Mary Boleyn and Thomas CromwellAs I’ve said many times before, Mary Boleyn is a bit of a mystery. The late historian and Anne Boleyn expert Eric Ives once said to me that what we know about Mary Boleyn could be “written on a postcard with room to spare”, the rest is supposition. We don’t know when she was born, what she looked like, when she slept with King Henry VIII and for how long, where she was at the fall of her siblings in 1536, what happened to the baby she was carrying in 1534, where she died, where she was buried… So many unanswered questions. It’s frustrating.

But one thing that does give us an insight into the person Mary was is a letter she wrote to Thomas Cromwell following her banishment from court after her secret marriage to her second husband, William Stafford. Mary was desperate for Cromwell to intercede with the King and Queen on her behalf, but she shows no regret for marrying Stafford, a man she clearly loves. It is a moving letter, don’t you think?

“Master Secretary,

After my poor recommendations, which is smally to be regarded of me, that am a poor banished creature, this shall be to desire you to be good to my poor husband and to me. I am sure it is not unknown to you the high displeasure that both he and I have, both of the king’s highness and the queen’s grace, by reason of our marriage without their knowledge, wherein we both do yield ourselves faulty, and do acknowledge that we did not well to be so hasty nor so bold, without their knowledge. But one thing, good master secretary, consider, that he was young, and love overcame reason; and for my part I saw so much honesty in him, that I loved him as well as he did me, and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty: so that, for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him. And so I do put no doubts but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the king’s gracious favour and the queen’s. For well I might have had a greater man of birth and a higher, but I assure you I could never have had one that should have loved me so well, nor a more honest man; and besides that, he is both come of an ancient stock, and again as meet (if it was his grace’s pleasure) to do the king service, as any young gentleman in his court.

Therefore, good master secretary, this shall be my suit to you, that, for the love that well I know you do bear to all my blood, though, for my part, I have not deserved it but smally, by reason of my vile conditions, as to put my husband to the king’s grace that he may do his duty as all other gentlemen do. And, good master secretary, sue for us to the king’s highness, and beseech his highness, which ever was wont to take pity, to have pity on us; and that it will please his grace of his goodness to speak to the queen’s grace for us; for, so far as I can perceive, her grace is so highly displeased with us both that, without the king be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigour and sue for us, we are never like to recover her grace’s favour: which is too heavy to bear. And seeing there is no remedy, for God’s sake help us; for we have been now a quarter of a year married, I thank God, and too late now to
call that again; wherefore it is the more almones (alms) to help. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, master secretary, for my little time, I have tried so much honesty to be in him, that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.

Therefore, good master secretary, seeing we are so well together and does intend to live so honest a life, though it be but poor, show part of your goodness to us as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you, you have the name to help all them that hath need, and amongst all your suitors I dare be bold to say that you have no matter more to be pitied than ours; and therefore, for God’s sake, be good to us, for in you is all our trust.

And I beseech you, good master secretary, pray my lord my father and my lady to be so good to us, and to let me have their blessings and my husband their good will; and I will never desire more of them. Also, I pray you, desire my lord of Norfolk and my lord my brother to be good to us. I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us; but
if, with any pain that I could take with my life, I might win their good wills, I promise you there is no child living would venture more than I. And so I pray you to report by me, and you shall find my writing true, and in all points which I may please them in I shall be ready to obey them nearest my husband, whom I am most bound to; to whom I most heartily beseech you to be good unto, which, for my sake, is a poor banished man for an honest and a godly cause. And seeing that I have read in old books that some, for as just causes, have by kings and queens been pardoned by the suit of good folks, I trust it shall be our chance, through your good help, to come to the same; as knoweth the (Lord) God, who send you health and heart’s ease. Scribbled with her ill hand, who is your poor, humble suitor, always to command,

Mary Stafford.

To the right worshipful and my singular good
friend, Master Secretary to the king’s highness,
this be delivered.”

