Anne Boleyn Questions – Who was Mary Boleyn?

Not a week goes by without me receiving at least one question about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn, so I thought it would be good to cover her in my video series on ‘questions about Anne Boleyn’, even though she isn’t Anne!

Mary Boleyn is such a popular historical character, but are our ideas of her based on fiction rather than history?

In the first of a two-part series on her, I introduced the mythical Mary Boleyn and then look at what we actually know about this Boleyn sister. In the second part (coming soon!), I will look at some of the myths, assumptions and theories that surround her.

It seems fitting to share this video on the anniversary of her marriage to her first husband, William Carey. They got married on 4th February 1520. You can read more here.

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14 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn Questions – Who was Mary Boleyn?”
  1. Excellent and very informative. I’ve gotten snippets of her biography here and there in various books but to have what’s known of Mary’s life presented so clearly and chronologically is most appreciated. Very interesting about the current Royal family. Looking forward to pt2. Thank you Claire.

  2. She is my grandmother, fourteen generations back ( I believe it is fourteen). I love her story and admire her. She lived through a time she could of easily have been another victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny. She may have taken a back burner to her sister, my aunt and her niece, but in the end her family line persevered, and there are many of us today.

    1. This is a question probably asked many times before about Mary’s children said to be from her liaison with King Henry. How could Mary have two healthy children with Henry while all others suffered so many set backs. Miscarriages, stillborn and if they survived birth were not in good health with Queen Elizabeth I being the exception. My interest lies in the fact my ancestors were the Carey’s from Guernsey. My Great Grandfather, Sir William Carey. I can’t find a connection between the two families but I’m still looking. I am enjoying this site very much, following the information with great interest.

  3. If we know so little about Mary Boleyn, how did Alison Weir write a huge tome about her?

    We know a few things. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Howard and Thomas Boleyn, the sibling of George and Anne Boleyn. She spent time in France and was married in 1520 to marry William Carey. Henry and Katherine attended. She was the mistress of Henry for a period of time. William and Mary had two children. He died of the sweating sickness in 1528. Anne took her children in and provision was made for Mary by her father after some promoting. Mary was at Court for two years 1532 to 1534 and in France in 1532. She served her sister for a time. In 1534 she was married to William Stafford, turned up at Court pregnant and was banished. Mary wrote to Cromwell for help and a long letter to her family for forgiveness and reconciliation. We don’t know what happened to her baby. Mary pops up occasionally at Court and then has a struggle for her inheritance after her parents died. She received this six months before her own death in 1543. We don’t know where she was buried. Apart from the odd thing, that is Mary Boleyn in a nutshell. Yet, as Claire said in her video she is the subject of novels, films and at least one lengthy book. It’s because we know so little that we can so easily fill in the blanks at will. Her children may well have belonged to the King, but there is no evidence either way. The probability is that Mary was the eldest daughter and certain gifts of land given to her, according to Tracy Boreman, use language that would only be used to an older child or daughter. The enduring mystery is how long her relationship with Henry Viii was and the only real evidence for it was the dispensation Henry asked from the Pope to marry someone related to her. He also cited his sexual relationship with Mary as one of his reasons to annual his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry, as above, is said to have fathered at least one of the Carey children and there is circumstantial evidence to support this. Henry didn’t acknowledge them but Catherine Carey is the more likely of the two to be of royal stock. Elizabeth treated her cousin as if she was her sister. Henry Hudson was suspected of having ideas that he was certainly royal. As with her siblings we don’t know when Mary was born but it is circs 1500. King Francis I is meant to have claimed Mary Boleyn was his mule, whom he rode often, meaning she was his mistress on a number of occasions. There appears to be very little if any evidence to base this claim on and at best she slept with him a couple of times. Her reputation was unfarly ruined and Mary believed she had to marry a simple man as nobody would have her and William was good to her. However, it was problematic because she was the daughter of a noble family, sister to the Queen and didn’t ask permission to marry a man well below her in status and wealth. Thomas was furious as was Anne and she was banished and cut off. It was only her letter and the intervention of the King and Cromwell which enabled her to find her way back to her father’s good graces and receive some provision.

