Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Fathers and Fertility by Sarah Bryson

As I’m over at Sarah’s blog Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History today as part of my virtual book tour, I thought it was only fitting to publish the next instalment of Sarah’s series on Mary Boleyn. Thanks, Sarah!

For as long as I have been interested in Mary Boleyn and her life I have always been curious about the idea of her fertility. In conjunction with this idea I have always been fascinated with the questions surrounding who fathered Mary’s two children. Perhaps a little odd I know, but please bear with me while I explain further.

In 1514 Mary was sent to the French court to become a maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor, who was to wed King Louis XII. However Mary’s time as a maid of honour was to be short as after only a few months Louis XII died. After the death of King Louis XII, Princess Mary married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk before returning home to England. There are several trains of thoughts regarding Mary’s whereabouts between this time and 1520. Some historians suggest that Mary also returned with the Dowager Queen to England and became a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. While others propose that Mary, as with her sister Anne, stayed in in France to serve the new King’s wife, Queen Claude. Another train of thought is that Mary was sent by her father to Brie-sous-Forges (nowadays known as Fontenay-les-Briss), a house in France owned by Francois I’s cupbearer.

What we do know is that in 1520 Mary was back in England as 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. King Henry VIII was present at the marriage and gave the couple 6s and 8d as a wedding present. William Carey was the second son of Thomas Carey and Margaret Spencer; he was distantly related to the King as his mother was a cousin of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother. He was also a favourite of the King and he shared many sporting interests with Henry VIII including a love of jousting, riding and hunting.

This is where my curiosity regarding Mary Boleyn’s fertility is raised. She was married to William Carey on February 4th 1520 and yet her first child, a daughter named Catherine Carey was not born until 1524. Both William and Mary were approximately twenty years of age at the date of their marriage, old enough for the marriage to be legally consummated so why was it another three years before a child was conceived?

During Mary’s marriage she famously became the mistress to King Henry VIII. It is unknown exactly when the relationship started, but certainly during Mary’s marriage to William. It is thought that Mary’s relationship with the King may have started during or around the Shrovetide of 1522. During the Shrovetide Joust in 1522, Henry VIII rode out wearing on his horse the motto “elle mon coeur a navera” which means “she has wounded my heart”. It has been suggested that Henry VIII with his statement of a wounded heart, was referring to Mary Boleyn. During Shrovetide there was also a lavish celebration entitled the Chateau Vert or the Castle of Green. In the castle eight beautiful ladies dressed in white silk were held captive. The ladies represented virtues and Mary Boleyn played the role of Kindness while her sister Anne ironically played Perseverance. The virtues were guarded by eight vices played by boys from the Chapel Royal. Several Lords, including the King, charged the castle and rescued the ladies.

King Henry VIIIIt was also during this time that Mary’s husband William Carey suddenly started to receive a number of grants. Could these grants have been the King’s way of keeping Mary’s husband happy? Or did the young, intelligent and favoured courtier simply receive these grants from his own merits?

It is believed that Mary’s relationship with Henry VIII lasted approximately three years and is thought to have ended sometime during 1525. Most probably the relationship fizzled out on its own accord sometime during 1525 when Mary was pregnant with her second child. 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.

Once again my curiosity in Mary Boleyn’s fertility is sparked. She married William Carey on 4th February 1520 and was of legal age to consummate the marriage and yet she did not conceive her first child until 1523. The date of conception also coincides with the believed time that Mary Boleyn was mistress to Henry VIII. Could it be that Mary’s child Catherine Carey was in fact the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII?

The reasons proposed that both children might be fathered by Henry VIII is that during the time when Catherine and Henry were conceived Mary was the mistress of Henry VIII and sleeping with the King. It has also been suggested that Henry would not have wished to have shared Mary with her husband, keeping her to himself during the entire period of their relationship. Also there were rumours that Mary’s son Henry Carey looked quite a lot like Henry VIII and that Henry VIII gave Mary’s husband William Carey a series of grants and appointments around the time each child was born in an attempt to keep him happy. It has also been proposed that because Queen Elizabeth was very close to both Catherine and Henry Carey, it must have been because they were in fact half-brother and half-sister rather than just cousins. Queen Elizabeth knighted Henry Carey and also made him Baron Hunsdon; she also visited him on his death bed offering him the Earldom of Wiltshire (once owned by his grandfather Thomas Boleyn). For her part Catherine Carey was one of Queen Elizabeth’s senior ladies and upon her death Elizabeth paid for a lavish funeral for her.

