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Wait, Who Exactly Is Henry VIII Kissing at the End of "The Spanish Princess?

Oprah Magazine logo Oprah Magazine 11/2/2020 Elena Nicolaou
a man and a woman looking at the camera: The latest episode of Spanish Princess shows Henry VIII's affair with Mary Boleyn, sister to future Queen Anne Boleyn. Here's the truth about the woman Henry was kissing. © Starz The latest episode of Spanish Princess shows Henry VIII's affair with Mary Boleyn, sister to future Queen Anne Boleyn. Here's the truth about the woman Henry was kissing.
  • The fourth episode of season 2 of The Spanish Princess ends on quite a cliffhanger: Who is Henry VIII (Ruari O'Connor) kissing?
  • Though Henry is rumored to be with Anne Hastings, he's actually kissing Mary Boleyn (Bessie Coates), Catherine's lady-in-waiting.
  • Here's the true story behind one of Henry VIII's most notorious affairs.

The Spanish Princess is beginning to resemble the Tudor nightmare we know from countless works of pop culture, from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall to the movie The Other Boleyn Girl. You've heard it before: In an effort to procure an heir, Henry VIII (Ruari O'Connor) strays from his marriage to Catherine (Charlotte Hope), marries five more women, and throws England into turmoil.

Think of Henry VIII's affair with Mary Boleyn as the beginning of the end for Catherine's tenure as wife to the king. And in the fourth episode of The Spanish Princess's second season, that affair begins.

That's right: Henry isn't furiously kissing Anne Hastings, his rumored paramour, in the castle basement at the end of the episode. He's kissing Mary Boleyn (Bessie Coates), Catherine's lady-in-waiting and likely older sister to the notorious Anne Boleyn, Henry's doomed second wife (played by Alice Nokes in the season).

Charlotte Hope et al. posing for the camera: Catherine with her ladies-in-waiting, Lina and Mary. © Nick Briggs Catherine with her ladies-in-waiting, Lina and Mary.

Mary has been a subtle but constant part of this season of The Spanish Princess, hovering on the edge of many scenes. Don't blame yourself if you haven't noticed her, until now—she was effectively doing her job, which was being helpful and invisible. Rewind the episode, and you'll catch Mary in nearly every scene with Catherine. She's there sitting with her at dinner, and aiding her as she gives birth.

Not much is known about Mary Boleyn—there's not even an official portrait of her, according to historians speaking to Absolute History. The name "Boleyn" wasn't always so infamous; historians didn't keep a record for our curious, modern minds' sakes. Here's what we know about Mary Boleyn and her real affair with Henry—which played out differently in real life than it does in The Spanish Princess.

The eldest of the three Boleyn children, Mary always played second fiddle to Anne.

Mary was born to Thomas and Anne Boleyn in Norwich, sometime around 1500. Historians have argued about which sister was older, but generally, Mary is understood to be the elder, as Josephine Wilkinson lays out in her book Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Favourite Mistress.

The girls' father, Thomas Boleyn, was a courtier and linguist who ensured his daughters, as well as his son, received educations—though Anne was considered the "intellectual" sister, and sent to Margaret of Austria's illustrious court (described as a de-facto finishing school for noblewomen) while Mary was left behind in England. "Mary Boleyn was seen as second best," Professor Kate Williams said on Absolute History, a history YouTube channel. Mary was described as a "placid, unremarkable girl," unlike her "far more intelligent and far more applied" sister, Anne," per Wilkinson's book.

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She was rumored to have had an affair with a French king.

While Anne was in Europe, Mary, 14, was chosen to join the court of 19-year-old Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VII's youngest sister, who had married a 52-year-old French king, per Brittanica. Anne later joined her sister at the new French court. "At this point you begin to see Anne and Mary's lives diverge. Mary is the home-loving one. She doesn't catch on to the quick, barbed intrigues of court life," Williams said on Absolute History.

a woman wearing a dress: Mary Tudor (Sai Bennett) in The Spanish Princess. © Nick Briggs Mary Tudor (Sai Bennett) in The Spanish Princess.

After King Louis XII of France died, Mary caught the attention of his successor, Francis I. "François was similar to King Henry in many ways. They were both young, incredibly vain, and eager to establish themselves as significant players on the political stage in Europe," Wilkinson writes in Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Favourite Mistress.

