In my last blog, I talked about a dual biography I had read about Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, two daughters of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Katherine of Aragon was for quite a while Queen of England being Henry VIII's first wife. In divorcing her, Henry broke with the Pope and Roman Catholic Church who refused to annul his marriage. The woman he took as his second wife was the infamous Anne Boleyn, who ended up being tried for treason and beheaded in 1536, three years (and four pregnancies that failed to produce a male heir) after her marriage to the king. Sister Queens peaked my interest in the Boleyn family and Tudor England and I have decided to explore a few of the many books written about these historical characters.
Now, I thought that my family could be dramatic at times, but it is nothing compared to the Boleyn family! Anne had two siblings, Mary and George, and was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Shortly before finishing up Sister Queens, I was browsing the shelf and found a book solely devoted to Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir and decided this is where I would begin my survey of the Boleyn family. According to the introduction, Mary Boleyn has historically been portrayed inaccurately in a number of publications, and even more so in recent fiction works. I have to confess that I didn't know Anne Boleyn had a sister until reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory a few years ago. I knew this was a fiction title, but I did draw some conclusions about Mary based on it when I should not have. (This can many times be an issue when reading historical fiction…where does the history stop and the fiction start?) In this book, Mary becomes Henry VIII's mistress and bears him a son named Henry. Well, in real life, Mary really did have an affair with Henry VIII. And did she bear him a son? This we know to be untrue since she did not have a son until years after the affair had ended. Her daughter, however, may have been Henry VIII's illegitimate child. There is no proof that this is actually the case, but Weir provides evidence for this by analyzing different monies and honors that were bestowed on Mary's daughter and her family throughout her life.
Provable facts about Mary Boleyn are few and far between. We do not know when Mary and the King's affair took place, how long it lasted, how it started, why it started, or how either person felt about the affair. Our main proof that it happened comes later in the years after it had ended when Henry was trying to cover his bases and make sure his marriage to Anne would be considered legitimate. Only two letters remain written in Mary's own hand, and compared to her well known sister, she is not often mentioned in other sources. Another hypothesis Weir spends time considering is the idea that Mary may not have been mistress to just one king, but two! In addition to Henry VIII, there is some evidence that she may have also been the mistress of Francis I, King of France. Her embarrassed family tried to keep this a secret as well as keep Mary in the shadows for much of the rest of her life, according to Weir, which may be why we have so little contemporary information about her.
Truthfully, I am not sure I gained much concrete knowledge from this text. There is so little verifiable information on Mary Boleyn. This does not, however, mean that I didn't enjoy the book. This is a very well researched book in which Weir pokes holes in many past assumptions historians have unfairly made about Mary. Weir does a good job holding up Mary, giving her the benefit of the doubt where she has simply been critically judged and pigeonholed in the past. As a woman of the court in Tudor England, she had little control over her life but exercised her strength when given the opportunity. My favorite part of the book is when Weir talks about Mary's second marriage. William Stafford was "below" her status but she married him in secret for love rather than familial gain. In a letter to her sister, then queen, and King Henry VIII she writes, "So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him…For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well". As you can see from this short snippet of the letter, Mary is unapologetic and unwavering. She took a huge risk in her second marriage, and paid consequences for it, but she held strong to the marriage and husband she had chosen. This is how I will choose to remember Mary Boleyn.
Mary Boleyn: the Mistress of Kings