- Two Views of Mary:
Was Mary born first or Ann? Was Catherine born first or Henry? Was the King the father or William Carey?
Mary Boleyn was Henry VIII's mistress before he married her younger sister, Anne, but she survived Anne's downfall.
By Karen Harper
A clear view of Mary Boleyn's individual character is difficult to obtain. Her personal history is obscured by the more tumultuous life and death of her younger sister Anne, Henry VIII's second Queen. Piecemeal glimpses of Mary's life must be garnered from footnotes or brief mention in the works about her sister, her father and the two Kings whose lives she touched: François I of France (reigned 1515-1547) and Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547). Yet as mistress to two Kings, twice wed to men of Henry's Court and mother of children who served their cousin, Elizabeth I, Mary emerges from the pages of Tudor history as an enigmatic and intriguing figure.
She was born about 1504, one of Thomas and Elizabeth Bullen's three surviving children The variations of the family surname are numerous: it was written "Boulen," "Bullaye," "Boulan," and "Bolleyn," although "Bullen" was the spelling Mary's ancestors favoured over the centuries. "Boleyn" was evidently adopted by her sister, Queen Anne, from a French spelling when she was awarded an elaborate pedigree by Henry VIII's King-of-Arms in 1530.
Mary's birthplace was probably Hever Castle where she, her brother George and sister Anne were reared. Their mother, Elizabeth, was related to the Howard Dukes of Norfolk, and was a very fortunate match for the aspiring Thomas Bullen. He had served as King's Esquire to the ailing Henry VII until his death in 1509 and then to the young Henry VIII. When he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of Margaret of Savoy, Archduchess of Austria and Regent of the Netherlands in 1512, he saw a golden opportunity to send his 8-year-old daughter, Mary, to a free and elegant finishing school. But a year later an even greater possibility arose for Mary's advancement when Henry VIII's sister Mary was dispatched to wed the aged King Louis XII of France. Mary Bullen became Maid of Honour to this new Queen, though the kindly Archduchess was grieved to part with the child.
In comparison with most of the English maids surrounding the French Queen, Mary was extremely young, which brought some social disadvantages but appears to have been what saved her position when the King ordered the Queen's English ladies to leave France. " La petite Boullain," as the next French Queen affectionately called her, was permitted to remain one of the few Englishwomen with the 18-year-old Queen Mary. Such favourable intimacy with a Tudor was not to last. In January 1515 Louis XII died, leaving his Queen of three months a widow. When shortly after the King's death, Mary Tudor married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in secret and left France in disgrace, Thomas Bullen snatched his daughter from her service. Now Mary found herself at the age of 11 established in the household of Claude of France, Queen to François I.
From that point on, Mary Bullen's formative years were spent in the polarized Court of the dazzling new King. One segment of the Court was composed of 300 maidens strictly reared to do needlework, attend chapel and speak in hushed tomes in the hearing of the always pious and ever-pregnant Queen Claude. The "other" Court rotated round the young King with his mistresses, bawdy humour and licentious behaviour. The King's mother, Louise of Savoy, and his sister, Marguerite, Duchess of Alençon, rather than his reclusive Queen, presided over his world.
Mary matured into a fair, blue-eyed blonde with the legendary Howard good looks. Despite the restrictions the French Queen imposed on her entourage, Mary displayed an easy going personality. She was light-hearted yet spirited, without the calculation and cattiness that such sophisticated courts could breed. She was, according to one account, sweet, fresh and winning. About this time she caught the eye of the French King, whose ungallant sobriquet for Mary in later years was "my English mare."
Mary's final years at François' Court were no doubt thrilling. In 1517 François, triumphant from his victory at Milan, returned stuffed with ideas and breathing the rich air of the Italian Renaissance. His most treasured booty included the 65-year-old genius Leonardo da Vinci, whose works Mary must have known, whether or not she knew the Master himself. Then, too, the importance and influence of women were enhanced by the heady atmosphere of the French Renaissance as power glittered from François' mother and sister. Mary's sister, Anne, had earlier joined her in France, and in 1519 her father became French Ambassador and was frequently on the fringes of Mary's risqué life. That same year saw improved relations between the French and the English as delegations of nobles were exchanged between the two courts.