Mary is rumored to have had an affair with Francis, the extent of which cannot be determined. "Her youth, beauty and inexperience led her into a series of short-lived encounters as she was passed from the King, who quickly tired of her, to his favorites," Wilkinson writes, adding that Mary's own thoughts on the matter were unrecorded. However, her liaisons with the king may have earned her an "undesirable reputation" and alienated her from her family, per Wilkinson.

Mary met Henry VIII at her wedding to another man.

In The Spanish Princess, Mary Boleyn is already in England when Mary, Catherine and Henry's daughter, was born. Not so in real life. Mary returned to England in about 1519, after a five-year period in which her whereabouts were lost to history, per Absolute History, and was likely a part of Catherine of Aragon's court. A year later, Mary was married to a young man named William Carey, who was part of Henry's court and had multiple royal links, per The Anne Boleyn Files.

Henry VIII was at Mary's wedding to William—and soon afterwards, he began pursuing her. While their affair seems mutually enjoyable in The Spanish Princess, it may not have been in actuality. "There is strong evidence to suggest that she wasn't entirely complicit in this. Henry maneuvered her into such a position that actually she was obliged to become his mistress," palace curator Tracy Borman said in Absolute History.

As a woman in court, Mary had little power to stave off Henry's advances. When Anne returned from France in 1522, she yet again outshone Mary. It is not known when Henry ended his affair with Mary, but it was over by 1526. He had found a new lover: Her sister, Anne.

a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant: tk © Nick Briggs tk

Mary is rumored to have had one of Henry's children.

Mary had two children while she was married to William Carey. Pop culture like The Other Boleyn Girl often suggests that Katherine and Henry Carey were, indeed, Henry VIII's. Whether that was really the case is harder to say for sure.

In her book Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Alison Weir seeks to dispel rumors about the parentage of the Carey siblings. "There is no contemporary source that suggests that either the King or his successors at any time acknowledged those children as his issue," she writes. Anne, however, definitely bore Henry's children—her daughter, Elizabeth, went on to become one of England's most renowned monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I.

Charlotte Hope sitting on a chair: nick briggs © Nick Briggs nick briggs

Mary went on to defy her family, and married again for love.

The Boleyn sisters met much different ends. Famously, Anne, at the age of 35, was tried for adultery and conspiracy by her husband, King Henry VIII, and beheaded in 1536, per Biography. Mary was long banished by then.

Years after her husband William Carey died in 1528 of the sweating sickness, Mary ended up marrying again for love, against her family's wishes. Her new husband, William Stafford, was a solider, not a nobleman. Mary's secret marriage and pregnancy, announced in 1534, resulted in her being banished from court. As sister of the queen, Mary was meant to have an arranged marriage. Her father, Thomas, cut off her allowance.

Unlike so much of Mary's life, we actually know what she thought of William. In a letter she wrote to Thomas Cromwell after she was banished, Mary wrote, "Love overcame reason. And for my part I saw so much honesty in him, that I loved him as well as he did me...I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened," per the BBC.

Given the events to come in the Tudor court, Mary's banishment was likely beneficial, ultimately. "[The Staffords] were able to escape any involvement in the witch-hunt surrounding the eventual disgrace, trial and execution of both Anne and her brother George, as well as the five other young men in their circle," Alison Plowden writes for the BBC.

Mary ended up living until her 40s, and died of natural causes in 1543. According to historian and author Claire Ridgeway of the The Anne Boleyn Files, the whereabouts of Mary and William's child are unknown.

Henry VIII actually had an affair with Anne Hastings, but it was years earlier.

Ah, yes. Back to Anne Hastings. In The Spanish Princess, the rumor about Henry VIII and Anne Hastings' affair is invented by Cardinal Wolsey to diminish Catherine, his supposed enemy at court. But evidence suggests that Henry VIII did, indeed, have an affair with his cousin Anne Hastings.

According to the BBC's History Extra, Henry and Anne began their affair in 1509, around the same time that Catherine was pregnant with her first child. Conversely, The Spanish Princess sets the affair when Catherine is pregnant with her daughter Mary (who would become the Queen Mary I of England, better known as Bloody Mary for burning Protestant heretics at the stake in vast numbers), and then chalks it up to nothing but a rumor.

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