Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Until the End by Sarah Bryson

Rochford Hall - It has been significantly rebuilt since the 16th Century

Today we have the latest part of Sarah Bryson’s series on Mary Boleyn – Thanks, Sarah!

After the executions of her brother George on 17th May 1536 and her sister Anne on 19th May 1536, Mary Boleyn was the only Boleyn child left and she seems to have slipped into obscurity for a time. There are little records of her whereabouts and happenings, and it is difficult to place Mary over the next seven years until her death in 1543.

On April 3rd 1538, Mary’s mother Elizabeth Howard died and was buried in the Howard Family Chapel at St Mary’s Church, Lambeth. Although it is not stated where Mary was at this time it can be presumed that she was at Calais with her husband William. We do not know Mary’s feelings about her mother’s death or if she returned to England for the funeral. In fact we do not even know the type of relationship that Mary and her mother had in the later years of their lives. Being banished from court and with a black tarnish over her it may be that Mary and her mother were estranged, if so it is a sad ending to the relationship between mother and daughter.

Less than a year later on March 13th 1539 Mary’s father Thomas Boleyn also died. He was buried at St Peter’s Chapel, a small church located close to Hever Castle. Once again we have no records detailing Mary’s feelings upon her father’s death. With the death of her father Mary was the last of the Boleyn family who had risen so high at court and in the King’s graces, only to fall to such dark and dramatic lows. Mary had now lost her brother, sister, mother and father. Her feelings are unknown but one can only wonder if this was a difficult time for the oldest Boleyn sibling. Certainly Mary was free from the bondage of her family’s thoughts and negative reactions to her, but on the other hand now Mary no longer had the opportunity to seek forgiveness or at least reconnect with her family.

In her book “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” Alison Weir proposes that after her banishment from court in 1534, Mary returned to Calais with her husband and spent several years there while William Stafford continued to serve as a soldier. In 1539 William was appointed as one of the members assigned to welcome Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, to Calais so it can be assumed with some certainty that at least towards the end of 1539 Mary was at Calais with her husband.

We can assume that Mary and her husband returned to England with Anne of Cleves, or shortly afterwards, as in January 1540 William Stafford was created a Gentleman Pensioner to the King. Essentially he was part of a group of guards who were assigned to guard the King and keep watch in the King’s presence chamber. Certainly this was a trusted position as it was up to William and his fellow Pensioners to protect the safely of the King from any who would wish to harm him. William was also required to wear a special gold medallion on a chain around his neck to signify his post. He also had to provide and maintain his own weapons.

With his death, Thomas Boleyn left two heirs, his granddaughter Elizabeth and his daughter Mary. Since Elizabeth had been declared a bastard with the annulment of her mother’s marriage to the King, her share of her grandfather’s inheritance went to the Crown. Mary Boleyn would have to wait a year before she was able to inherit anything from her father’s death. On April 15th 1540 the King gave to Mary and William the manors of “Southt, alias Southtboram [Southborough, between Tunsbridge Wells and Tonbridge] and Henden in Henden Park, and all lands in Hever [excepting the castle] and Brasted, Kent, which belonged to the said earl” (Weir 2011, p. 244). Mary did not inherit Hever Castle from her father as upon his death much of his property and lands reverted to the Crown. Hever Castle would eventually be given to Anne of Cleves in July 1540. It is estimated that the total worth of Mary’s inheritance at this time was about £150 000 each year. Certainly with this annual income and William’s position at court Mary’s financial situation would have been eased greatly and Mary would have been able to enjoy many more comforts in life.

In 1541 William Stafford rose once again at court and was made an Esquire of the Body to the King. Also in this year William Stafford exchanged “the manor of Henden, Kent, and the park called Henden Park, [with] lands in the parishes of Brasted, Sundridge, and Chiddingstone, Kent, and other lands sold by him to the Crown on July 5,” for “the manor of Ugthorpe, near Whitby in Yorkshire, and diverse tenements thereto belonging in Lythe, Yorkshire, parcel of the late priory of Gisborne, Yorks”(Weir 2011, p. 246). William then sold the manor of Ugthorpe to Roland Shakerly.
Mary Boleyn also inherited Rochford Hall in Essex but there is some confusion as to when this actually happened. It may have been in 1540 when she inherited several other manors and property or it may not have been until May 15th 1543 when Mary was formally transferred the possession of the manor. Whenever Mary did inherit Rochford Hall it is generally assumed that she and her husband lived there until Mary’s final days.

