Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sisters That Changed History: Mary & Anne Boleyn

Blogger: Amber Schamel

Mary Boleyn

Mary and Anne Boleyn were born during treacherous and changing times. Although these two sisters weren’t as close as the others we’ve been covering, their influence on history is just as strong.

Mary seems to have been the elder of the two, both children of Thomas Boleyn, the first Earl of Wiltshire and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard. Probably only two or three years older, Mary was brought up with Anne and their brother George in Kent, England. Their French governess prepared them for their later occupations as maids to a French queen. Their education consisted of basic principles of math, history, etc. but also included family genealogy, hunting, singing, and skills in running a house.

Around age 15, Mary was sent with Princess Mary, Henry VIII’s youngest sister, as her maid-of-honor when she moved to Paris and became the wife of aging King Louis XII of France. Here, Mary’s reputation suffered. She is thought to have become the subject of several affairs and the mistress to the succeeding King, Francois. However, some historians consider those reports to be exaggerated. Regardless, Mary was returned to England and this time was maid-of-honor to Catherine of Argon who became the first wife of Henry VIII. Soon after her return, Mary was wed to an influential and rich courtier, William Carey. King Henry was a guest at their wedding.

Apparently his attendance at their wedding did nothing to deter the king from this ‘pretty’ woman with a colorful reputation, because he soon formed a liaison with Mary. The duration of the affair is unknown and the fatherhood of her two children stand in question yet today.

Now let’s sidestep for moment and catch up with the younger sister. Anne’s early life followed closely in her sister’s footsteps, though she would step out of her shadow and earn herself a greater place in history books. She went to the Netherlands and was tutored in the house of Margaret of Austria. Afterward, she followed her sister to France and also became a maid-of-honor to Queen Mary, and then to her daughter Claudia. It was apparently these years in France where Anne developed her religious interests and convictions.

James Butler, Anne and Mary's Cousin
Around 1522, Anne was recalled to England. A heated debate over land rights between Anne’s father and her uncle threatened civil war. King Henry hoped to end the conflict by marrying her off to her Irish cousin, James Butler. These plans were ended by Cardinal Wolsey, the reason being unclear. Perhaps her uncle hoped to marry Butler off to a higher ranking lady. Whatever the reason, it left Anne unattached. She debuted in court and soon had many young men competing for her hand.

A young man by the name of Henry Percy succeeded in gaining her attention. The problem was he had been betrothed to someone else since childhood. The two became secretly engaged, however Percy’s father refused the match, and so did Cardinal Wolsey, and likely King Henry, since he had begun to notice the younger Boleyn girl. Anne was sent home and Percy was married to Lady Mary Talbot, his original intended.

After this romance had blown over, Anne returned to court. However, she resisted Henry’s advances and refused to become his mistress as her sister had. Henry had disposed of Mary easily, and Anne vowed the same fate wouldn’t happen to her. Henry courted her for seven years, during which time raged the battle to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow. Anne gained such influence during this period that ambassadors considered it essential to have her approval if they wanted influence in the English government. She actively encouraged the reformation movement, often protecting English translators and scholars.
When the “sweating sickness” raged in 1528, Anne retreated to her family home. She became very ill, as did her sister Mary’s husband. Henry sent his personal physician to treat her, and she soon recovered. Her brother-in-law, however, perished of the disease leaving Mary a widow.

This bout of sickness must have frightened the king, because he became even more desperate to marry Anne. The conflict over the annulment of his marriage caused a break from the Pope and the stage for the Reformation was set.

King Henry and Anne Boleyn

As Anne became the wife of King Henry VIII and battled for her title as queen instead of Catherine of Aragon, Mary fell in love with a soldier. Because a soldier was of considerably lower rank, the marriage was secret, discovered only when Mary’s pregnancy became visible. The court, including the newly crowned Queen Anne, was furious. Mary was excommunicated and the couple banished from court. She did later manage to gain a little compassion from her sister and was granted a small pension and the education of her son.

Thus, the elder sister lived in poverty with a man she loved, and the younger lived in a treacherous court as Queen of England. Both came to early deaths.

We all know the infamous story of Anne’s demise. She gave birth to a girl, later to be Queen Elizabeth I, and her failure to produce a male heir ruined her favor with King Henry. Allegations were made, trial was set, and Anne’s fate was sealed with the testimony of her own uncle and her former betrothed. She was beheaded at the Tower of London in May 1536; a few days after her brother met the same fate.

Mary lived in relative quiet until she died of unknown causes on July 19, 1543 in her early forties, outliving her brother and sister by only seven years.

Both these women influenced English history during the Reformation era, which in turn influenced the entire world with its translations of scripture, break with the Catholic Church, and ruling females. Had Anne not protected the translators and scholars, who knows what may have become of the Christian movement or how long it would have taken for the Scriptures to be in our own language. Anne is considered one of the greatest queens of England, a martyr, and the mother of the Protestant movement.

Mary’s impact is harder to analyze. On the surface, it seems her three children and influence on King Henry are about all we can account to her...but then again, what influence did she hold over her younger sister and her path in life? If we follow the path of her children, we’ll see that they greatly impacted the fate of England and the rule of their cousin, Elizabeth I. It was Mary’s children that carried on the Boleyn lineage. So perhaps her influence wasn’t so petty after all.


Amber Schamel writes riveting stories that bring HIStory to life. She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".  Her title, Dawn of Liberty, was awarded the 2017 CSPA Book of the Year award in Historical Fiction. She lives in Colorado and spends half her time volunteering in the Ozarks. Visit her online at www.AmberSchamel.com/
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  1. Very interesting, post, Amber. It's timely with the replaying
    of the Wolf Hall series on PBS as of late. The history books
    certainly give a different view of Anne Boleyn and her
    importance compared to the series based on novels
    and focusing on Thomas Cromwell. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hello Kathleen!
      Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The Boleyn family seems to have captured the imaginations of Western people, myself included! I think that's one of the reasons there are so many varying accounts of Anne. Everyone has an opinion, including those who lived during that time. :)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Melissa! Always good to see you around.

  3. Truly an interesting post about the Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne. Glad to learn this piece of history and how these sisters made an impact during the Reformation Era, which influenced Christianity in the world. Thank you for sharing, Amber.

    1. Hello Marilyn, wonderful to see you on the blog today!

  4. Another interesting post! Amber, thanks for sharing!

  5. Very interesting information. Did you see the movie Anne of a Thousand Days? It was good also.