On the other hand the suggestions against the two children being fathered by Henry VIII are that it is quite possible during the time Mary was the King’s mistress she may have also been sleeping with her husband. Henry VIII never acknowledged Catherine or Henry as his children, where he had acknowledged Henry Fitzroy, a son he bore with his previous mistress Bessie Blount. Wilkinson in her book ‘Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress’ also proposes that Henry VIII may have had low fertility and thus there would be a low probability he impregnated Mary. It has also been suggested that the grants given to Henry Carey could have simple been to keep him silent and happy about his wife sleeping with the King. Also the reason that Queen Elizabeth showed great favour and kindness to Catherine and Henry Carey was simply because they were related, specifically that they were the children of Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother’s sister.

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. What is known is that Henry VIII fathered several children with his first three wives and one with his mistress Elizabeth Blount.

Henry VIII upon his death had fathered four children who had lived to at least adolescence. Henry Fitzroy, a son born to Henry’s mistress Elizabeth Blount was born in 1519 and tragically died in 1536. Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, was born in 1516. Henry’s second daughter, born to his second wife Anne Boleyn, was born in 1533 and his fourth child and second son was born to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, in 1537.
Yet in addition to these four children Henry VIII also fathered many children who most sadly were either miscarried, stillborn or died shortly after birth. Catherine of Aragon is known to have conceived six times during her marriage to Henry VIII. Three of those pregnancies resulted in stillborn babies, another two the children died shortly after birth and only Mary Tudor lived until adulthood.

Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn (younger sister of Mary Boleyn) is known to have conceived at least three times. The first bore a daughter, Elizabeth, the second resulted in a miscarriage and the third again a miscarriage, this time of a male foetus. Some historians believe that Anne Boleyn may have had three miscarriages, be it two or three miscarriages the evidence still points to the fact that Henry VIII was able to impregnate his wives.

Jane Seymour, although dying shortly after the birth of her child, conceived and gave Henry a son. In three marriages Henry VIII’s wives were able to conceive at least ten, possibly eleven times. Certainly Henry VIII knew what he was doing in the bedroom and had little difficulty impregnating his wives and mistress.

So why did Mary Boleyn not conceive until her known relationship with Henry VIII? Could it be that Mary’s daughter Catherine Carey was the product of sleeping with Henry VIII? And what of her son who was born in 1525, could he also have been the child of Henry VIII? It is interesting to note that Mary was married for three years before her first child was conceived and then gave birth to two children in a relatively short period of time – a time when she was the mistress of Henry VIII.

Mary’s relationship with Henry is strongly thought to have ended when she was pregnant with her second child, Henry Carey. After this it is assumed that Mary continued to cohabitate with her husband. Although William Carey would tragically die on 22nd June 1528 of the Sweating sickness, Mary Boleyn was still his lawful wife from after the birth of her second child right up until William Carey’s death. This is a period of approximately three years and once again it is curious as to why no other child was conceived.

It could very well be that Mary Boleyn did conceive during the period of 1520 – 1522 before her affair with Henry VIII started and then again between 1525 – 1528, after the birth of her second child and before the death of her husband. It could just be that unfortunately Mary Boleyn was not able to carry the child to term, or that if a child or children were born they did not survive long after birth. Unfortunately there are no records or evidence to give us even a hint of information.

We do know that Elizabeth Howard, Mary Boleyn’s mother was able to conceive and give birth at least five times. Mary Boleyn had four younger brothers and sisters, Anne, Thomas, Henry and George although it is believed that both Thomas and Henry Boleyn died in infancy. However the fact that Mary’s mother could conceive and give birth several times does not mean that Mary Boleyn could also. When we look at her sister Anne we see that Anne was only able to give birth to one healthy child.