Mary's stay in France ended with the grandiose spectacle of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, held on a non-descript plain in Picardy in June 1520. Since she returned to London with the English contingent, it seems probable that she was among the 5,172 English visitors to this opulent three-week-long entente cordiale between the Houses of Valois and Tudor. By tradition, Mary and Anne Boleyn were first presented to Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Although the meeting was a political fiasco with nothing accomplished, for Thomas Bullen it proved a victory: The English sovereign had noticed Mary.
Now another man entered the 16-year-old Mary's life. He was the ultimate master, King Henry VIII himself. Busy in France, Thomas Bullen could not even attend Mary's wedding to a courtier named William Carey, which took place almost immediately upon her return to England. The King gave Carey some sources of revenue and an insignificant office in his Household which would allow the newly wedded couple to live at Court. In this way began Mary Bullen, Lady Carey's six-year liaison with the King that her father had served so assiduously.
Mary followed several other women into royal favour, but only one, Elizabeth Blount, who had borne the King his only living son in 1519, had made much impact. Like Queen Claude of France, Queen Catherine of Aragon had learned to tolerate "the situation". Yet, for Mary to continue a relationship with the King for such a lengthy period indicates that she had an attractive and alluring personality as well as physical beauty. Even in 1524 when Mary bore her first child, and later a second (an indiscretion which usually prompted the King to look elsewhere) their relationship was not severely impaired.
Despite the toll of time and pregnancies, Mary's attraction did not diminish, evidenced by her father's rapid rise in the realm. In 1522 Thomas Bullen fell heir to the goods of the executed Duke of Buckingham and became Treasurer of the Household; Ambassador to Spain (1522-1523); Knight of the Garter (1523); and Clerk of the King's Jewels (1524). Numerous stewardships and other sinecures swelled his purse, and in June 1525 he was elevated to peerage as Viscount Rochford. Although Anne was called back to England from the French court in 1522, she spent much time at Hever and on the Continent at the Court of Margaret of Austria, as had her sister before her. Contrary to the popular romantic beliefs about Anne's immediate influence over the King, it was probably his affair with Mary from which the early bounty flowed to the Bullen family.
Mary's eldest child, a son, remains an enigma. The birth of a male to an acknowledged mistress of the King could have created a scandal, but in this case there was none. It was not until Mary's son served his cousin Elizabeth I that he greatly impressed his sovereign and his nation. The King evidently chose not to believe he had fathered the child, although the baby was conceived during his relationship with Mary and was christened Henry in his honour. The King did, however, meticulously provide for Mary's son after her husband's death. The birth of Mary's second child, Catherine, seemed to cause hardly a ripple at the Court.
At what point the King transferred his affections from Mary to her sister Anne is uncertain, although by 1527 his passions had definitely transferred to Anne. After this period Mary became an embarrassment to her sister, her father and her King.
When Mary's husband, William, died of the sweating sickness on 22 July 1528, worse was yet to come. No longer useful to her father, a constant reminder to her sister who knew enough to avoid the King's bed for the present, out of favour with her King and newly widowed, Mary faced bitter poverty in the midst of the opulent Court. The King gave away all the deceased William Carey's sources of income. Custody of Mary's son went to Anne who was to oversee the boy's upbringing during his minority. Young Henry Carey was to be raised at a religious house instead of at Court, and his mother would not even be able to see him.
After these initial blows Mary's situation seemed to improve slightly. She became Lady Mary Rochford when all the Boleyns were given honours as King Henry bestowed ever more preferments in an effort to placate the nervous Anne while he plodded towards divorce. Eventually Mary was given a small yearly allowance by Thomas Boleyn after Anne pleaded with the King that her father ought to help support her destitute sister. After Catherine of Aragon was displaced, Mary became one of Anne's companions at an annual income of £100. And she was chosen to travel to France in Anne's entourage on a visit to Francois I in 1532, shortly before Anne became Queen.
