The Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton (Review)

There is an entire sub-genre of Tudor themed historical fiction that centers around conflict between two “Boleyn Girls” at the Tudor court. All these novels present two female archetypes and place them in conflict. The most famous of these novels is of course Philippa Gregory’s  The Other Boleyn Girl, which imagined Henry VIII’s mistress Mary Boleyn as “the good sister” devoted to her home and children, and his second wife, Anne Boleyn as “the unscrupulous sister” determined to become and stay Queen at any cost after the end of her betrothal to the future Earl of Northumberland. In Murder Most Royal, Jean Plaidy contrasted the lives of two “beautiful cousins,” Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard who both married Henry VIII and were both ultimately beheaded.

 Not every novel about Boleyn women includes Anne. In Elizabeth I: The Novel, Margaret George contrasted Elizabeth I with her Boleyn cousin Lettice Knollys imagining the Queen as a woman who sacrificed having any sort of personal life to maintain her position while Lettice surrendered to her passions. All the Boleyn women were more complex personalities than they have been portrayed in historical fiction. In The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femmes Fatales Who Changed English History, Elizabeth Norton, author of ten books about the Tudors including Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistress, Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride and Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession, reveals the true story of eight generations of Boleyn women, placing the famous Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I within the fascinating context of their Boleyn extended family.

Long before Anne Boleyn caught the eye of Henry VIII, the Boleyn family were well known for advancing themselves from the “middle class” to the nobility through advantageous marriages. Norton reveals that the families of these Boleyn wives contributed more to their families than their lineages and inheritances. Anne’s great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn trusted his wife Anne Hoo Boleyn so implicitly that his will gave her the authority to arrange her children’s marriages and divide the family silver between them. There is no evidence that the marriage of Queen Anne Boleyn’s grandparents, William Boleyn and Margaret Butler was as close but Margaret was devoted to advancing her children and staking her claim to the Irish earldom of Ormond.

The best chapters of The Boleyn Women are the sections that reveal how little known members of Queen Anne’s extended family navigated the treacherous politics of the Tudor court. Anne’s aunt, Lady Shelton found herself in a particularly difficult situation when she became Governess  to Princess Elizabeth, head of a royal household that also included Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Although Anne instructed her Aunt to treat Mary harshly, Lady Shelton appears to have become close to her charge and they continued to exchange gifts long after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Lady Shelton’s daughter Mary or “Madge” as she is better known became an accomplished poet and a rival to her cousin, the Queen, for Henry VIII’s affections.

The wife of Anne Boleyn’s brother George, Jane Parker, came from a family that sympathized with Mary’s cause and another one of Anne’s aunts, Anne Tempest Boleyn, was expected to report her nieces conversations during her last days in the Tower of London. Norton’s book reveals that there were divided loyalties within the supposedly united “Boleyn faction” and that a number of Anne’s aunts and cousins in addition to her sister-in-law remained at court after the famous Queen’s execution.

Since Norton reveals fresh details about the lives and divided loyalties of so many obscure Boleyn women, the least compelling chapters of The Boleyn Women are actually those that focus on the most famous members of the family, Anne Boleyn, her sister Mary and Queen Elizabeth I. The Boleyn Women is unlikely to be the first book on the Tudors chosen by a general reader but will instead appeal to those already interested in the life of Henry VIII, his wives and his children. Readers who are familiar with Norton’s other works on the Tudors,  The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ by Eric Ives or Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir will skim through the sections on the famous Boleyns to learn more about their little known aunts and cousins.

In The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femmes Fatales Who Changed English History, Elizabeth Norton reveals the complex role of the Boleyn wives, daughters, mothers, aunts and cousins in the rise and fall of the famous family. The Boleyn women launched their children into the English nobility and many survived the fall of Anne of Boleyn, remaining at the Tudor court as Henry VIII married four more times and Elizabeth I became the sole  Boleyn woman to rule England in her own right.

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