    Mary preferred a good life in the Country to Court and was the Boleyn family survivor. I think she was intelligent and her choice to remain anonymous in political intrigue saved her from the power struggle which led to her sister’s downfall. She chose a man who loved her for herself. Mary most certainly didn’t take Princess Elizabeth from Court to live with her, that would have been impossible. Even as a child who had been legitimized, Elizabeth would have had a large household, well guarded and her wardship belonged to the King, her father. It was up to Henry whom he appointed to care for Elizabeth after her mother’s execution and it wasn’t Mary Boleyn. I would like to think that Mary and William found some happiness, even if it was only for a brief time.

    1. Weir’s biography, as pointed out by reviewers, is about Mary and those around her, Henry VIII, the court etc. It is heavily padded out, which is necessary because so little is known, as Ives pointed out. It is not really a biography as such. Weir was sensible in writing it though as a biography on her is always going to sell as she is so popular. She’s also popular because she appears on so many people’s family trees.

      I’d like to think Mary was happy too. It would be good for one of the Boleyns to have had a happy life.

  4. Mary Boleyn is fascinating to many because she was the sister of Anne, and I agree the less there is known about her the more of an enigma she becomes, perhaps in a way as enigmatic as her sister, writers of historical fiction have a field day with Mary because as Claire rightly states, she is a blank canvas, interestingly she is depicted as the opposite of Anne, fair and soft natured, frivolous and immoral where Anne is of course the dark siren, plotting her way to the throne ambitious, tenacious and jealously guarding her virtue, but why should she be unlike Anne after all they both came from the same parents? She showed courage in arriving at court pregnant and wed, knowing that the King and queen and her parents to would be furious, or maybe she was desperate but she was banished and left with her husband to a quiet life in the country, she was happy there no doubt whilst her sister the formidable Anne was trying to save her marriage and position at court, that she fell out with her family is obvious and in the letter she wrote Cromwell we can see there was a dig at Anne referring to her marriage and her own, in the remark she made I would rather beg my bread with him and I would rather have him than any prince in Christendom, she knew Anne was paying a high price for having married Henry V111 and I believe she pitied her for it, she had two healthy children one a son, and was married to a man who loved her, what did Anne have save for being called Queen of England, she had her child but she needed a son and her hold on the King had slipped, Mary and her husband William Stafford probably thought they were well out of it, in the peaceful solitude of the country they could live calmly and happily away from all the intrigues and plots and petty jealousies of the court, her portrait said to be of her at Hever shows an attractive round face woman with full lips and large doe like eyes, she had auburn colouring and looks happy and content, her features do not resemble her sisters who in contrast had a long narrow face with a strong nose and almond shaped eyes, the enigma of Mary Boleyn lies in her very elusiveness and we do not even know where she is buried, her children have magnificent tombs in Westminster a gift from a gracious monarch who held them both in high esteem, but Mary again evades us like the many other missing chapters in her life, the location of her resting place remains a mystery, I hope one day it will turn up and I believe she could lie somewhere in the Stafford vault with her husband’s family if they had one, or maybe in the country church at Rochford if they were living there when she died, the baby she was carrying was heard no more of so it must have died maybe at birth or she miscarried, possibly caused by the stress of her family’s anger at her and her banishment from the court, the Boleyns it appears were all buried in seperate locations, their mother Elizabeth lies with her relatives in the Howard vault at Lambeth, Thomas at Hever next to his son Thomas who had died in infancy and possibly little Henry is there also, Anne and George we know both lie in the sad little church of St. Peter. Ad. Vincula and yet Mary has vanished, we can remember her today hundreds of years ago on what would have been her wedding day, a joyous occasion and the bride and groom must have been brimming with happiness, even if Mary did not really love her husband or he her, it was after all like many of the age an arranged marriage, but William Carey was handsome and young well connected and was a close friend of the King, there was a myth that he was an insignificant courtier but we know that is not true, he too had Beaufort blood and was in the Kings close circle of friends being a relation of his also, I must add Claire you are so lucky to have met and had the privilege of talking with Eric Ives, I think he was fantastic and his biography of Anne really has great reviews all round.

