Thursday 19 July 2012

19th July, 1543: The Death of Mary Boleyn

We have no way of knowing how old Mary Boleyn was when she died in July 1543. In the author's note to her romantic novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the novelist Philippa Gregory wrote that Mary lived a "long and happy life," after her sister's execution in 1536. Such a desire to give The Other Boleyn Girl a "happily ever after" style ending does not, unfortunately, correlate with any of the known facts. Even by the standards of the sixteenth century, Mary Boleyn died a comparatively young woman. Estimates for her date of birth range from 1499 to 1502 (James Gairdner in the nineteenth century and Retha Warnicke in the twentieth both put it even later, in 1508, but that seems unlikely.) Meaning that Mary was about forty-four or forty-one at the time of her death.

The eldest surviving daughter of the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, Mary Boleyn was presumably born shortly after her parents'  marriage. If she was born before 1505, which seems probable, then she may very well have been born in Norfolk - at Blickling Hall, which was her parents' main residence in the first few years of their marriage. She was followed in the nursery by at least four other siblings: George, Thomas, Henry and Anne. Thomas and Henry both died in infancy and are both buried in churches near Hever Castle in Kent, which became the family's main residence after Mary's grandfather William died in 1505. Like her younger sister, Mary spent part of her education in France, although it seems to have been for a much shorter length of time than Anne. 

The later years of Mary Boleyn's life - or Mary Stafford, as she had become by then - are almost as hard to trace as the beginning. Put brutally, once Mary had lost her sister's favour, she ceased to matter politically - or historically. The cause of the rift between the Boleyn sisters was Mary's second marriage. She had eloped with William Stafford, a man of significantly lower social status than she was and slightly younger, too. However, despite her family's hysterical reaction (which took even Mary by surprise) and the insistence of Mary's modern-day enthusiasts that this marriage shows her to be a unique, passionate crusader for romantic love, it was in fact fairly common for aristocratic widows to take a man of lower social standing for their second husband. It helped safeguard their inheritance from their first husband and negate the husband's theoretical authority over his wife. Katherine Brandon, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk and Lady Jane Grey's mother, Frances, were both to do the same as Mary.

Following the death of her father in 1539, Mary had inherited some of his extensive lands and money. Her daughter, Katherine, had subsequently embarked upon a career at court - serving in the households of Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, before transferring to that of her cousin, the future Elizabeth I. On 15th July 1543, Mary formally inherited Rochford Hall in Essex, from her former sister-in-law, Jane, who had been executed the previous February. Mary's husband, William, was in France at the time, undertaking four months of military service in Henry VIII's army. On 19th July, four days after the legal wrangling over Rochford Hall had finally ended, Mary Boleyn died. The precise cause of her death has never been established, but it may have been sudden. She left most of her property to her son, Henry, but as the richer half of the couple, she also left her manor at Abinger in Surrey to her husband, William.

Having died in relative obscurity, there is no way of knowing for certain where Mary Boleyn is buried. Various locations have claimed they are her final resting place and Mary's most recent biographer, Alison Weir, has suggested the church of Saint Andrew near Rochford in Essex. The church lay near some of the Boleyns' estates and it had actually been built by Mary's late grandfather, Sir William Boleyn. However, it is impossible to know which churchyard she was interred in and given the impending iconoclasm of the Edwardian Reformation, the renovations of the Marian counter-reformation, the destruction of the civil war and centuries of church redecoration, it seems unlikely that anything of her tomb has survived. 

William Stafford remained a widower for nearly a decade after his wife's death, although his Protestant beliefs and family connections enabled him to prosper at the court of Edward VI, who came to the throne in 1547. He sold Arbinger manor shortly before marrying again to a distant cousin called Dorothy, a girl of about fifteen or sixteen. Following the succession of Mary I in 1553 and England's return to state Catholicism, William and his new wife fled to the continent, where they settled in the Swiss city of Geneva and formed a friendship with John Calvin, the fiery ideologue who founded Calvinism and became the spiritual father of Presbyterianism. Whilst there, William Stafford took to calling himself "Lord Rochford," a title which had been used by Mary Boleyn's late brother, George, and to which William had absolutely no right. Perhaps he had been more dazzled by his first wife's connections and ancestry than the romantic myth of their "all for love" marriage suggests? He died in exile in 1556 and he was buried in Calvinist Geneva. His wife had some difficulty extricating her children from Calvin's clutches, but she eventually made it to Basle and then back to England. 

Mary Boleyn's daughter, Katherine, was already married at the time of her mother's death - to an up and coming courtier called Francis Knollys. By 1543, the young couple had already had two children - Mary and Henry. And Katherine was already pregnant with a third, the future high society beauty, Lettice. Francis Knollys was knighted in 1547, as part of the spate of honours fired out by Edward VI's government in its first few weeks of coming to power and both he and Katherine rose high in royal favour once Elizabeth I became queen in 1558. Katherine's death in January 1569 devastated Queen Elizabeth, who had her buried in Westminster Abbey. 

Katherine's brother and Mary's son, Henry Carey, also prospered under his cousin, Elizabeth, and he also had a large family - twelve children with his wife, Anne Morgan. He had a big personality and one courtier wrote that his "custom in swearing and obscenity in speech made him seem a worse Christian than he was." During the threat posed by the Spanish Armada, he was appointed Principal Captain and Governor of the English army. He died in 1596, at the age of seventy. Queen Elizabeth attended him on his deathbed and granted him the same honour as his sister, of being buried in Westminster Abbey.

