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 wh*re 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 wh*re (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.

Related Post

32 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn: A Reassessment by Conor Byrne”
  1. It’s always been incredible to me that Henry based his divorce from Catherine of Aragon on the fact that he had sinned by marrying his brother’s widow. That the reason they did not have a male issue was because the Lord was punishing them. And yet his answer was Anne. Anne, who bewitched him yes, but Anne who had sister who the King had already bedded!!!!! Was The King’s Great Matter based on any semblance of truth? Ever? Or was it just on the whims of an obsessed monarch, as of course was the gruesome decision to behead the Boleyn siblings and at least 3 other courtiers.

    1. Katherine & Arthur had been married before he died, therefore, she was his widow. Henry VIII & Mary were not married, and their affair happened before Anne married him. An affair with a mistress was a lot different than marrying a widow or a single woman, it didn’t matter if she was married or related to someone he may be interested in marrying. I don’t agree with it, personally, but that’s how it was…

      1. The impediment was created by sex, not by marriage (which is why there was the big dispute over whether Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated). So, it doesn’t really matter that Henry had not married Mary.

        Furthermore, whereas Leviticus prohibits both marriage to a brother’s widow and marriage to a wife’s sister, Deuteronomy authorizes marriage to a brother’s widow when the brother’s marriage was childless, such as Arthur’s marriage to Catherine. So, Henry definitely was hypocritical. There is much more scriptural justification for finding his first marriage valid than his second. I think it significant that both Martin Luther and William Tyndale agreed with the Pope on the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

        1. Canon law did give the laws of Leviticus precedence over those of Deuteronomy though and Henry felt that his lack of a living son was proof that the marriage was wrong. However, he was definitely hypocritical when it came to seeing his marriage to Catherine as incestuous when he didn’t see his relationship with Anne in the same way.

  2. Thanks for a fascinating article on Mary Boleyn. Ah, to have been a fly on the wall to get the real scoop on this woman of mystery.

  3. this is a minor point in the article, but one that had me thinking:

    if jane seymour’s sister could have been as much as ten years younger than, yet married five years before jane, then couldn’t that have made the sister about eleven years old at the time she wed?
    i know girls often married young then – margaret beaufort married at twelve – but wow!

    1. It is thought that Elizabeth Seymour was born c.1518 and married her first husband in 1531, so at about the age of 13. This sounds young to us but Margaret Beaufort had her first child at 13 and Jocasta Culpeper, Catherine Howard’s mother, was around 12 when she married. Elizabeth’s first child was born around 1533, so when she was about 15. Jane was born c.1508 so when she married in 1536 she was about 29.

  4. Questions for Conor:

    The article above says that Elizabeth Carey Berkeley’s tombstone engraving indicates that Mary was the younger sister. How So? Where is the tombstone and what does the engraving say?

    In the discussion of George Carey, Baron Hunsdon’s suit for the Ormond inheritance, the article says that his own relatives thought him wrong? What is the evidence or reference for this please?

    Thank you

  5. Hi KB, in answer to your first question, the engraving is discussed by Emily Reilly, “Historical Anecdotes of the Families of the Boleyns, Careys, Mordaunts, Hamiltons, and Jocelyns” (Newry, 1839), and for both questions I refer you to Retha M. Warnicke, “Wicked Women of Tudor England” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Chapter One.

  6. I really enjoyed this piece on Mary. I’ve read many of the book ‘s Conner sited and I am always amazed to find that “what I thought I knew’ was perhaps not so! I now believe that Mary was the not the older sister……and I’m doubting her affair in France and even her pressence there. I’d love to read more on this. I’ve recently read Alison Weirs book and I’d love another perspective on her life. Too bad we cannot get a birth certificate! By the way, I could swear that I have already read a book on Katherine Howard also called the Rose without a Torn’ is that possible. It was a very good book. The more I read about each wife, the more I come to apprecaite and respect each of these specia; ladies…. although Anne will always be my favorite. Thanks again for sending ‘goo’ mail to my in box. Cheers from Sonoma County USA.

    1. I believe you’re thinking of a book by Jean Plaidy about Katherine Howard, called The Rose Without a Thorn.

    2. Lorrie, I’m in Marin – let me know if you’re interested in a meeting of the Tudor minds – or a book club type thing?

      1. Mary I would love to do a Tudor book club or whatever……let’s get in touch.
        My e mail is lostpak@comcast.net. Right now I’m reading Henry by David Starky and Bring out the Bodies by Hillarie Mantel. Look foreard to touching base. Cheers Lorri

    3. “The Rose without a Thorn” is a novel by Jean Plaidy and the name is based on what Henry VIII called Katherine, his “rose without a thorn”. Conor’s book will be a non-fiction biography though.

  7. I am wondering when he talks about “most historians” claiming that Mary was not the eldest, just which historians is he talking about. Unless he gives sources better in the book than here I would have serious doubts as to his claims about this.
    As a researcher on Anne Boleyn, I would like to see sources given for these claims so they may be checked out.

  8. So much to puzzle through here! So many rumors, and just plain character assassination has taken place on the Boleyn family since their stars rose in the Court of Henry VIII (of course, Thomas Boleyn’s star began its trajectory in the Court of Henry VII, but at that time his children weren’t a convenient target for brickbats.) The name-calling, the assignation of whorish qualities to Mary and Anne Boleyn (while men in that day wh*red around like it was going to be outlawed tomorrow) and the written verbal attacks on their countenance (and digits!) are so plentiful that many history buffs can be excused for thinking that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

    I’m not sure that’s merited, though. The number of personal and public agendas behind so much of the criticism must be considered before any opinions are formed, it would seem to me. The enmity engendered by the jealous factions of the Court was palpable, and as such, the ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ needs to be considered as a factor clouding the truth of many accounts written at the time, and afterwards. Seriously, to call Mary Boleyn a wh*re? And Anne, as well? That’s rich; I suppose the name-callers were virgins . . . their whole lives.

