Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Conclusion by Sarah Bryson

Posted By on April 24, 2012

We don't even know if this is Mary

Today we have the final part of Sarah Bryson’s series on Mary Boleyn, a round-up of Mary’s life and why Sarah finds her so fascinating – Thanks, Sarah!

Mary Boleyn is most certainly a woman of mystery. Her younger sister was Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and Queen consort of England. Anne was the mother of Elizabeth I and one of the most famous women in English history. She helped to change the course of English history, played a role in the separation of England from the Catholic Church in Rome and ended up being executed on trumped up charges of adultery, incest and treason. Mary’s brother was a well-known member of Henry’s court, evangelical in his religious beliefs and followed his sister Anne to his own tragic death. Mary’s father was also an important member of Henry VIII’s court. Thomas Boleyn was a talented man fluent in French who was sent on many missions as an ambassador for England. He was cunning and smart and used his skills and wits to provide a fantastic education for his children as well as further himself and his family at court. And yet when we look at Mary’s life compared to her famous siblings and father so little is known.

We do know that Mary Boleyn was the oldest child born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. She was most probably born in 1500 and spent the first fourteen years of her life first at Blickling Hall and then at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was approximately fourteen years of age she was chosen as a maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor and went with the Princess to France. She attended upon the Princess when she married King Louis XII and stayed with the Dowager Queen after the death of the French King.

History suggests that sometime during her time at the French court Mary Boleyn became the mistress of Francis I, the new King of France. This idea comes to us from a letter written by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza on March 10th 1536. In his letter Pio writes that:
“Francis said also that they are committing more follies than ever in England, and are saying and printing all the ill they can against the Pope and the Church; that “that woman” pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France ‘per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte.’” – “a great prostitute and infamous above all”.

There are several inaccuracies within this letter; firstly that in 1536 Mary could not have been with her sister Anne as Mary had been banished from court in 1534. Secondly Anne Boleyn did not pretend to miscarry of a child, she really did miscarry a three and a half month old foetus in January 1536. Thirdly this letter was written over twenty years since Mary Boleyn had been in France, why in the past two decades had not a single word been spoken about Mary Boleyn’s alleged affair with Francis I? Within a close court it is hard to keep secrets so how could Mary’s affair been kept a secret for more than two decades? Fourthly how do we even know that the words written by Pio are the truth? They could be made up, fabricated or elaborated upon just to discredit Mary and her sister Anne.

So the question remains, did Mary Boleyn have an affair with King Francis I of France? Honestly we simply do not have enough evidence to prove this as fact. It could very well be possible that during her short time in France as maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor, that Mary did have a liaison with Francis I. But on the other hand it is just as true that she had no such encounter and the words of Rodolfo Pio are nothing more than a fabricated lie to discredit Mary and her sister Anne. Personally I do believe that Mary had an encounter with Francis I, but the depths of that encounter I cannot say. Maybe she did sleep with the King, maybe it was just a playful encounter of courtly love and banter. Once more as with so much within Mary’s life we simply do not know.

Frustratingly, Mary’s whereabouts between 1515 and 1520 remain a mystery. It could be possible that she returned to England with the Dowager Queen of France, Mary Tudor, and continued to be a maid of honour. She may have returned to England and become part of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s household. In her book “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” Alison Weir proposes that Mary’s father Thomas sent her to Brie-sous-Forges (nowadays known as Fontenay-les-Briss), a house in France owned by the new King, Francis I’s cupbearer. Here, while still in France, Mary could finish off her education and polish all the necessities needed to be a noble lady. This is certainly a possibility as there are no records at all to tell us of Mary’s whereabouts over this five year span of time.

It is known that on February 4th 1520, in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich, she married Sir William Carey, a handsome young man who became a gentleman of the privy chamber. It is most certain that the marriage had been prearranged and the King attended the wedding ceremony giving the couple a present of 6s and 8d.

It is also know that Mary Boleyn became the mistress of King Henry VIII. The exact date when the affair began is unknown but I estimate it to be about 1522 when Henry rode out during the Shrovetide Joust of 1522 wearing on his horse the motto “elle mon coeur a navera” which means “she has wounded my heart”. I believe Henry was referring to Mary Boleyn. The exact nature of the relationship remains unknown and it is not even know if Mary went willingly into the affair or if she felt pressured by her father and/or the King. What is known is that the affair lasted for about three years and ended most probably in 1525. It has hard to accurately date the relationship as Henry VIII conducted the affair with the upmost discretion and it is likely due to this that dates and encounters were not recorded.