  5. Thank You Claire! I love it when you cover Mary Boleyn, Catherine Carey & Lettice Knollys Devereux! They are all my Great Grandmothers, I love reading about them. I wish someone would make a truthful film about them!

    Any chance you will ever write about Lettice’s daughter, Dorothy Perrot, or Lettice’s look alike sister, Elizabeth Knollys Leighton?

    Have an Awesome week!,


  6. Talking about reputations and myth making has anyone seen The Favourite? It’s the story of Sarah Churchill and her cousin/maid Abigail Hill, later Marsham and their intimate friendship with Queen Anne. Having won 7 BAFTAS I had to see it and it really does take the meaning of close to the limit, showing a lesbian relationship with the Queen and both women.

    It’s based on the life of Sarah Churchill by Ophelia Field and the very intense and strange friendship that she had with Anne for many years. Their friendship began long before Anne became Queen but turned into an abusive relationship afterwards. Sarah is shown as a bully and the infirm Queen is totally dependent on her. She introduced her cousin to the Queen and Abigail and she too struck up a strong friendship. Anne was shown more kindness by Abigail and preferred her to Sarah, but the competition between the two cousins for her affections became toxic. Anne became caught in their web of jealousy and her relationship with Sarah became so strained that it was reported as scandalous and the Queen was no longer ruling but was totally dominated by her former friend.

    Letters between the women also hinted at a relationship which went beyond friendship and Sarah in her Memories accused Abigail of a lesbian relationship with the Queen. In the film this was interpreted as a full lesbian relationship with both women, one replacing the other. However, although there are in reality words of loving affection and some phrases which are a bit unseemly, there is no real evidence to back up the accusations and no real way to know if they did love each other in a way which at the time would have been considered unnatural and scandalous. There is actually no real way to know if the feelings in print were acted upon and we only know that the Queen was dominated by these two competitive women in a way that wasn’t healthy to her personally and to her command of government. In addition, Anne was ill and infirm, her sight was going, she was in a lot of pain, her mind was also slipping away and she couldn’t cope. It was a very tragic last years of a woman who had been through so much, including the loss of seventeen children. Her reputation deserves better than the totally liberal way it is attacked in the film.

    I have no problem of saying Queen Anne might have been bisexual but the evidence is suggested at best. Many of the letters were actually destroyed and others have damage to them. A few survive to give a glimpse into two long and remarkable female friendships but we can also see the downside of them and sadly they were marred by abuse, violence, anger and jealousy. Sarah and the Queen became estranged and Abigail remained, leading to the accusations on which an entire film is now based.

    As a film it is very cinematic and well acted, has its moments and modern unnecessary bits, but I felt it was more about Anne’s desperation and her being trapped within her own world and her mind than the relationship, which were allegorical of her state of being. Off topic, I know, but another example of how far we will go to stretch what we don’t know for certain and present it as fact.

    1. I am familiar with the relationship between Sarah Churchill and Anne but I never interpreted it to be physical. Just very close. Terms of endearment used at that time in letters between embers of the same sex were often niceties that sound odd to use but don’t have the meaning we give them today. The same kind of reputation bashing happens to history here in the US. When Abraham Lincoln was a young politician in Washington he would share a room and a bed with another man. Some have interpreted this to mean he was having a gay relationship. No such thing. All of the young politicos were doing the same thing. None lived in Washington and they weren’t making much money and sharing was a lot cheaper. Context is everything when researching history.

