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New York Times bestselling author and noted British historian Alison Weir gives us the first full-scale, in-depth biography of Mary Boleyn, sister to Queen Anne as well as mistress to Anne’s husband, Henry VIII—and one of the most misunderstood figures of the Tudor age. Making use of extensive original research, Weir shares revelations on the ambitious Boleyn family and the likely nature of the relationship between the Boleyn sisters. Unraveling the truth about Mary’s much-vaunted notoriety at the French court and her relations with King François I, Weir also explores Mary’s role at the English court and how she became Henry VIII’s lover. She tracks the probable course of their affair and investigates the truth behind Mary’s notorious reputation. With new and compelling evidence, Weir presents the most conclusive answer to date on the paternity of Mary’s children, long speculated to have been Henry VIII’s progeny. Alison Weir pieces together a life steeped in mystery and misfortune, debunking centuries-old myths to give us the truth about Mary Boleyn, the so-called “great and infamous whore.”
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About the Author
Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of many historical biographies, including The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and of the novels Captive Queen, Innocent Traitor, and The Lady Elizabeth. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
The Eldest Daughter
Blickling Hall, one of England's greatest Jacobean showpiece mansions, lies not two miles northwest of Aylsham in Norfolk. It is a beautiful place, surrounded by woods, farms, sweeping parkland and gardens- gardens that were old in the fifteenth century, and which once surrounded the fifteenth century moated manor house of the Boleyn family, the predecessor of the present building. That house is long gone, but it was in its day the cradle of a remarkable dynasty; and here, in those ancient gardens, and within the mellow, red-brick gabled house, in the dawning years of the sixteenth century, the three children who were its brightest scions once played in the spacious and halcyon summers of their early childhood, long before they made their dramatic debut on the stage of history: Anne Boleyn, who would one day become Queen of England; her brother George Boleyn, who would also court fame and glory, but who would ultimately share his sister's tragic and brutal fate; and their sister Mary Boleyn, who would become the mistress of kings, and gain a notoriety that is almost certainly undeserved.
Blickling was where the Boleyn siblings' lives probably began, the protective setting for their infant years, nestling in the broad, rolling landscape of Norfolk, circled by a wilderness of woodland sprinkled with myriad flowers such as bluebells, meadowsweet, loosestrife, and marsh orchids, and swept by the eastern winds. Norfolk was the land that shaped them, that remote corner of England that had grown prosperous through the wool-cloth trade, its chief city, Norwich-which lay just a few miles to the south-being second in size only to London in the Boleyns' time. Norfolk also boasted more churches than any other English shire, miles of beautiful coastline and a countryside and waterways teeming with a wealth of wildlife. Here, at Blickling, nine miles from the sea, the Boleyn children took their first steps, learned early on that they had been born into an important and rising family, and began their first lessons.
Anne and George Boleyn were to take center-stage roles in the play of England's history. By comparison, Mary was left in the wings, with fame and fortune always eluding her. Instead, she is remembered as an infamous whore. And yet, of those three Boleyn siblings, she was ultimately the luckiest, and the most happy.
This is Mary's story.
Mary Boleyn has aptly been described as "a young lady of both breeding and lineage." She was born of a prosperous landed Norfolk family of the knightly class. The Boleyns, whom Anne Boleyn claimed were originally of French extraction, were settled at Salle, near Aylsham, before 1283, when the register of Walsingham Abbey records a John Boleyne living there, but the family can be traced in Norfolk back to the reign of Henry II (1154-89). The earliest Boleyn inscription in the Salle church is to John's great-great-grandson, Thomas Boleyn, who died in 1411; he was the son of another John Boleyn and related to Ralph Boleyn, who was living in 1402. Several other early members of the family, including Mary's great-great-grandparents, Geoffrey and Alice Boleyn, were buried in the Salle church, which is like a small cathedral, rising tall and stately in its perpendicular splendor in the flat Norfolk landscape. The prosperous village it once served, which thrived upon the profitable wool trade with the Low Countries, has mostly disappeared.
The surname Boleyn was spelled in several ways, there being no uniformity in spelling in former times, when it was given as Boleyn, Boleyne, Bolleyne, Bollegne, Boleigne, Bolen, Bullen, Boulen, Boullant, or Boullan, the French form. The bulls' heads on the family coat of arms are a pun on the name. In adult life Anne Boleyn used the modern form adopted in this text. Unfortunately, we don't know how Mary Boleyn spelled her surname, as only two letters of hers survive, both signed with her married name.
The Boleyn family had once been tenant farmers, but the source of their wealth and standing was trade. Thomas's grandson, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, made his fortune in the City of London as a member and then Master of the Worshipful Company of Mercers (1454); he was Sheriff of London from 1446-47; MP for London in 1449; and an alderman of the City of London from 1452 (an office he held for eleven years). In 1457 he was elected Lord Mayor. By then he had made his fortune; his wealth had enabled him to marry into the nobility, his wife being Anne, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas, Lord Hoo and Hastings, and she brought him great estates. Stow records that Sir Geoffrey "gave liberally to the prisons, hospitals and lazar houses, besides a thousand pounds to poor householders in London, and two hundred pounds to [those] in Norfolk." He was knighted by Henry VI before 1461.
In 1452 (or 1450), Geoffrey had purchased the manor of Blickling in Norfolk from his friend and patron, Sir John Fastolf. The manor had once been the property of the eleventh century Saxon king, Harold Godwineson, and the original manor house on the site had been built in the 1390s by Sir Nicholas Dagworth, but it was evidently outdated or in poor repair, because-as has recently been discovered-it was rebuilt as Blickling Hall, "a fair house" of red brick, by Geoffrey Boleyn. Geoffrey also built the chapel of St. Thomas in Blickling church, and adorned it with beautiful stained glass incorporating the heraldic arms of himself and his wife, which still survives today; in his will, he asked to be buried there if he departed this life at Blickling. In the event, he died in London.
