The question of whether Henry VIII was the father of Mary Boleyn Carey’s first two children, Catherine and Henry Carey, has long been debated, after all, we all know that Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister, was Henry VIII’s mistress for a number of years.
But was Henry VIII the father of Catherine and Henry Carey?
Mary Boleyn’s Birth Date
First, we need to actually establish when Mary Boleyn was actually the King’s mistress and when her children were born.
We do not know Mary Boleyn’s exact date of birth but there are clues to suggest that she was the older sister. Eric Ives points out that Lord Hunsdon, Mary’s grandson, petitioned for the earldom of Ormonde in 1597 on the grounds that his grandmother had been the elder sister. Hunsdon would not have made this claim unless he had been sure that Mary was senior to Anne Boleyn.
Other facts point to Mary being the older sister – Mary was brought back from France to be launched at the English Court, while Anne remained in France, and it was Mary’s marriage that was arranged first and Anne’s marriage potential was not even discussed until after Mary had married William Carey. Ives writes of how Thomas Boleyn wrote in a letter to Cromwell of how his wife, Elizabeth, had provided him with a child on a yearly basis, so we can assume that Mary Boleyn was born around 1499 which would mean that she was around 15 when she went to France and was in her 20s when she married Carey.
But when did Mary Boleyn become Henry VIII’s mistress?
A Royal Mistress
It is thought that Mary was the King’s mistress either in the late 1510s or early 1520s. We know that she was definitely the King’s mistress at one time because Henry VIII confirmed it. Not only did he say candidly, when responding to rumours that he had slept with Elizabeth Howard (Mary and Anne’s mother), “Never with the mother”, but he also applied for a dispensation from the Pope to marry Anne Boleyn because of his previous relationship with her sister and then used this previous relationship to later annul his marriage to Anne.
We know that Elizabeth Blount gave birth to Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, in 1519, and that Mary Boleyn married William Carey in 1520 and this suggests that Mary Boleyn became Henry’s mistress after Bessie Blount had married in 1522 and after she herself had married. Her husband, William Carey, was also given royal grants in 1522, 1523, 1524 and 1525, and possibly 1526, which suggests that he was being rewarded or compensated for the use of his wife. But this still doesn’t tell us whether the Carey children were Henry’s!
Arguments Against the Careys being Henry VIII’s Children
Some historians believe that the Carey children were not Henry VIII’s bastards but actually the offspring of William Carey, Mary’s husband. Eric Ives writes that “Once Mary had begun to cohabit with William Carey, her two children came in quick succession”, suggesting that Henry’s fertility problems had something to do with her not having children earlier and that William Carey must have fathered them.
Historian Antonia Fraser argues that Henry VIII never recognised Henry Carey as his illegitimate son and showed him no favour, yet he acknowledged Henry Fitzroy and bestowed the title of Duke of Richmond on him. Surely this suggests that Henry Carey was not Henry VIII’s son? Actually, it could be argued that Henry had no need to recognise Henry Carey as his son because he already had a potential heir in Henry Fitzroy.
Others argue that Elizabeth I wrote of the Careys as her cousins, not her brother and sister.
There is also no definitive proof that the Carey children were Henry VIII’s. All we have is speculation and rumour, no hard evidence.
Arguments For the Careys being Henry VIII’s Children
As well as historical novels, like Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”, suggesting that the children were indeed fathered by Henry VIII, there are also a couple of recent articles arguing the case.
Henry Fitzhugh, who is descended from Catherine Carey, was inspired by “The Other Boleyn Girl” to dig around into his family’s past to see if he really was descended from King Henry VIII. He has written an excellent article on his findings:-
In this article, he makes the following arguments as to why he believes that the Carey children could have been fathered by Henry VIII:-
- Henry Carey was said to have resembled Henry VIII.
- Henry Carey claimed in 1533 that he was “Our Sovereign Lord the King’s son”
- John Hale, Vicar of Isleworth, wrote in 1535 of how a monk at St Bridget’s Priory Abbey had pointed out “yongge Master Care” as being the King’s bastard son.
- The fact that Anne Boleyn became Henry Carey’s ward after the death of William Carey – Philippa Gregory reasons that this may have been so that the King had a legitimate heir if she was unable to provide him with a son.
- William Carey was rewarded with royal grants in 1524 and 1526, which are thought to have been the birth dates of Catherine and Henry Carey. Fitzhugh feels that the King was compensating Carey for the fact that these were not his biological children and for being a cuckold.
- Henry VIII’s admittance of his affair with Mary Carey – Henry VIII admitted “affinity” and “consanguinity” with Mary Carey and Fitzhugh points out that this dispensation probably would not have been necessary if no children had resulted from the relationship.
- Both children were born inside the dates of the affair – It is thought that Henry would have expected Mary to be his alone and not to have any lovers, not even her husband. Some people suggest that Henry Carey may have been born after the affair but Catherine was definitely born in the right timeframe.
- Elizabeth I had much affection for the Carey children – Henry Carey was knighted by Elizabeth and made Baron Hunsdon. Elizabeth also visited him on his deathbed and gave him the patent and robes of the Earldom of Wiltshire. It is also said that when Elizabeth died, Henry Carey’s son, Robert, received the ring taken from the Queen’s hand. Catherine Carey had attended the Queen, was buried at Royal expense and given a prominent memorial on her death. Could all this suggest that Elizabeth recognised the Careys as more than her cousins?
Another article by Sally Varlow, on the Latin dictionary of Sir Francis Knollys (husband of Catherine Carey), also argues the fact that Catherine Carey could have been Henry VIII’s daughter:-
In this article, Varlow explains how Sir Francis Knollys recorded the birth dates of his 14 children in his Latin dictionary and that his notes regarding his wife’s pregnancies, when linked with other historical evidence (such as portraits of Catherine), suggest that his wife was born between 1523 and 1525, inside the period when Mary was the King’s mistress. A birth date in this period would also confer with Catherine becoming maid-of-honour in 1539 for the coming queen, Anne of Cleves, as most girls chosen for this position were aged 16+.
Varlow, like Fitzhugh, believes that Henry VIII would not have liked sharing Mary Carey’s favours with even her husband, so if Catherine Carey was born between 1523 and 1525 it is probably safe to assume that she was Henry VIII’s daughter. Varlow also argues against those who say that the Carey children were not royal bastards because the King did not acknowledge them by saying that the King did not have anything to gain by recognizing them. He already had Henry Fitzroy and he obviously hoped to have a legitimate heir to the throne.
Varlow also agrees with Fitzhugh that Queen Elizabeth I treated the Careys as more than cousins. Catherine Carey was Elizabeth’s most senior lady-in-waiting and Elizabeth spent far more on her funeral than those of her other cousins.
So little is known really about Mary Boleyn and her relationship with Henry VIII – we don’t even know that much about her sister, Anne Boleyn, and she was Queen! However, many things do point towards Catherine Carey, at least, being Henry VIII’s child.
The research I have done into this question has got me completely fascinated by Mary Boleyn, a person who is often overlooked by Tudor historians and even Anne Boleyn’ biographers. I have pre-ordered “Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Mistress” by Josephine Wilkinson which is due out in the UK on June 30th and in the US in July – click the picture to pre-order in the US or click here for UK. I’ll let you know what else I’ve found out about her when I’ve read the book!
P.S. I’m adding to The Anne Boleyn Files all the time – check out “Resources” on the top or left menu bars to see pages on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn Poems, Anne Boleyn Songs, Anne Boleyn Writing, Anne Boleyn Books and more.