The burden of bearing a male heir now rested upon Queen Anne. She bore a girl, Elizabeth, in 1533 and a dead son in 1536. To the increasingly desperate Anne, who had promised so much to make the King risk so much, it must have rankled to see her husband's ex-mistress always there and to know Mary had a fine healthy son named Henry.
By the time Mary went to comfort the distraught Anne at the birth of the stillborn son in early 1536, Mary had been secretly married for two years to Sir William Stafford, a young gentleman usher with little money and no rank. The marriage was not discovered until months later when Anne learned that Mary was pregnant again. Anne greeted the news with hysteria. Mary's relatives, the Bullens and Norfolks, disowned her. Mary Boleyn had dared to marry for love and to a socially unworthy man of her own choosing. Worse, she was already with child when one was urgently needed elsewhere. Mary and William Stafford were banished from Court in disgrace.
Only Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister from 1533 to 1540, kept communication lines open between the Court and the newly independent Mary. She wrote Cromwell a letter explaining that the world set little store by her, but that her beloved William Stafford cared for her a great deal. She desired only to live a simple honest life with the man she loved, she wrote, although, "...well might I have had a greater man of birth and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well, nor a more honest man. I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest Queen christened ... and I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king."
Anne's anger at thinking Mary such a fool as to wed Stafford soon abated as her own plight became increasingly serious. Anne feared she could never bear the male heir which she knew would be the best ensurance for the preservations of her marriage, no matter how far the King wandered. In 1536 Henry had his Queen arrested at a tournament at Greenwich and sent to the Tower, charged with adultery and treason. Mary's brother George was also incarcerated on a charge of incest with the Queen.
Mary's insignificant marriage and the comparative privacy of her banishment from Court protected her from the dire and probably trumped-up charges facing her brother and sister, but her liaison with the King gave her importance during Anne's trial. The King's long relationship with Mary placed him in an ironical position. He had used the law to prove that his marriage to his brother Arthur's widow was invalid. "Impediments of affinity in the first degree collateral" had been the argument Henry's advocates put forward to speed his divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne. Further, Leviticus stated: "Thou shalt not take the sister of thy wife as a concubine," which the King had clearly done when switching his attentions from Mary to Anne. But he plunged ahead with Anne's trial by decreeing that brothers' wives fell under Divine Law while mistresses' sisters did not. Still, because his long relationship with Mary worried him, he had his marriage to Anne annulled rather than simply becoming a widower on her execution.
The rest of the tragedy of Mary's family is well known. Anne and George were declared guilty and beheaded in May 1536. Of Thomas Bullen's once promising brood of children, Mary alone survived. On the deaths of her siblings and the ruin of her father, who retired a broken man to Hever, Mary Boleyn, Lady Stafford, steps offstage. It is known that in 1538 after the deaths of her parents, Hever Castle was "sold" to the King by Mary's uncle, Sir James Bullen, in what was a very unusual business transaction. By law the property would have automatically reverted to the Crown. From the sale the Patent Rolls record a sum paid to Mary Stafford. The King's reason for this gift of money is as unrecorded as the rest of Mary's years after the fall of the Boleyns.
Mary Boleyn's real legacy to her nation was through her children's services to her niece, Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine Carey became gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber at Elizabeth's accession, married Sir Francis Knollys, and became the grandmother of Lord Essex, the Queen's favourite in her later years. Henry Carey, 1st Lord of Hunsdon, served as trusted advisor and put down the Catholic Dacre rebellion against his royal cousin in February 1570. On that occasion the Queen wrote Henry Carey a touching letter of which his mother Mary Boleyn would have been proud: "I doubt much, my Harry, whether that the victory were given me, more joyed me, or that you were by God appointed the instrument of my glory; and I assure you that for my country's good, the first might suffice, but for my heart's contention the second pleased me ... you have done much for honour ... You loving kinswoman, Elizabeth R."
There had been other victories and joys, heart's contentions and honours, but interwoven with these had been greed, loneliness, cruelty and heartbreak. These intriguingly brief glimpses of Mary Boleyn, whose life touched so many important figures in the Tudor panorama, show her to have been a fascinating woman.
This article was written by Karen Harper for British Heritage magazine.
