Did Henry VIII father Mary Boleyn’s children?

Henry Carey, Mary's first child

I was inspired to write this article after reading another chapter of new book by David Loades, ‘The Boleyns’. In chapter entitled  ‘Mary & the King’s Fancy – in and out of Favour’ professor Loades states that ;

”Mistress Carey’s charms may have faded, or been replaced by those of her sister, but the indications are that Mary was handed over to her husband at some point in the summer of 1525. Her son, Henry Carey, was born on 4 March 1526, and that suggests that she began to sleep with William at some time in June or July of 1525.” / p. 52 /

”From 1526 onwards Mary is overshadowed by her sister Anne, and glimpses of her in the records become few. She must have spent quite a lot of her time on pregnancy leave, because a few months after Henry’s birth, she had conceived again, and bore William’s second child, a daughter Catherine, at some time in 1527.’ / p. 53/

I have to say that I always thought that Catherine Carey was born c. 1524 and thus was Mary Carey’s first child. In her book ‘Mary Boleyn : The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress’ Josephine Wilkinson states that ;

”Mary in fact, was pregnant twice during the time she was Henry’s mistress. The eldest child, Katherine, was born in 1524. The year of her birth is easy to establish from a portrait of her which was painted in 1562. This notes that the sitter was thirty-eight years of age at the time, giving her a birth date of 1524”. / p. 79/

In her new book about Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir also states that Catherine Carey was born c. 1524.

As usually when I have doubts, I reached profesor Eric Ives’ book ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’ . Profesor Ives states that ;

”Once Mary had begun to cohabit with William Carey, her two children came in quick succession.” /p. 17/

In the notes for this chapter, profesor Ives explains that Henry Carey was Mary’s first child and he was born in March 1526. This makes Catherine Carey the second child.

For centuries historians tried to guess wheather Mary’s children were also Henry VIII’s children. We don’t actually know when Mary’s relationship with the king started and when exactly it ended. We can only guess the time of their romance. David Loades states that in the summer of 1525 Mary was reunited with her husband and she conceived children by him. But another historian, Josephine Wilkinson, claims otherwise :

”However a child born in March would have been conceived in June of the previous year when Henry had not yet discarded Mary. /p. 80 /

The important question is – did Henry VIII father Mary Carey’s children? We should first take a look on Henry VIII’s children : during his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry fathered at least six children, but only one of them – princess Mary – survived infancy. At some point  Henry VIII knew that his wife will not be able to provide him more children, and he took a mistress – young lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount. Bessie gave birth to a healthy baby boy in June 1519, and the king acknowledged baby as his son. The boy received a name Henry – after his royal father, and a surname ‘Fitzroy’ that meant ‘son of the King’. He was the first son of 28-year-old Henry VIII and the king soon bestowed a title of Duke of Richmond on him.

Henry VIII never aknowledged Mary’s children as his own. They received Mary’s husband’s surname, Carey, and perhaps this is an indication that they were indeed William Carey’s children.

Other possible explanation of why Henry VIII never acknowledged Mary’s children as his own is the fact that he developed his interest in Mary’s younger sister, Anne Boleyn. At the Shrovetide in 1526 the king appeared at joust displaying a motto ‘Declare I dare not’  which was a clear indication towards Anne Boleyn and Henry’s respect for Anne’s decision of preserving her virginity.

How could Henry VIII acknowledge Mary’s children ash his own, when he was pursuing her sister? That would have caused a scandal, considering the fact that king wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and his previous affair with Mary caused some problems – Henry must have appealed to Rome for a dispence.

Catherine Carey

The other possible explanation is the fact, that Henry VIII knew that he must have a legitimate son. He believed that a woman can never wear a crown and thus was eager to provide a male heir. But Catherine of Aragon was already barren, with no chance of conceiving another child. That is why Henry turned his back on her, and took mistresses. But even if Henry recognized Bessie Blount’s son as his own, Henry Fitzroy was only an illegitimate son, who would probably never inherit the throne. Henry knew that so he didn’t need more illegitimate children.

And what about the rumours that young Henry Carey looked like king Henry VIII? Did he really bear resemblance to the king? John Hale, Vicar of Isleworth wrote to the Council in 1535 that :

“Moreover, Mr. Skydmore dyd show to me yongge Master Care, saying that he was our suffren Lord the Kynge’s son by our suffren Lady the Qwyen’s syster, whom the Qwyen’s grace myght not suffer to be yn the Cowrte.” / LP, VIII. 567/

Profesor Eric Ives pointed out that such rumours were spread by Catherine of Aragon’s supporters.

And what about the fact, that Anne Boleyn became Henry Carey’s ward after William Carey’s death? It could have been an act of mercy since Anne was Mary’s sister, and Mary found herself in a difficult financial position after her husband’s death. But it could have been also a sign that Henry VIII wished to take care of his illegtimate son.

Whatever the case is, I think that today it is really hard to say if Henry and Catherine Carey were Henry VIII’s children. Perhaps they were, perhaps not – but certainly they both played a political role during Elizabeth I’s reign. Elizabeth was very fond of her Boleyn relatives but it doesn’t meant that it was because they were Henry VIII’s children. I think that for Elizabeth they were mostly the Boleyns, family of her mother. Henry Carey knew Anne Boleyn when he was a boy, and he certainly had a lot to tell Elizabeth about her mother.

Bibliography :

Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

David Loades, ”The Boleyns’

Alison Weir, ”Mary Boleyn : The Great and Infamous Whore”

Josephine Wilkinson, ”Mary Boleyn : The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress”

LP, VIII. 567

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3 Responses
  1. Areti says:

    Nice article..:) It’s really weird why Mary’s children were never recognised as Henry’s … I think it would be too complicated if they were indeed the king’s…wow!Elizabeth would have many half sisters and half brothers..:P

  2. Bridgett says:

    Great article! It was nice reading and wonderful research. Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts. I pretty much agree totally.

    • Sylwia says:

      Thank you for your comment, Bridgett! It’s hard to guess without enough evidence, but if you look at the portraits – perhaps Careys bear some resemblance to Henry (especially HC, with his nose and red hair). But still I am not sure if this means they were Henry VIII’s children ;-)

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