Mary Boleyn’s portrait…? UPDATE

Copy of 'Mary Boleyn' portrait c. 1630-1670

You probably remember my article about portrait allegedly depicting Mary Boleyn. Historian and author Alison Weir claims that there are 6 versions of this portrait and that it probably depicts a royal sitter because of the ermine fur;

“The fact that there are at least six versions of the ‘Mary’ portrait indicates that there was demand for a portrait of the sitter, and she is wearing ermine, a fur restricted to the upper nobility and royalty.”[1]

I did a research about this and in this article I am going to write more about this portrait. I was looking for information about provenance of the portrait of ‘Mary Boleyn’ and confirmation of Alison Weir’s claim that there were ‘at least 6 versions of this portrait’.

I contacted Anna L. Splender who is a Deputy Head Steward at the Hever Castle. She kindly replied that;

“I am afraid that I am unfamiliar with the claim that there are 6 versions of Mary Boleyn’s portrait.  We only have one portrait at Hever Castle – Warwick Castle is its provenance (purchased by William Waldorf Astor in the early twentieth century).”

As for now, I did not find any information that would confirm Alison Weir’s claim that there are indeed 6 versions of ‘Mary Boleyn’ portrait. I came across a copy of this portrait dated c. 1630-1670, but it is later copy and it was a common practice to copy already existing paintings.

And what about ermine fur?  I contacted Paul Cox, who is Assistant Curator in National Portrait Gallery and he kindly told me that;

“Maria Hayward, in her 2007 Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII cites a document in the College of Arms (‘Memorandum that all manner of Estates shall ware there Apparell Powdred as ys Abouesaide’ – MS 16 bis. Ff. 14r-15r).  This describes the varying use of ermine on the robes appropriate to different classes of peers, so the furs use was not restricted to the royal family.”

According to those two pieces of information, the sitter from ‘Mary Boleyn’ portrait may not be royal at all.

After few informations that I collect, I think it will be wise enough to say that the sitter from ‘Mary Boleyn’ portrait could be any woman who came from upper class. She could be royal, but considering her costume and appearance – who might it be?

 ‘Mary Boleyn’ bears no resemblance to Henry VIII’s daughter Lady Mary Tudor (who in 1530’s was rather out of royal favor due to her obstinacy), king’s niece Margaret Douglas (who was high in king’s favor until 1535 when she fell in love and secretly engaged Lord Thomas Howard, son of 2d Duke of Norfolk), or king’s sister Mary Tudor-Brandon (who died of consumption in 1533).  What about Henry VIII’s wives?

We can definitely exclude Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon who died in 1536 and spent her final years at banishment. We may think about Anne Boleyn – the sitter’s skin is not typically pale, her eyes are big and dark, and she has an oval face. The only thing that is not similar to Anne – a rather plump face and light eyebrows. It is definitely not Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves nor Catherine Howard.

This lady, in my opinion, could be any lady from upper class. Perhaps it was Frances Brandon, as suggested by Alison Weir. It could be as well Mary Howard, daughter of 3rd Duke of Norfolk and wife of Henry Fitzroy, Henry’s illegitimate son (they married in 1534, Mary was 15 at that time).

Mary Howard

I still agree with Alison Weir that the sitter is not Mary Boleyn. I gave few reasons in my previous article but I will repeat them here;

- In her book ‘Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress’ Josephine Wilkinson points out that between 1528-1532 Mary was an ‘an unwanted and unloved daughter, the discarded mistress’ (p. 123) . Also Professor Eric Ives writes that; ‘Mary should have been under no illusions. As early as November 1530 the king had given Anne £20 to redeem a jewel Mary possessed, presumably one he had given her. Anne, the wife, wanted no one to remember Mary, the mistress.’ It seems highly unlikely, considering the circumstances, that Mary would be honoured by having such a portrait in 1530s.

- She was banished from court in 1534, after she disgraced her family by marrying a man beneath her station.

Certainly no one wanted to celebrate king’s former mistress, because it would draw attention to the question of validity of Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s marriage (Mary was Anne sister and king’s mistress, so it was similar affinity like in case of Henry VIII & Catherine of Aragon).

For now the identity of this lady remains a mystery. Until some new evidence will come to light we can only speculate about her. And what do you think about this matter?


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2 Responses
  1. As far as I know, I am the person who discovered that this copy of the better known painting of Mary which hangs at Hever. I was touring Holyrood Palace in 2009 and saw it hanging in one of the rooms there, identified as “unknown woman.” When I returned home, I searched the online database of the royal collection and found a small jpg of it, labeled again as “unknown woman.” I placed a copy of that jpeg online here:, labeled as Mary Boleyn, as it is clearly a second copy of the portrait at Hever. I searched for the image as Mary Boleyn online extensively before I did this and it was not on the Internet under her name.

    Since I have placed it online identified as Mary, it has been appearing in more and more locations. My personal view is that this is indeed Mary, and is probably a pendent to the known portrait of her husband, Henry Carey, as both this second image and the one of Carey are set done in vignette style and are facing inward at each other. The vingette was not preserved in the Hever Mary, but is preserved in the Holyrood copy.

    • Sylwia says:

      Hello Ann! Thank you for your informative comment. ‘Mary Boley’ portrait from Hever appears in many books, and this copy from Holyrood palace was unknown to me until I found this picture. I still don’t know who might it be – is it really Mary? If it was inscribed as her, than perhaps it is really her? Thank you for stopping by at my website :-)

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