Mary Boleyn (1499-1543) was the most famous member of the Boleyn family before her sister Anne’s ascendancy as Queen of England in 1533. Yet Mary’s early renown was something of a dubious honour, since it was based on her adulterous affair with King Henry VIII: Mary is thought to have been Henry’s mistress for a brief period in the early to mid-1520s, a few years before he married her sister, Anne.
Mary married twice in her life, first to William Carey, one of the king’s courtiers, and again in secret, to William Stafford. This second married was deemed unacceptable by King Henry and Queen Anne, and Mary was banished from the family.
Ironically, after the downfall of the Boleyn family in 1536, when both Anne and her brother George were executed, Mary briefly became the sole survivor of the once-powerful dynasty that had disowned her.
Here are 10 facts about Mary, the ‘other Boleyn girl’.
1. Mary Boleyn was one of Henry VIII’s mistresses
As a product of their affair, Mary is rumoured to have borne King Henry VIII two children, although none were recognised as the king’s or afforded ‘royal bastard’ status and privilege. It is thought Mary’s affair started with King Henry VIII after he had been invited to her wedding on 4 February 1520 to William Carey. There, the story goes, the illicit relationship began after Mary caught the king’s roving eye. The affair with Mary Boleyn repeated a pattern established by Madge Shelton and Bessie Blount, King Henry’s previous mistresses.
2. Mary Boleyn may have had an affair with King Francis I
Mary is believed to have had an affair with Francis I, King of France, while in Paris with her father Thomas Boleyn, who had become the new English ambassador to France. Francis allegedly referred to her as ‘The English Mare’.
Mary had acted as maid-of-honour to Mary Tudor, King Henry VIII’s sister who married the elderly King Louis XII of France. After Queen Mary was unexpectedly widowed, the young Mary Boleyn remained in France with Louis’ daughter, Claude of France, and son-in-law, Francis I, the new king. This was when, according to rumour, Mary embarked on an affair with Francis.
3. Mary and Anne were far from kindred spirits
The Boleyn siblings weren’t always close and often moved in different circles. Anne viewed her sister’s treatment by King Henry, discarded as a former mistress, as the path not to take and pushed for marriage with him, promising the male heir he desired.
When queen, Anne did help to settle Mary’s debts when she was widowed to her first husband, Carey. Anne also offered wardship to her nephew, Mary’s son Henry Carey, benefiting his education. But Anne never reinstated her sister’s position at the Royal Court.
4. Henry’s affair with Mary was used to invalidate his marriage to Anne
Desperate to find excuses to rid himself of Anne, his second wife, Henry looked at the possibility of using his affair with sister Mary as a tactic to invalidate the marriage. Henry’s liaison with Mary before Anne rendered the marriage unlawful, according to the Dispensation Act. The sexual relationship between Henry and Mary was seen as a possible impediment to Henry marrying Anne, making the union invalid due to accusations of an incestuous nature.
5. Historians debate who was the eldest daughter in the Boleyn household
In most history books, as well as movies and television dramas, Mary Boleyn is depicted as the elder of the sisters. However, there may be evidence that Anne was the eldest: she first secured an appointment to reside within the household of Margaret, Archduchess of Austria, when Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn was an envoy to the regent of the Dutch court. This fact is seen by some historians as the primary evidence that Anne was the elder sister, as the elder child would typically receive such an opportunity first.
6. Henry VIII first set eyes on Mary at one of Cardinal Wolsey’s extravagant banquets
On Shrove Tuesday 1522, Mary Boleyn, then just 14, was one of eight women, including sister Anne, who participated in a celebration at York Place, Cardinal Wolsey’s home for the benefit of visiting imperial ambassadors. A large construction had been made called Chateau Vert with three towers bedecked with banners. The ladies were dressed in white satin with bejewelled headdresses, and all were given virtuous names.
Anne played ‘Perseverance’ and Mary was ‘Kindness’. Henry VIII watched the spectacle as Mary and Anne, along with other virtuous ladies, took part in a bizarre staging of the fake chateau under siege. The extravagant banquet was possibly the first time the king had set eyes on the teenage Mary.
7. Mary was ostracised from the Boleyn family for marrying a man she loved
In what appears to be a particularly cruel reaction to a sibling simply falling in love with an ‘unsuitable’ paramour, Mary was banished from the royal court by Queen Anne Boleyn and King Henry for having secretly married without their permission. Mary’s crime was to fall in love with a soldier, William Stafford, and become pregnant by him.
William was considered below Mary and her family’s station and with few prospects. Not only was Mary banned from the royal court but she was also disowned by the Boleyn family. She died 7 years later, having never seen her ill-fated sister Anne again.
8. The Boleyn family arranged Mary’s first marriage when she was a child
William Carey, a man from nobility, was 24 when contracted to marry a 12-year-old Mary Boleyn. A teenage bride, Mary gave birth to her first child, a son, when she was 16. The marriage was endorsed by King Henry who gave the newlyweds a cash present of 6 shillings and 8 pence. Mary’s subsequent affair with King Henry when she was 17 afforded her a place at the court and enriched her husband William with two keeperships, a stewardship, an annuity and manors in two counties.
9. Mary Boleyn may have had a son with King Henry VIII
Mary’s affair with King Henry ended in mid-1525. Less than nine months later, in March 1526, she gave birth to a son she named Henry. The boy was widely assumed to be the ‘bastard son of the king’. Although there is speculation over the matter, the boy’s physical likeness to the red-haired monarch was often remarked upon.
King Henry never acknowledged young Carey in the same way he did his other illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, as it may have been embarrassing to recognise a child by his wife’s sister. Young Henry Carey was eventually ennobled by his aunt, the formidable Elizabeth I who gave her nephew the title Lord Hudson.
10. Disowned by her family, Mary never saw Anne again after 1534
Mary Boleyn lived until 1543, dying in obscurity in her mid-40s at Rochford Hall in Essex, a Boleyn property, after she was banished from court. Anne was executed on 19 May 1535. It is unlikely Mary had any contact with her niece, Elizabeth I, who was to become one of the most iconic monarchs in English history.