Mary Boleyn: A Reassessment by Conor Byrne

Posted By on June 26, 2014

Portrait of an unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn

Portrait of an unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn

Today we have a guest post from Conor Byrne, history student, historical blogger and author of an upcoming biography of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife. Here, Conor takes a look at Mary Boleyn…

Few Tudor women have been as misrepresented and fictionalised as Mary Boleyn, sister of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne. Few had even heard of her before the publication of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), later adapted for a BBC drama and Hollywood film. Mary has subsequently been the subject of two biographies, by Josephine Wilkinson and Alison Weir, respectively. Other academic historians, such as Retha M. Warnicke, have documented her life alongside that of her sister. This article reassesses the life of Mary Boleyn, for the conclusions reached by historians are not necessarily convincing.

Controversy surrounds every aspect of Mary’s life, from her date of birth, whether she was elder or younger than Anne, whether she was in fact the mistress of two kings, François I of France and Henry VIII of England, and her relationship with both her sister and the Boleyn family more generally. Mary was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Their jointure was settled on them in November 1501, suggesting a fairly recent marriage. It is likely that they had been married the previous year.1 In his 1997 article, Anthony Hoskins speculated that Thomas had married Elizabeth around 1500.2 Hoskins further suggested that Mary’s “age and seniority are controversial”.3 Historians disagree about whether Mary was older than her sister Anne. Evidence is as follows. Mary Boleyn married William Carey, the second son of Sir Thomas Carey and Margaret Spencer, in 1520, while Anne only returned to England in 1521/2. This has traditionally been accepted as strong evidence of Mary’s seniority, for elder daughters were usually married before younger ones.4 However, this was not always a prevailing custom in England. Jane Seymour, for example, third queen of Henry VIII, was the last of the three surviving Seymour daughters to marry, despite being the eldest. Her sister Elizabeth, who was at least three and possibly ten years younger than her, had married Anthony Ughtred in 1531, five years before her elder sister married the king.5 Margaret Mowbray, daughter of the first duke of Norfolk, was “advanced in honor” – i.e. marriage – before her sister Isabel, despite Isabel being the elder sister.6 In May 1553, Lady Jane Grey and her younger sister Katherine married on the same day.

Although Mary married before Anne, it is not therefore conclusive evidence that she was, in fact, the elder Boleyn daughter. In the spring of 1513, Anne was sent to reside at the court of Margaret of Austria, and in 1514 was transferred first to the household of Mary Tudor, Queen of France, and later to that of Queen Claude, returning to England seven years later. This appointment has been cited as convincing evidence of Anne’s senior position, for it would have been implausible for the younger daughter to be preferred over her elder sister for such a prestigious position.7 Possibly, Anne was considered by her father to be brighter and more remarkable than her sister, and was selected for her personal qualities. According to Lord Herbert, Thomas Boleyn discovered that his daughter Anne was, from an early age, a bright and “toward” girl and consequently “took all possible care for her good education”.8

In 1597, Mary’s grandson George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, petitioned for the Boleyn family’s Ormond earldom on the grounds that his grandmother was the elder daughter. This has been cited as convincing proof of Mary’s seniority. However, authors found legal and genealogical errors in Hunsdon’s petition, and it has been recognised that “to obtain titles or estates, Tudor petitioners sometimes created bogus genealogies and legal fictions”.9 Hunsdon’s petition was unsuccessful, and there is no evidence that it was presented to Queen Elizabeth. When Thomas Boleyn died in 1539, his post-mortem referred to his daughter Mary Boleyn as her father’s “only and next daughter and heir”, suggesting that she was not the elder daughter.10 Hunsdon’s daughter Elizabeth Berkeley’s tombstone engraving confirmed that her ancestor Mary Boleyn had been younger than Anne Boleyn. In his seventeenth-century study of the Berkeleys, John Smyth stated that Mary was younger than Anne.

The only evidence to suggest that Mary was elder than Anne lies in her marrying before her sister, but evidence related here suggests that younger daughters were married first in exceptional circumstances. Anne was residing at the French court and could have hoped to make an excellent marriage there. Moreover, as Warnicke correctly identifies, Mary married only the second son of a knight, whereas Thomas Boleyn was around the same time engaged in negotiations for Anne to marry the son of an earl, a more prestigious match. Hunsdon’s 1597 petition was not presented to Elizabeth I, and if it was, she rejected it. Hunsdon’s own relatives believed that he had been wrong to identify their ancestor Mary as elder than Anne.

