Alison Weir’s new biography of Mary Boleyn, sister of the more famous Anne, aims to reclaim its subject from the centuries of myth & rumour that have become attached to her name. The subtitle of the book, “The Great & Infamous Whore“, is typical of the labels that have become attached to Mary’s name. Mary’s father, Thomas Boleyn, worked his way up through the ranks of the Tudor Court. He married the Duke of Norfolk’s sister & made himself valuable to the King as a diplomat & courtier. Mary & Anne attended Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, to France when she married King Louis XII. The marriage lasted only months, the decrepit bridegroom died, leaving his beautiful young widow to return to England but only after she had secured her own happiness by marrying Charles Brandon, one of her brother’s close friends. Mary Boleyn stayed on at the French court & had a brief affair with the new King, François I.
When Mary returned to England, she was married to William Carey. It was an arranged marriage & it’s not known if they were happy or well-suited. Mary had two children, Katherine & Henry, & there has been much speculation that they were really the children of Henry VIII with whom she had an affair. Alison Weir believes it’s likely that Katherine was Henry’s daughter as he gave Mary payments & annuities in later years that could be seen as a way of providing for his daughter. Henry & Mary’s affair was definitely over before her sister Anne returned to Court & captured Henry’s attention.
William Carey died of the sweating sickness, a form of plague, in 1528 & Mary spent several miserable years dependant on her father for her maintenance. Her relationship with her sister, Anne, doesn’t seem to have been close & she would not have been welcome at Court now that her affair with the King was an embarrassing memory. Their affair would be an impediment to any marriage between Henry & Anne & the King was forced to ask the Pope for a dispensation, which is the main source of evidence for the relationship. The affair was also useful to Henry when he tired of Anne & wanted to be rid of her as he could conveniently ignore the Pope’s dispensation & say that his marriage to Anne had never been legal because of his affair with her sister.
Mary’s second marriage caused anger & scandal among her family as she married for love. William Stafford was of good family, but he was a second son with few prospects. He was several years younger than Mary & pursued her for some time before she agreed to marry him. The marriage was seen as a disgrace for the Queen’s sister & Mary was far away from Court when Anne’s downfall ended the influence of the Boleyns forever. Mary died in 1543 in her 40s & her last years seem to have been contented ones far from the centre of power.
Alison Weir spends a considerable time sifting through the evidence for the facts of Mary’s life & dismissing most of the interpretations of other historians & novelists. I found this interesting but I think it’s indicative of how little real evidence there is for Mary’s life. This must be one of the difficulties of writing the biography of a person, especially a woman, at this period. There are no authenticated portraits of Mary; even the portrait on the cover of the book is of Queen Claude of France. It’s why there are endless biographies of Kings, Queens & chief ministers & relatively few of anyone else. The evidence just isn’t there. Weir does a good job of analysing the evidence for the many questions in Mary’s life – was she or Anne the elder daughter? Did she have an affair with François I? Was she promiscuous at the French Court? Was she sent home in disgrace? What was her relationship with Anne? With Henry? Alison Weir comes up with considered interpretations of the available evidence but Mary herself remains a shadowy figure.
That’s why I loved this letter, one of only two by Mary that survive. Finally we hear her own voice rather than the historian’s interpretation of her thoughts & actions. The letter was written to Thomas Cromwell after Mary’s second marriage, to William Stafford. Mary is asking Cromwell to intercede with the King as the couple are struggling financially. Marrying for love may have made Mary happy but it hadn’t made her rich.
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. And so I do put no doubt but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the King’s gracious favour and the Queen’s. 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, nor a more honest man…. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, Master Secretary, for my little time, I have spied so much honesty to be in him that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.
Maybe not the most tactful way to present her case, to say she was happier than a queen when her sister was Queen but the letter is honest & slightly desperate rather than diplomatic.
As always, Alison Weir’s book is a great read, full of interesting insights into the motivations of the main players. If you’re interested in the Tudors, this is a book you will want to read.