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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