Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Religion by Sarah Bryson

The Great Bible, commissioned by Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII in 1539.

Thank you so much to Sarah Bryson from the Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History Page for the next instalment of her series on Mary Boleyn…

Absolutely nothing has been recorded regarding the religious beliefs of Mary Boleyn. There are no personal letters left which hint at Mary’s religious leanings, there are no mentions of her in relation to religious documents nor are there any mentions of any religious books she may have read. She was not known to be a patron of anyone with certain religious beliefs nor was she outward in her religious practices. In fact nothing is known for certain what Mary Boleyn believed. But looking at England during the time of Mary’s youth, her family and her second husband one could make some suggestions as to Mary’s religious beliefs.

During the early 16th century under the reign of King Henry VII and then his son King Henry VIII, England was a Catholic country. If we assume that Mary Boleyn was born in 1500, and spent the first fourteen years of her life in England before going to France as a maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor, then Mary would have been born into and spent her early years growing up within a Catholic nation. During this time it was heresy not to believe in the Catholic ideas and practice the Catholic faith and it can be strongly assumed that the Boleyns would have been Catholics.

During the formative years of her life Mary would have been taught all the important aspects of the Catholic faith. She would have been taught about participating in mass and also the Eucharist and transubstantiation, where the bread and wine of communion would literally have been turned into the flesh and blood of Christ. She would have learnt about confession and the need to admit sins to a priest and repent for wrongs. She would have been taught about the idea of needing to do good deeds for others and the concept of taking pilgrimages in order to pray to God. It is most probable that Mary would have been baptised and she also could have participated in a confirmation, where she would have stated her belief in God and the Catholic faith. Being that Mary could read, she may have read the Bible in Latin and most importantly, she would have believed that the Pope was the head of the Catholic Church and his position would have been appointed by God.

Yet despite learning and practicing all of these Catholic traditions we cannot say with complete certainty that Mary Boleyn had no evangelical leanings. It is most probable that she was Catholic; with such strong beliefs being instilled into her during such a young age certainly they must have had an impact on her life. Yet since Mary did not leave any letters, notes or comments as to her religious beliefs we cannot state for sure exactly what she believed and practiced.

It is interesting to look at Anne, Mary’s sister and her religious beliefs. There have been many accusations levelled at Anne Boleyn, not only during her life, but for centuries after regarding exactly where her religious beliefs lay. Some say that she was an evangelical, others that she was Lutheran (her brother George apparently being more Lutheran than Luther himself!) Some even say that she was a witch working for Satan! It is believed that it was Anne who introduced Henry to the book The Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale, which spoke of the King rather than the Pope being the head of the church in England. Anne’s younger brother George is also known to have a passion for religious reform and he commissioned two texts which spoke about making the bible accessible to the common man.

In his book ‘The Boleyns: The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Family’, David Loades suggests that although Anne Boleyn did have some evangelical thoughts and beliefs she was at the core still orthodox Catholic. She did introduce her future husband Henry VIII to new ideas and thoughts about religion and where the Pope fitted into religion in England but she was also a very devout woman who attended mass daily, kept books of prayers with her and practiced the traditions of the Catholic faith. Before her execution Anne swore on the sacrament twice that she had not committed adultery or incest against her husband. Swearing upon the sacrament is also a Catholic tradition and belief and it would seem that Anne held these beliefs right up until her death. Yes she did introduce Henry VIII to some new religious ideas and she did support and assist many people who had evangelical leanings and probably shared some of their thoughts and beliefs, but that certainly did not make Anne a Protestant or a Lutheran. She may have been as Loades states; still very much orthodox Catholic in her beliefs. It is most probable that Anne Boleyn did have some true evangelical beliefs and wanted to bring some reform to the Catholic Church while still remaining faithful to many of the Catholic beliefs and practices.

We cannot be sure if Mary shared any of her sister or brother’s evangelical thoughts or ideas but their passion for reform is something to keep in mind when one moves on to look at Mary’s second husband. In 1534 Mary did something quite unthinkable for a woman of her status, she married a soldier named William Stafford. William was a man far beneath Mary’s station in life with only a small income. It is believed that William was born about 1512, or possibly before and was an owner of some land in Essex. He was also a soldier and a gentleman usher to the King. The fallout of this marriage was utterly disastrous for Mary as she was banished from court, most probably for two reasons, first marrying without her family’s permission (her sister now being the Queen of England) and for marrying far below her status. Not only was Mary now married to a man below her status but she may have also been pregnant!

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).

There are little records of Mary and William during their marriage except for a few notes here and there about William’s service and some grants they were given after the death of Mary’s father Thomas Boleyn. But it is interesting to note the actions of William Stafford after Mary’s death. In her book ‘Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings’, Alison Weir states that William Stafford converted to the Protestant faith and he found favour under Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England during the reign of the young boy King Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son. During Edward VI’s reign England was turned into a Protestant country and people were encouraged to practice and follow the Protestant faith. Stafford seems to have prospered during this period and he was made the standard bearer of Edward VI. He was also made a Gentleman Pensioner and was granted an annuity of £100 for his service to the late King Henry VIII. However after this he fell into difficult times and spent some time in the Fleet prison and then accumulated vast depts. which saw him exchange his annuity for a large cash payment.