Notes and Sources

  • ed. Wood, Mary Anne Everett (1846) Letters of royal and illustrious ladies of Great Britain, from the commencement of the twelfth century to the close of the reign of Queen Mary, Volume II, Henry Colburn, p. 193-197.

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12 thoughts on “Mary Boleyn’s letter to Thomas Cromwell”
  1. This is a beautiful and moving letter that Mary wrote to Cromwell. Mary was my 19x great grandmother and like you, I’m frustrated by the lack of information that exists about her too.

  2. If we have to know so little about Mary Boleyn, I would rather know this than have all the other facts. 🙂

    One wonders if later in her life Anne envied her sister, and wished Henry had loved her half so well… or would rather have her than all the heirs in Christendom…

  3. I wish that we knew more about Mary and often wonder why it is that we know so little. I hypothesize that it has a lot to do with her banishment from court. I have always wondered if she ever truly reconciled with her family or if she herself decided to live out her days humbly especially after Anne’s downfall. I find her fascinating.

  4. The letter is heartfelt and is a direct plea to the kings secretary to intercede with both Hebry and Anne, I love the bit where she says ‘love overcame reason’ that’s is oh so true and has been down the centuries, the other bit where she says that the world set so little store by her I find very sad and just proves that she was considered possibly a not very bright girl who whilst though loving, did not make the most of her connections with the King, it seems Anne was the star of the family and Mary was more in her shadow yet by several observers she was said to have been more pretty and feminine than her younger sister, Mary was ruled by her heart and Anne by cold logic it appears Anne had inherited her fathers character yet she was moved to pity by Mary’s plight and sent her some gold coins, I think possibly Anne could have been envious of her pregnancy, so Mary was in disgrace for falling in love with a man of lower station because her ambitious family no doubt thought he wasn’t grand enough for the Queens sister, she also mentions his ‘ancient stock’ this is true because the Stafford’s could trace their lineage back to Hervy Stafford in the 11th c also he was related to the other branch of Stafford’s whose cousin had been the executed Duke of Buckingham, so although he wasn’t a peer of the realm he could boast some noble connections, I’m glad Mary found her true love and had some happiness in her life, she didn’t make her mark on history as her sister did, but she lived a much happier life.

  5. Any and all women who write like Mary baring her heart and soul, therefore deserve in all honesty and truth, to lay with their beloved for eternity with no persons other than themselves to state objections. May Mary have lived in complete happiness.

  6. How often has love overcome reason? Things between young people were the same then as now, you just fall in love with the person, often someone mum and dad, brother and sister dont approve of, you cannot explain why, you just know this person pushes your buttons like nobody else and the heart wants what it wants. Mary had been married to a compliant but well positioned gentleman, a member of the privy chamber, a friend of King Henry, Sir William Carey, but he had died of the sweat in 1528. He must have been patient and compliant as he had to put up with Mary sleeping with the King, but he seems to have been reasonable, but he also lost a lot of money, possibly by gambling, leaving Mary without her jointure and widows portion. For some reason her reputation also suffered, possibly more than she deserved as gossip spread about her sexual encounters, making it all the more difficult to make a second advantageous marriage.