Perhaps Mary Boleyn knew of and practiced some sort of birth control? Birth control during the Tudor period was illegal as it was strongly believed that sexual relations were for procreation and not pleasure. Although clearly with men such as Henry VIII taking mistresses, sex was at least in some way used for pleasure and company! Contraception in the Tudor period consisted of many varied and different methods including the man withdrawing from the woman before he ejaculated; the taking of herbs and oils such as oil of mint, oil of rue, oil of savin and honeysuckles juice. The woman could also insert various things into her v*gina such as pepper, wool soaked in vinegar or bundles of herbs which would hopefully kill the sperm, or even inserting beeswax to cover the cervix entrance. The man could also use a type of condom made of lambskin which was known as a ‘Venus Glove’. Could it be that Mary Boleyn knew how not to fall pregnant until a time of her choosing? It is an interesting idea to think about although one I do doubt. As stated contraception was illegal during the Tudor period and Mary Boleyn would have been risking quite a great deal if she was caught using such contraception.

Perhaps William Carey was not able to get his wife pregnant? If the marriage between William and Mary was consummated on their wedding night or shortly afterwards and the couple lived as man and wife for several years, maybe he was not potent enough to make his wife pregnant? Again this is just a wild thought as we know little of William and Mary’s relationship and how they lived during their marriage, although it is believed that the couple resided at court when William was in service to Henry VIII. Although a wild thought, it is still one that has popped up in my mind when thinking about the fertility of Mary Boleyn.

We do know that after the death of her first husband Mary Boleyn married a man named William Stafford. In 1534 she arrived back at court pregnant and was promptly banished by her sister, now the Queen of England. On the 19th December 1534 Eustace Chapuys, Ambassador for Charles V wrote to his master stating:

“The Lady’s sister [Mary] was also banished from Court three months ago, but it was necessary to do so, for besides that she had been found guilty of misconduct, it would not have been becoming to see her at Court enceinte [pregnant].” (Wilkinson 2010, p. 148)

What happened to this child conceived between Mary and William Stafford is unknown. There are no records or details of the child being born so it could be possible that Mary miscarried or that the child died in infancy. But the mere fact that Mary was pregnant does point once again to the fact that she was fertile enough to conceive.

Why did Mary Boleyn only give birth to two children during her marriage to William Carey between 1520 – 1528? Why were both her children conceived during the time it is believed that she was the mistress of Henry VIII? Frustratingly we may never know the answers to these questions. So little is known about Mary Boleyn’s life and it is only through scant details, records and mentions here and there that we can piece together the bare facts about her life. I would love to know who the father of Mary Boleyn’s children was, could it be that one or possibly both of her children were the illegitimate children of Henry VIII? If so he never recognised them as his own. Could they be the children of her husband William Carey? If they are, why were no more children born? Did Mary Boleyn have several miscarriages or still births during her eight year marriage? Or perhaps did she know some form of birth control? Once again we will never know. Unfortunately that is the frustrating thing about Mary Boleyn, the more we desire to know the more questions and unknowns are thrown up in the process.

Mary Boleyn is a great mystery and the story of who fathered her children and that of her fertility I think, will also and most frustratingly, remain a mystery.


  • Jones, P 2009, The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards, Metro Books, New York.
  • 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 2001, The Boleyn’s The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Dynasty, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Luminarium 2011, ‘Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature’, viewed 29th October 2011.
  • Meyer G.J 2010, The Tudors The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, Delacorte Press, New York.
  • Ridgway C 2009, ‘The Anne Boleyn Files: Tudor Contraception’, viewed 29th October 2011, Available from Internet.
  • Ridgway C 2010, ‘The Anne Boleyn Files: The Pregnancies of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon’, viewed 29th October 2011, Available from Internet.
  • Weir, A 2011, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Ballantine Books, New York.
  • Weir, A 2008, The Children of Henry VIII, Ballantine Books, New York.
  • Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberly Publishing, Gloucestershire.

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