Let me tell you a story…
Mary Boleyn was a classic English rose, taking after her mother’s side of the family, whose innocence was wrecked by her father and sister. Not only was she used and abused by the French king, Francis I, and his cronies, she was pimped out to the English king and shown how to satisfy him by her sister, Anne. She was but a pawn in her family’s hands.
After bearing the King two illegitimate children and losing her husband, William Carey to sweating sickness, Mary finally found true love only to be banished from court by her spiteful sister, who was now queen and married to Mary’s former love, Henry VIII. So cruel and ambitious was Mary’s sister that she even stole Mary’s son from her.
Mary chose true love over ambition and was thus saved from the awful events of May 1536. Her forgiving nature and angelic disposition, however, led to her visiting the King and pleading for Anne’s life. Unfortunately, Anne was not pardoned and was executed, but Mary was able to steal Elizabeth from court and take her away from all the corruption there.
It is a fairy tale and one that we all recognise as having glaring holes and blatant inaccuracies in it, but that’s the Mary that some people believe in. But what do we actually know about Anne Boleyn’s sister?
Not a lot.
Mary Boleyn came up in conversation on the night that Eric Ives was dining with our tour group in 2011. Ives commented that what we knew about Mary Boleyn “could be written on the back of a postcard with room to spare” and he is right. Despite the fact that two biographies have been written on her, she is the subject of countless online articles and the heroine of at least two novels, Mary is a puzzle. The biographies are full of theories about her and the facts are lacking, that’s just the way it is. What we think we know about her is probably based on fiction or theory, rather than hard fact. What we don’t know about her could fill a book, what we do know would fit on that postcard mentioned by Eric Ives.
So, what are the cold hard facts about Mary Boleyn?
- Mary was born in the late 15th/early 16th century – We don’t even know her birthdate.
- She was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, sister of Queen Anne Boleyn and niece of the Duke of Norfolk. She had brothers named George, Thomas and Henry.
- She served Mary Tudor in France in 1514 and was back in England by 4th February 1520, when she married William Carey, a member of the King’s household. The King was present at the ceremony. 1
- Mary had some kind of sexual relationship with Henry VIII on her return to England. It is not known how long it lasted.
- She played Kindness in the Chateau Vert pageant of March 1522.2
- Mary was pregnant at least three times and had two surviving children: Catherine and Henry Carey.
- Her husband, William Carey, received various royal grants from the King, which are often used to support the idea that Henry VIII was compensating Carey for acting as father to his bastards. However, Carey was a royal favourite, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and other members of the Privy Chamber, like Henry Norris, also received royal grants and offices.
- Her first husband, William Carey, died of sweating sickness on 22nd June 1528 and her sister, who was at that time involved with Henry VIII, was granted wardship of Henry Carey, Mary’s son, in July 1528.3 Mary was a widow and this agreement helped to provide her son with an education. Anne did not adopt or steal Mary’s son, she simply provided for him.
- Henry VIII intervened with Thomas Boleyn on Mary’s behalf, prompting him to make provision for her at the end of June 1528.4 In December 1528, Henry assigned Mary an annuity of £100 (£32,000), which had once been paid to her husband.5
- Mary was at court at New Year 1532 and 1534 – “Mary Rocheford” gave Henry VIII a shirt with a blackwork collar and he gave her a piece of gilt plate in 15326 and her name appears on the lists of New Year’s gifts for 1534. The list for 1533 is missing.
- Mary accompanied the King and Anne Boleyn on their trip to meet Francis I in Calais in October 1532.7
- Mary served Anne in 1533 and attended her at her coronation.8
- She married William Stafford in secret in 1534 and turned up at court pregnant in September 1534.9 This was when she was banished from court for marrying without Anne’s permission and her allowance was cut off by Thomas Boleyn. She was forced to write to Thomas Cromwell for financial help.
- Her marriage to Stafford was a love match – In her letter to Cromwell, she 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.”10
- Her husband, William Stafford, was one of the men chosen to meet Anne of Cleves at Calais in 1539,11 and her daughter, Catherine Carey, was appointed as one of Anne of Cleves’s ladies in November 1539.12
- Mary received her inheritance from her father and grandmother in 154313.
- She died on the 19th July 1543 but it is not known where she was laid to rest.14
- Her children were favourites of Elizabeth I.15
We don’t know what she looked like, what her personality was like, who the father of her children was, the nature of her relationships with Francis I and Henry VIII (and even if she slept with Francis), her whereabouts at various times of her life, her relationship with her family… Mary is, in fact, the perfect blank canvas for an historical novelist. Her life and story, as we know it, is, in short, one big myth.
For a discussion on the miniature above see The Faces of Thomas Boleyn and Mary Boleyn?
Thank you to everyone who spread the word about my books being free on Kindle at the weekend. They were downloaded over 35,900 times! Jennie McGrath is the winner of the Amazon gift card and I will be emailing her.
Notes and Sources
- LP iii. p 1539,’The King’s Book of Payments, 1519′
- Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, p630
- LP v. 11
- LP iv. 4410
- LP v. p 306
- LP v. 686
- LP v. 1484
- Mary Boleyn, The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Josephine Wilkinson, , p137
- LP vii.1554
- LP vii.1655
- LP xiv.572
- LP xviii.623
- Alison Weir dates her death as the 19th July 1543, Josephine Wilkinson chooses the 30th July. Historian David Loades chooses to simply write “July 1543”. Alison Weir cites John Horace Round, the 19th century historian and genealogist, as her source for the 19th July date of death, and he does write in his 1886 The Early Life of Anne Boleyn: A Critical Essay “According to an inquisition taken at Mary’s death (19th July, 1543)…”, so it sounds like he based the date on her inquisition post mortem. Essex Record have a transcription of her Inquisition Post Mortem (D/DU 514/29/5, Fonds MANORIAL RECORDS OF FOULNESS) which gives her date of death as 19 July 1542, but this must be a typo as she was alive in May 1543.
- Catherine Carey served Elizabeth I as one of her ladies of the bechamber and the offices of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, included Privy councillor and Lord Chamberlain of the Household.