During these three years Mary Boleyn gave birth to two children. First a daughter, Catherine Carey, in 1524 and a son, Henry Carey born in 1526. The conception dates of both these children coincide with Mary Boleyn’s affair with Henry VIII. So the question is, did Henry VIII father Mary Boleyn’s children? Frustratingly I reply that we simply do not know. Henry certainly was a fertile man and although most of his children did not survive childhood he helped his wives conceive at least ten or eleven times. Yet this is not to say that Mary was not also sleeping with her husband during her affair with Henry VIII. There are just as many reasons for Henry VIII being the father of Mary’s children as there are reasons that he was not. Unfortunately since DNA testing was not available during the Tudor period we may never know if Henry VIII fathered one, both or none of Mary Boleyn’s children.

I do however find it very interesting that during the period of 1520 – 1522 when Mary Boleyn was only sleeping with her husband William Carey that no children were recorded as being born. This is not to say that no child was conceived, but if a child was born no records or details about it exist. Also after Mary’s affair with the King from 1526 to William Carey’s death in 1528 no other child was recorded as being born. I am most curious to know why no child was born during these years when we know that Mary was only sleeping with her lawful husband.

Tragedy struck Mary on June 22nd 1528 when Mary’s husband William Carey died of the Sweating Sickness. With her husband’s death Mary was left a widow without any means of supporting herself. Her young son became a ward to Mary’s sister Anne, who was at this time being courted by Henry VIII. It is presumed that Mary took her daughter Catherine Carey and returned to Hever castle for at time. This may have been a difficult time for Mary as it is believed she was not well liked by her parents, especially by her father Thomas Boleyn. Josephine Wilkinson, in her book “The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress” states that Mary’s father, Thomas Boleyn, turned his back on his oldest daughter as she was no longer mistress to the King and therefore not a means of advancement for the family. One cannot say for certain what Thomas Boleyn’s feelings were regarding his son-in-law’s death or the feelings towards his newly widowed daughter. Perhaps if Mary had once been the mistress of King Francois I of France Thomas was ashamed of her behaviour and that is why he had all but disowned her. Or maybe he was upset that she had been unable to hold the attention of the English King for longer. Maybe he was disappointed that Henry VIII did not recognise either of Mary’s children as his bastards. Maybe he saw little prospect of an advantageous marriage for Mary now that she was in her late twenties. Or maybe he simply put his efforts and attention towards his second daughter Anne who was by now the mistress to Henry VIII. Once again this is all speculation and we do not, and perhaps may never, fully understand the reasons why Thomas Boleyn did not willingly support his newly widowed daughter. We do know however that Henry VIII stepped in and asked Thomas Boleyn to support his daughter. He also granted Mary an annuity of £100 a year which had previously been given to her late husband William Carey.

Once more we lose track of Mary Boleyn and little is known about her life between 1528 and 1534. During this period Mary’s sister was created Marquis of Pembroke and then in 1533 married Henry VIII and became Queen consort of England. Records tell us that in November 1530 Henry VIII gave Anne £20 to retrieve a jewel from her sister. How Mary came about this jewel, and why Henry VIII wanted it back is unknown. It is also known that during the New Year’s celebrations of 1532 Mary is reported to have given Henry VIII a gift of a shirt with a black collar. In October 1532 Mary also accompanied her sister and King Henry VIII to France where they went to meet King Francis I. Records state that Mary was one of the ladies participating in a masquerade to entertain the French King in a banquet held on October 27th. In fact during the masquerade Mary followed directly behind her sister Anne, giving her precedence over the other ladies in the dance.

Mary also appears again during her sister Anne’s coronation on June 1st 1533. During the procession Mary rode in the third coach behind Anne with their mother Elizabeth and she wore a dress made of seven yards of scarlet velvet. Records also show that during the coronation ceremony Mary attended her sister wearing a gown of scarlet velvet and an ermine cloak and bonnet. It is also quite probable that Mary became a lady in waiting to her sister.

In 1534 Mary Boleyn caused quite a scandal by returning to court not only as a married woman but also pregnant! Sometime in 1534 Mary married William Stafford, a soldier at the garrison of Calais. As the sister of the Queen, Mary had married far beneath her station in life and more so he had dared to marry without her sister or father’s permission! Outraged, Anne banished her sister from court. What happened to the child that Mary was pregnant with is unknown, but most likely she either miscarried or the child did not live long after birth. Also in another point of frustration we do not know where Mary went after her banishment. Since her new husband was a soldier at Calais it is most likely that she returned there with him. We do know that in 1539 William Stafford was chosen as one of the members assigned to welcome Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, to Calais.

