Mary Boleyn was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard, and the older sister of English Queen Anne Boleyn, who was the second wife of Henry VIII. Through her mother’s side she was also the cousin of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. But before her sister became the most powerful woman in England, Mary was the one who was sharing the King’s bed. Not only was she the mistress of Henry VIII of England, she also had an affair with Francis I of France during her time at the French court.
Mary and Anne spent part of their youth at the French court, they had gone across in the train of Henry’s young sister Mary Tudor, who went to marry the old French King Louis XII. Louis didn’t live long, and the sisters stayed at the court of his successor Francis I. This is when the affair between Mary and Francis occurred. Although not much is known about their relationship it is believed to have been short lived as it does not seem to have been common knowledge at the time. It is only retrospective comments made later when Anne was Queen that we know it happened.
When Mary moved back to England, she joined the court of Henry VIII with her new husband William Carey, a favourite of Henry’s, and a member of the Kings Privy Chamber. It appears she soon became Henry’s mistress. However like with Francis, relatively little is known about their relationship, including how long it lasted. It has long been rumoured that the two children Mary had during her first marriage are not William Carey‚Äôs legitimate children, but Henry‚Äôs bastards. Henry never acknowledged either Catherine or Henry Carey, but historian Alison Weir believes Catherine was Henry‚Äôs daughter, while her younger brother was William‚Äôs son.
After the death of William (who died of the sweating sickness) Mary remarried – without permission – to a man named William Stafford. He was of a much lower social status than Mary, and was younger. When Mary turned up to court visibly pregnant, and with news of her new marriage it was too much for Anne. Anne was Queen, but her position was precarious, she had so far been unable to provide the King with a son, and since having Elizabeth (who would become Elizabeth I) she had had several miscarriages. It was too much for Anne to see Mary appearing at court showing herself as¬†the more fertile sister, but also to have married a man of much lower rank when she was¬†sister to the Queen. Anne persuaded Henry to banish Mary from court.
Ultimately this was probably the best thing for Mary, as shortly after this Anne and their brother George were executed for treason. Very little is known about Mary‚Äôs later life, although she inherited a lot of wealth when her father died. Both her children, whatever their paternity, had stellar careers at the court of their cousin Elizabeth I.
While Mary may have been the mistress of two Kings, her label as a ‚Äògreat and infamous whore‚Äô is not deserved, her affairs were conducted discreetly. Her fame comes from her relationship with her more famous sister and her downfall. Henry‚Äôs affair with Mary created the same degree of affinity with Anne that Henry had claimed he had with his first wife Catherine of Aragon because of her marriage to his brother Arthur. This was the grounds on which he had his marriage to Anne annulled shortly before she was beheaded.
For more on Mary, read Alison Weir’s¬†Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore.
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