The forgotten Boleyn sister – Mary Boleyn

We’re pretty sure you have heard of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. And probably George Boleyn, too, her brother with whom she supposedly had an incestuous relationship How about their older sister, Mary Boleyn? No? That may be because her siblings’ infamous lives overshadowed the eldest Boleyn’s less exciting life – there isn’t even a surviving authenticated picture of Mary to show us how she looked – but that doesn’t mean her tale isn’t interesting.

Early life: 

Little remains known about Mary Boleyn, the ‘forgotten’ Boleyn, however, historians Eric Ives, Antonia Fraser and ___ Denny believe that Mary was the eldest child of Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. Mary married before Anne, as elder children often did, but there are still others that believe that Anne is the eldest. There is also no evidence to tell us exactly when she was born, but it is believed to be between 1499 and 1508.


It is believed that Mary was born in the family home, Blickling Hall, and grew up at Hever Castle. She was educated by a French governess, alongside her brother and sister, and taught the subjects expected of a lady of her ranking. This included the skills of embroidery, dancing, etiquette, household management, music, singing and card games. Proof of her embroidery skills was demonstrated in the blackwork collar with intricate flower designs, which she made for Henry VIII in 1533.

Mary was also taught basic knowledge of maths, history, grammar, spelling, reading and writing. Other skills she accomplished – mostly for social purposes – were archery, riding, hunting and falconry. She was raised in the Catholic faith; of course, the Reformation and creation of the Church of England was decades off when Mary was growing up.

Life at the French Court: 

Mary arrived at the French Court in 1514 when accompanying Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor, to marry the aged King Louis XII. As daughter of a middling courtier, Mary was chosen as part of the retinue, and she took the journey from Dover to France with Mary, and seeing as she was appointed Maid of Honour, was likely part of the marriage ceremony, too.

Whilst at court, Mary Boleyn met King Francis I, the King at the time of her lodgings at French court, which sparked rumours about her first affair with a King. This was because Francis told the Catholic Bishop, Rodolfo Pio, which Pio documented in a letter. Supposedly, the French King called Mary his “English Mare” and “a very great whore, the most infamous of them all”.

Somehow, this being the only evidence on the matter, makes the truth of this rumour rather dubious, if not simply scandalous.

Mary at Henry VIII’s Court: 

Mary returned to the English court in 1519 and became a lady-in-waiting for Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first Queen. She went onto marry William Carey in 1520, one of the King’s favourites and Gentleman of the Privy Chamber – a prestigious role allowing the incumbent close access to the King.

Henry attended their wedding as a guest, but this did not stop Henry from making Mary his mistress – who could refuse a King? It is assumed that the affair started in 1522, as during the Shrovetide Joust, Henry wore a latin motto that meant “she has wounded my heart” and many believe that this was related to Mary. Although this affair is one of the most well-known acts of her life, it was kept discreet; the details of this affair, including its end, are unknown. Some believe that the affair ended in 1525 after Mary became pregnant with her second child.


In 1527, life at court became harder for Mary as Henry declared his desire to annul Catherine of Aragon and marry her sister, Anne. The following year, Mary became a widow with two young children to look after, as William Carey died of sweating sickness. This involved flu like symptoms and resulted in death.

A question is raised: were Mary’s children fathered by William Carey or Henry VIII? Mary’s first child was Catherine Carey (1524-1569) and her second was Henry Carey (1526-1596). Both married well and were favourites of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter.

The answer to this question will never be known, and is probably one of the biggest mysteries surrounding Mary’s life. If they were Henry’s children, this could have changed the entire course of history and the lives that we know and live in today. Nevertheless, this was not the case and Henry VIII did not declare Mary’s children as his illegitimate children, which he arguably would have if he believed them to be his children, as he recognised Henry Fitzroy, son of Bessie Blount, in 1519. Another fact that would have stopped Henry claiming Mary’s children as his own was the Catholic canon law. This meant that as Mary became Henry’s sister-in-law through his marriage with Anne, their relationship no longer counted as they were now family by law.

mary boleyn was a mistress to henry viii before her sister anne caught the king’s eye (NPG)

As if things couldn’t get worse for Mary, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn worried that Mary would become an embarrassment now that she had no husband and possessing her characteristic flaw of having an “easy virtue”, they quickly took control of her life.

Firstly, Henry gave Anne wardship of Mary’s son, Henry, and provided Mary with £100 a year to live on. Secondly, they kept her in court as a lady-in waiting and when she disobeyed Anne by secretly marrying William Stafford in 1533/34, she was banished from court.

Exiled from court: 

Mary married William Stafford after she met him in Calais whilst part of Henry’s entourage as he tried to canvas support for his annulment. There were rumours of a pregnancy in 1533, but this has never been confirmed and there is no evidence of any child surviving. This is believed to be a marriage of love, as William was seen as lower rank than her family status, which deeply angered her father and sister, Queen Anne.

After her banishment, the feud between her and her sister distressed Mary and so she wrote to Thomas Cromwell to persuade the King and Queen to reinstate her position at court, by confessing her love for William. She wrote: “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”. This did not work but Anne did send Mary gold and money to help with her difficult financial situation.

There is little detail of her marriage with William but that he was “an honest man” and that there “was never one that could love her so well”. (I for one, hope that Mary had a happy marriage, away from societal and familial pressures).

It is thought that Mary did not see her siblings ever again after this and that she died of unknown causes in 1543, outliving Anne and George by seven years.

So the life of the eldest Boleyn sister remains a mystery, what do you think happened to Mary Boleyn? I shall let your intrigue grow and your imagination wander …..

Share this

1 comment

Leslie Turner Fri 20 September, 2019 - 8:46 pm

I believe I may be a direct descendant of King Henry through Mary Boleyn’s daughter Catherine. I’d probably need to take a DNA test to confirm though.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.