Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Birth by Sarah Bryson

Posted By on January 27, 2012

Anne Boleyn miniature

Mary Boleyn? Minature by Lucas Hornebolte painted in 1525.

Today we have a guest post, the first in a series, on Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary. Thank you so much to Sarah Bryson for writing this series for us!

Mary Boleyn: The Unknown Sister – Part One: Birth

Over the next few weeks/months I will be looking at Mary Boleyn’s life and trying to explore further into the mysteries that surround this remarkable woman. So little is known about Mary Boleyn and she is often overshadowed by her sister Anne and brother George. It can be quite frustrating at times when trying to research Mary’s life as there are just so little records and details that have been recorded about her. We know very little about her whereabouts during large period of her life, we know little of her actions and even less about her personal thoughts and feelings. Even where she was buried remains a mystery and we cannot even say for sure where or when she was born! It is my aim to at least explore some of these mysteries and bring the little we know about Mary Boleyn to life.

Mary Boleyn was the sister of Anne Boleyn, who would eventually become the second wife of Henry VIII, only to meet her end upon the executioner’s block three years after her marriage. Mary Boleyn is often overshadowed by her more famous sister, but Mary was quite a remarkable woman in herself. She travelled overseas, spent time learning and furthering her skills and knowledge in France, she married a well-to-do man at court – a cousin to the King no less. She would have two children, of whom there would continue even to this day to be great speculation if they were the children of Henry VIII. She would taste the rewards of success and face the scant world of being cast off. She would defy her father, even her sister the Queen and marry for love. She would survive her family’s tragic fall from grace and she would live on with a man whom she loved deeply and with her whole heart. Her life would end with no record or pomp, but she would leave this world quietly with little recognition for the life she had led. Mary Boleyn was quite a remarkable woman because she followed her heart and married, in 1534, for love. She defied the social rules of the time and followed the greatest feeling and passion a person can have – love. Simple, uncomplicated, overwhelming love.

So little is known about Mary Boleyn that not even her date of birth or where she was born was recorded. Although it was not uncommon for birthdates not to be recorded during the Tudor period, so the fact that Mary’s date of birth has not been written down is not unusual. Yet this lack of recorded date of birth does make it quite frustrating for us in today’s times to even work out the age and birthday of this fascinating woman.

It is generally believed that Mary Boleyn was the first child born to Elizabeth Howard and Thomas Boleyn. Thomas Boleyn was born in possibly 1476/1477 and was a prominent member of King Henry VIII’s court. He was fluent in many languages including French and Latin and was 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, these included being knighted in 1509 and being made a Knight of the Garter in 1523. He also went on a number of diplomatic missions for Henry VIII and was also ambassador for a period of time in the Low Countries and France. Elizabeth Howard was the younger sister of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. Little is known about Elizabeth Howard; however a verse dedicated to her by a poet John Skelton describes her as being very pretty. Hart writes that “Elizabeth, was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon from 1509” (Hart 2009, p. 52) and shared her time between the court and her home at Hever Castle. It is frustrating to know so little about Elizabeth Howard, a woman who was the mother and grandmother of two Queen’s of England. But that is a story for another time!

Even Thomas Boleyn’s marriage to Elizabeth Howard is not recorded, but it is generally believed that they married sometime in 1499. We do know however that “Elizabeth Howard’s jointure was settled on her in the summer of 1501” (Ives 2004, p. 17) and Ives suggests that the marriage of Elizabeth and Thomas must have been relatively recent to this date. In 1536 Thomas Boleyn wrote to Thomas Cromwell, right hand man to Henry VIII, stating that “When I married I had only £50 [nearly £25 00] a year to live on for me and my wife, as long as my father lived, and yet she brought me every year a child” (Weir 2011, p. 11). From Thomas Boleyn’s statement we can assume that the couple was married in 1499 then the first child born to Thomas and Elizabeth came into the world in approximately 1500, and then four more children followed one each year. Once again the names, births and deaths of each of the Boleyn children is a story for another time!

There has been a great deal of debate as to which daughter was oldest, Mary or Anne. The strongest evidence to suggest that it was Mary Boleyn who was the oldest daughter comes from a letter her grandson wrote. On October 6th 1597 George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon wrote to Thomas Cecil, Lord Burghley. He wrote that he believed he was entitled to the earldom of Ormond, which had belonged to his great grandfather Thomas Boleyn. He stated that as the grandchild of the oldest daughter, and sole heir of Thomas Boleyn, he had a right to the title. In this letter George Carey also wrote that this father, Henry Carey, Mary Boleyn’s son, also asserted that he had a right to the earldom of Ormond.
This was a bold letter for George Carey to write. His second cousin was Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn, sister to Mary. If Anne Boleyn had been the oldest daughter then it would have been Elizabeth I whom would have been entitled to the earldom of Ormond. Therefore it can be strongly suggested that George Carey would have had to have been more than certain his grandmother was the oldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn as he was claiming the right to the title of Ormond over his second cousin the Queen.

Patent Anne Boleyn

The letter patent creating Anne Boleyn as the Marquess of Pembroke.

