Reading History: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” (Alison Weir)

By this point, Mary Boleyn has become best-known as the major protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the (according to Gregory) younger sister of Anne Boleyn.

Alison Weir, one of my all-time favourite biographers of British royalty, undertakes an effort to excavate what we know of Mary.

And, as her work reveals, that’s not too much. Unfortunately, much of Mary’s life remains shrouded in mystery, precisely because she has been so thoroughly overshadowed by Anne’s dominance in the popular imagination of the Tudor period. It thus takes all of Weir’s considerable skills as a historian/detective to extract from circumstantial evidence details about Mary’s life, her loves, and her actions.

We do know (with a fair degree of certainty) that she was the mistress of the King of France, a dalliance that no doubt stained her reputation and endangered her future in the English court and may have rendered her particularly susceptible to the amorous attentions of Henry VIII (who always wanted to outdo his French rival).

And we also know that, contrary to the mores of the time, she ended up marrying the man she loved, at least on the second time around. Indeed, the decision to once again endanger her family’s fortunes by going against her father’s wishes may well have contributed to her later penury. Weir makes it pretty clear throughout the book that Mary was something of a black sleep among the Boleyns, particularly her father (anyone who has seen Thomas Boleyn in film will find this quite easy to believe).

Nevertheless, even Weir’s capable hands can only spin so much material out of these few threads of information. The book is one of the shortest that she’s written, and it feels like it. As a result, Weir sometimes has to resort to discussions of issues, people, and materials surrounding Mary, rather than the actual woman herself. Of course, this does give us a good sense of the world that Mary inhabited, as well as the various connections that she would have had as a member of a noble family. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mary is a bit of an absence, a glaring hole around which we can construct a narrative but who nevertheless remains elusive.

Thus, if I have a complaint about this book, it’s that Weir tends to wander off on tangents that are only faintly related to the subject matter. Some of this no doubt reflects the fact that she could find relatively little to say specifically about Mary in the sparse sources, but it does make for difficult reading at times, particularly as Weir–as she often does–tends to indulge a bit too much on the material culture aspect of her biographies. If you want to learn about the many things that early modern nobility spent vast amounts of money on, you will learn much in this book.

For me, arguably the most interesting part of the entire book was the discussion of Mary’s two children, Catherine and Henry, both of whom became very prominent members of Elizabeth I’s court. Weir lays out a convincing case for Mary’s daughter Catherine being the result of her affair with Henry VIII (there was allegedly a pronounced physical resemblance between them), though the same is probably not true of Mary’s son Henry (ironically). Weir also goes into some detail analyzing portraits that may (or may not) be those of Mary.

Overall, I would rate this in the bottom tier of Weir’s books. She tends to make some assumptions and assertions that aren’t adequately supported by the evidence that she has presented. Such is certainly the case with her assertion that Mary’s mother Elizabeth was a woman of ill-repute, evidence for which is quite sparse and relies on a decidedly selective reading of what evidence exists. (For what it’s worth, Weir makes a more compelling case for this in her recent historical novel about Anne, Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession).

Nevertheless, even a low-tier Alison Weir outing is still a good read, and you will learn a great deal about the workings of the Tudor court, the luxuries and dangers of the period, and the fraught position that women occupied in this dangerously beautiful world.

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