Key Facts & Summary
- Mary Boleyn was the sister of Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. She also had two brothers, George Boleyn and Thomas Henry, yet Henry died in his childhood.
- She was borne between 1499 and 1505. Her parents were Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Her maternal uncle was Thomas Howard the third Duke of Norfolk and her paternal great-great-grandfather was Thomas Butler 7th Earl of Ormond.
- On the 4th of February 1520, she married William Carey, a member of the Kings Privy chamber. The king also attended the service.
- It is speculated that this is where the king may have first set his eyes on her, becoming his mistress later on.
- There are no surviving portraits of either Boleyn sisters. Their images are often “shared.”
- Mary’s banishment from court in 1534 may have actually saved her life or otherwise saved her from further humiliation.
- Her second marriage to William Stafford, a man of modest income, is considered one of love and not of profit, as opposed to her sister’s marriage to the king. Certain elements such as this are used in fiction to symbolize Mary’s antithesis to Anne.
- Though in fiction they are portrayed as black and white, in reality, Anne was the only Boleyn family member who almost constantly helped Mary.
- There is no confirmed place of burial or even place of death for Mary Boleyn.
- Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, was a descendant of Mary Boleyn. This means Prince Harry and Prince William are also descended from the famous mistress.
Mary Boleyn is a mysterious woman, much is known about her family in general, but when it comes to her, a lot of room is left for speculation, leaving many historians to attribute different theories or even characteristics about her in opposition to her sister.
What we do know about her is the fact that she was a mistress to Henry VIII, for an unknown period of time and that there are rumours saying that she was also a mistress of Henry’s rival, the king of France, Francis I. She was married two times: In 1520 to William Carey, who died after the sweating sickness crisis, and then secretly to William Stafford in 1534, a man who was considered beneath her station by the king and her sister.
This secret marriage led to her banishment from the royal court, an action conducted both by her sister and the king. Her sister is the most well-known Boleyn family member. She married Henry Tudor VIII, the king of England and pushed him against the Catholic Church, being thus branded as one of the most influential Queen Consorts ever.
Generally, in novels and in movies, her sister Anne Boleyn has been described as an ambitious woman who would do anything to become queen, while Mary Boleyn is portrayed as the antithesis to her. This, of course, is just a romanticized version of the historical figures with bits and pieces of truth thrown here and there. The reality is, we knew very little about Mary in comparison to her other family members.
Regarded as the first child born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, due to the fact that she was the first to get married, her birth is speculated to have been between 1499 and 1505.
She spent much of her childhood at Blickling Hall and then at Hever Castle in Kent. Historical fiction often portrays Mary as being more beautiful than her sister Anne, although there are no surviving portraits or written accounts to confirm how she or even her sister looked like.
Due to the lack of evidence, portraits of Anne and Mary share presumed images. An example is a miniature portrait done by Lucas Horenbout in 1525. It was believed to portray Anne Boleyn for years until one scholar used the age and dress of the model to suggest she was, in fact, Mary. Mary’s father Thomas was an important member of Henry VIII’s court, he was very ambitious, cunning, smart and used his skills and wits to provide a very good education for his children. He used this both to his benefit and his family, to gain footing in the court. Being a talented man, fluent in French, he quickly gained the title of ambassador and was sent on many missions in England’s name.
On the pathway to royalty
In her adolescence, she was chosen to be a maid of honour to Princess Mary Tudor, and she accompanied her to France in 1514. She attended the Princess when she married King Louis XII. Though Louis died, Mary stayed with the Dowager Queen, but between 1515 till 1520, very little is known about her whereabouts.
It is suggested that during her stay at the French court, Mary Boleyn became the mistress of Francis I, the new French king. This idea is derived from a letter written by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza in 1536, but it is full of inaccuracies, the letter was written twenty years after Mary had been in France. It is most likely that Rodolfo’s letter was a fabricated lie in order to discredit Mary and her sister Anne.
Though for five years her whereabouts remain a mystery, Mary returned to England and on February 4th 1520, she married Sir William Carey, a member of the king’s privy chamber. Many important figures attended the ceremony, most notably the king himself who gave the couple a present. It is possible that this is where the king first set his eyes on Mary. She became his mistress around 1522, or so many believe, it is still widely unknown.
