Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – The Fall of the Boleyns by Sarah Bryson

Anne Boleyn's falcon badge from the Tower of London - it is missing its crown

Thank you again to Sarah Bryson from the Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History Page for the eighth part of her series on Mary Boleyn, I know that many of you are enjoying this examination of Mary’s life.

On May 19th at approximately 9am Anne Boleyn, wearing a robe of grey damask trimmed with fur over a crimson kirtle, mounted the scaffold which had been erected within the Tower of London. She had been charged with treason, for plotting the death of King Henry VIII, adultery, and incest with her brother George. Anne Boleyn had been found guilty of all charges and had been sentenced to death.

Two days earlier on the morning of May 17th five men were led from their lodgings within the Tower to their death upon Tower Hill. Thomas Cromwell sent word to Sir Kingston the Tower gaoler, either on the evening of the 16th or early morning on the 17th that Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford were to be beheaded rather than hung drawn and quartered. All five men had been found guilty for their involvement with Queen Anne Boleyn, the punishment for their treason was death and nothing less. The men were executed in order of rank and therefore George Boleyn as Lord Rochford was the first to meet his end. In a loud and clear speech George stated:

“Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Master all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved to die if I had twenty lives, more shamefully than can be devised, for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully. I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly, it were no pleasure to you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all. Therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, to which I have been among, take heed by me and beware of such a fall, and I pray to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, that my death may be an example unto you all. And beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court. And I cry God mercy, and ask all the word forgiveness, as willingly as I would have forgiveness from God. And if I have offended any man that is not here now, either in thought, word or deed, and if ye here any such, I pray you heartily in my behalf, pray them to forgive me for God’s sake. And yet, my masters all, I have one thing for to say to you: men do common and say that I favoured the Gospel of Christ; and because I would not that God’s word should be slandered by me, I say unto you all, that if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set forth to my power, I had not come to this. I did read the Gospel of Christ, but I did not follow it. If I had, I had been a liv[ing] man among you. Therefore I pray you, masters all, for God’s sake stick to the truth and follow it, for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knoweth.” (Weir 2009, pg. 242 – 243).

Then kneeling George Boleyn laid his head upon the block and his short life was ended with a harsh downward stroke of the executioners axe.

On that same day Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled by Archbishop Cranmer. It is unknown the exact reason for the annulment of Anne’s marriage to the King. And even more bizarrely the mere fact that the marriage had been annulled, and thus never lawful, meant that she was never married to the King and thus did not commit adultery. Interestingly all of this was overlooked and Anne was still sent to her death. Archbishop Cranmer stated that the marriage was annulled “in consequence of certain just and lawful impediments which, it was said, were unknown at the time of the union, but had lately been confessed to the Archbishop by the lady herself.” (The Anne Boleyn Files 2011). Yet the exact reason remains unknown. It has been proposed that Anne’s marriage to the King was annulled due to a precontract she had during the early 1520s with a young man named Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Yet in July 1532 Percy had sworn upon an oath that he and Anne Boleyn had not been precontracted to marry. Then again on May 13th 1536 Percy wrote to Thomas Cromwell stating:

“Mr Secretary,
This shall be to signify unto you that I perceive by Sir Reynold Carnaby that there is a supposed precontract between the Queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the Marchishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the Blessed Sacrament upon the same before the Duke fo Norfolk and other the King’s Higness’s Council learned in the spiritual law; assuring you, Master Secretary, by the said oath and Blessed Body which afore I received, and hereafter intend to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.” (Weir 2009, p. 232).

Another possible reason that Anne and Henry’s marriage was annulled could have been due to consanguinity – meaning that due to Henry’s previous sexual relationship with Anne’s sister Mary, it would have put Anne within the first degree of affinity to Henry; essentially he would have been marrying his sister. Thus it would have been against Cannon law for Henry to marry Anne. Although the Pope had granted a dispensation allowing Henry to marry anyone within the degree of affinity, a law passed by the English Parliament in 1534 made any previous papal dispensations invalid if they were against the laws of God. It would seem Henry was able to pick and choose which laws he wished to use and which to overrule.
On May 18th 1536 Eustace Chapuys wrote:

“I have also been informed that the said archbishop of Canterbury had pronounced the marriage of the King and of his mistress to have been unlawful and null in consequence of the King himself having had connexion with Anne’s sister, and that both he and she being aware and well acquainted with such an impediment, the good faith of the parents could not possibly legitimize the daughter” (Norton 2011, p. 215-216).

