Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings
Sister to Queen Anne Boleyn, she was seduced by two kings and was an intimate player in one of history’s most gripping dramas. Yet much of what we know about Mary Boleyn has been fostered through garbled gossip, romantic fiction, and the misconceptions repeated by historians. Now, in her latest book, New York Times bestselling author and noted British historian Alison Weir gives us the first ever full-scale, in-depth biography of Henry VIII’s famous mistress, in which Weir explodes much of the mythology that surrounds Mary Boleyn and uncovers the truth about one of the most misunderstood figures in the Tudor age.
With the same brand of extensive forensic research she brought to her acclaimed book The Lady in the Tower, Weir facilities here a new portrayal of her subject, revealing how Mary was treated by her ambitious family and the likely nature of the relationship between the Boleyn sisters. She also posits new evidence regarding the reputation of Mary’s mother, Elizabeth Howard, who was rumoured to have been an early mistress of Henry VIII.
Weir unravels the truth about Mary’s much-vaunted notoriety at the French court and her relations with King Francois I. She offers plausible theories as to what happened to Mary during the undocumented years of her life, and shows that, far from marrying an insignificant and complacent nonentity, she made a brilliant match with a young man who was the King’s cousin and a rising star at court.
Weir also explores Mary’s own position and role at the English court, and how she became Henry VIII’s mistress. She tracks the probably course of the affair and investigates Mary’s real 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 has drawn fascinating information from the original sources of the period to piece together a life steeped in mystery and misfortunate, debunking centuries old myths and disproving accepted assertions, to give us the truth about Mary Boleyn, the so-called “great and infamous whore”.
I had been greatly looking forward to reading this book from the first moment that I heard Alison Weir was writing a book on Mary Boleyn. Mary has always fascinated me, I think she is an extraordinary woman and it seems as though there is so little known about her life. I was eager to start reading Weir’s book in the hopes that I would learn a little more about the mystery that is Mary Boleyn.
Weir states that there is very little evidence at all to suggest that Mary was a “great and infamous whore”. In fact there is only once piece of evidence, that being from Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza, who on March 10th 1536 wrote that “the French king knew her here in France for a very great whore, and infamous above all” (p. 72). It is suggested that Mary only stayed a short time in the French court and when she went there even Mary Tudor, the new French Queen, stated that Mary Boleyn was very inexperienced in the way of the world and how to serve her. Weir suggests that considering the French court was one of the most renowned courts for loose morals, it is doubtful that a short lived affair by Francois I and Mary would have caused such a scandal. She also suggests that it is unlikely that Mary would have gone from a young woman who knew little to a woman who jumped into bed with many members of the French court and who would become rewound for her sexual abilities. She also suggests that if Mary was such an infamous whore why are there no other reports or comments about her? This last suggestion is what really stands out for me as strong proof that Mary was not the well-known whore many think of her as nowadays. In a court full of loose morals a woman would have to do something truly outrageous to be known as an infamous whore, and yet at the time and for over a decade later nothing, not a single word, was mentioned about Mary Boleyn’s behaviour or actions at the French court.
I have to say that I completely agree with Weir’s thoughts about Mary Boleyn’s sexual activities. The suggestion that Mary Boleyn was a “great and infamous whore” in a court ruled by a new King who enjoyed sex and sexual activities as one of his favourite pastimes says very little. Yes she most probably did enjoy some personal time with Francois I, but to suggest that makes her an infamous whore is making a huge judgement leap based on very scant evidence.
Weir moves on to suggest that Elizabeth Boleyn, Mary Boleyn’s mother may have led an immoral life and was estranged from her husband. I do not agree with this idea at all. Weir used a poem by John Skelton to support this argument and honestly I do not think a poem can be, or should be used as credible evidence. Poems allow a great deal of creative licence and there is no evidence to suggest that Skelton’s poem was completely factual. She also stated that many people had claimed Elizabeth had also slept with Henry VIII as well as her daughter’s Anne and Mary. Again court gossip and claims are not enough to back up such a statement as this. I simply do not think that there is enough evidence to prove that Elizabeth Boleyn lead an immoral life before she married her husband Thomas or that she passed on immoral ways of behaving to her daughters.
In regards to Thomas Boleyn Weir provides a brilliant account of his life, outlining the achievements Thomas Boleyn made and the awards and recognitions he received and his high status at court. Unfortunately she then moves on to suggest that he held little love for his children and was quite cold towards them. We do know from evidence that after Mary Boleyn remarried without her father’s or sister’s consent Thomas Boleyn all but disowned her. But before this, when Mary and her siblings were children was Thomas Boleyn cold towards them then? I suppose it depends on what ones definition of cold is. Personally I doubt that he was cold towards his children; certainly he cared for them as he provided them with excellent educations and did all he could to give them opportunities at court. Clearly he wanted the best for his children as they were growing up.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Weir’s thoughts on where Mary Boleyn was during the years 1515 – 1520. Weir states that she was not at court as a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, nor was she retained in Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk’s attendance once she returned to England. So where was Mary? Weir suggests that Mary’s father Thomas sent her to Brie-sous-Forges (nowadays known as Fontenay-les-Briss), a house in France owned by Francois I’s cupbearer. Here, while still in France, Mary could finish off her education and polish all the necessities needed to be a noble lady. There is a tradition that Anne Boleyn lived in Brie-sous-Forges for a time, but since we know that she was retained in Queen Claude’s house it is quite plausible that it was in fact Mary and not her sister Anne that went to live at Brie-sous-Forges. It is frustrating that there is so much we do not know about this incredible woman. There are huge gaps in our knowledge and it is difficult to put together a definitive timeline of the events and places in her life because there is simply not enough evidence. I am still praying for the day that a lost letter, diary or other source of information will be discovered and it will unearth a treasure trove of information about Mary Boleyn!
