Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: Mary Boleyn (pick your subtitle) by Alison Weir

Mary Boleyn has been thrust out of her role in history as the footnote to her more famous sister Queen Anne Boleyn's life.   Thanks to Philippa Gregory's popular novel, The Other Boleyn Girl and its subsequent two films, the more well-known of which starred Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn, the little known story of this Boleyn sister has become popular, albeit in a fictional way.   For the truth is that we don't know very much about Mary Boleyn, just as the historical record is scant for most women of the 16th century, even those attached to the prominent families at the court of Henry VIII.    So, there has been much embellishment of Mary's story most of which has focused on her reputation as, how to make this family friendly, easy with her sexual favors.  

Alison Weir attempts to set the record straight in her new biography.   She is not the first historian to tackle Mary Boleyn as a subject matter.   As she points out in her book, Alison Weir is indebted to the previous work by Dr. Josephine Wilkinson who published Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Favorite Mistress in 2009.   However, as Ms. Weir points out, Dr. Wilkinson was given a page limitation by Amberley Press and was thus forced to edit down her research.   Not so, Ms. Weir.   And therein lies the problem with this well-researched book.   It is too well-researched.

There is very little in the historic record about Mary Boleyn's life.   We do not know when she was born or what the birth order was of the Boleyn siblings.   We do know that there were three children who survived childhood, Mary, Anne and George.  Ms. Weir also claims that there was a fourth Boleyn child, Thomas who lived until 1520.  Other historians dispute her findings on that and believe that Thomas, along with any other Boleyn children died young. (Thomas Boleyn, the father's famous she brought me forth every year a child comment)

We know that Mary Boleyn was one of the maids of honor who accompanied Princess Mary Tudor to her wedding in France and was one of the few English ladies not dismissed by King Louis XII as recent research has produced a previously unknown list of the women paid for their service to Queen Mary for the last three months of 1514.

We do not know when Mary Boleyn returned to England.    We do know that she was married to William Carey, a gentleman of King Henry VIII's privy chamber in February 1520 and that she attended Queen Katherine of Aragon at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June of that year.    In March 1522 she was one of the eight ladies featured in a masque who defended the Chateau Vert dancing the role of Kindness.   She bore two children, a daughter Katherine, whom recent scholarship has proven was the eldest child, born around 1523/1524 and a son, Henry born in 1525/1526.   Her husband William Carey died in the sweating sickness epidemic of 1528.

Mary Boleyn is not in the historic record very much during the rise of her sister, Anne Boleyn, who made her first recorded appearance at the English court in that same Chateau Vert masque, portraying Perseverance.   During King Henry's annulment proceedings against Queen Katherine of Aragon we glimpse the only evidence that Mary Boleyn had a sexual relationship with the King.   King Henry VIII was granted a Papal dispensation in 1528 granting him permission to marry a woman to whom he was related to within the first degree of affinity.  What that means is that he had sex with a close female relative.    Later in the proceedings the King was recorded replying when asked if the rumors were true that he had sex with both Mary and her mother, Elizabeth Boleyn, the King replied "never with the mother."    Yet  except that single document and one statement from the King absolutely everything else known about Mary Boleyn's relationship with King Henry VIII is conjecture.

Ms. Weir is tireless in her examination of every single reference to Mary Boleyn by previous historians and historical fiction writers.    The book contains every single reference to Mary Boleyn which Ms. Weir either confirms or refutes.    Enough is enough.   The points that Ms. Weir are making are amply made without quoting every single one of them.    We do not need several pages discussing the birth order of the Boleyn siblings.   We do not need page after page refuting Mary's sexual reputation.    Judicious editing could make this book a much less mind-numbing read.

For the record, Ms. Weir does believe that Mary Boleyn was the mistress of Francois I of France, but only briefly.  There is absolutely nothing in the historical record of the time that makes mention of it.   She also believes that Mary Boleyn's affair with King Henry VIII was short and relatively insignificant.   She makes a good argument for believing that if either of Mary Boleyn's children were the children of Henry VIII it was the elder one, Katherine, as King Henry made grants to Mary Boleyn and Katherine Carey following the death of William Carey that could be identified as means for financially taking care of his bastard daughter.   Ms. Weir also cites royal references in Sir Philip Sydney's poetry written to honor Katherine Carey's daughter Penelope as possible evidence that Katherine Carey was Henry VIII's daughter.  Yet, it is still speculation unless one can find a way to do DNA testing on Henry VIII and Katherine Carey it can never be proven.

