Mary Boleyn: The Other Boleyn Sister

Portrait of Mary Boleyn: Anne Boleyn's Sister
Portrait of Mary Boleyn: Anne Boleyn's Sister | Source

Anne Boleyn has always been one of history's most famous women, however many forget about her sister, Mary. She is known as Henry VIII's mistress and mother to a possible son of his, but very little is known what happened to her during and after Anne's downfall.

Mary Boleyn's Early Life

From what can be deciphered from history, Mary was probably the eldest of the three Boleyn children, the two Boleyn sisters and their brother, George. However, some historians do put her as being younger than Anne.

Mary was sent to the court of Brussels in 1513 to serve as maid of honour to Margaret, Archduchess of Austria and Regent of the Netherlands and then later joined the entourage of Mary Tudor, along with her sister, Anne, as she became the wife of the French King. Whilst here, Mary became the mistress of Francis II and was named the "English mare" and "A great whore, 'the most infamous of all'".

Mary Boleyn's first husband, William Carey
Mary Boleyn's first husband, William Carey

Mary Boleyn Marries William Carey

However, Mary returned to England before Anne and became a lady-in-waiting to Catharine of Aragon and married William Carey; a gentleman of the king's privy chamber. He was extremely close to Henry, daily, and was a valuable connection for the Boleyns; Thomas Boleyn was a very ambitious man.

Mary had her first child, a daughter named Catherine, around 1524, and it would have been around this time that she caught the attention of Henry. Evidence supports that Mary would have been one of Henry's mistresses, mainly due to seeking a papal dispensation to marry the sister of a woman with who he hand engaged in unlawful intercourse in 1527; when Henry realised he wanted to marry Anne.

The affair ended mid-1525 and Mary gave birth to a son on 4th March 1526. She named this son Henry. Even though it has been speculated that this son was in fact Henry's, due to the sudden manors and estates that the Careys had been granted during the affair and immediately before the child's birth, there is the question as to why the king did not acknowledge this son like he did with a previous illegitmate son, Henry Fitzroy.

A fictional book, The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory, shows that it was Anne Boleyn who convinced Henry not to acknowledge the heir; she did not want the possibility of being overshadowed by her sister. Yet, it is also possible that Henry did not want the embarrassment of his illegitimate son being the nephew of the woman he was wanting to marry.

After William Carey's death in 1528, Henry granted Anne the wardship of her nephew in fear of Mary's behaviour degenerating. This is another possible sign that Henry believed the now two-year-old to be his own since he did not do the same for Mary's daughter. When Anne became queen, Mary became a lady-in-waiting.

Mary Boleyn Marries William Stafford

1534 was the year that the two sisters began to find conflict between themselves. Mary married a solider, William Stafford, who she married for love rather than power. This caused outrage from the entire Boleyn family, who were now all ennobled. William was a commoner and not fit for a queen's sister and they were banished from court.

Mary was forced to beg Thomas Cromwell for assistance whilst her brother and father received grants and titles. In fact, this was possibly the best thing for Mary.

Anne Boleyn was Mary's sister
Anne Boleyn was Mary's sister

Anne Boleyn Falls from Grace

In 1536, Anne and her faction fell from the king's grace. At first a divorce was considered and Mary's affair years earlier was mentioned. However because of the papal dispensation, this was not considered and so other ideas have to be thought of.

Mary never visited Anne or George whilst they was imprisoned and condemned to death and there is no evidence that she wrote to them. It could have been that she thought it wise to avoid association or maybe it was because her pleas to Cromwell earlier had gone unanswered.

Whilst the whole Boleyn family began to fall out of favour with Henry, Mary's children gained some royal favour. Catherine Carey was appointed maid of honour to Anne of Cleves and in 1540 married Sir Francis Knollys, a member of Henry's household. She was also one of Elizabeth I's closest friends. Henry Carey was entitled Lord Hunsdon during Elizabeth's reign, although this was something that Mary did not see since it was done on Henry's deathbed.

A Clip from the Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl

Mary Boleyn Inherits the Boleyn Houses

Mary outlived both of her parents, Elizabeth Howard and Thomas Boleyn, who died in 1537 and 1538 respectively. Due to Thomas Boleyn's faithfullness to his king (more likely power) than to his children, he managed to keep some of his property, which was left to Mary after his death. Mary lived quietly and happily with her second husband until her death in 1543.

Had Mary stood by her brother and sister during their trials, Mary would have probably suffered a similar fate to the rest of the Boleyn family and faction; the loss of houses and money. Had Mary realised that and was the reason she stayed away or was it that her pleas for help to Thomas Cromwell had fallen on deaf ears that she had decided to not acknowledge that her brother and sister were being condemned to die?

All that is known is that she was able to live a happy life, even if she had very little money, and she was one of the few women of the 16th Century who was able to marry for love rather than power.

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