She is my death and I am hers – Anne Boleyn & Mary Tudor

I’m delighted to be hosting Day 5 of Melita Thomas’ blog tour for her debut book, The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary. Melita has written a fascinating guest article about Anne Boleyn’s relationship with her step-daughter, Mary. You can read a review of Melita’s new book here.


She is my death and I am hers.

One of the most bitter relationships in English history must be that between Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon, and the woman who was, in English law, although never in Mary’s opinion, her step-mother, Anne Boleyn.

Anne joined the English court in around 1522, when Mary was six, and Anne probably about 21. Initially, the older woman would merely have been one amongst a whole group of maids-of-honour and ladies surrounding Mary’s mother. By 1522, Katharine’s circle of close friends and confidantes was established, and Anne, fifteen years younger and the daughter only of a knight, did not become part of the inner circle. Mary may therefore not even have noticed her, before she herself went to live in the Marches of Wales in mid-1525.

The first time we can be sure of more direct contact, was in 1527.  A masque was arranged to celebrate the treaty which was to marry Mary to the French king, François I. Mary led the eight ladies who took part. Other than Lady Exeter, Mary’s co-performers are not certain, but Anne, like Mary an accomplished dancer, is likely to have been one of them. Rehearsals for the masque would have required Mary and Anne to be in each other’s company in an informal setting. At the time, although Henry was already contemplating how he might have his marriage annulled, his infatuation with Anne had not yet crystallised into an intention to make her his wife.

If Mary knew that her father was smitten with the attractive, brunette courtier, she might have treated her with disdain – something likely to rile Anne. If she did not know, the fact that Henry danced with Anne after the masque, whilst Mary took the floor with one of the French ambassadors, might have alerted her.  But Mary was only eleven, so it is more probable that she was unaware of Anne other than as a junior member of Katharine’s retinue, and treated her with the polite condescension that royalty usually extended to persons of inferior rank – and that, too, might have aggravated Anne.

But Henry’s feelings were deepening. By 1528, the idea of an annulment and his love for Anne had become one, although, he swore, and Katharine affected to believe him, that he sought the annulment for the sake of his conscience only. Mary probably accepted this – with both parents insisting that the argument was one of conscience, and the unpalatable alternative being that her father sought to cast her mother off for another woman, Mary is likely to have clung to the reassuring excuse.

Meanwhile, court life continued. Mary’s household in the Marches of Wales was broken up, and she returned to the south-east permanently in May 1528. By then, Anne was a fixture at Henry’s side. With Katharine and Mary still referred to as Queen and Princess of Wales respectively, Anne would have been obliged to follow etiquette and treat the twelve-year-old princess deferentially. Henry’s own feelings towards his daughter were unchanged – he was a proud and loving father, and still spent time with Mary and Katharine.

The awkward ménage è trois between Henry, Katharine and Anne came to a head in August 1531. The court was at Windsor and all three were present, together with Mary, who was by now surely aware of Anne as her father’s mistress (platonically, if not physically).  One day, Henry and Anne rode out to the hunt, and did not return. Katharine was sent to the palace of The More, at Rickmansworth, and Mary to Richmond. They were never to see each other again.

Anne could dislodge Katharine, but removing Mary from Henry’s life was to prove altogether more difficult. The king continued to see his daughter, although in a rather clandestine fashion. On one occasion, he met her out walking in the fields (it is not clear where they were, but Henry might have been at Greenwich, with Mary three or four miles away at Eltham). Henry spoke to his daughter, and promised he would see her more frequently, but, according to the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, broke off the conversation when he saw he was being overheard by some of Anne’s servants. That Christmas, Mary was at court, but there is no record of how she and Anne behaved towards each other – as Anne was only the daughter of an earl, and Mary was still treated as Princess of Wales, matters of precedence and etiquette must have created difficulties for Henry’s courtiers.

Henry and Anne travelled to France in the autumn of 1532, and it was at Calais that they first consummated their relationship. On their return, there is one obscure record that mentions Henry meeting Mary at the Tower of London, to show her the new fortifications, several days after showing them to Anne and the rest of the court. Henry would doubtless have been eager to keep his daughter and his mistress apart. But until Anne had a son, Mary was Henry’s probable heir – the claims of Henry Fitzroy were not likely to be widely supported.

By January 1533, Anne knew herself pregnant. A swift marriage ceremony was conducted, but so far as can be ascertained, Mary knew nothing of it, until the announcement on 23rd May, by Archbishop Cranmer that Henry and Katharine’s marriage was illegal, and that Anne was his lawful wife. Mary can certainly not have been in ignorance of the splendid coronation that Anne received on 1st June, by now six months pregnant.

Henry and Anne were quite certain that a son was only a few weeks away. For Henry, this would have solved all his problems – few people would have put the claims of Mary above those of a son, born of a crowned queen. Mary herself need not be declared illegitimate – it was widely accepted that children born of parents who had married in good faith were legitimate, and so, with a son in hand, this exception would have left Mary a marriageable daughter.