    In William Stafford Mary had found a man who was willing to see her for herself, to love her for herself, who did not care about the past, who saw Mary as a person, as an individual woman, as somebody he could protect and be a father to her children, with whom he could make a life, she found him generous and caring, none judgemental, who treated her well and she was happy with him. Mary did not care that he had little fortune, she was content to have a quiet family life. However, there was a catch, if she married without her father and sister’s consent, she could and did lose her allowance. She is clearly upset about the breach with Anne and her father, as this moving, heartfelt letter shows, but she also needs reconciliation in order to have proper provision for herself, husband and children and for an independent life. Mary would also have to ask for help when her father died to gain her inheritance. Some people may think Anne Boleyn was cruel or her father mean, but we have to understand the family dynamics of the sixteenth century were stricter and harsher than today and that the Boleyns were now part of the royal family. Anne Boleyn was Queen, with the right to say yes or no to the marriage of her family, friends, any of her ladies and gentlemen in her household, so Mary had committed a serious offense. Anne could have forgiven her at once, but what sort of message would that send, favouritism? Thomas Boleyn is also often wrongly condemned for his reaction, cutting off his daughter but you have to see it from his point of view, Mary had defied and shamed him by marrying a man well below her in status and he probably thought that as the sister of the Queen he could have gained her a marriage of status, in spite of her reputation. Mary did not deserve her reputation, most of it was based on gossip and royal manly boasting, which is not evidence. That she slept with the King was not unusual, Henry had mistresses like Bessie Blount who went on to make good marriages. Poor Mary, however, had been rumoured to have slept with King Francis, who sullied her reputation by claiming that she slept with him and many others. This is not evidence that she did, but it was enough to give her a bad name. Mary felt that nobody else would have her and when William Stafford offered her the dignity and protection of marriage, she accepted him, she was probably in love with him, and she was not going to risk her family standing in the way. Anne banished her from court, so Mary turned to the one person who could truly help her, Cromwell, hoping that he could gain reconciliation with Anne.

  7. Having been the mistress of a King ( or perhaps, though not likely, two), would have been no hindrance to a good marriage for Mary. Her sister would become Queen, and Henry’s other known mistress, Elizabeth Blount, made a good marriage. Why was she being treated like a prisoner?

    One must suspect Anne would have arranged a marriage into the highest nobility of the land for her sister had she not been forestalled by Mary’s secret marriage. She may, on the other hand, have decided Mary should be kept permanently out of sight. Mary, unlike Anne, did not marry to advance the interests of the family, but to find personal happiness. Not the done thing in Tudor England.

    Anne would have needed Mary kept in the background until she married Henry. As Anne’s sister, with her Biblical knowledge of Henry, she was a threat on at least two fronts. First, her relationship mirrored that of Katherine and Arthur, which was the basis of the divorce, and second, her less virtuous behavior would reflect poorly on Anne, who strove always to maintain her reputation. Anne was the star of the family, and Mary had disappointed. She had brought no glory in her affair with Henry, if no real harm, and been left a young widow on her father’s hands at a time when he had bigger fish to fry.

    Stafford must have been a bold man. Her letter makes it sound as though he was younger than she, barely an adult, but she would have been trying to shield him no doubt. They must have been very poor, and rather desperate, to ask Cromwell for help….but then she may have cared more to be able to see her son, something which might not have been permitted if she was banished from Court.

    As to her pregnancy, given Chapuys’ hatred of Anne, that might have been a malicious, gossiping swipe, more than the truth. Mary mentions nothing about a child in her letter, and in fact, swipes pretty hard at Anne and Henry. She plainly does not envy her sister her Crown, or perhaps wishes to be sure her husband is not suspected of marrying her out of ambition. IN any case, her letter is not nearly so obsequious as one might expect in the circumstances, and she is openly critical of the family she must rely on to support her.

    I admire her tremendously-those Boleyns were an amazing family!

  8. Mary has always intrigued me. I wish we had more primary sources in which to determine her life’s story. This letter is moving, how she pleads her case, how she states her love for her husband and how she is happy to live a simple and honest life. I always hope she was happy.

  9. Oh Mary, I admire her so much. She defied her parents, her family, the King, even society! All so she could marry for love rather than politics. She is certainly one of the most inspirational women of the Tudor era, risking everything to marry for love. She could even be thought of as being a bit avant garde an dare I say a feminist for risking her rather cosy position for her own happiness, as opposed to family loyalty.

    Good for her, I bet any doubt she may have had on the risk were obliterated in May 1536 🙂

  10. Since Mary was ancestral grandmother of both me and my wife, we were thrilled to be able to read her long letter to Cromwell! It helps to bring our distant relations closer to us. Thank you for posting this information. Larry in Kentucky USA

  11. She uses the words “honest” and “honesty” quite frequently in this letter. Do these words mean something particular in this time and context?

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