The Tudor Book Reviews 10: Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir

Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings is a biography that constantly reminds its readers how little is known about its subject. The mistress of King Francois I of France and King Henry VIII of England and the sister of Anne Boleyn, one of England’s most controversial queens, did not keep a diary and was the author of only two surviving letters. In contrast to the popular view of King Henry VIII’s court perpetuated by fictional portrayals such as the television series, The Tudors, the Tudor King conducted affairs outside his six marriages discreetly. Henry VIII left little evidence of his relationships with his mistresses and only publicly acknowledged a single child out of wedlock, Elizabeth Blount’s son, Henry Fitzroy.

Mary’s relationship with King only became a matter of public record because it rendered his subsequent marriage to her sister Anne “incestuous” in the eyes of the Roman Catholic church. King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage to his brother Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon to marry the sister of his former mistress, Mary Boleyn. The King’s “Great Matter” brought Mary’s royal affairs into the open and shaped her reputation as” a great and infamous whore” (The subtitle of the British edition of the book).

Popular historian Alison Weir’s approach to the life of Mary Boleyn is similar to her treatment of John of Gaunt’s third wife Katherine Swynford in her previous book, Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster. Weir places the known facts about Mary within the context of her times and provides informed speculation about the gaps in the source material. Like Katherine Swynford, the image of Mary Boleyn in the current popular imagination has been shaped by a single bestselling novel. For general readers, Mary is the heroine of Philippa’s Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl just as the Duchess of Lancaster is synonymous with Anya Seton’s Katherine.

Weir refutes the portrayal of Mary in Gregory’s novel, concluding that she was probably the eldest Boleyn daughter rather than the youngest and was most likely in her twenties rather than her teens when her affair with Henry VIII took place. Weir also devotes considerable attention to the paternity to Mary’s children, born during her first marriage to William Carey. While Gregory’s novel presents both Katherine and Henry as children of Henry VIII, and previous historians have doubted either child was fathered by the King, Weir presents strong circumstantial evidence that Katherine was the King’s daughter. Katherine received land grants at the time of her marriage and there is evidence that Henry VIII had other daughters outside his marriages whom he did not publicly acknowledge.

The most significant analysis in Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings is the challenge to centuries of portrayals of Mary as a promiscuous woman who reveled in her love affairs and embarrassed her ambitious family. Just as Retha Warnicke argued that Henry VIII’s fifth wife Katherine Howard was targeted by predatory men in Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners, Weir observes the power imbalance between Mary her royal lovers, who were among the most powerful European rulers of her era. There is not any evidence from Mary’s lifetime that she flaunted her relationships with the Kings of France and England and it is possible that she was reluctant to became involved with either monarch. One of her two surviving letters is a passionate justification of her second marriage to a man from a comparatively modest background, which removed her from the court where she had been Henry VIII’s mistress.

Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings brings together the scattered and often contradictory source material about King Henry VIII’s shadowy mistress. Weir’s informed speculation challenges the popular mythology surrounding Mary including  the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl and the longstanding perception that she chose to be a “promiscuous” woman. There is not enough surviving evidence about Mary’s life to provide a full picture of her character and motives but Weir’s analysis places the elusive royal mistress within the vivid settings of the courts of France and England in the sixteenth century.

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