Ten years later, in 1462, Geoffrey bought the manors of Hever Cobham and Hever Brokays in Kent from William Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, as well as thirteenth century Hever Castle from Sir Thomas Cobham. Sir Geoffrey now moved in the same social circles as the prosperous Paston family (Norfolk neighbors who knew the Boleyns well, and whose surviving letters tell us so much about fifteenth century life), the Norfolk gentry, and even the exalted Howards, who were descended from King Edward I, and at the head of whose house was John Howard, first Duke of Norfolk; the friendship between the Boleyns and the Howards, which would later be cemented by marriage, dated from at least 1469.
When he died in 1463, Geoffrey was buried in the church of St. Lawrence Jewry by the Guildhall in London. His heir, Thomas Boleyn of Salle, was buried there beside him in 1471, when the family wealth and estates passed to Geoffrey's second son, William Boleyn, Mary's grandfather, who had been born around 1451; he was "aged 36 or more" in the inquisition postmortem on his cousin, Thomas Hoo, taken in October 1487.
The Boleyns had arrived; they were what would soon become known as new men, those who had risen to prominence through wealth, wedlock, and ability. William Boleyn, who-like his father-had supported the House of York during the Wars of the Roses, was dubbed a Knight of the Bath at Richard III's coronation in July 1483, became a Justice of the Peace, and made an even more impressive marriage than his father, to Margaret Butler, who had been born sometime prior to 1465, the younger daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond.
The Butlers were an ancient Anglo-Norman family, whose surname derived from the office of butler (an official who was responsible for the provisioning of wine), which their ancestor, Theobald Walter, had borne in the household of the future King John in 1185. They too were descended from Edward I, and had been earls of Ormond since 1329. Thomas Butler was one of the wealthiest peers; he had inherited a fortune of £40,000 (£20 million), and was lord of no fewer than seventy-two manors in England. He sat in Parliament as the premier baron and served as English ambassador to the courts of France and Burgundy. His wife was Anne, daughter and heiress of a rich knight, Sir Richard Hankeford.
Before he had come into his inheritance in 1477, Butler had been chronically short of money, and Sir William Boleyn and his mother had continually come to the rescue; Butler repaid his debts with the hand of his daughter, and a dowry that would handsomely enrich the Boleyn family.
Lady Margaret Butler bore Sir William Boleyn eleven children, of whom there were four surviving sons: Thomas, James, William, and Edward. Thomas was the eldest, being born in 1477, when his mother was probably quite young, although perhaps not as young as twelve, as her mother's inquisition postmortem suggests. After Richard III, the last Plantagenet monarch, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the Boleyns prudently switched their allegiance to the new Tudor dynasty; in 1490, Sir William was appointed Sheriff of Kent, by which time he was probably dividing his time between Blickling and Hever. King Henry VII, the first Tudor sovereign, demonstrated his trust in him by making him responsible for keeping the peace in his locale, delivering prisoners to the assizes, and placing and guarding the beacons that would herald the approach of the King's enemies, giving William a commission of array against an invasion by the French, and appointing him Sheriff of Norfolk in 1501. The next year he was made the third of only four Barons of the Exchequer, who sat as judges in the Court of the Exchequer.
In 1497, Sir William Boleyn and his son Thomas, now twenty, fought for King Henry VII against the rebels of Cornwall, who had risen in protest against excessive taxation. Again and again the Boleyn family would demonstrate its solid loyalty to the Crown, and in so doing would win the notice and favor of the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who valued "new men" who had risen to prominence through trade and the acquisition of wealth, as opposed to the older nobility, whose power, hitherto boosted by private armies, they strove to keep in check.
The detail in Thomas Boleyn's tomb brass suggests that some attempt was made to reflect his true appearance. It is the image of a dignified man with the long face, high cheekbones, and pointed chin that were inherited by his daughter Anne and his grandson, Lord Hunsdon. He has strong features, wavy hair cut straight at chin level, and the hint of a close-cropped beard. His coat of arms, sporting three bulls' heads, while being a play on his name, also symbolized his valor, bravery, and generosity. In the case of the latter, it was little more than flattery.
Thomas was a gifted linguist, more fluent in French than any other courtier, and proficient at Latin; he was also an expert jouster, and these were talents that would make him admired and useful at court. The celebrated humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, thought him "outstandingly learned," and was to dedicate two books to him, one of which was a commentary on the Psalms, in which Thomas Boleyn had shown an interest.
Thomas was to prove a highly able and hardworking statesman and diplomat, and Henry VIII himself would say that there was no skilled negotiator to equal him. He was adept at dealing with his royal master, whose liking for him seems never to have died. Yet although normally affable, even congenial, Thomas Boleyn could also be chillingly dispassionate, brusque, and even insolent, as he showed when on a crucial diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1530; and when, during an embassy in Rome, the Pope-as was customary- offered his toe to be kissed, and Boleyn's spaniel bit it, Boleyn refused to kiss it because his dog had defiled it, and so compromised his good relations with the Vatican.
Although hardworking and diligent, Thomas Boleyn's besetting vices-by all accounts-were selfishness and avarice; "he could not risk the temptation of money." It was to be said of him that "he would sooner act from interest than from any other motive," and never was that more apparent than when he showed himself willing to participate in the destruction of two of his children in order to protect himself and salvage his own position and career.
Following in the tradition of his father and grandfather, Thomas Boleyn made a great marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard, the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey was the son of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth fighting on the wrong side for Richard III. Henry VII had declared the title forfeit and cast the heir into prison, but Thomas Howard gradually recovered royal favor and prospered, with the earldom of Surrey being returned to him just four years later, in 1489, and the dukedom of Norfolk in 1514. Had the Howard fortunes not suffered such a reverse, Master Thomas Boleyn might not have gained such a prize as a Howard bride, even though he was the heir to an impressive landed inheritance and the families were on good terms. Elizabeth was a brilliant match for him, and marriage to her made this ambitious esquire brother-in-law to the sister of the Queen of England, for Elizabeth's brother, another Thomas Howard (who succeeded his father as the third Duke of Norfolk in 1524), had, in 1495, married Edward IV's daughter, Anne Plantagenet; Anne's sister Elizabeth was Henry VII's queen and the mother of the future Henry VIII.