Most historians now believe that Anne Boleyn was born around 1501.11 If her parents had married around 1500, and if Anne was therefore the elder daughter (and plausibly the eldest child), then Mary cannot have been born before 1502. Their brother George was probably born around 1503-4, although as Hoskins confirms, his birth date has never been conclusively identified.12 Where the children were born cannot be confirmed. The Boleyn daughters and their brother were probably born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, although some evidence suggests that Anne Boleyn was actually born in London, possibly at Lambeth Palace.13

Unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn

Unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn

In 1513, as has been noted, Anne departed for the Low Countries to serve the archduchess. She returned to England only eight years later. Did Mary Boleyn later join her sister at the French court? Historians such as Weir have suggested that she accompanied Mary Tudor, consort of Louis XII, to France in 1514. However, “the evidence cited to prove both Anne and Mary went to France is… questionable”.14 In 1514, a list was compiled documenting the names of Mary Tudor’s maids of honour, including only one “M. Boleyn” rather than two. Historians have puzzled over whether the “M” referred to Mary, Mademoiselle, or Mistress, but it seems likely that it referred to Mademoiselle or Mistress in this case, particularly since a later list of ladies remaining in France signed by the French king identified one of the ladies as “Mademoiselle Boleyn”.15 Weir discovered that “there is no mention in contemporary sources of Mary remaining at the French court”.16 It seems apparent that the reason for this is the fact that Mary never resided at the French court in the first place. While her sister reaped the benefits of a splendid European education, Mary probably resided at Hever Castle, where she received a more traditional education befitting the status of a gentlewoman.

If Mary never dwelled at the French court, then it follows that she was never the mistress of the French king Francois I. In 1536, Ridolfio Pio, notoriously, later related a conversation with the French monarch in which Francois apparently slandered Mary as “a great whore and more notorious than all others”.17 This is the only piece of evidence for Mary’s supposed affair with the French king. It is possible, however, that he was referring to a later meeting with her at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, or in 1532 when she accompanied Anne and Henry to a Calais meeting with the French monarch.18 As Warnicke incredulously remarks: “Ives speculated that Francis was recalling his acquaintanceship with her [Mary] in 1514, when she, according to that historian’s calculation, was about 14, a very young age, it would seem, for her to have achieved such notoriety”.19 Four months after her wedding in 1520, Mary probably accompanied Queen Katherine of Aragon, whom she perhaps served as a maid of honour, to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

At some point in the early 1520s, Mary became the mistress of Henry VIII. As Jonathan Hughes remarks, her relationship with the king was unusual in that it occurred after her marriage to William Carey.20 It probably began in 1522, and as Ives recognises, “the spate of royal grants to her [Mary Boleyn’s] husband [William] in 1522, 1523, 1524 and 1525 is also suggestive”.21 In February 1526, Henry VIII made a further grant to William Carey. Hoskins suggests: “Significantly, this royal grant included the borough of Buckingham which was granted to William Carey ‘in tail male.’ It is impossible not to be struck by the coincidence of this entailment to a male ‘heir’, just twelve days before the date of record on which William Carey’s wife gave birth to a male child said to be the king’s son.”22 In 1524, Mary was delivered of a daughter, Katherine, and in 1526 she gave birth to a son Henry, who was believed to be the illegitimate son of Henry VIII. Some historians suggest that either, or both, children were fathered by the king.23 Hughes suspected, however, that rumours about Henry Carey’s paternity had no basis in fact, and confirms that Henry VIII only once formally acknowledged his affair with Mary, sister of his second queen.24