I also thoroughly enjoyed learning more about William Carey, first husband to Mary Boleyn. Weir provided a very detailed account of Carey’s life at court and the numerous grants and privileges given to him. As an Esquire of the body and a cousin to Henry VIII he appears to have been one of the King’s trusted men and it was probably through this trust, rather than Mary being Henry’s mistress, that Carey received the grants and favours. Weir provided such a wealth of information about William Carey that when I read of his death (even though I already knew he died in 1528) I felt incredibly sad. I can only imagine the amazing career he might have had if he had lived (and continued to say in the King’s favour!)
I have to say that I do have an issue with Weir’s assumption that Thomas Boleyn, oldest son of Sir Thomas Boleyn died in 1520. Claire Ridgway from The Anne Boleyn Files challenges this theory and suggests that Thomas Boleyn and Henry Boleyn (sons of Thomas Boleyn and brothers to Mary Boleyn) died as infants or very young children. I completely agree with this idea as there is just no record of Thomas Boleyn junior being at court. Thomas Boleyn senior was a great presence at court and was well liked and valued by the King and often recorded in documents, so for there to be no record of his son Thomas would strongly suggest that the boy died as an infant or young child. Not to mention the tiny brass marker identifying his grave is identical to his brother’s Henry, who died as a child.
I also do not agree with Weir’s suggestion that Henry VIII forced himself, or even possibly violated Mary. There is simply no evidence to support this. Yes Henry VIII was the King of England and wielded extreme power and influence over Mary, but this is not to say that he forced himself upon her or took her without her permission. Henry VIII was a player of courtly love and believed in chivalry, I cannot see forceful taking of a woman in this game, nor in any of Henry VIII’s actions towards his wives or other mistresses. He may have found himself extremely attracted to Mary and put her in such a position that she could do little but consent to the King of England, but this is different to the King violating and forcing himself on Mary.
I did notice a statement about Anne Boleyn while reading that really confused me. Weir claimed that Anne Boleyn’s second pregnancy resulted in the child dying “at or near full term, and was most certainly a son” (p. 156). Weir provides no references for this statement and I have never in all my reading about Anne Boleyn read that she miscarried a son at or close to full term. Certainly she miscarried a male foetus on January 29th 1536, but before? There are records of Anne being pregnant in early 1534 and being some time along in her pregnancy and then there is nothing, no record of Anne getting ready to have the child or of the child being born so it has been suggested that Anne miscarried. There are no records or mentions of the sex of the child or that Anne carried the child to full term or close to full term. Certainly if this were the case everyone who is anyone would have known about it. For the Queen of England to have given birth to a stillborn son, or miscarried a male child close to full term surely would have been heard all around court, but nothing is recorded or noted. With no references to Weir’s statement I certainly do have my doubts.
Still on the subject of Anne Boleyn I was quite upset at Weir’s suggestion that Anne had been corrupted during her time at the French court. From what I can gather Weir bases her claims on the fact that Henry VIII reported to Chapyus (the Spanish ambassador in the English court) that Anne had been corrupted in France before he knew her. The most important thing to keep in mind about this statement by Henry VIII is that it was made after Anne Boleyn had been arrested, charged with adultery, incest and treason and then executed. During this time Henry VIII was a man scorned, determined to get rid of his overbearing wife who could not provide him with a son, so that he could marry Jane Seymour. I do not think in such circumstances it is at all possible to give any credit to anything Henry VIII had said about Anne. Other than this statement I just do not think that there is enough evidence to prove that Anne had any inappropriate or sexual encounters with men while at the French court. That is not to say that she did not learn a thing or two about how to handle men, certainly she had the amazing capability to capture a man’s attention with just one look from those dark eyes, but this is nowhere near the idea that she was corrupted.
Weir also suggested the idea that George Boleyn, Mary’s younger brother, fathered an illegitimate son. Honestly I am not even going to talk about this idea as there is no evidence to support this idea.
I did however thoroughly enjoy reading about William Stafford, Mary’s second husband whom she married in 1534 without the permission of her father or family. I knew only rough details about this man and it was interesting to learn more about this life, who he was and what he did for a career. I did like the idea that Weir put forward that after their marriage and the death of her sister Anne, Mary went to live in Calais with her husband while he was serving there. This is a very plausible idea as there are several mentions of William Stafford being in Calais in the years following Anne Boleyn’s death. Weir’s suggestions help at least a little to flesh out where Mary Boleyn was during the early years of her marriage to William Stafford.