The young Elizabeth Howard was very pretty-in his verses dedicated "To My Lady Elizabeth Howard," the court poet John Skelton compared her to the mythical Trojan beauty Cressida, whose looks far outshone those of the radiant Polyxena, youngest daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and sister of Troilus, whom Cressida was to betray:
To be your remembrancer, Madam, I am bound:
Like unto Irene maidenly of porte [bearing],
Of virtue and cunning the well and perfect ground,
Whom Dame Nature, as well I may report,
Hath freshly enbeautied with many a goodly sort
Of womanly features: whose flourishing tender age
Is lusty to look on, pleasant, demure and sage.
Goodly Cressida, fairer than Polyxena,
For to envy Pandarus' appetite:
Troilus, I vow, if that he had you seen,
In you he would have set his whole delight:
Of all your beauty I suffice not to write,
But, as I said, your flourishing tender age
Is lusty to look on, pleasant, demure and sage.
In comparing Elizabeth with the artist Irene, the gifted daughter and pupil of the Greek painter Cratinus (to whom Boccaccio refers in his book Famous Women), Skelton is perhaps implying that she had some artistic talent herself.
In the poem in which these verses appear, "The Garland of the Laurel" (1523), Skelton describes a visit he made to Sheriff Hutton Castle as the guest of Elizabeth's father, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. In the course of it, the countess, Elizabeth Tylney, was so impressed with Skelton's poetry that, at her behest, her daughters, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Muriel, with some other ladies-Lady Anne Dacre of the South, Mistress Margery Wentworth (who would marry Sir John Seymour and become the mother of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour), and Margaret Brewes, the wife of Sir Philip Tylney (Surrey's auditor and steward of Framlingham Castle)-made for him a laureate's garland of silk, gold, and pearls in honor of his talent. No one could then have dreamed that two of these young ladies would give birth to future queens of England.
Reading Group Guide
Mary Boleyn on Film
Mary Boleyn has been portrayed several times in films and T.V. dra- mas. She first made an appearance in the film Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), in which Valerie Gearon plays her as the dark-haired, “pliant eldest daughter” of Sir Thomas Boleyn, wearing French cos- tume at court and regarding her spirited sister Anne jealously. That is all fairly accurate, but the King’s interest in her is dated to 1523; Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold), resisting Henry (Richard Burton) later on, complains: “We have had the King in the bosom of this family for three years.” When next we see Mary, she has been banished to Hever Castle and is pregnant with Henry’s child. We hear how she gave herself to the King for her father’s advantage, but asked for nothing for herself. Sir Thomas tells her she must make no trouble about being abandoned, to avoid putting her family at risk.
William Carey is shown as a complacent husband, and barely fea- tures at all in the film. Mary is seen warning her sister: “Learn from me, Nan. Lock up your heart. The moment you’re conquered, he’ll walk away.” She has clearly lost her own heart; when the King visits,
she sits weeping alone in her chamber. It is inevitable that filmmakers make dramatic capital from the scenario of one sister snaring the King who has abandoned the other, not taking account of the prob- able two-year gap between these affairs. Later, Henry VIII is seen as- serting that his affair with Mary has rendered his marriage to Anne incestuous, as he did in real life.
This is a credible portrayal. Although the film was criticized on its release for inaccuracies, its makers did strive for authenticity; watch- ing it now, one is struck by its integrity and the efforts made to achieve a degree of accuracy, which is markedly absent from some historical films today.
Mary Boleyn did not again appear on celluloid until Clare Cam- eron made a cameo appearance playing her in Granada TV’s Henry VIII (2003), with Ray Winstone playing Henry VIII. In this depiction, Anne (Helena Bonham Carter) declares that Mary “made the mis- take of loving our king,” and realizes how precious security in a rela- tionship is. When the King descends on Hever to court Anne, Mary is big with his child—which he doubts is his—and she faints at the sight of him. This is just one of many gratuitous and far-fetched scenes in the series, which is set against interior backdrops that are better suited to Robin Hood than Tudor England, and is so littered with errors as to render any historical integrity redundant.
The pregnant Mary is about to be married to “a provincial book- keeper,” a match organized by Cardinal Wolsey. Anne tells Henry that he thinks he can do to her what he did to her sister. He replies he can do what he wants; he is the King. Later, bending the historical chronology, he says he will give Mary lands and a title and make a good marriage; and he creates her father Earl of Essex—his title was in fact Earl of Wiltshire!
That same year, the BBC made a TV movie of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl, which was also later made into a feature film. This is easily the more convincing version, if one can ignore the jarring video-diaries approach, angled camera shots, and discordant music. The TV movie dates Henry VIII’s ( Jared Harris) interest in Mary (the beautiful Natascha McElhone) to 1524, and in this version,
Katherine of Aragon (Why is she always shown as black-haired in films?) is aware of the affair, which is unlikely in the historical con- text. Mary is maneuvered by her family into becoming the King’s mistress, but she loves her husband, William Carey, and only reluc- tantly succumbs, thinking the affair a sin (In none of these films is there any mention of Mary having previously been the French King’s mistress). We are not shown how Henry courts her, or how she comes to be summoned to his bed. But as their intimacy deepens, she comes to favor him, and a rift opens between her and Carey.
William Stafford, who will become Mary’s second husband, ap- pears early on in the guise of a servant of the Boleyns, when he would have been about twelve years old. In real life, he was a mem- ber of the Calais garrison in the 1530s, but there is no mention of that in the film.
