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The Final Mystery of Mary Boleyn

Slipping the book into the deep pocket of her skirt, Kate turned to the window. Sighing, she wished the thick, crinkled glass allowed her more view of the countryside surrounding their manor house. She was always happiest when her mother allowed her to ride her horse or wander in freedom the meadows surrounding her home. On this grey, misty morning, the only thing she could really make out was the stately tower of Saint Andrew’s church. Built by her great grandfather when he took possession of this estate, it had proclaimed to all his lordship of Rochford, a lordship that continued down to her grandfather. It reminded her she had right to pride—and the right to claim her place with her royal aunt, rather than remain here, hidden away with her too often soft mother who lacked all trace of ambition ~ The Light in the Labyrinth.


Mary Boleyn - Public Domain
Mary Boleyn - Public Domain

I count myself as fortunate. I have walked important paths once trod by the people whose lives have inspired my Tudor novels. As an Australian, this is not an easy feat to achieve. It is a long way to England—and not cheap to get there, or to stay there.


One of my research trips happened in 2012, when I was deep into writing The Light in the Labyrinth, my second published Tudor novel. Writing The Light in the Labyrinth added many ‘must see’ places for me to research. One of them was Rochford Hall, a property once owned by Mary Boleyn. Rochford Hall is in Essex—so going there meant another trip to England. Nowadays, what remains of Rochford Hall is a Golf Club.


Mary Boleyn was Anne Boleyn’s sister. She also was Henry VIII’s mistress for a time. I believe Henry VIII fathered her daughter, Katherine, but that is one of the many mysteries which surround Mary—both in life and death.


I am always thankful for mysteries. As a writer of historical fiction, I am free to rely on my instinct to fill in the gaps of historical knowledge. What history makes clear is Mary Boleyn married her second husband because she loved him. She said of William Stafford that she would rather beg her bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom (Cited by Ridgway 2016). Her marriage to Stafford resulted in their banishment from court. These facts fed my imagination and built up in my mind a woman who desired to be as far away from the court as possible. Somewhere to find that ‘poor, honest life’ she wrote about in her letter to Thomas Cromwell (Cited by Ridgway 2016).


In Tudor times, it would have taken days to ride from Essex to London. Travel was hard in the 16th century, often fraught with danger and challenges. On my visit to Rochford Hall in 2012, I saw unmade roads turned into mud baths in wet weather. I imagined trying to surmount these same roads by foot or horse. If Mary Boleyn desired distance from the court, which I believe she did, Rochford Hall was the perfect place to give her that distance. I am still inclined to argue she lived at Rochford Hall. Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn (Weir 2012) may give cause and pause for doubt, but I still believe it.



Rochford Hall - ©Wendy J. Dunn
Rochford Hall - ©Wendy J. Dunn

The Domesday book notes a manor house on the site of Rochford Hall in 1086. Anne Boleyn’s ancestor, James Butler (or Boteler), the 5th Earl Ormonde and 1st Earl of Wiltshire began building what we know as Rochford Hall in the 15th century. Boteler arms appear on the red Tudor brick tower of St Andrews Church. Margaret Butler, the mother of Thomas Boleyn, the father of Mary, George and Anne Boleyn, inherited Rochford Hall. When I was writing The Light in the Labyrinth in 2012, I believed Mary Boleyn made her home at the Hall with her second husband, William Stafford, remaining there until her death on 19th July 1543, when the hall passed to Henry Carey, her seventeen-year-old son (2020 Clubhouse History).

St Andrews Church by John Salmon, CC BY-SA 2.0
St Andrews Church by John Salmon, CC BY-SA 2.0

But Mary did not inherit Rochford Hall until shortly before her death (Weir 2012). Where she lived during her years of banishment remains shrouded in the mists of time. Shrouded by those same mists is the place Mary died and was buried. Sitting in the lovely St Andrews church on that wet day in 2012, I listened in fascination as Maurice Draper, a local historian, told me of its history. One thing Maurice seemed very certain of—Mary Boleyn was not buried at the church. If she was not buried at the church, then it follows her death likely did not occur at Rochford Hall. So where was she buried? St George's Chapel at Windsor is mentioned as a possibility—as is the Carey vault at Westminster Abbey, but both these places have reliable burial records. Both omit the entombment of Mary Boleyn.

Interior St Andrews Church, ©Wendy J. Dunn
Interior St Andrews Church, ©Wendy J. Dunn

Interior St Andrews Church, ©Wendy J. Dunn
Interior St Andrews Church, ©Wendy J. Dunn

I have often wondered if they entombed Mary with her mother at Lambeth Church in London. When I asked my Tudor history knowledgeable friend, Valerie, what she thought of that possibility, she did not cross it off my list. Valerie also told me of a legend saying they had buried Mary at St Mary’s Church, Chilton Foliat—a church believed built in the 13th century, with both Carey and Stafford connections. William Carey, the first husband of Mary Boleyn was probably born and raised in a manor house, now lost to history, close to this church (Weir 2012). At St Mary’s Church there is a piece of stain glass bearing close similarity to the Boleyn falcon (Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire | Anne Boleyn, Tudor era, Tudor, 2020). I am wondering now if this falcon answers the question about Mary Boleyn’s last resting place.

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Works cited:

Clubhouse History : Rochford Hundred Golf Club, Southend On Sea, Essex. [online] Rochfordhundredgolfclub.co.uk. Available at: https://www.rochfordhundredgolfclub.co.uk/history/clubhouse_history/

Ridgway, C., 2016. Mary Boleyn’s Letter to Thomas Cromwell – The Anne Boleyn Files. [online] Claire Ridgway. Available at: https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/mary-boleyns-letter-thomas-cromwell/

Weir, A 2012. Mary Boleyn, London: Vintage.

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