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Who Was Mary?
So frequently, Mary Boleyn is painted as the unsuccessful Boleyn sister, overshadowed by the infamous reputation of her sister, Anne. Others have suggested that Mary’s main storyline in history was as a royal mistress to Henry VIII. Yet, if we step back to look at her in the bigger picture of royal history and, especially, in terms of the early rumblings of religious reform, historians can actually reconsider Mary Boleyn’s role as an influential woman in Tudor England.
As the daughter of a nobleman and foreign ambassador, Mary was given her first position in France, serving Queen Mary Tudor who married Louis XII in 1514. Although historians are unsure about just how long Mary Boleyn lived and worked at the French court, the minimum is six months with a potential for up to five years of employment. While her first mistress, Queen Mary Tudor was later a reformer, if Mary Boleyn did indeed work for the French royal family for five years, she would have also learned early ideas of reform from Marguerite de Angouleme (later Queen of Navarre).[ref]Her education would have included the study of medieval texts such as Lessons for My Daughter by Anne of Brittany, and the feminist works of Christine de Pizan.[/ref]
Having returned to England at the end of 1519, Mary Boleyn upheld these mentalities and married William Carey, a later supporter of reform and Henry VIII’s cousin. She was at English court several years before her sister, Anne ever was, and it is a reasonable assumption to say that Mary continued to advocate for reform with the support of her family. As early as 1522 it is believed she became Henry VIII’s royal mistress, a role she maintained for approximately three years. Her father, brother, and husband gained royal favours and grants throughout this period and all three also supported religious reform. For a king like Henry VIII, this would have been a period of time where his mistress, his ambassador, and his cousin all had his ear to sway and influence his mind towards reform.
How Do We Know?
Well, in terms of Mary Boleyn, there are very few documents that still exist to give historians a definitive idea that she may have been one of the first people at court to influence reformed thought. However, considering her early education as well as existing letters that indicate her husband, William Carey, used his royal favour to advocate for religious leaders to be elevated, it is safe to believe Mary played some foundational role for Henry VIII’s later shift to the Church of England.
Mary’s story is a tough one to trace. However, it is increasingly crucial to historians of royal history to understand the influence and impact of mistresses, especially in times of upheaval and change. Mary is one such mistress, and her life can be pieced together by studying her marriages, her children, her father, and her sister. Sometimes historians get to be detectives and Mary’s influential potential in terms of the English Reformation, must be uncovered!