Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Childhood and Education by Sarah Bryson

Feb1,2012 #Mary Boleyn
Hever Castle, the Boleyn family's home

In part one of this series on Mary Boleyn, I established that Mary Boleyn was born in approximately 1500 and was most likely the first child of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Records also tell us that in 1514 Mary Boleyn was selected as a maid of honour to Mary Tudor who travelled to France to wed King Louis XII. Yet, as with much of Mary’s life, we know absolutely nothing about her first fourteen years of life. Due to the lack of information we can only make educated guesses at what Mary Boleyn’s childhood was like and the type of education she received.

There is one fact that we know for certain about Mary Boleyn and that is that she was able to write in English. In 1534 Mary wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, asking for his assistance after she and her second husband, William Stafford, were banished from court. This letter shows us that Mary could write and most probably also read, and it can be argued that Mary learnt this skill during her younger years.

Eric Ives, who is one of the most renowned writers about Anne Boleyn states that Thomas Boleyn, Mary’s father, “was careful to ensure that Anne had the best available education, and he was obviously also responsible for the education of her brother, George – possibly a product of Oxford and later a recognised court poet.” (Ives 2004, p. 10). Noticeably there is no mention of Mary Boleyn’s education but I suggest that since Mary Boleyn was approximately a year or so older than her sister Anne, that it could very well be that they were educated together or shared the same tutors. I would think it a little strange if a tutor was hired to teach Anne and George and Mary was completely excluded.

In her book ‘Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress’, Josephine Wilkinson writes that Mary received an education which was suited for a young lady of Mary’s status. She would have been taught to read and write – of which we know Mary was certainly able to do both. She would have been taught important skills such as sewing, embroidery, singing and dancing, which were all essential for a young woman. We know that during New Year’s 1533 Mary was given a gift by the King and in return she gave the King a blackwork collar she had made herself. I propose that Mary must have been quite good at sewing to make such a gift fit for a King. She would have also learned how to play the virginal and lute. Table manners were essential as well as being taught all the necessities to conform to the religious beliefs of the time. In addition to this Mary would have been taught to ride a horse as well as some archery and hunting. Wilkinson also stresses that Mary would have been taught to obey men, namely her father and then her husband.

It is also quite possible that Mary Boleyn learnt to speak and perhaps write in French. Her father, Thomas, was a diplomat and he was considered to be one of the best speakers of French in the English court. In 1514 Mary was chosen as a maid of honour to Mary Tudor who was about to travel to France to wed King Louis XII. A position within the future French Queen’s court would have been highly sought after and it can be assumed that Thomas Boleyn used his influence to gain Mary a spot, and that she was accepted because she had at least some knowledge and skills in speaking French. Certainly having a young woman who spoke French would have been a great assistance to the future Queen.

It has been suggested that Mary had little or no interest in intellectual pursuits and that she had no outstanding skills or qualities that would attract her to others. It was therefore for these reasons that Anne was chosen to further her education at the court of the Archduchess, Margaret of Austria. However since there are no surviving records of Mary’s education or personal notes or letters from her early years there is no way to say this for sure. Perhaps Mary was more interested or had more skills with other pastimes rather than reading or writing. Perhaps Thomas Boleyn believed that his second daughter Anne would be more likely to be accepted into Margaret of Austria’s court. Again with the lack of records or facts recorded about Mary Boleyn we simply cannot state what sort of a student she was or what her strength or weaknesses were. Sadly we cannot even say what were her interests or favourite pass times.
We also can only briefly track Mary’s whereabouts from the time of her birth until she travelled with Mary Tudor to France. It has been strongly suggested that Mary was born at Blickling Hall where her parents resided in 1500. In 1505/6, after the death of his father and Thomas Boleyn came into his inheritance, he moved his family to Hever Castle in Kent. Mary’s father was a member of King Henry VIII’s court and records show us that he was often at court or on diplomatic missions overseas. It is quite unlikely that Mary would have travelled with her father overseas, especially as a very young child.

Little is known about Elizabeth Howard, Mary’s mother. Kelly Hart in her book ‘The Mistresses of Henry VIII’ states that Elizabeth Howard was a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon from 1509. Unfortunately we do not know how much time Elizabeth Howard spent at court, or how long she was a lady in waiting to the Queen. Nor do we know if Mary resided at court with her mother during her service to the Queen. If her mother was busy attending the Queen it could be quite possible that Mary stayed at Hever with her sister and brother to continue her education, but unfortunately we cannot say if this for certain. From this sketchy evidence I propose that Mary would most likely have spent the majority of the first fourteen years of her life at her family’s home at Hever Castle in Kent.

Once again it is most frustrating to know so little about Mary Boleyn’s education and the experiences during her formative years that influenced her later decisions in life. Personally I find it frustrating when people suggest that Mary was dull and dim witted as there is simply no evidence to suggest this. Perhaps Mary was not a great intellect like her younger sister or brother, but once more we do not know this for sure. Maybe Mary preferred to keep to herself or she had great skills in other areas such as sewing or playing instruments or dancing, which were all fine qualities for a young woman of the times to possess. Certainly she must have had something about her to capture the attention of Henry VIII, not only to become his mistress but to continue as his mistress for several years. There is so little we know about Mary and her education and early years of life make up a large part of this. If only a long lost letter or document would be discovered which finally shed some light on these formative years of Mary Boleyn’s life.


  • Fraser, A 1992, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Phoenix Press, London.
  • 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.
  • Weir, A 2011, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Jonathan Cape, London.
  • Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberly Publishing, Gloucestershire.

Thank you so much to Sarah Bryson of the blog Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History for another excellent article on Mary Boleyn! You can read part one at Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Birth

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