She has been the subject of biographies, romanticised (and denigrated) in historical novels, movies, TV shows – and yet the real Mary Boleyn remains an elusive Tudor personality, flitting in and out of the sources. With only a small handful of textual evidence, we have tried in vain to colour her life and flesh out the scant facts that we do have.
Mary Boleyn’s early life
Mary was the eldest of three surviving children of Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn. Much like her siblings, Anne and George, many details regarding Mary’s formative years remain something of a mystery, and we cannot be exactly certain in which order the siblings were born. We can, however, be fairly certain that the children were born between 1500 and 1507, at the Boleyn estate of Blickling Hall, in Norfolk.
The Boleyn family were well-respected at court, their heritage a blend of mercantile and noble, and Thomas Boleyn had successfully built upon the foundations laid by his father and grandfather. He was equally ambitious for his children, and secured Anne’s sophisticated education at Margaret of Austria’s court at Mechelen, while it is likely that Mary was tutored at Blickling and then Hever Castle in Kent. Mary’s was certainly a less glamorous education than Anne’s, but she, like her brother, enjoyed a well-rounded education as befitting her status.
Listen: Lauren Mackay discusses the tumultuous lives of Anne Boleyn’s father and brother, Thomas and George, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
In 1514 Mary’s father secured her a position as a maid of honour to Henry VIII‘s younger sister, Princess Mary Tudor, accompanying the princess to France for her marriage to King Louis XII. She was likely accepted because she had some knowledge and skills in speaking French, a great asset serving the future queen in a foreign court. Unfortunately, Louis died a few months into the marriage, but Mary Boleyn did not follow her mistress back to England, and instead stayed on to serve at the court of the new king, Francis I.
During her time at the French court, Mary was the subject of rumours of promiscuity, and it was even believed that she had been Francis I’s mistress, later being labelled a “great and infamous whore”. The accusations are not based in evidence, but were instead part of an agenda to sully the Boleyn family’s reputation during Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, to show how debased and immoral the family were, and therefore why Anne was not worthy of the crown.
The Other Boleyn Girl?
After five years in France, Mary returned to the English court in 1519, likely because her father had arranged her marriage to William Carey, who came from a well-respected family with royal connections. William’s own career was beginning to flourish, with Henry VIII appointing him Esquire of the Body and Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. But in their early years of marriage Mary was unfortunate enough to attract the king’s attentions and became his mistress sometime in 1522, with the affair lasting several years, though we do not have clear dates (other sources have suggested the affair began as early as 1519). Therefore, there are many historians who argue that Mary’s two children, Catherine, born in 1524, and Henry, born in 1526, may be illegitimate royal children. Were they William Carey’s or Henry VIII’s? Certainly, Henry never acknowledged either, and it is highly likely that Mary’s tenure as mistress had ended by 1526, especially as the evidence suggests he had begun to woo her sister, Anne.
Mary and Anne: a sisterly bond?
We know that George and Anne Boleyn were incredibly close. They were both highly intelligent and exuded a European sophistication, their bond strengthened by their mutual religious ideals and love of art and devotional literature. Mary seems to have been the odd one out, and in the majority of fictional portrayals, there is no love lost between Mary and Anne. We can catch glimpses in the sources of two sisters who were very different in temperament, and while bound by familial loyalty, Mary so often acted independently of her family and without their knowledge, that the two struggled to understand one another.
It also seems that Mary and her father, Thomas, had a strained relationship, though it is not entirely clear why. Mary struggled financially when her first husband, William Carey, died of the Sweat in 1528, and it is thought that Thomas was less than willing to assist her, with Henry and Anne discussing the matter privately. However, Henry was certain that Thomas would assist his daughter, further noting that Thomas was a man of honour. In the end Mary did receive a stipend, and Anne also did what she could, taking Mary’s son, Henry Carey, as her ward and providing him with an education.
Unfortunately, Mary rather rashly chose her own husband the second time around, and in 1534, she secretly married William Stafford, a soldier in Henry’s army who was stationed in Calais. When she arrived at court, married and with child, her family did not take the news well. Such a low match for the sister of the queen exposed the Boleyn family to ridicule, and Mary was banished from court at Anne’s insistence. Mary most likely left England and lived with William Stafford in Calais, though the fate of their child remains a mystery.
Mary never reconciled with her sister, and we can only imagine what she felt at the executions of her siblings in May 1536, on the orders of the man whose bed she had once shared.
Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1538, Thomas began to reconcile with his only living daughter. A draft copy of an indenture between the king and Mary and William Stafford shows that Thomas had, before his death in March of 1539, negotiated with Thomas Cromwell and the king, relying on his younger brother James and his lawyer to ensure it was carried out. Despite their issues, Thomas wanted to ensure his daughter would be financially secure.
Mary would only survive her parents by four years, but her children, Henry and Catherine, would go on to live successful lives at the court of their cousin, Elizabeth I. Mary however would not live to see it. In 1543, Mary died, likely at Rochford Hall, in Essex. The whereabouts of her grave remain a mystery, just out of reach to us in death as she was in life.
Lauren Mackay is a historian specialising in Tudor England. Her latest book is the Wolf Hall Companion (Pavilion Books, 2020).