Mary Boleyn, the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, was born in Bilickling Hall in about 1498. Mary was the eldest of three surviving children. Anne Boleyn was born in 1499 and her brother George Boleyn, in 1504.
Sir Thomas was very ambitious for his two daughters. "Thomas Boleyn... wanted Mary and Anne to learn to move easily and gracefully in the highest circles and to acquire all the social graces, to speak fluent French, to dance and sing and play at least one instrument, to ride and be able to take part in the field sports which were such an all-absorbing passion with the upper classes, and to become familiar with the elaborate code of courtesy which governed every aspect of life at the top." (1)
In 1512 Sir Thomas Boleyn was sent on a diplomatic mission by Henry VIII to Brussels. During his trip he arranged for Mary in the household of Margaret, Archduchess of Austria. (2) In 1514 Mary Boleyn was one of the ladies-in-waiting who attended the king's sister Mary to France for her marriage to King Louis XII. She remained to serve Queen Mary and was joined by her sister Anne Boleyn. They were among the six young girls permitted to remain at the French court by the king after he dismissed all Mary's other English attendants.
After King Louis XII's death, his wife secretly married Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, on 3rd March 1515. Mary Boleyn stayed in France. There is some evidence that she had a sexual relationship with King François. He boasted of having "ridden her" and described her as "my hackney". A representative of Pope Leo X described her as "a very great infamous whore". (3) As her biographer, Jonathan Hughes, has pointed out, "she seems to have acquired a decidedly dubious reputation." (4)
Anne Boleyn also remained in France but she seems to have avoided the kind of behaviour indulged in by her sister. Members of the Royal Court observed that she learned "dignity and poise". According to the French poet, Lancelot de Carle, "she became so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a Frenchwoman born." (5)
Sir Thomas Boleyn eventually heard the rumours concerning Mary and brought her back to England. (6) Boleyn became a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon. King Henry VIII had several mistresses. The most important was Bessie Blount and on 15th June 1519, she gave birth to a son. He was named Henry FitzRoy, and was later created Duke of Richmond. After the child's birth, the affair ended. It is believed that his new mistress was Mary Boleyn. The historian, Antonia Fraser, has argued: "The affair repeated the pattern established by Bessie Blount: here once again was a vivacious young girl, an energetic dancer and masker, taking the fancy of a man with an older, more serious-minded wife, no longer interested in such things." (7)
On 4th February 1520 she married William Carey, a gentleman of the privy chamber. Henry VIII attended the wedding and over the next few years gave Carey several royal grants of land and money. (8) David Loades has pointed out: "Whether this was a marriage of convenience, arranged by the King to conceal an existing affair, or whether she only became his mistress after her marriage, is not clear." (9) In 1523 he named a new ship Mary Boleyn. This is believed that Henry did this to acknowledge Mary as his mistress. (10) Mary's father was also rewarded by being elevated to the peerage as Viscount Rochford in 1525. (11) One historian has suggested that these "transactions might seem to turn Mary into the merest prostitute, with her husband and father as her pimps". (12)
Mary gave birth to two children, Catherine (1524) and Henry (1526). Some have argued that Henry was the father of both children. Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992), has argued against this: "Despite later rumours to the contrary, none of Mary's children were fathered by King Henry: her daughter Catherine Carey and her son Henry Carey, created Lord Hunsdon by his first cousin Queen Elizabeth, were born in 1524 and 1526 respectively when the affair was over. We may be sure that Henry Carey would have been acclaimed with the same joy as Henry Fitzroy, if he had been the King's son." (13)
William Carey died of sweating sickness on 22nd June, 1528. Henry VIII ordered Thomas Boleyn to take Mary under his roof and maintain her, and assigned her the annuity of £100 formerly enjoyed by her husband. By this time Henry was having an affair with Mary's sister, Anne Boleyn. It is not known exactly when this relationship had began. Hilary Mantel has pointed out: "We don't know exactly when he fell for Anne Boleyn. Her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Perhaps Henry simply didn't have much imagination. The court's erotic life seems knotted, intertwined, almost incestuous; the same faces, the same limbs and organs in different combinations. The king did not have many affairs, or many that we know about. He recognised only one illegitimate child. He valued discretion, deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life. But the pattern broke with Anne Boleyn." (14)
For several years Henry had been planning to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Now he knew who he wanted to marry - Anne. At the age of thirty-six he fell deeply in love with a woman some sixteen years his junior. (15) Henry wrote Anne a series of passionate love letters. In 1526 he told her: "Seeing I cannot be present in person with you, I send you the nearest thing to that possible, that is, my picture set in bracelets ... wishing myself in their place, when it shall please you." Soon afterwards he wrote during a hunting exhibition: "I send you this letter begging you to give me an account of the state you are in... I send you by this bearer a buck killed late last night by my hand, hoping, when you eat it, you will think of the hunter." (16)
