Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir – Book Review
Posted By Claire on October 13, 2011
I’ve been holding off writing a review of Alison Weir’s new book, “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore” or “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings”, because I didn’t want to come across as “bashing” someone who is a respected author and historian, and a lady I really like on a personal level. However, I’ve had so many emails regarding my thoughts on this book that I need to put my thoughts in one place and review this book properly. I hope you find my review informative and balanced.
Firstly, I want to repeat what Eric Ives said to me recently: “What we know about Mary Boleyn can be written on a postcard with rooms to spare” and he is right. Any book about Mary Boleyn is going to be short on facts and high on supposition and theories because we know so little about her, and that’s what we have with this biography, lots of ideas but little that is concrete.
OK, so let’s get on with my thoughts on this book. I have divided them into the good and the bad, the positives and negatives:-
- Alison Weir provides a good biography of William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s first husband – Some authors have made the mistake of seeing Carey as a nobody when he was in fact the King’s cousin, a member of the Privy Chamber, an Esquire of the Body and a royal favourite. As Weir points out, “William Carey was fortunate enough to be one of this select group of young men who enjoyed a privileged degree of daily access to – and intimacy with – the King, and therefore great influence and the ability to exercise lucrative patronage.”
- Weir provides a good biography of Thomas Boleyn, recording his rise in favour and giving examples of the titles, offices and grants he was awarded in his career.
- Alison Weir also gives an interesting biography of William Stafford, Mary Boleyn’s second husband and the man she married in secret.
- Interesting thoughts (p80 -87) on what happened to Mary Boleyn when Mary Tudor returned to England – Weir suggests that the French tradition that Anne Boleyn spent some time in Brie could actually be based on Mary Boleyn being sent to live with relatives there after the scandal of her affair with Francis I. Anything is possible really as we have no hard evidence of Mary’s movements at this time. Weir also puts forward the idea that Mary Boleyn and William Stafford lived in Calais and that that explains her absence in the contemporary records.
- Weir makes the point that Sir John Blount, Bessie Blount’s father, did not benefit from his daughter being the King’s mistress or the mother of his son, and points out that Thomas Boleyn was already a favourite before his daughters became involved with the King. She writes, “Henry VIII was not in the habit of handing out favours simply because a man’s daughter had bedded with him”, so Thomas Boleyn could not have expected to gain from Mary’s affair with the King (p118).
- Good points made about Mary Boleyn’s unfair reputation as “the great and infamous whore” when she was actually a royal mistress and not promiscuous.
- Weir questions assumptions about Mary, e.g. the idea that Mary served Catherine of Aragon as one of her permanent ladies, when there is not the evidence to back it up.
- Weir challenges the idea that Mary was Henry’s true love, pointing out that we do not know when the affair started, when it ended or how the couple felt about each other.
- She points out that grants made to William Carey between 1522 and 1526 “probably reflected Henry’s regard for a man who served him daily” rather than “rewards for his complacency in regard to his wife’s dalliance with the King”.
- Weir points out that “rather than being manipulated by her family, Mary Boleyn was manipulated by the King” (p125) and I agree, it was Henry VIII who had the power.
- Weir writes of how “we know virtually nothing about the manner in which Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn was conducted, or their feelings for each other” because Henry was discreet and kept the affair in the background. She points out that “apart from the pageant of the Chateau Vert, there is no surviving memorial of Henry and Mary together.” (p131)
- Weir makes the valid points that Katherine of Aragon mustn’t have known about the affair as otherwise she would have used “the canonical impediment created by Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn, either in an attempt to block his marriage to Anne, or to discredit his doubts of conscience in regard to their own marriage”.
- Weir’s assessment of the Boleyn family’s religion. She writes, “although a study of the books owned by Rochford suggests that he came quite near to becoming a Lutheran, Anne and her father died as orthodox Catholics, so it would be more accurate to say that the Boleyns were zealous for the cause of reform within the Catholic Church” – Spot on, I would describe them as evangelical rather than Lutheran.
The Bad and the Ugly
- Being marketed as the first Mary Boleyn biography – In the introduction, Weir writes “There has been just one admirable but sadly brief, study by Josephine Wilkinson; I understand that Dr Wilson was constrained by a disadvantageous word limit when she had so much more to say, and she has most generously agreed that I can claim that this is the first full biography of Mary.” (p2) – but I find that dishonest and unfair to Josephine Wilkinson.
- Thomas Boleyn the Younger mistake (p12) “Only four of the children survived infancy: ‘Thomas Bullayne’, whose grave in Penshurst Church, Kent, is marked by a cross and the date 1520…” – Thomas Boleyn the Younger’s tomb is not dated 1520 as I pointed out in an email to Alison Weir, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loGyBqxEIN4 for a video about my research into Thomas Boleyn the Younger and Henry Boleyn.
