Mary Boleyn

Mary Boleyn

Mary Boleyn
Spouse(s) Sir William Carey, Aldenham
Sir William Stafford, of Chebsey
Catherine Knollys, Lady Knollys
Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon
Anne Stafford
Edward Stafford
Noble family Boleyn
Father Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire
Mother Lady Elizabeth Howard
Born c. 1499/1500
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
Died 19 July 1543 (aged 43-44)

Mary Boleyn (c. 1499/1500 – 19 July 1543), was the sister of English queen consort Anne Boleyn and a member of the Boleyn family, which enjoyed considerable influence during the reign of King Henry VIII of England. Some historians claim she was Anne's younger sister, but her children believed Mary was the elder sister, as do most historians today.

Mary was one of the mistresses of Henry VIII. It has been alleged that she bore two of the King's children, though Henry did not acknowledge either of them as he did with Henry Fitzroy, his son by Bessie Blount. Mary was also rumoured to have been a mistress of Henry VIII's rival, King Francis I of France.[1] She was also the maternal aunt of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Mary Boleyn married twice: first to Sir William Carey, whom she wed in 1520, and second to Sir William Stafford, a soldier. This latter marriage to a man so far beneath her station angered King Henry and her sister, Queen Anne, and resulted in Mary's banishment from the royal court in 1534. She spent the remainder of her life in obscurity.


Early life

Mary was probably born at the family seat in Blickling Hall, Norfolk and grew up at Hever Castle, Kent.[2] She was the daughter of a wealthy diplomat and courtier, Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk.

There is no concrete evidence of her exact date of birth, but it was sometime between 1499 and 1508. Most historians suggest that she was also the eldest of the three Boleyn children who survived infancy.[3] The evidence suggests that the surviving Boleyns believed Mary to have been the eldest child; in 1597, her grandson, Lord Hunsdon, claimed the title of “Earl of Ormond” on the grounds that he was the Boleyns’ legitimate heir. According to the strict rules of aristocratic inheritance, if Anne had been the elder sister, the title would have belonged to her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, since a title descended through the eldest female line in the absence of a male line. However, Queen Elizabeth was said to have offered Henry, Mary's son, the title as he was dying, but he declined it. If Mary was the eldest Boleyn, Henry would have inherited the title upon his grandfather's death without the need to claim it.[4] There is more evidence to suggest that she was older than Anne.[5] Furthermore, she was married off first on 4 February 1520, and by tradition an elder daughter would be married before her younger sister. In 1532, when Anne was made marquess of Pembroke, she was referred to as "one of the daughters of Thomas Boleyn." Were she the eldest, that would likely have been mentioned. Either way, most historians now accept Mary as the eldest child, placing her birth some time in 1499.[6]

Mary was brought up along with her brother George and her sister Anne by a French governess at Hever Castle in Kent. She was given a conventional good education deemed essential for young ladies of her rank and status at the time. These were the essentials in arithmetic, her family genealogy, grammar, history, reading, spelling, and writing. Mary learned feminine accomplishments such as dancing, embroidery, good manners, household management, music, needlework, and singing, and games such as cards and chess. She was also taught archery, falconry, horseback riding, and hunting.[citation needed]

It was once believed[by whom?] that it was Mary who began her education abroad and spent time as a companion to Archduchess Margaret of Austria; but it is now clear that it was her sister, Anne, who did so.[citation needed] Mary was kept in England for most of her childhood. She was sent abroad in 1514 around the age of fifteen when her father secured her a place as maid-of-honour to the King’s sister, Princess Mary, who was going to Paris to marry King Louis XII of France. After a few weeks, many of the Queen's English maids were sent away but Mary Boleyn was allowed to stay, probably because her father was the new English ambassador to France. Even when Queen Mary left France after she was widowed on 1 January 1515, Mary Boleyn remained, joining the court of Louis's successor, Francois I and his queen consort Claude.[citation needed]

Royal affair in France

Mary was joined in Paris by her father, Sir Thomas, and also her sister, Anne, who had been studying in the Netherlands for the last year. Mary supposedly embarked on several affairs, including one with King Francis himself.[7] Although some historians believe that the reports of her sexual affairs are exaggerated, the French king referred to her as "The English Mare" and as "una grandissima ribalda, infame sopra tutte" ("a great slag, infamous above all").[7][8][9]

She returned to England in 1519, where she was appointed a maid-of-honour to Catherine of Aragon, the queen consort of Henry VIII.[10]

Royal mistress

Soon after her return, Mary was married to William Carey, a wealthy and influential courtier, on 4 February 1520, and Henry VIII was a guest at the couple's wedding.[citation needed] At some point, Henry and Mary began an affair, and although the timing is unclear, some say it began in 1521.[11] The affair was never publicised, and Mary never enjoyed the fame, wealth and power that acknowledged mistresses in France and other countries sometimes had.[12] The affair is believed to have ended prior to the birth of Mary's second child, Henry Carey, in March 1526, and thought to have lasted for five years.[11][13] Her first child, Catherine, was born in 1524.

