08 January 2013

Mary Boleyn's Mysterious Relationship with Henry VIII

Mary Boleyn--Sister of Anne Boleyn Queen of England

I've often wondered what the relationship between Mary and Anne Boleyn was like. These were two sisters, close in age, and both seriously involved with a king, though not at the same time, (fortunately.)  For wouldn't such a tangled web create dramatic problems between two sisters!

And yet the two sisters each had shared a part of King Henry's life.  Of course Anne was Henry's queen, mother to Elizabeth I.  However, historians are not in agreement about Mary's exact relationship with Henry. She was a long term mistress. But Mary Boleyn may have been more than a mistress--she may have been mother to one, or even two of Henry's children. Were Catherine and Henry Carey the biological children of Henry VIII? Some historians believe this is unlikely; others believe the Carey children were in fact sired by the great king.  Although it is a fascinating possibility, making a true determination of the parentage of the Carey children is difficult, to say the least. There is evidence which leads to opposite answers. Elizabeth favoured the Boleyn Family in looks, though not in colouring. Anne Boleyn's daughter had the fiery red hair of the Tudors. The colouring of the Carey children could suggest Tudor blood, but like Elizabeth, they  too favoured their Boleyn ancestry. In fact, Elizabeth looked as though she could have been a full blooded sibling of the Carey children. Those had been strong genes, the traits that were carried by the Boleyn Family.

Back to Anne and Mary's relationship as sisters--they had not been close in later years. Did this have anything to do with Mary's previous involvement with the king? My thought is that this later distancing between the sisters was related to Mary's previous position as mistress to Anne's husband. That would cause at least a temporary rift between the closest of sisters, no doubt. And if Mary had borne the king's children, or child, there would be added complexities to an already delicate situation. For many different reasons, it would have been to Anne Boleyn's benefit to distance herself from Mary Boleyn and her children. A sad thing to consider, but probably one that Anne found positively necessary considering the bizarre triangle formed by herself, Mary and Henry.

 George Boleyn seems to have favoured Anne over Mary, with George and Anne very close in the years before their deaths. Perhaps George and Anne had never been close to Mary.

Mary's first husband, William Carey, was a favourite at court. He was a member of the King's Privy Chamber, an Esquire of the Body to the King. Carey was an important man at court, and a rather handsome one at that. Of course, Mary would not have chosen William, even if he had been the husband she had hoped for. The match would have been arranged between the parents of the couple.  And there seems to be evidence that the king approved, as he was in attendance at the wedding. This may be an ironic footnote, as Mary was later to become his mistress.

By the beginning of the involvement between Henry and Mary, Queen Catherine was prematurely aged, and had gained a significant amount of weight. François I cruelly famously described Catherine as "old and deformed." As well as being extremely distasteful, Francis' comments were very unfair. Catherine was ahead of Henry in age, by over half a decade, and her body had taken a beating. To add to the disparity, Catherine was old for her age, physically and emotionally. At this point in his life, Henry was the opposite, vibrantly healthy, almost supernaturally strong. Catherine had never enjoyed very good health, and over the years she had been pregnant time and again, exacerbating her frail constitution. Though perpetually pregnant, save for Mary, these all ended in disappointment. The queen tended to have miscarriages, stillbirths, or weak infants that would not survive for long.  Catherine had also endured many painful hardships. She was widowed very young, then virtually stranded in a foreign country with an uncertain future. And though Catherine was finally married to Henry who she loved dearly, he had caused her not a few heartaches. If Catherine was looking worse for the wear, it can hardly be surprising.

Though Mary was Henry's mistress for what seems to be a fairly significant period, she would never make much of an impression on the English court. Mary simply did not have the verve, charisma, the enchanting dynamic to her person that her sister, Anne would have. Mary may have been beautiful, and the likelihood is that she was. As king, and at the time a young and very handsome king, Henry would have had his pick of many beautiful women. Henry had Elizabeth Blount as his mistress, and by him she had borne Henry's son, Henry Fitzroy. Elizabeth Blount was generally regarded as a stunning beauty by the male courtiers. Not only was Blount gorgeous, she was graced with talent and charm to spare. That relationship had lasted at least four years. Given these factors, it would probably take an exceptional beauty to engage King Henry, and Mary likely fit the part. However beautiful she may have been, Mary lacked Anne's dazzling feminine mystique. In fact, it seems that once Anne made her grand début at the English court, and in Henry's heart, she would leave the memory of Mary in the dust. 

If Mary's children were in fact Henry's children, it was still not enough ,apparently, to even approach Anne's effect on Henry. And of course, Mary Boleyn was married. It is likely that Mary did not expect much from her time as mistress, and it seems she was right to assume the relationship would fade into nothingness.

Information on Mary Boleyn is rather scarce.  If you would like to read more about this elusive Tudor lady, I highly recommend two fine works for you:

  Wilkinson, Josephine: Mary Boleyn (Stroud, 2009).
Weir, Alison: Mary Boleyn (Ballantine Books, 2011).

Both books are non-fiction biographies on Mary Boleyn,  exhaustively researched, and absolutely fascinating!

William Carey--First husband of Mary Boleyn
Henry Carey--Son of Mary Boleyn
Catherine Carey--Daughter of Mary Boleyn

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