Mary is shown as becoming pregnant in 1525, two years too late historically. Her father is worried that the King will not behave himself while she is unavailable to him, so he pushes Anne, her younger sister ( Jodhi May), in Henry’s path, with instructions to constantly remind him about Mary. Inevitably, Henry falls for Anne. In both film versions, Mary is shown being confined as a queen, taking to a darkened chamber in readiness for the birth—with a male physician in attendance, which would not have been permitted. Given that Henry VIII was exceptionally discreet in his illicit amours, and that these ordinances were laid down only for the Queen, this is just pure silliness. Henry never openly paraded Mary Boleyn as his mistress, nor would he have referred openly to the child in her belly.
Mary gives birth to a son, but Henry ignores them both. The Duke of Norfolk tells her that the King no longer desires her because he wants her sister. Mary is shocked. But Stafford is there to support her.
Mary is forced to wait on Anne, whom she now hates, and is pained to witness her flirting with Henry. Her husband tells her to forget the King, and forces her to have sex. They have another child, a daughter. Again, the chronology in the film is skewed. It is more likely that the daughter (born first) was the King’s child and the son, Carey’s. Carey dies after Anne becomes queen in 1533; he actually died in 1528. Stafford persuades Mary to wed him. “There is great comfort in being a nobody,” he tells her, yet she is too conscious of her position. But when Queen Anne tries to marry her off to the fictional Lord Farnley, she marries Stafford in secret.
By now, Anne has born only a daughter and has lost the King’s love; their marriage is stormy. When Mary confesses that she is mar- ried, Anne is furious and banishes her for disgracing the family. Mary accuses Anne of taking everything she ever cared for from her, but says she will not destroy Anne’s chance of finding love again.
And there, any interaction between the sisters should historically have been at an end, because the likelihood is that Mary moved to Calais and was there at the time of Anne’s fall. Yet here she is seen suggesting that Anne lie secretly with another man in order to con- ceive a son. It is she who asks their brother George, “Could you lie with her?” Later, she comforts Anne for the loss of the son George has incestuously fathered. After Anne has been arrested for treason, she attends her in the Tower, where the magnificent Queens’ Lodg- ings look suspiciously like the bare cell in Berkeley Castle where Ed- ward II is said to have been murdered! (Never is Anne shown in any film imprisoned anywhere but a bare cell.) This is all pure fiction, but at least Mary’s life has an authentic happy ending.
There is no sense of politics in the film, no prominent Cardinal Wolsey, and the divorce is skimmed over. We are told that the Queen is to be tried, when both the King and Queen were summoned to a court convened to inquire into the validity of their marriage; and there is a very dubious subplot involving Henry Percy. The costumes are simplified versions of Tudor dress, and work fairly well.
The film version of The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), starring Scarlett Johansson as a rather vacuous Mary, is dressed in costumes that are often anachronistic or just plain inventions, and topped with French hoods that are far too small (Note to filmmakers: aniline dyes were not invented until the nineteenth century, veils did not match gowns, and off-the-shoulder dresses are plain wrong for the period!). Again, the chronology—or continuity—is shaky; in 1520, the Princess Mary, then age four, appears as a much older child. Jane Seymour is portrayed as a threat to the Boleyns in 1524; she did not attract Henry VIII’s attention until 1535. Anne is sent to France after her affair with Percy ends; in fact, she was there for seven years be- fore it began. She is shown riding unattended through the country- side and on a beach, but no gentlewoman would have done that in Tudor times. It is Anne who dreams up the break with Rome, al- though we hear nothing of her reformist leanings.
Eric Bana is wooden as Henry, whom he barely resembles. He is seen raping Anne, a gratuitous scene that follows a similar example in the Ray Winstone series. Then they marry in a church packed with witnesses, instead of the handful that were really present in the turret room at Whitehall Palace where the ceremony took place. Norfolk and the Boleyns seem obsessed with the women in the family; once more, there is no sense of anything political going on. The story is told on a superficial level, and follows a similar plot to the TV movie. In both cases, there is no depiction of any courtly love play. The film gives us no accurate understanding of what it was to be Henry VIII’s mistress, and the distinction between a prince and a royal bastard is blurred. In fact, there are so many errors that one can hardly describe it as historical.
Mary, having pleaded with Henry unsuccessfully for her sister’s life, is seen visiting Anne in her cell in the Tower and watching her execution; and the real Anne did not weep on the scaffold. The most far-fetched scene is where Mary rides back to court afterward and snatches Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, carrying her off to be reared with her own children in the country. As if Henry would have permitted that!
Last, we come to the TV series The Tudors (2007–2010). Mary Boleyn (Perdita Weeks) appears in six of the thirty-eight episodes. From the moment you see the eighteenth-century coach in the open- ing shots of the series, you know that historical integrity is going to be an issue. Hopeless chronology, wildly anachronistic costumes, and unforgivable factual errors spoil a series that is often a well acted, gripping drama with a strong cast. But The Tudors inhabits a world of its own; only occasionally do you get a sense of Tudor England. Many of the female characters look like modern fashion models with breast implants and teased hair; there is little understanding of titles and forms of address, and some effort could have been made to make Jonathan Rhys-Meyers look more like Henry VIII, whom he in no way resembles. The Duke of Buckingham says that Thomas Boleyn comes from an old family, and castigates the “new men,” but Boleyn was actually one of those new men.
We see the King of France pointing out Mary to Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, calling her his English mare as he rides her so often. Mary, we hear, has then been at the French court two years—another inaccuracy. Henry’s interest is piqued, and the Duke of Suffolk brings her to him one night. She is meek and submis- sive until Henry asks her what French graces she has learned; then she kneels and gives him oral sex.
She is still his mistress when he is back at Whitehall Palace (which should be called York Place), but he is growing tired of her, and or- ders her from his bed. By 1521, their affair is over. Later, we see Mary waiting on her sister, Anne, and visiting Calais with the royal party in 1532. There, she reveals she is still in mourning for her “poor hus- band,” who was impotent (and had died in 1528), and can’t wait to ride a French stallion.
