There’s something about Mary Boleyn

Oct8,2015 #Mary Boleyn

Unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn
Unknown woman, possibly Mary Boleyn
I’ve noticed that every time I write an article about Mary Boleyn, or share one from the archives, I get a sudden spike in traffic to The Anne Boleyn Files. Between 23rd and 30th September, for example, I had a maximum of 71 people on The Anne Boleyn Files simultaneously, yet, when I published my article “Anne Boleyn and Mary Boleyn – Two Sisters” on 1st October it shot up to 145 simultaneous visitors.

Now, you could just put that down to me writing a new and interesting article (I do try!), but I’ve noticed that it happens every time I write about Mary Boleyn. Traffic also goes through the roof every time The Other Boleyn Girl airs on TV, and it does appear to be from people searching for more information on Mary Boleyn.

There’s something about Mary, but what is it?

I’m fascinated by the whole Boleyn family. I’ve been researching them since 2009 and I’m still not bored. They’re such an interesting family, with Thomas and George’s diplomatic careers, Anne’s rise to Queen and then her dramatic fall, the family’s background, their links to religious reformers etc., but Mary is such a shadowy figure. Don’t get me wrong, I find her interesting too and I’m certainly not criticising those who find her interesting. I love the letter she wrote to Thomas Cromwell after she’d been banished from court. Here was a woman who was living on her own terms and who had been brave enough to face the wrath of her family and marry for love. It never fails to move me. I also find the mystery surrounding her intriguing, but I don’t know what it is about her that causes such a jump in traffic whenever I mention her.

Is it the mystery surrounding her?

Is it her sex life? Her alleged relationships with Francis I and Henry VIII?

Is it the controversy surrounding the paternity of her children?

Is it The Other Boleyn Girl effect? In other words, is it Philippa Gregory’s portrayal of her that makes her so appealing to people?

Is it the fact that she married for love?

What is it?

Please help. I really want to know what it is about Mary that causes this interest. Please comment below and share your thoughts. Thank you!

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51 thoughts on “There’s something about Mary Boleyn”
  1. Mary is an underdog to the mercurial tempestuous Anne and you know about the endless fascination the British public has with underdogs!!! Would love to know more about her children and their progeny – especially those who interacted with Eluzabeth I

  2. For me it’s always been that Mary had a seemingly happy ending. She got away from the triuble and drama of court life and married a man of her choosing. History can be a downer especially considering how many famous historical figures died tragically and lived unhappy lives. Many did not have love. This is especially true for wives of famous men, who often had to put up with their husband’s multiple affairs. For all we know, Mary’s husband cheated on her with the servants. But there’s no proof of it and that gives hope that she was happy. She’s a bright light in history, showing it wasn’t always tragic for women who followed their hearts.

  3. I think it really boils down to the fact that we don’t know much about her, and ,much of what we do know isn’t certain. That mystery about someone so significant always leaves me wanting to know more.

  4. The fact that she’s Anne’s sister is enough to spark my interest! Anyone connected to
    the court of HenryVlll gives us a fascinating glimpse into the time that was to change
    the whole of Britidh history

  5. I am fascinated with her, because she was the only sibling to survive the fallout. Her children also grew up to become prominent figures at the court of Elizabeth. I always wonder what she told her children about their aunt and what life was like for her when she faded to the background. Plus there are all the debates on the paternity of her children where some authors swear there is no way one or both could have been fathered by the king, while other historians argue just as hard that it is possible. I think it is the relative mystery surrounding her that I love.

  6. I don’t find Mary herself particularly interesting. The very fact of her and the odd way her life and the lives of her descendants mirrored that of Ann and her descendant. It is like Mary is the pale reflection of Ann like Mary’s granddaughter Lettice is a pale reflection of Elizabeth I. That combined with the lack of information about her which opens her story up to interpretation…

    1. There is nothing about Mary Boleyn that is an imitation of anyone! She captured Henry VIII’s attention 1st, was apparently so special Henry spared her when he pretty much got rid of the rest of her family, although Henry VIII didn’t claim her children – he provided support, he gave her 1st husband prestige and compensation, her daughter was given a “royal” buriel by Elizabeth I and is buried with other royals. Mary Boleyn was kinder, and in many ways more honest than her family. Unlike her so called vibrant sister: SHE KEPT HER LIFE!

