Mary Boleyn took part in a court masque on March 4 1522 when she was about twenty-two. The theme was love and the title “Chateau Vert.” Anne Boleyn, newly arrived from France, played the part of Perseverance whilst Mary played kindness. There were eight ladies in total dressed to the nines waiting in a castle for their lords to arrive. There were also eight choristers dressed as unfeminine behaviours such as unkindness and rather alarmingly strangeness – demonstrating that being an oddity was not something that Henry found at all endearing.
Henry’s relationship with Mary is only written about by his cousin Cardinal Reginald Pole – he pointed out, rather unhelpfully from Henry’s point of view, that if you are trying to divorce your wife because she was married to your brother but denies the marriage was ever consummated, where does that leave the woman you want to marry if you’ve had an affair with her sister? Henry wasn’t amused. Other than Pole’s evidence there’s not a great deal of concrete information – which is typical of Henry’s mistresses and encounters.
Mary does fit to the pattern that emerges in Henry’s earlier relationships – in that when she returned from the service of Queen Claude where she is alleged to have had a relationship with Francis I she was married off on February 4th 1520 to Sir William Carey – one of Henry’s gentlemen. The usual 6 shillings and 8 pence is identified in the king’s accounts as a perfectly proper gift. But by Easter 1522 Henry was riding into jousts with the motto “she has wounded my heart” and then there was that masque – the ritual of courtly love was being played out. It almost seems that King Henry was in love with the idea of being in love.
In 1523 Henry owned a boat called the Mary Boleyn. The boat had been purchased from Thomas Boleyn so could have arrived already named.
Of course the Catholic and reforming factions got to grips with the Boleyn girls- one group tried to paint them as a pair of scheming femme fatals whilst the other faction were more keen on emphasising their learning and culture. It wasn’t long before the rumour was circulating that when he first became king, Henry, who as we have seen in the case of Anne Stafford, liked the older lady had a fling with Elizabeth Howard – Mary and Anne’s mother. This particular rumour survives curtesy of a letter from George Throckmorton who said that Henry on being accused of “meddling” with Anne’s mother and sister blushed and said “never the mother” – demonstrating at least that Mary was his mistress. Nicholas Sander, a Jesuit priest went one better and according to Licence announced that not only had Henry had an affair with Elizabeth but that Anne was the result of the liaison – Thomas Boleyn being abroad during some very key dates. This is definitely a nasty smear and when looking at the broader picture it is possible that Mary got caught up in the campaign to blacken the Boleyn name. There is very little evidence from the time to suggest that she had an affair with Francis. Licence also points out that the french king had an unfortunate social disease which Mary ran a high risk of catching but appears not to have done so, nor do her children bear any signs of the disease. Of course, as with all these things its a matter of speculation and what little evidence there is can be argued both ways.
In any event Sir Thomas Boleyn suddenly became the king’s treasurer – presumably because he was a talented book-keeper and manager as averse to Henry being naughty with his youngest surviving daughter – let us not forget that emerging pattern of behaviour whereby the family of the king’s new mistress suddenly become financially more stable, acquire lands and new positions. Sir Nicholas Carew got his own tiltyard in Greenwich when Henry was interested in Nicholas’s young wife Elizabeth.
Katherine Carey was born in 1524 or possibly 1523. Whose child was she: William Carey’s or the King’s? Henry granted Carey estates and titles in Essex (so that was all right then). If the child was Henry’s it was considered somewhat poor manners to claim the child of another man’s wife as yours and beside which she was a girl. She first appears in the court records as a maid of honour to Anne of Cleves in 1439- so early teens which is about right. She went on to marry Sir Francis Knollys when she was sixteen and have sixteen children.