When Anne becomes queen, she and Mary are depicted as being very close and affectionate, which may not have been the case in real life. It is Mary (who is not even recorded as being present) who car- ries the Princess Elizabeth in procession to her christening. Then Anne says they must find Mary a new husband. A little later, Mary, heavily pregnant—(Had Anne not already noticed?) and wearing a very unlikely costume, confesses to Anne that she has married Staf- ford secretly. At least here he is a serving soldier in Calais. “He is such a nothing!” Thomas Boleyn tells Mary. She and Stafford can rot in hell, he says. Mary protests that she was fortunate to find a husband after being known as “the great prostitute,” but it does her no good. The Boleyns no longer want to know her, and she is banished from court. We do not see her again, which is as it should be.
If Mary Boleyn is misrepresented in popular culture, it is because of films like The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl. Film is a powerful medium, yet while historians do extensive research and make efforts to get their facts right, filmmakers have the advantage in getting their message across, and as we have seen, they often take a cavalier atti- tude toward historical facts. The fact that these films are so popular is testimony to the interest that people have in history, but, as a histo- rian, it concerns me that the demarcation between historical fact and fiction has become blurred these days and, worse still, some people think it doesn’t matter—but it does. History has happened—you can’t change it or play fast-and-loose with it. And why would one ever want to change it? As Lord Byron famously said, “truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.”
1. Do you agree with the author’s conclusion that Mary Boleyn was not the infamous whore she was later said to be? Why is it that Mary Boleyn has been so misrepresented over the years?
2. Were you surprised by anything you read in this book? If so, what, and why?
3. Do you think that the author has used the sources judiciously? Has she been fair to other historians?
4. A central theme in the book is how, from childhood, Mary was overshadowed by her younger sister, Anne Boleyn. How much do you think the evidence supports this theory?
5. What was especially shocking about Mary’s second marriage? Was Anne Boleyn’s harshness toward her sister justified?
6. The author suggests that Mary Boleyn lived abroad twice in her life, during periods for which there is no record of her. Do you find these theories plausible?
7. Did the author present a convincing depiction of Mary’s family and their relations with her?
8. How far were you persuaded by the author’s arguments in regard to the paternity of Mary’s Carey children? Why do you think that people are so fascinated by this subject?
9. The author has been able to infer only so much about Mary’s char- acter from the limited sources that have survived. How possible is it to “know” a historical personage? Do you now feel that you know what Mary Boleyn was like as a person, or is she always going to be elusive? After reading this book, what image do you have of Mary? What was especially likeable—or unlikable—about her?
10. Were you surprised or disappointed to learn that the portrait at Hever Castle called “Mary Boleyn” is unlikely a portrayal of her? How convincing did you find the author’s arguments? Is there any substance to the theory that Horenbout’s two miniatures may depict Mary?
11. How does this historical account of Mary Boleyn compare to fic- tional portrayals of Mary Boleyn? Do you feel that readers of histori- cal novels expect a certain level of accuracy, or that they take what they read with a grain of salt because it is fiction?
12. How much was Mary Boleyn the victim of a society dominated by powerful men?
MARY BOLEYN ON FILM
Mary Boleyn has been portrayed several times on screen. In Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), Valerie Gearon plays her as the dark-haired, 'pliant eldest daughter' of Thomas Boleyn. Henry VIII's affair with her is dated to 1523; Anne Boleyn complains: 'We have had the King in the bosom of this family for three years!' When next we see Mary, she has been banished to Hever and is pregnant with Henry's child. Sir Thomas tells her she must make no trouble about being abandoned, to avoid putting her family at risk.
Mary warns her sister: 'Learn from me, Nan. Lock up your heart.' She has clearly lost her own heart: when the King visits, she sits weeping alone. It is inevitable that film makers make dramatic capital from the scenario of one sister snaring the King who has abandoned the other.
Watching the film today, one is struck by its integrity and the efforts made to achieve a degree of accuracy, which are markedly absent from some modern historical films.
Clare Cameron made a cameo appearance as Mary in Henry VIII (2003).When the King (Ray Winstone) descends on Hever to court Anne, Mary is big with a child he doubts is his - and faints at the sight of him. This is one of many gratuitous scenes in the series. The pregnant Mary is about to be married to 'a provincial book-keeper'. Later, bending the historical chronology, Henry says he will grant Mary lands, a title and a good marriage; and he titles her father Earl of Essex (his title was in fact Earl of Wiltshire!)
In 2003, the BBC filmed Philippa Gregory's novel, The Other Boleyn Girl. Henry VIII's interest in Mary (Natasha McElhone) is dated to to 1524, and Katherine of Aragon (why is she always shown as black-haired in films?) is improbably aware of the affair. Mary is manoeuvred by her family into becoming the King's mistress, but she loves her husband, William Carey, and only reluctantly succumbs. But as their intimacy deepens, she comes to favour Henry, and a rift opens between her and Carey.
William Stafford, who will become Mary's second husband, appears early on in the unlikely guise of a servant of the Boleyns, when he would have been about twelve years old!
Mary becomes pregnant in 1525. Her father is worried that the King will stray while she is unavailable to him, so he pushes Anne into Henry's path. Inevitably, Henry falls for Anne. Mary is shown being confined as a queen, taking to a darkened chamber in readiness for the birth. Henry VIII was discreet in his illicit amours, and these ordinances were laid down only for the Queen, so this is just pure silliness.
Mary gives birth to a son, but the Duke of Norfolk tells her that the King no longer desires her because he wants her sister. Only Stafford is there to support her.
Mary is forced to wait on Anne, whom she now hates, and to witness her flirting with Henry. Carey tells her to forget the King, and forces himself on her, fathering a daughter. But the chronology is skewed, as is the likely paternity of the children. Carey dies after Anne becomes queen in 1533 (in reality, he died in 1528). When Anne tries to wed Mary to the fictional Lord Farnley, she marries Stafford in secret. When she confesses, she is banished for disgracing the family.
