After Hundreds of Years, Unknown Woman in Tudor Portrait Identified as Mary Boleyn

New evidence suggests the painting depicts Anne Boleyn’s older sister, the one-time mistress of Henry VIII

Mary Boleyn
Researchers recently identified the unnamed sitter in this portrait as Mary Boleyn, older sister of Anne Boleyn. Photograph by Mike Davidson, via Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

A portrait of an anonymous woman in Tudor garb has adorned the walls of Great Britain’s most prominent royal residences for hundreds of years. Researchers had long thought that the sitter’s identity was lost to history, but now, a new discovery has enabled experts to put a name to the face: Mary Boleyn, older sister of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII.

A team from the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project (JVDPPP) announced the find in a statement last month. The painting, previously known simply as Portrait of a Woman, is part of the United Kingdom’s Royal Collection and currently hangs in Mary, Queen of Scotsbedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

“It’s been a voyage of discovery,” lead researcher and art historian Justin Davies tells the Telegraph’s Dalya Alberge. “The results were remarkable and unexpected.”

Mary’s portrait was one of a set of 14 “Beauties,” or specially commissioned portraits of royal women. Flemish painter Remigius van Leemput likely painted the series in the 1630s. Per the Telegraph, the artist may have copied Mary’s likeness from a now-lost painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, who painted some of the most famous depictions of the Tudor court during Henry VIII’s reign.

All 14 portraits hung together in Queen Anne’s bathing room at Windsor Castle some 300 years ago. But Mary’s portrait differs from its companions: The other 13 are depicted in 17th-century outfits; she wears 16th-century clothing. That distinction led to confusion, the researchers say, leading her portrait to be separated from the others at some point in the 19th century.

The team used dendrochronology—a technique that dates wood’s age and origin based on its tree rings—to identify the woman in the portrait. As JVDPPP co-founder Justin Davies tells Sarah Morris, host of the “Tudor Travel Show” podcast, the analysis found that the panel painting’s wood came from a Baltic oak that started growing in the Middle Ages and was cut down between 1651 and 1671.

After Hundreds of Years, Unknown Woman in Tudor Portrait Identified as Mary Boleyn
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wood from that same tree matched the panel of one of the other 13 paintings, a previously unidentified portrait of a woman. While conducting research at the London National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Library and Archive, Davies found inscriptions that identified the pair of portraits as Mary and Margaret Smith, later Lady Herbert, wife of Mary’s great-grandson.

All evidence considered, “the balance of probability is that this is indeed a painting of Mary Boleyn,” says Davies to Morris.

Still, he adds, “One can never be 100 percent sure in art history, because we’re unable to stand at the shoulder of the painter when he’s doing it.”

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the queen’s pictures, tells the Telegraph that properly grouping related paintings is key to understanding their history.

“When a stray is reunited with the family, there’s joy in heaven,” he says. “It disproportionately increases the value and understanding of the whole group”

As historian Alison Weir writes in Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, concrete details on the older Boleyn sister’s life are scarce.

Born in Norfolk around the turn of the 16th century, she married twice, first to courtier William Carey, who died in 1528, and later to commoner William Stafford. She was the mistress of two kings—Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England, who eventually married her younger sister—and may have even borne the Tudor king children.

According to Weir, this “tangled web of covert relationships has given rise to rumors and myths that have been embroidered over the centuries, and particularly in recent years, so that the truth about Mary has become obscured.”

Philippa Gregory’s popular 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl elevated Mary’s contemporary profile, writes Stuart Anderson for North Norfolk News. In 2008, Gregory’s book was made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary and Natalie Portman as Anne.