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.

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41 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Birth by Sarah Bryson”
  1. Sarah, thank you so much for the article. I very much appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into your work. I have always been fascinated by Mary Boleyn. Love reading anything I can get my hands on when it comes to her.

  2. Wonderful article! I have always thought what Mary felt when she knew her siblings were going to be excuted, or even if she knew it before it happened. How did she lived after that? What are the reasons of her death? Where is her burial place? So many questions with no answers…
    BTW! I have just a question: could be possible that either Thomas or Henry Boleyn was born in 1500, Mary in 1501 (making her the eldest child to survive infance), then the other sibling (either Thomas or Henry), George in 1503 and finally Anne in 1504?
    Also, I would like to know if there is any evidence about the fact that there was a sixth sibling? Years ago, I cannot remember where, I read that from the six children Thomas and Elizabeth had only three had survived infancy.
    To finalize, I’d like to say that although there may be no evidence about this fact, I still believe nowaday that Anne was the youngest of her siblings, but this is just an intuition.
    Thank you for your attention and possible answer!

    1. I will be talking a little about how Mary may have felt when she learnt of her sister and brother’s arrest and execution and where she may have been during this time 🙂

      The little evidence that we have seems to suggest that Mary Boleyn was born first, then Anne in 1501 and then probably Henry and Thomas (or Thomas and Henry!) and then George. But you do have a really interesting theory Raisa, without any definitive records we may never know!

      Personally I have not read anything to suggest that there was a sixth child born to Elizabeth Howard and Thomas Boleyn. I know that Claire has done a lot of research on the subject and she seems to suggest that there was five children, two girls and three boys, unfortunatly of which only three lived to adulthood.

      Thank you so much for your wonderful feedback xx

      1. I had thought there might have been another pregnancy, too. Perhaps a stillborn daughter as the first child? Which would have made Mary the second daughter while still older than Anne. If they didn’t record the birth of a healthy daughter, I could see them not recording a stillborn daughter, but it might have been known and referred to within the family. Like you say, we’ll never know for sure, but it would resolve the contradictions.

  3. Regarding children Mary Boleyn had who may have been fathered by Henry VIII: are the descendants of those children living today known? It seems pretty intriguing to speculate that one’s ancestor may have been Henry VIII!

    1. I haven’t done the genealogy but it is said that Princess Diana and the Spencer family, the Queen Mother (and therefore the Queen) and Winston Churchill are all descendants of Mary Boleyn. Mary’s two children each had lots of children (both over 10 I think) so there will be lots of people alive today who are descended from Mary.

        1. I am not entirely sure about Henry Carey, but Catherine Carey bore 14 children. I have seen a couple of extras on TOBG and The Tudors DVDs where they interview some civilian (re: not royalty) people that are descended from Henry and Catherine.

      1. There are many descendants of Mary Boleyn in the US. Mary’s granddaughter, Anne Knolleys, married Thomas West, Lord De La Warre. Some of their offspring stayed in the Williamsburg, Jamestown areas of Colonial Virginia, giving birth to an american line. So, if King Henry was the father of Mary’s daughter Catharine, he has American descendants also.

  4. Very interesting article indeed! I also believe that Mary was the first born, then Anne, followed by George. I look forward to reading more! Thanks Sarah.

  5. Good afternoon Claire,

    Interesting article when it comes to fact finding mattering the birth of the Boleyn-sisters.
    I think there’s a little mistake regarding “Thomas Cecil”. This should be: Robert Cecil.

    With kind regards,
    Lo Chi-fung

  6. Hello, I am from Denmark, and I do love to read all this stuff about the Tudor family. But could anyone tell me, what was wrong with Henry th. 8’s leg? Does he have Syfilis?

    I hope you can help me.
    And thank you so much for all the interesting reading.
    Best Lisa Lebrija

    1. Henry didn’t have syphilis. The disease was well recognized at the time and was treated with mercury. the French King Francois I had syphilis and the records of his household included purchases of mercury. Henry’s household records do not. Henry’s household records only note purchases of perfumes and sweet smelling herbs to cover the smell of Henry’s festering leg.