Mary is then seen suggesting that Anne lie secretly with another man in order to conceive a son, when in reality, she was likely in Calais during Anne's fall. In the series, it is she who asks their brother George, 'Could you lie with her?' Later, she comforts Anne for the loss of the son George has incestuously fathered, and after Anne's arrest, she attends her in the Tower.
There is no sense of politics in the film, as in the movie, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), starring Scarlett Johansson as a rather vacuous Mary. The costumes are often anachronistic and the chronology shaky. The story is told on a superficial level, and follows a similar plot to the TV movie. At the end, Mary is seen watching Anne's execution; but the real Anne did not weep on the scaffold. The most far-fetched scene is where Mary rides back to court afterwards and snatches Anne's daughter Elizabeth, carrying her off to be reared with her own children in the country.
In the TV series The Tudors (2007-2010), Mary Boleyn (Perdita Weeks) appears in six episodes. From the moment you see the eighteenth-century coach in the opening shots of the series, you know that historical integrity is going to be an issue. Hopeless chronology, dated costumes and unforgivable factual errors spoil a series that is often well acted by a strong cast. The Tudors inhabits a world of its own: only occasionally do you get a sense of Tudor England. Many of the female characters, like Mary, look like modern fashion models with breast implants and teased hair.
We see the King of France pointing out Mary to Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. When Henry later asks Mary what French graces she has learned, she offers him oral sex. Later, we see Mary waiting on her sister Anne and visiting Calais with the royal party. Anne and Mary are depicted as being very close and affectionate, which may not have been the case in real life. In the show it is Mary (not even recorded as being present) who carries the Princess Elizabeth to her christening. Later on a heavily pregnant Mary - had Anne not already noticed? confesses that she has married Stafford secretly, and the Boleyns banish her from court.
Mary Boleyn is misrepresented in popular culture because of such films. It concerns me that the demarcation line between historical fact and fiction has now become blurred. Why would one ever want to change history? The truth, as Byron famously said, 'is stranger than fiction'.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Alison Weir, certainly one of our most prolific biographers of late Medieval England; has perhaps overreached herself with this biography of Mary Boleyn. Thanks to the novels of Phillipa Gregory and the attendant film she is now slightly more than a sideline to history. But the truth is, that is all she is. And unfortunately Weirs biography "Mary Boleyn; Mistress of Kings" confirms that. This is a lady who had a brief moment in history and then spent the rest of her life in a fairly contented obscurity. Married below her station (the second time, the first was to a popular nobleman) she did not come to court, had little contact with her sister, and apparently recieved no benefits from briefly being the mistress of not one but two kings. Weir's biography is full of references of where she might have lived, what she might have done, and who she might have known. By about the the third or fourth chapter, the truth is that you don't really care. One realizes that the reason that she faded into the background was that she was essentially boring. I will admit that the research is impressive and prodigious, but nothing concrete seems to come from it. I found the same problem with her book about Kathryn Swynford (a far more interesting person), there was just not enough information to make a solid biography.
This is a terrific biography of a woman who was the older sister to one of the merry wives of King Henry VIII and mistress to her brother-in-law and his rival across the Channel King Francois I of France. Allison Weir asserts with a logical argument that the romanticized novels and the papal commentary of Mary Boleyn as a whore is false. Instead, she was an intelligent woman who went with the flow realizing her choices were limited. Her first husband William Carey was extremely influential at Henry's court and would most likely never settle for a whoring spouse. Her second husband commoner William Stafford also from an influential family with ties to the king had no reason to settle on a whoring widow who was older than him and was mother to two small children. Instead Ms. Weir believes Mary had no say in whether she would be The Mistress of Kings. The historian also argues against the belief that her subject's two children were sired by Henry as at least her son (Henry) was the offspring of William. Finally she debunks the so called heroic redemption of Mary interceding with her lover the king to save her sister's life as a myth with no substantial support; a survivor Mary would know most likely she would join Anne in the Tower awaiting execution. Born most likely in 1498 and dead forty-five years later, she was a product of the Tudor era. Inductive reasoning shows a lack of supportive documents from those friendly or neutral towards the Boleyn family condemning her. Only enemies of her or her family call her a whore. This is a strong look at a woman surviving the men in her life, but unable to speak out agonist the false portrayal of her as a "great and infamous whore". Alison Weir champions a more plausible fairer assessment. Harriet Klausner
Anything by Alison Weir is richly detailed and a page turner
I was expecting something along the lines of Weir's "The Lady Elizabeth" but was surprised to find that this was more historical than mere fiction. However, that aside I found the story of Mary Boleyn interesting and although still much isn't known about her what the author presents gives more enlightenment that has previously been compiled together for a reading audience. Overall a good read
Alison Weir's Mary Boleyn is an original biography of Anne's older sister, an overlooked figure at Henry VIII's court. By using original sources and through careful analysis, Weir presents a picture of an intelligent and talented woman who, contrary to the generally accepted interpretation, influenced as much as she could the world into which she was born.
Historically correct and interesting, but not as much fun as The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory, which was not so factual.
I found this book very interesting and you felt sorry for her because her father used her to achieve his success. However, she was a survivor and in the end she married for love and you felt the happiness she finally was able to have. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it hard to put down. At last I feel I know something about her personally instead of through stories of Anne and Henry VIII.
Mary is not one of the best known characters in Tudor-lore, but what an interesting time she heralded in. Good writing, well paced and a lot of fun facts for the Tudor fan. Not a lot known about Mary after Henry threw her over, and about her relationship with Anne, this book sheds some light on her later life, a great read for those that devour anything Tudor.
