Childhood & Early Life
Due to a lack of parish records, neither the exact dates of birth of the Boleyn siblings nor their order of birth can readily be deduced. But most historians agree that Mary, the eldest surviving child of Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond, and his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard, was born in 1499 at Blickling Hall, the family home in Norfolk. She was raised at Hever Castle in Kent, alongside her siblings Anne and George.
Thomas Boleyn was a well-respected diplomat and politician. He had a gift for languages and was a favourite of Henry VIII, who sent him on several diplomatic missions across Europe. In a career spanning three decades, he had been the ambassador to the Low Countries and France, was made the Sheriff of Kent, and served as an envoy to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. An ambitious man, he had high aspirations for both of his daughters.
Unlike her husband who was elevated to peerage, Lady Elizabeth Howard was born into it. She was the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and his first wife Elizabeth Tilney. Her family claimed Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, as their ancestor. Her marriage to Boleyn took place sometime in the late 1490s, probably in 1498. Despite becoming pregnant many times in the following decade, only three of her children made it to adulthood. Known to be a highly attractive woman, she served as a lady-in-waiting first for Elizabeth of York, and later for Catherine of Aragon.
Mary grew up under the strict supervision of a French governess. She was educated in history, grammar, basic principles of arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, and her family genealogy. Her feminine accomplishments included training in dancing, etiquette, music, household management, embroidery, singing, and needlework. Noting Henry’s athleticism and love for sports and outdoors, Thomas instigated his daughters’ lessons in falconry, riding, archery, and hunting.
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Life in France
When Mary was around the age of 15, her father admitted her to the king’s sister, Mary Tudor’s service as her maid-of-honour. She accompanied the princess from Dover to France for her wedding to Louis XII. It is likely that she was present during the ceremony. Only after a few weeks, most of the Queen’s English maids were dismissed but Mary remained with her, possibly due to her father’s appointment as the English ambassador to France.
Louis was 52 when he married an 18-year-old Mary Tudor. He died less than three months after the wedding, on January 1, 1515. The princess had opposed the political marriage from the beginning and was in love with Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Henry sent him to retrieve his sister from France, with a promise that he would not propose to her. But they eloped soon after he arrived and were married in a private ceremony.
Mary Boleyn did not follow the Princess back to England. Instead, she remained at the French court as one of the maids of the new French Queen, Claude, the daughter of Louis XII.
During her stay in the country, Mary had a series of affairs with several French courtiers and with the French King, Francis I, himself. While most of the reports could possibly have been exaggerations, Francis did describe her to Rodolfo Pio, the Bishop of Faenza as being a “great and infamous whore”. He even referred to her as “The English Mare”, often bragging about having “ridden her”.
Return to England & Later Years
Despite her proximity to famous historical figures, Mary’s own life, for the most part, is shrouded in obscurity. She was said to be beautiful, exuberant, impulsive, and full of energy. She had a round face and fair hair, as opposed to her sister’s dark and slender features. However, Anne was more thoughtful and intelligent. While Mary let her passion take control of her life, each of Anne’s actions had equal measures of ambition and sensibility behind it.
When the rumours of Mary’s deeds at the French court reached him, a furious Thomas brought her back to England and put her in the service of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, as a maid-of-honour.
On February 4, 1520, the Boleyn family married her to William Carey of Aldenham, a courtier and favourite of Henry. The fact that she was married before Anne is seen as an evidence that she was the eldest daughter of the Boleyns, as according to tradition back then, parents married their children in the order of their births.
Some time after the wedding, Mary caught Henry’s eye and they embarked on an affair. Both her husband and Boleyns reaped benefits from the affair. Carey received manors and estates and the Boleyns, grants of land.
The two children she had during her marriage to Carey, Catherine and Henry, are generally attributed to the King. But the fact that he did not acknowledge either of them like he did Henry Fitzroy, who was his illegitimate son with Elizabeth Blount, raised questions on the veracity of the claim.
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At the Chateau Vert or Castle of Green celebration during the Shrovetide of 1522, beautiful ladies dressed in white silk played the parts of “virtues” who were held captive by men portraying “vices.” It was the role of the king and his men to assail the castle to rescue them. Mary played Kindness and Anne acted as Perseverance. Some sources claim that it was during this celebration that the king first came into contact with Anne while other sources dispel this claim.
