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William Carey: He Begs You To Be Gracious

November 14, 2012

William Carey married Mary Boleyn on February 4, 1520. He was at that time about twenty years old and a groom of the privy chamber. As Mary was the daughter of an ambitious and accomplished ambassador, it was a good match for both concerned. Henry VIII attended the wedding and gave the happy couple a (small) money gift as well as a few grants. During the following years, Mary would give birth to two children, and Carey would rise steadily, receiving grants and preferments during almost every year which remained to him. Some of these doubtless resulted from Henry’s involvement with Mary Boleyn, although to what extent is murky; naturally there are no surviving ledger entries along the lines of “Item: To William Carey, for use of wife.” Some writers have tried to demonstrate that the grants given to Carey in 1524 and 1526 (the years of the Carey children’s births) showed that the King must be the father of these children and that the grants were a sort of compensation for this fact, but since these were hardly the only years in which Carey received grants (not to mention that these gifts could just as easily be to congratulate him on his new heir, and not claim any personal involvement in the heir’s arrival) ultimately they tell us nothing except that Sir William and Lady Carey were going up in the world. That Carey in his turn worked hard to maintain his advantage is clear enough from the famous episode in which Anne Boleyn, very likely through the offices of her sister, tried to get Henry to appoint Eleanor Carey, William’s sister, as Abbess of Wilton Abbey, although Wolsey had chosen another woman. Henry, usually willing to oblige his favourite, did not do so on this occasion as Eleanor had apparently lived quite an adventurous life for a nun which had resulted in “two children by two sundry priests.”

The struggle for Eleanor Carey’s appointment occupied the early summer of 1528, and it may have been the last favour Carey ever asked: on June 23, Thomas Heneage was writing to Wolsey that “Mr Carey begs you to be gracious to his sister, a nun at Wilton Abbey …” Unbeknownst to Heneage, “Mr Carey” was already dead — he had died the previous day of the sweating sickness. A few days after his death, one Lord Fitzwater was writing to Wolsey that “Carey died on Monday last, leaving vacant the stewardship of the Duchy of Lancaster in Essex, the Constableship of the Castle of Plashy, the keeping of the two parks, and other offices in the king’s gift.” He asked Wolsey to obtain these now-vacant gifts for him, as they were “near [his] house.” (You can find the letters in the section of L&P here). Carey, like many people since, had apparently assumed that his good fortune would continue to the extent that it was unnecessary to put anything by. His offices were given to others, and Mary Boleyn and her children were left with nothing except a pension scraped up by Thomas Boleyn, who may well have asked himself what exactly his late son-in-law had been spending his money on during the last eight years. As it turned out, Mary Boleyn’s marital career was far from over, but William Carey’s part was done.

Anne Boleyn would not necessarily have spent much time with her brother-in-law, and he died while she was in the ascendant but still several years from what may be called the heart of her story. As a result, his fictional appearances — with the obvious exception of novels centered around Mary — are generally centered around his marriage (often tied in with his tolerance of Mary’s affair) and his death. As for his treatment, it is largely as he would have wanted: gracious.

The gracious treatment often comes with a side helping of demotion. Gone is the promising young courtier with good prospects who was a perfectly good match for Thomas Boleyn’s daughter — instead we’re given a young courtier who is as broke as he is handsome and whose marriage to Mary is regarded as a severe downgrade for the latter, a prequel to her second husband William Stafford, in fact. Often this is attributed to Mary’s having been “soiled” by having slept with Francois I (or even Henry VIII, though in reality the latter affair hadn’t yet begun), and Thomas Boleyn is furious at the waste of Mary’s potential. In Anne Boleyn (1932), we are told that “Mary the incorrigible had betrothed herself to young George [sic] Carey. George Carey! Penniless! A mere hanger-on at the Court, and only that because he had some colouring of Henry’s own blood …” Similarly, in The Tudor Sisters (1971) “Will Carey” is described as a mere page, “a younger son with no expectations,” but since he’s willing to marry Mary and Catherine of Aragon wants the match to go ahead, it happens despite Thomas Boleyn’s objections and Henry’s hasty promotion of Carey to Gentleman of the Privy Chamber “for if he were kept fully occupied there, his wife of necessity would not be far away, and accessible.” The Carey of The Boleyn Wife (2007) marries Mary when she’s already pregnant with the King’s child; he is “a cheerful knight of modest means who was glad to undertake this service for the king.” After his death, Mary tells Jane Boleyn that while their daughter is definitely Henry’s, she hopes that their son is William’s, because they had such strong affection for each other regardless. The “personable, gentle” Carey of Blood Royal (1988), described as being of a modest Devonshire family, also receives a pregnant bride, and “thought himself lucky to be getting a lovely, well-connected young wife with the King’s especial approval, and a ready-made child whose origins he did not question.”