It could also be suggested that because Mary Boleyn’s marriage was arranged first she would have had to have been the oldest daughter, as often daughters had their marriages arranged for them in order of age, with older daughters in the family having precedent over younger daughters.
Also when Anne Boleyn was created Marquis of Pembroke by Henry VII, the letters patent giving her this title referred to her as “Anne Rocheford, one of the daughters and heirs of Thomas earl of Wiltshire and Ormond” (Wilkinson 2010, p. 11). If Anne Boleyn had been the oldest daughter would the papers not state this? Instead they simply state that she was one of the daughters of Thomas Boleyn.

Also in William Camden’s manuscript Ánnales rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha’ published in 1615, he writes that Anne Boleyn was “begotten by Thomas Boleyn among other children” (Weir 2011, p. 13). Once again if Anne Boleyn had been the oldest child surely Camden would have written this.

Yet there is evidence which counteracts the thought that Mary Boleyn was the oldest daughter born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. In the book ‘A catalogue and succession of the kings, princes, dukes, marquesses, earls, and viscounts of this realme of England’ written by Ralph Brooke, published in 1619, he writes that Anne was the eldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn.

Also Weever in ‘Ancient Funerall Monuments’ published in 1631 states that within the Chapel St Peter ad Vincula is buried Anne Boleyn, eldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn.

To add to the assumption that Mary Boleyn was the second daughter of Thomas Boleyn is the script written upon Lady Berkeley’s tombstone. Lady Berkeley died in 1635 and she had been the granddaughter of Henry Carey, son of Mary Boleyn. The inscription upon her tombstone states that Mary Boleyn was the second daughter of Thomas Boleyn. This inscription completely contradicts what Lady Berkeley’s father, William Carey had written in his letter, stating that his mother was the oldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn.

Personally I find it more difficult to believe that Mary Boleyn was the second daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Although there is evidence to suggest she was the second daughter, all the evidence comes from 1619 or later, over a century after Mary Boleyn was born. Also there is no direct evidence from a relative of Mary stating she was the second daughter. There is the inscription upon Lady Berkeley’s tombstone, great granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, but this inscription would not have been written by Lady Berkeley herself, but rather by someone that knew her.

I believe the strongest piece of evidence there is to work out the position of Mary Boleyn’s birth comes from her grandson George Carey. George Carey was born in 1547 and his father was the son of Mary Boleyn and surely would have known when his mother was born. Also, George Carey was writing about his right to the earldom of Ormond, which if he was not entitled to it would have been directly challenging his second cousin Queen Elizabeth I. He also stressed in his letter that his father knew that he had a right to the earldom. I believe that George Carey would have had to have been very sure about his right to the title as he was running a great risk of offending and challenging Elizabeth I, his second cousin and Queen.

Therefore I believe that the evidence strongly supports the claim that Mary Boleyn was the oldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. If we believe that the couple were married in 1499 and that Elizabeth gave Thomas a child every year after their marriage, then we can strongly assume that Mary Boleyn was born in approximately 1500.
Although we have established an approximate date of Mary Boleyn’s birth, it should be added that is not even known where Mary Boleyn was born. Once again it is generally believed that she was born at Blickling Hall, which belonged to her father. This assumption is made as Blickling was the Boleyn family home before Thomas Boleyn moved the family to Hever Castle early in the 16th century. Matthew Parker, who was Anne Boleyn’s chaplain “spoke of her coming from Norfolk, so perhaps she was at least born at Blickling” (Loades 2011, p. 16). If Anne Boleyn was born at Blickling, and it is believed she was born after Mary, then it can be strongly suggested that Mary was born at Blickling Hall.

Mary Boleyn’s birth is shrouded in mystery. We know nothing of what the pregnancy was like for her mother, nor do we know any details about the actual birth. I have tried my best to lay out all the evidence for and against Mary Boleyn being the oldest daughter as well as the date and place of her birth. It is my belief that Mary Boleyn was born in 1500, at Blickling Hall and she was the oldest daughter and child of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Yet it appears, as with every aspect of Mary Boleyn’s life, there is some mystery surrounding the facts and details of her birth.

Sarah runs a blog on Anne Boleyn – Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History – but is very passionate about Mary Boleyn’s story, which is obvious from her writing. I hope you enjoy this article and also the whole series as I publish them. Thank you, Sarah!


  • Hart, K 2009, The Mistresses of Henry VIII, The History Press, Gloucestershire.
  • Ives, E 2009, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
  • Loades, D 2011, The Boleyns: The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Family, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Lunimarium: Anthology of English Literature 2011, ‘Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Wiltshire’, viewed 6th November 2011, Available from Internet
  • Weir, A 2008, Henry VIII King & Court, Vintage Books, London.
  • Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberly Publishing, Gloucestershire.

On this day in history…

On this day in history, 27th January…

  • 1541 – The parsonage, lands and right to appoint clergy in Haverhill, Suffolk, were granted to Anne of Cleves. Her marriage to Henry VIII had been annulled in the previous July.
  • 1548 – Archbishop Thomas Cranmer writes to Bishop Bonner informing him that the Lord Protector has decided “that no candles should be borne upon Candlemas Day, nor also from henceforth ashes or palms used any longer.”
  • 1596 – Death of Sir Francis Drake in Porto Bello harbour (Panama). His remains were sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea on the 28th January.
  • 1606 – The Trial of the eight surviving conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, including Guy Fawkes, began in Westminster Hall. They were found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered. Some were executed on the 30th January but Guy Fawkes met his end on the 31st.