      The jury is still out on what exactly it was, though. Most believe it was a jousting injury that never healed. This may have been due to adult-onset diabetes (which was not known at the time), but Henry had a lot of symptoms consistent with diabetes. It might also have been a bone infection. If his injured leg had splinters of bone that were never properly set, they would cause repeated flare-ups of infections, fever, pus, etc. As he aged, he developed ulcers on both legs. Perhaps they were varicose ulcers and if he did indeed have diabetes, it would have caused impaired circulation in his legs and feet, which would have contributed to the development of and impaired healing of those leg ulcers.

    2. Lisa, Henry had a leg injury that never healed as Impish says,this injury kept abcessing over and over,it began to rote as they didnot have antibiotics in those days,it was said the injury was from a hunting accident, perhapes a break may be his feamer. It also was said by Anne Of Cleves ,said he smelled foul from the wound the 2 times they even beded. No Syphilis. Regards Baroness Von Reis

        1. My husband is English and I lived in England for 8 years, so we both love English TV. We subscribe to a VPN service so we can watch all the BBC programming, BBC radio shows, and other English TV.

          We’ve been very, very happy with this VPN:

    1. Linda,Yes you can get the BBC in the states if you have direct tv ,dish ect,it just has to be in your package,it cost extra. Hope That helps Baroness Von Reis

  7. Facinating article.

    I’m sure I read many years ago something that suggested that Anne & Mary were twins…..but my memory could be playing tricks

  8. THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this series! I always want to know more about what history deems the “supporting roles”. 🙂

    I have been interested in Mary for such a long time! I think she was a remarkable woman! She defied norm and society in a time where that was just unthinkable of a woman! I am very happy to see her get more recognition in her own right, not just as Anne’s sister.

    1. Mary got married to William Carey in 1520 and Catherine was born in 1524 (some say 1527) and Henry in 1526 (some say 1525), so both after her marriage. There is controversy regarding the paternity of her children.

  9. I think that is fascinating some the names you named, Claire, that are Mary’s descendants..fires the imagination!

  10. I love this article! As always, Claire, you answer some questions, ask new ones, speculate on what might have been, and managed to fire imaginations all at once. Most impressive.

    I have a potrait that is questionable whether it is Mary or Anne or even their mother; but I love it because it is of a young girl with a pensive look. Actually, I printed in from a website (long forgotten) and my husband put his artistic talents to work and mounted it on a wooden plaque, and also managed to make it look as if it has brush strokes and a glaze. It appears to be an oil painting! Although it is only 4″ by 6″, I mounted it in a large frame with a a small border of gold leaf, surrounded by a neutral matt and the frame is a carved frame circa the Victorian era. Everyone thinks it is real! But then my husband has a talent for that type of thing. I have a partial bust of a face he carved that most people think is a piece found in an old Roman tomb! I’ve had a few people say they don’t believe they are comtemporary and I am only saying they are so they won’t be stolen! Back to the point I was going to make: Since reading this article, I’ve decided to make a little name plate for the potrait, it will read “Mary Boelyn – Sister of Anne, Wife of William, Mother of Katherine and Henry – Born to Greatest, Lost in Obsurity” (after I check the spelling of obsurity).
    Keep ’em coming! Love your articles.

    1. Shoshana,
      Thank you so much for the compliments on my article! (I’m guest writer for this series on Mary Boleyn!) There are so many questions surrounding Mary Boleyn’s life that it is really interesting to try and fort through fact and fiction!

      I would really love it if you could share a picture of the potrait, it sounds beautiful! Feel free to share it on my facebook page 🙂

  11. Thank you for the article. I appreciate it.

    I tend to agree re Mary being oldest for the very reasons you mentioned (btw, not knowing Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s year of birth is driving me crazy. Can’t wait to read your thoughts). I had always thought that the Boleyns married circa 1497.

    The one reason I am not certain about Mary being the oldest is the names.

    Anne is almost certainly named after her aunt, Anne Howard, daughter of Edward Iv.

    But who is Mary named for and why Mary?

    You would think the oldest daughter would be named after Elizabeth, the mother and grandmother’s names and the queen’s name.

    I could see the oldest being named after Anne, the former daughter of Edward IV. You would think a younger daughter would get the name Mary, not the oldest.