Philippa Jones has suggested in Elizabeth: Virgin Queen? (2010) that refusing to become his mistress was part of Anne's strategy to become Henry's wife. She had learnt from the experiences of her sister that it was not a very good idea to give him what he wanted straight away: "Anne frequently commented in her letters to the King that although her heart and soul were his to enjoy, her body would never be. By refusing to become Henry's mistress, Anne caught and retained his interest. Henry might find casual sexual gratification with others, but it was Anne that he truly wanted." (17) Historians have suggested that Anne was trying to persuade Henry to marry her: "Henry found her not easily tamed, for it is clear that she had the strength of will to withhold her favours until she was sure of being made his queen... All the same it must remain somewhat surprising that sexual passion should have turned a conservative, easy-going, politically cautious ruler into a revolutionary, head-strong, almost reckless tyrant. Nothing else, however, will account for the facts." (18)
Anne's biographer, Eric William Ives, has argued: "At first, however, Henry had no thought of marriage. He saw Anne as someone to replace her sister, Mary, who had just ceased to be the royal mistress. Certainly the physical side of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was already over and, with no male heir, Henry decided by the spring of 1527 that he had never validly been married and that his first marriage must be annulled.... However, Anne continued to refuse his advances, and the king realized that by marrying her he could kill two birds with one stone, possess Anne and gain a new wife." (19)
Henry sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to sort the situation out. During negotiations the Pope forbade Henry to contract a new marriage until a decision was reached in Rome. With the encouragement of Anne, Henry became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope, not England, and in 1929 he was dismissed from office. (20) Wolsey blamed Anne for his situation and he called her "the night Crow" who was always in a position to "caw into the king's private ear". (21) Had it not been for his death from illness in 1530, Wolsey might have been executed for treason.
Henry's previous relationship with Mary Boleyn was also causing him problems in Rome. As she was the sister of the woman who he wanted to marry, Anne Boleyn. It was pointed out that "this placed him in exactly the same degree of affinity to Anne as he insisted that Catherine was to him". (22) However, when Henry discovered that Anne was pregnant, he realised he could not afford to wait for the Pope's permission. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead on 25th January, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England.
Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (23) Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (24)
In 1534 Mary secretly married William Stafford, a young man of little social standing and no fortune. Henry VIII was furious as he considered that it was a highly unsuitable match for the Queen's sister. Henry immediately cut off Mary's allowance, and Anne banished her and her husband from court. Mary sent a letter to Thomas Cromwell in which she confessed that "love overcame reason". However, she begged Cromwell to help her recover the "gracious favour of the King and Queen". She finished the letter with the words: "For well I might have had a greater man of birth, but I assure you I could never had one that loved me so well. I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened." (25)
Henry VIII continued to try to produce a male heir. Anne Boleyn had two miscarriages and was pregnant again when she discovered Jane Seymour sitting on her husband's lap. Anne "burst into furious denunciation; the rage brought on a premature labour and was delivered of a dead boy." (26) What is more, the baby was badly deformed. (27) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne.
Henry now approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne. He suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. Philippa Jones has pointed out: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession." (28)
In April 1536, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen's lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. Another courtier, Henry Norris, was arrested on 1st May. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber. Anne's brother, George Boleyn was also arrested and charged with incest. (29)
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared Anne's marriage to Henry null and void on 17th May 1536, and according to the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, the grounds for the annulment included the king's previous relationship with Mary Boleyn. However, this information has never been confirmed. (30) Mary's brother, George was executed on 17th May. Her sister, Anne, followed two days later. (31)
Mary Boleyn now lived a life of obscurity with her husband. She was reconciled to her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, who allowed the couple the use of Rochford Hall, and this remained their principal residence until Mary's death there on 30th July 1543. (32)
It was naturally the height of every family's ambition to get a pretty and promising daughter accepted as one of the Queen's maids of honour, but unless a girl's rank automatically entitled her to a place in the royal entourage, competition was fierce, and much string-pulling on behalf of hopeful candidates was usually necessary. Sir Thomas Boleyn, however, encountered no difficulty when the time came to introduce his younger daughter into Queen Catherine's household.
A combination of shrewd business acumen and a series of advantageous marriages had, in three generations, transformed the Boleyn family from obscure tenant farmers into well-heeled gentry very much on the up and up. Thomas, a younger son, had come to Court at the turn of the century to make a career in the royal service and had established himself as a useful underling, capable and conscientious, a man who could be trusted to carry out instructions. He was, nevertheless, an ambitious man and, like his father and grandfather before him, had married well - to Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, who "brought him every year a child". Three of these children survived, George, Mary and Anne.