      1. We know NOTHING about her relationship with Henry VIII, only that they had sex at least once. It has been romanticised in novels, but they are not based on fact. Only Anne and George fell in May 1536, Thomas and Elizabeth, and other Boleyn relations were left alive, and Mary may well have been in Calais, so it doesn’t mean that she was special to escape May 1536.
        He gave Mary no more support than other widows of men who had served him faithfully. Her husband was related to the king and was already serving in his privy chamber when Mary married him. The grants and rewards William Carey received are no different to those given to other men in a similar position, men like Henry Norris. Mary was granted her husband’s annuity after he died.
        Mary’s children, Henry and Catherine, were Elizabeth’s cousins and they served her faithfully all of their lives, so she gave them lavish burials, as she did with others.

        How is Mary kinder? What are you basing that on? How was she more honest? We know very little about her.

        She kept her life because she wasn’t married to Henry VIII, pure and simple.

  7. for me it’s the mystery of how she was with important men of the time and yet her sister anne landed Henry…..

    1. That is simple, Mary was honest and Anne was not. Anne plotted with her family to “land” Henry VIII, and Mary didn’t.

      1. And your evidence for this? We know absolutely nothing about how these girls caught the king’s attention, or any details about Mary’s relationship with the king at all. There is NO evidence that Anne and/or her family plotted to land Henry VIII. She retreated from court to get away from him when he started pursuing her and didn’t answer his letters. Chapuys also writes of her father being unhappy about the relationship.

      2. What a load of rubbish all the evidence points towards Anne trying to evade Henry V111 not ‘land ‘ him, you have obviously been reading too many trashy novels

  8. I agree with the previous comments. Another point of interest is that she had some very interesting descendants, such as Lettice Knollys (not to mention QE II !). That said, I do think Philippa Gregory added to her allure, as did “The Tudors.”

  9. I love the title of this article, very clever, Claire 🙂

    For me, it is because we know so little of Mary, other than she must have been brave to marry for love despite what her royal family would think about it.

    She is also the only reason the Boleyn bloodline remains, all the way up to Queen Elizabeth II!

  10. Mary is my husbands 13th Great Grandmother, we want to know more about her and her family. (Catherine Carey) Peg

      1. Sorry I didn’t see the last part of your comment.. My 15th Great Grandmother was Lady Mary Catherine Carey

  11. For me its several things, one being the fact that we know so little about her and another being the fact that she had the guts to defy everyone to marry the man she really loved, even if it meant losing everything else.

  12. I think for me it is the paternity of her children and her sex life.She must have had a very interesting life with all the extremes.She kind of lived two lives instead of one.

  13. To be honest, I personally don’t find Mary as interesting as Anne, but I did have people ask me what she was like. One time specifically someone told me that they had watched both The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl and that their portrayal was so different that it confused them, so I think it is very much the same reason people are interested in Anne; she’s a mystery and we don’t know much about her.

    1. It’s a sad state of affairs when people don’t open books written by respected historians to acquire knowledge of history and instead turn to television series loaded with conjecture and half-truths.

  14. There was little, if any, interest in Mary Boleyn before the release of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. What most people know about her is based solely on fictional accounts, but the influence of those accounts has created a disproportionate interest in a women whose place in in history is based solely on her having what may very well have been a quick fling with Henry VIII.
    She may have married for love, but she pleaded for money after she married Stafford. Brave and admirable in marrying for love? Maybe, but she was also a woman who was unable to support her own actions without her families financial support. I think her letter to Cromwell flies in the face of the supposition that she was a woman living on her own terms.

    1. “The Other Boleyn Girl” was what made her blow up, but it’s worth mentioning that Mary was the starring character in at least four novels written previously and was a very important figure in several others (I mean by this that she shared part of the narration, she wasn’t just the standard depiction of Mary given in most novels centering around Anne). There’s no way this would have happened if she hadn’t been Anne’s sister, but there seems to have been a reasonable amount of interest in Mary for herself. What I find really interesting is that pretty much all of these books tell the same story of Mary even though we know so little about her. That letter to Cromwell has had a very deep influence. Of course, the flip side to her portrayal as an innocent woman who gave all for love is that she’s also usually depicted as being extremely dim; not terribly flattering when you think about it.

      As for her marriage — well, it was hard for any woman (or high-ranking man, for that matter) to do much without any family backing. Since in her letter she references being a quarter of a year married, and this was after she was tossed from court on the grounds of pregnancy, I think it’s at least a reasonable guess that the pregnancy preceded the marriage. She may not have had as much choice about marrying as all that.

