This is an experiment in story-telling. The subject is family. Much of the following is based on the historical record. Some is conjecture. The reader has been warned.
Discretion is an admirable trait in a royal mistress. Mary Boleyn was discrete.
King Henry VIII was less discrete.
We know he slept with Mary because he told us so - twice: During the annulment proceedings he brought against his wife of 24 years, Katherine of Aragon, and the papal dispensation he requested before marrying Anne Boleyn. We also know that he did not sleep with Mary’s mother, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, sister to the Duke of Norfolk, because he told us, ’Never with the mother’.
We do not have any word from Mary about when or where she slept with the English king. Although her family knew, and her husband must have known, and at least some courtiers, she is not on record acknowledging the affair.
A French Education
When the Boleyn sisters were at the French court, royal mistresses were considered a normal part of life. There was even an hierarchy for royal mistresses - en titre, the chief mistress, and petite, all the other mistresses. During both Mary’s and her sister Anne’s time in France, King Francois I had both an official maîtresse-en-titre, Françoise de Foix, who initially resisted the king but eventually gave in, and several unofficial mistresses. One unofficial mistress, Marie Gaudin, was also mistress to Pope Leo X and Charles V. Her husband was aware of all these liaisons. They would have been hard to miss given the gifts she received.
Resisting royal advances and eventually succumbing to his charms, a.k.a. the hunt, fueled the chivalric romance fantasy. There is no reason why Mary Boleyn would consider being mistress to a king a bad thing. It was usually advantageous for both the woman and her family - including her cuckolded husband.
Anne’s fortitude in staying out of Henry’s bed for six years has been given salacious spin by characterizing it as ‘something she must have learned in France’. You know those French - always interested in pleasure. They have their crafty ways to avoid the tedium of laying back and thinking of the kingdom - of prolonging the hunt. It is possible, given their shared experiences, that both Boleyn sisters excelled at extended flirtations.
An English Opportunity
When did the affair between Mary and Henry start? Did it include an extended unconsummated flirtation?
In 1519, Mary Boleyn returned to England. What if, upon Mary’s return she caught the king’s eye? What if, instead of succumbing to his advances, Mary resisted them as her more famous sister did later on?
Also in 1519, Henry acknowledged his male bastard by Bessie Blount, his previous mistress. Given Henry’s laser focus on producing male heirs, it is quite possible that he did not want any more illegitimate children muddying the inheritance waters. A legitimate heir and a spare is one thing. A single illegitimate heir is a backup plan. But spare illegitimate heirs tend to stir civil unrest if not outright war. A married mistress mitigated this potential problem as all children born to a wife were legally her husband’s.
In February 1520, Mary wed William Carey in the Chapel Royal, presumably with King Henry VIII in attendance. Actually, all we know is that the king gifted the couple some cash as a wedding present. That doesn’t mean he was present at the ceremony. Carey was a member of the king’s inner circle and held the post of Esquire of the Body. He was also related to the Beauforts and therefore a distant cousin of the king but he held no title and had no great wealth.
Who's marrying up?
Despite the traditional assertion that Carey was an advantageous match for Mary Boleyn, the advantages were all on Carey’s side. He stood to gain the most by marrying into the Boleyn family, which were part of the Howard and Butler (Ormond) families. The Howards, led by the Duke of Norfolk, were one of the senior aristocratic families in the kingdom. There were only two other dukes at the time, the Duke of Buckingham who was convicted of treason and executed the following year, and the king’s best friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk.
At the same time,Thomas Boleyn, Mary’s father, was co-heir to the Irish Ormond earldom and extensive estates through his grandmother. He had been wrangling for the inheritance since 1515 when the incumbent title holder died. In terms of family ambition, Mary as bride to the heir of the Ormond dynasty was more advantageous and astute than her marrying Carey.
It’s unclear why she married Carey at all. If papa Boleyn was really moving his daughters around the aristocratic chess board, he wouldn’t have chosen William Carey, who had no aristocratic titles and no great wealth. Was there another hand at work? Certainly, Mary could do better. Mary, the beautiful. Mary the international traveller. Mary the educated. Mary, a niece of the Duke of Norfolk. Mary, the next Countess of Ormond?
Being a countess is much better than being a lady married to a gentleman - no matter his relationship with the king. After Mary and William Carey were married in February of 1520, any remaining ambitions for securing the Ormond inheritance would naturally have been transferred to her younger sister Anne, as was the case by September 1520.
Upon her return to the English court, what if the king was struck by Mary’s beauty and charms and suggested that she wed William Carey? Then the traditional chivalric romance ritual could proceed with little scandal. If she were safely married to an amenable dependent, such as Carey, the king could pursue her, bed her, and avoid responsibility for any children at a leisurely pace.
The king could easily have dropped such a hint in Thomas Boleyn’s ear and believing that once the young couple were wed, William Carey, as the son-in-law of Thomas Boleyn –himself an eminent courtier who had been rising in status for quite some time, a member of the Norfolk Howard family and father to the beautiful Mary – would receive gifts of lands and titles from the king elevating his status even more. Mary would gain a title through a grateful king rewarding her husband and Anne could be the next Countess of Ormond instead.
What of young Carey? He played tennis with the king. So did Charles Brandon. Carey was an Esquire of the Body. Charles Brandon had been an Esquire of the Body. What if Carey saw a glittering future in the mold of Charles Brandon whom the king had made Duke of Suffolk? Perhaps he was a willing conspirator with the king in the manner of Marie Gaudin’s husband.
What if we have it all backwards?
What if Mary was not a complacent door mat but a skilled courtesan who followed the king’s and perhaps her family’s strong suggestions to marry Carey with the realistic expectation that her husband’s position would improve. What if she practiced what her French education had taught?
Future musings may expand, embellish, or correct, this part of the story - or not.