Mary Boleyn: Biography, Portrait, Facts & Information

Mary Boleyn was the sister of King Henry VIII’s second wife, the infamous Anne Boleyn. But she was also the king’s mistress before her sister’s ascendancy. She may also have given birth to his son.

Information about the life of Mary Boleyn is sketchy at best. Before her sister's ascendancy, Mary was the most famous member of her family, a dubious honor since it was based upon her adulterous affair with King Henry VIII. There has been great debate over the exact year of her birth, with many researchers unable to agree on which Boleyn sister was older. Some speculate Anne was born in 1501 or 1502; others place it at 1507. The most recent scholarship supports 1507 as the year of Anne's birth. Mary was born a year later, in 1508. Their only surviving sibling was an older brother George, born in 1503.

Mary was born at Hever Castle, the family seat. She was named after Princess Mary Tudor, the youngest child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Her family was loyal to the Tudor dynasty but had Yorkist connections. Her mother was Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas, earl of Surrey. His father, the 1st duke of Norfolk, had died fighting for Richard III against Henry VII. Mary's father, Thomas Boleyn, could trace his ancestry only to the 13th century. His family was originally from Norfolk where they lived as tenant farmers. In 1457, a Sir Geoffrey Boleyn was serving as Lord Mayor of London. He wed Anne, heiress of Lord Hoo and Hastings, and - through her - acquired Hever Castle in Kent and Blickling Hall in Norfolk. His son became a knight under Richard III and a baron under Henry VII. He married a great heiress as well; she was Margaret, daughter of Thomas Butler, 7th earl of Ormond. He was incredibly wealthy and bequeathed Margaret 36 manors. Their eldest child was Thomas Boleyn, Mary's father. Thomas had married Elizabeth Howard by 1501. Their three surviving children were born within the next 10 years.

In 1512, Thomas was one of three envoys assigned to the regent of Netherlands court. His skill in speaking French and his family connections secured the appointment. Once there, he was a great success with the regent, Margaret, archduchess of Austria. He used this friendship to secure a prestigious appointment for his eldest daughter, Anne; she was to reside with the regent's wards, sharing their royal education. This is the primary evidence that Anne was the elder sister. In such cases, the elder sister would receive the opportunity first.

Mary Boleyn

However, Mary was married before Anne - an unusual occurrence and one which led many to believe Mary was older. However, it is completely plausible that Anne was not married first because she was still in Europe, gaining a royal education and hoping to wed a foreign nobleman. Mary, on the other hand, wed a man named William Carey, a gentleman of the royal privy chamber on 4 February 1520. Though he was not a titled lord, his duties meant he had intimate contact with the king on a daily basis. He would be a valuable connection for the Boleyns. Henry used his attendants, with whom he spent his leisure hours, to carry out government work. Carey was 24 years old and Mary not quite twelve, young even for 16th century marriage. The consummation of the marriage was probably delayed for a few years.

Mary's wedding was held a few weeks before her father returned from a mission abroad. This indicates that Thomas Boleyn had planned the marriage well in advance. The king gave the newlyweds a cash present - 6s.8d.; this was undoubtedly welcome since William Carey was a younger son and lacked money and lands. Henry's favor (and, more particularly, Mary's affair with Henry) helped in this respect - before his death in 1528, William had received two keeperships, a stewardship, an annuity, and manors in two counties. As to William's ancestry, he could trace his descent from Edward III; his mother was a cousin of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother. His aunt Catherine Spencer was married to Henry, fifth earl of Northumberland.

As William's wife, Mary had lodgings at court, information about royal policies, and the great opportunity to participate in all court events. Their first child, Catherine, was born about 1524 when Mary was just sixteen. Meanwhile, her family continued its ascendancy during these years. Personally, she and her sister Anne were two of eight women who participated in a celebration at York Place, Cardinal Wolsey's home. Anne played Perseverance and Mary was Kindness; they were clothed in white satin with bejeweled headdresses. This was in 1522; Mary was just fourteen. By the time she was seventeen, Mary was a first-time mother and Henry VIII's mistress. There is much circumstantial evidence to support this:

  • In 1527, Henry was planning to marry Anne Boleyn. He sought and received a papal dispensation to marry the sister of a woman with whom he had engaged in illicit/unlawful intercourse. Anne had only one sister - Mary.
  • Reginald Pole reported the following - in 1528, a member of Parliament insulted the king's morals by accusing Henry of sleeping with Anne's mother and sister. Undoubtedly flustered, the king replied: "Never with her mother."
  • the affair was known of in diplomatic circles - in 1532, Francis I of France met Mary face-to-face when she accompanied Henry and Anne to Calais. He mentioned her infamous behavior with her sister's spouse before the marriage to Anne.

The affair was brief, ending in mid-1525 (probably July.) On 4 March 1526, Mary gave birth to a son, called Henry. He was widely assumed to be the king's son. He physically resembled the king, a fact often remarked upon. In 1535, for example, a man called 'young Master Carey' the king's son.

Perhaps more telling, Henry granted the Careys actual manors and estates during the affair and immediately before the child's birth. Before, the Careys had been granted rather minor offices. (You may recall that Henry publicly acknowledged another illegitimate son, born in 1519. This boy was called Henry Fitzroy - the surname traditionally given to royal bastards - and was ennobled, given the title duke of Richmond. If Henry Carey was also his son, why didn't Henry do the same for him? The answer lies in his determination to divorce Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, the child's aunt. It is likely that even Henry VIII would have been too embarrassed to recognize his bastard son by his fiancee's younger sister.) Henry Carey was eventually ennobled as Lord Hunsdon by Elizabeth I, the queen who may have been his half-sister and was undoubtedly his cousin. Though he served her ably, Elizabeth only offered Hunsdon a title upon his deathbed. To this dubious honor, the old man aptly replied that if the queen hadn't thought him worth it while he was in health, he would not accept it while ill.

