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Mary Boleyn Had An Affair With Henry VIII Before He Married Her Sister

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Remigius van Leemput/ Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

Anne Boleyn changed the course of history when she convinced Henry VIII to break with the Catholic Church. However, Anne Boleyn wouldn’t have known to do this if she hadn’t learned from the mistakes of her sister Mary Boleyn, who also had an affair with King Henry VIII. Though history remembers Anne Boleyn’s name, very few people know about the life of her sister.

Mary Boleyn’s Early Life

Portrait of Mary Boleyn

Portrait of woman thought to be Mary Boleyn. (Photo Credit: Remigius van Leemput/ Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

Mary Boleyn was born between 1500 and 1507 at the Boleyn estate Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Though there has been significant debate surrounding the birth years of both Mary and Anne Boleyn, most scholars agree that Mary Boleyn was older,

Mary Boleyn was the oldest of three surviving children born to Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn. The Boleyn sisters also had a younger brother named George.

There is not much historical evidence surrounding the upbringing of any of the Boleyn children. The Boleyns were a well-respected family, and as such, the girls were able to receive an adequate education. Mary was likely tutored at Blickling and then Hever Castle in Kent, receiving a well-rounded education. She likely would have learned subjects including dancing, embroidery, and singing, as well as archery, hunting, and falconry.

Did Mary Boleyn have an affair with the French King?

Portrait of Princess Mary Tudor

Portrait of Princess Mary Tudor. Mary Boleyn was one of Princess Mary’s ladies in waiting in France. (Photo Credit: Jan Gossaert/ Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

In 1514, when Mary was 15, she was sent to France to be the maid of honor to King Henry VIII’s sister, Princess Mary, who was set to marry King Louis XII of France. Mary Boleyn was most likely present when Princess Mary Tudor married King Louis XII in 1514.

Unfortunately, King Louis XII died only a few months after marrying Princess Mary Tudor. After King Louis died in 1515, his cousin Francis became King of France. Mary did not follow Princess Mary Tudor back to England. Instead, she stayed in France to serve at the court of King Francis I.

During her time at King Francis’s court, Mary Boleyn was the subject of many rumors. Some historians believe that she eventually became the mistress of King Francis I while she was still in France.

Portrait of French King Francis I

Portrait of the French King, Francis I, who Mary Boleyn allegedly was the mistress of while in France. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

There is only one piece of evidence linking Mary as the mistress of the French King. In March 1536, 20 years after Mary Boleyn was at the French Court, Rodolfo Pio, the Bishop of Faenza, wrote that the French King knew her in France, “per una gradissima ribalda et infame spre tutte,” meaning “for a very great whore, and infamous above all.”

Many historians believe that Mary was never Francis’s mistress and that these rumors were exaggerated to tarnish the reputation of the Boleyn family. The primary piece of evidence alluding to this affair came nearly twenty years after Mary Boleyn left the French court.

Another piece of evidence seemingly calls Mary “an English Mare because of her shameless behavior; and then the royal mule when she became acquainted with the King of England.” However, upon further investigation, this quote actually refers to Mary’s younger sister, Anne, during her time in France. Though these rumors persist, some historians, including Philippa Jones, suggests that Mary Boleyn only slept with three men – her two husbands and King Henry VIII.

Mary Boleyn did have an affair with Henry VIII

Portrait of Henry VIII

Portrait of King Henry VIII, wearing the outfit worn for his marriage to Anne of Cleves. (Photo Credit: DEA/ G. NIMATALLAH/ Getty Images)

Although scholars speculate as to whether Mary Boleyn was ever the mistress of Francis I, there is no debate that she was at one time the mistress of English King Henry VIII.

After five years in France, Mary returned to England in 1519. She likely left France because her father had arranged for her to marry William Carey. Carey was from a well-respected family with royal connections.

Though William Carey did not have any titles, his position as an official member of King Henry VIII’s entourage meant that the Boleyns would always be close to the English King. In fact, King Henry VIII was a guest at Mary Boleyn and William Carey’s wedding in March 1520.

Signature of Mary Boleyn

Signature of Mary Boleyn as Mary Carey after she married William Carey. (Photo Credit: Alison Weir/ Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

After her return to England, Mary Boleyn was appointed as a maid-of-honor to Henry VIII’s wife, queen consort Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII was a notorious adulterer and took an interest in Boleyn almost immediately after her return to English court. This wasn’t surprising as Mary was described as a great beauty in both the English and French courts.

It is unknown exactly when Mary Boleyn became Henry VIII’s mistress, but the affair was very public at English court. Royal grants were given to William Carey between 1522 and 1525, which seem to indicate Mary’s status as Henry’s royal mistress during these years. Similarly, in 1523, the King had a navy ship called the Mary Boleyn. This seems to indicate the years in which Mary was Henry’s mistress.  The affair seems to have fizzled by March 1526, when Mary gave birth to her first son, Henry Carey.