Chapuys was the Imperial Ambassador to England and his letter was written only one day after Anne’s marriage to the King was annulled. It is interesting to note that Chapuys wrote that it was because of Henry VIII’s relationship with Mary that the marriage was annulled and not of any precontract between Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy. Also as a result of this annulment Anne and Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was to be declared a bastard.

If Mary’s previous relationship with the King was the reason that Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, and it seems the most likely reason, Anne’s thoughts on the matter remain unknown. We do not know what she thought of her sister’s affair with the King, nor her thoughts and feelings regarding her sister being the reason her marriage was annulled. In fact, if Anne spoke about her sister Mary at all during her imprisonment no records as to what her words were survive.

On May 19th 1536 at approximately 9am a French swordsman stood upon a scaffold which was draped in black cloth and scattered with straw. He had been paid for by Henry VIII and had travelled to England to bring about Anne’s death. Once standing upon the scaffold Anne Boleyn turned and ‘begged leave to speak to the people, promising she would not speak a word that was not good’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266). She then asked Kingston ‘not to hasten the signal for her death till she had spoken that which she had mind to say’ (Weir 2009, pg. 266). It appears that Anne was determined to say her final words before her death.

Turning back to the crowd that was staring so intently at Anne, she took a deep breath and with a voice that wavered at first but grew stronger as she continued Anne spoke…

“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, according to the law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die, and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defence doth not appertain to you. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me! To God I commend my soul.” (Weir 2009, pg. 266 – 267).

With one clean strike of the swordsman’s sword Anne’s head was severed from her body and the life of one of England’s most famous Queen’s came to a tragic and final end. As Anne’s brother George had been beheaded by the axe two days previously Mary Boleyn was now the only Boleyn sibling left. Yet where was Mary during her brother and then her sister’s executions?

There are very few records of Mary’s whereabouts from the time of her banishment from court for her marriage to William Stafford in 1534 until her death in 1543. But in 1539 William Stafford was appointed as one of the members assigned to welcome Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, to Calais. It could be very probable that since William had previously been a soldier at Calais that he returned to his post accompanied by his new wife Mary. If Mary was in Calais during May 1536 then certainly she would have known about the tragic fall and execution of her brother and sister. Calais was still part of England during this time and a great deal of trade and travel was done between England and Calais. Certainly since even those in France and The Holy Roman Empire knew about Anne Boleyn’s execution, then Mary, living in Calais which was part of English territory, would also have known.

There are no records of Mary trying to contact either her brother or her sister during their imprisonment within the Tower of London. And more frustratingly Mary’s thoughts and feelings regarding the tragic death of her sister and brother remain unknown. One can propose that she was upset; certainly to lose both a brother and a sister to trumped up charges of treason and incest must have been distressing. Mary may also have been upset that she would never have the chance to seek forgiveness from her sister and to receive Anne’s blessing regarding her marriage to William. We do not even know if Mary knew that it was her previous relationship with Henry VIII that was the reason behind the annulment of her sister’s marriage. And if she did know, what were her thoughts and feelings regarding being drawn into her sister’s marriage and downfall?

Once again without any letters or records we will never know what Mary Boleyn truly thought of the sudden and tragic executions of her brother and sister. All we can say for certain is that on May 19th 1536 with one clean swipe of the French swordsman’s sword, Mary Boleyn was to be the last Boleyn sibling.

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

Photo: Tim Ridgway

Notes and Sources

  • Friedmann, P 2010, Anne Boleyn, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Jones, P 2009, The Other Tudors Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards, Metro Books, New York.
  • Ives, E 2009, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
  • Meyer G.J 2010, The Tudors The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, Delacorte Press, New York.
  • Ridgway, C 2011, ‘17th May 1536 – Henry VIII’s Marriage to Anne Boleyn is Annulled’, viewed 3rd December 2011, Available from internet
  • Norton, E 2011, Anne Boleyn In Her Own Words & the Words of Those Who Knew Her, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
  • Weir, A 2001, 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.

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