      1. The thing was, Michael, most people shared a bed because they were luxury items and a Lady or Queen or King would sleep with one of their gentlemen or lady of the bed chamber and sometimes a page to guard them. If they didn’t sleep in the bed, they had a trussel bed and saw to the needs of their master or mistress. It was a well known practice and nobody bothered about it. However, some people had a marked preference for one particular companion, an old friend, as Sarah Churchill obviously was to Anne as she had served her for many years as a Princess before she became Queen. They had become close and their relationship was something more than one would expect, it pushed accepted boundaries and it was certainly a very odd one. Sarah and Anne called each other by aliases such as Mr Freeman or Mr Morely or Mrs Freeman as if they were a married couple. The relationship was remarked upon because it was toxic towards the end. Anne had a number of physical problems, she may have had prophoria which is what King George iii had, she was obese and had trouble walking. Her mental state declined and the aftermath of seventeen children who died in infancy, at birth, as a result of a miscarriage or stillbirth and the loss of Prince George aged twelve took their toll on her. She couldn’t cope with decision making and ruling and was dependent on Sarah to do much of the day to day stuff for her. Sarah bullied her and became too powerful. She influenced Anne on the political decision on land tax and the war and she was the one who organised everything around the Queen which isn’t unusual in itself as she was the female equivalent of the Groom of the Stole. But, their relationship was noted as going beyond social and accepted norms and I suspect they gave signs of affection which were misinterpreted. If it was normal to be with the Queen, even in the same bed, then someone might have seen or heard something which suggests they were in bed in a more intimate manner than that. The terms of endearment are very intense but they are not proof of a lesbian relationship. If anything the evidence suggests that the women fell out and that Sarah controlled her, being jealous of Abigail Hill who also had an exclusive relationship with Anne. This may even be the problem.

        Sarah and Abigail became embroiled in a fierce contest for the affection of the Queen and offered her companionship which were polar opposites. They were also involved with men on the opposite side in war and peace, tax or none tax, Whig and Tory and both pushed their political agenda on a woman who was no longer capable of making up her mind in the national interest. Abigail offered fun and daring, Sarah order and stability, both were very close to her and both jealous of the other. And that is how the rumours started. Abigail used her influence with Robert Harvey, the opposition leader to persuade Queen Anne that Sarah and her husband, the war hero and victorious, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough were embellishing state funds. This would be easy to do as they had been given permission and land on which to build the extravagant Blenheim Palace, as a reward for his victory of the French. It was suggested that Sarah and Marlborough were moving funds from the war chest to pay for their luxurious new pad. Abigail won the upper hand, replacing Sarah as the chief lady in the Queen’s intimate affection and Sarah hit back. She wrote a Memoir and published parts of the letters out of context in it, declaring and accusing Abigail of having lesbian relations with Anne and causing others to do so as well. Hence the rumours we have now that Anne was a lesbian and expressed this sexually in her later years. The film certainly takes this view based on this Memoir but based on some phrases and rumours, it also takes the view that her relationship with Sarah was also sexual. This is hinted at more than anything, with one scene which is quite funny of an intimate nature but it is definitely explored with Abigail, who herself did marry as convention demanded. Sarah and Marlborough were banished and only recovered their status under George I when they were exonerated.

        The reason historians believe something more was going on, at least in the terms of expression in the letters and that the relationship turned unhealthy was because this was an age were lesbian relations were denied to exist. Men with other men, yes, people accepted that was possible, but woman and woman, that was not thought possible. It may not even have been the sexual nature of any potential relationship which was scandalous. It is more likely to be the exclusive nature of these strong and strange friendships. As with Hugh Despensor and Piers Gaviston and Edward ii, it was the way these two people were so influential over the monarch to the point of keeping them from making political decisions or listening to their government that made people talk and become upset. In the latter case these relationships excluded Edward’s wife. In Anne’s case, it excluded everyone who could advise her or needed to discuss important matters of state with her. The film and some sources also suggest that her friendship turned violent and abusive. Marlborough was asked to remove Sarah from Court.