It is clear that Katherine Carey was close to her cousin and possibly half-sister, Princess Elizabeth. As she prepared to flee England for Protestant Germany on the accession of Queen Mary she received a letter from Elizabeth signed “cor rotto” meaning broken hearted. Katherine did not return to England until Mary died. She was appointed Chief Lady of the Bedchamber making her one of Elizabeth’s most trusted women – nothing wrong with that they were cousins – but were they more? When Katherine died in 1569 Elizabeth had her buried in Westminster Abbey. The notoriously parsimonious queen paid £640 for the funeral – fit in fact for a princess.
Mary Boleyn’s son, Henry Carey was born in 1525 according to the date on his memorial in Westminster Abbey but evidence suggests he was actually born in 1526 (no wonder Thomas Cromwell invented parish registers!) The question then arises did Henry continue his affair with Mary once she had returned to court after the birth of Katherine? He doesn’t appear to have resumed his liaison with Bessie Blount after she had her child and more importantly why didn’t Henry acknowledge the boy if he was indeed the king’s? The answer to that one is fairly straight forward – King Henry had already demonstrated that he could beget sons, Bessie Blount (unusually) wasn’t married at the time she gave birth and there was the small matter of a possible interest in Mary’s sister Anne. All that can be said is that Henry Carey is said to have looked like Henry VIII and Carey believed himself to be the king’s son as did John Hale the Vicar of Isleworth – a declaration that got him into rather a lot of bother with the monarch. Once again the evidence when delved into can be read two different ways as it is all circumstantial and comprises of ifs, buts and wherefores.
On June 22nd 1528 when Mary’s husband William Carey died of the Sweating Sickness leaving Mary with little visible means of support. The wardship of young Henry was given to Anne Boleyn and the king had to intercede on Mary’s behalf insisting that Thomas Boleyn house his daughter.
By 1527 it was clear that Katherine of Aragon wasn’t going to have any more children and Henry wanted a male heir. Anne Boleyn wasn’t content with the idea of being the king’s mistress. There followed a seven year courtship written about at length elsewhere on the Internet, a protracted court case and seventeen love letters found stashed in the Vatican, probably stolen on the orders of Reginald Pole. History does not have Anne’s letters. It is possible to imagine Henry having a private bonfire when he tired of Anne.
As with his first queen a pattern of pregnancy and miscarriage developed along with another princess with wife number two. Henry was not best pleased. Anne Boleyn recognised that Henry was at his most likely to stray during her pregnancies so it has often been suggested that the Boleyn/Howard family encouraged Mary or possibly her sister Madge Shelton to entertain the king in 1535 whilst Anne was pregnant. The Sheltons were Anne’s first cousins. Their mother, Anne, was Sir Thomas Boleyn’s sister. Rumour identified Mary Shelton as a potential fourth wife for Henry whilst Madge was linked with the unfortunate Henry Norris.
Unfortunately for Anne the pattern of pregnancies, miscarriages and mistresses continued. The key mistress of Anne’s time as queen went on to become wife number three- Jane Seymour, yet another cousin of sorts.
It was during this period that Henry seems to have taken a fancy to one of his laundresses- a girl by the name of Joan Dingley. She was married off to a man called Dobson whilst the resulting child called Etheldreda or even Audrey depending on the source you read was reared by the king’s taylor – a man called John Malte. The king granted him ex monastic lands so that when he died it all passed to Ethelreda – the illegitimate daughter of the taylor at face value was unexpectedly wealthy- especially as the lands went to Ethelreda rather than John’s other children and she moved in esteemed circles. She married John Harrington who was in the king’s service and then Princess Elizabeth’s household In 1554 she accompanied Princess Elizabeth to the Tower as one of her ladies and attended Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559 – she died the same year.
Mary Boleyn died in July 1543, seven years after her sister Anne died a traitor’s death, having married for a second time to William Stafford in 1534. Stafford was a soldier and not a sufficiently grand match for the queen’s sister. Mary was banished from court by Henry and Anne because of the marriage. Her family disowned her because she had dared to marry, for love, a younger son with few prospects. She was forced to write to Thomas Cromwell asking for help.
Licence, Amy. (2014) The six wives and many mistresses of Henry VIII: the women’s stories. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.