In 1553, Mary Tudor became Queen of England after the death of her half-brother Edward VI. Mary was and had been a staunch Catholic all her life and when she became Queen she returned England to the Catholic nation it had previously been before her father’s break with Rome. She reversed the new religious rules her brother had made and re-joined England with the Pope. It is interesting to find that during Queen Mary I’s rule, William Stafford fled to Geneva. Many Protestants found refuge in Geneva and Stafford went there with his new wife and children, his sister, a cousin and several servants. Geneva was a Lutheran city and John Calvin, whom was a leader in the Lutheran movement, lived there. It would also appear that Stafford and Calvin formed a friendship as Calvin was the godfather of one of Stafford’s son from his second wife. It was here in Geneva that William Stafford died in 1556.

Mary’s second husband was a Protestant but when did William Stafford convert to the Protestant religion? Was it during his marriage to Mary Boleyn? Or was it after her death, during the reign of King Edward VI? Did he and Mary ever speak about their thoughts and feelings towards the Protestant faith? Both Mary’s brother and sister were known to interact with evangelical texts, did Mary also? Was she, like her sister and brother, open to different views and thoughts regarding religion? Did Mary share her second husband’s beliefs?

Frustratingly we simply do not know. We can strongly assume that Mary was born and raised a Catholic but when we look at the religious actions of her sister, brother and second husband, one starts to wonder if Mary also had more open thoughts regarding religious reform. As with so many other aspects of Mary’s life, we can only look at the little evidence we have and try to make some educated guesses as to what her religious beliefs were.

Note from Claire

Thanks, Sarah, I’ve always wondered about the religious beliefs of Mary Boleyn and also Elizabeth Boleyn. I’d also like to add, if you don’t mind me interrupting, that through my own research into the Boleyn family, I have found evidence that Thomas Boleyn was also an evangelical. David Loades sees him as a conservative Catholic, but Thomas had links with French reformers and supported Thomas Tebold, a vicar and his godson, in his travels around Europe, reporting back on the persecution of reformers abroad and spreading the message that Thomas Boleyn was a patron of the the New Religion. Tebold sent Thomas an epistle by the French reformer, Clement Marot, and Thomas and Tebold corresponded using the Reformist printer Reyner Wolf as a go-between. It is clear, I feel, that Thomas, the head of the Boleyn family before Anne became Queen, was of a reformist persuasion and that this must have affected Mary. What do you think?

You can read Sarah’s other articles by clicking on these links:-


  • Loades, D 2010, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Loades, D, 2011, The Boleyns The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Family, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Loades, D & Trow, M 2011, The Tudors for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons, LTD, West Sussex.
  • Ridgway C 2010, ‘Anne Boleyn’s Faith’, viewed 15th December 2011, Available from Internet.
  • Weir, A 2011, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Ballantine Books, New York.
  • Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Tudor Place 2011, ‘Sir William Stafford of Grafton’, viewed 20th November 2011, Available from Internet <>.
  • Sources from Claire on Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Tebold – LP viii.1151,LP viii.33, LP iv.6304, LP x.458, Index of Kent Wills showing Tebold to be Thomas Boleyn’s godson.

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9 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Religion by Sarah Bryson”
  1. Very good read,we don’t no much about her ,life if she did however stand up in Queen Mary1, wedding they could not have knowen that she was a Proteestant as Queen Mary, was a devout catholic and tried to wipe out anyone, that did not practice the catholic faith. That is why Elizabeth was arrested by her half sister Queen Mary1. Wish we had more info on her life after Queens Annes death. It seems to be that she was still acepted at the court, by Henry after Annes death? Mary Boylen also gave birth to one of the Kings sons. I thought all the Boylens were sent ,as far away as Henry could get them, maybe she was in in the royal court, because she did have a child by Henryso he took care of her? As for religon its alway been church and state, even more so in those days.Just my thoughts ,Hi Claire and all the AB fellowship. Baroness Von Reis

  2. Sorry a few spelling malfucntions Boleyn,you would think I could spell that name with my eyes shut,well you get the jist of it. Thanks Baroness Von Reis

  3. Thanks for this great article–I missed the webinar much to my dismay–went to doctor’s yesterday and was so tired by suppertime, I took a nap and slept right through….Will be happy to hear it today!
    Mary remains so much a mystery but I can’t help but think she must have been influenced some by her family’s reformist leanings.

  4. A very well written, interesting article. Both Mary and Anne seem to have been women ahead of their time. In a way they were very similiar because they both went after the man they wanted even though it was socially unacceptable. It is frustrating that there is so little solid information about Mary. I’m sure if we knew more we would find her as wonderfully fascinating and complex as her famous sister.

  5. I agree Claire, I have just read the chapter in David Loades book ‘The Boleyns’ on their religious beliefs, and feel that although Thomas would have been catholic to begin with, all the contacts that you mentioned above point to the fact that he may have had a change of heart in his beliefs, as many did eventually, and these beliefs would have been passed on to his family, as we pass on our beliefs and ways to our children, until of course they develop their own ideas. So Mary, I feel, would have had the benefits of both teachings, but which on she chose to follow as an adult maybe we will never know.

  6. Thanks for an interesting article. But Edward Seymour duke of Suffolk? She must mean duke of Somerset…

  7. Although we don’t know for certain, as the majority of people remained traditional Catholics at this time, there is no evidence that Mary was anything to the contrary, I would guess with some certainty that Mary Boleyn remained a devout Catholic. We know Anne’s leanings were Evangelical, but with some Catholic bits in her personal faith and Thomas Boleyn had a mix of old and new as well, but we hear nothing of Mary. I think it’s safe to say something would have been noted if she was anything but a faithful Catholic.

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