I was upset to read Weir’s statement that Mary may not have mourned the death of her husband William Carey deeply. Again how does Weir know this? There is such little evidence about Mary Boleyn and nothing regarding her emotional feelings or thoughts, how could she make a statement such as this? Although the marriage had been arranged who is not to say that Mary and William did get along and found love with one another? Maybe they did become close, maybe she mourned him greatly. It would be another six or so years before she married again, which in itself could suggest that Mary did have some feelings for her late husband. Maybe she did mourn him, unfortunately we do not know and thus cannot make any claims on how she felt.
Following along these same lines I felt while reading that Weir included a great deal of “maybes” and “possibly’s” into the book. There is so little written about Mary Boleyn that there are huge gaps in her life that we may never know about. I understand that Weir, in her book, was trying to fill in these gaps and give some plausible answers to where Mary Boleyn was, or her thoughts and feelings or her actions, but at the end of the day we just do not know. Without sufficient records, statements or facts we do not know what Mary would have thought or felt and yes we can try and take a guess based on the scant knowledge we have about Mary, but certainly there has to be limits to this.
I also do have to say that the picture on the front of this book aggravated me to no end. The image of the young woman on the cover is not Mary Boleyn but is in fact Queen Claude of France, wife of King Francois I. Why this image was used on the front cover I have no idea. Even if Weir does not believe that the Hever Castle portrait of Mary Boleyn is in fact Mary Boleyn, it is at least an image that many every day Tudor lovers (like myself) associate with Mary Boleyn. To use a completely different woman, a French Queen, on the front cover, completely confused me and I know it confused a lot of other people also!
In regards to the Hever Castle portrait of Mary Boleyn I did find Weir’s thoughts on this portrait thoroughly interesting. Weir challenges the idea that this portrait is of Mary Boleyn and suggests that it might be of Frances Brandon, daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk and younger sister of Henry VIII. I find this theory very plausible as if one looks at the Hever Castle portrait and compares it to images of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor you can see several similarities, especially in the eyes and nose. But if the Hever Castle portrait is not of Mary Boleyn then do we even know what she looked like? Unfortunately there are no written accounts of what Mary Boleyn looked like, but I propose that the Horenbout miniature painted in 1525 of a woman often believed to be Anne Boleyn is actually Mary Boleyn. Once again it is just so frustrating that so little about Mary’s life has been recorded!
Lastly I found it very difficult to swallow that Mary Boleyn was jealous of her younger sister Anne because she was eclipsed by her. Weir suggests that Mary was jealous because Anne appeared to achieve more than her, because she had given her virginity away to Francois I while Anne remained chaste. She also suggested that Mary was jealous because it appeared their father favoured Anne more than Mary and seemed to care little for Mary and her children’s wellbeing after the death of her husband William Carey. But maybe, just maybe, Mary was not jealous of her sister and accepted her lot in life. On a personal note I have an older sister, she has a great deal of money and lives for her career and the things she can purchase but does that make me jealous? No not at all. In fact I would not trade my life for hers! I may not have a great deal of money but I have a beautiful family who I love and who loves me in return. Maybe that is also how Mary felt, maybe she knew she could never be as talented or as skilled as her sister, maybe she accepted her lot in life and was content simply to be loved. At the end of the day we will never know but I just cannot accept Weir’s suggestion that Mary was jealous of her sister, there is just not enough evidence to support this.
As Eric Ives said to Claire Ridgway from The Anne Boleyn Files: “What we know about Mary Boleyn can be written on a postcard with room to spare.” Unfortunately this is true and after reading Alison Weir’s book on Mary Boleyn I felt no closer to knowing who this extraordinary woman was. My interest in this intriguing woman has drawn me to read nearly every scant detail that has been recorded about her and thus I have built up a framework, a knowledge, of what is known about Mary Boleyn. I was hoping that in her book Weir would be able to shed a little more light on the areas of Mary’s life that I did not know about. She did suggest an interesting theory that Mary lived in Brie-sous-Forges (nowadays known as Fontenay-les-Briss) between 1515 and 1520, which is something that could be very plausible. I also found her ideas that the Hever Castle portrait of Mary Boleyn is not in fact Mary Boleyn but is rather Francis Brandon, daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk and younger sister of Henry VIII. Yet aside from these points there was not a great deal else that I did not already know about Mary Boleyn. Sadly I think that unless another piece of evidence such as a diary, letter or report comes to life we may never truly know who this remarkable woman was.
Overall I did enjoy Alison Weir’s book on Mary Boleyn. I have always enjoyed Weir’s writing style and this book was no exception. I found it fluent and easy to read and I felt that Weir provided some very interesting theories and ideas about Mary Boleyn. Although I did not agree with some of what she wrote it was good to have my thoughts and views challenged. I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Mary Boleyn or wants to learn a little about the sister of Anne Boleyn, but I would advise them to read carefully and not take everything they read as staunch fact but instead use this book as a basis to do more research on Mary Boleyn.