Mary Boleyn was referenced in Henry's love letters to Anne in 1528, the year her husband died. William had asked Mary to seek her sister's influence with the king; his elder sister, Eleanor, wanted the position of abbess at St Edith's Nunnery. The nuns wanted their prioress elevated to the position instead. Anne asked the king to intervene. In the end, Eleanor's dubious moral destroyed her chances. But the episode demonstrates Anne's willingness to help Mary; also, Mary clearly expected to benefit from her sister's closeness to the king.

William Carey died on 23 June 1528 and Henry VIII promptly granted Anne Boleyn the wardship of her nephew (and possibly his son), two-year-old Henry Carey. In another letter to Anne, Henry remarked upon Mary's easy virtue. He and Anne were concerned that, after William's death, Mary's behavior would degenerate; in other words, she would be an embarrassment to the king and his intended wife. In November 1530, Henry gave Anne 20 pds to redeem a jewel from Mary; it was probably a gambling debt. Two years later, Mary was one of thirty ladies who accompanied Henry and Anne on a visit to France (colorfully known to history as 'The Field of the Cloth of Gold'.) They stayed in Calais in late October, attending various events with Francis I; ostensibly, they were celebrating a new peace agreement. But it was also a chance to present Anne to a foreign king. When Henry wed Anne in 1533, Mary became a lady-in-waiting to her sister. It was only in 1534 that she and Anne had a serious conflict.

In 1534, Mary secretly married William Stafford. He was the younger son of Humphrey Stafford of Blatherwick in Northampton. This marriage was a disaster for her, excepting her personal happiness. Mary undoubtedly loved Stafford, a soldier she had met at Calais (he had been part of Henry VIII's retinue.) But her relatives - all newly ennobled and very self-conscious about their status - were outraged. He was a commoner, not fit for the queen's sister. Accordingly, Mary and her new husband were banished from court. (It is quite possible that her relatives planned to wed Mary to a nobleman, further cementing their rise to prominence; instead, her marriage was a step backwards socially.) In late 1534, while her father and brother received numerous grants, titles, and other gifts, Mary was reduced to begging Thomas Cromwell for assistance. Would he speak to Henry on her behalf? Mary hoped Henry would persuade Anne to forgive her but her former lover was less than helpful. So Mary asked Cromwell to speak to her father, her uncle, and her brother.

Meanwhile, her son was still living with his aunt, Queen Anne. He was being tutored by the great French poet, Nicholas Bourbon, clearly benefiting from the wardship. His mother's life between 1534 and her sister's execution in 1536 is difficult to trace. She seems to have resided at Rochford in Essex from the time of her disgrace to her death on 19 July 1543. When her sister fell into disfavor and Henry sought a divorce, his earlier affair with Mary was mentioned. Perhaps this would justify an annulment, even as Katharine of Aragon's marriage to his brother had? But no one seriously considered this (after all, there had been a papal dispensation) and it was more expedient to press other charges. Mary did not visit her sister when Anne was imprisoned in the Tower. Nor did she visit their brother George, also condemned to death. There is no evidence that she wrote to them. Like their uncle, the duke of Norfolk, she may have thought it wise to avoid association with her disgraced relatives.

Mary lived to see her children gain some royal favor. Her teenage daughter Catherine (born 1524) was appointed a maid of honor to Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife. Sometime in 1540, Catherine made a good match, marrying Sir Francis Knollys, a popular member of Henry VIII's household. Catherine also became one of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor's closest friends. Her daughter, Lettice Knollys, would later marry Elizabeth's great love, Robert Dudley; her son, the earl of Essex, would also be one of Elizabeth's favorites (though eventually executed for treason.) Henry Carey, whose paternity was the subject of such speculation, would be ennobled as Lord Hunsdon in Elizabeth's reign. Elizabeth was kind to her Boleyn relatives, especially Mary's children. Twenty-two years after Anne Boleyn's execution, a Boleyn was sole ruler of England. It was a triumph few could have predicted.

Some other stuff about Mary Boleyn that I've found:

  • Mary was considered more conventionally beautiful than Anne but lacked her sister's style and wit.
  • As a child, Mary was taught French by Mademoiselle Semmonet; she also studied music (practicing on the lute, harp, viol, and virginals.)
  • Mary also spent time in Archduchess Margaret's service; she was removed in 1518/19 by her father and placed in Katharine of Aragon's service.
  • Anne and George Boleyn were very close and reportedly had little use for their sister, Mary. (This was reported by several foreign ambassadors.)

Note: I have read that Mary Boleyn accompanied Princess Mary Tudor to France, as a lady-in-waiting. However, the trip occurred in 1515; Mary would have been just 7 years old - so the assertion seems unlikely.

So the following questions remain:

  • did she accompany Mary to France?
  • did she use her influence with Mary Tudor to get Anne a position as lady-in-waiting to Katharine of Aragon (thus allowing Henry VIII and Anne to meet?) This has been mentioned in several books but, as I stated, it would mean Mary was a lady-in-waiting at the age of seven.

I have used the spelling 'Boleyn' instead of 'Bullen' for one simple reason - it is how the family chose to spell it when they first rose to prominence. Certainly they thought 'Boleyn' was more elegant - I'll stay mum on that issue, but since most history texts also use 'Boleyn', it remains less confusing than switching between two surnames.