During the affair or sometime after, it was rumoured that one or both of Mary's children were fathered by the king.[14][15] One witness noted that Mary's son, Henry Carey, bore a resemblance to Henry VIII.[11] John Hale, Vicar of Isleworth, some ten years after the child was born, remarked that he had met a 'young Master Carey' who was the king's purported bastard child.[11] No other contemporary evidence exists to support the argument that Henry was the king’s biological son.

Henry VIII's wife, Catherine of Aragon, had been briefly married to Henry's elder brother Arthur, but Arthur had died just a few months into the marriage, when he was a little over fifteen years old. Henry later used that as the justification for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine, on the grounds that her marriage to Arthur (assuming it was consummated) created an affinity between Henry and Catherine. When Mary became Henry's mistress, a similar affinity was created between Henry and Anne, according to some interpretations of church law. In 1527, during his initial attempts to obtain a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine, Henry also requested a dispensation to marry his mistress' sister.[16]

Sister’s rise to power

Mary's sister, Anne, returned to England in January 1522; she soon joined the royal court as one of Queen Catherine's Maids-of-Honour. Anne achieved considerable popularity at court, although the sisters are not thought to have been particularly close and they moved in different social circles.

Although Mary was alleged to have been more attractive than her sister, Anne seems to have been more ambitious and intelligent. When the king took an interest in Anne, she refused to become his mistress, being shrewd enough to wait and not give in to his sexual advances until it was the most advantageous.[17] By the middle of 1527, Henry was determined to marry her. This gave him further incentive to seek the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. A year later, when Mary's husband died during an outbreak of sweating sickness, Henry granted Anne Boleyn the wardship of her nephew, Henry Carey. Mary's husband had left her with considerable debts, and Anne arranged for Henry to be educated at a respectable Cistercian monastery. Anne interceded to secure Mary an annual pension of £100.[18]

Second marriage

In 1532, when Anne accompanied Henry to Calais on a state visit to France, Mary was one of her companions. Anne was crowned queen on 1 June 1533 and gave birth to her daughter (later to become Queen Elizabeth I) on 7 September. In 1534, Mary secretly married soldier William Stafford. Because Stafford was a commoner with a small income, some believe their union to have been a love match.[citation needed] When the marriage was discovered, Anne was furious, and the Boleyn family disowned Mary, probably for marrying without the king's permission and marrying beneath her station. The couple was banished from the royal court.

Mary's financial circumstances became so desperate that she was reduced to begging the King’s adviser Thomas Cromwell to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf. She admitted that she might have chosen 'a greater man of birth and a higher', but never one that should have loved her so well, nor a more honest man. And she went on, 'I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom. And I believe verily ... he would not forsake me to be a king.' Henry, however, seems to have been indifferent to her plight; so, Mary asked Cromwell to speak to her father, her uncle, and her brother, but to no avail. It was Anne who relented, sending Mary a magnificent golden cup and some money, but still refusing to receive her at court. This partial reconciliation was the closest the two sisters came to, since it is not thought that they met after Mary's court exile.

Mary's life between 1534 and her sister's execution on 19 May 1536 is difficult to trace. There is no record of her visiting her parents, nor did she visit her sister Anne or her brother George when the latter was imprisoned in the Tower of London. There is also no evidence that she sent correspondence. Like their uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke to Norfolk, she may have thought it wise to avoid association with her now-disgraced relatives.

Mary and her husband remained social outcasts, living in retirement at Rochford Hall in Essex, which was owned by the Boleyns. After Anne’s execution, their mother retired from the royal court, dying in seclusion just two years later. Her father, Thomas, died the following year. After the deaths of her parents, Mary inherited some property in Essex. She seems to have lived out the rest of her days in obscurity and relative comfort with her second husband. She died in her early forties, on 19 July 1543.


Her marriage to Sir William Carey (1500 – 22 June 1528) resulted in the birth of two children (however, there were rumours that King Henry VIII was the biological father):

Mary's marriage to Sir William Stafford (d. 5 May 1556) resulted in the birth of two children:

  • Anne Stafford (?–?), probably named in honour of Mary's sister, Queen Anne Boleyn.
  • Edward Stafford (1535–1545).

