Mary Boleyn: Fact vs Fiction
By Sarah Bryson
If you are interested in Tudor history you have probably heard of Anne Boleyn. She was the second wife of King Henry VIII and Queen Consort of England. Much has been written about the life of Anne Boleyn from debate over the date of her birth, her role in the English Reformation, to the tragic details of her fall and execution. Yet Anne Boleyn had an older sister, Mary. Mary Boleyn was the sister of one of the most famous Queens of England and yet so little has been detailed and recorded about her life. She lead quite a fascinating life, at one point even defying the social norms and the wishes of her father, and her sister the Queen and following her heart to marry for love. In this short piece I will outline some of the facts that are known about Mary’s life and some of the great mysteries that surround her.
Birth: Mary was the first child born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Thomas Boleyn, born in possibly 1466/1467 was a prominent member of King Henry VII’s court. He was fluent in many languages including French and Latin and was very well educated. He used his intellect and talents to work his way up through the English court and was granted a number of rewards including being Knighted in 1509 and being made a Knight of the Garter in 1523. He was also sent on a number of diplomatic missions for Henry VIII and was an ambassador for a period of time in the Low Countries. Elizabeth Howard was the younger sister of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk also a talented man who was quite influential within the English court. It is believed that Elizabeth Howard was extremely beautiful and was a lady in waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon. Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard married in approximately 1499 and according to Thomas, Elizabeth brought him a child every year. It is believed that Mary was the oldest of these children born in 1500 at Blickling Hall, the family residence at the time.
Skills: Thomas Boleyn ensured that his second daughter Anne and son George received the best available education and it is assumed that Mary also received a detailed education. We know that she could read and write and it is presumed that she would have also been taught the skills needed of a lady at the time including sewing, embroidery, singing and dancing. We know that during New Year’s 1533 Mary gave the King a gift of a blackwork collar that she had made herself. She must therefore have had quite some skill at sewing. She may also have learned how to play the virginal and lute, taught appropriate table manners and raised in the Catholic faith.
Maid of Honour: In 1514 Mary was appointed as a Maid of Honour to Mary Tudor, younger sister of Henry VIII and travelled to France with the young Princess. Mary travelled with the Princess from Dover to France as part of Mary’s entourage and was most likely present when the English Princess married King Louis XII. It is believed that it was her father’s influence at court, which helped Mary gain her position as part of Mary Tudor’s entourage.
Marriage: On February 4th 1520, in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich, Mary Boleyn married Sir William Carey. William Carey was a handsome young man who had become a gentleman of the privy chamber and was also a distant relative of Henry VII. The King attended the wedding and gave the couple 6s and 8d as a wedding present.
Mother: Mary was the mother of two children. Her first child, Catherine Carey was born in 1524 and her second child, a son was born in 1525. There is great debate over who was the father of Mary’s children, as during the period of 1522 – 1525 Mary was the mistress of King Henry VIII as well as being married. There are strong arguments for and against Catherine and Henry being the illegitimate children of Henry VIII as well as reasons why they were not. Unfortunately without DNA testing we will never know who really fathered Mary’s children. In 1533 it was reported by the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys that Mary was pregnant but there is no record of the birth of this child, or if it was born, that it survived infancy.
Mistress: Mary became the mistress of King Henry VIII in approximately 1522. During the Shrovetide Joust of 1522 Henry VIII rode out wearing on his horse the motto “elle mon Coeur a navera” which translates to mean, “she has wounded my heart”. It has been suggested that this statement was referring to Mary Boleyn and gives us an approximate date as to when the affair began. The affair was conducted in secret and with great discretion and probably fizzled out on its own sometime around 1525 when Mary was pregnant with her second child.
Widow: Mary’s husband William Carey died of the sweating sickness on June 22nd 1528. Mary was left a widow with two young children to care for and little means to support herself without the income of her husband. 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 pneumonia, 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.
Remarriage: Sometime during 1533/1534 Mary Boleyn left court and while she was away married a man named William Stafford. Stafford was a soldier in the garrison at Calais and later a gentleman usher to King Henry VIII. He was distantly related to Edward Stafford, the 3rd Duke of Buckingham whom had been beheaded for treason in 1521. By marrying William Stafford Mary Boleyn had caused quite a scandal! She had taken a husband without the knowledge or consent of her family, without seeking permission from her father or her sister whom was now Queen of England. In addition to this Mary had married a man who was far beneath her status and to further inflame her family she was pregnant by her new husband.
Banishment From Court: Due to her marriage to William Stafford and for not seeking permission from her father or sister, Queen Anne Boleyn, Mary and her new husband were banished from court. On the 19th of December 1534 Eustace Chapuys, Ambassador for Charles V wrote to his master stating: “The Lady’s sister [Mary] was also banished from Court three months ago, but it was necessary to do so, for besides that she had been found guilty of misconduct, it would not have been becoming to see her at court enceinte [pregnant].” (Wilkinson 2010, p. 148).
