Portrait of an unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn
Portrait of an unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn
Recently, I asked my Facebook followers what aspects of Anne Boleyn’s life they’d like me to write more about on The Anne Boleyn Files, and one that was mentioned by quite a few people was Anne’s relationship with her sister Mary.

People are, understandably, intrigued by these two sisters, particularly as there have been very different depictions of their relationship in fiction and on screen.

Were they close growing up? Did they despise each other? Was there sibling rivalry? Were they jealous of each other? Did Anne really ‘kidnap’ Mary’s son? Did Anne really banish Mary from court? Did Mary try to save Anne? These are the types of questions I receive, so let’s look at what evidence we actually have regarding their time together and their relationship.

Unfortunately, Mary is a bit of a mystery figure. You’d think with her being the subject of a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, and being the main character of a movie, that we’d know quite a lot about her, but we don’t. In an article I wrote back in 2013 I called Mary “one big Boleyn myth” and I agree with historian Eric Ives who once commented that what we actually know about Mary Boleyn “could be written on the back of a postcard with room to spare”. We have ideas and theories in abundance, but facts are lacking. Frustrating, I know, but that’s the way it is. So, apologies if this article is not as in-depth as you’d like it to be, but just blamed Mary Boleyn for not keeping a diary!

Early Life

We don’t even know when the Boleyn girls were born and in which order. There is controversy over Anne’s date of birth, with some historians believing she was born in 1501 and others believing she was born in 1507, and Mary’s date of birth is usually put at around 1500. I personally would place the births of the Boleyn children as follows: Mary in 1499/1500, Anne in 1501, Thomas and Henry between 1502 and 1504, and George in 1504/5. It is likely that both girls were born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk and then moved with their parents and other siblings down to Hever, in Kent, in 1505/06 after their father inherited Hever Castle.

We know nothing about the sisters’ early education. Thomas Boleyn appears to have been a forward thinking man and patron of humanism, and this combined with the fact that he managed to secure a place for Anne at Margaret of Austria’s court in 1513 suggests that he had his daughters educated to a high standard. At that time, it was believed that girls had inferior brains to boys and so could not cope with, or need, a classical education. Families like the Boleyns just needed to ensure that their daughters learned the skills necessary to be a good wife, i.e. to learn the appropriate housewife’s skills and to be able to govern and manage a household. Reading and writing English, and some French, would also allow her to be able to read books on etiquette and household management. Surely if Anne was educated to a high standard, then Mary would also have been, and it is likely that they would have shared a governess and/or tutor.

To the Continent

The sisters were separated in the summer of 1513 when Anne left for Mechelen. It is unclear what Mary was doing at the time, perhaps she continued her education at home, but in 1514 she and Anne were appointed to accompany Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, to France for her marriage to King Louis XII. It seems likely that Mary Boleyn sailed with the princess to France, whereas Anne probably met up with the royal party in Paris. On 10 October 1514, the day after his marriage to Mary Tudor, Louis XII dismissed a large number of his wife’s English attendants, believing that his queen should be served by French servants. A “Madamoyselle Boleyne” appears in the list of “Names of the gentlemen and ladies retained by the King (Louis XII)”, but it is unclear whether this was Anne or Mary, or if Anne had even reached France by then. Was Mary retained or was she sent home? We don’t know.

Back to England

Anne BoleynLouis XII died on 1 January 1515 and after marrying Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, the man who had been sent to escort her back to England, Mary Tudor returned to her brother’s court. Anne Boleyn stayed on in France, serving the new queen, Queen Claude, but nobody knows what happened to Mary at this point. All that we know for sure is that she was back in England by 4th February 1520 when she married William Carey. My own feeling, and I can’t back it up with hard evidence, is that Mary accompanied her royal mistress back to England in 1515. It makes sense to me that it is at some point between then and February 1520 that she caught the King’s eye and that she slept with him at least once. When Henry tired of her, I believe that he arranged a marriage with William Carey, a member of the King’s Privy Chamber and an Esquire of the Body. Some historians believe that Mary and Henry VIII got together in March 1522 and that Henry’s Shrovetide motto, “elle mon coeur a naver” (she has wounded my heart) was aimed at Mary. However, it could have been aimed at any woman watching him that day.

Anne did not attend her sister’s wedding because she was still in France. She was not recalled to England until late 1521, so the sisters probably would not have seen each other for six years. It is not known exactly what date Anne Boleyn arrived back in England, but she was certainly at Henry VIII’s court by 4th March 1522 when she played Perseverance and her sister Mary played Kindness in the Shrove Tuesday Château Vert pageant at Cardinal Wolsey’s palace, York Place. Were the sisters excited and happy to be reunited after all that time or were they more like strangers? We don’t know – sorry!

