HENRY VIII’S CHILDREN: Part 3 – The Carey Children

Ahead of the release of Henry VIII’s Children: Legitimate and Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Tudor King on 30 May (Pen & Sword Currently have a 30% off special throughout May), I am doing a 15-part series on some of the smaller, lesser-known details that are covered in the book. These details played out in the background of the defining moments of the lives of each of Henry’s children. Here is a snippet of the story of Mary Boleyn’s children.


Of the handful of illegitimate children ascribed to King Henry’s name, Catherine Carey holds the greatest claim. Yet even then, the story of her parentage is as flimsy as the evidence for King Henry’s involvement with Catherine’s mother. Mary Boleyn is well-known as a mistress to the king; a tale so often told it gives rise to its own common myths and tropes. Mary returned home from her time in France and was married to William Carey in February 1520. Many theories on how King Henry and then embarked on an affair with Mary are based entirely on hearsay and fiction. 

Lady Mary Boleyn, also known as Lady Carey, via wikimedia commons

What is certain is by early 1524, Mary Boleyn gave birth to Catherine. But Mary was married, and naturally, baby Catherine was attributed to William Carey, and despite later slander, no one at the time suspected auburn-haired Catherine to be the king’s daughter. Catherine Carey’s birth came at a time when King Henry was increasingly anxious about the royal succession, and the birth of auburn-haired Henry Carey, likely in early 1526, only made things more complicated.

Catherine and her brother Henry likely lived with their parents during their early years; William Carey was granted the borough of Buckingham in February 1526, in a specific entail that stipulated the land could only be inherited by all ‘lawfully begotten’ heirs. By this time, Mary and King Henry had likely given up any potential relationship. Life for young Catherine Carey was like any of the period, until the sweating sickness outbreak, when William Carey suddenly died on 22 June 1528. Catherine probably stayed with her mother Mary after Carey’s death, while Henry Carey went to live in Anne Boleyn’s care, now she was the Boleyn in the king’s affections.

Despite the Boleyn family’s standing, Catherine Carey’s early life is a mystery. Young when her aunt was queen, her movements and life go unrecorded, though when her mother Mary married Sir William Stafford and fell pregnant in 1534, Catherine likely lived either in Calais, where soldier Stafford was stationed, or at the various estates in Staffordshire owned by Stafford’s noble father. Mary and her new husband were quiet during the execution of Anne Boleyn, but in late 1539, Thomas Cromwell invited Mary and young Catherine to court to meet Anna of Cleves. Catherine was given a place in Anna of Cleves’ household at court, as short-lived as it would be. Catherine used the time wisely; by 26 April 1540, sixteen-year-old Catherine married Francis Knollys, who had been drafted into the gentlemen-pensioners with Catherine’s father. 

Catherine transferred to new Queen Katheryn Howard’s household in late 1540, only to leave and embark on a family Henry VIII could have only dreamed of – sixteen children born over twenty-two years. After her marriage, an act of parliament ensured Francis Knollys’ lands were jointly in Catherine’s name, and soon after, Mary Knollys was born. A year later came Henry Knollys, followed Lettice, William, and Edward by 1547, who lived between their estates at Rotherfield Greys in Oxfordshire and Reading in Berkshire when not in London.

Being married to a staunch Protestant, Catherine was well-placed when Edward VI took the throne. Francis Knollys did well, being knighted in 1547 for his work against Scotland, aided William Cecil in religious changes, and by the time King Edward died in 1553, was already well-endowed with lands and estates. These came in useful, as Robert, Richard, Elizabeth, Maud, Thomas, and Francis the younger were been born to Catherine during King Edward’s reign, many with the rich auburn hair of the Tudors. But darker times soon befell Catherine when Queen Mary took the throne, leaving Protestants like herself at Mary’s mercy. Princess Elizabeth penned a sad goodbye to Catherine just before she, Francis, and their children left England for the safety of Germany during Mary’s reign.

Catherine and Francis Knollys needed to relocate to Frankfurt, and this period of instability gave Catherine a break from childbirth; she had given birth every year since she had married, so unless unfortunate miscarriages occurred, she was likely apart from her husband at times, before giving birth to Anne in 1555. Catherine then joined Francis in Germany, taking only five of her children, forced to leave the rest behind, probably at Rotherfield Greys.

Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys, via wikimedia commons

Catherine’s husband Francis did well among the Protestants in Germany,  before returning to England on the death of Queen Mary in November 1558. The following month, Catherine moved into Queen Elizabeth’s household as Chief Lady of the Bedchamber, the most senior lady-in-waiting. Francis was admitted to the Privy Council as Queen Elizabeth took power. As soon as Catherine was safe back in England with her husband at court, the yearly pregnancies returned, with daughters born in successive years, Catherine, Cecily, Margaret, and then Dudley Knollys, though Dudley did not survive long after birth. Thankfully, Catherine was never again recorded as pregnant, though her remaining surviving portrait shows her pregnant, likely with Dudley. Their comfortable and favoured lives continued in relative peace throughout the 1560s with Catherine as head of Elizabeth’s chamber, but she fell ill and died on 15 January 1569 at Hampton Court Palace.

Henry Carey, born on 4 March 1526, had a similarly obscure upbringing as his sister Catherine. He likely lived with his family until his father’s death in 1528 and became a ward of Anne Boleyn, who placed him in a Cistercian monastery to be educated. He did benefit from the tutoring of French scholar Nicholas Bourbon in 1535, but other than that, his life goes unrecorded. Despite the pedigree the Carey household had through their Beaufort/Spencer lineage (William Carey’s aunt was Countess of Northumberland), it seems as if the Carey family quickly forgot Henry and his sister Catherine after William Carey’s death. These details only fuel speculation about their true parentage. As all monasteries were closed by 1540, Henry Carey could have been placed in any number of households, possibly even Princess Elizabeth’s. He was not forgotten; his sister was a noblewoman, and in 1545, he married Anne Morgan, granddaughter of Blanche Milbourne, Lady Troy, one of Princess Elizabeth’s early governesses. His wife’s aunt, Blanche Parry, also spent time serving Princess Elizabeth.

Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, via wikimedia commons

Henry Carey was selected for parliament in 1547 under King Edward and again in 1554-5 under Queen Mary, suggesting he had moderate religious views and obeyed the constantly changing religious rules. As soon as Elizabeth became queen in November 1558, she knighted her cousin Henry Carey and made him a baron after her coronation a few months later. Elizabeth gave Carey her manor at Hunsdon, which had been a home belonging to Queen Mary only months earlier, and where Elizabeth (and possibly Henry Carey himself) spent much time growing up. Carey also gained lands in multiple locations, a pension, a court role, and became a Knight of the Garter. They clearly knew each other very well.

 Decade after decade, Carey served his queen, including facing off against rebellions and possible invasions of England. His wife Anne gave him thirteen children, with illegitimate children also born to Carey through the years. But Henry Carey fell ill in July 1596 and died at Somerset House on The Strand in London. Queen Elizabeth offered Henry Carey the earldom of Ormond on his deathbed, a title once belonging to their shared grandfather Thomas Boleyn, but Carey declined.

The families of Catherine and Henry Carey ensured the family line with dozens of children. Whether they secretly carried on Henry VIII’s bloodline, while his legitimate children could not, is entirely a matter of conjecture. Even if the rumours were untrue, the Carey children and grandchildren had strikingly similar looks to Queen Elizabeth, so perhaps it was the Boleyn genes that prevailed over the Tudors. After all, it is not a descendant of Henry VIII who sits on the English throne today, but a descendant of Mary Boleyn, in King Charles III.