Anne Boleyn and Mary Boleyn: Were they close?

Posted By on January 23, 2021

In the latest edition of my Questions about Anne Boleyn series of videos on the Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society YouTube channel, I consider the question that I’m often asked: “Were Anne and Mary Boleyn close?”

What do we know about the Boleyn sisters’ relationship?

Was it close?

Do the historical sources give us any insight into it?

Find out more about Anne and Mary Boleyn in this talk.

See the videos in my Mary Boleyn playlist for more about her:

I’m often asked whether the Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, were close. After all, in novels and movies like The Other Boleyn Girl we see them confiding in each other and helping each other, and then, of course, being jealous of each other. A real up and down relationship.

But what about in real life? What does history tell us about these Boleyn girls?

Well, unfortunately very little.

Although Mary has been the focus of a few novels and biographies, she’s actually a very shadowy figure compared to Anne and George, and her father, Thomas. I’ll give you a link to my Mary Boleyn playlist as I’ve done videos on what we do know about her, but it is frustratingly quite little because she just wasn’t as important as her diplomat brother and father, and her sister who became queen.

And we know even less about her personal relationship with her sister.

So what do we know about these girls.

Well, they were probably very close in age. It’s thought that Mary was born in around 1500 and Anne probably in 1501. They spent their early life together. We know that George and Anne were educated to a high level, and so it seems likely that Mary was too, and that the Boleyn siblings were educated at home by tutors, with their mother, Elizabeth Boleyn overseeing their education.

I’m sure in their free time growing up at Hever Castle in Kent that the Boleyn children played together and probably argued too, just like any other brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, we don’t have any stories of their childhood, no reminiscences from any of them.

In the summer of 1513, Anne left Hever. Her father had managed to get her a place at the court of Margaret of Austria. We don’t know why Anne was chosen, whether she was precocious and Thomas saw something in her that made her ideal for this, but Anne went abroad and Mary appears to have stayed at home. However, fast forward a year and both girls are chosen to accompany Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, to France for her marriage to King Louis XII. They will serve her as maids of honour.

Thomas Boleyn wrote an apologetic letter to Margaret of Austria recalling Anne from her service, and it’s likely that Anne travelled directly to France, probably not arriving there until around the time of Mary Tudor’s coronation on 5th November 1514, whereas Mary Boleyn accompanied Mary Tudor as she set sail from Dover on 2nd October. The sisters were together once more but it was to be shortlived as Louis XII died on 1st January 1515. After secretly marrying Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who’d been sent to escort her back to England, Mary Tudor returned to England with her entourage in early May 1515, and it appears that Mary Boleyn went with her. Anne, however, was retained by the new Queen of France, King Francis I’s wife, Claude.

Sometime after her return to England, Mary slept with King Henry VIII. We know nothing about the relationship, when it happened, how long it lasted… nothing, only that it happened, and we only know that because in 1527 when Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, he applied for a dispensation to cover the impediment of “affinity arising from illicit intercourse in whatever degree, even the first”, showing that he’d slept with Anne’s mother or sister. We can rule out her mother because when Henry VIII was told of a rumour that he’d slept with Anne’s mother and sister, he replied “Never with the mother”.
We don’t know any more about Mary’s life between 1515 and 1520, when there is a record of her wedding at the Chapel Royal at Greenwich Palace on 4th February 1520. She married William Carey, a member of Henry VIII’s Privy Chamber and an Esquire of the Body. Anne did not attend the wedding, being in France, but the sisters would have seen each other four months later at the Field of Cloth of Gold meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I that June.

Mary was chosen to attend on Queen Catherine of Aragon and as Queen Claude also attended, Anne would have been there as one of her maids of honour. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn also attended. Did the sisters have chance to chat and catch up? Sadly, we don’t know, but I hope so.

Mary would have travelled back to England with the English royal party, but it wasn’t too long before the sisters saw each other again. Anne was recalled from France in late 1521 as there were negotiations for her to marry James Butler and she was to join Queen Catherine’s household. We don’t know when Anne arrived back in England, but she was certainly at court by 4th March 1522 when the Shrovetide pageant, The Chateau Vert, took place at Cardinal Wolsey’s property, York Place. We know from the records of this pageant that both Boleyn sisters had parts: Mary playing Kindness and Anne playing Perseverance, with their former mistress Mary Tudor playing Beauty and their future sister-in-law, Jane Parker, playing Constancy.

