Most people know the story of Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII’s six wives. Few people know that Anne had an older sister Mary who was the mistress of two kings. There’s a reason she’s not well known.
The best evidence that can be found suggests Mary Boleyn was born c. 1500, probably at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, an influential courtier of King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. Her mother was Lady Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Wiltshire and the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, the second Duke of Norfolk. The Boleyn children received an adequate education, being taught to read, write, arithmetic, genealogy, to speak French, music, riding, hunting and hawking.
In 1513, Mary’s younger sister Anne was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria as a ladies maid, effectively passing over Mary as the elder sister. But Mary’s turn came in 1514, when Henry VIII’s sister Mary went to France to marry the French King Louis XII. Mary was to be a chamberer to the new Queen. Chamberers served their mistress in the privacy of the chamber, performing tasks beneath the dignity of the ladies-in-waiting. Mary Tudor was married in October but was Queen of France for only eighty two days. Louis XII died on January 1, 1515, leaving Mary Tudor stranded in France. Mary Boleyn’s time working for Mary Tudor ended in March of 1515, when Mary Tudor married the Duke of Suffolk and returned to England.
During this six month period of the wedding and Mary Tudor’s departure for England, Mary Boleyn probably had a short affair with King Francois I of France. Francois was tall and handsome, much like King Henry VIII and he was a notorious womanizer. Some would say debauched. The evidence was scanty so the affair was probably short lived and discreet. But Mary’s parents and her sister Anne probably knew about it. What is certain is Anne stayed on in France to serve the new Queen Claude and Mary disappears from the record until 1520.
There is some scant evidence that Mary was sent to a friend of her father’s in Brie, France, possibly in punishment for her behavior at court. She may have waited out her time there until a marriage was arranged which finally did happen in 1520. Mary’s father and possibly King Henry VIII himself arranged for Mary to marry William Carey. Carey was a cousin of the King and a privileged and intimate member of his household, holding the position of Esquire of the Body. It appears that both Mary’s family and William’s family would benefit from the match. They were married on February 4, 1520 at Greenwich Palace with the King in attendance.
While we don’t know the exact date of the commencement of King Henry’s affair with Mary, it is likely to have begun about 1522. Mary participated in a pageant during a celebration for the Spanish ambassador in March of that year and may have caught the eye of King Henry with her dancing. It is possible that Mary did not go the King’s bed willingly, wanting to honor her marriage vows. Whatever happened, Mary and Henry began an affair which may have lasted until 1525.
The affair between King Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn was conducted so secretively the few people probably knew about it and the evidence for the affair is scarce. There is no doubt there was an affair, even if we don’t know the exact dates or details. During Mary’s marriage to William Carey she was to have two children: Katherine, born in March or April of 1524, and Henry, born c. March 1525. There is evidence indicating a strong probability that Katherine was Henry VIII’s child although he didn’t acknowledge her as his daughter. Her son Henry may also have been the King’s child. Because Mary was married at the time of the births of her children, they were legally considered William Carey’s children.
Henry VIII exhibited a pattern of moving on from mistresses when they became pregnant. More than likely, when Mary was expecting Katherine, Henry moved on to someone else. Certainly by February of 1526, he was openly courting Mary’s sister, Anne. There doesn’t appear to have been any great gifts to Mary or her husband William that weren’t actually earned. The last grant given to William Carey was his appointment as Keeper of the manor, garden, tower, etc. of Pleasance, East Greenwich and of East Greenwich Park on May 12, 1526. By 1527, Carey was a moderately rich man in terms of assets but didn’t have much in the way of income. To Carey’s great misfortune, he fell ill with the “sweating sickness” in the great outbreak of the disease on June 22, 1528. Mary was a widow with no visible means of support and in debt. Her husband’s estate went to her three year old son.
King Henry was compelled to force Mary’s father to take her in at the family castle of Hever. King Henry gave the ward ship of Mary’s son Henry to Anne Boleyn. Eventually the King granted Mary an annuity of 100 pounds (32,000 pounds by today’s standard) so she was able to have a comfortable existence in her father’s home with her daughter.
In October of 1532, King Henry arranged to meet King Francois I of France at Calais, taking Anne Boleyn and about 2,000 attendants. Mary Boleyn was included in the ladies who accompanied Anne. Mary took part in a masque during the visit, dancing before Henry and Francois. During this visit, Mary may have met William Stafford who was part of the King’s retinue. In January of 1533, Anne Boleyn was pregnant and Henry married her secretly. Anne appeared in public for the first time at Easter as Queen and Mary was appointed one of her ladies-in-waiting. While attending Anne’s coronation as Queen in June, Mary may have come into contact again or for the first time, with William Stafford. By September of 1534, Mary appeared at court, visibly pregnant and had to confess she had married William for love. She hinted that William fell in love with her first. As he was twelve years younger than Mary, it could just be that Mary felt appreciated and loved for the first time and was willing to risk the shame and embarrassment of an ill-advised marriage.
Mary was banished from court and soon became impoverished. She wrote a pitiful letter to Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s principal secretary, begging for help. Cromwell gave no help. Mary and William lived the next six years in obscurity and poverty. Where they lived is not known but there is evidence that William was a soldier at the garrison of Calais and they may have lived there until Mary’s father died in 1539 and she came into her inheritance. It was probably a good time for a Boleyn to be out of the country because her sister Anne and the Boleyn family had a spectacular and tragic fall in fortune during this time.
After a long wait, Mary finally received her inheritance in April of 1540. William Stafford had a good and long career in the King’s service. Mary was to die on July 30, 1543 of unknown causes. It is also unknown where she was buried. As the reader can see, there are many unknown details of the life of Mary Boleyn.
Further reading: “Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives, “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” by Alison Weir, “Henry VIII: King and Court” by Alison Weir, entry on Mary Boleyn in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Jonathan Hughes