Through her twenty-six grandchildren, Mary Boleyn became the ancestress of numerous prominent members of the English upper-classes - including the scientist, Charles Darwin, and Catherine (Middleton), Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge. 


  1. Great article, as always! I've been a fan of your blog for awhile but never mustered up the courage to leave a comment. :)

    I've been fascinated by the Boleyn family for years now. I naturally gravitate to Anne because she is, as you said, the more famous and more historically significant sister. It's sad though that there is so little information on Mary, as I'm sure her story was equally fascinating in it's own way.

    What is your take on the rumor that her son Henry was actually Henry VIII's illegitimate child? I know she was Henry VIII's mistress before Anne, and historians are always debating about whether he fathered a child by her. Also, weren't there rumors that Mary was the more promiscuous sister? One book I read (I believe it was Alison Weir, but I'm not positive) said that after her short stay in France, where she was allegedly the mistress of King Francis I, she was called "the great prostitute" because she was rumored to have slept around. Is there any weight to that allegation? Or has her name been slandered in much the same way her sister's was?

  2. Hi Jackie,

    Thanks so much for your comment and I'm so glad you enjoy my blog!

    I think it's fairly clear now that Henry Carey was definitely not the biological son of Henry VIII. All the reliable evidence that we have suggests that he wasn't born until 1526, which is simply far too late for the alleged love affair between Henry and Mary to have taken place. Alison Weir, in her biography of Mary, does argue that Mary Boleyn's daughter, Katherine, was probably Henry VIII's child. For what it's worth though, I disagree and I don't think that either of Mary's children were fathered by Henry VIII. I think their affair took place very briefly and very early on in Mary's courtly career - long before either of her children's births in 1524 and 1526. However, with our Tudor obsession, it's likely the debate will continue on!

    Mary was indeed called the 'great prostitute' by a French source, who also slandered her sister's morals. Some historians have asserted that Mary was promiscuous or, at the very least, sexually active during her time in France. However, given how unreliable the source is regarding Anne, I think it's tempting to see all of it as a bit of nonsense. Mary does seem to have had quite a romantic streak to her nature, but I think it's interesting that by the time the allegations against her were made, she was the Queen of England's sister. It may very well have been that she was insulted as part of a rather snide attempt to annoy and rile the English. I don't think there's much evidence to suggest, at all, that she was in any way as sexually loose as traditional versions of history suggest she was.

  3. Thank you for yet another excellent article!

    It would be interesting to speculate, though impossible to prove one way or another, if Mary Boleyn's marriage to her second "unsuitable" husband might have been inspired by yet ANOTHER Mary, who likewise married an "unsuitable" second husband - namely that of Princess Mary Rose Tudor to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

    Though Mary Boleyn's reputation was sullied by the rumors of being "a great/infamous wanton/prostitute" and later mistress of Henry VIII, she was still, at the time of her remarriage, the sister of a Queen, (Anne Boleyn, who was also Marquess of Pembroke in her own right), daughter of one of Henry's favorite courtiers, who was himself Earl of Wiltshire (??) and claimant to Ormonde, and sister of Viscount Rochford, who himself was a favored courtier. Then there were all of her Howard relatives, including her uncle the Duke of Norfolk.

    Mary had important connections, most of whom were in high royal favor, and she would have been quite a marriage prize, if for those connections and not for herself. Could she have decided she didn't want to be a marriage pawn any more than Princess Mary Rose, and took the plunge for love rather than station?

    Interesting, too, the life of William Stafford after Mary Boleyn's death. I never heard much about his life in the aftermath - thank you for that! I wonder if any foreign power might have recognized his claim as Lord Rochford, simply to annoy the English, as there didn't seem to be any problems with recognizing someone else as the rightful King or Queen of England at the time, either, as witnessed in the case of Mary Queen of Scots being declared so by her father in law, King Henri of France.

  4. It's so hard to find good blogs these days and boy, is this a good blog. History itself is interesting but when it is written with such cleverness and wit, it just exceeds all expectations. I love your blog.
    Also, I had two questions that various google sources aren't exactly confirming.
    Was Mary also indeed called "English mare" by the French king?
    And if Mary was related to Charles Darwin and etc, is Anne related too?
    Stupid question I know, but its just nagging me.
    Thank you and I hope to see many more Tudor related blogs. Perhaps one about Elizabeth 1 and Thomas Seymour? :)

  5. Hi Iddy. Thanks so much!

    To answer your questions, it does seem possible that Mary was indeed called that by the French king, but the general consensus amongst historians today is that, even if he did actually say it, Francis must have been exaggerating out of spite - at a time when she was the queen of England's sister. There is little, or no, evidence from the period to suggest that Mary was anywhere near as promiscuous as Francis claimed she was.

    All of those descended from Mary would technically be classed as collateral descendants of Anne Boleyn's. Meaning that they have no direct ancestral link to her, but that one of their direct ancestors (in this case, her sister Mary) was related to her.

  6. Thanks for writing kindly about my 15th great grandmother. (Boleyn, Carey, Knollys, West, West, West, Croshaw, Fox, Mobley, Neeley, Meredith, et al) I like to think of her as a real, live, lovable woman, human in every way, and you present her as such.

    1. Mary is my 15th grandmother also. I loved stumbling upon this site

    2. Mary is my 14th grandmother by way of Katherine. I often wonder who fathered Katherine.

  7. Mary is also my ancestor , via the marriage of her descendant to Baron Paget

  8. Doing my family history, I've learned that Ann Boleyn was my 11th.cousin from the Howard connection. How interesting.

  9. As I am a member of the Carey family I am very interested in stories about William Carey and Mary Boleyn. Thank you so much for supplying more information.


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