  15. I find Mary interesting because she is Anne’s sister yet her character and personality appears very different to her more famous sibling, also we have no idea what she looked like and the few alleged portraits of her show a woman lacking any sort of resemblance to Anne, but the most fascinating thing that intrigues me is, did she know who fathered her eldest child Catherine? I say Catherine only because her brother was born a few years after her and therefore is more likely to have been William Careys, yet would Mary have known who her father was, if she did more than likely she carried her secret to the grave and maybe only Carey knew and the rest of her family, but it is interesting and also seeing as how Queen Elizabeth is her direct descendant iv often wondered if her Majesty has often entertained the idea that she could well be of Henry V111s lineage to.

    1. I was just thinking the same thing, that the present Queen and her kin must have their private version of the story about whether or not they are descended from Henry VIII as well as the Boleyns… My mother’s ancestors were apparently the Wyatts; Thomas the Elder was Mary and Anne’s 2nd cousin. My favorite part of this is that there are so many thousands of us from Mary’s huge family still alive and well in the modern world!

  16. I have to admit that Philippa Gregory triggered my interest in Mary Boleyn, as I barely knew anything about her before watching the BBC version of The Other Boleyn Girl.

    I think part of the fascination is to compare her to her sister. People say that Anne was the clever one for not sleeping with the King until marriage, but really, Mary was smart enough to play the court and live happily ever after.

    I also admire the fact that she risked everything (her family, her cushy life, her prestigious position as the Queen’s sister) to marry the man she loved. It shows spirit and that she had the balls to stick two fingers up at her family and say “enough, I’m not playing your games any more”.

    Plus there’s the whole paternity question if Henry is the father of her children. Everyone love a bit of a scandal, hence why we have programmes like Jeremy Kyle and Maury.

    Great, thought provoking article Claire

  17. Like any other family. I think Mary and Anne had sibling rivalry. Mary – Pretty, blond hair blue eyes – very graceful and her simplicity caught the eyes of Henry. She won Henry.
    Anne was upset and vowed to win Henry back. Got her wish.h
    Mary is intriging because she was the mother to Henry son.. SHe served her King and did as she was told by her family members. Stayed true to herself. This is what saved her in the end. Her honesty and loyalty. I thin Henry knew if she was married to him and he asked for a divorce she would have granted him one. She wasn’t a treat. Spared maybe beacuse she gave Henry a son.

      1. Yes Selina and nothing to indicate that Mary had any child by Henry VIII either.
        On the contrary, her relation with K H – if any – surely didn’t last more than a few days .
        We have to remember that, by then (since 1514, if I’m not mistaken) he was under his long-time liaison with Elizabeth Blount .
        And this one, quite officially, had made him a father of one son, Henry (of Richmond).
        I find all the love story rather dubious; however Mary was never a favourite as was Elizabeth Blount.
        And her only living son was born many years after her wedding.
        As a widow, she lived on her sister’s (then mistress to the king) financial help.
        No contemporary I assume told anything about Henry Carey being fathered by K H …
        Not even that William Carey should have played the complaisant husband.
        I think if such a thing had happened, at time of Anne’s favour, it would have raised a real gossip at court (a lot of persons at once wanted to fight her fame and favour).
        I’d rather see that this word appeared decades after .
        Should this theory have found some eveidence, you can guess that Queen Elizabeth I would have kept his first cousin under some supervision.
        After all, he was a male, she was not – just think of the way she acted towards other members of her family – Brandon and then Grey sisters, Mary Stuart and even the children of Margaret Douglas.
        Nothing to back that up

  18. I find it interesting that Mary did not let herself be completely overwhelmed by her siblings, which argues a certain strength. I do think that one reason why she fascinates is that we don’t know much about her …. which creates debate over her fictional portrayals.

  19. she was a survivor I think. And I believe she was not as “dumb” as people think. She was brave too and chose love and a life out of the limelight. But more than that she was a Boleyn

      1. Hi Gail, in some works of fiction Mary has been portrayed as a flighty somewhat immoral girl who had an affair with the King but didn’t do very well out of it, also it appears that her father realised Anne’s potential and made sure she was sent to Margaret of Austria and later to France to further her education whereas Mary was just sent to France and didn’t make much impact on the court there or later at the English court either, Anne was highly intelligent like her father and was interested in religion and could speak French and wrote music, also she was very ambitious and Mary was content as she was, she wasn’t as gifted as her sister so it’s probably this that makes some people think she was dumb but I don’t believe she was, she was no scholar but that doesn’t mean she was dumb, she just wasn’t as academic as Anne was or maybe George, but she kept her head by treading a much safer path than her unfortunate siblings.

        1. Just as you delighted in putting other views down, I am going to ask: were you there? She was gifted enough to keep her life!

