Mary Boleyn Loses First Husband to Sweating Sickness

Mary Boleyn was most likely the eldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard – the family settled at Hever Castle in Kent. She is best known as the sister of Anne Boleyn, and the mistress of Henry VIII (and Francis I). It was her relationship with King Henry which led Mary into a marriage with William Carey.

On the 4th of February 1520, Mary Boleyn married William Carey who was a gentleman of the royal privy chamber. Even though he did not hold a great title (or lands) the position meant he had intimate contact with the King on a daily basis – which is one of the best places to be in Tudor England.

Historians are unsure of when exactly the affair between Henry and Mary occurred between Mary and the King, but there have been suggestions that Mary’s eldest child, her daughter Catherine, was fathered by Henry VIII – she was born in 1524. This would mean that the affair was still ongoing after her marriage to William Carey. Is that why the marriage was arranged – to cover up any possible illegitimate children?

The Sweat

The 1528 outbreak of the Sweating Sickness arrived in London in May, and by the following month (22 June) Mary’s husband, William Carey was dead. The Sweat caused panic all over England when news spread of an outbreak. It was often said that one could be fine one moment, and then hours later dead. The suddenness of the Sweat frightened some into a frenzy. The victim would break-out in a sweat from fever, they would complain of a headache and body aches and become delirious. It was when the uncontrollable urge to sleep would overtake the victim that death was most often imminent. There was no cure for the Sweat and you were not immune from catching it again.


Left with two children (Catherine & Henry) to solely provide for, Mary was left with a significant financial burden. The fear of not being able to provide food for her children led Mary to write to Henry VIII to ask for assistance. At the time, her sister Anne Boleyn was very close to the King, and Mary probably hoped that her past relationship with the King, as well as her sister’s relationship, would stoke sympathy for her cause. Thankfully, King Henry acknowledged Mary’s plea and offered financial assistance for her from her father, and granted the wardship of her son Henry Carey to her sister Anne. One must assume that Catherine was raised by her mother.

Mary Boleyn went on to secretly marry William Stafford in 1534. For more on that – “The Downside of Marrying for Love

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The Downside of Marrying for Love: Mary Boleyn


When Mary Boleyn returned to court married and pregnant the King and Queen were none too pleased. Mary had not asked permission to remarry which was a huge faux pas for someone who was the sister of the Queen. It did not matter that Mary had met the love of her life; She had just ruined a potential political match for the king and another ally for the Boleyn family.

Sir William Carey – 1st Husband

In 1528, Mary’s first husband, William Carey died from the sweating sickness — it was six long years later (1534) that she secretly wed William Stafford, twelve years her junior. When she returned with the announcement, her sister, Anne Boleyn was beside herself with anger. She had just recently delivered a stillborn child which most definitely had an influence on her reaction. Anne and Henry banished Mary and her husband from court. In addition, her father, Thomas Boleyn, disowned her and stopped her allowance. She had been receiving Ł100 annuity from Henry VIII after the death of her first husband, William Carey. Her new husband was but a soldier with no great income, so things became very difficult for them. So much so Mary wrote a letter to Cromwell asking for help and explaining her situation.

Mary Stafford to Thomas Cromwell:

Master secretary, after my poor recommendations, which is smally to be regarded of me, that I am a poor banished creature – This shall be to desire you to be good to my poor husband and to me. I am sure it is not unknown to you the high displeasure that both he and I have, both of the king’s highness and the queen’s grace, by reason of our marriage without their knowledge, wherein we both do yield ourselves faulty, and do acknowledge that we did not well to be so hasty nor so bold, without their knowledge. But one thing, good master secretary, consider, that he was young, and love overcame reason; and for my part I saw so much honesty in him, that I loved him as well as he did me, and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty: so that, for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him. And so I do put no doubts but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the king’s gracious favour and the queen’s. For well I might have had a great man of birth and a higher, but I assure you I could never have had one that should have loved me so well, nor a more honest man; and besides that, he is both come of an ancient stock, and again as meet (if it was his grace’s pleasure) to do the king service, as any young gentleman in his court.

Therefore, good master secretary, this shall be my suit to you, that, for the love that I well know you do bear to all my blood, though, for my part, I have not deserved it but smally, by reason of my vile conditions, as to put my husband to the king’s grace that he may do his duty as all other gentlemen do. And, good master secretary, sue for us to the king’s highness, and beseech his highness which ever was wont to take pity, to have pity on us: and that it will lease his grace of his goodness to speak to the queen’s grace for us; for, so far as I can perceive, her grace is so highly displeased with us both that without the king be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigour and sue for us we are never like to recover her grace’s favour: which is too heavy to bear. And seeing there is no remedy, for God’s sake help us – for we have now been a quarter of a year married, I thank God, and too late now to call that again; wherefore it is the more alms to help. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, master secretary, for my little time, I have tried to much honestly to be in him, that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom – And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.

Reported image of Mary Boleyn
Reported image of Mary Boleyn

Therefore, good master secretary, seeing we are so well together and does intend to live so honest a life, though it be poor, show part of your goodness to us as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you, you have the name to help all them that hath need, and amongst all your suitors I dare be bold to say that you have no matter more to be pitied than ours; and therefore, for God’s sake, be good to us, for in you is all our trust.

And I beseech you, good master secretary, pray my lord my father and my lady to be so good to us, and to let me have their blessings and my husband their good will and I will never desire more of them. Also, I pray you, desire my lord Norfolk and my lord brother to be good to us, I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us; but if, with any pain that I could take with my life, I might win their good wills, I promise you there is no child living would venture more than I. And so I pray to you report by me, and you shall find my writing true and in all points which I may please them in I shall be ready to obey them nearest my husband, whom I am most bound to; to whom I most heartily beseech you to be good unto, which, for my sake, is a poor banished man for an honest and godly cause. And being that I have read in old books that some, for as just causes, have by kings and queens been pardoned by the suit of good folks, I trust it shall be out chance, through your good help, to come to the same; as knoweth the (Lord) God, who send you health and heart’s ease. Scribbled with her ill hand, who is your poor, humble suitor, always to command,

Mary Stafford.

The thing I take most from this letter was how poorly she was treated by her family for marrying without permission and the love that was shared between Mary and William. The part of the letter that stands out the most, to me, and shows the love they shared is:  ”I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom – And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.” She was not willing to give up her husband even to become queen, nor would William want to give her up to be king.

creativity is Intelligence having fun (1)


Bryson, Sarah; Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell

Cherry, Clare & Ridgway, Claire; George Boelyn: Tudor Poet & Diplomat

Evans, Victoria Sylvia; Ladies-in-Waiting: Women Who Served at the Tudor Court

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