Death: Little is known about the details surrounding Mary Boleyn’s death and not even the reason for her death is known. What is known is that she died in July 1543 (on either 19th July or 30th July) aged approximately forty three. She outlived her more famous brother and sister by seven years.
Birth: The exact date of Mary Boleyn’s birth remains unknown. It is believed that she was born in 1500 as the oldest daughter and child of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard but there are no records surviving which give an exact birth date. It was not uncommon for the times for people’s births, especially that of females, to not be recorded.
Appearance: Frustratingly we do not even know what Mary Boleyn looked like. She was believed to have been the prettier of the two Boleyn sisters, probably taking after her mother whom was known to have been a beauty. Unfortunately, there are no surviving authenticated portraits of Mary. Roland Hui, in a series of fascinating articles, has proposed that the Horenbout miniature once believed to be that of Anne Boleyn is in fact her sister Mary. There is a great deal of merit in this idea as the miniature was painted in 1525 and the sitter was aged 25, the age Mary would have been. Mary’s husband was also the patron for Horenbout so it is quite possible he commissioned a miniature of his wife.
Mistress to Francis I: It has been alleged that Mary Boleyn became the mistress of Francis I during her time in France. She has gained the reputation over the years as being a ‘great and infamous whore’ yet there is very little evidence to support this claim. In fact, there are only three pieces of evidence that may refer to Mary Boleyn’s sexual activities in France. The first is a letter by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza on March 10th 1536 in which the Catholic bishop states that Francis I told him that Mary was a great and infamous whore. The other two pieces of evidence, books by Nicholas Sander and William Rastall, refer to Anne Boleyn and not her sister Mary as being a whore. One piece of second hand evidence certainly is not enough to confirm that Mary Boleyn was a great and infamous whore and puts doubt on the fact that she ever had a relationship with King Francis I!
Whereabouts: There are large periods of time in Mary’s life in which her whereabouts are unknown. We do not know where she was during the period of 1515 – 1520. It has been suggested that she returned to England with Mary Tudor in 1515 and became a member of her household or that she transferred to the household of Queen Katherine of Aragon. It has also been proposed that she stayed in France during this period to finish her education.
Children: Mary was married to Henry Carey at the time of her affair with Henry VIII and there is great controversy over who was the father of her children. Some suggest that Henry was the father of one or both of Mary’s children while others do think that William Carey was the father. This quite possibly is one of the greatest mysteries surrounding Mary Boleyn’s life. Was the father of one or both of her children the King of England?!
Thoughts and feelings about her sister: If Mary Boleyn left a diary it did not survive. We have no records as to her feelings or thoughts regarding her younger sister Anne. We do not know how she felt about Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne, nor her rise to the position of Marquis of Pembroke or Queen of England. We also do not know when or where Mary heard the news about her brother and sister’s arrest for treason and adultery. We know nothing on her feelings towards the tragic executions of her siblings. What we do know is that Mary was deeply saddened by her banishment and desperately wanted to regain her sister’s favour.
Religion: While we know a little about the religious beliefs and leanings of Anne, George and their father Thomas Boleyn we know nothing about the religious views of Mary. It is believed that she would have been raised in the Catholic faith learning all the Catholic traditions and practices, but her brother, sister and father ended up having evangelical leanings and a desire to reform the church. Did Mary share these thoughts and views? We simply do not know.
William Stafford: Very little is known about William Stafford and the type of man that he was. We do not even know what he looked like. He was a soldier at the garrison of Calais and did become a gentleman usher for King Henry VIII but what his personality and appearance was like we do not know. Mary states, in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, that he was a good and honest man. We do not know when or how their relationship started or when or where they married.
Residence after being banished from court: After Mary and William were banished from court Mary once more slips into obscurity. Where the newlyweds lived is unknown but there is a suggestion that Mary may have returned with William to his station at Calais.
Place and date of death: It is frustrating that we do not even know when or where Mary Boleyn died. It is commonly believed that Mary died at Rochford Hall, but there are no records to confirm this or even where she was buried. Perhaps it is a fitting end for a woman whose life was lived in such mystery.
Mary Boleyn was the sister to one of the most well known Queens in all of English history and yet so little is known about her life. The facts are so limited that we can almost count them on two hands and the unknowns are so great that they can barely be recorded. I think it is sad that for a woman whose family rose so high and fell so tragically – playing such an important role in English history – so little is known about her life. In her own right, Mary is an interesting woman, mistress to possibly two kings, a woman who defied the social rules of the time and the wishes of her father and sister the Queen by following her heart and marrying for love. Yet perhaps it is all these unknowns that make Mary Boleyn so intriguing.
She played on the edge of history and only left us with a mere glimpse of her remarkable life.
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