William Carey, Tudor Courtier

William Carey and Mary Boleyn were married on February 4, 1520 in the newly built Royal Chapel at Greenwich Palace. It wasn’t a spectacular marriage but very solid and both families were satisfied with the arrangement. Thomas Boleyn was not present at the marriage, being away on a diplomatic mission. But the King certainly gave his blessing, attending the service in person.

William Carey came from a prominent family of gentry society. Born c. 1496, he was the second son of Thomas Carey of Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire and Margaret Spencer. The couple would have three sons and four daughters. Thomas Carey served in Parliament during the reign of King Henry VII and he was related to the Earl of Northumberland. His father, Sir William Carey of Cockington, Devon was a loyal Lancastrian supporter during the Wars of the Roses and was beheaded at Tewkesbury in 1471.

William Carey was a distant cousin of King Henry VIII, being a descendant of King Edward III through John of Gaunt and the Beaufort line. He may have been introduced to court through his connections with the Earl of Northumberland or with the help of his friend the Earl of Devon. Carey and Devon were very close and appeared frequently together and with William performing in the tourneys at the earl’s marriage celebrations. They were known to play tennis together.

William was part of King Henry VIII’s household by June 1519. In October 1519, records indicate he was an official member of the king’s entourage, entitled to a livery at breakfast and given a post in the King’s Privy Chamber. He could joust, gamble, play tennis and was probably learned, witty and good company. He took part in the New Year revels of 1520.

There is no evidence the marriage between William and Mary Boleyn was hastily arranged to cover for her affair with Henry VIII and nothing to indicate it was a love match. No details of the dowry survive but it was considered a good marriage. There is reason to believe, because Willian was a rising star at court, the marriage politically and socially bolstered the Boleyn family’s ambitions at the time. Henry was courting Mary’s sister Anne, despite his long-standing marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The newly married couple probably lived at court while William performed his duties for the king and there was ample opportunity for Mary to be exposed to the king’s presence. Both of them were at the glittering festivities at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in the summer of 1520 where William participated in the jousting. Upon their return to England, William received a promotion to the position of Esquire of the Body to the king.

Pinpointing the beginning of Henry VIII’s relationship with Mary Carey is difficult as he kept the liaison very discreet. William began receiving royal grants as early as February 1522 and Henry’s affair with Elizabeth Blount was ending around the same time so this may indicate when Mary became the King’s mistress. The first grant received by William the Keepership of New Hall at Boreham in Essex, a well appointed and newly renovated palace which Henry had used as his base when visiting Bessie Blount at Blackmoor Priory. Following the renovations, the house was called Beaulieu and William had the rights to lodge there.

In July 1522, Carey, along with another courtier, received a grant for the valuable wardship of one Thomas Sharpe of Canterbury, allowing the two men to share the use of Sharpe’s lands and his income. William also received an annuity of fifty marks, later raised to one hundred pounds. The King endowed William with the office of Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster. In April 1523, William was appointed Receiver and Bailiff of the manor of Writtle, Essex and made Keeper of Writtle Park, along with other fees and advantages. Many more manors came into his control along with the title of Constable of the royal castle of Pleshy in Essex, with the right to reside there.

William may or may not have known about his wife’s affair with the king. Or perhaps there was no relationship between Mary and Henry at all, and William earned these grants and gifts for his good service. During this time frame, Mary gave birth to a daughter Katherine. Her birthdate is unknown but estimated to be c. 1523, leading to speculation she may have been the daughter of the king and not William Carey. The conception date of Mary’s son Henry appears to have been when her alleged affair with the king had ended.

William took part in the jousting just before Christmas 1524 at Greenwich, which was followed by a supper, a masque, and dancing. In January 1526, he was appointed Keeper of Greenwich Palace, with the right to lodge there. Mary’s affair with the king may have been over when on February 20, 1526, William received more substantial grants of estates and manors in Hampshire and Wiltshire, along with licenses to hold fairs and markets and other liberties.

Most likely Mary returned to living with William and they remained at court, with William performing his duties as Gentleman of the Privy chamber and as the keeper of the many manors and castles. In the spring of 1527, Carey was involved in mounting a lavish reception for the French ambassadors who were in England to negotiate the “Treaty of Eternal Peace” and the betrothal of Princess Mary to Henry, Duc d’Orléans, second son of King Francis I. Hans Holbein’s first recorded commission in England involved this celebration and he designed two triumphal arches and painted a ceiling.

Holbein also painted portraits of the couriers who organized the ceremonies, possibly painting William Carey too. William caught the sweating sickness and died on June 22, 1528. On his deathbed, he requested from Thomas Wolsey, the position of Abbess of Wilton for his sister Eleanor. The location of his death and where he is buried are unknown. His death left his wife poor and in debt with two young children to support. Whatever property William owned when he died went to his son Henry. In 1534, Mary Carey made a secret marriage with Sir William Stafford, a member of the garrison at Calais.

Further reading:  “The Boleyn Women” by Elizabeth Norton, “Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings” by Alison Weir, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on William Carey written by Michael Riordan, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Knollys [née Carey], Katherine, Lady Knollys written by Sally Varlow

12 thoughts on “William Carey, Tudor Courtier

  1. The children of the Careys were favourites of Elizabeth I. Catherine became her Chief Lady of the Bedchamber and married Sir Francis Knollys, and Henry, Lord Hunsdon, was one of her most trusted servants. Elizabeth seems to have been much closer to her Boleyn relatives than to her distant Tudor cousins, who were line to the throne. Catherine’s daughter, Lettice, committed a serious error, she secretly married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and was dismissed from court.


  2. I was pleased to see more about Mary and her husband. It was a surprise to learn she was left penniless. I have been fascinated by the lives surrounding Henry Vlll.
    Queen Elizabeth l was the beginning of my


  3. I enjoyed your article on William Carey and learned many new things about him and his history as an important person in Henry VIII’s court.


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