Mary Boleyn The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress by Josephine Wilkinson
Mary Boleyn, 'the infamous other Boleyn girl', began her court career as the mistress of the king of France. François I of France would later call her 'The Great Prostitute' and the slur stuck.
The bete-noir of her family, Mary was married her off to a minor courtier but it was not long before she caught the eye of Henry VIII and a new affair began. Although a bright star at Henry's court, she was soon eclipsed by her highly spirited and more accomplished sister, Anne, who rapidly took her place in the king's heart. However, the ups and downs of the Boleyn sisters were far from over. Mary would emerge the sole survivor of a family torn apart by lust and ambition, and it is in Mary and her progeny that the Boleyn legacy rests.
I have always been fascinated with Mary Boleyn. Compared to her sister Anne she may be the unknown Boleyn sister, but for me there is so much more to Mary Boleyn. For me Mary is a woman of depth and substance, a woman whom defied the common rules of the time, defied her parents and ultimately followed her heart.
Unfortunately there has not been a great deal of information recorded about Mary. What has been recorded is scant but I felt as though Josephine Wilkinson did a marvellous job of compiling the small details about Mary’s life together to create a broader picture of his incredible woman. Wilkinson writes about Mary’s early years, where she was born and where she spent her youth. There are records that show Mary Boleyn went to France to serve as a lady in waiting to Princess Mary Tudor and Wilkinson talks about what Mary may have experienced and learnt during her time in France. She also looks at how Mary became a mistress to King Francis I, although for how long it is impossible to say.
Wilkinson then moves on to talk about Mary’s return to England, her marriage to Henry Carey and how she caught the eye of Henry VIII and became his mistress. It is believed that she was the King’s mistress for approximately three or so years, during which time she bore two children, Katherine Carey and Henry Carey. There is a great deal of debate as to whether the two children are Henry VIII’s illegitimate children and Wilkinson goes into a lot of detail outlining the pros and cons as to why they might or might not be the children of Henry VIII. The reasons proposed that both children might be fathered by Henry VIII is that during the time when Katherine and Henry were conceived Mary was the mistress of Henry VIII and sleeping with the King. Also there were rumours that Henry Carey looked quite a lot like Henry VIII and that Henry VIII gave Mary’s husband Henry Carey a series of grants and appointments around the time each child was born. On the other hand the suggestions against the two children being fathered by Henry VIII are that it is quite possible during the time Mary was the King’s mistress she may have also been sleeping with her husband. Henry VIII never acknowledged Katherine or Henry as his children, where had had acknowledged Henry Fitzroy, a son he bore with his previous mistress Bessie Blount. Wilkinson also proposes that Henry VIII may have had low fertility and that the grants given to Henry Carey could have just been to keep him silent and happy about his wife sleeping with the King.
There are many reasons for and against Katherine Carey and Henry Carey being or not being the children of Henry VIII. Wilkinson draws the conclusion that both children were probably fathered by Henry VIII but personally I do not believe they were. I just do not think there is enough evidence to prove that the children were fathered by Henry and one of the biggest reasons is that he never acknowledged them as his own, especially Henry Carey a male child.
After this Wilkinson writes about how Mary’s husband Henry Carey died of the sweating sickness and left Mary with two young children. The wardship of Mary’s son was granted to her sister Anne who went about providing a good upbringing and education for the boy.
Wilkinson also details Mary’s second marriage, a marriage which shocked quite a few people including Mary’s sister and family. In 1534 Mary Boleyn married again, but this time her husband was not chosen for her by her father, nor was he even a man of equal status. In fact William Stafford was nothing more than a soldier and a gentleman usher to the King. He was man far below Mary in status and this combined with the fact she married without her father’s consent, found Mary and her new husband banished from court. I find this utterly incredible in a time when women were often reliant upon their fathers or family to make a marriage match for them, Mary took matters in her own hands and married for love. She followed her heart and although she faced the consequences we learn that she would have gladly repeated her actions all over again.
In the book is included a beautifully written letter by Mary outlining her plight, begging Thomas Cromwell for some financial assistance since she and her husband had been banished. She also wished for him to intercede with her sister and father because she is upset she has lost their affection. Yet she also states in the letter that she loves her husband and would gladly lead a poor woman’s life to be with him.
I think Mary’s letter to Thomas Cromwell is one of the most eloquent, most beautiful letters I have ever read. Even though Mary’s letter was written over four and a half centuries ago you can still feel the passion, the despair, the longing and the love contained within her words. It is a beautiful letter which tugs at the heart strings even to this day.
Wilkinson then moves on to look at Mary’s relationship with her sister Anne. Once again there is not a great deal recorded about Mary during her sister’s courtship with Henry VIII or her time as Queen. Unfortunately there is absolutely nothing written about Mary’s feelings on the charges of incest, adultery and treason brought against her brother and sister and we do not even know if Mary was allowed, or even wanted to visit them while they were in the Tower. My thought is that Mary probably would not have even been allowed to visit her siblings and she was probably kept away from court during this quite intense time.
After the death of her brother and sister Mary seems to slip into obscurity for a period of time. Wilkinson notes that her daughter Katherine became a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves and that over the years Mary and her second husband William inherited some property and lands from Mary’s father after his death and were also granted some money from the King. It seems that in the end, even though Mary was banished from court for her marriage and at one stage was near financial ruin, she managed to live the last years of her life in at least some financial stability. Mary Boleyn died on July 30th 1543 and her place of burial is unknown.
At the end of this book I was left feeling both happy and sad. I greatly admire Mary Boleyn. Here is a woman whom dared to stand out on her own, she defied her father, her sister the Queen of England and her family, and married for love. She seems to have been the type of woman who followed her heart and although she faced many ups and downs overall it appears as though she ended her days happily. Yet the other part of me felt a little sad. Mary Boleyn was just as brave and ambitious as her sister Anne, but because she never became Queen of England, because her heart was set on love rather than the crown, so much of her life has been lost to history. Not even her final resting place has been recorded. I think Mary Boleyn deserves more recognition and credit than she has received and I am so glad that Josephine Wilkinson has written a book to shed a little more light on this fascinating woman.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Boleyn. Wilkinson has a very smooth writing style which flows and draws the reader in making them want to learn more. I was so captivated by this book that I ended up reading it all in one day! I strongly recommend this book to any lover of Tudor history. Mary Boleyn is a fascinating person and one that people should learn more about.