Mary Boleyn

The birth dates of the three surviving Boleyn siblings are in question, as is the order of their birth. Mary is thought by many scholars to be the eldest because if Anne had been the oldest daughter, it should have been mentioned in the patents creating her Marquess of Pembroke. Mary was also married first, as was traditional for the elder sister. Lastly, Mary’s grandson claimed a title through descent from her, which would only be possible if she were the elder sister. If Anne had been elder, the title would have belonged to Queen Elizabeth, and she would have rejected his claim.

Mary was likely born around 1500 at Blickling Hall to Thomas Boleyn and his wife, Elizabeth Howard. Elizabeth had a child every year, but only three of them survived to adulthood. They moved with the family to Hever Castle sometime during Mary's childhood.

Legend has it Mary was thought to be the more traditionally beautiful of the two Boleyn sisters, but we don't have an authenticated portrait of her, or even a written description. There are several portraits which are said to be Mary, but each has issues which make the attribution questionable

Mary was sent to the French court in 1514 when Princess Mary Tudor (Mary Brandon) married the king of France, and she remained in France after the elderly king died and the princess returned home.

Though it's not certain, Mary may have been a short-term mistress of King Francis at some point during her five years in the French court. Some historians question it, speculating that Mary's reputation may have been slandered in order to cast shame on her sister, Anne. A letter from the Bishop of Faenza in 1536 is the only contemporary record of it.

"[T]hat woman" [Anne Boleyn] pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France "per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte." [A great whore, infamous above all]

However, there are some obvious problems with this letter. Mary had been banished from court in 1534 and was not with Anne during her final miscarriage. Chapuys claims to have spoken with people who examined the fetus and said it was a normal male of about four months gestation, so Anne's pregnancy was likely not feigned. The Bishop's veracity in repeating Francis's supposed remark must be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism.

Beyond that, all we have are later historians, starting with Nicholas Sander in Elizabeth's reign, whose Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism gave us the claim that Francis called Anne (not Mary, though his words were soon assigned to describe her) his "English Mare" or "royal mule."

Herbert repeats the claim as well, quoting William Rastal's version for good measure.

This author, though learned, yet more credulous than becomes a man of exact judgment, reports out of one William Rastal, a judge, (in his life of Sir Thomas More) that Mistress Anne Bolen was the king’s daughter, by the wife of Sir Thomas Bolen, while, sub specie minoris, he was employ’d by the king, ambassador in France ; and that this gentlewoman coming to the age of fifteen, was def-lour’d by some domesticks of her father’s, and then sent to France ; where also she behav’d herself so licentiously, that she was vulgarly call’d the hackney of England, till being adopted to that king’s familiarity, she was termed his mule.

Later authors repeated the slander, applying it to Mary, not Anne, and it appeared so many times in biographies and books about the period that it became accepted as fact.

If Mary was, indeed, the mistress of Francis, she may have felt she could not refuse the king without repercussions on her family. She may have been in the same situation her sister later faced when Henry was interested in her - as long as the king was pursuing her, no man would offer for her hand and risk offending him. So, she may have felt it best to give into the king's interest in hopes she might be made his official mistress, or he might find her a suitable husband afterward. Francis did neither.

Upon her return to the English court, Mary Boleyn became the mistress of Henry VIII. This can be stated with a reasonable amount of certainty because Henry asked the pope for a dispensation to marry a woman whose sister he had slept with when he was seeking to wed Anne Boleyn. Later, when he was asked if he had slept with both Mary Boleyn and her mother, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, Henry quickly replied, "Never with the mother."

He was also chastised by Reginald Pole for his hypocrisy in saying his marriage to Katharine was invalid because she had been intimate with his brother when Henry had been intimate with Anne's sister. So, it appears the affair was well-known at the time, and documented by contemporary sources.

We don't know when the affair began. It seems to have around 1519, after his affair with Bessie Blount ended. English kings didn't have "official mistresses" who had political power, and so chroniclers of the day tended to ignore the women who came and went in monarchs' lives.

This affair seems to have been very brief. Mary was married to William Carey in 1520. Carey was a well-connected young man. He was a cousin of Henry VIII and of Henry Percy, who may have been Anne Boleyn's first love.

 Debate continues as to whether this marriage marked the end of Mary's affair with the king.
She had two children during her marriage with Carey, Catherine and Henry. Some have claimed that one, if not both, of those children were fathered by king Henry, but it seems likely if they had been his issue, he would have seized upon this evidence of his virility, as he had done with his son by Bessie Blount. It seems more likely - to me at least - that Mary and the king's brief liaison ended when she wed Carey. But the rumors that Henry had fathered her children began very quickly.

A court case in 1535 contained the following statement:

"Moreover, Mr. Skydmore dyd show to me yongge Master Care, saying that he was our suffren Lord the Kynge's son by our suffren Lady the Qwyen's syster, whom the Qwyen's grace myght not suffer to be yn the Cowrte."

Mary was widowed in 1528. Her husband died during an epidemic of that mysterious illness, "the sweat." Anne became ill from it as well, but survived.

Carey's death left Mary in a precarious financial situation. Her father, Thomas Boleyn, seems to have initially refused to support her. Author M.L. Bruce claims Thomas and Elizabeth disliked Mary because of the bad reputation she had acquired and shame she brought on their family. Whatever the reason, it soon became enough of an issue that the king himself intervened to help sort it out. In one of his letters to Anne, Henry wrote about the situation:

As touching your sister’s matter, I have caused Walter Welze to write to my lord [Thomas Boleyn] my mind therein, whereby I trust that Eve shall not have power to deceive Adam; for surely, whatsoever is said, it cannot so stand with his honour but that he must needs take her, his natural daughter, now in her extreme necessity.

