Mary Boleyn – ‘ A Very Great Whore’

My Royal Mistresses series is finally entering the early modern period. That can only mean one thing – The Tudors!

We should all know by now that Henry VIII was a notorious womaniser. There’s no way I could write detailed posts about every single one of his supposed mistresses as that would take forever. So I’m going to concentrate on some of the ‘big-hitters’.

And I’m drafting in some Tudor experts to help. First up is the lovely Helene from Tudor Blogger. Helene is going to be introducing us to the other Boleyn girl – Mary Boleyn. Yes folks, Henry had sexual relations with two sisters! 

Over to Helene…

Who was Mary Boleyn?

Mary was (probably) the elder of the surviving Boleyn siblings, born c.1499, with Anne born c.1501 and George c.1503. Her parents were Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde, and Elizabeth Howard, daughter and sister to the Dukes of Norfolk.

Mary Boleyn
Mary Boleyn

Mary outlived her siblings and her parents, and can be considered the most successful of the Boleyn siblings, in that married for love and avoided being caught up in the court politics which brought down her family.

Francis I
Francis I

While in France in the 1510s it was rumoured that Mary had an affair with Francis I of France, who called her his “English mare” and “a very great whore, the most infamous of all“. However there is actually very little evidence to suggest that this relationship ever happened. Mary had initially travelled to France to serve in the retinue of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, when she married the French king, Louis XII. She remained in France when Dowager Queen Mary returned to England, returning to England herself in 1519.

There is little to trace Mary between her banishment from court in 1534 – after she married her second husband – and her death in 1543. There is no suggestion of a return to court, or that she tried to see her brother and sister in the Tower in 1536.

Mary died in 1543, surviving her parents, brother and sister. It isn’t known how she died, though it is generally accepted to have happened on 19 July 1543 at her home in Essex. She was aged 43 or 44, depending on when you accept her date of birth to have been.

For a general overview of Mary, see my “Spotlight” post on her, where I shed some light onto figures at the Tudor and Wars of the Roses courts, including looking at some of their fictional representations.

Henry VIII and Mary’s Relationship

It isn’t known precisely when Henry and Mary first met, or when Henry VIII first showed an interest in her, though it seems she was his mistress by 1522. We don’t have a lot of evidence about the relationship generally, and Mary Boleyn would probably have remained a very obscure name, known only to serious historians of Tudor history, but for Henry VIII’s relationship with Mary’s sister, Anne, which pushed the whole Boleyn family into the spotlight.

Henry VIII

There is a suggestion that, when Henry VIII rode out in a joust in 1522 with the motto “elle mon coeur a navera” which means “she has wounded my heart“, the King was referring to Mary Boleyn, and that this marked the beginning of their relationship. There is precious little to go on regarding the relationship itself – we only have tiny glimpses and quite a lot of hearsay.

The affair was conducted quite discreetly and seems to have fizzled out on its own around 1525, before Henry VIII began pursuing Anne Boleyn and when Mary was pregnant with her second child. It has been rumoured that one or both of Mary’s Carey children were actually fathered by the king, though there isn’t really any concrete evidence for it (see below).

In 1527, long after Henry and Mary’s relationship was over, Henry VIII requested a papal dispensation to marry her sister, Anne. The dispensation was required on the basis of consanguinity caused by his relationship with his intended’s sister.

Mary’s Marriages

Mary was first married to William Carey, a Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber, on 4 February 1520 at Greenwich with the King present. This was before Mary became involved with Henry VIII. Carey died of the sweating sickness in 1528 and Mary was left destitute. It seems Henry VIII had to intervene with Mary’s father to grant her a pension to live on with her two children.

Mary’s second marriage was to William Stafford in 1534. However he was considered beneath her social station as sister to the Queen of England, and both her and her husband were banished from court. They lived in relative obscurity until Mary’s death in 1543. They had two children together, although they vanish from the record, assumed dead.

Catherine and Henry Carey
Catherine and Henry Carey

There has been some debate over the parentage of Mary Boleyn’s children with William Carey – Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys, and Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon. The favourite argument I have seen when researching this topic is that Catherine probably was the daughter of Henry VIII whereas Henry Carey probably wasn’t. For a complete rundown of the arguments see my blog post on the Carey children

Mistress Rankings (By Hisdoryan)

Power *

One thing Mary Boleyn did not have was power. If it wasn’t for rise of her sister Anne, she would probably have become another footnote in history.

Beauty **

Of course there’s lots written about Anne Boleyn and her striking appearance – but the little that is written about Mary suggests she was the prettier of the two sisters by the standards of the time. However, there is some debate amongst historians about what she actually looked like. Some say she fitted the curvy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed ideals of beauty of the time. Others examine the one surviving portrait of her and say she was a brunette!

Longevity **

Mary and Henry’s relationship lasted for approximately three years. That may not seem like long in the scheme of things, but it was longer that some of Henry’s marriages!

We must also remember that Mary packed giving birth to two children into these three years too. And these children were both possible illegitimate offspring of Henry. She may not have been in Henry’s bed long, but she was certainly busy!

Scandal *

Mary Boleyn probably didn’t know the meaning of the word scandal – unlike her sister…

Overall Mistress Rating **

Poor Mary. Another woman that was a candidate for the footnotes of history – all because she conformed to the womanly ideals of the time in terms of subservience to men, and didn’t go about shouting about her affair and trying to make the most of it.

Further Reading

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