That summer, the only move against Mary was to demand her plate and jewels, and, rather pettily, any ‘nursery stuff’ amongst her belongings. But on 7th September 1533, disaster struck for Anne. Her longed-for child was a girl. The likelihood of anyone preferring Elizabeth, of doubtful legitimacy, over a fully-grown Mary, who had prestigious European relatives, was slim. Elizabeth’s position had to be in enshrined in law, and Mary had to be forced to accept it.

This was the beginning of a long campaign of bullying and intimidation against Mary. The first move was to strip her of her household and send her as a subordinate to the newly formed household of Elizabeth. Mary reacted with outrage – she could not disobey her father as to where she lived, but she could, and did, refuse to acknowledge Elizabeth as anything more than his illegitimate daughter.

The Act of Succession of 1534 proclaimed Elizabeth as heir to the throne. A proclamation shortly after, made it illegal to refer to Mary as ‘princess’ (although the Act did not specifically make her illegitimate.)  Mary continued to protest. Her new governess, Anne’s aunt, Lady Shelton, was given orders to make her life difficult. She was obliged to eat in the Great Hall with the rest of the household, rather than taking her meals in private; she could not attend Mass in the parish church; on one occasion her rooms were searched, and eventually, even her one chambermaid was taken from her.

Whenever Mary was obliged to do something which she thought derogatory to her rank, she would protest as far as possible – once, she even suffered the humiliation of being bodily deposited in the litter she had refused to enter, as it was behind Elizabeth’s.

Henry was in despair – he could not permit his daughter to disobey him on such a serious matter.  Although we may see Mary’s actions as those of a rebellious teenager, it went far deeper than that. So long as Mary refused to recognise Anne as queen, there was the possibility that she might receive foreign support in any bid for the throne in the event of Henry’s death. Mary had been used to thinking of herself as Henry’s heir since she was nine years old. She was not going to give up without a fight.

Anne tried a different approach. She offered to speak to Henry and have Mary back at court, treated with all honour, and ranking only after Elizabeth and herself, if she would only accept her illegitimacy. Mary sent back an icy answer. She thanked ‘Madam Pembroke’ for her offer to mediate with her father, but could not recognise any queen in England except her mother.

The strain of the separation from her mother, and the rift with her father told on Mary’s health. Stories that Anne intended to poison her cannot have helped. It is highly unlikely that Anne would have contemplated such a nefarious act, but when Henry planned to visit France in 1535, without Anne, she declared that, in his absence, she would use her power as regent to have Mary treated with the full rigour of the law condemning those who would not accept Henry and Anne’s marriage and Elizabeth’s status, to death. The visit never happened, so we cannot know what Anne would have done – she might have heeded her brother, George’s, warning that disposing of Mary would incur Henry’s wrath.

The two women were equally determined – Anne that Mary should submit, and Mary that she never would. Anne could never rest easy until Mary’s spirit was broken. Throughout 1535, Anne was hoping for an alliance with France, to be cemented by the marriage of Elizabeth to one of the French king’s sons. The French however, were supremely indifferent to such an offer, proclaiming their preference for Mary. Until Anne could persuade Henry to proceed against Mary with the full weight of the law, she could never win – unless she bore a son.

Henry, although he raged against his daughter, sending her a message to say she was his greatest enemy, and refusing all her pleas to either see him or Katharine, would not take any more serious steps against her.  This was probably a combination of paternal feeling, and fear lest the Emperor be finally goaded into doing more than complaining about Mary and Katharine’s treatment.

In 1536, the situation changed completely. Mary was heartbroken to learn of her mother’s death, and Anne, within a few weeks was equally depressed by the miscarriage of a male foetus. Mary was sure that, with Katharine out of the way, even more pressure would be put on her to comply with the law, and she was right – but before any action was taken, Anne herself was arrested, convicted of adultery, incest and treason, and executed, all in the space of three weeks.

Within days of Anne’s death, Mary had an unexpected visitor. Lady Kingston, wife of the Constable of the Tower, had received permission to visit her. The evidence is confused, but suggests that Henry himself was seeking a reconciliation – provided, of course, that Mary would humble herself and accept the annulment of her mother’s marriage.

Lady Kingston also had another errand – she had been charged by Anne to request Mary’s forgiveness, or so Mary reported to Chapuys, a few weeks later. Anne’s harshness to Mary had been born of her need to protect herself and Elizabeth – although the reported words and messages between the two suggest an element of mutual personal antipathy.  At the time of her death, she may have repented her more aggressive threats, or she may have calculated that a request for forgiveness would incline Mary to view Elizabeth more favourably.

If this was the intention, it bore fruit. Henry forced Mary to submit, but once both sisters had been reduced to bastard status, Mary treated her half-sister as kindly as she could for the rest of Henry’s reign. Whether she ever managed to forgive Anne’s memory, is another question.

Melita Thomas

Related posts:



  1. Reymie Lum says:

    I love mary Tudor because her life was so tragic because of the whims of her father

Leave a Comment