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 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.
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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.
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 £100 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.
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,
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.
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. 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 19, 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: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” by Alison Weir, “Henry VIII: King and Court” by Alison Weir
Susan Abernethy here. It seems I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love history. At the age of fourteen, I watched “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on TV and was enthralled. Truth seemed much more strange than fiction. I started reading about Henry VIII and then branched out into many types of history. This even led me to study history in college. Even though I never did anything with the history degree, it’s always been a hobby of mine. I started this blog to write about my thoughts on all kinds of history from Ancient times to mid-20th Century. Please feel free to have a look around.