Although this book shed little light about a lot of Mary Boleyn's life,it did dispell many rumors about her.She was known as the Great Whore of much of Tudor fiction.It is interesting to note that much of her affair with Henry VIII was conducted with discretion on the Kings part and she had no such reputation.An unfortunate product of parental ambition it was good to see Mary rebel and create a life of her own.Her intelligence,which was always maligned,allowed her to be the only survivor of the Boleyn children.I liked the book because it wiped away many myths and misconceptions and I learned to appreciate the true character of this woman
It's too bad the title "Much Ado About Nothing" is already taken, because that would adequately sum up this book. I'm a huge Alison Weir fan, but this latest effort is not up to her usual standards. As usual, she carefully sorts out what facts can and cannot be verified about her subjects (always a good practice when writing history or biography), but what remains to be told about Mary Boleyn could be told in one or two chapters. The book just confirms that she was a minor player in the events that unfolded around her.If you want to read about a former royal mistress who actually DID have an impact on later history, I suggest you read Weir's "Mistress of the Monarchy".
I love to read anything historical concerning HenryVIII and his wives, but this book was extremely boring and hard to get through. I felt like I was reading parts over and over again. Very disappointing.
Alison Weir is probably my favorite non fiction historical author since she can make the drollest facts read like fiction. She really brings to life the true story about Mary Boleyn based on excruciating details she unearths from snippets of letters, official royal documents and details that were overlooked by other biographers. Weir claims that Mary was probably not the "whore" history has portrayed her to be, but a victim of circumstance and was forced into a brief relationship with the King of France. Since women are a minor footnote in history during this age, there is not much for Weir to go on, so she recreates Mary's life from know facts of the time and pieces those together with well researched truths. This is not a book for the casual reader of history. The details might overwhelm some, but those who have read Weir's other books and are Tudor fans will adore this one. I am a big fan of Weir's writing and style and although this is not my absolute favorite of hers, it certainly adds to my fascination of all things Tudor. Just reading about the lifestyle and times of Mary Boleyn will make you crave even more detail about this period in time. Although, the fictionalize account of Mary Boleyn is fun to read, the truth is even more alluring.
This was a rather tedious book to read. It seemed to be very well researched but it ended up being so much of "this might be true but we don't have enough information" or "this was previously though true but can't be backed up by any reliable sources" or "this might have happened but then again maybe not." There was just so much speculation and uncertainty that it didn't add up to good biography.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, despite there being so much speculation and uncertainty - I suppose that's to be expected when writing a biography of a person about whom very few facts are actually known. It was interesting to see the myths about Mary Boleyn dispelled, which is one of Weir's goals in writing this book, and I enjoyed reading about her children and husbands. Weir is always very readable and this book was definitely no exception. I found much to admire in Mary Boleyn, even if there is still a lot about her that we don't know.
I have several books by Weir now, both fiction and nonfiction, and I have to say that I favor her fiction. This biography contains a great deal of information on Mary Boleyn--a person who the world became obsessed with after Gregory's "The Other Boleyn Girl." Certainly a good resource for anyone looking to learn more about Mary, but a bit dry if you're more of a fiction reader (which I usually am).
I love Alison Weir, but have to say this book was a disappointment. The problem is that there are not enough trustworthy sources to write a good history/biography....the book is mostly a collection of perhaps, maybe, not likely, that can't be true because...etc. There's plenty of dramatic material in Mary Boleyn's life for a great novel, however - oh, wait, it was done The Other Boleyn Girl, and a movie as well! The most interesting part of this book was learning what happened to Mary's children (and why Weir thinks her daughter but not her son was probably fathered by King Henry VIII) and grandchildren, and the most interesting part of all was the very last paragraph in the book, listing people known to be descended from Mary Boleyn.
I have enjoyed reading all of Alison Weir's non-fiction books (I haven't read any of her fiction novels) and "Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings" was no exception. The book is meticulously researched and well-sourced, allowing Weir to go about debunking some of the popular myths and legends about Mary Boleyn, which have been reinforced by decades of popular fiction (and now) television shows.For those who don't know, Mary Boleyn was the mistress of Henry VIII years before her sister, the unfortunate yet cunning Anne, became the second of his six wives. There are few contemporary accounts of her life, so Weir sets about reconstructing her history based upon the little evidence that is available.If you're looking for historical fiction... this book isn't it... it's steeped in facts and Weir is quick to back up her assertions with explanations of her evidence -- or admit that certain theories are mere supposition. However, the book is extremely readable and really interesting. While I liked some of her other books even more (The Princes in the Tower and The Six Wives of Henry VIII in particular,) I thought this was also amongst her best.
I have loved Allison Weir¿s other books and was so looking forward to this new one, however the beginning is dull as dirt; do I really need pages and pages and pages of speculation of when Mary was born and still don¿t ever get an answer. She starts out saying she wants to write a definitive biography of Mary but there is a lot of; well this is what is known, not known, speculated, but I still can¿t give you any answer, so why am I reading if you¿re not going to tell me anything?I have to say I like Alison Weir¿s fiction better than her non-fiction this one she just seems to be calling out other historians mistakes but she doesn¿t really give the correct information just what others have said is wrong.This did get better in the second half and kept my interest as I said I am a huge fan of Alison Weir however, this one won¿t be up there with my favorites of her books.I think this book should have been a biography of the Boleyn family there is so much more about Mary¿s father, brother, sister and of course Henry VIII. I think I wouldn¿t feel like she¿s padding the book if it told you in the beginning that this is a biography of a family because we sure don¿t really find much out about Mary, what does all Henry¿s other affairs and illegitimate children have to do with a bio of Mary?I am sorry as much as I like Alison Weir this one just didn¿t do it for me I know she is a great researcher and that¿s what this book is lots and lots of research told in a very textbook like manner, I think I will stick to Weir¿s historical fiction rather than her non-fiction.If you are new to Alison Weir don¿t start here, start with Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey then The Lady Elizabeth I loved these 2 books, this one not so much.I must give props to the undeniable amount of research Weir does. And the rating on this has to do with the fact that this book does not answer any questions about Mary and was about so many other people than her and there is a lot of guess work still going on. There is just too much, must have, maybe have, could have, and not enough really did!3 Stars***I won this book from Librarything early Reviewers Program**
As usual Alison Weir has written a very good historical book. This time she breaks ground with the first full biography of "the Other Boleyn", Mary Boleyn. She presents a kinder more sympathetic view of the infamous character who slept with two kings. Ms Weir always manages to add new material to her histories which make reading them tantalizing, but I found one or two things that distracted me in this book. Frequently information is repeated throughout the volume which made me say "ok, I got it the first time." Hopefully, this will be corrected in the final proof. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the Tudor period because Ms Weir's easy writing style will make it readable to all.
