Radcliffe was born around 1550 in Elstow, Bedfordshire, one of four daughters and two sons of landowner and Member of Parliament Sir Humphrey Radcliffe and his wife Isabella Harvey. She became a maid of honour at court in 1564. In November 1565 she and the other maids were bought gowns of yellow satin with green velvet edges and chevrons, with silver lace, for the wedding of Ambrose, Earl of Warwick and Anne Russell. Similarly, in 1572 she and ten other maids and ladies of the chamber were given identical gowns made from crimson velvet, blue taffeta, with watchet blue silk lace.
As a lady of the privy chamber, Radcliffe was in charge of the queen's jewelry from 1587, in succession to Blanche Parry, and was usually described as "Mistress Mary Radcliffe." In that year the jewel known as the "Three Brethren" was placed in her keeping. Radcliffe never married; she and Blanche Parry were the only gentlewomen attending Elizabeth I that shared the queen's famed virginity.
Her name appears frequently in the lists of New Year's day gifts given to the queen, for taking receipt of jewels. As a New Year's day gift for 1600 she gave the queen a "round kirtle of white China damask bound about with passamayne lace." "Passamayne" was a kind of braid or woven lace, used on fringes of skirts or bed curtains. On 29 June 1600 she took receipt of a jewel from Sir Thomas Egerton, which his late wife Elizabeth had borrowed. The piece was made of gold, and enamelled with five large diamonds and a pendant pearl.
Rowland Whyte, writing in the 1590s, usually called her "old Mrs Radcliffe." Whyte noted that on 27 February 1598 a "Mrs Radcliffe" wore a white satin gown, all embroidered, richly cut on good cloth of silver, which cost £180. This was the maid of honour Margaret Radcliffe, a rival with the recently widowed Frances Howard for the affections of Lord Cobham. In 1599 it was rumored she would retire after close to 40 years in service to the queen and be replaced by Elizabeth Southwell, daughter of the Countess of Carrick, but for unknown reasons she remained in her post until the Elizabeth died in 1603.
At Thomas Egerton's Harefield Entertainment in 1602, in the lottery she was given a pair of bracelets, and this verse was addressed to her, "Lady your hands are fallen in a snare: For Cupid's manacles these bracelets are."
On 12 January 1604, the goldsmiths John Spilman and William Herrick were asked to assess and make an inventory of the jewels that had belonged to Queen Elizabeth. King James had already given several pieces to Anne of Denmark, Princess Elizabeth, Arbella Stuart and others. The remaining jewels were transferred from the keeping of Mrs Mary Radcliffe to the Countess of Suffolk.
Spilman and Herrick had already accepted Radcliffe's instructions to repair some jewels, presumably from the late queen's collection. These included; a branch of tree with a half moon, set with diamonds, "ballas", rubies and pearls; a branch with an opal, an opal ring to be enamelled black; two gold bodkins; a gold feather jewel set with rubies, emeralds, and pearls; five gold buttons set with pearls; a ring "enamelled in fashion like crayfish" with a large diamond, to be enlarged for King James.
Radcliffe drew up her will in November 1617, which showed her as living in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields in the City of Westminster. She died sometime between November 1617 and July 1618, when her will was proved, and was buried in an unknown parish.
The sitter of a portrait at Denver Art Museum is sometimes identified as "Mary Radclyffe", a daughter of Sir John Ratcliffe of Ordsall and a daughter-in-law of Sir John Stanhope of Elvaston. This woman was a younger contemporary of Elizabeth's maid of honour.
- Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (Leeds, 1988), pp. 99-100.
- Strong, Roy (1966). "Three Royal Jewels: The Three Brothers, the Mirror of Great Britain and the Feather". The Burlington Magazine. 108 (760): 350–353. ISSN 0007-6287.
- "Radcliffe, Mary (c. 1550–1617/18), courtier". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-92795. Retrieved 2020-08-09.
- Elizabeth Goldring, Faith Eales, Elizabeth Clarke, Jayne Elisabeth Archer, John Nichols's Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth: 1596-1603, vol. 4 (Oxford, 2014), pp. 93-110.
- Elizabeth Goldring, Faith Eales, Elizabeth Clarke, Jayne Elisabeth Archer, John Nichols's Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth: 1596-1603, vol. 4 (Oxford, 2014), p. 106.
- Annabel Westman, Fringe, Frog & Tassel (London, 2019), pp. 13-14.
- John Payne Collier, The Egerton Papers (Camden Society: London, 1840), p. 313.
- Michael Brennan, Noel Kinnamon, Margaret Hannay, The Letters of Rowland Whyte to Sir Robert Sidney (Philadelphia, 2013), p. 303.
- Elizabeth Goldring, Faith Eales, Elizabeth Clarke, Jayne Elisabeth Archer, John Nichols's Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth: 1596-1603, vol. 4 (Oxford, 2014), p. 191.
- Mary Anne Everett Green, Calendar State Papers James I: 1603-1610 (London, 1857), p. 66 citing TNA SP14/6/9.
- HMC Laing Manuscripts at the University of Edinburgh, vol. 1 (London, 1914), pp. 93-4.
- 'Portrait of a Lady, formerly Mary Radclyffe', Denver Art Museum