    I don’t know the Boleyn family history as well as the Howards but Mary was not a name used much in the Howard family. For that reason, I could see Anne being the oldest or a daughter named Elizabeth that died shortly after birth.

    1. Mary could have been named Mary for a number or reasons. Maybe she was born on a feast day for a Saint Mary. Maybe her parents just liked that name and decided to name their daughter that. Mary was a common name anyway because of the Virgin Mary.Not all parents name their children after themselves. Jacquetta Woodville named her daughter Elizabeth, which seemingly has no relation to her family. Elizabeth Tilney named her first born son John, neither her husband’s name or anyone of great importance. Catherine of Aragon didn’t name Mary after herself. This is just a few off the top of my head.

  12. This is a really interesting article, thanks Sarah. I have always been liked the character of Mary more than Anne, as she seems less ruthlessly ambitious and follows her heart. She also has a gentle face. She must have been a very strong minded person to follow her intuition against the culture of her day, even if it meant being cut off by her family.

  13. Hey Sarah, just found the time to finally read your article and I must say I was really impressed about your accuracy and the amount of research you must have dedicated to write this piece. It’s strange how so much knowledge gets lost over the centuries, that you don’t even know the exact birthday or place of people, even if they’ve been of noble birth and rather important! Awesome job, hun, keep going!


  14. I’ve always had the feeling that Mary and Anne were born under a year apart, probably that’s why it’s hard to say which one is the older daughter (their age difference being so small). I think it was Mary, though.

  15. Thank you so much for this article. I have read a lot on Mary Boleyn and have often wonder how she felt about the deaths of her brother and sister. I have to agree that I believe she was the eldest sister to both George and Anne. I believe that George may have been the middle brother based on the fact that Mary was the first to marry than George and followed by Anne of course but also by the closeness he shared with Anne it seems to me it was like a older brother to a younger sister. I believe that out of the children that survived infancy it went first Mary,George then Anne.

  16. Great article, Sarah. I have always thought Mary the older daughter from what I’ve read and you convinced me. I love the comment that Weir wrote a whole book with so little information! I just finished it and it’s a nice exercise in ‘what if” which is really all there is. I think it fairly safe to assume she and Anne had similar educations and there is no record of her being less intelligent than her siblings. Matter of fact, that makes it more likely she was quite smart. I think she has been maligned over time as this airhead. I don’t buy that for a minute. Perhaps she had a passionate nature (as did Anne) and once seduced in France, couldn’t withstand an assault by Henry. Plus, she’d seen the highpositon of mistresses in France…maybe she thought she could become one in England–Anyway, thank you!

  17. I know wikipedia is sometimes not to be trusted, so I wanted to ask you if there is any truth in this:

    Children of the Earl and Countess of Wiltshire:
    Mary Boleyn, mistress of Henry VIII of England (c. 1499 – 19 July 1543).
    Henry Boleyn – thought to have died young. (1500–1501)
    Anne Boleyn, queen consort of Henry VIII of England (c. 1501 – 19 May 1536 )
    William Boleyn – thought to have died young. (1502–1503)
    Margaret Boleyn – thought to have died young. (1503–1504)
    George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (c. 1504 – 17 May 1536).
    Catherine Boleyn – thought to have died young. (1505–1506),_Countess_of_Wiltshire

    Thanx for your time!

  18. Sarah, this is a wonderfully thought out article of Mary being the first child, especially with you attention to tedious detail, comparisons and that of the later reign of Elizabeth I. I cannot compliment you enough. I also have to agree 100% with DeAnn and Anne Barhilll as well.

    As a former librarian and professor, any source such as wikipedia that is free for the taking (even the lawyer who was the spokesperson during the Casey Anthony trial [which seemed to last forever], said publically that he was even on wikipedia, and had contacted them numerous times about the many errors in his article, and they responded to none of his request [these were things about his birth, and other easily fact checked things]), and are in legal battle now or were. No college professor, inluding myself would take even from a student, would accept any non fee-based article as a source – although undergraduates generally used encyclopedias and books, whereas graduate students go farther by using fee-based peer reveiewed journals are accepted much more – enough said). Sarah is an a great example of what I am speaking. Look at her resources!

    Please Sarah, keep them coming. Your articles (I’ve read the second and the third), are first rate and a joy to read! Thank you! WilesWales

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