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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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'.