It was never confirmed, but some historians believe that at least one of Mary Boleyn’s two children was fathered by Henry VIII. If this had been the case, the children would have had a claim to the English throne. Mary’s daughter Catherine was born in 1524, and her son Henry was born in 1526, meaning their birthdates line up with Mary and Henry’s affair. These rumors were never confirmed.

Enter Anne Boleyn

Portrait of Anne Boleyn

Portrait of Mary Boleyn’s younger sister, Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn was the second wife of Henry VIII. (Photo Credit: Robert Alexander/ Getty Images)

Anne had been away in France when Mary had started being courted by Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn returned to England from France in January 1522 and like her sister Mary, became a maid-of-honor of Queen Catherine.

Anne was very popular at court and very intelligent. She learned from Mary’s mistakes when it came to Henry VIII. Rather than becoming the King’s mistress as her sister had, Anne decided to play hard to get. Though she flirted with and tempted Henry, Anne vowed she wouldn’t sleep with him until he divorced Catherine and made her queen of England.

Anne Boleyn’s games caused Henry VIII to break with the Roman Catholic Church to divorce Catharine of Aragon. While Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were busy reforming England, Mary was busy tending to her dying husband.

William Carey died In 1528, leaving Mary essentially penniless. After Carey’s death, Henry VIII granted Anne Boleyn the wardship of Mary’s son, Henry Carey, to ensure he was educated at a respectable monastery. It seems that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were concerned that Mary was at risk of misbehaving after her husband’s death. The two didn’t want Mary embarrassing them, especially as the two worked towards getting married.

Mary and Anne didn’t have an easy relationship

First meeting of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII

First meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, painted in 1835. (Photo Credit: Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

Anne Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. In 1532, Mary Boleyn secretly married her second husband, William Stafford. Stafford was a soldier far below Mary’s social standing, which has led many historians to believe that perhaps Mary and William married for love.

Mary quickly became pregnant, and her marriage to Stafford was discovered by her sister Anne. Anne, and the rest of Mary’s newly enabled relatives, were horrified by this marriage. After all, a commoner was not a proper match for the Queen of England’s sister. Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII banished Mary from the court. Anne then disowned her sister, claiming Mary was a disgrace to the Boleyn family and the King.

Mary and Anne Boleyn never reconciled after Anne banished Mary from the court. However, the two sisters seem to have had a dicey relationship even before that fight. There is historical evidence that Anne Boleyn was extremely close with her brother George. Mary seems to have always been the odd one out in the trio of Boleyn children.

Catherine Carey

Portrait of Mary Boleyn’s daughter, Catherine Carey, who was the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. (Photo Credit: Steven van der Meulen/ Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

There is no evidence that Mary ever wrote to her sister Anne or brother George while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Similarly, Mary Boleyn never visited either of them. Some historians argue that Mary reached out to siblings in the Tower of London but was turned away. Historians also argue that she potentially requested an audience with Henry VIII to save her family. However, as we know, Anne Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536.

After Anne’s death, Mary Boleyn fades from the historical record. On July 19, 1943, while in her early 40s, Mary died of unknown causes. The location of her grave is unknown.

Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn

Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl

Scarlett Johansson plays Mary Boleyn in the 2008 film, The Other Boleyn Girl. (Photo Credit: Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Focus Features/ MovieStills DB)

Despite knowing relatively little about her actual life, Mary Boleyn has been the subject of biographies, historical novels, movies, and television shows.

Mary still commonly pops up in popular culture in biographies that are mostly focused on Anne Boleyn. However, she has notably also appeared in The Tudors television series and in the fictional book and subsequent film, The Other Boleyn Girl.

In the 2008 film, The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary Boleyn was played by actress Scarlett Johansson. Actress Natalie Portman portrayed Anne Boleyn, and Eric Bana played King Henry VIII.

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn

Natalie Portman portrays Anne Boleyn in the 2008 film, The Other Boleyn Girl. (Photo Credit: Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Focus Features/ MovieStills DB)

Many people took an interest in the Boleyn family after reading and watching The Other Boleyn Girl. However, there are some notable inaccuracies that should be highlighted after learning more about the life of Mary Boleyn.

In The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn is the older sister when the historical record agrees that Mary was older than Anne. Similarly, Mary Boleyn was shown to be sexually innocent in the book and film, and Anne is the one to give Mary sexual advice. However, we know this isn’t the truth. Whether Mary had an affair with Francis I is irrelevant because she was married to William Carey when she began her affair with Henry VIII. Similarly, no historical evidence points to Anne having any sexual experience before cohabitating with Henry VIII in 1532.