Frustratingly the exact date of Mary’s death remains unknown. Mary died on either the 19th July 1543 (according to Alison Weir) or 30th July 1543 (according to Josephine Wilkinson) aged approximately forty three. She outlived her more famous sister and brother by seven years. In her latest book “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings”, Alison Weir suggests that it may be a possibility that Mary was buried at St. Andrew’s Church at Rochford. This church had been built sometime in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century by Mary’s grandfather and it could be that she was laid to rest in a church related to her family. However the records of the church do not go back as far as the sixteenth century and there have also been extensive renovations done to the church over the centuries. Unfortunately Mary Boleyn’s place of burial may never be known.

Mary’s relationship with her two children in the later years of her life also remains a mystery. After the death of Anne Boleyn, the wardship of Henry Carey reverted to the Crown. The King continued to provide a suitable education for the boy and in 1545 Henry Carey was made a member of the King’s household. On May 21st 1545 Henry Carey married Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Morgan of Arkstone, Herefordshire. Catherine Carey became a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves (Henry VIII’s fourth wife) and married Sir Francis Knollys on the 26th of April 1540 at age sixteen. Catherine’s first child, a son, was born in 1541. As with so much of Mary’s life we do not know the relationship she had with her children. A record in October 1542 does state that a “pardon was issued to William Stafford and Mary his wife, and their son-in-law Francis Knollys and Katherine his wife, for the alienation without license of two messuages (dwelling houses without buildings and a courtyard or garden), seven hundred acres of land, fifty acres of meadow, sixty acres of pasture, one hundred acres of furze and heath, common pasture for a thousand sheep and 59s. 2 1/2d (£910) rent in Fulbourn” (Weir 2011, p. 247). William, Mary, Francis and Katherine were fined but no charges were laid. This one document does suggest that Mary was in contact with her daughter and son in law, enough so to own several properties together. It may be that mother and daughter remained close as it is more than likely that after the death of her father William Carey, Catherine stayed with her mother. Mother and daughter may have stayed together over the next few years forming a close bond. Since Henry Carey was first the ward of his aunt Anne Boleyn and then the King, it may be that he had little contact with his mother and thus a close bond between mother and son did not form. But once again as much of Mary Boleyn’s life this is purely speculation based on what little evidence remains.

Mary Boleyn outlived her more famous sister by seven years. She appears to have been able to find some peace and happiness in the last years of her life, away from the drama and downfall of her family. Certainly she lived a very interesting life, being the mistress of one, perhaps two famous Kings. One or both of her children may have also been the illegitimate child/children of Henry VIII. She defied the expectations of the time and went out on her own and married for love. She was banished from court, faced great hardship but managed to find her way back to relative financial comfort. Her new husband rose at court and her children did well under Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I. And yet despite all of this Mary Boleyn died in relative obscurity in July 1543. Not even the place of her burial is known. It seems almost a fitting ending for a woman whose life was lived in such mystery.

Sarah Bryson runs the Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History Facebook page and you can read her other articles on Mary by clicking on these links:-


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16 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn the Unknown Sister – Until the End by Sarah Bryson”
  1. As always a great article. It really does make you think though, the lack of information on Mary (an many others too of course). I am just pondering on say 500 years hence would anyone be able to track down the minutae our lives? Okay we have tweets and fb etc but let’s forget all the technology stuff for a moment (imagine a world where electric power has run out or something) and think of just records, family memories and letters, the st ff we have from 500 years past. I think a fair few of us would remain forever a mystery to any seeker of our lives eh?
    There would be tales told, embellished of course – and muddles over names or who came first.
    I wish Mary, or any of them, had kept a diary of some sort but I dont suppose that was a thing back then. It does make me wish I had got past February in all the diaries of my life, makes me feel almost guilty.
    Thank you and all those who join you in searching out the facts it is a job well done.