Many consider the affair to have lasted three years, from 1522 to 1525. In this timeframe, Mary gave birth to a daughter named Catherine, in 1524 and to a boy in 1526 named Henry. Due to the conception dates that coincide with the affair, it is speculated that Henry VIII was the father of the children. Yet Henry never acknowledged the children as he did in other cases, leaving the matter a mystery. On June 22nd 1528, Mary’s husband William Carrey died of the Sweating Sickness. She was left a widow without any means of supporting herself. Her son became a ward for her sister Anne, who was at this time courted by Henry VIII.
Historians presume that Mary returned with her daughter to Hever Castle for a time. This was a difficult time for Mary as even her father turned his back on her. It is concluded that the reason for this is due to the fact that she was no longer the king’s mistress, and therefore lost all the means of advancement for her family.
It is known that Henry VIII stepped in and asked her father to support her. The king also granted Mary an annuity of £100 a year which was previously given to her late husband William Carey.
Her life between 1528 until 1534, once again becomes elusive, yet we know that in this period, her sister was given the title Marquis of Pembroke and then, in 1533, Anne married Henry VIII and became Queen Consort of England. During the New Year celebrations of 1532, Mary accompanied her sister and the king to France where they met Francis I. Record’s state that Mary was one of the ladies participating in a masquerade to entertain the French King in a banquet held on October 27th. Mary also appears in the records during her sister Anne’s coronation on June 1st 1533.
Fall from grace
In 1534, Mary Boleyn returned to court being both a remarried woman and above all, pregnant. This caused quite a scandal. Sometime in 1534, she married William Stafford, a soldier at the garrison of Calais in secrecy. Being the sister of the Queen, marrying someone like William Stafford, was considered beneath her station in life and to add further insult to her family, she did so without her sister or father’s permission.
The union with William Stafford, a man who had a low income, and was a second son thus reducing his chances of inheritance, was considered by many a love union, and a sign of Mary’s purity as opposed to that of her sister Anne. The family was outraged, and so they decided to banish her from the court, something that might actually have saved her life later on. She was also disowned by her family. Thus Mary’s financial circumstances became desperate.
She was reduced to begging the king’s adviser Thomas Cromwell to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf. Henry seemed indifferent to her plight. Mary’s father, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, even her brother, all ignored her. In the end, her sister Anne sent Mary a golden cup and some money but still refused to reinstate her position at the court. The fate of the child she was pregnant with is unknown, most likely she suffered a miscarriage. It is also unknown where she went after her banishment, yet it is logical to conclude that she went to her husband at Calais.
What is known is that in 1539, her husband William Stafford was chosen as one of the members assigned to welcome Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, to Calais.
On the 19th of May 1536, Mary’s sister Anne was executed. She was found guilty of trumped-up charges of incest, adultery and treason. Her brother George was also executed as he was found guilty of incest and treason two days previously. They were both beheaded on Tower Hill. On the same day of the execution, Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, most likely due to his previous affair with her sister Mary. Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was declared a bastard. Mary’s parents died in 1538 and 1539, it appears that she was never reunited with her parents.
Sometime in early 1540, Mary and her husband William returned to England where Mary received some of her father’s inheritance, including the Rochford Hall, where she spent the rest of her life.
[1.] Weir, Alison. (2011). Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. Ballantine Books.
[2.] Wilkinson, Josephine. (2010). Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favorite Mistress. Amberley.
[3.] Harper, Karen. (2006). The Last Boleyn: A Novel. Three Rivers Press.
[4.] Gregory, Philippa. (2003). The Other Boleyn Girl. Touchstone.
[5.] Adair, Anne. (2011). Mary Boleyn: Sister to Queen Anne Boleyn and Sister in Law to King Henry VIII. Webster’s Digital Services.
[6.]Claire, Ridgway. (2012). The fall of Anne Boleyn: A countdown. MadeGlobal Publishing
[7.] Ives, Eric William (2004). “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, p. 369 (note 75). Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.