The Mystery of Mary Boleyn – Guest Post by Sarah Bryson

Mary Carey
Today we have a guest post from Sarah Bryson, owner of the Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History blog. Thanks, Sarah!

The Mystery of Mary Boleyn

Mary Boleyn was the oldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard and sister to Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII.

There is some debate over when the Boleyn children were born but it is generally believed that Mary was the older sister born in 1500 at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. In 1597, Mary’s grandson Lord Hunsdon wrote a letter to Lord Burleigh inquiring about the return of the Earldom of Ormond once belonging to his great grandfather Thomas Boleyn, and in the letter he referred to his grandmother as the older sister. Lord Hunsdon would not have been entitled to the Earldom if his grandmother Mary had not been the older sister, as the title was passed down through the line of the oldest child. If Anne was indeed older then the title would have gone to her descendents, namely her daughter Queen Elizabeth. Hunsdon must have been very sure that his grandmother was indeed the older sister to inquire about this title. Also when Anne Boleyn was created Marquess of Pembroke in 1532 the letters patent referred to Anne as one of the daughters of Sir Thomas Boleyn. If she were the older surely the letters would have stated such. With Mary as the older sister, Anne followed in possibly 1501 and her brother George several years after. There is also strong belief that there were two other Boleyn children born, Thomas and Henry but either both boys died in infancy or only Thomas lived until his death in his adolescence.

Sometime in the early 16th century Thomas Boleyn moved his family to Hever Castle and it was here that Mary spent her early life. Nowadays ‘Hever Castle, once the home of that great figure in Tudor history, Anne Boleyn, now has one of the best collections of Tudor portraits after The National Portrait Gallery’ (Starkey 2011). One of these magnificent portraits is said to be of Mary Boleyn.

Josephine Wilkinson who wrote ‘Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress’ states that ‘tradition has it that Mary Boleyn was the most beautiful of the Boleyn sisters. Even she, however, did not conform to the Tudor ideal of feminine beauty, which preferred pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. One portrait of Mary, although it is of doubtful authenticity [the Hever Castle portrait], shows her to have a rounder and softer face than that of her sister. Her complexion is creamy, her eyes brown and, although her hair is hidden beneath her gabled hood, its colour is suggested by the shade of her eyebrows, which hint at a rich auburn or a chestnut brown.’ (Wilkinson p. 64).

The image at the top of this post is the portrait from Hever Castle that Wilkinson is referring to. It is commonly believed to be a portrait of Mary Boleyn painted after the Holbein style. In the portrait we can see a woman with a slightly rounded face, wide deep brown eyes, lighter coloured skin and light brown eyebrows and perhaps matching colour hair.

In regards to her personality it is believed that Mary had a giddy nature, was high spirited and enjoyed all the trappings of court life. She is not however thought of as being as intelligent as her sister Anne or brother George. Despite this Mary was most probably given a good education along with her brother and sister and learnt all the necessaries of being a good and proper lady of the time including reading, writing, sewing, singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument. Wilkinson suggests that in the above portrait ‘the way she [Mary] holds her head, her straight gaze and the hint of a smile evokes a certain air of self-assurance that perhaps intrigued the King.’ (Wilkinson p. 64).

It is known that in around 1522 Mary Boleyn captured the attention of Henry VIII and became his mistress for approximately three years. Yet even before this, Mary already had the eye of another King. In 1514 Mary was sent to the French court to become a lady in waiting to Princess Mary Tudor, whom was to wed King Louis XII. However Mary’s time as a lady in waiting was to be cut short as after only a few months Louis XII died. After the death of King Louis XII, Princess Mary married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk before returning home to England. Some historians suggest that Mary also returned with the Dowager Queen to England and became a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. While others propose that Mary, as with her sister Anne, stayed in in France to serve the new King’s wife, Queen Claude.
Whether she stayed only a short time or several years in France it is known that during her time in the country Mary famously became the mistress to Francis I, the new King of France. Mary must have had something about her, as Wilkinson stated, to intrigue a King! Unfortunately it is not known how long her relationship with the French King lasted.

As well as the Hever Castle portrait of Mary Boleyn I wanted to make a note of another portrait that has often been credited as being Anne Boleyn but when studied further may perhaps have more resemblance to Mary Boleyn than her more famous sister. This portrait was painted by Lucas Horenbout and will be described in more detail below.

On February 4th 1520, in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich, Mary Boleyn married Sir William Carey, a handsome young man who became a gentleman of the privy chamber. Sir Carey is known to have introduced Lucus Horenbout, to England. Horenbout was a Flemish artist who studied his skill in painting under his father Gerard Horenbout. He moved to England sometime during 1524 and is first recorded in September 1525 as having been paid by Henry VIII to paint a portrait. By 1531 he was being described as the King’s Painter and was very well paid for his paintings. Horenbout is best known for his intricate and beautifully detailed portrait miniatures.

One of Horenbout’s most famous miniatures is of a woman believed to be Anne Boleyn, painted in about 1525/26. Initially the young woman in the portrait, whose age is given as twenty five years, was believed to be Anne Boleyn. Yet there is now some debate now as to whether the woman in the portrait is actually Anne Boleyn. I propose that in fact it may be Mary Boleyn not her sister Anne. Francesco Sanuto, a Venetian diplomat described Anne as ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, a bosom not much raised and eyes which are black and beautiful’ (Ives 2005, p. 40).
In her book The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir also describes Anne as being ‘slender and dark’ (Weir 2009, p. 160), whereas the woman in the Horenbout portrait appears to have a much rounder face and has a pale complexion with perhaps light brown eyebrows and possibly the same coloured hair.