After the ending of his affair with Mary, Henry became attracted to Anne, who had entered the service of Catherine of Aragon. She spurned Henry’s early advances and made a point of returning his gifts. The more she refused the more adamant he became. He was aggressively courting her by the middle of 1527 and seeking some ways to annul his marriage with Catherine.
Anne’s relationship with Henry kindled a strong sense of dislike in her mother, while in all probability, her father encouraged it. Indeed, the sheer scope of his ambition was so vast, that many speculated that he let his wife have an affair with the king. This, however, is unsubstantiated. When Henry heard the rumours, he apparently had replied, “Never with the mother”.
Carey died of the sweating sickness on June 22, 1528, leaving outstanding debts of sizeable amount for his wife. She had to resort to pawning her jewellery to pay some of it off. With Henry’s permission, Anne became the ward of Henry Carey whom she sent to study at a reputable Cistercian monastery.
Mary travelled with Henry and Anne to the English Pale of Calais, and then to France. This visit was made to garner public support and approval for annulment of the marriage between Henry and Catherine.
Despite her reputation, Mary still had excellent marriage prospects. She secretly married William Stafford, a soldier and the younger son of a landowner from Essex, in 1534. It is believed that the marriage was based on love as William had little prospects on the social level.
Upon her pregnancy, the marriage was discovered. Her father’s response was immediate. The family publicly disowned her. She also drew her sister’s ire, who was by then the Queen of England and the mother of Princess Elizabeth. The couple were sentenced to banishment from the court.
The couple stayed at Chebsey, in Staffordshire. Without the pension and the support of her family, her financial woes were considerable. William was not earning much either.
She approached the king’s adviser Thomas Cromwell to speak to the royal couple on her behalf. She stated that she could have chosen men of higher rank and status, but they would not have loved her more than William, nor they would have been more honest. She added, almost prophetically, “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom. And I believe verily... he would not forsake me to be a king". She also asked Cromwell to talk to her family.
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Her desperate pleas fell on deaf ears. Henry was apathetic to her ordeal and so were her father, her maternal uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and her brother. At the end, it was Anne who reached out to her, sending her money and a beautiful chalice. However, she was still not allowed to return to court. It would not be wrong to presume that the last time the sisters met each other in person was before Mary’s expulsion from the court.
By 1536, Anne had not produced a male heir yet; after having a daughter, she had become pregnant a few more times but all of them ended in miscarriages. She was well aware of the precariousness of her circumstances. With Catherine of Aragon already dead, Henry could marry anyone without any stigma of illegality and he seemed to have found a prospective bride in Jane Seymore.
On May 2, Anne was arrested on charges of adultery, incest, and high treason. Her brother George Boleyn, also accused of incest, was executed on May 16. Three days later, Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London.
After a possible reconciliation with her parents, Mary Boleyn and her family moved to the Boleyn family home. She had two children with William Stafford, Anne and Edward. On July 19, 1543, she died of unknown causes at the age of 43 or 44.
Mary’s children maintained that she was the elder Boleyn sister. Her son, Henry Carey, 1st Baron of Hunsdon, served Queen Elizabeth for the majority of his adult life. She promoted him to aristocracy and named him a Knight of the Garter. He was offered at his deathbed in 1596 the title of the Earl of Wiltshire—a title previously held by his grandfather—by the Queen, but he declined.
Through her daughter, Catherine, Mary is a direct ancestor of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, mother of Elizabeth II.
Mary has been the subject of at least three prominent non-fiction works: Kelly Hart’s ‘The Mistress of Henry VIII’ (published in 2009), ‘Josephine Wilkinson’s Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Mistress’ (2010), and British writer Alison Weir’s ‘Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings’.
English historical novelist Philippa Gregory confessed that Mary was her personal heroine in an interview to ‘BBC History Magazine.’ In 2001, she published ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. A part of her series on the Tudor Royals, the book is a fictionalised account of Mary’s life leading up to Anne’s execution.
BBC produced a television drama based on the novel in January 2003, with Natascha McElhone playing Mary and Jodhi May playing Anne. In February 2008, a cinematic version of the book was released with Justin Chadwick as the director. It starred Scarlett Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, and Eric Bana as Henry.
In the Showtime series ‘The Tudors’ (2007-10), Perdita Weeks portrayed the character of Mary.