- Elizabeth Boleyn, her reputation and marriage – Weir writes that “no fewer than ten people alleged in the 16th century that Elizabeth Howard was Henry VIII’s mistress” and although she says it is unlikely that Elizabeth was Henry’s mistress Weir writes that these “allegations may have been believable because of Elizabeth Howard’s dubious reputation”, using a poem by John Skelton to back up the idea that Elizabeth “had set them [her offspring] a poor example by her loose morals and by betraying her marriage vows.” p35 John Skelton did dedicate a poem “To My Lady Elizabeth Howard”, comparing her to Cressida, the Trojan beauty who betrayed Troilus, but does that mean that Elizabeth Boleyn was a “False Cressida”? (p33)
Weir later (p182) talks of the unhappy Boleyn household and Elizabeth being “his possibly estranged wife”.
- Referencing – It is near impossible to figure out what sources Alison Weir is referring to when, in “Notes and References”, she just writes “L&P”, “S.C.” or “Bernard, Anne Boleyn” – no volume number or page number. When you’re already making notes of your sources in your research it can’t be any extra effort for the publisher to print “LP xii.203” rather than “L&P”, surely?
- Her depiction of Anne Boleyn as having been corrupted in France. This theory is based on a misreading of the primary sources, see yesterday’s post “The Scandalous and Corrupt Anne Boleyn?”.
- The idea that Henry forced himself on Mary – Weir uses the March 1522 tournament, when Henry rode out with the motto “Elle mon coeur a navera” (she has wounded my heart”, as evidence that Mary had rejected his advances and she believes that the Chateau Vert Pageant was staged to woo her. She writes of Cardinal Pole stating that Henry “violated” Mary and concludes that Mary “had very little say in the matter”. Weir does not go as far as saying that Henry raped Mary but that “he manoeuvred her into a position wherein she dared not refuse, and thus was forced to submit to him”. This could well be the case but I don’t see any evidence, we just don’t know how Mary felt.
- Jane Boleyn – On p212, Alison Weir writes “the evidence for incest rested chiefly on the testimony of Rochford’s wife”, even though historian John Guy pointed out that the evidence she based this opinion on in “The Lady in the Tower” was suspect and I know, from my research, that there is no real evidence that Jane was the star witness or that she spoke to Cromwell of this.
- Repetition – In his review of “Mary Boleyn” in “The Sunday Times”, Thomas Penn writes of Weir’s “repetitious caution” and I did find the book rather repetitive and not as flowing as Weir’s previous books.
- Mary Boleyn’s looks – Although Weir states that “we cannot be sure what Mary looked like” (p53) and later that the Hever portrait of Mary is probably of Frances Brandon instead, she believes that Mary was “more beautiful than Anne” (quoted from the “News” section of her website) because “Thomas Boleyn’s chaplain thought that Mary was by far the more beautiful of the Boleyn sisters” (p53). Now, although Weir gives absolutely no reference for this piece of information, I have found it in a letter in “Letters and Papers”. It describes a conversation between John Barlow, chaplain to Thomas Boleyn and Dean of Westbury, and “M. Loys Helwighen” of the Emperor’s council in Brabant:-
“The Dean [Barlow] said the King would not insist on this point of free consent, and he confessed that the King frequented the society of a lady of a noble house, whom it was reported the King intended to marry, if he obtained a divorce. Mentioned a report that the King wished to marry this lady to legitimate by subsequent marriage a son whom he had by her; but the Dean said that this son was by another lady, who was already married. Said he had never heard of this, and he thought that the King’s love for another than his wife must be for the mother of his son. Remarked also on the suspicious nature of the King’s intimacy with the lady in question; but the Dean said he had never heard anything of it. Asked him if he knew these two ladies, and whether they were beautiful, worth leaving his wife for. He said he knew them both, and the mother of his son was eloquent, gracious, and beautiful, but the other lady was more beautiful still.” LP v.1114
Philip Sergeant, in “The Life of Anne Boleyn”, writes of how this conversation was about “Lady Taileboys”, i.e. Elizabeth Blount, and Anne Boleyn, and I agree with him. It makes much more sense for this conversation to be about the rumours that Henry VIII was going to legitimise Henry Fitzroy, the son of Bessie Blount who Henry had acknowledged as his illegitimate son, than Mary Boleyn and her son, Henry Carey, who Henry had not acknowledged. Also, although Barlow describes “the mother of his son” as “beautiful”, he describes Anne Boleyn as “more beautiful still”.
- The book cover – I’ve lost track of the amount of emails I’ve had regarding the cover. Yes, it is a re-working of the Corneille de Lyon posthumous portrait of Queen Claude and is not meant to be Mary Boleyn. As Alison Weir points out, there are no authentic portraits of Mary Boleyn – she believes the one at Hever is actually Frances Brandon – so the cover must have posed a bit of a problem!