        At the end of the day we don’t have anyone who can testify that they saw Anne in bed with either Abigail or Sarah in a manner other than as a companion. There is no direct evidence that either woman was seen naked in the arms of the infirm Queen or that they heard them having sexual relations. They may have kissed but gone no further. Sarah made her accusations after she was dismissed from Court. It’s the same as an ex employee saying they were assaulted by their celebrity boss thirty years after they are fired, suspicious. I am not saying they were not lovers, they could have been, but there is no reliable evidence that beyond a lot of over the top phrases in some now missing letters, we don’t really know the extent of the true nature of the latter relationship between Sarah Churchill and Anne or Anne and Abigail Marsham nee Hill.

        I haven’t heard this story of Abraham Lincoln, but yes, people shared beds because it was cheaper and for company and it was normal. The same accusations were levelled at George Boleyn in recent fictions and depending on which authors you read its either Mark Smeaton or William Bretherton or William Compton he had a relationship with. I am all for exploring stuff but putting it out as an iron clad fact is not on. I am not saying the Favourite does that but it is a big theme in the movie. If anything now it’s won all of those awards, which the actors deserve, especially the actress playing Anne, the idea that the three women are bisexual will take root. It’s a good example of how historical reputations can be destroyed.

    1. You are welcome, Michael. As this isn’t my area, I decided after the film to do some research, although I knew the basis and the background. The political goings on made it all a bit more intriguing as here we have the ladies, behind the scenes able to do what the men can’t, bend the Queens ear and change her mind. The men are off to war, the men are trying to run the country through Parliament and get absolutely nowhere. The Queen has a tiny group of influential women, one the wife of the great General, the other playing games with the leading political opposition and they are with her in her intimate moments and both putting the demands of the men and their own agenda to Queen Anne. What a nightmare! Well obviously bitchy women have always existed.

      It was of course, no matter what century we are in, a lot easier to taint the reputation of a woman, still is. Although it was illegal a man could just challenge his rivals or accusers to a duel, a popular pastime in the eighteenth century and as long as they didn’t kill their opponents, get away with it. It was normally agreed to only draw blood, then honour was satisfied. Thus men kept their reputations. Women had no such recourse. They were expected to be discrete and keep their place, even when the ruler was a woman. Men were expected to have a healthy sexual appetite, but women had to be virtuous, even though many were not. A man could sleep with his servants, a woman was called a wh*re if she had a roll with the stable boy or even rode out alone with a man. The same double standards still applied in the eighteenth century as Mary Boleyn faced in the sixteenth century. There isn’t even a masculine word for a male wh*re. Women in the sixteenth century were expected to be lily white, virtuous, almost saints. Even married women were talked about as if they were some perfect being. Adultery was petty treason and a woman in some cases faced the death penalty, even if it was not a crime. Under the Puritanical regimes of the mid and late seventeenth century women were publicly humiliated for adultery. Legally the man was meant to be as well, but rarely were. A King could have relationships while his wife was pregnant, but a Queen could be put on trial and if treason was added, put to death. The reputation of a King might be overlooked but his wife had to be a paragon of virtue. If a man behaved like a beast it was well what do you expect, he’s a man. If a woman did the same thing it was shock, horror, slander, scandal, news of the world and reputation ruined. If a woman was on trial for murder in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, if she had committed adultery or slept with more than one person, believe it or not, she was more likely to be found guilty. This was also true of Anne and Mary Boleyn. They both faced the slander of the Court because they had been in France and because they enjoyed the attentions of two Kings. Mary faced the rumours that she was the on call lover of King Francis and her reputation was shot to pieces because she couldn’t find another husband after William Carey died and she came to Court in 1533. She took the hand of a man lower in status because he loved her for herself and was prepared to offer her a home away from Court and she risked being away cast out of her family and by her sister because she had married without permission. Mary was slandered as a “great wh*re” which she wasn’t and being married gained her some protection and that protection helped her reputation somewhat.

