The Mysterious Mary Boleyn

JAN / FEB 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT

Mary Boleyn has been a curious fixture in the 21st Century. This began with The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) by Philippa Gregory, its television adaption in 2003 by the BBC and the feature length film adaption in 2008. In all of these of depictions, Mary is shown as a shy and innocent young woman who is relegated into the title of “Other” by her outgoing and ambitious sister, Anne.

But just how accurate is all of this? Was Mary such a virtuous young lady? And was she pushed into historical obscurity because of her good conscience? The answer is simply no.

Details of Mary Boleyn’s life are sketchy, it is not even known what year she was born in, although many estimate that she was born in either 1499 or 1500. Also historians are unsure of which Boleyn sister was the oldest. However, evidence points towards Mary being the older sister. Firstly, a descendant of Mary claimed an ancestral title on the grounds he was the heir to the Boleyns. If Anne was elder, this would have gone to Elizabeth I. Secondly, Mary was married before Anne and traditionally an elder daughter married first. Finally, Anne is mentioned as “one of the daughters” of Thomas Boleyn. If Anne was the oldest, that distinction would have been mentioned.

Regardless, Mary had a fairly average upbringing for a Tudor noblewoman. Alongside basic maths, history and English, she was taught traditional feminine skills and talents such as dancing, household management, manners, music, sewing and singing. Mary also had a rather active youth, and was also taught archery, falconry, horse-riding and hunting. This all lasted until Mary was about fifteen in 1514, when her father was able to secure her a place as a maid-of-honor to Princess Mary who was leaving to marry Louis XII of France.

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Although after a few weeks many of the English ladies were sent away, Mary was allowed to remain. This was again due to her father, who was the English Ambassador to France. Even after King Louis died suddenly and Princess Mary returned to England, Mary Boleyn remained. A likely reason for Mary staying in France was because of her father’s position, but another suggested reason was that Mary had embarked on several relationships with French noblemen, even with the new King, Francis I – who interestingly was a rival to Henry VIII. This is further evidenced by the fact that Francis referred to her with multiple lewd nicknames. Soon afterwards, in 1519 she returned to England and due to her connections, was installed as a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon.

By the next year, Mary was married to William Carey – an affluent and important courtier. Historians are unsure of the exact date when Mary became a mistress to Henry VIII, although the most probable date is believed to be sometime in 1521. The relationship between Mary and Henry lasted for 5 years, and in between this time she had two children. Catherine was born in 1524 and Henry in 1526, despite both children carrying the Carey name – their paternity was uncertain. In particular, Henry Carey was known to have looked remarkably similar to King Henry.

From this point, Mary was tossed aside by Henry and he began to pursue Anne. Anne, seeing how her sister (alongside other women) had been used by Henry, knew she had to play hard ball. She rejected his gifts and refused to allow him access to her bedchamber. This had the effect Anne wanted, and Henry became more desperate to marry her. Whilst Anne was rising, Mary was facing considerable trouble. William Carey had died in 1528, leaving Mary to deal with his debts. Despite Anne and Mary not known for being particularly close, Anne used her new found influence to help her sister. She arranged for Henry Carey to be educated at a prestigious monastery and secured Mary a pension.

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A year after Anne’s coronation and the birth of Elizabeth in 1533, Mary married William Stafford. William Stafford was the opposite of William Carey – Stafford was a soldier and a second son, so he had very little income, and it’s believed they married for love. Another argument for this is that they married in secret due to Mary being pregnant, which was discovered by Anne. In her fury, she banished Mary from court and the entire Boleyn family disowned them.

Times became harder for Mary who was now destitute and pleaded with Thomas Cromwell to speak on her behalf to the King and her own family. Mary’s letters to Cromwell indicate how much she and Stafford cared for each other as 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”

Anne relented. She sent Mary an ornate cup and some money, but did not reinstall her at court or even visit her in person. It was the closest the sisters came to a reconciliation before Anne’s demise. During the fall of Anne, Mary’s life is hard to trace. There are no letters to family members, no acknowledgement in any correspondence and no evidence of her visiting her imprisoned brother and sister. Although it is thought that Mary was the beauty and Anne the brain, maybe Mary was reasonably intelligent enough to avoid her now disgraced family. A move that was also replicated by her ambitious uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.

During the last years of her life Mary lived in obscurity with Stafford, and died in 1543. It seems obvious, but it is hard to argue that Mary was a shy and naive woman, considering her supposed relationships in her life. Rather than naïveté in her relationships, it seems that she could have been a romantic as shown with Stafford. Finally, she could have become the “Other Boleyn Girl”, as a method of security to ensure she didn’t meet the same fate as her siblings, rather than any lacking in character.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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2 Replies to “The Mysterious Mary Boleyn”

  1. Great article! I definitely didn’t know all that about Mary Boleyn–I remember vaguely reading somewhere that she was Henry’s mistress before he began pursuing Anne; but that’s all. So this piece was very informative for me 🙂

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