The Other Boleyn Girl
By Alison Plowden
Mary Boleyn enjoyed a royal fling with Henry VIII before her younger sister Anne moved into the limelight. Alison Plowden reveals the little-known story of a fascinating figure.
The rise of the family of Mary Boleyn, and of her sister Anne, future wife of Henry VIII, followed a classic pattern. The family came originally from Sall in Norfolk, and early in the l5th century Geoffrey Boleyn, younger son of a tenant farmer, had come up to London to seek his fortune. He was admitted to the freedom of the city in the art of mercer, married an aristocratic wife and rose to become Lord Mayor. Before his death in 1463 he had acquired Blickling Hall in Norfolk from Sir John Fastolf, and the manor and castle of Hever from the Cobhams of Kent.
Geoffrey's son, William, had no need to concern himself with trade. He was created a Knight of the Bath by Richard III and married into the noble Anglo-Irish family of Butler, his wife being the daughter and co-heiress of the Seventh Earl of Ormonde. The Boleyns were now well on their way up the social ladder and William's second son, Thomas, came to court to make his way in the royal service, one of the new men for the new Tudor dynasty. He, too, made a useful marriage – to Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk – a marriage that brought him three surviving children, George, Mary and Anne.
There has always been a certain amount of confusion between the Boleyn sisters at this period of their lives, and doubt over their dates of birth. Suggested birth dates for Anne vary between 150l and 1507, and although it is most likely that Mary was the elder of the two, there may have been no more than twelve months between them.
All we really know for sure is that both girls spent some part of their early years abroad. By 1512 their father was undertaking diplomatic missions to Europe and used his official connections to get the extra advantage of a Continental 'finish' for his daughters.
One of them, now generally thought to be Anne, lived for a time in the household of Margaret, Archduchess of Austria and Regent of the Netherlands, and in 1514 Mary Boleyn went over to France in the train of Henry VIII's sister (Mary) when the latter was briefly married to old Louis XII. Again information is scanty, but it is known that Anne presently joined Mary at the French court, entering the service of Queen Claude, wife of the new king Francois I.
Mary returned to England before Anne, though we don't know exactly when, and brought with her a colourful reputation for wanton behaviour. Francois I, himself a notorious womaniser, described her ungallantly as his 'English mare' and another French commentator was later to refer to her in even more outspoken terms. In spite of this, her father apparently experienced no difficulty in finding her a place at the English court, as one of Queen Catherine of Aragon's maids of honour.
Life at court
Mary Boleyn became Henry VIII's mistress, probably for about two years from 1519, for in February 152l she was married off to William Carey, a gentleman of the king's Privy Chamber. This must have come as a considerable disappointment to her ambitious family, for while there was little real social stigma attached to having been the King's mistress it undoubtedly affected a girl's matrimonial prospects, and she had a right to expect some royal compensation.
But Henry was notoriously stingy towards his extra-marital partners – even Elizabeth Blount, who had given him a bastard son, achieved no more than a respectable marriage – and although William Carey was one of the king's close companions, which might give him useful opportunities for further advancement, he was otherwise of no particular account.
Carey was a younger son without land or fortune, and remained dependent on casual royal bounty in the shape of keeperships, stewardships and the occasional grant of a manor. Thomas Boleyn may well have reflected on how much better these things were managed in France, where the maitresse en titre
was a recognised public figure, wielding influence and patronage.
There were two surviving children of the Carey marriage, Catherine, born in l524, and Henry, in 1526. The rumour that Henry was the king's son appears to have been founded on no more than the recollection of John Hales, vicar of Isleworth, who some ten years after the child was born remarked that a Brigettine monk from Sion had once showed him 'young Master Carey' saying he was the king's bastard.
But by the time of young Master Carey's birth, Mary's royal fling was well over and the king was already becoming infatuated with her younger sister. Anne had returned to England at the end of 1521, but the marriage planned for her with one of her Irish cousins had fallen through and her own unauthorised romance with Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland's heir, had been blighted by Cardinal Wolsey, so that in the mid-1520s she was still unspoken for.
