Mary Boleyn: The Unknown Sister by Sarah Bryson
Mary Boleyn is often overshadowed by her younger sister Anne, whom famously married Henry VIII only to lose her head several years later. Yet despite almost being lost in history Mary Boleyn is a fascinating woman whose life, courage and determination I find inspiring.
Mary Boleyn was the oldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. There is little recorded about Elizabeth Howard, she was a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon and believed to be of some beauty. Thomas Boleyn on the other hand was fluent in many languages including French and well educated. He was also quick witted and very good at sports, especially jousting which Henry VIII also enjoyed. He used his intellect and talents to work his way up through the English Court and throughout his early years at court received a number of rewards and titles.
There is some debate over when the Boleyn children were born but it is generally believed that Mary was the older sister born in approximately 1499/1500 at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. In 1597, Mary’s grandson Lord Hunsdon wrote a letter to a Lord Burleigh inquiring about the return of the Earldom of Ormond and referring to his grandmother as the older sister. Lord Hunsdon would not have been entitled to the Earldom if his grandmother Mary had not been the older sister, as the title was passed down through the line of the oldest child. Also when Anne Boleyn was created Marquess of Pembroke in 1532 the letters patent referred to Anne as one of the daughters of Sir Thomas Boleyn. If she were the older surely the letters would have stated such. With Mary as the older sister, Anne followed in possibly 1501 and her brother George several years after.
During her time at court, Mary was described as being beautiful, of a giddy nature, high spirited and enjoying all the trappings of court life. She was not however thought of as being as intelligent as her sister Anne or brother George. Despite this Mary was most probably given a good education along with her brother and sister and learnt all the necessaries of being a good and proper lady of the time including reading, writing, sewing, singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument.
In 1514 Mary was sent to the French court to become a lady in waiting to Princess Mary Tudor, whom was to wed King Louis XII. However Mary’s time as a lady in waiting was to be short as after only a few months Louis XII died. After the death of King Louis XII, Princess Mary married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk before returning home to England. There are two trains of thoughts regarding Mary’s whereabouts between this time and 1520. Some historians suggest that Mary also returned with the Dowager Queen to England and became a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. While others propose that Mary, as with her sister Anne, stayed in in France to serve the new King’s wife, Queen Claude.
Whether she stayed only a short time or several years in France it is known that during her time in the country Mary famously became the mistress to Francis I, the new King of France. Her sexual activities, some say, were so well known that even the French King referred to her as ‘The English Mare’ and she was said to be ‘a great wanton and notoriously infamous.’ If Mary did become the mistress to King Francis I then surely she must have had something, beauty, charm, allure about her to capture the attention of a King. Unfortunately it is not known how long her relationship with the French King lasted.
It is known that by 1520 Mary was back in England for on February 4th 1520, in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich, she married Sir William Carey, a handsome young man who became a gentleman of the privy chamber. Henry VIII was present at the marriage and gave the couple 6s and 8d as a wedding present.
During her marriage to William, Mary became the mistress to Henry VIII; Mary Boleyn had now caught the attention of not only one King, but two! It is believed that Mary’s relationship with the King may have started around 1522 when her husband William Carey suddenly started to receive a number of grants. Her relationship with Henry VIII lasted approximately three years and is thought to have ended sometime before 1526. Most probably the relationship fizzled out on its own accord sometime during the end of 1525 when Mary was pregnant with her second child. It has hard to accurately date the relationship as Henry VIII conducted the affair with the upmost discretion and it is likely due to this that dates and encounters were not recorded. There are no accounts of Mary seeking personal gain during her time as the King’s mistress, however her husband received a number of grants and her father continued to rise at court over these years. Thomas Boleyn was made Knight of the Garter and Treasurer of the Household as well as being made Viscount Rochford in 1525.
There is little known about the relationship between Mary and Henry VIII but one interesting account does exist. During the Shrovetide Joust in 1522, Henry VIII rode out wearing on his horse the motto “elle mon coeur a navera” which means “she has wounded my heart”. 1522 is the year proposed when Henry VIII and Mary started their relationship, could it be that Henry was referring to Mary with this motto?
During the time that Mary was the mistress to Henry VIII she gave birth to two children, a daughter named Catherine in 1524 and a son named Henry in 1526. Since Mary was sleeping with the King during the period in which her children were conceived, many people believe that both Catherine and Henry or one or the other could be the illegitimate children of Henry VIII. Unfortunately there is not enough evidence to prove if this in fact was true or not.
