Did Henry VIII Father Mary Boleyn's Children?

On March 4, 1526 Henry Carey was born. He was the second child of Mary Boleyn, who'd had a daughter, Catherine, in 1524. For five hundred years, rumors have abounded that one or both of these children were fathered by Henry VIII.

Mary likely became the mistress of King Henry around 1519, after his affair with Bessie Blount ended. She married William Carey in February, 1520 and it's assumed by some that her marriage marked the end of her affair with Henry. Mary had her first child four years later, and another child two years after that.

The alternative theory has Mary and Carey in a long-term, sexless marriage of convenience to cover Henry's illicit relationship with her. She doesn't conceive until five years into her relationship with the king, and then gives him a son two years later. In this scenario, the end of Henry's relationship with Mary coincides with the first recorded declaration of the king's interest her sister, Anne Boleyn.

Is there any evidence Henry's involvement with Mary continued after 1520 and her marriage to William Carey?

The chief evidence seems to rest on a series of grants that Henry made to William Carey between 1522 and 1526, which some argue were akin to payments for the "use" of Carey's wife.

Genealogy Magazine notes:
Mary Boleyn’s affair with the King probably commenced at about the same time: 1522. "The spate of royal grants to her [Mary Boleyn’s] husband [William Carey] in 1522, 1523, 1524 and 1525 is also suggestive." "[T]he first manors and estates, as opposed to minor keeperships and stewardships, that Mary’s husband possessed were granted to him by the crown in June 1524 and February 1526." It should be especially noted that the February 1526 grant occurred on the 20th, just twelve days before the recorded birth of Henry Carey on 4 March 1525/6. Significantly, this royal grant included the borough of Buckingham which was granted to William Carey "in tail male." It is impossible not to be struck by the coincidence of this entailment to a male "heir," just twelve days before the date of record on which William Carey’s wife gave birth to a male child said to be the king’s son.

I find no significance in the grant being "in tail male." That was a normal part of the wording of grants of the era. Secondly, there's no way Henry could have known the upcoming baby was a boy, so there's no "coincidence." Why wouldn't the king have for the birth itself if it was a celebration of his child, or waited to see if the baby turned out to be a boy if the intent was to give a grant to his son? Considering the high infant mortality of the day, and the equally high possibility the child could have been a girl or a stillbirth, it's likely the grant had nothing to do with Mary's current pregnancy.

If Henry wanted to hide his relationship with Mary, why "pay" her husband openly in the form of grants, which were recorded for posterity? Why wouldn't Henry just secretly slide some cash across the table to Carey?

There is no reason to assume that the grants were on Mary Boleyn's behalf. William Carey was Henry's second cousin, and a highly favored member of his court. He received grants in roughly the same pattern and amount as others of Henry's favorites - there was nothing unusual about this stream of gifts from the king's hands, so it did not have to be in "payment" of anything.

Another point I've seen mentioned is the dispensation Henry requested to marry Anne Boleyn. He asked in it to be freed of any impediments arising from both illicit intercourse and consanguinity, which people say wouldn't have been necessary without children from the relationship. This is incorrect. Firstly, Henry was trying to be as vague as possible in the dispensation because he didn't want to openly name Anne as the woman he was seeking to marry, and so he phrased the wording as widely as possible to cover a lot of different scenarios. Secondly, Anne and Henry were related, and so the dispensation was needed to absolve them of the blood relation of their common descent. Henry also needed a dispensation to clear himself of the illicit intercourse with her sister, whether or not there had been any children from the union.

The other "evidence" for the Carey children being Henry's comes from snippets of recorded gossip. An ambassador mentioned a promising "natural son" of Henry's in 1531, who was the son of a widow of one of his peers. But this could easily refer to Henry FitzRoy, since Bessie Blount had been widowed the previous year.

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."

However, Mary had been welcome at Anne's court and given positions of honor until she secretly re-married in 1534 and was banished because of her violation of the social order. So Anne's supposed banishment of Mary out of being unable to bear her jealousy does not seem to ring true. Secondly, Hale was confessing to slanderous talk about the king for which he was in a lot of trouble. He says he was ill and doesn't remember half of what he said.

I had several falls from my horse, from one of which I was troubled in my wits, as also by age and lack of memory.

It shows only that there was current gossip about the king's relationship with the queen's sister, nothing more. The same standard could be used to "prove" that Henry had an affair with Elizabeth Howard.
Don't see it myself, personally

The last bit of evidence centers on a supposed resemblance Henry Carey had to the king. But this, too, is easily explicable. Henry and William Carey were both descendants of the Beauforts. (William Carey's grandmother was the niece of Margaret Beaufort's father.) The Carey children had red hair, but red hair ran in the Howard family (Elizabeth Howard was Mary and Anne Boleyn's mother.) Katheryn Howard had red hair, Anne Boleyn herself may have been a redhead, and we don't know what color Mary Boleyn's hair was.

In my opinion, there isn't any conclusive evidence that Mary Boleyn's children were Henry's, and the evidence they weren't is actually stronger.