As ambitious as her father, and more strong-willed and intelligent than Mary, though apparently not so good-looking, Anne had no intention of becoming another royal mistress. With her sister's example before her, she knew it would lead to nothing more than a second-rate and perhaps unhappy marriage, and she meant to do better than that.
William Carey died of the sweating sickness in the summer of 1528, but as far as we know Mary remained at court throughout Anne's determined, skilful, six-year-long campaign to win the greatest prize of all – marriage to the king. One can imagine Mary playing a supportive sisterly role, and perhaps drawing on her own experience to give advice on how best to please the king, without allowing him to proceed to the 'ultimate conjunction'.
There are occasional references to Mary in Henry's private letters, and in November 1530 he gave Anne £20 to redeem a jewel from her sister, probably given in payment for a gambling debt. By this time Anne was within sight of her goal. In 1531 the king finally separated from Queen Catherine, his faithful wife for 20 years, and in October 1532, the battle for his divorce all but won, he and Anne paid a state visit to France. Mary was among the 30 ladies who accompanied them.
From her place in the background Mary would have been able to watch her sister's triumph, as Anne, by this time visibly pregnant, was crowned queen in the summer of 1533. The Boleyns were now riding high. Thomas Boleyn had been created Earl of Wiltshire, brother George was Viscount Rochford – but there was nothing for Mary and, surprisingly, no attempt seems to have been made to find her another husband.
She was probably still only in her late 20s and, considering her family's present ascendancy, surely a very desirable match; but nothing happened until 1534, when Mary took matters into her own hands by falling in love and making a runaway marriage. Her new husband was one William Stafford, another member of the royal entourage and another younger son without money or land. The family was furious.
Her father cut off her allowance and her sister banished her from court, so that Mary was obliged to appeal for help to Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell. She admitted that she might have chosen 'a greater man of birth and a higher', but never one that should have loved her so well, nor a more honest man. And she went on, '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.'
She begged Cromwell to intercede for her with her father and mother, her uncle Norfolk and her brother. 'I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us.' But the Staffords were not forgiven, and remained outcasts living in rustic retirement at Rochford in Essex. This turned out to be just as well, for they were thus able to escape any involvement in the witch-hunt surrounding the eventual disgrace, trial and execution of both Anne and her brother George, as well as the five other young men in their circle.
After her parents' death Mary inherited the Boleyn properties in Essex, and herself lived on until l543, long enough to watch as her young cousin Catherine Howard was exploited and ultimately sacrificed to family ambition.
Ironically it was Mary, the feckless, unregarded member of the family, who gave the Boleyns their posterity, for her children were to prosper in the reign of Anne's daughter, Elizabeth I, who always showed special favour towards her mother's kin. Catherine Carey married Sir Francis Knollys, a distinguished pillar of the Elizabethan establishment, and became one of the queen's closest friends. Henry Carey was raised to the peerage as Baron Hunsdon and followed a military career. He played a leading part in suppressing the Northern Rising of 1569, and was rewarded with a personal note of thanks from his sovereign lady, signed 'Your loving kinswoman, Elizabeth R'.
The Boleyn/Carey/Tudor connection continued on to the end of the century. Catherine's daughter Lettice was the mother of Elizabeth's favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and it was Mary's grandson, Robert Carey, who was with the queen at Richmond Palace in March 1603 and left a moving account of her last illness and death. It was Robert, too, who rode from Richmond to Edinburgh, accomplishing the journey in a record three days, to tell James of Scotland that he was king of England at last.
Find out more
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992)
The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn
by RM Warnicke (Cambridge University Press, l989)
Tudor Women – Queens and Commoners
by Alison Plowden (Sutton Publishing, 2002)
by Hester Chapman (Jonathan Cape, 1974)
by EW Ives (Oxford University Press, 1986)Related Links
Anne Boleyn and the downfall of her family
Henry VIII: Majesty with Menace
What was the Reformation?
Kings and Queens Through Time
Tudor and Victorian Costume
Foul Facts Gallery: Terrible Tudors, Vile Victorians
BBC Radio 4: This Sceptred Isle – Anne Boleyn
BBC Drama: The Other Boleyn Girl
External Web Links
Historic Royal Palaces: The Tower of London
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