Mary’s husband William died on 22ndh June 1528 of the sweating sickness. With William’s death Mary was left a widow with two young children. She was left with a number of debts and the wardship of her son Henry was given to Mary’s sister Anne. No word is made of Catherine but it is presumed that she stayed to be raised by her mother. Mary was luckily granted an annuity of £100 by the King which had previously been granted to her husband.
There seems to be little written about Mary’s life during the period between 1528 and 1534; however we can place Mary in late 1532. It is known that Mary accompanied her sister Anne and King Henry VIII to France in late 1532 when they went to meet King Francis I, as there are records that she was one of the ladies participating in a masquerade to entertain the French King one night. We can also place Mary at court during New Year’s 1533 as records show she was given a gift by the King and in return she gave the King a blackwork collar she had made herself. Mary also pops up again during her sister Anne’s coronation. During the procession Mary rode in the third coach behind Anne with their mother Elizabeth and she wore a dress of seven yards of scarlet velvet. Records also show that during the coronation ceremony Mary attended her sister wearing a gown of scarlet velvet and an ermine cloak and bonnet. It is also believed that after Anne’s marriage to the King, Mary became a lady in waiting to her sister.
After this there are scant details about Mary until she appears once more towards the end of 1534, this time to cause quite a scandal. In 1534 Mary did something rather unthinkable for a woman of her status, she married a soldier named William Stafford. William was a man far beneath Mary’s station in life with only a small income. It is believed that William was born in about 1500 (around the same year as Mary) and was an owner of some land in Essex. He was also a soldier and a gentleman usher to the King. The fallout of this marriage was utterly disastrous for Mary as she was banished from court, most probably for two reasons, first marrying without her family’s permission and for marrying far below her status.
On May 2nd 1536 Anne Boleyn was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, charged with treason, incest and adultery. Her brother George was also arrested and charged with having slept with his sister and for treason against the King. Both were found guilty of their crimes and George was beheaded upon Tower Hill on May 17th and Anne was beheaded on May 19th on Tower Green. There is no evidence that Mary visited her sister or brother during their imprisonment. This is not to say that Mary did not want to, or that perhaps she was not allowed to, in fact there are no surviving records to tell us of Mary’s thoughts or actions at all during this time. Meyer writes in his book ‘The Tudors The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty’, that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had Anne’s marriage to the King annulled due to consanguinity, that is because Henry had a previous relationship with Anne’s sister Mary and thus Anne’s relationship with the King was incestuous. One can only wonder if Mary knew about this reason, and if she did what her thoughts were on the matter.
The following years appear to be relatively quiet for Mary and her husband William. Catherine Carey, Mary’s daughter became a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves (Henry VIII’s fourth wife) and married Sir Francis Knollys. William Stafford became a squire of the body and Mary inherited some lands and property from her father after his death including Rochford Hall in Essex. Mary and William were also granted the manors of Southboram and Hendon in Hendon Park and well as some lands in Hever and Bransted, Kent. William Stafford also sold some land to the King. Life may have been a little more financially stable for the couple having several manors and some land and money.
Mary died on either the 19th July 1543 (according to Alison Weir) or 30th July 1543 (according to Josephine Wilkinson) aged approximately forty three. She outlived her more famous sister and brother by seven years. Her place of burial has not been recorded.
The Mary Boleyn I see was every bit as determined and passionate as her younger sister Anne. Mary followed her heart, no matter what the consequences were – just as Anne did in her determination to marry Henry VIII and become Queen of England. In an age where many marriages were arranged by the women’s family, both Anne and Mary defied the rules and followed their hearts. Anne was not going to except no when it came to courting Henry VIII and in her second marriage Mary was just the same. William Stafford was far below her social status but she married him anyway. Why? Because she loved him, she fell passionately in love with a man despite his standing in life and wanted to marry him. She was bold and strong enough to defy the King of England, to defy her sister the Queen of England, to defy her mother, to even defy her father. If that was not the strength of an independent and strong willed woman then I do not know what is.
Mary Boleyn may be the sister that history nearly forgot, but for me I find her to be an incredible woman. From the little that has been recorded about her life we can learn that she was an intelligent woman who appeared to enjoy life and she put her faith in love. I find Mary Boleyn’s determination, strength and passion utterly empowering. To have the strength to follow ones heart despite what society may say or expect of you is extremely inspiring and in my opinion that is one of the bravest and boldest things a person can do.
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