All of these Careys are amiable souls, genuinely kind to — when not completely in love with — Mary Boleyn; this describes almost every iteration of William Carey. However, the ones that are not inaccurately low in rank have a slight tendency towards incompetence. The Henry of Queen Anne Boleyn (1939), “had given Mary’s amenable husband a sinecure or two,” in exchange for his cooperation, and in Murder Most Royal (1949) Henry confides in God that perhaps Carey wasn’t such a big loss as all that, “for as Thou knowest, he was a man of small ability.” The Carey of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) lets Henry’s and Mary’s affair unfold without taking the expected advantage of it — here are Anne and George Boleyn discussing it:

“And what of William Carey? How does our brother-in-law enjoy his cuckolding?”

“As tho [sic] it happens every day, his wife made the King’s whore. I would think him wise if he were making use of it, seeking favor in return for use of Mary. But he does nothing.”

“A pity,” said I, thinking now upon my sister’s fate.

“”No pity really,” replied my brother. “From Mary’s lot I’ve been shown some favor from the King. A manor house is mine …”

That this is intended as a positive comment on Carey’s character is clear in the prequel, Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007), in which we get a brief look at him at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where he is “well made, if shorter than the male blood of our family. The look in his eyes was indeed kindly.” He and Mary obviously love each other; sadly, the idyll is shortly to end when Thomas Boleyn orders Mary to seduce Henry so that the Boleyns can get another rung or two up the court ladder.

A direct order from family also separates Mary from Carey in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), in which the improbably young (fourteen-year-old!) Mary is noticed and flirted with by Henry VIII, whereupon her father and uncle Norfolk give her the order that she’s to separate from her husband and do her best to entangle Henry and, if possible, have a child with him. Carey does not react well to this development, despite Anne’s brightly telling him that “None of us will suffer if Mary is favoured.” After some silent agonizing,

He hesitated a moment and then he came across the room to where I stood surrounded by the scatterings of my wardrobe. Gently, he took my hand and kissed it. “I am sorry for you. And I am sorry for me. When you are sent back to me, perhaps a month from now, perhaps a year, I will try to remember this day, and you looking like a child, a little lost among all these clothes. I will try to remember that you were innocent of any plotting; that today at least, you were more a girl than a Boleyn.”

After that they barely see each other for quite a while, and when they do a lot of Carey’s conversation is barbed, and when Mary tries to show his some affection (only semi-calculatingly) he tells her how nice it is that she’s decided her position is safer in his camp than in her family’s. By the year of his death, however, when it’s become clear that Mary and Henry’s affair is as dead as, well, Queen Anne and Mary is prey to a guilty conscience and trying to make it up to him, he softens a little, and before the sweating sickness comes along the marriage has been essentially rebooted, leaving Mary desolate at his loss, and not just because she’s now broke.

Even the Carey of The Last Boleyn (1983) manages a little goodwill at the end. While he’s by far the least sympathetic of the fictional Careys, he’s still a good character; for once he’s ambitious as the real one likely was, and largely concerned with restoring the family fortunes to benefit himself and his sister Eleanor. “I do not buckle to the Bullens, Mary, least of all to your father,” he informs her during an argument, “If I seem to agree with his tactics, it is only when the Careys will benefit too.” He’s both glad of the grants he receives and embarrassed at Mary’s becoming notorious, and the situation isn’t helped by Mary’s obvious inclination towards an early-arrived William Stafford. When he becomes ill from the sweating sickness, Mary is overcome with guilt (that happens to Mary a lot), thinking of how miserable she must have made him, and taking care of him while he calls out for his sister and feverishly imagines that they’re at court and begs Mary to put in a good word for him next time she sees the King. Just before the end, though, he regains full consciousness, says, “I am sorry, Mary,” and dies as Mary tells him the same thing.

The most succinct verdict on William Carey’s fictional appearance is given in Wolf Hall (2009), wherein Mary says of her late husband,”He was kind. Given the circumstances.” Those six words give the measure of the imagined man. As for the real one, we can never know. But seeing that he drank the champagne Henry sent him, one can hope that he was properly grateful to the wife who paid.

