Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Historical Wednesday - Mary Boleyn

Like most people, I get my historical information from novels, television documentaries, and the Wikipedia. Novelists and TV producers will re-write history if it will make a more compelling story. Consequently, there is a certain amount of misinformation that is accepted as truth about many historical figures and events.

Today’s subject is Mary Boleyn. Mary was the sister of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, best known for breaking up Henry's first marriage and then being beheaded. Mary is the title character from Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl (which I loved). Now Alison Weir has written a definitive biography of Mary (Mary Boleyn), or as definitive as a biography of a minor historical figure who lived in the 16th century can be. Not many genuine facts are known about Mary, since women’s lives were not well-documented in the 16th century. Even the princesses Mary and Margaret Tudor, Henry’s two sisters, are known mainly for who they married and the children they bore. If not for Anne Boleyn, we almost certainly would never have heard of Mary.

Mary was probably Anne’s older sister, although several 16th century sources state that Anne was older. Neither Mary nor Anne’s dates of birth are known; not even the year is certain. Mary is often portrayed as stupid or illiterate. Mary was unquestionably literate, since letters in her handwriting survive. She was probably offered the same education as Anne received, but did not seem to be as interested in learning (even their brother George does not appear to be as intelligent or educated as Anne).

Like Anne, Mary was sent to France to serve at the French court to complete her education in proper court etiquette. Many European royal courts served as finishing schools for young ladies of noble birth. At a time when schools of higher education were mainly for those planning to enter the clergy, it was common practice for members of the nobility to send both their sons and daughters to live and train in other noble households.

Because she attracted the attention of not just one but TWO kings, Mary is frequently portrayed as a woman of loose morals. There is no contemporary evidence for this belief. It is more likely that Mary was a sweet, very beautiful young woman who was pleasant and entertaining company.

Many historians claim that Henry fathered two of Mary’s children, and that she and Henry were lovers for several years. But it is more likely that the affair probably began sometime in 1522 and ended in late summer/early autumn 1523. Mary married to William Carey in 1520, one of Henry’s Gentlemen of the Bedchamber (the male equivalent of a lady-in-waiting) and a close associate who knew Henry well. The king was known for exercising great discretion in his extra-marital affairs, so it is possible that William Carey did not know about the affair. Even Queen Katherine, Henry first wife, did not know of his affair with Mary, otherwise she would have certainly used that information to fight Henry’s attempt to divorce her. Mary’s affair with Henry did not become common knowledge until Henry was trying to get his marriage to Anne annulled, claiming incest because he and Mary had once been lovers.

Their affair must have ended when Mary discovered she was pregnant, since it was believed that sex during pregnancy was harmful to the fetus. Henry was reputed to be somewhat prudish about sex, so he would have abided by the restrictions of the day. Because of certain financial provisions made for her throughout her lifetime, it is very likely that Mary's daughter Katherine was really Henry’s child, while her son Henry is almost certainly her husband William’s child.

After being treated somewhat disdainfully by her family for most of her life, Mary had the best revenge. Her second marriage was for love: she married a man named William Stafford, who was at least 10 years younger than she was and genuinely adored her. Because they married without the king’s permission, they were exiled from court. As the king’s sister-in-law, Mary’s marriage prospects were excellent, but their father Sir Thomas Boleyn does not seem to have exerted himself in arranging marriages for either of his daughters, even when they were very young women. Mary’s second husband was a soldier. He was stationed in Calais from 1534 to at least 1536; Mary was undoubtedly living there with him at the time of Anne’s fall from favor. Thus, they were able to distance themselves from Mary’s siblings Anne and George when they were first arrested and then executed, and avoided the scandal.

Even when they returned to England, Mary and William never went back to live at Henry VIII’s court. They lived in retirement at one of the properties that Mary inherited after her parents’ deaths. They had two children, a daughter Anne and a son Edward. Mary died in 1543, in her forties. Her husband Williams mourned her deeply and did not remarry for 10 years after her death.

Tomorrow:  Conspiracy Thursday

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