The Boleyn girls: Sisters and rivals?

In September 1534, Mary Carey – Anne Boleyn’s sister – was banished from court. Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, wrote:

A lady, thought to be Mary Boleyn. Unknown artist.

A lady, thought to be Mary Boleyn. Unknown artist.

“The Lady’s sister was also banished from Court three months ago, but it was necessary to do so, for besides that she had been found guilty of misconduct (malefice), it would not have been becoming to see her at Court enceinte [pregnant].” [1]

The word which caught my attention is ‘malefice’. In original, French version (Chapus was writing in French, not in Spanish), this excerpt reads as:

“La soeur de la dite dame a aussi este puis trois mois bannye de la court, mais il convenoit ainsi fere, car oultre quelle avoit este trouve[e] en malefice, il neust este honnorable ne duisaut la veoir ensaincte (enceinte) par la court.”

The word “malefice” was always closely linked with witchcraft or ill-wishing. “Malefice” was a practice of cursing or healing, and the manipulation of people and objects. This word was etymologically linked to Latin “malum” from which “le malin”“the devil” is derived from. “Malefice” was a word that described harmful actions of witches and those included the whole range of evil deeds. [2]

Was Anne Boleyn’s sister involved in witchcraft or ill-wishing? Chapuys’s despatch indicates so. But the word “malefice” was incorrectly translated as “misconduct” into English. It is thought that Mary Carey married William Stafford in 1534. The match was considered beneath Mary’s rank – she was the Queen’s sister, after all, and she did not seek her family’s permission to remarry. In September 1534 Mary was with child and – as Chapuys noted – “it would not have been either honourable or decent for her to appear at Court enceinte [pregnant]” . [3] Chapus, however, did not attribute Mary’s banishment to her pregnancy – it was, as I have explained above, attributed to “malefice”. Why, if Mary was married, would it be inappropriate for her to appear pregnant at court? Well, there might be a good reason because in September that year, Chapuys reported that Anne Boleyn’s second pregnancy ended in mysterious circumstances:

“Since the King began to doubt whether his lady was enceinte (pregnant) or not, he has renewed and increased the love he formerly had for a very beautiful damsel of the Court (…).[4]

Mary Boleyn as portrayed in "The Tudors" (Perdita Weeks)

Mary Boleyn as portrayed in “The Tudors” (Perdita Weeks)

Medical historian, Sir John Dewhurst put forward a theory that Anne Boleyn suffered from pseudocyesis – false pregnancy caused by stress. It means that Anne displayed the symptoms of pregnancy but she was not really with child.[5] This theory is very convincing – if Anne Boleyn had had a visible belly in 1534 as was noted by her contemporaries, why would Henry VIII have had doubts about her pregnancy? If she had miscarried or given birth to a stillborn child, Henry VIII would have had no reason to doubt that Anne was pregnant. I am inclined to believe that Sir Dewhurst is right. In this case, the sight of her fecund sister could have been very painful to Anne.

I am inclined to believe that there was an element of rivalry between Anne Boleyn and her sister. Mary’s sexual relationship with Henry VIII was, after all, the reason why the King had to seek the papal dispensation to marry Anne. The King’s carnal knowledge of her sister created a serious impediment and there were also rumours that Henry fathered at least one of Mary’s two children. While Anne struggled to give birth to a son, Mary had two children already, including one boy, and was gloriously pregnant in 1534, right after Anne’s mysterious miscarriage. It is hard not to draw a conclusion that Anne was angry that her sister, Henry VIII’s former mistress, dared to marry against her family’s wishes and fell pregnant with her new husband so quickly. Primary sources reveal that Mary wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, beseeching him to help her to come back to her family’s good graces. Her moving letter reveals that she felt neglected by her family:

“(…) all the world did set so little by me, and he  [her new husband] so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and forsake all other ways, and to live a poor honest life with him.” 

It was obvious that Mary’s second marriage was a love-match because “love overcame reason”, as she put it. However, Anne and the rest of the Boleyn clan did not share Mary’s enthusiasm – they were against this match:

“Pray my lord my father and my lady to be good to us, and desire my lord of Norfolk and my lord my brother to do the same. I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us.”

It seems that it was Anne the Queen who was the most rigorous against Mary and her husband:

“(…) and persuade his majesty to speak to the Queen, who is rigorous against us.”