Ms. Weir does a good job of showing that what other writers have used to prove that Mary Boleyn was King Henry VIII's mistress from 1522-1526, mainly the grants of offices and lands to her husband William Carey, is false.   William Carey received nothing out of the ordinary for a man of his position at court.    Ms. Weir also shows that the elevation of Mary Boleyn's father to the title of Viscount Rochford in 1525 had to do with his ability as a skilled ambassador for the English court and not because his daughter was sleeping with the King.    Ms. Weir also debunks the significance of the ship the Mary Boleyn in the English fleet.   The ship, along with the ship the Anne Boleyn, were purchased with those names from Mary's father, Thomas Boleyn.

The truly fascinating research that Alison Weir has found is in examining Mary Boleyn's life after the death of her husband in 1528.   She shows convincing evidence that Mary Boleyn was not close to her family.  Ms. Weir believes that, contrary to popular fiction, Mary's family was not pleased that she was a royal mistress.  Following William Carey's death she had to have the King intervene with her father to provide her with financial support.  Thomas Boleyn would treat his daughter-in-law, Jane Parker the same way after the execution of his son, George.  Mary Boleyn is rarely recorded at court after 1522.   She is mentioned as accompanying the English court to Calais in 1532 and as a member of Anne Boleyn's household after she is proclaimed queen at Easter in 1533.  She participated in Anne's coronation.

The final blow to her relationship with her family came when Mary Boleyn secretly wed William Stafford in 1534.   Ms. Weir notes that Stafford was a minor courtier, the younger son of a knight who served as a Gentleman Usher to the king.   In the summer of 1533 he became a spearman to the Calais garrison serving under the governor of Calais, Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle.   He is referred to several times in the Lisle letters as a trusted messenger to and from the court.   Mary Boleyn's marriage was discovered in the fall of 1534 when she became visibly pregnant.     One of her two extant letters is from this period in which she wrote to Thomas Cromwell begging his assistance.   It is this letter in which Mary states "I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened."   Ms. Weir clearly believes that this statement proves how much the sisters were estranged.    While some historians believe that Mary Boleyn was reconciled with Queen Anne, assisting her after her miscarriage of 1536, Ms. Weir points out that there is no record of Mary Boleyn being at court after 1534.    She would live in obscurity surviving the executions of her sister, her brother, the deaths of her parents and the execution of her sister-in-law Jane Parker in the downfall of Queen Katherine Howard.    Mary Boleyn would die in 1543 and the place of her burial is unknown.

Ms. Weir's scholarship is very sound, if too detailed.   She does rightfully dismiss a lot of the romantic mythology surrounding Mary Boleyn, yet uses some of that same dubious material whether it is the mostly inaccurate statements of Rodolfo Pio, the papal nuncio or the poetry of Sir Philip Sydney when it serves the point she is trying to make.   It is not an easy read, but it is well worth adding to one's library if the reader is interested in expanding their knowledge of Tudor court history.

Alison's Weir's Mary Boleyn biography was published in 2011.  In Great Britain it is known as Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore, published by Jonathan Cape.   In the United States it is known as Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, published by Ballantine Books.


  1. Thank for the review,now I really looking forward to reading this book. I would love to know if Mary was consider a whore, or was it a myth. Weir points out that Mary wasn't close to her family, well if Mary was at the french court for long period of time, I doubt she would be. I also wonder how close Anna was to her family? I know she was close to her brother, but I wonder how close she was to her mother and father?

  2. Alison Weir strips away the idea that Mary Boleyn was a whore. That's the whole point of her thesis. We don't know how long Mary was at the French court. There is no evidence beyond the end of 1514 in the records. Weir posits that she returned in 1515. Although, again, there is no actual evidence of when she returned. As for Anne, we have no records of her being at the French court or at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Her first appearance in the historic record as at the 1522 Chateau Vert pageant.