The Late 1520s

By the time Anne became involved with the king, which is thought to be in 1526, Mary had had two children: Catherine, born in 1524, and Henry, born in 1526. Mary was widowed when William died of sweating sickness on 22nd June 1528. Carey’s death left Mary with two children to provide for and in considerable financial difficulty. Mary was forced to write to the King for help. Henry VIII obliged, securing financial help for her from her father, Thomas Boleyn, and granting the wardship of Mary’s son, Henry, to Anne Boleyn. Wardship was standard practice in Tudor times and it meant that Anne was financially responsible for the little boy, which must have helped Mary enormously. Anne went on to provide Henry Carey with a good education, appointing the French poet and reformer, Nicholas Bourbon, as his tutor. Little Henry was educated along with Henry Norris (son of Sir Henry Norris, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool) and Thomas Howard. Anne did not ‘kidnap’ or adopt the boy, she simply helped to provide for him and there’s no evidence that the sisters fell out over it. It seems more likely that Mary would have been grateful for Anne’s help at this stressful time. In December 1528, Henry assigned Mary an annuity of £100 (£32,000), which had once been paid to her husband. It must have been such a relief for Mary to have this income.


It is not known whether the sisters spent much time together in the late 1520s and early 1530s while Anne was waiting to marry the King. Was Mary at court? Was she living at Hever Castle with her mother? We just don’t know. What we do know is that she accompanied Anne and Henry VIII on their trip to Calais in October 1532 because her name appears in the list of Anne’s ladies at the banquet held in Francis I’s honour at Calais on 27th October 1532. Her name is also listed as giving the King New Year’s gifts in 1532 and 1534, so she may well have been serving her sister at that time. She certainly attended Anne at her coronation on 1st June 1533.


In September 1534, a pregnant Mary Boleyn turned up at court and informed her sister the Queen that she had secretly married William Stafford, a soldier in the garrison at Calais and one of Henry VIII’s gentleman ushers. It is not known when Mary and William met but he is listed as accompanying the King to France in October 1532. William was also present, as one of the “Knights and gentlemen to be servitors”, at Anne Boleyn’s coronation and he had been at court since 1526.

Anne was furious with Mary. Mary had married a man of lower rank and she had married without her family’s permission. Anne, as queen, could have arranged a ‘good match’ for her sister, but Mary had gone her own way and married for love. Anne banished her from court, leading to her sister suffering from financial problems once again. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell, asking for to intercede with the King on her behalf, Mary wrote “I loved him as well as he did me […] I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom” – moving words. There is no evidence, this time, of the King helping Mary, but it appears that Anne did send her money and a golden cup. It seems a small action, but it suggests that Anne’s anger had dissipated and that she did feel for her sister. Had Anne been jealous of her sister’s pregnant state? It does appear that Anne lost a baby in the summer of 1534 so perhaps Mary’s appearance at court in that September had been too much for Anne to bear. That is, however, pure speculation. There is no mention of Mary’s third child in any of the records so Mary must also have lost her baby.

It is not clear whether the sisters ever saw each other again, but Anne carried on providing for Mary’s son until May 1536..

The Fall of the Boleyns

Mary’s whereabouts in May 1536, when her brother and sister fell so spectacularly from favour and were executed as traitors, is unknown. After her banishment from court in 1534, Mary may well have settled with her husband in Calais, where he continued to be a soldier and to serve Lord Lisle, Lord Deputy of Calais. There is certainly no evidence of her being at court at that time and the idea that she did anything to try to save her sister is purely fictional. Mary’s feelings about the events of 1536 are also unknown, but she must surely have been upset about the deaths of her siblings, particularly in such a brutal manner. Did she thank her lucky stars that her sister had banished her from court? I expect so. Mary’s distance from court may well have saved her from being involved in such an awful series of events.


Mary is the perfect ‘blank canvas’ for a novelist because she is such a mystery. We know so little about her, so novelists can create a life for her and also create a relationship with her sister.

We know that Anne was angry with her in September 1534 and we know that Anne’s actions led to Mary being put in a difficult position financially. There was obviously anger and upset, but this is not evidence of an ongoing battle between the sisters and they may well have become reconciled anyway. As much as I’d love to write an in-depth article on the relationship between these two women, all I can do is relate the facts that we have and these do not really help to build a picture of their relationship. Sorry!