        2. How is it a gift to keep her life? She was not in Anne’s position, she didn’t have a husband who wanted her dead and someone like Cromwell who had the means to do it. Thomas and Elizabeth also survived in May 1536.

  20. Hi there,

    Well, for me is the mystery around her once she was put aside by Henry. Her sister took over, Mary made her life challenging her family and her woman status, very rare for her time. However, the moment Anne was beheaded she kind of disappeared from public life. I read Phillippa Gregory’s novel and she tells us Mary had a good happy life afterwards, however she died young. Quite common for 16th century but the more I think I believe we now very little to nothing of her. I have doubts her life was so happy as we all know. I think it was just happier than Anne, but for that you don’t need much. It is the same thing when it comes to her son Henry that Anne adopted. Once Anne was dead, we heard nothing of him in the royal context, only that he was around Elisabeth later on.
    I tried a lot to find other information, sadly there is no more, only versions of the above.
    For me Mary is a mystery and that is why she’s so interesting.

  21. I think for me the fascination is that she stands out so completely from other women of her time for being so different.

    She must of been extremely beautiful as she did not just catch the eye of Henry but also (if rumour were to be believed) Francis 1. She surrounded herself with powerful men and yet despite this she seems to have managed to (unlike her family) survived relatively unscathed.

    I’ve wondered if Mary’s second marriage was for love or not. She didn’t have a great reputation and yet her sister was the queen so she was probably able to catch herself a man without much trouble.

    So overall it seems she very much did what she wanted when she wanted, she doesn’t seem to have been constrained by society and that she was the smartest of her family to know to get the h*** out of there before her head rolled alongside her siblings.

  22. When I was growing up Mary Boleyn was treated as a minor footnote in history and portrayed as a foolish sister but that was in a time when Henry VIII was seen as this wonderful ruler who wanted a legitimate son. As I matured and read more about the Tudors I wondered about Mary and how she escaped most of the turmoil. Since the advent of the internet people have access to incredible amounts of information (as long as you’re careful checking sources) and so you can find out more about people in history that you are curious about. I really enjoyed reading ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ as it was a believable story line since so little is known about Mary. If it has to do with the Tudor dynasty I’m interested in reading about it. So my interest in Mary has been there for a long time.

  23. I think Mary Boleyn symbolises 20th/21st Century mentality. We care less about actual achievement, capability and intellect than we do about fame and celebrity. Just look at the X Factor. Mary has become a celebrity due to her position in 20th/21st century fiction. That has more impact than the facts about her. It doesn’t matter that she did nothing of note, because many famous people today have done nothing of note. All you need is to capture the public imagination, which is what the fictional Mary has done. Everything else is wallpaper

  24. I think that it is through her being true to herself that she is fascinating. That letter is inspiring and beautifully written. I believe the modern reader can relate to it. Also, she had the last laugh. I believe the Queen (through her mother) and Prince William and Harry (through their mother) are direct descendants of Mary Tudor.

  25. I believe it’s the mystery surrounding her. We can gather from the scant contemporary sources available that Mary spent time in France, likely had an affair with the King of England, married and bore 4 children, and as a widow married again – likely for love – outraging her sister Anne. That’s about it folks.

  26. At first I was never in favour with darling Anne–I was always Mary this and Mary that. Mary, Mary, Mary…the other Boleyn girl…but then I realized all along why I had favoured her higher than Anne… for it is the fictional Mary Boleyn I have created in my mind that I have grown to love. all along it’s Scarlett Johansson’s face I see whenever the name Mary Boleyn is brought up. I think this is the by product of Philippa Gregory’s portrayal of Mary. I mean, who wouldn’t fall in love with P. Gregory, and Justin Chadwick’s Mary Boleyn?

  27. The “something” about Mary Boleyn for me is mainly that she is the younger sister of Anne Boleyn. While I have found her life to be interesting to read about, I find that when Mary is the focus of any given vehicle of information, what I am always searching for is more about Anne. Even in reading “The Other Boleyn Girl,” and in watching the movie, I still gravitate to Anne, because Mary Boleyn is very secondary IMO. As someone mentions above, they see the face of Scarlett Johanssen in their mind’s eye when they think of Mary. But when I think of Anne, the face I see AFTER her famous portrait is the young face of Genevieve Bujold, who played Anne Boleyn in the 1969 movie “Anne of the Thousand Days.” It was that movie, and this brilliant portrayal of Anne by Genevieve, that started me on my lifelong interest in this fascinating historical figure, and in the Boleyns, the Tudors, and the time period surrounding them. The movie in question is still my favorite film of all time. I do not think I have ever seen a finer performance given by an actress. Basically, Anne Boleyn is such an intriguing historical figure that for me, she is the central focus of all that transpired around her.