- No new evidence or “astonishing” news – I have to agree with reviewer and author Thomas Penn who said “While Alison Weir’s book valiantly attempts to separate speculation from historical truth, Mary’s is not quite the “astonishing” tale that she claims.” Weir makes some excellent points but I didn’t feel that she’d found any new evidence and she certainly did not prove the paternity of Mary’s children (see next point).
- Paternity of children – I found Weir’s chapter “Hiding Royal Blood” very confusing and the marketing of the book – “The paternity of Mary’s two children can now be established, thanks to new and overlooked evidence. One was almost certainly fathered by Henry VIII” (Weir’s website) and “Weir also presents compelling new evidence that almost conclusively determines the paternity of Mary’s two oldest children” (Amazon blurb) – misleading. Weir concludes that “we can never know for certain the truth of the matter, only that there is a strong possibility that Katherine was the King’s child”, but that is far from establishing the Careys’ paternity or producing “compelling new evidence”. Her case for Katherine being Henry’s daughter rests on a physical resemblance, an annuity granted to her and Philip Sidney referring to Stella (Penelope Devereux, Katherine’s granddaughter) as “rich in the riches of a royal heart” and giving her the royal title of “her Grace”. He also refers to her as “a princess high” and “a queen”. I just don’t find that compelling in the slightest.
Weir later argues that Ethelreda Malte was probably Henry VIII’s daughter and concludes that “establishing that Ethelreda Malte was in all probability Henry’s daughter, even though he did not acknowledge her, bolsters the case for his having had a bastard daughter whom he also did not acknowledge by Mary Boleyn”. I don’t think it does.
- Weir’s depiction of Thomas Boleyn – On p46 she writes of how he “lavished little love” on his wife or children and on p119 she writes that “it is quite conceivable that a father who, in time, was to show himself willing to be complicit in the ruin of his children, in order to preserve his own life and position, should be happy to reap the benefits of a daughter’s adultery with the King”. Complicit in his children’s ruin? Where’s the evidence for that?
- The fictional aspect – On p105, Alison Weir writes “Tragedy struck the Boleyns sometime in 1520, when the eldest son and heir, Thomas Boleyn the younger, died.” That is pure fiction, yet is written as a fact, and it is more probable that he died in childhood. There is absolutely no evidence that he survived until 1520 or that he was the eldest son and heir. Speculation at best.
- Confusing – On the one hand Weir states that “according to the historical evidence, Mary never incurred notoriety or infamy as a royal mistress” (p68) and that her relationship with Francis I was “brief and covert” but then goes on to write that her family looked down on her because of what happened in France and that Thomas Boleyn may well have sent her “to rusticate at Brie, after compromising her reputation at the French court.” (p84)
- The may haves, probablies, could haves etc. – E.g. “Mary may not have mourned her husband deeply” but she might have! The idea that “it is possible that Katherine Carey, who was nine when the Princess Elizabeth was born, spent the next six years, until she was summoned to court, in her little cousin’s household”, but she might not have! Also, a sentence that made me chuckle, “”Probably, although evidence is lacking”, well, then it probably didn’t happen!
- Sweeping statements – “In the late summer , Anne had lost a baby – probably a son – at full term, another crushing disappointment for Henry VIII.” (p195) and then “Anne’s influence was clearly declining”. There is evidence that Anne was pregnant in 1534, between January and July, but no evidence regarding what happened to this baby. There is also no evidence that Anne was losing her influence at this time, as far as I can see. If Henry took a mistress then it would be because Anne was pregnant.
- The idea that George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield, was “Rochford’s bastard” because his name was George. He may simply have been a Boleyn relative who was born on St George’s Day and if he was George Boleyn’s son then why was he not supported by Thomas Boleyn? Why did he not inherit the Boleyn estate when Thomas died and why did he not inherit the Ormond ancestral horn? It does not make sense.
So, would I recommend this book?
Yes and no.
If you’re like me then you buy any Tudor history book, because you’re hungry to know more about the era and its people, and then you use it as a resource and check the facts and theories for yourself. It is a great starting point but it is not the definitive guide to Mary Boleyn. Read it and then research Mary and the Boleyns for yourself, don’t take it at face value. It really is tricky to discern the facts from the theories unless you’re already “au fait” with Mary and the Boleyn family.
“Mary Boleyn” is out now in the US – click here and also in the UK – click here
Note: My page numbers are based on the UK paperback version published by Jonathan Cape.
Thomas Penn’s review of “Mary Boleyn” was published in The Sunday Times on 2nd October and can be read online by Sunday Times subscribers.