For more on Mary Boleyn, you can read my article Mary Boleyn – One Big Boleyn and Sarah Bryson’s book Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. You can also use the Google search box (in the right hand menu) and the Caregories section (in the left hand menu) to browse The Anne Boleyn Files for more articles on the Boleyns.

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29 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn and Mary Boleyn – Two Sisters”
  1. Thank you so much, Claire, for writing this article on Mary. She really is a mystery! I so enjoy reading all that I write.

  2. Hi Claire
    interested in all of this, my question is

    Q. why do you think Mary Boleyn had Henry Carey at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, this is a long way from court ?, Henry Carey later got married there as well.

    kind regards

  3. Great article, as usual. ITA that Henry arranged for Mary’s marriage to William Carey after he was tired of her … it is what he did with Bessie Blount. One point, though … is it possible that Mary did bear a living child to William Stafford who died later? I thought that Stafford was considered too low-born for Mart, and, that the births of the low born were not well recorded (records were not legally required in 1534).

    1. Yes, it could have been a miscarriage, stillbirth or he could have died in infancy, we just don’t know. Births did not have to be legally registered til quite a bit later, but you’d expect there to be mention of him somewhere if he did survive into adulthood.

    2. Esther, William Stafford was cousin to King Henry so it is a myth that he was considered low born, he came from a prominent family and was a companion as well as blood relation to the King.

      1. While William Stafford was related to the Staffordshire of Buckingam and Wiltshire, it was very distantly. He was the 4th cousin once removed of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham who Henry VIII executed in 1521 for treason. William was descended from royalty, being the 6xgreatgrandson of Edward III, but he was a commoner. “Low born” can be a question begging term, but commoner he was.

      2. As Lisa says. Stafford was only distantly related to the prominent Stafford family and he was a soldier at the Calais garrison, so not the sort of man that the sister-in-law of the king would have been expected to marry. William Carey, Mary’s first husband was related to the king and was one of the King’s privy chamber, so is that who you were thinking of? I have never seen anything in the records stating that Stafford acted as a companion to the king.

      3. Very interesting and complete article about the known facts in the life of queen Anne’s sister .
        I guess it was necessary to give these precisions in order to avoid some tales, for instance about Mary Boleyn bearing a royal son.
        As it clearly appears there, her liaison with H VIII was short-lived and her wedding was arranged soon after (sort of present to his past mistress, as well as the best way to get rid of her) .
        From then Mary lived a very obscure life – wouldn’t she have been the queen’s sister (but it was later).
        Even if there is some uncertity about “who’s who” among both sisters when staying in France (as ladies-in-waiting?).
        Yes it is obvious that their father had modern ideas about the girls’ education, I still do think that their so different fate indicates that the two sisters were not at the same level, even from the start.
        Not sure Anne was so near by age to her elder sister (it could be she was sent as sort of “little prodigy” to Margaret of Habsburg, when being still a mere child).
        However, when returning from this tour in european courts, she was self-confident, probably very well-taught and had a very independent mind as we know.
        Coming down to Mary, she certainly had lost her reputation by being the mistress of a married man (even if he was king) and it was a relief to find a husband afterwards.
        Not sure that, as a widow, she could appear as a reigning toast.
        Already ageing by then (in 1534), when she avowed being pregnant to her sister, (her queen), she couldn’t expect compliments in return.
        The queen knew how much her own position at court was unsecure and the fact could bring in K H another of his numerous bouts of wrath.
        I dont feel that such a self-conscious woman as Anne Boleyn could react with such an emotional way it was only on a matter of jealousy (due to his sister being mother to-be) she banished Mary Stafford née Boleyn.
        I’d rather think (even if her disappointment was presumable) she sent the Staffords as far as possible away from the royal anger (whose she, Anne, was the first victim) .
        The fact that Mary is such a shadow in this story could indicate a rather plain personality, as the fact that William Stafford didn’t wait long after her death to seek and find another wife, his own cousin Dorothy, heiress to the barons of Stafford.
        So the title remained to a Stafford …
        Mary seemed to be bound not to lay a lot of marks of glory or esteem after her.
        But after the fall of the Boleyns, she certainly had not much supporters …

  4. What a fantastic article! How mysterious Mary really is. I agree, Claire, I think Mary arrived back to England in 1515 and had relations with Henry before her marriage to William Carey. The joust motto in 1522 could have been directed toward anyone (possibly even Anne?).

