Mary Boleyn’s life is retold—somewhat inaccurately—in both the novel and the movie, The Other Boleyn Girl. She had numerous affairs including two kings.

Not much is known about Mary’s early life. She was born c 1499 at Hever Castle, Kent—the home of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. She was the eldest of three children.

Sir Thomas, a diplomat at Henry VIII’s court, secured a place for Mary’s sister Anne at the Habsburg court in Burgundy.

Life in France

Mary Boleyn
Mary Boleyn

A marriage was arranged between Henry VIII’s sister Mary and the elderly Louis XII, as part of a peace treaty between England and France. Sir Thomas used his connections to find places in the Princess’ entourage for his two daughters. Anne joined Mary in Paris.

Louis XII sent most of the new Queen’s English attendants home, except the Boleyn sisters.

However, the marriage lasted less than three months as the excitement proved too much for poor Louis XII.

He died, leaving Francis I as his successor.

Mary Tudor secretly married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, before she returned to England.

Mary and Anne were invited to join Queen Claude’s household. The Queen was deeply religious so her household resembled a convent. The girls were expected to behave with modesty, and devote themselves to prayers, chastity and charity works. Queen Claude guarded the girls in her care whenever her presence was required at Court as her husband’s court was the most licentious in Europe.

An Infamous Whore?

Mary succumbed to the temptations of Francois’ court. She acquired a terrible reputation by being too free with her favours. Francis nicknamed her his “English mare.” Later he described Mary as an infamous whore.

She was sent home in disgrace. Anne learnt not to make the same mistake.

Mary is described as a “highly spirited, rather giddy girl who enjoyed all the pleasures of the court on offer.”

The Boleyn family were an upwardly-mobile family, or nouveaux riches. Sir Thomas was now a very important court official.

Hever Castle © Carolyn M Cash
Hever Castle © Carolyn M Cash


Mary became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine upon her return to England. She replaced Bessie Blount in the King’s affections in 1519. Nobody knew when the affair began or ended. Sir Thomas was elevated to the peerage in 1525, and her brother George was a favourite at Court.

Mary married William Carey, an undistinguished member of Henry’s court, in 1520. The King and the Queen attended, but Mary’s father was noticeably absent on a diplomatic mission.

Mary’s affair with the King was over when she bore two children, Henry and Catherine.

Anne returned home to marry her cousin, James Butler. She fell in love with Lord Henry Percy. Cardinal Wolsey quashed their marriage plans. Percy married Lady Mary Talbot whilst Anne was banished from Court.

Anne attracted the King upon her return three years later. She was determined not to end up like her sister—cast off without any rewards for herself or her family. She refused to become Henry’s mistress.

William Carey died of the sweating sickness in 1528. Mary was left a destitute widow. Anne secured an annual pension of £100 for her sister. The King insisted Mary’s father provided for her.

The Pope refused to grant Henry a divorce. Henry secretly married Anne in 1533 after severing ties with Rome.

Anne appointed her sister as a lady-in-waiting. Mary incurred her family’s ire when she appeared noticeably pregnant at court during the autumn of 1534. Mary secretly married William Stafford, a landless nobody who was considered an unsuitable match. They were banished from Court.

Anne and George were executed in 1536. Mary lived in obscurity until her death in 1543.


Bruce, Marie Louise, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen, Pan Books, London, 1975

Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen, Portrait, London, 2004

Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, London, 1992

Lacey, Robert, The Life and Times of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1972

Lofts, Norah, Anne Boleyn, Book Club Associates [by arrangement with Orbis Publishing Limited], London, 1979

Plowden, Alison, Tudor Women: Queens & Commoners, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002

Ridley, Jasper, Henry VIII, Constable and Company, London, 1984

Somerset, Anne, Ladies In Waiting, Castle Books, Edison NJ, 2004

Starkey, David, Six Wives The Queens of Henry VIII, Vintage [Random House], London, 2004

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII King and Court, Jonathan Cape, London, 2001

Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pimlico, London, 1991 (Reprinted 1992)

© 2008 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 16 June 2008.

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