Although both women were in England now, there still aren’t any hints of a close sisterly relationship. Mary became a mother in around 1524, giving birth to a daughter, Catherine, who was followed by her brother, Henry, in 1526. Anne was at court serving Catherine of Aragon and enjoying a romance with a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, Henry Percy, son and heir of the Earl of Northumberland. The romance ended up being broken up by the cardinal and Percy’s father, possibly at the king’s behest, and soon Anne was being wooed by the king himself. By the summer of 1527, he had proposed to Anne and his Great Matter, his quest for an annulment of his first marriage, began.

What did Mary think of Anne becoming involved with her former lover? We don’t know. History is silent on it.

The next time the sisters were linked in any way was when Mary was widowed in June 1528. William Carey died of sweating sickness leaving Mary with two young children and in a precarious financial position. The king and Anne helped Mary. Two-year-old Henry Carey was made Anne’s ward. Although this put Anne in control of the revenue from the boy’s holdings, so was beneficial to her, it helped Mary immensely as Anne took charge of the boy, providing for him and organising his education. She gave him the opportunity of being educated by French scholar Nicholas Bourbon with boys like the sons of Henry Norris. The king also helped Mary by intervening with her father, Thomas, on her behalf, prompting him to make provision for her. In December 1528, Henry VIII also assigned Mary an annuity of £100 (£32,000), which had once been paid to her husband.

Following Carey’s death, Anne also wanted to help advance his sister Eleanor in her abbey, but the nun had quite a reputation. She was said to have loose morals and at least two illegitimate children by “two sundry priests”, Carey’s other sister, Anne, was also problematic, and king would not, as he explained to Anne : “for all the gold in the world, clog your conscience nor mine to make her ruler of a house which is of such ungodly demeanour; nor, I trust, you would not that, neither for brother nor sister, I should so distain mine honour or conscience.”

Two years after Carey’s death, in 1530, Anne had to get something from Mary. The king gave Anne 20 pounds “for the redemption of a jewel which my Lady Mary Rochford had”. Was this a jewel that the king had given Mary when they were involved? Perhaps so. And I wonder how Mary felt having to hand it over to Anne. Perhaps it was just a way of giving Mary some financial help.
The next time the records have Mary and Anne coming into contact is in October 1532 when Mary was chosen to accompany the king and Anne on their trip to Calais. Anne had just been made Marquess of Pembroke, and the aim of this trip was to get Francis I’s support for Henry’s relationship with Anne. Again, we have no recorded instances of the two women interacting in any way, we just know that Mary was there.

Mary was not one of Anne’s permanent ladies, but she did serve her on special occasions, such as the Calais trip and then at Anne’s coronation in 1533. Her name also appears on the King’s New Year’s gift lists for 1532 and 1534, so it appears she was at court on those occasions.

Then, finally we have record of interaction between the sisters! In September 1534, Mary turned up at the royal court visibly pregnant and informed her sister, the queen, that she had secretly married a man named William Stafford, a soldier of the Calais garrison. Anne was furious. Not only had Mary, as the queen’s sister, married beneath her, she had also married without her sister’s permission. She should have expected Anne and the king to arrange a suitable marriage match for her, but she had defied them and gone her own way.

Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, reported that Mary was banished from court “in consequence of gross misconduct”, and she also had her allowance from Thomas Boleyn cut off. Mary turned to Thomas Cromwell, writing to him and asking him “to be good to her poor husband and herself”, explaining how she had married for love and saying “ For well I might a had a greater man of birth and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well nor a more honest man”. She asked Cromwell to intercede with the king for her husband, and with her family for her, and then there’s what I think is a bit of a go at Anne, a bit of a snipe at her, for she writes: “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom”. I do love the fact that on the one hand she’s saying that she’d prefer to beg bread with the man she loves than be the greatest queen, but that she’s also asking Cromwell to intercede with the king for her because she needs money! Hmmm…

I wonder if Anne ever saw that letter!

It’s not known where Mary went after that, or what happened to the baby she was carrying, and the only mention we have of her in regards to Anne is the Bishop of Faenza reporting on Anne’s miscarriage of 1536. He believed the pregnancy to have been faked and wrote that Anne “to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister.” However, English chroniclers and Chapuys all report Anne miscarrying a male foetus and make no mention of her sister being at court at the time.

Mary doesn’t appear in the records in April and May 1536, at the time of Anne and George’s falls, either. She appears to have been safely away from court, either in the English countryside or perhaps in Calais. We don’t know how much she knew about the events, when she found out, how she felt… nothing. We can assume that she was upset, who wouldn’t be? But how close had she been to Anne? We just don’t know.

So, it doesn’t appear that the girls had a close relationship or that they had much to do with each other at all.

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