Finding Mary a husband seems to have marked the end of Henry's involvement with her, as it did with Bessie Blount. There's no evidence his involvement with either woman extended after her marriage. The king was the one who decided when these women would marry - their families would not risk angering him by arranging a marriage to another man while the king was still interested in their daughter. There was no reason for the king to marry off either woman before he was "done" with her, either. He had no embarrassment in claiming Bessie Blount's bastard as his own, or he would have hurriedly tried to marry her to someone else as soon as he found out she was pregnant. Instead, he waited until after the child had been born and their affair was over.

When Mary Boleyn was widowed in 1528, the king showed little or no interest in the fate of her children until Anne Boleyn interceded and urged the king to get her father to support Mary. Author M.L. Bruce believes the Boleyn family disliked Mary because of her immoral behavior with Henry (and possibly King Francis before him.) Henry wrote to Anne, who was still recovering from the same epidemic of the Sweat that had killed her brother-in-law, and assured her that he had contacted Thomas Boleyn.

One of his statements in the letter is especially poignant, given the situation:

... 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.

His own "natural daughter" and "natural son" would have been in extremity, too, because of Mary's poverty if they were Henry's children. Henry was later guilty of gross, extreme hypocrisies, but it's hard to imagine that Anne wouldn't have pointed out his own honor compelled him to support the children if they were his.

The Boleyn family eventually settled a pension on Mary of £100 per year, and Mary's son, Henry Carey, became Anne's ward. She would see to his education and upkeep as a man of gentle blood, reducing Mary's financial burdens. Some have painted this in the light of Anne acquiring an "heir" for Henry if she wasn't able to provide him with her own son, but this is illogical. Wardship was simply a financial guardianship. Plenty of people actually married their wards, such as Charles Brandon marrying Catherine Willoughby, so making the boy her ward did not make him Anne's son any more than Catherine Willoughby was Brandon's daughter. Secondly, Henry Carey would still be an unacknowledged bastard, worse off than Henry FitzRoy, who at least was acknowledged by his father - it didn't matter that Anne was the sister of his mother, or that he was her ward.

One wonders what Mary Boleyn would have thought if the king wouldn't even publicly acknowledge her children, while giving his son with Bessie Blount two dukedoms in 1525, then leaving her in poverty when her husband died three years later. This disparity in the treatment of his supposed children is problematic when there's no real reason for it. I've seen explanations that he didn't really "need" a second illegitimate son, but this was at a time in his life when Henry had begun proceedings to rid himself of his wife based on the fact he couldn't have children with her.

Henry VIII was sensitive about the perception of his fertility. As soon as Bessie Blount gave him a son, Henry publicly claimed the boy and ennobled him - something no king had done for hundreds of years. Why would he not have claimed Mary Boleyn's children, as well, even if he didn't go to the extra step of ennobling Henry Carey? It seems odd that he would not even have mentioned fathering a son with Mary Boleyn when he was busy pointing out his marriage with his queen was "cursed" by God with infertility but he could easily father male children with other women.

Another bit of evidence lies in Reginald Pole's chiding letter to Henry about the hypocrisy of annulling his marriage to Katharine of Aragon in order to marry Anne when his relationship with Mary created the exact same kind of incestual relationship.

 [Anne] had learned, I think, if from nothing else, at least from the example of her own sister, how soon you got tired of your mistresses; and she resolved to surpass her sister in retaining you as her lover . . . 

Pole's letter says nothing about Henry having children with Mary, and he mentions Henry growing quickly tired of his mistress. A relationship of six years (the high end of the estimate of how long Henry's affair with Mary lasted, giving him time to father both children) doesn't really fit with Pole's description of Henry quickly tiring of a lover.

Henry never attempted to find fine marriages for Mary Boleyn's children, which one would think would be the least he could do if they were his. The two Carey children married well, but the king didn't provide Catherine with a fine dowry, or intercede to find Henry Carey a better bride than a simple country gentlewoman.

In short, Henry never behaved as an interested father toward these children, taking interest in their education or in seeing them set up with good marriages. They were on their own, as far as he was concerned. Mary Boleyn was able to fund their careers at court once she received her inheritance from the Boleyn family, and they did well, but it doesn't seem the king did them any special favors. It wasn't until the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who favored her Boleyn relatives, that Henry Carey was ennobled, being created a baron and Catherine was given important positions at court.

Henry was hypocritical at points and a sociopathic jerk, but he was proud of the children he had and saw them as extensions of himself. I doubt he would have utterly abandoned his children with Mary Boleyn.


  1. If you look at the older image of Henry Carey, you can see a distinct resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I, same profile, same distinct nose, which is not seen in the Howard family bloodline nor in Anne Boleyn. It is, however, seen in portraits of Henry VIII that show his profile to some degree. I think he acknowledged Henry Fitzroy to prove his virility, and put the blame on Katherine for his not having an heir. Mary may not have been believed to be faithful, so he doubted the paternity.

  2. Henry did help them he helped them several times see http://www.genealogymagazine.com/boleyn.html.