  2. Again a great article.
    I was always wondering if Mary didn’t actually welcome the banishment rather then resent it. Yes, it did put her in a financial strain, but sometimes it is better to be hard up and with people you really truly love, then have all the money and be miserable.

    Also I have been thinking that it might not only be estrangement that kept her from communicating her feelings about her family openly, or to seek to re-establish a relationship at all. The fall from grace was rather hard for all the Boleyns and it could have been sheer self preservation that kept her from going back into the family’s embrace. Seeing that the family had garnered Henry’s wrath the way they did. Distancing yourself must have been the only way to survive this tragedy.

    Sometimes I think Mary was the smartest of all the Boleyns. She was a mistress, she got made fun off and thrown out in disgrace, but how does the saying go? Sticks and stones? She got to savour the time in the light and the worst that came of it was name-calling. Anne got the same AND paid for it with her life!
    Mary may not have ended up with a big role in history books, or with money and riches, but she ended up living and being with her children and for all intents and purposes she was happy. I don’t have to wonder what is worth more…

  3. Inheritance–always a fascinating topic! Thanks, Claire.

    However, this sentence puzzled me: “It is estimated that the total worth of Mary’s inheritance at this time was about £150 000 each year.” Was that supposed to be £150 pounds a year, or are we talking 21st-century monetary values? In 16th-century terms, £150,000 was an income fit for a reigning monarch.

  4. Claire,Very good read as always,Mary really did vanish away and really did not let use no were she was ,after her intire family was wiped out.This women was very quiet as I am sure for a very good reason. Thank You Baroness

  5. Bravo! Another wonderful article on Mary. She, undoubtely, was the most lucky of the Boleyn children, when it came to their lives. I choose to believe that she lived the last part of her life in obscurity as her choice, having learned that flying too close to the flame can get one burned! i also choose to believe that she was happy being married to Stafford and her later life was lived comfortably and with family around her. Since we don’t know where she was buried, maybe someday, someone will errect a small monument to her memory in an area that holds meaning about her. But, more importantly, her memory is no longer lost to us. We may not know a lot about her, but we will not forget her.

  6. Brilliant Article, thanks for sharing it with us.
    Mary Boleyn is certainly Enigma. OK so she was a little promiscious in her youth, but in the end I rather think she was happy to be a nothing and a nobody away from the hotbed of court intriques. Perhaps her marriage to William Stafford was so bad after all, Yes it caused her the loss perhaps of her family it did in fact save her life too. When Anne and George fell rumour has it that Henry wanted to imprison her too, but because she had kept her head down and her mouth shut, Henry could find no reason to imprison her.
    As for her relationship with her mother and father I would say it was perhaps strained. She probably did have contact with her parents but probably in the sence of a quick hello when passing. I rather think her mother and father didn’t forgive her for marrying someone who they considered below their status. Although I find that to be a very hypocritical opinion, especially when Elizabeth Boleyn was before marriage a daughter of the powerful Howard household, and marrying Thomas Boleyn wasn’t exactly profitable for her. Thomas was after all decended from a London Mercer. Hardly top drawer status.
    Anyway on the whole I would say Mary was happy, with William it’s just a shame she didn’t live just that little bit longer to see her niece rule England.
    I say Bravo Mary you kept your cool and kept your head.

  7. Great article–thank you! I like to think Mary sort of lived happily ever after with her William. She had been used and abused by at least one king and paid the price for being a lovely young woman. I don’t think she was less intelligent than her siblings but I do think her nature was different…I think she may have taken after her mother–kind and generous–though there is no reason for me to think her mother was like that. But she seems cut from a different cloth from Anne, George and Thomas. That may be my writerly mind, htough, projecting stuff that isn’t there. THanks again!

    1. Hi Anne. I liked your response so much. I, too, would like to think that Mary lived “happily after all”. She did seem different than the others, thank goodness. Otherwise she probably wouldn’t have survived.

  8. Once again, Sarah, you have manage to write a very great article where little primary sources remain on this very (I don’t think she was “enigmatic, as she managed accordign to these articles to be more a survivor), but last surviving of Anne’s siblings! I admire you’re in depth study of her and am so glad to see sources at the end in addition to Weir.