    What peaks my interest, and makes me think the motto could even be for Anne as early as 1522, is the letter Anne wrote to Henry accepting “the warrant of maid of honor to the queen”, didn’t she begin her maid of honor duties in 1522? Here is a reference to the letter which begins “it belongs only to the august mind of a great king…”


    Is this letter an undisputed letter written by Anne? I cannot find a source (other than englishhistory.net). Of course we will never know, but it is fun to piece clues together and imagine what could have been!

  5. Dear Claire,

    I was very impressed with your article about Mary Boleyn. I was thinking that it reminded me of my younger sister and myself. As children we were very close. Then, after high school, we seemed to grow apart. She went her way and I went a different direction.

    I would like to believe that Anne and .Mary were something like my sister and I. My sister married a pilot and she lived on a higher level than I did. But, when she started having problems, then it became between the two of us.

    I think when Mary had financial difficulties, Anne probably wanted to make sure her older sister had what she needed. Sisters, no matter where they are, sooner or later ask for help from the other sister.

  6. You’re right that Mary is a perfect blank canvas — so close to the action, yet so little known about her that there’s room for a lot of invention. What always gets me is the fact that so many authors, faced with this blank canvas, have chosen to paint identical portraits!

  7. Claire, thank you for the informative article! I basically knew these facts but thought, perhaps I had missed something. I guess not!! I have the book mentioned above about Mary by Ms. Weir. I’m not really sure how she wrote an entire, quite large book about Mary, given that there are so few primary sources, but I’m not a writer…yet! Again, thanks for another fab article! See you at The Tudor Society! I have some catching up to do!!

  8. There is a lot of praise heaped upon Anne for her excellent education, manners, accomplishments as a singer and dancer, and especially for her fluency in French.

    I kind of wonder if there is no similar fuss made over Mary because she, while probably not a stupid woman with the educational opportunities Anne had, maybe was just not as interested in her education.

    Probably, maybe, perhaps – three of the most common words attached to Mary Boleyn! I wonder what she would make of the enigma she has become?

    1. I think it’s actually more because we don’t know anything about Mary’s level of edcuation, only that she was literate enough to read and write English. We have details about Anne, actual evidence, and we assume that Mary was educated with Anne as a girl at home, but we don’t know what she did while Anne was at Mechelen and how Anne’s education was influenced by her time there.

  9. Thank you for your very interesting article on Mary. Obviously there’s going to be more about Anne as she married Henry etc… and Mary was “just another of his women” albeit Anne’s sister. It’s a great mystery.

  10. Thanks for this post! 🙂 I also read and own the biography about Mary by Alison Weir (US softback edition).

  11. Thanks for the fabulous article on Mary! The fact that she is an enigma makes her all the more fascinating to me!

  12. I don’t know where the heck the writers/producers of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL came up with that totally bogus ending! (Such a horrible movie.)

    Glad others here mentioned Alison Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn.

    I do think that Anne banished Mary out of jealousy over the pregnancy…at this point Anne was in deep trouble over her fecundity…although of course I believe it was Henry’s problem, not Anne’s.

  13. Such is the talent and modus operandi of a writer! i.e. Some wonder (me included) how it might be possible to write a treatise about someone whose bio can be written in the space of a postcard. I suppose that by including in a book, matters of ongoing events, relationships, times, lives, and the like, one, by way of contextual embeddement may be lead to possible inferences whereby one may deduce .. “Yes, it is likely that …. “, or, “If that is the case then …. ” etc. From my reading and deducement of certain things written regarding Mary and Anne, I become personally satisfied that their relationship must not have been such a tumultuous one. It is true they may not have shared amicable grounds during certain times in their lives, but when one looks at the big picture of things that transpired and was agreed between them, ie Anne’s wardship of Mary’s son, their attendance in Calais and beyond, matters of matrimony etc., I feel it safe and sensible to conclude that overall, Mary and her sister did NOT in fact bear a great many strikes against one another, apart from the usual spatting of ordinary siblings. I feel that any unordinary rivalry of high proportion between Mary and Anne would have been somewhere recorded! …. My take. 🙂

  14. Great article, Claire! Interesting comments from all. I truly believe that when we know only a little about a person, as in this case about Mary, we can deduce certain assumptions from the surrounding evidence. Other pieces of the puzzle are just beyond our reach. Based upon the facts that we do know, we can assume safely that Mary and Anne had some depth of a relationship as sisters. Probably at times they were great friends and at others not so much.

  15. Thank you for this article. I enjoy reading these even though much information may not be historically available. Great insight to a mysterious important character such as Mary.

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