From → Brief Lives

  1. Misso permalink

    Hi I’m not sure whether William even knew what was going on I feel sorry for him and hope he was nice to mary

  2. I’m with Thomas Boleyn: what DID William Carey spend his money on? Okay, more seriously now: do we ever get a mention of Eleanor Carey again after his death, i.e. know what became of her? I’m not surprised more wasn’t made of this entire tale, because the two illegitimate children plus pressing for appointment to abbess is such a fitting tale for Renaissance church corruption…except that it’s Anne, associated with Team Reformation, who is doing the pressing. You can bet if it had been the other way around and Wolsey (who of course had his own illegitimate offspring) had been pushing for Eleanor’s appointment while Anne argued against it, novelists would have used the incident quite often.

    I first encountered the Carey offspring paternity question not in novels set in Henry’s era, ironically, but in Elizabethan era set ones, for example in a series of mysteries in which Robert Carey is the main detective and at times reflects that his father really looks like Henry VIII. Also in novels about Lettice Knollys insisting she’s Elizabeth’s cousin from both sides. Isn’t the usual counter argument to this the way Henry acted re: Fitzroy and Bessie Blount?

    • sonetka permalink

      Unfortunately, no — Eleanor Carey and her children are a mystery (the only death date I can find for her is “after 1528” — though her absence from extant records may tell its own tale, so I would guess she didn’t live for forty more years or anything like that). I can’t even begin to imagine what happened to her and her children in the 1530s, if they lived that long. She does turn up in novels occasionally but more as a temporary roadblock for Anne and Henry than a “Look at how corrupt the church is!” sort of thing — though in “To Die For” she’s flat-out mischaracterized as “a known reformer” whom Anne is trying to push in for noble-minded religious reasons.

      Yes, the usual counter-argument I’ve seen is that Henry didn’t distinguish the children or their parents in any special way — the argument that he gave grants to William Carey in the years they were born being somewhat diminished by his giving grants to William Carey in every year between his marriage and his death. The question mark, of course, is that Mary was married whereas Bessie was not — but even so you’d think Henry wouldn’t be too abashed to throw a title or two the boy’s way, at least. The best-known portrait of Catherine Carey Knollys ( does look pretty Henrician around the eyes, not to mention the reddish hair, but of course William Carey’s own appearance isn’t 100% established, not to mention that the portrait painter may have made her look more like a Tudor than she really did — whether subconsciously because he thought she was his daughter and so making her look a bit more like felt natural, or maybe consciously because he thought she might be flattered by the implication.

      • Re: throwing a title or two the boy’s way – I seem to recall that Anne was made his guardian? (Philippa Gregory milks that for maximum angst and Anne practically kidnapping the kid from Mary, as I recall.) Though without title.

        Another case of comparison that comes to mind is Henry marrying his illegitimate uncle, Arthur Plantagenet, to Edmund Dudley’s widow after he had Dudley executed in his cheap bit for popularity at the start of his reign. Which could be read as Henry being nice to Edmund D’s widow, maybe feeling a little guilty, since marrying the King’s sole uncle, illegitimate or not, was as good as she could do in terms of security – or as Henry securing Dudley cash for his uncle without having to pay out of the throne’s coffers. Either way, he did something for the non-legal side of the family.

        Catherine Carey does look a bit Henrician in that portrait, though your points are well made. If William Carey had survived, which would have meant Mary would not have lost her place at court: do you think she’d have been drawn into the fall of her siblings, or would she (and her husband) survived by distancing themselves a la Uncle Norfolk and Thomas B?

      • sonetka permalink

        She was made his guardian but I think that was only after William Carey died, under which circumstances it would be normal for well-born children to acquire a guardian. Henry Carey had just turned two in the summer of 1528 so whether Anne became his guardian because of a “special relationship” or just because his father was dead by then is hard to disentangle. Philippa Gregory’s books are a guilty pleasure for me but I was rolling my eyes a bit at that scene. Boys and sometimes even girls being educated in another household wasn’t exactly a rarity, and by the standards of the time Anne was just doing right by her sister’s family. (And if I recall correctly, she insists on calling Henry her “son”? It’s hard to imagine a woman who was having to insist publicly that she was, in fact, still a virgin wanting to shout about “her son” from the rooftops).

        As for Catherine’s paternity, there is of course always the possibility that Mary split the difference and had Catherine with the King and Henry with her husband — Catherine was the older, after all. That’s a fascinating counterfactual scenario where William lives — so much would depend on him and his actions and whom he allied with. About Mary it’s also hard to tell — she may have been as ambitious as her siblings and caught fewer lucky breaks (hers wasn’t the first secret marriage in the family, after all — just more poorly judged). The fact that no women attendants were actually arrested, let alone tried or executed, for their supposed parts in covering up Anne’s affairs makes me think that Mary might have been (relatively) safe in her own right — what would really matter was what was happening on the men’s side, and whether William Carey was closely allied with George and Anne or leaned more to Norfolk’s side.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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