Thomas Boleyn was a careful father who took a serious interest in his daughters' education, but he had no desire to see them become classical scholars. Nor would he have been impressed by the high-minded theories of Luis Vives, who advocated a Spartan upbringing and almost nunlike seclusion for the well-born maiden. Sir Thomas wanted Mary and Anne to learn to move easily and gracefully in the highest circles and to acquire all the social graces, to speak fluent French, to dance and sing and play at least one instrument, to ride and be able to take part in the field sports which were such an all-absorbing passion with the upper classes, and to become familiar with the elaborate code of courtesy which governed every aspect of life at the top. They must learn how to conduct themselves in the presence of royalty, how to cope with the vast quantities of rich food and drink served at royal banquets, how to avoid the obvious pitfalls lying in wait for a young woman exposed to the temptations of high society while, at the same time, attracting the attention of the right sort of man. Mary and Anne were, in short, to be groomed to make the kind of marriage which would add to the family's aristocratic connections and take the Boleyns another step up the social and financial ladder.
The best place to learn about Court life was, of course, at Court, but before launching his daughters on the London scene, Thomas Boleyn was able to make use of his official contacts to get them the special advantage of a Continental "finish". In 1512 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Brussels and took the opportunity to secure a place for Mary, then probably about twelve years old, in the household of Margaret, Archduchess of Austria and Regent of the Netherlands. Two years later an even better opening appeared. The King's younger sister, the beautiful Mary Tudor, was to be married to the King of France and would be accompanied on her wedding journey by a numerous retinue of English ladies-in-waiting. What better experience could there be for a young girl, and the indefatigable Sir Thomas retrieved his elder daughter from Brussels and got her accepted into the service of the new Queen.
Elizabeth Blount had been succeeded in the King's bed by Mary Boleyn, the elder daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, daughter to the Duke of Norfolk. Mary was married in 1520 to William Carey, a gentleman of the privy chamber. Whether this was a marriage of convenience, arranged by the King to conceal an existing affair, or whether she only became his mistress after her marriage, is not clear. Their relationship was over by 1525, and produced no acknowledged children. It was later alleged that Henry Carey, who was born towards the end of that year, was actually the King's son, but that is almost certainly untrue. Mary bore her husband two children in 1525 and 1527, which suggests that she did not begin co-habiting with him until late in 1524. It also suggests that the King's fertility was a rather hit-and-miss affair. Either his normally fertile mistress failed to conceive while sharing his bed, or else she suffered as the Queen had done from a miscarriage or stillbirth. Whichever is the case, it has significance for the whole saga of his married life. William Carey received generous royal grants every year from 1522 to 1525, which is also suggestive. Years later, when Henry was endeavouring to clear his way to a marriage with Anne Boleyn, Catherine's supporters accused him of having "had to do" both with her sister and her mother, to which the King could only reply somewhat lamely "never with the mother". The aspersion on Elizabeth Boleyn's honour probably arose, as Eric Ives suggests, from a confusion with Elizabeth Blount." After 1525 the King must either have resorted to casual liaisons which have gone unrecorded, or commenced a prolonged period of abstinence. By that time he had given up hope of Catherine having any more children, and had almost certainly ceased to have sexual relations with her.
The promotion of Sir Thomas Boleyn to the peerage as Viscount Rochford in 1525, just the latest in a string of honours accorded to a man who had been one of Henry's favourite courtiers since 1511. Yet this latest honour had undoubtedly been bestowed as a reward for services rendered to the King by Boleyn's elder daughter Mary, who had for some time been Henry's mistress. As usual the affair was conducted discreetly, and for this reason it is impossible to pinpoint when it began or ended.
Mary Boleyn, like Bessie Blount, was still quite young when she married: twenty-two, perhaps. Like Bessie Blount also, she was a high-spirited, rather giddy girl who enjoyed all the pleasures of the court on offer - including the embraces of the King. When she was fifteen she had gone to the French court in the train of Princess Mary Tudor where she had acquired an extremely wanton reputation. After Carey's death, she would make a second match for love..This was widely regarded as imprudt,fnt conduct both in principle and in practice; but she herself declared of this new husband: "I had rather beg my bread with him than be the 'greatest Queen in.Christendom"
Despite later rumours to the contrary, none of Mary's children were fathered by King Henry: her daughter Catherine Carey and her son Henry Carey, created Lord Hunsdon by his first cousin Queen Elizabeth, were born in 1524 and 1526 respectively when the affair was over. We may be sure that Henry Carey would have been acclaimed with the same joy as Henry Fitzroy, if he had been the King's son.) But the affair itself was no mere rumour. Throughout his life King Henry showed a rather touching reluctance to tell a direct lie, due maybe to that tender conscience on which he prided himself. Taxed many years later with having had an affair with three Boleyns, two daughters and a mother, the best he could do was to reply shamefacedly: "Never with the mother". It was his servant Thomas Cromwell who added sharply: "Never with the sister either".