      Anne was slandered in a much more serious way, firstly because she replaced a much loved and popular Queen and second because she was seen as the King’s mistress and as the woman who came inbetween the King and Queen and as the woman who destroyed their marriage. Anne was blamed as the woman for turning Henry against his beloved Queen Katherine and Henry had very little stain on his reputation, at least at first. It was only after his break from Rome that Henry was looked at differently and even then it was his advisers who were blamed. His annulment and his relationship with Anne became the stuff of gossip in the taverns and Anne was called all kinds of names as a result of her relationship with Henry. Even after her marriage to him, Anne was still called a wh*re, a concubine and Elizabeth was widely regarded as illegitimate, even though much later she won people over. Anne had to try harder than Katherine to win hearts and minds, even though the truth was much different. Henry was just as much to blame for the breakdown of his marriage to Katherine, he was looking for a potential annulment before he fell for Anne Boleyn. Henry was determined to divorce Katherine, partly to get a son and partly because he wanted to marry Anne. Anne held Henry off and refused to sleep with him until they were about to get married. Henry and Anne refrained from a full sexual relationship for almost six years. Anne, like her sister, didn’t have many sexual partners. She may not have even slept with anyone but her future husband. She didn’t sleep with King Francis, she probably didn’t have anything but a romantic friendship with Thomas Wyatt and the only other suitor was Harry Percy. There is no evidence they had a sexual relationship and both denied any agreement to marry. Anne was known as a virtuous Queen. Yes, she has to bare some of the responsibility for Henry Viii leaving Katherine to be with her, but the rest was down to Henry alone, his wish for a son and mutual attraction. If Anne gave him or accidentally led him to the ideas in Tyndale then she also gave him the tools to break from Rome, but only indirectly. The rest he worked out himself with the help of Thomas Cramner and Thomas Cromwell and his own interest in Church law, books and theology. He liked the idea because it meant he could do as he pleased, he gained a lot of power and he could get his annulment. Anne and Henry slept together before they were married but on the understanding that they would soon be married. Henry thought of himself as free to marry, even if he wasn’t. Anne became pregnant and it was urgent that Henry and Anne were married. Once Queen, Anne led a very strict household. She was a flirty lady, but that was o.k. She had strict rules about behaviour and banned men going to brothels. She kept as clear from scandal as possible. However, Anne suffered in a new way, because charges of incest, adultery and treason were brought against her. She became the victim of the worst kind of scandals and for her it was fatal. She was painted in the most terrible light because if she could commit incest with her own brother, then she could do anything, including conspiring with five lovers to kill her husband, the King. Henry was painted as the wronged husband whose wife was copulating with her servants, her brother, the men of the Privy Chamber, her husband’s friends and a foreign musician, left, right and centre, all over the place and was out of control. It was horrifying and practically p*rnographic, the evidence in the charges against her and it was meant to shock. And yet, it was all lies, planted and invented evidence to make an innocent woman look bad and find her guilty, so as the man she had married for passion and political Destiny could move on to wife no three quickly. The ironic thing was that this woman was innocent and as Queen virtuous. Yet, again, her reputation has suffered unfairly, despite most historians accepting that the charges against Anne were nonsense, simply because she was a woman in power.

      Today is the anniversary of the judicial killing of two other women whose reputations were destroyed, again unfairly, Kathryn Howard and Jane Boleyn, one who was lonely and foolish and the other for trying to act as her chaperone and showing her sympathy. These three women were brutally executed, at best under dubious circumstances and one was definitely innocent. Yet, they are still remembered as being involved in a number of scandals and somehow, Henry Viii, the man who actually was involved in several acts of scandal, comes up smelling of roses.

      1. Rescuing the sullied reputations of those from the past seems like a lost cause at times but we must try. Not only for their sake but to correct information so that we know the true history. Love the info on Queen Anne. A lot more complicated than I had imagined.

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