Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings

  • Alison Weir
  • Ballantine/Random House
  • 440 pp.

Life in Tudor times fills this biography that seeks to discover the truth about the sister of Ann Boleyn and her notorious royal affairs.

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

Although my time as a formal student of medieval and Renaissance England is long over, my fascination with it remains. If you were to ask me which three historical figures I’d like to grace my dinner table for an evening, Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, would top the list.

The political and religious turmoil that followed the courtship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, their subsequent marriage and Henry VIII’s order that Anne be executed makes her a major driver of the English Reformation, which marks England’s break from the authority of the Catholic Church. Anne’s importance has also led to various portrayals of her by biographers, authors and scriptwriters, which range from ruthless villain to intellectual reformist. Much is known about Anne thanks to the documentation of her reign, but questions remain. My curiosity, respect and admiration would seat her at my table.

The same cannot be said for Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn. Royal sister aside, Mary’s notoriety stems from her affairs with Henry VIII and King Francois I of France. There is little to suggest that she enjoyed influence or power in the English and French courts, yet her status as royal mistress triggered many assumptions about her life and personality, the most prominent concerning her liberality with her favors.

Alison Weir’s new biography, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, confronts these historical rumors and seeks the truth about Mary and her life. Alongside the central question of Mary’s presumed promiscuity, Weir also sets out to explore matters such as the birth order of the Boleyn sisters, Mary’s time and reputation in France, details of her affair with Henry VIII and possible children, the Boleyn sisters’ relationship and Mary’s treatment by her family.

Weir’s historical research and analysis is top-notch; in depth and detail, it echoes her excellent 2010 work on the last four months of Anne’s life, The Lady in the Tower. Weir’s openness in revising her past conclusions has always impressed me, and she does not disappoint in Mary Boleyn — for instance, Weir points out that she, too, had assumed Mary’s reputation true without concrete exploration. But while there is much reason to recommend the book, it is difficult to avoid this conclusion: because so little source material exists, the biography as a whole is, unfortunately, something not about Mary.

Weir does an impressive job of reconstructing a framework of Mary’s life, but simply cannot exceed the limited primary and secondary sources. For example, while Weir’s descriptions of the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 are rich in detail, her inferences as to where Mary may have been, what she may have done, what she may have felt during this meeting between the kings of England and France are just that: inferences. Much time is spent discussing more prominent personages and how their lives may have affected or could help inform Mary’s — yet nothing much is learned about Mary herself.

There is speculation about the relationship between Anne and Mary, but again the primary sources yield little. Anne outshines Mary, and Weir muses on what kind of friction this may have caused: taken to be the eldest sister by notable historians including Weir, Mary nonetheless was eclipsed, as Anne received preferment in appointments to royal households and was adept at playing the courtly role expected of a lady-in-waiting. Weir considers that Anne may have held her older sister in contempt due to Mary’s comportment with the French king and her inability to secure any advantage for the Boleyn family when Mary was kept as Henry VIII’s mistress.

While Mary is given some preferment upon Anne’s ascendancy to the throne, she is banished after appearing at court, pregnant and married without royal permission. It is here where Mary shines brightest, as Weir analyzes a letter that Mary wrote to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s adviser, begging him to intercede on her behalf with the royal couple. The highs and lows of the letter, ranging from Mary’s exaltation of her husband to her knowledge that she was held in poor esteem by her family, give clues to Mary’s self-perception. Yet this is an exception, as the majority of Weir’s biography depends on placing Mary’s life within the possible shared experiences of fellow courtiers.

Weir’s goal to dispel myths about Mary’s supposed promiscuity, however, is achieved. The lack of contemporaneous evidence to support that reputation is glaring; her affair with Francois I was forgettable, while her affair with Henry VIII was conducted with such discretion that not even Katharine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen, was aware of it. Henry VIII’s argument for annulling his marriage to Katharine specifically so he could marry Anne was based on Katharine’s own earlier marriage to Henry’s deceased brother, Arthur. The degree of affinity created between Katharine and Henry through that earlier marriage made theirs unlawful in the eyes of God. Katharine failed to capitalize on the argument’s hypocrisy given the parallel degree of affinity between Anne and Henry created by his affair with Mary: in her ignorance of the affair, Katharine’s one sure weapon went unused in the defense of her marriage.

A reader without a background in Tudor history will find the biography thorough, perhaps to a fault: the shared names, titles and sheer volume of people surrounding Mary could prove overwhelming to those hoping to learn more about her. Those who come to the biography as fans of Mary (as a result of sympathetic yet less-than-accurate fictional portrayals) might find themselves not only overwhelmed, but disappointed: given the lack of sources on Mary, she does not emerge as a real person who lived and breathed.

That being said, it is unlikely anyone will do a better job with such limited sources, and for Weir fans, this book further proves that she is a historian of the highest caliber.

Susana Olague Trapani is an aspiring fiction writer. An avid reader, she studied Latino literature at the University of Michigan and medieval/Renaissance English literature at the University of Toronto. In her day job, she is a writer with the American Red Cross.

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