  9. Now shame on you Claire, I noted that Henry’s relationship with Anne was incestuous based on his having had sex with her sister (under the definition at the time) and you argued against me…and here you are calling Henry a hypocrite for not calling his relationship with Anne incestuous.

    How very odd! 🙂

    1. No, I argued that that was not how Henry saw it. Whatever we think is irrelevant, as I stated before, because it was Henry making the actions and decisions. Whether or not we think Henry was a hypocrite has no bearing on how he saw it and how he viewed it is what mattered.
      Obviously Leviticus talks about a brother’s wife, so Henry would have seen that as irrelevant to his situation with Anne as he hadn’t been married to Mary. Obviously people today see him as a hypocrite, but Henry saw himself as God’s anointed king and felt he was making the right decisions, supported by theologians and canon law experts who obviously wanted to tell him what he wanted to hear. We have to judge his actions in their context and through his eyes to understand them.

  10. I believe that both Katherine and Henry Carey were Henry VIII ‘s children. The reason he did not recognise them was because it would have been an impediment to his marriage to Anne. That being said, who knows what went on in Henry’s mind!

    1. I think it’s a very good possibility because Elizabeth I took great care to have Katherine Carey close to her during her life, and also made sure that after her death she was buried in a way befitting a woman not only of nobility, but of close kinship to the Queen.

      Not only would that parentage make her Elizabeth I’s cousin, but her half-sister as well. Elizabeth I did not trust nor honor solely on the basis of first-cousin relations; yet somehow it just feels right to me that the two of them were sister-cousins. Also? Henry Carey was, if I recall correctly, referred to by Elizabeth I as her brother in correspondence. (Yes, I realize ‘brother’ was a term used often and was not exclusive to those of blood and/or step-brothers, but again, it just feels right to me.)

    2. That does not seem a very good reason for Henry not acknowledging Katherine and Henry as his children. The impediment for which he sought a dispensation in order to marry Anne was that he had had an affair with Mary – I don’t think that having children by her would have made any real difference. Surely Henry would have been keen to recognise a son and even a daughter at a time when he was trying to demonstrate that he could have healthy children?

      Elizabeth’s favours to the Careys can be easily explained by the fact that they were both her closest living relatives and deeply loyal to her without postulating that they were really her siblings.

  11. Thank you for a great article. I have read the two recent books by Wilkinson and Weir but am welcoming very much a new biography on this neglected Boleyn sister. I also believe that too much has been based on the boastings of King Francis and others to do with her sexual relationships with men. For one thing it cannot be taken as fact that she was a regular in the bed of a King that boasts about it; or that they had a long term relationship. I think she may have been Francis I’s mistress for a short period of time, may have made an impression, but then moved on and was married on her return to England. She had a short relationship with King Henry, with one small piece of evidence being that she was sort of refered to when Henry wanted the Pope to give him a dispensation to marry Anne on account of having sexual relations with another female relative. He does not specifically say Mary, but historians believe this to be the lady he refers to. I believe he had a relationship with Mary and that he was fond of her. She was also meant to be prettier than her sister; if not as bright as her. I also wonder if her children really did belong to the King or her husband. A mystery I think. As to the question of if she was the eldest; the fact they did not have birth certificates or have to record the birth makes things a nuisance. I had always believed that parish record kept records of their baptism, but I think this is even very much hit and miss and some parents probably not bothering to note it down until the child had survived infancy. In 1536 Cromwell introduced a system to make us all register births marriages and deaths; but it really took till the 18th century for this to catch on and the 19th for it to be a full legal requirement that was enforced. I believe the bequest petition to her grandson gives a clue that she may have been the eldest or Elizabeth would have taken the title?

  12. i find this very interesting because ive always thought that KING HENRY VIII WAS the father of marys children ansd isnce we cant prove them and probably never will we can only speculate this it was after all in the early 1500’s thanks maritzal


  14. thanks to claire for always bringing us up to date on everything with the tudors and the boleyns i like your blog its very interesting and informative

  15. Claire id love to know your opinion on this article. Do articles such as these ever sway your opinion/works? What are your opinions on Mary’s birth order and early years?

    I just received your book i won on the george boleyn book tour, so far it is fantastic! 🙂 Do you plan writing anything new? I think a book on Mary would be amazing 😉

  16. I have been reading books on king henry and he did have impotence because of his gaining weight then maybe he wasn’t the stud that he boasted that he was maybe his affair with Mary could have been a one night stand because of his problems I think Katherine Carey looks like Mary and I think Henry Carey looks like Elizabeth Boleyn

  17. I think red hair was in the Howard family and they were related I am not sure what colour the hair was of the Boleyn siblings I am hoping neither of Marys children were Henrys but possibly Williams as I think it would be fantastic that an ordinary person like William could have so many talented descendants

  18. Hi

    I really like all this talk about Mary Boleyn and whether she was the elder sister in my opinion she was the younger because they would have got her a better husband than William Carey and I think Anne acted like an elder sister when she took on Henry Carey as her ward

    1. William Carey was a brilliant match for a woman of her standing, though. He was related to the king, he was a member of the king’s privy chamber and a favourite of the king, so lots of grants and appointments. It was a splendid match. With regards to Anne taking on the wardship of Henry Carey, that was perfectly normal and doesn’t suggest anything about her age. Thomas Seymour, for example, took on the wardship of Lady Jane Grey even though her parents were wealthy and important, simply because he was more influential at court and could help her. Anne was queen and so could 1) Afford to educate Henry to a much higher standard than his mother could afford, and 2) Help him with his future court career.

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