To ease the situation, Mary's son Henry became Anne Boleyn's ward, which meant Anne was responsible for his upkeep and seeing to his education as a gentleman. Anne put Henry into a monastic school, and arranged a pension for Mary of £100 per year.

The records are silent about Mary's life for the next few years. We don't know where she lived, but some believe she returned to stay at Hever Castle. Her family would have been at court with Anne, her mother as chaperone and her father trying to champion the king's annulment from Katharine of Aragon. The only mention of her is in 1530, when Anne was given £20 to buy a jewel from Mary. Had it been a gift from Henry at some point, or as one scholar theorized, had Anne pawned it to her? The latter seems odd, since Anne had greater access to funds than Mary did.

In 1532, Mary traveled with Anne on her trip to France with the king to be presented as his consort, so she may have been back at court already as one of Anne's attendants. At the masquerade where Anne not-so-subtly met with Francis, Mary was given the position of honor, walking directly behind the new queen-to-be. If Mary really was Francis's mistress at one point, it's tempting to speculate about what their reunion meeting must have been like.

Does Mary's position of honor indicate the sisters were also emotionally close? Many have portrayed Mary and Anne as being jealous of one another, but we have no evidence one way or the other. Mary had another position of honor when her sister was coronated the following year, and she remained at court as a lady in waiting to the new queen.

In 1534, Mary secretly wed William Stafford. Stafford wasn't a suitable match for her. Mary was in her mid-thirties at this time, and Stafford was about twelve years younger than she. He was a soldier, the second son of a Essex landowner, and a commoner to boot. Stafford was stationed at Calais in 1533, and perhaps that's where his romance with Mary Boleyn began.

Mary managed to keep the marriage a secret until she became pregnant. When the Boleyns found out, they were horrified and furious. Mary was sister of the queen; her marriage was a matter of state interest. For her to arrange her own match for personal preference instead of family benefit was both disobedient to the social order and disrespectful of her sister's position. It made the family look ill-behaved.

Mary and Stafford were banished from court. We don't know where she lived during this time. What is known is that Mary's financial situation became so dire, she was reduced to begging the queen for help.

Unable to write directly to Anne, Mary wrote an eloquent letter to Cromwell about the situation. She asked him to speak to Henry or Anne on her behalf, 

Master secretary, after my poor recommendations, which are little 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 the 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 or 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, 1 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 little, by the 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 would please his grace of his goodness, to speak to the queen's grace for us; for as 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 there is the more need to help. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I assure you, master secretary, for my little time, I have tried so much honesty to be in him, that I would rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened; 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, being we are so well-together, and do intend to live so honest a life, though it be but poor, shew part of your goodness to us, as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you ye have the name to help all them that have 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 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 [George Boleyn] 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 being 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 God who sendeth you health and heart's ease.
Scribbled with her ill hand, who is your poor humble suitor always to command.

If Cromwell replied to this letter, it is not recorded. The records are also silent as to whether Mary's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, or her brother George relented in their anger toward her, but Anne is said to have sent Mary a gold cup and some much-needed funds, though she did not give Mary permission to return to court. She couldn't, as much as she may have wanted to. Mary had defied the social order and that was something Anne could not publicly forgive without causing severe damage to her own reputation.

Sadly, Mary seemed to have either lost the child she was carrying, or it died shortly after birth. Various sources record that she had a child named Anne or Edward, but there is no solid record of Mary having any issue with William Stafford. Her descendants today originate from her children with William Carey.

It’s thought Mary and Anne never saw one another again after Mary was sent from court. It wasn't long afterward that Mary's brother and sister went to the scaffold. There is no record of Mary attempting to contact George or Anne in prison. That's not certain evidence she didn't, of course. Perhaps she knew there was nothing she could do.

There is no record she ever made contact with Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, after her execution. One movie has Mary Boleyn striding away with baby Elizabeth under her arm to care for her after her mother's death, but that's entirely fictional.  Elizabeth's accounts note no gifts from Mary or visits. Elizabeth's household was carefully monitored by the king and any contact with Mary would have been noted.

In March 1539, when her father died, Mary inherited the Boleyn estate, which allowed her to fund her children Henry and Catherine's careers at court. Her daughter Catherine served in the households of Anna von Kleefes and Elizabeth I, and made a fine marriage to Francis Knollys. In 1542, Mary inherited the property of her executed sister-in-law, Jane Parker. But legal wrangling over the property lasted until 1543, and she and her husband acquired Rochford Hall only a few days before Mary died.

Most of Mary's property was inherited by her son, Henry, but she did leave some manors to William Stafford. The location of her grave is unknown. She may have been buried at St. Andrews at Rochford, but the church records do not go back that far and no trace survives of her tomb. It's possible the tomb may have been destroyed in the Reformation.

1 comment:

  1. Many Holbein paintings have women with ermine, Lady Vaux, for one. The portrait of Anne of Cleves with the blue background looks very much like the portrait often said to be Catherine Howard (both by Holbein). The unidentified woman wears the Queen consort necklace, but looks more like Cleves in Tudor style dress, heavy-lidded eyes, same lips and nose...