The records contain scarce information about Mary. It is fruitless to speculate about her feelings in the late 1520s and early 1530s, when her family soared to unprecedented heights and her sister married the king. Possibly she was jealous of Anne, but equally the sisters could have enjoyed a supportive and close relationship. It is useless to engage in speculative ‘maybes’ and ‘perhaps’, for Mary Boleyn is a shadowy figure who remains most important for whom she was related to, rather than who she actually was. Mary was engaged in high drama, however, in 1534, when she admitted to Queen Anne that she had married a lowly gentleman, William Stafford (her first husband had died in 1528). Both Anne and her father were clearly disgusted with Mary’s behaviour, for she had gravely ignored royal protocol and brought Boleyn honour into disrepute. She was ordered to leave court and her father, the earl of Wiltshire, cut off her allowance.25

Mary was, however, a witness to the brutal bloodshed that destroyed her family in the late 1530s and early 1540s. In 1536, her sister and brother were executed on charges of adultery, incest and treason that most historians are convinced were false. In 1538, her mother died, and her father passed away the following year. In 1542, her younger cousin Katherine Howard was beheaded alongside her sister-in-law Jane Boleyn. It seems unlikely that Mary and William dwelled in Calais, as Weir suggests. Hughes more plausibly believes they resided at Rochford Hall in Essex, until Mary’s death in her early forties in July 1543.26 It is impossible to say how she felt about the brutal losses of her siblings, but she was surely shocked at the very least. The most mysterious question remains: were Katherine and Henry Carey the children of Henry VIII? Hughes suggests: “the deep affection which Queen Elizabeth showed for both of them has been thought more appropriate for half-siblings than for cousins. But the fact that Katherine (who married Sir Francis Knollys) and Henry were the only blood relatives Elizabeth had after her accession is probably sufficient explanation for her elevation of Henry to the peerage as Baron Hunsdon in 1559, and for the lavish funerals she provided for both in Westminster Abbey. There is no need to postulate that they were the children of Henry VIII and Mary Carey.”27

Conor Byrne’s book “Katherine Howard: Rose Without a Thorn” is due for release by MadeGlobal Publishing in August. I’ll post on The Anne Boleyn Files when it is released.

On this day in history…

  • 1535 – A new commission of oyer and terminer was appointed for the county of Middlesex. The commission ordered the Sheriff of Middlesex to gather the Grand Jury on the 28th June at Westminster Hall. This was to try Sir Thomas More who, according to the indictment, had been “traitorously attempting to deprive the King of his title of Supreme Head of the Church”. Click here to read more about it.

Notes and Sources

  1. David Starkey, Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII (London, 2004), p. 258, suggests 1500.
  2. Anthony Hoskins, ‘Mary Boleyn’s Carey Children – Offspring of King Henry VIII?’ Genealogists’ Magazine 25 (1997), accessed online at http://www.genealogymagazine.com/boleyn.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. See for example Alison Weir, Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore (London, 2011).
  5. LP v. 80 (14)
  6. John MacClean (ed.), John Smyth, The Berkeley MSS. Vols. 1-2: The Lives of the Berkeleys, Lords of the Manor of Berkeley, Vol. 3: Description of the Hundred of Berkeley (Gloucester, 1883-1885), II, pp. 80-1.
  7. Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989), p. 9.
  8. Cited by Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London, 1991), p. 148.
  9. Retha Warnicke, Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners (New York, 2012), p. 28.
  10. Ibid, p. 29.
  11. See Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The ‘Most Happy’ (Oxford, 2004), chapter 1.
  12. Hoskins, ‘Mary Boleyn’s Carey Children’.
  13. Austen Nuttall (ed.), Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England (New York, 1965), II, pp. 351-2.
  14. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 29.
  15. LP i. Part 2, 3348, 3357; see also Ives, Anne Boleyn, p. 371, n. 27.
  16. Weir, Mary Boleyn, p. 79.
  17. LP iii, p. 1539; v, 1484; CP Vol. VI, 627-8, n. “e”.
  18. Hoskins, ‘Mary Boleyn’s Carey Children’.
  19. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 29.
  20. Jonathan Hughes, ‘Mary Stafford [nee Boleyn; other married name Carey] (c.1499-1543), royal mistress’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed online at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/70719?docPos=1).
  21. Ives, Anne Boleyn, p. 20.
  22. Hoskins, ‘Mary Boleyn’s Carey Children’.
  23. Weir, Mary Boleyn; Hoskins, ‘Mary Boleyn’s Carey Children’.
  24. Hughes, ‘Mary Stafford’.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
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