I love reading about the Tudors and Mary is one of lesser written about Boleyns. Mistress to two kings she always seemed to be in her sisters shadow, but whose fate was much different than her siblings. A very well researched non fiction account of the life of this remarkable woman. I enjoyed this book very much as I enjoy anything written by Allison Weir.
I had a lot of problems with this book. I waited for a few weeks after finishing it to write this review because I didn't want to be overly critical. Essentially what I gleaned from this book is that not much is really 'known' factually about Mary that hadn't been published before. Most of the book is "this could refer to Mary, this painting could be of Mary., this was where Anne was so therefore Mary could be"..........There is a real problem for the modern popular historian to try to write about characters who make wonderful fiction, but not enough is known and documented about the individual to warrant a true biography either popular or scholarly. Nevertheless some people who like to just gain a surface view of Mary, Anne or the Boleyn family in general may really like this work. Alison Weir seems to be moving further and further away from clear historical scholarship with each work she writes. Recently she began writes fiction as well as historical biography. I am hoping she keeps writing the fiction because the non-fiction is frankly becoming almost impalpable. Having read extensively on the Tudor period of English history I really learned nothing new from this book, but it might serve as a good starting point for someone having a new interest in the topic or that generally prefers fictional accounts.
This my first venture into anything about the Tudors. I had a difficult time reading it and will tell you why. I think that the aim of this book is to set the record straight on Mary Boleyn. The author, Alison Weir is an extremely meticulous researcher. This is evidenced by the text of the book, bibliography and Notes and References. She, states that she researched the original sources as much as possible. Each fact about her family and Mary, herself was gone through with a fine tooth comb. Because I was background poor, I had not read the other books about Mary Boleyn prior to this book, it felt tedious and like there were too many details. Each fact was carefully researched and arguments for and against it being true were covered one by one. That left me, feeling like I was making no progress in learning about her life and also wishing that I had several books about Mary Boleyn before this one. Because each side of pro and con of a statement was covered in such great detail I felt like I was reading a continuous debate. That made me weary of the book. However I can understand someone who has read several books about Mary prior staying up all night discovering which things were true and which were not. Mary Boleyn, The Mistress of the Kings, begins with the background of the Boleyn family. Instead of inheriting their place in society, they had to earn it through marriages to elevate the family, supporting the right side during the War of Roses and trade. There were three chapters before Mary Boleyn is actually discussed. The author states and backs up her statement that a lot said about Mary was untrue. Since King Henry VIII was so discreet, we really don't know much about the affair between the King and Mary Boleyn. She was a married woman of some social height, she had nothing to gain from it. I did learn some about Mary Boleyn but the most prominent truth is that there is quite a bit that simply not true. There were rumors during the days and some historical fiction writers picked up on them, also there have been movies that perpetuated the untruths. My recommendation is to read several books concerning Mary Boleyn and then read this book. Do not read it as a "starter". I received this book as a part of the Amazon Vine Program but that in no way influenced my review.
Alison Weir does a nice job in this book of reviewing the facts surrounding Mary Boleyn and redeeming her reputation. I have read many of the recent historical novels that have included Mary and portrayed her as having very scandalous behavior. Alison, is a meticulous researcher and presents the facts in a light that make sense in the historical context. While it is hard to know the real truth at this point in history, there are many sources that are outlined in this book. Although the book is a biography about Mary Boleyn, Alison brings in many more of the historical figures surrounding this time. Although this was a biography, I still felt that Mary Boleyn was still overshadowed by her sister Anne. There were many historical figures in this book and Alison does a really nice job of highlighting their historical significance and how they relate to Mary Boleyn. However, the reader should not read this book and expect it to be solely about Mary. You must understand the interrelationships of the many historical figures in order to paint a fuller picture of her life. Thus, there is quite a bit of historical fact built around other Tudor figures highlighted in this book.Reader received a complimentary copy from Good Reads First Reads
Disappointing. I have read and enjoyed many of Alison Weir's biographies, but I think the subject of Mary Boleyn defeats her. Perhaps because there is so little confirmed information on Mary, Weir spends entirely too much time discussing what information on Mary is likely to be false that on what Mary was really like.
This is a very well researched book into the life of Mary Boleyn, who is far from being the well known easy sexpot or the sacrificial victim of her father¿s ambition she is so often portrayed being. She may have briefly been the mistress of the king of France. If so, no one talked about it much, and far from being pleased by it, her father was furious & possibly sent her off to live with distant relatives for a few years to learn better behavior. Weir shows that he also didn¿t benefit by her being Henry¿s mistress, an affair that was so shrouded in secrecy at the time it only became known well after he began pursuing a divorce from Katherine. Mary¿s father is no more likeable from Weir¿s perspective but he isn¿t an orge building a career on the backs of his children either. She shows, with some detail, that Mary¿s daughter was probably Henry¿s and that Mary¿s first husband Will Carey was not some nobody foisted off on her to cover for her affair with Henry, as has so often been said, but actually quite a fine catch & they were married well before the affair began. Weir redeems Mary¿s character with plenty of well footnoted facts & follows her life from start to finish, as well as debunking some myths about who Henry¿s illegitimate children are, his `prudishness¿ and whether or not he had syphilis. You need to have a decent grounding in Tudor history for this book. There are assumptions of knowledge regarding various historic events and personalities that are part of Mary¿s story. I really liked this one. Weir¿s style is engaging & easy to read.