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The Second Family: Mary Boleyn’s Stafford Children

November 7, 2012

Around September of 1534, Mary Boleyn was banished from the court. Her offense had been to secretly marry one William Stafford, a gentleman-usher who was far below her in rank, and to become pregnant. It’s unclear it what order these events took place, but they did, and that December the ever-reliable Chapuys was informing the Emperor that in addition to Lady Rochford’s banishment for picking a fight with the King’s current favourite, “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, it would not have been becoming to see her at Court enceinte.” “Misconduct” in this case did not necessarily refer to sexual misconduct — marrying without the requisite permission would also qualify, especially since, as the Queen’s sister, Mary could have been a valuable matrimonial prize. (It’s also worth noting that some time in the late summer of 1534, something went wrong with Anne’s pregnancy — she had been showing in April, but by September there was no longer a child. Humanly speaking, it was a bad time for Mary’s all-too-successful pregnancy to start making itself apparent).

After her banishment, Mary wrote her famous begging letter to Cromwell, which is quoted in so many books (often as dialogue, awkwardly enough), and may have received assistance, although there’s no confirmation. After that she and Stafford dropped into obscurity for awhile, and with them the child who inadvertently betrayed their marriage. The child itself is frustratingly hard to pin down; I can find no solid information on whether it was a boy or a girl, whether it was even born alive, or whether any siblings were born before Mary’s death in 1543. Wiki lists Mary and Stafford as having two children, Anne and Edward, born in 1534 and 1535, but the information is unsourced and while the dates aren’t impossible they do seem to be cutting things rather closely. Whatever children they had, none of them seem to have survived to adulthood, and Mary’s line today descends from the children of her first marriage (or, as many novelists would have it, her children by Henry VIII) Henry and Catherine Carey.

Fleeting in life, the Stafford children have been equally elusive in fiction. Mary’s pregnancy and resulting banishment appear in many books, but unless the book is centered around Mary herself, both she and the child usually evaporate afterwards. And even the books centered around Mary have a tendency to end at the time of Anne’s death and Mary’s permanent leave-taking of court life, probably on the theory that her remaining seven years would be an anti-climax. The exception is Blood Royal (1988) in which Mary is banished in September of 1535, not 1534, and is thus heavily pregnant at the time of Anne’s trial. She attends the trial and gives birth to a stillborn child directly afterwards; the baby’s death is attributed to her sorrow. Shortly before Mary’s own death, we’re given a brief glimpse of “her youngest child, the only survivor of several, little Willikin, a delicate, fanciful child. They said he would not make old bones, but not in his mother’s hearing.”

In The Last Boleyn (1983) the first child is a healthy boy: “They called him Andrew William as they had decided. They wanted the child to have his own freely given name and not be named for someone in high position as were Henry and Catherine.” Not the most period of sentiments, but still something. It’s the much-maligned The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) which, at least in this instance, probably comes closest: the baby is a girl who is named Anne, as a properly placatory gesture. As both of these latter books end with Anne Boleyn’s execution, the question of the Stafford children’s mortality never needs to be confronted and Mary’s story can be given a happier ending than it probably had. It’s hard enough to do this when she outlives her brother and sister, but impossible if she outlives her youngest children.

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From → Brief Lives

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  1. Fictive Kin: Anne Boleyn’s Imaginary Relatives |

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