Depictions in fiction

Mary was depicted in the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days, and was played by Valerie Gearon.

A fictionalised form of her character also features prominently in the novels The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell, I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles, The Rose of Hever by Maureen Peters, The Lady in the Tower by Jean Plaidy, Mistress Anne by Norah Lofts, The Concubine by Norah Lofts, Anne Boleyn by Evelyn Anthony, Dear Heart, How Like You This? by Wendy J. Dunn, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes, and Young Royals: Doomed Queen Anne by Carolyn Meyer.

Mary has been the central character in three novels based on her life: Court Cadenza (later published under the title The Tudor Sisters) by British author Aileen Armitage, Karen Harper's The Last Boleyn, and The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Gregory later nominated Mary as her personal heroine in an interview to the BBC History Magazine. Her novel was a bestseller and spawned five other books in the same series. However, it was controversial, especially with historians who found the work inaccurate in regards to historical events and individual characterizations.

The Other Boleyn Girl was made into a BBC television drama in January 2003, starring Natascha McElhone as Mary and Jodhi May as Anne. A Hollywood version of the film was released in February 2008, with Scarlett Johansson as Mary and Natalie Portman as Anne.


Mary is also the subject of three non-fiction books, The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir, The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart and Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Mistress by Josephine Wilkinson.[21]


  • Mistress Mary Boleyn (1499–1520)
  • Lady Carey (1520–1529)
  • Lady Carey; Lady Mary Carey (1529–1532)
  • Lady Mary Stafford (1532–1543)

Mary Boleyn became Lady Carey upon her marriage to Sir William Carey in 1520. She then became Lady Mary Carey when her father was granted the titles of Earl of Ormond and Earl of Wiltshire.



  1. ^ Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, X, no.450.
  2. ^ Letters of Matthew Parker, p.15.
  3. ^ Ives, p. 17; Fraser, p. 119; Denny, p. 27. All three scholars argue that Mary was the eldest of the three Boleyn children.
  4. ^ Hart, Kelly (June 1, 2009). The Mistresses of Henry VIII (First ed.). The History Press. ISBN 0752448358. 
  5. ^ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy by Eric Ives
  6. ^ Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, p.119, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1992
  7. ^ a b Weir, Alison (2002). "Henry VIII: The King and His Court", p. 216. New York: Ballantine Books
  8. ^ Charles Carlton, Royal Mistresses (1990)
  9. ^ Denny, p. 38
  10. ^ Bruce, p. 13
  11. ^ a b c d Weir, Alison (2002). "Henry VIII: The King and His Court", p. 216-217. New York: Ballantine Books
  12. ^ Alison Weir, pp. 133 – 134
  13. ^ See Letters & Papers viii.567 and Ives, pp. 16 - 17.
  14. ^ Ives, Eric William (2004). "The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn", p. 369 (note 75). Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
  15. ^ Weir, Alison (1991). "The Six Wives of Henry VIII", p. 133-134. New York: Grove Weidenfeld
  16. ^ Kelly, Henry Angsar: The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII pp42 ff
  17. ^ Weir, p. 160
  18. ^ Karen Lindsey, p. 73
  19. ^ a b Hart pp.60-63
  20. ^ Sally Varlow, "Knollys, Katherine, Lady Knollys (c.1523–1569)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Oct 2006; online edn, Jan 2009 , accessed 11 April 2010
  21. ^ ISBN 1848680899
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h Lundy, Darryl. "thePeerage". Retrieved 26 October 2007 
  23. ^ a b c d e f Lundy, Darryl. "thePeerage". Retrieved 26 October 2007 
  24. ^ Lady Elizabeth Howard, Anne Boleyn's mother, was the sister of Lord Edmund Howard, father of Catherine Howard (fifth wife of King Henry VIII), making Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard first cousins.
  25. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "thePeerage". Retrieved 26 October 2007 
  26. ^ a b c Lundy, Darryl. "thePeerage". Retrieved 26 October 2007 
  27. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "thePeerage". Retrieved 26 October 2007 
  28. ^ Elizabeth Tilney is the paternal grandmother of Catherine Howard.
  29. ^ a b c d e f Lundy, Darryl. "thePeerage". Retrieved 26 October 2007 


  • Bruce, Marie-Louise: Anne Boleyn (1972)
  • Denny, Joanna: Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen (2004)
  • Fraser, Antonia: The Wives of Henry VIII (1992)
  • Hart, Kelly: The Mistresses of Henry VIII The History Press (2009)
  • Ives, Eric: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004)
  • Lindsey, Karen: Divorced Beheaded Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (1995)
  • Lofts, Norah: Anne Boleyn (1979)
  • Weir, Alison: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991)

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