There is also a very interesting excerpt from Mary’s letter, strongly indicating that there was, after all, a rivalry between the Boleyn sisters:

“But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, master Secretary, for my little time. I have tried so much honesty to be in him, that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest Queen in Christendom.” [6]

From historical record we know that Mary never returned to court. Perhaps her absence saved her from the executioner’s block during the bloody events of May 1536.


[1] ‘Henry VIII: December 1534, 1620′, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 7: 1534 (1883), pp. 576582, note 1554.

[2]  Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts, p. 13.

[3] Spain: December 1534, 1-31′, Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535 (1886), pp. 335-354., note 118.

[4] ‘Henry VIII: September 1534, 26–30′, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 7: 1534 (1883), pp. 462–475, note 1193.

[5] John Dewhurst, The alleged miscarriages of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Medical History, pp. 4956.

[6] ‘Henry VIII: Miscellaneous, 1534′, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 7: 1534 (1883), pp. 599627, note 1655.


  1. TudorGirl
    Oct 11, 2013

    Very interesting view! I think they might have been rivals, but it wasn’t uncommon back then. It must have been a strange thing for Anne to know that her husband slept with her sister.

  2. Areti
    Oct 11, 2013

    Wow.I’ve never though of their relationship as such.There seems to be a point.Anne perhaps did not want her to be around,because she might felt unable to become pregnant so many times and also Mary was a former mistress to her husband.Perhaps…. she even feared ,that Henry would make a comparison between the two.I also think ,Anne should not have been so cruel to Mary.=( What about “malefice”?
    I’m confused.

  3. Eliza
    Oct 11, 2013

    I can see your point.. The “Queen” part of Mary’s letter seems to be speaking directly to Anne. I think the 2 sisters didn’t have a lot in common, whereas George was very similar to Anne.

    • Sylwia
      Oct 12, 2013

      I agree, I think Anne might have felt irked after she read this part.

  4. margaret
    Oct 12, 2013

    what i have always believed is that anne envied mary ,especially as mary seemed to have had no problem having children ,whereas anne did have problems and under huge pressure to deliver the son and heir,also mary seemed quite content to live her life in relative obscurity when to compare her to her very well known sister and her brother,but all in all she survived her simple life in happiness.

    • Sylwia
      Oct 14, 2013

      I agree, Margaret.

  5. Jane
    Oct 14, 2013

    Very nice observation. I like that you are reaching to unknown sources, even if they are not favourable to the Boleyns. It’s important to get to the all sides of story, well done!

    • Sylwia
      Oct 15, 2013

      Thanks, Jane!

  6. Portalia
    Oct 14, 2013

    Nie nam oceniać Annę, bo jako ludzie naszych czasów nigdy nie dowiemy się prawdy, ale pomyślcie jak ta kobieta musiała się czuc. Jej wartość jako kobiety, która kochała i pragnęła tego samego, była wyznaczana tylko od tego, czy jest w stanie urodzić dziecko czy nie, bez płodności była nikim. A jeśli wierzyć zdaniom, że była tylko przedmiotem intrygi, mającym uwieść króla by ten nie zapomniał o Boleynach…to naprawdę, nieciekawe miała życie, pozbawione wszelkiej godności, wolności, prawa do czegokolwiek. Ale z drugiej strony wizja pani Gregory jednak też dużo daje do myślenia, jeśli chodzi o charakter Anne, ten egoizm…zresztą, tak czy inaczej niech spoczywa spokojnie, to wszystko już za nią.

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  8. BanditQueen
    Oct 23, 2013

    Anne was now Queen and in this light we can see another reason for her treating her sister Mary with harshness. A gloriously pregnant Mary most certainly would have shocked Anne as she had told her ladies that they must be of good conduct and honour. In 1534 Anne had also miscarried, although Henry decided to keep it quiet; and this would also be another reason for Anne to be upset. But Mary told her and her family that she was married to William Stafford, a gentleman of the court who was below her status. This is not the only reason Anne would be upset though as Queen: she was now royal and Mary the sister of the Queen. As both a member of the household of the Queen and her sister; she should not have married without her permission. It was not treason. It does not appear in the treasons acts at this time or before this: but it is still against the rules of the court and the normal royal protocols. Anne had been offended as Queen and Mary must have hurt her. I do not believe she was being cruel in sending her away from court; but her banishment did not need to mean that her family cut her off. The refusal to give her financial support was cruel, unjust as some of this money was hers by right, and she had to later write again to Cromwell to get money that was owed to her as a widow and a member of the Boleyn family. She had certain rights to monies from the estates and this was also denied her. Cromwell did his best to amend this injustice.

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