On May 19th 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed with a French executioner’s sword. She had been found guilty of trumped up charges of incest, adultery and treason. Her brother George had been found guilty of treason and incest with his sister and beheaded upon Tower Hill two days previously. On the same day as George Boleyn’s execution Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, most likely for his previous affair with Mary. Anne and Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was declared a bastard. We sadly do not know Anne’s last thoughts or feelings towards her sister or her thoughts on the reason why her marriage was annulled. Nor do we know Mary’s feelings towards the tragic deaths of her brother and sister. Just as with so much of Mary’s life there are neither records regarding her feelings about the whole matter, nor any details if she tried to contact her sister or brother. Sadly anything that Mary may have thought, done or felt has been lost with history.

A little over three years later Mary had lost not only her brother and sister but also her father and mother and it is most likely that she was never reunited with her parents before their deaths. Sometime in early 1540 Mary and her husband William returned to England where Mary received some of her father’s inheritance, including the lavish Rochford Hall.

We do not even know the exact date of Mary’s death and even more tragically we do not know where she was laid to rest. Mary died either on July 19th 1543 or July 30th, the exact date is not known. As to where Mary’s body rests that too remains a mystery. Not even in death may we mourn the resting place of this mysterious woman.

Ever since I first read about Mary Boleyn I have been utterly fascinated with her life. She is a woman who played on the outskirts of a famous tale of love, power, excitement and tragedy and yet she herself lived quite a remarkable life. Mary Boleyn was most certainly the mistress of one of the most famous Kings in England and it is quite possible that Henry VIII was the father of at least one, if not both of her children. She also may have been the mistress of King Francis I, Henry VIII’s ‘brother’ and rival. For such an unknown woman to be the mistress of one, if not two famous Kings certainly suggests that she must have had something quite captivating about her.

What I admire so greatly about Mary Boleyn is that she defied all the rules and expectations of her time and married for the greatest of all emotions, pure and untainted love. In an age where she was nothing more than a woman, the property of her father or husband, Mary broke the rules and set her own path in life. She sought not the permission of her sister the Queen or her father; instead she took matters into her own hands. She fell madly and passionately in love with a man who felt exactly the same about her and she married him because she loved him. Perhaps Mary was not so different from her sister Anne after all!

Certainly Mary faced the consequences of this decision, but as she stated in her letter to Thomas Cromwell after her banishment from court she would “rather beg my bread with him [William Stafford] than to be the greatest queen in Christendom. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.” (Wilkinson 2010)

There is simply so much that we do not know about Mary Boleyn. What exactly did she look like? Where was she during 1515 – 1520? When did her affair with Henry VIII begin and who was the father of her children? What were her thoughts and feelings about her sister becoming Queen of England and also about her sister and brother’s tragic deaths? What were Mary’s religious views, her favourite pastimes? And most of all I wonder if she was happy with her life?
It seems almost fitting that Mary final resting place remains unknown, just another piece which makes up the mystery of Mary Boleyn. I can only hope that one day a long lost letter from or about Mary may be found, a portrait, even a document which will shed more light about this woman who lived her life on the outskirts of infamy and yet in her own right was an incredible and remarkable woman. Certainly Mary Boleyn was the unknown sister.

Thank you to Sarah, for writing this series. Sarah runs the Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History Facebook page and you can read her other articles on Mary by clicking on these links:-

The Fall of Anne Boleyn Timeline

Don’t forget to check today’s event on the timeline over at The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown website! – click here to go there now.

6 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Conclusion by Sarah Bryson”

  1. Melissa says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this series, Clare and Sarah! Thank you both so much!

  2. NanBoleyn says:

    It is too bad that we have so little on her life. Imagine if she would have kept a journal; how many misteries it would have solved. But then again, she came from a family that had to thread very carefully after her sister’s fall. I just finished reading ‘The Sisters that would be Queen’ about Lady Jane Grey and her sisters. What tragedies and misery were visited upon them, all because they were heirs to the throne.
    Mary would have had no one to help her, it was wiser to keep a low profile; she knew that.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thank you so much for this series! I’ve really enjoyed reading every installment.

  4. Stephanie says:

    In light of the ambitions of her family, it might indeed be possible that little Catherine and Henry belonged to the king. Maybe they would have seen it expedient to keep her husband away from her to ensure the king would know the paternity of those children?

  5. Michelle Skolyak says:

    Hi. Mary is my 12th great grandmother. I was wondering if my DNA was tested and someone for Carey and Henry VIII had DNA files would it show who fathered my family line with Mary? And how would that be gone about?

    1. rmstijl says:

      I too just found out I am a 14th great grandchild of Mary Boleyn. I’m sure dna could verify either story. But would the crown of England allow such tests? I think not. And anyone claiming to have proof via dna would surely be discredited by the crown as to being invalid even if that test were true.

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