Biography of Mary Boleyn, the Boleyn Survivor

The sister of Anne Boleyn who survived her family's downfall

Painting of Mary Boleyn
Painting believed to be Mary Boleyn, unknown artist (c. 1520s) (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Mary Boleyn (ca. 1499/1500–July 19, 1543) was a courtier and noblewoman at the court of Henry VIII of England. She was one of the king’s earlier mistresses before being supplanted by her sister Anne and marrying a soldier with little income. However, her absence from court allowed her to escape blame when her sister fell, and she was permitted to inherit what remained of the Boleyn property and fortune.

Fast Facts: Mary Boleyn

  • Occupation: Courtier
  • Known For: Sister of Anne Boleyn, mistress of King Henry VIII, and survivor of the Boleyns' downfall
  • Born: circa 1499/1500 in Norfolk, England
  • Died: July 19, 1543 in England
  • Spouse(s): Sir William Carey (m. 1520-1528); William Stafford (m. 1534-1543)
  • Children: Catherine Carey Knollys, Henry Carey, Edward Stafford, Anne Stafford

Early Life in England and France

Because of the shoddy record-keeping in the Tudor era, historians cannot pinpoint Mary’s exact date of birth or even her place in the birth order among the three Boleyn siblings. Most agree, however, that she was born around 1499 or 1500 at the Boleyn family home, Blickling Hall in Norfolk, and that she was the eldest child of Thomas Boleyn and his wife Katherine, née Lady Katherine Howard. The couple soon had another daughter, Anne, and a son, George.

Mary was educated at her family’s primary seat, Hever Castle in Kent, along with her siblings. Her education consisted of basic school subjects such as math, history, reading, and writing, as well as the various skills and crafts required of a lady of noble birth, such as embroidery, music, etiquette, and dancing.

When she was about fifteen, Mary’s father secured her a position in the royal court of France as a maid of honor to Princess Mary Tudor, soon to be Queen Mary of France.

A Royal Mistress Twice Over

Although young, Mary quickly established herself in the new queen’s household. Even when Queen Mary was widowed in 1515 and returned to England, Mary was permitted to stay behind at the court of Francis I. Her father Thomas, now the ambassador to France, and her sister Anne joined her.

Between 1516 and 1519, Mary remained at the French court. While there, she apparently gained a reputation for her romantic behavior, having multiple affairs, including one with King Francis. Modern historians question whether contemporary accounts of her affairs were exaggerated or not; it certainly didn’t help that Francis infamously called her “a very great whore, the most infamous of all.”

The Boleyns (aside from Anne) returned to England sometimes in 1519, and Mary was married to a respectable and wealthy courtier, William Carey, on February 2, 1520. She was given a position as a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Katherine of Aragon. Although King Henry was still fairly happy in his marriage to Katherine, it was well-known at this point that he often had affairs with the ladies of the court. One such affair, with a woman named Bessie Blount, resulted in an illegitimate son: Henry Fitzroy, whom the king acknowledged as his bastard. The queen, who had suffered several miscarriages and stillbirths and was approaching the end of her childbearing years, had no choice but to look the other way.

At some point, though historians are unsure as to precisely when, Henry’s gaze fell on Mary, and they began an affair. In the early 1520s, Mary had two children: a daughter, Catherine Carey, and a son, Henry Carey. The rumor that King Henry fathered Catherine, Henry, or both has persisted and gained popularity, but there is no actual evidence behind the theory.

The Other Boleyn

For a time, Mary was the favorite of the court and the king (and thus of her family). However, in 1522, her sister Anne returned to England and also joined the queen’s court, although she and Mary likely moved in different circles, given Anne’s intense intellectual interests which Mary was not known to share.

Anne became one of the more popular ladies at court, and, like so many before her, caught the attentions of the king. Unlike others, however, she refused to become his mistress. Many historians have interpreted this as an early sign of her ambitions to be queen, but other scholars have suggested that she simply was uninterested and would have preferred he cease his attentions so she could make a good, legitimate match.

By 1527, however, Henry had made up his mind to divorce Katherine and marry Anne, and in the meantime, Anne was treated as de facto queen. Mary’s husband William died when the sweating sickness swept through the court in 1528, leaving her with debts. Anne took over guardianship of Mary’s son Henry, giving him a respectable education, and secured a widow’s pension for Mary.

Anne was crowned queen on June 1, 1533, and Mary was one of her ladies. By 1534, Mary had remarried for love to William Stafford, a soldier and the second son of a landowner in Essex. Stafford had little income, and the couple was married in secret. When Mary became pregnant, however, they were forced to reveal their marriage. Queen Anne and the rest of the Boleyn family were furious that she had married without royal permission, and the couple was banished from court. Mary attempted to get the king’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell, to intervene on her behalf, but King Henry either never got the message or was not moved to action. Likewise, the Boleyns did not relent until Anne did; she sent Mary some money but did not reinstate her position at court.

Between 1535 and 1536, Mary and William are believed to have had two children of their own: Edward Stafford (who died at the age of ten), and Anne Stafford, whose whereabouts as an adult are lost to history.

Final Years and Legacy of Survival

By 1536, Queen Anne had fallen out of favor, and she was arrested (along with her brother George and several male courtiers) and charged with treason, witchcraft, and adultery. Mary did not communicate with her family at this time – indeed, there is no record of contact after Anne’s brief gift following Mary’s exile.

Anne was executed on May 19, 1536 (her brother had been executed the day prior), and the remains of the Boleyn family were disgraced. Mary, however, escaped notice. She and her family continued to live off their lands. Mary died on July 19, 1543; her specific cause of death is unknown.

Mary never returned to court, but her daughter, Catherine Carey, was summoned by the head of the Howard/Boleyn clan to serve as a lady-in-waiting, first to Anne of Cleves, then to her distant cousin Catherine Howard. Eventually, she became the first lady of the bedchamber (a high-ranked lady-in-waiting) to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Through Catherine and her husband Sir Francis Knollys, Mary’s lineage remains in the British royal family to this day: Queen Elizabeth II is her descendant through her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Mary was mostly forgotten by history in favor of the more colorful and influential figures of the Tudor era. She featured in a few historical fiction and non-fiction texts, but she gained attention in popular culture following Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl and its subsequent 2008 film adaptation. Because many details of her life were not recorded (she was noble, but not especially important), we only know bits and pieces about her. More than anything, her legacy is not one of being the “unimportant” Boleyn, but of being the Boleyn who survived and thrived.

Sources

  • Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  • Hart, Kelly. The Mistresses of Henry VIII. The History Press, 2009.
  • Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. Ballantine Books, 2011.
  • Wilkinson, Josephine. Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Favorite Mistress. Amberley, 2009.