Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir

30. Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir



I've been fascinated with Mary Boleyn since I learned of her existence. Everybody knows the story of her sister, Anne Boleyn, whose charms caused the king of England, Henry VIII, to divorce his first wife and break with the Roman Catholic Church in order to marry her. Everyone also knows the sad end of that story, which culminated in Anne becoming the first of Henry's six wives to be beheaded.

But what is known about Mary? Nothing much, until more recently, with the release of Philippa Gregory's bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl. Alison Weir points out that it is this novel, and the movies of the same name, along with the "Tudors" television series, that have propelled Mary out of obscurity, and into what Weir claims is undeserved notoriety. While I am a huge fan of Gregory's novel, it was not my first encounter with Mary Boleyn.

My first knowledge of her stems from a book that is significant in my life for other reasons--it fueled a lifelong obsession with Elizabeth I in particular and Tudor England in general. But when I read Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I by Jane Resh Thomas, I remember lingering over a passage in the early part of the chapter on Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, something like "Anne did not want to become, like her sister, the outcast mother of the king's bastard child."

I pondered and pondered over what it would mean to have a sister who had been the king's mistress, who had actually borne his child. Surely one would want to avoid that fate for one's self. Surely one would be angry at a king who would cast one's sister aside-or would one relish at the chance to so obviously triumph in a sisterly rivalry? The story of Anne and Mary was one I wanted to research and write myself, but of course Gregory got there first.

It is statements like the one I read in Thomas' book, as well as the portrayal in Gregory's novel, that Alison Weir calls into question. The popular history on Mary Boleyn claims not only that she was Henry's mistress, but before that, she had been the mistress of Francois I of France. Popular history claims that Mary was so well-known as a loose woman that Francois I called her his "English mare." And popular history claims that her two children, Katherine and Henry Carey, were undoubtedly not the children of her first husband, William Carey, but the bastard children of Henry VIII. Contemporary evidence, Weir claims, does not strongly support any of these libidinous accusations.

The accusation that she was the mistress of Francois I is technically possible, indeed Weir believes it probably happened. Both Mary and Anne Boleyn served in the French court as ladies-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, during her brief marriage to the elderly French king Louis XII (Francois was his son-in-law and heir). This is documented in records of payment for their services. It seems that Mary came with Mary Tudor to France, while Anne traveled overland from a former appointment at the Dutch court. Weir notes that is sometimes believed Anne was the elder sister because she was sent to court first, but argues that it is more likely that Mary was the elder, as she was the first to be married. In any case, both sisters were present at the French court along with Francois I, who had a reputation for womanizing. However, Weir points out, there is no record of any gossip at the time about Mary and Francois, or indeed about Mary and any other man. It is only much later that a source Weir discredits in other places for being too biased, stated that "Francois I knew [Mary Boleyn] for a whore." Wir argues it is most likely that "knew' was meant in the biblical sense and that Francois I had admitted to sexual involvement with her. But there were many other mistresses that Francois I openly acknowledged and kept for years, and Mary was not one of these. At whatever point he may have become intimate with her, neither of them made it public knowledge. Weir concludes that their affair was probably of very short duration, possibly lasting only one night. She suggests, however, that the Boleyn family knew about it, because Mary was removed from the French court after Mary Tudor went home, while Anne stayed on as a lady-in-waiting at the court of Francois I's first wife, Queen Claude. Weir believes Mary was sent either away or home in disgrace (there are no clear records of where she lived between this time and her marriage to William Carey), and that the Boleyns' repeated disregard for Mary dates from this period. I wonder though, that if there is no contemporary evidence for the affair with Francois and the primary source is discredited in other respects, why assume there was any affair at all?

It is all but impossible, however, to dismiss the probability of Mary's affair with Henry VIII. While it was not well documented during whatever time period it flourished, which Weir thinks was somewhere between two and four years, it was the grounds on which Henry's marriage to Anne was finally dissolved and the discreet subject of a much earlier papal dispensation to marry within the "forbidden degrees of affinity," which would include the sister of one with whom one had become "one flesh," as well as the wife of one's brother (the grounds on which Henry claimed his marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was illegal). But the question remains-was Henry the father of Mary's children, or not?

Weir puts forth an intriguing argument that Mary's daughter, Katherine, was Henry's daughter, but that her son, Henry, was not his child. I am inclined to agree with her. Katherine is Mary's firstborn, and it is well known that Henry drifted from his wives, and the mother of his acknowledged bastard, Henry Fitzroy, during pregnancy. Weir thinks it logical that their affair may have concluded with Katherine's birth. Soon after the birth, Henry granted lands and money to William Carey, Mary's husband, which Weir believes may have been for the care of his daughter. He made similar grants for a common girl called Ethelreda, the daughter of his laundress, who was almost certainly his bastard, as nothing else could account for his interest in her. Furthermore, Katherine and her daughter Laetitia Knollys strongly resemble not only Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I (there is no authenticated picture of Mary), but Henry VIII as well. Katherine Carey received a rare appointment as lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, that her social position did not technically warrant, and Henry soon oversaw her marriage to a prosperous courtier. In her later life, Katherine Carey was an especially close companion of Elizabeth I, who may or may not have known that they were probably sisters as well as cousins.

If, as Weir believes, the affair ended after Katherine's birth, the later born Henry Carey is probably the son of Mary's husband William Carey. Weir claims that Henry resembles him in portraits. There was no similar monetary gift after Henry's birth to the Careys. The most compelling evidence, however, is that Henry did have a bastard son whom he acknowledged, Bessie Blount's son, Henry Fitzroy. At this point, Henry still had no legitimate sons and might have needed a bastard son to rule or certainly to prove that he was capable of fathering sons. What cannot be accounted for though, is why Anne Boleyn wanted, and was given, the wardship of her sister's son while her sister was still alive. Weir argues that Anne, in her powerful position relative to the king, was better placed to provide for the boy, but something about Gregory's portrayal of this event in The Other Boleyn Girl rings true. Why would Anne want custody of the boy if he wasn't the king's son?

While Weir's biography, the first full biography of Mary Boleyn, puts the lie to some of the events in Gregory's book and to the salacious rumors swarming in popular history books, I find it interesting that Gregory's and Weir's characterizations of Mary ultimately mesh well. She was a girl who spent her life in her sister's shadow, whose family and lover did not regard her as particularly valuable, bright, or important. And yet, both authors portray a woman who was passionate yet discreet in love, and who, while somewhat estranged from her immediate family (in a letter, she described living in her father's house as being "in bondage"), was warm and confident enough to have a strong relationship with her children and second husband. Certainly, she was the most successful of the ill-fated Boleyn siblings. Mary escaped with her head intact, married for love, lived into middle age surrounded by a loving husband and children, and died in her own bed.

Anne Boleyn's may be the story of a strong woman's meteoric rise and fall, but Mary Boleyn's is the story of a strong woman's slow climb to happiness and freedom. And who doesn't love a heroine with a happy ending?

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