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. One cannot say for certain what Thomas Boleyn’s feelings were regarding his son in laws death or the feelings towards his newly widowed daughter. Perhaps if Mary had once been the mistress of King Francois I of France Thomas was ashamed of her behaviour and that is why he all but disowned her. Or maybe he was upset that she had been unable to hold the attention of the English King for longer. Maybe he was disappointed that Henry VIII did not recognise either of Mary’s children as his bastards. Maybe he saw little prospects of an advantageous marriage for Mary now that she was in her late twenties. Or maybe he simply put his efforts and attention towards his second daughter Anne who was by now the mistress to Henry VIII. Once again this is all speculation and we do not, and perhaps may never, fully understand the reasons why Thomas Boleyn did not willingly support his newly widowed daughter.
The months following her husband’s death must have been a difficult time for Mary. It would appear that Mary appealed to the King for assistance as Henry VIII wrote a letter to his mistress Anne Boleyn, Mary’s sister. In the letter he states that…
“As touching your sister’s matter, I have caused Walter Welze to write to my Lord [Viscount Rochford] my mind therein, whereby I trust that Eve shall not have power to deceive Adam; for surely, whatsoever is said, it cannot so stand with his honour but that he must needs take her his natural daughter now in her extreme necessity” (Wilkinson 2010, p. 114).
In addition to this letter Henry VIII also granted the wardship of Mary’s son Henry Carey, to her sister Anne. Although this may seem unusual for a child to be taken away from his mother in today’s age, it was quite common during the Tudor period. It also meant that Mary no longer had the pressure or financial burden to provide for her son. Instead Mary’s sister, who was in a better financial state as the mistress to the King, would be able to provide a suitable education and upbringing for the young Henry Carey. It is unknown what happened to Katherine Carey, oldest daughter of William and Mary. It is very probable that she stayed with her mother during the period following her father’s death.
Frustratingly we do not know where Mary Boleyn lived during the period following her late husband’s death. In her book “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” Alison Weir proposes that Mary returned to her home in Hever Castle. This may have been an awkward time for Mary if she only begrudgingly had the support and assistance from her father. The thoughts and feelings of Elizabeth Boleyn, Mary’s mother, regarding her oldest daughter are unknown. We do not know if she accepted her daughter back with loving arms or if she showed the same cold hostility as her husband did to their oldest child. Once again if only one small record had been left then perhaps a whole new understanding of this time may be relieved!
No word is made of Katherine but it is presumed that she stayed to be raised by her mother, quite possibly at Hever Castle. Mary was luckily granted an annuity of £100 on December 10th 1528 by the King which had previously been granted to her husband. This provided Mary with a financial means to support herself and her young daughter.
Castelli, J, ‘Sir William Stafford of Grafton’, viewed 25th November 2011, Available from internet < http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/WilliamStafford1.htm>.
Weir, A 2001, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Ballantine Books, New York.
Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberly Publishing, Gloucestershire.