    As it has been discussed in earlier aticles under comments, Weir has been proven to have copied some sources from other historians in her early works. It was also suggested that Weir try and include in her works more annotations, etc. such as Ives does. Weir explained that her publisher would not allow her to do such. So it was off to a few comments that Weir is successful enough for either her agent, or even she to lookfor another publisher, but either she is bound by contract by her agent, or her publisher. It does seem she is well enough off to do so if and when she wishes now. So all in all, and I only suggested at the first comments on this matter, and have made not of them in comments with regard to her since.

    I totally agree with Ann Barnhill, and Claire answered a question I had as well. I do now, thus, trust Mary’s death date to be more with Josephine wilkinson as being 30 July 1543. So once, again, thank you Sarah for doing the research as you usually do.

    I am most intrigued that Mary was with Anne of Cleves as her husband’s duties and then to the king. Anne of Cleves lived unitl 1558, right before Elizabeth I acsended the throne upon the death of her sister Mary I. She lived the longest of Henry’s wives, and that was quite something and he made it so that way when they became “brother and sister.” I would mention more, but that is a subject for a different time. I think by Henry Carey’s dying in 1496 (and Elizabeth I did appoint him to a high post early in her marriage) and Elizabeth’s dying on 24 March 1603, that Anne might well have been the longest living sibling. Anne, and subsequetnly Elizabeth I who carried on the Reformation in England, with Anne marry Henry VIII by the break with Rome in 1533 (and he was named “Defender of the Faith in 1520 by the Pope at that time).

    Let me get back on the straight and narrow her by menitoning Sarah’s words in this excellent article, ” But once again as much of Mary Boleyn’s life this is purely speculation based on what little evidence remains.”

    Mary is to be commended for having the courage to marry the man that she loved, her son rising to high stations in life, what we know of Katharine, Mary’s daughter, and also Mary’s apparent resourcefulness.

    Queen Anne was innocent, and that one I will believe and defend until I am no longer around!!! She did give England the greatest absolute monarch it ever had!! Thank you! WilesWales

    1. Forgive me! Claire, I just can’t wait for you new book! This is a comment leading on the page leading to this article. Thank you, again! WilesWales

  9. What we don’t know about Mary life is as fascinating as what we do know about Anne.
    This has been a great series on Mary Boleyn, Sarah, I have enjoyed it very much, thank you..
    Mary certainly did have a colourful life, with all the twists and turns of a well written novel. Happiness, sadness, joy and tragedy, and hopefully in at the end peace and quiet amidst the love of what was left of her family.

    1. Thomas Boleyn and his infant son, Henry Boleyn, are buried at St Peter’s Church, but the rest of the family are elsewhere: Elizabeth Boleyn is in the Howard Chapel of St Mary’s, Lambeth, Anne and George are in St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London and it is not known where Mary is buried, I’m afraid. I’ve been to St Peter’s, Hever, on a number of occasions and she’s definitely not there. It’s a shame that her resting place has been lost.

  10. I have been fascinated with Mary since I first read Anne had a sister. Personally, I believe that Mary may have been not only more intelligent but more shrewd than her sister. Granted, she did not gain great wealth or properties by being Henry VIII’s mistress (or from Francis I if she had an affair with him) but like Anne of Cleves, she also avoided Henry’s wrath and was allowed to continue her life. When she married Stafford and incurred Anne’s and Henry’s anger, she had enough pull to avoid harsher punishment than being sent away from court. I like to think she made a decision that her life was worth much more than wealth, power and property and when it was time for Henry to look around for a new “love”, rather than ask for reward she simply gave her blessing and told him she prayed for his happiness as that was most important to her. If that did happen, she put Henry in the position of not having to come up with excuses of why he left her and he could go to his next “love” without guilt and knowing Mary would not cause problems. There is no way to know what her reasoning was nor how she really handled the king but we know she survived and even may have found happiness in her last years. Not a bad outcome for one of Henry’s women.

  11. Iam descended from Mary- She is my great grandmother( many times) and Im finding this very interesting,

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