    1. I love that film to and Genevieve is my favourite Anne, she was so fiery everything Anne was, I wish also we knew more about Elizabeth Boleyn, she’s even more shadowy than Mary, we have Mary’s letter to Cromwell and we knew who she married and she was in France and of course the alleged portraits of her, so we have something to go on, but their mother is just a name in history books and we have no records of her conversations with her family, or other people of the court, there are no portraits of her and we know nothing of her personality or what she thought of her daughters involvement with the King, there is a portrait of Thomas Boleyn which was said to be of him but was later found to be another member of the family, and we have the face on his tomb which looks remarkably like Anne with the long thin face, but with Elizabeth we have nothing, there is just one source which describes her as being pretty and a bit of gossip saying she was mistress briefly to a very young Henry V111, when she was for a time lady’s maid with Jane Seymours mother Margery Wentworth who was noted for being a beauty, unlike her rather plain daughter, both Elizabeth and Mary are shadowy figures it is only Anne and her father who made such an impact on history, but that only makes them more fascinating as we just don’t know enough about them.

  28. I don’t if it is Mary Boleyn (or Frances Brandon, or another, this one unknown) , but the girl painted above is quite beautiful.
    When we consider Mary’s personality, still, we have to see that if she gave K H something of a crush, she was soon forgotten (K H had probably got the only thing he expected with her).
    The same happened after her death – her second husband re-married very soon after being widowed.
    This “love-match” didn’t last if we consider deep feelings it needs to be named so and, again, Mary was ageing (at thirty-five you were considered an old woman) – and if she kept iher relation secret first, it was not the lust to make the world know about her sweetheart – modern attitude, nothing to do with “normal behaviour” then -, that made her let people know, but the plain fact she was pregnant by a younger lover/husband .
    If we don’t know anything of her first husband’s feelings for her, we see that she never left much impression in her royal lover’s, nor in William Stafford’s mind.
    Always a hsitorical shadow indeed …

  29. Well, Mary would be my 11th Great Grandmother. That’s interesting I think.
    For me with all I have read it’s said she was a beautiful women but may not have been very smart. I think there wrong, had a hard time seeing past her looks and in the end she found love. Very Smart indeed.

  30. For me it’s the whole Tudor era. I want to know about them all. They all left such a huge mark on history that its hard not to want to know everything there is to know. I liked the movie The Other Boley Girl and I liked the tv show The White Queen bc, but i prefer real historical information. I understand that the shows are based on some facts with a story line added. As for Mary though, I feel like she was a strong woman that persevered in an era where woman were not much more then decoration. I would love to time travel and walk amongst them just for a short time 🙂

  31. There is something about Mary is the title of a modern day comedy film about a young lady who has many admirers. What is fascinating about Mary Boleyn is the fact that we don’t really know too much about her or her relationship with Henry Viii or if she really was the mistress of King Francis I of France. Most of what we know comes from “reports” by this high official or that ambassador or some third party or other, not from first hand witnesses or hard facts. Mary Boleyn unlike her younger sibling, Anne was a black canvass. She is really a mystery. It has been deduced by studying internal evidence that Mary was the oldest, based on her being married first and later inheritance rights of her children. We know she accompanied the sister of King Henry, Princess Mary to France in 1514 and remained there for a few years before being called home to marry a royal favourite, William Carey, the King’s distant cousin in 1520 and we know they had two children. We also know that Catherine and Henry Carey are the continued subject of speculation about their real father, because Henry Viii had a relationship with Mary of unknown duration. However, we don’t know when she slept with King Henry or how long they were involved and if Henry really did father either of her children. We only know about their relationship at all because Henry asked the Pope for permission to marry Anne because he had slept with another woman she was closely related to. We have no further information. We know that Mary was widowed in 1528 and that Anne provided for the education of her son. We also know that Thomas Boleyn was persuaded to provide for Mary until her second married. We know that Mary turned up at Court, heavily pregnant in 1534 and was married without permission to a man she loved, William Stafford. She spent her days living quietly with him and her children, dying in 1543,_six months after her inheritance was granted. That’s all we know and it’s a desire to fill in the blanks, to make Mary the kind sister, the sister who married for love, the romantic sister or the sister who slept with Kings which has attracted her to people. We want to know her and so we write her story ourselves and add the Mary of myth and legend and then we are happy we have found the real Mary Boleyn. Unfortunately, with the knowledge we have, we are barely touched below the surface.

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