Could this be Mary Boleyn rather than her sister Anne?

Alison Weir, in her book ‘Henry VIII King & Court’ argues that the above portrait by Horenbout cannot be of Anne Boleyn as ‘even allowing for traces of repainting, the sitter, with her fair hair, round face, short chin and full lips, bears little resemblance to Anne Boleyn as she appears in the National Portrait Gallery portrait. Secondly, her age is given as twenty-five. If this is Anne, and she was born around 1501 (a date now accepted by most historians), then the miniature was painted around 1526/27, when her role was little more than that of the King’s low-profile inamorata, which hardly qualified her to be one of the fashionable Horenbout’s first sitters. Thirdly, Anne did not adopt her crowned falcon badge until 1533, and the bird on her badge was rising to the right with wings elevated, while this bird is displayed apparently with wings inverted. Whoever this miniature depicts – and that still remains a mystery – it was not Anne.’(Weir p. 264 – 265).

I have read that sometimes painters would lighten the complexion of the people in their paintings to adhere more to the Tudor style of beauty which preferred lighter coloured skin over dark. Yet even if Horenbout did this in the above portrait, the eyebrows seem far to light to be the dark hair Anne Boleyn was known to have. Also Anne is said to have been slender, yet the woman in this portrait has a hint of a double chin and certainly rounder cheekbones.

In Roland Hui’s article ‘A Reassessment of Queen Anne Boleyn’s Portraiture’ Hui also argues that the Horenbout portrait does not resemble the image of Anne Boleyn presented at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Hui states that the National Portrait Gallery portrait of Anne Boleyn shows a woman with a long face and high cheekbones whereas the lady in the Horenbout portrait has broader features and a double chin. He also states that it was recorded that the lady in the portrait was twenty five years of age when her portrait was painted. Hui moves on to propose that since it was William Carey that introduced Horenbout to the English court and that Carey’s wife Mary Boleyn was twenty five in the middle of the 1520’s (when the portrait was painted), Mary’s age would match the age of the woman in the portrait almost exactly.

It is hard to accurately date Horenbout’s portrait, but if it was painted in 1525/26 and if the sitter of this portrait was indeed twenty five years of age, and Mary Boleyn was born in approximately 1500, then she would match the age of the woman in the portrait perfectly. It should also not be forgotten that it was her husband Sir William Carey whom introduced Horenbout to England. It would not be too far a stretch to think that Carey could have commissioned Horenbout to paint a portrait of his wife. Also it should be added that in the first half of 1525 Mary Boleyn was still mistress to King Henry VIII, could it even be possible that Henry VIII commissioned Horenbout to paint a portrait of his mistress?

The more I read about the Horenbout portrait and the more I compare it to Anne and Mary Boleyn the more I am inclined to think that it is indeed a portrait of Mary Boleyn. There is some resemblance between Horenbout’s portrait and the portrait believed to be of Mary Boleyn hanging in Hever Castle. Both women have lighter coloured skin, both have rounder faces, wide brown eyes and their eyebrows are lighter in colour, quite possibly a light brown. Also the Horenbout portrait has little resemblance either to the portrait of Anne Boleyn hanging at the National Portrait Gallery in London or to the descriptions of Anne as being slender and dark.

Unfortunately unless a third portrait appears and is able to be accurately identified as Mary Boleyn, we may never truly know what this mysterious woman actually looked like. Yet when I examine the evidence and look at the Horenbout portrait I am led to believe that indeed this may be the real face of Mary Boleyn. A face in which I think is indeed beautiful enough to capture the attention of two Kings!


  • Fraser, A 2002, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Phoenix Press, London.
  • Hart, K 2009, The Mistresses of Henry VIII, The History Press, Gloucestershire.
  • Hever Castle 2001, ‘Hever Castle & Gardens’, viewed 13th August 2011.
  • Hui, Roland 2000, ‘A Reassessment of Queen Anne Boleyn’s Portraiture’, viewed 13th August 2001, Available from
  • Ives, E 2009, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
  • Ridgway, Claire 2011, ‘The Anne Boleyn Files’, viewed 13th August 2011, Available from Internet.
  • The Royal Collection 2001, ‘Lucas Horenbout (c. 1505-1544)’, viewed 13th August 2011, Available from Internet.
  • Weir, A 2009, The Lady in The Tower The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Jonathan Cape, London.
  • Weir, A 2008, Henry VIII King & Court, Vintage Books, London.
  • Wikipedia 2011, ‘Lucus Horenbout’, viewed 13th August 2011, Available from Internet.
  • Wilkinson, J 2010, Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Amberly Publishing, Gloucestershire.

Related Post

5 thoughts on “The Mystery of Mary Boleyn – Guest Post by Sarah Bryson”
  1. Thank you, Sarah, for such a thorough portrait (forgive the pun!) of Mary Boleyn. I’m waiting for my copy of Weir’s book and will check into the Wilkinson one as well. Nicely done!

  2. I did not know that Carey introduced Horenbout to England. I always thought that the small portrait did not look like the traditional descriptions of Anne. The idea of the minature being of Mary is very likely. Great article, Sarah!

  3. I say one should allow their own eyes to be the judge, especially those of us who have dedicated a large amount of time researching not only the Boleyn sisters but their entire family and the Tudors……my eyes would have to agree that this is not Anne but in fact Mary as nothing about the facial features agree with anything that has come to light regarding the appearance of Anne…my vote goes to Mary…..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *