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

Posted By on February 1, 2012

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

18 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Childhood and Education by Sarah Bryson”

  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    It does seem almost odd that we have so little info about Mary when there is right much about Anne–but I was reading recently about how Henry was very discreet about his affairs and the writer speculated that even C of A didn’t know about Mary. I’m not sure how quiet such things could be kept at court, especially something like that that lasted over a few years. Since Mary was more than a one-night-stand, she must have had qualities that would attract Henry–intelligence and grace and some musical skills. I suspect there was much more to her than we can know. Thanks for a fascinating post!

    1. Sarah says:

      I totally agree with you there must have been something about Mary which attracted and more so maintained Henry’s attention. Perhaps she was quite beautiful like her mother and was the sort of woman that he was looking for at the time. I think from what I have gathered their relationship lasted about three years and he returned to Mary after she gave birth to her daughter so certainly there was “something” about her.

      Honestly I think COA would have known, she was a terribly smart woman, you can keep an affair ddiscreet, but a wife knows 😛

  2. Magdalena says:

    Mary was an extremely fascinating person. Many
    were worse than her siblings, but it was
    probably just as well educated as rodzeńststwo.
    In the end, her parents will want to have their
    eldest daughter was well educated. In addition, youth spent at the French court, where he certanly acquired many skills.

  3. Mary has been very much on my mind lately. Iam writing a novel of Anne Boleyn , and most of the story takes place in Anne’s childhood: Therefore, I have been trying to make Mary much more than her strereotypes, the stupid whore and the wronged woman.

    1. Sarah says:

      Excited to hear what you have written 🙂

      1. Laurel Berryman Bailey says:

        I would qbsolutley love any info that you can throw my direction i am told were direct decendents to Anne Boleyn and i learned this because were cousins to Sir Francis Bryan and Thomas Bryan his father through the Anne Boleyn tree which is also Queen Elizabeth 1 now the reason I even started looking was because since my mother passed and father in the same month in 2009 I realized I knew nothing about my grandparents really on either side as they were long gone before I was born. Maybe this Mary boleyn is the tree i should be on because from what I’m told it doesn’t matter how far down the tree of succession your royalty of somesort ? Whether that be true or not? Our family has been treated with nothing but disrespect and scowled at and looked down on from centurys back. We can’t even mention my mother maiden name they will throw us I’n jail. I’m not exaggerating at all. I believe my family has been targeted and secretly preyed upon to make sure wev never found out our true heritage but sure the reason but i have things i could tell you that would blow your mind. Anyway

  4. Dawn says:

    It is so frustrating that Mary’s life is such a mystery. And like you say it could be that she didn’t shine academically as her sibling did, but had other qualities that made her her own person, but did not make her stand out in the crowd. Maybe it was this simplistic uncomplicated style that made Mary attractive to Henry, someone who had no hidden agenda as most people at court had in those days. Heres hoping those long lost documents turn up in the near future…

    1. Sarah says:

      I often wonder the same thing Dawn. And we can only wish! 🙂

      1. Laurel Jane Berryman-Bailey says:

        They are lost because they didn’t want my family to stake royal claim. I’m related to anne boleyn and I’m just finding out about this and of course all of my family is about gone now they had to make sure of this as technology progressed they new the truth would see light. At least ut makes sense to me the way my family has been treated for centuries and always being watched they take our actions and the adventures we have persobally lived and made movie after movie about us and i can prove it at least i can show you what I mean as far back as i can tell 1900 they have characters that depict my family members and literally mimick us! And they started showing me ever since my parents died and i feel afraid even sharing this with you as I believe there was foul play involed in my parents deaths. But at the same time I’m tired of living afraid bevause I must do this to honor my mother and father who I am their only daughter between the two. I have other sister and brother but I’m the only one with those two parents my father was melvin ja es Berryman and my mother linda lou owens her mother was dorothy Jane penick or peanick? Born 1923 my father was born 1922 my mother 1948 . Dorothy married wilford thomas owens. she is my mother’s mother and her mother is Esther krumrey or I? If anyone would like to take a stab at my heritage I would be forever grateful. Thank you 2162593038 my husband is directly related to king charlemagne and king david? Ryan scott bailey 1975

  5. WilesWales says:

    May I call you Sarah? If so, I would like to commend you on this piece by piece of many different shapes and sizes to put together all this on Mary Bolyen and her early years. I also agree with you that she must have been well versed to be able to go to the French Court and be educated there, as she must have had all the virtues, as she was no a noble woman, so to speak, in going. So I agree, that her father must have taught her some French as that would have been a great asset.

    She also must have been quite the seamtress to have given, as Elizabeth referred to her father later under questioning during the reign of her half-brother, Edward VI, “The Great King Henry,” a sewn collar for him to wear in 1533. It is also an attribute that she was able to be a mistress to the “The Great King Henry” for many years. During her day, if the king asked for you, and your family wanted favor at Court, as did the Boleyns, she could not refuse. She must have had, as you write a good education, and liked other things that were valued at court other than reading and wriitng. There is no crime in that.

    I digress here for just a moment, and this might interest you as well, Sarah:

    Claire, you write on the best things. I finally had to send Eric Ive’s “Anne Boleyn” back to the library as I could not renew it anymore, but I did get a late Christmas gift for B&N and bought it outright yesterday! I am beginning to hate due dates, and as you said, it sits right by you. That was enough for me to actually get a copy. The used book stores around here don’t carry him. I also ordered Betram Fields, “Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes.” I have looked for the article you put out, and I believe it was Elizabeth of York that named another book by another author whose last name begins with “A.” I tried the Elizabeth of York site again and was directed to another of you great pieces but left this one out.

    Now back to the topic at hand! Sarah, I am simply looking forward to your next writing on Mary Boleyn! You are a detective as well. I just love this. Thank you, WilesWales

  6. Eliza says:

    Thank you for your post, Sarah!! We are waiting for the rest of the series!!

    Just a question.. When married women were chosen to be ladies-in-waiting for the Queen (as was the case of Elizabeth Howard Boleyn) were they allowed to bring their children to court or did they leave them behind with nannies? The Boleyn siblings would have felt lonely if their parents were absent for a long time.

    1. Adrienne says:

      I would think they would have been left back at Hever with their tutors and nannies. That was definitely the norm during that time and I would guess that they may have missed their parents, but during that time period, it was normal for their parents to be gone so it’s not the same as it would be today. The probably only thought about them in passing.

      1. Eliza says:

        Thank you for your reply, Adrienne!!

    2. Maggie says:

      In the well-to-do families, children were not personally raised by their parents. They were either left at home w/nannies or sent to live with another family to be brought up with other children of the same age & station in life. The parent-child relationship in those times was a distant, even frosty one. Even if the parents weren’t at court, nannies did the parenting in most cases.

      1. Eliza says:

        It’s a pity that the children back then used to grow up with strangers.. Thanks for your answer, Maggie!

  7. Cathy says:

    I do believe that Mary was, in her own right, just as educated and intelligent as her siblings. She was, after all, the lone survivor of the Boleyn offspring and it is her descendents that live today.

    1. WilesWales says:

      I have to agree with Cathy on this one. I don’t think that Anne would have been Henry’s chief mistress though. When Henry asked for her, she flat out refused. This is what first captured me to Anne (except for seeing Part II “Anne Boleyn” in the BBC Series when I was five and then at the public library when I was 13, and then majored in the European Reformation in college). Everyone knew that when the King “ask for” a maiden, a “no” was out of the question. No one knew what would happen, especially Anne, to her, her family, etc. if she said “no,” but she did. Henry would never have broken with Rome, divorced Katharine of Aragon, a Royal Princess of Spain, with Katharine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who had sacked Rome and Pope Clement VII under his hand.

      Unless, and I have to give this as a possibilty, that Cardinal Wolsey, would not have broken the betrothal of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, before the King asked for her, if Anne by that time suspected something. She was very wily and shrewd, and had met the King at court on occasions previous to being “asked.” She had the very rare ability to say “no” and still keep the King!

      Sarah has done a great job on this one. It seems as if I am reading them backwards today, as the next is Sarah’s, I’m sure, tediously documented piece as this one. I am looking very much foward to it as well. Thank you! WilesWales

  8. WilesWales says:

    Please forgive me, as Cathy is right about Mary’s relatives, as Elizabeth I appointed many members of Mary’s family, siblings (both male and femaie) to important posts almost from the very beginning of her reign, even appointed one to be one of her ladies-in-waiting, still a very high and coveted position in social circles of that time! Thank you, WilesWales

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