There are many myths about Mary Boleyn, often from sources such as popular novels or films. In this excellent book, Alison Weir attempts to put the record straight about Mary's life. As other reviewers have already noted, there are parts of Mary's history where little is known, but the author has completed the task with admirable thoroughness and this is a very readable and enjoyable account.
The problems with recounting Mary's life begin early on - records do not show whether Mary was the eldest sibling or not. However, Alison Weir gives us all the evidence and suggests that probably Mary was older than Anne and George. Sent to France, Mary Boleyn succumbed to the temptations of the Court, led by the notorious Dauphin - later Francois I. "Rarely did any maid or wife leave that court chaste," wrote a contemporary. So, did Mary really have such a bad reputation, or did she actually spurn advances? Again, we are taken through all the possible scenarios. However, Anne was always seen as more intelligent and charming than Mary. While Anne remained at the French court, Mary seemed to drop from sight, out of favour.
The book continues with Mary's marriage to Willian Carey and the possibility of Mary's becoming Henry VIII's mistress. Mary had two children during her marriage to Carey - Katherine and Henry. Were either, or both, Henry's children? Again, Alison Weir looks at all the evidence with great thoroughness. A lot of what was said about Mary could have been malicious gossip about Anne Boleyn's family and there is no way of really knowing how long the affair between Mary and Henry lasted. One thing was sure, though, and that was that Anne did not intend to risk becoming just another discarded royal mistress. However, this book is not about Anne Boleyn. Despite her obvious importance, the author is careful to keep the attention on Mary. When William Carey died in 1528 of the 'sweating sickness', Mary was left poor and in debt, with two young children to support.
She did not feel appreciated, or cared for, by her family, writing sadly that, "I saw that all the world did set so little by me."
When Mary married William Stafford, she married for love. Disgraced, she was banished from court, and it is likely that she never met Anne again. The Boleyns suffered their cataclysmic fall in 1536, by which time Mary was poor but, hopefully, happy. Of the Boleyn siblings, she was the one who found love - "there was not in her the stuff of tragedy." There are, frankly, worse fates. Although there are obvious gaps in writing about someone in history, even someone so closely linked to the seat of power and intrigue of the Tudor court, Alison Weir provides a very readable and interesting account of Mary Boleyn's life. I have enjoyed all this authors books and this, in my opinion, is one of her best.
on 6 January 2012
Alison Weir was the person responsible for getting me hooked on the Tudors, and since then their pre-history, after reading her "Six Wives" many years ago. I have read most of her factual works and generally enjoy them as highly readable, very thorough and they allow me to learn much from them.
This was no exception and this book is easy to read and it comes across as assured and well researched. You feel generally confident in her assertions and opinions.
There is only a certain amount that can be written about Mary Boleyn. She is not a major figure in Tudor history and consequently there is a shortage of primary sources that refer to her. Perhaps this is why Ms Weir takes up so many of the allotted words detailing the comments, opinions and writings of other authors and historians and then questionning them or refuting them. Being a rather pedantic sort of person myself, I should not criticise her for this; I like to have the truth, in so far as it is known, and good evidence to support it, but even I became somewhat irritated by her evident obsession with this practice. However, without it, the book might have been a maximum of two thirds the size. There is also the point that Ms Weir might just be wrong in some of these points of debate - but somehow I doubt it.
I was left with one other impression. I might be very wrong about this, but I wondered if this book had been somewhat rushed. My reason for this conclusion is that I found that the editing left something to be desired. I was most struck by the several occasions that reference was made to a person, or an event, in terms or words making it clear it was the first such mention only to subsequently find the same person or event being introduced into the narrative again in similar terms. This seemed to me odd, rather as if chunks of text had been cut and pasted elsewhere without regard to the knock on affect it had on the flow of the story.
But I should stress that these are comparatively mionor complaints. The book is to be recommended.
on 6 October 2011
I had been looking forward to reading this book as I have enjoyed Alison Weir's books over the years. However ultimately I found it disappointing. There is no doubting the scholarship and work which has gone into the book. The reason I did not enjoy it as much as I expected is that much of the book is taken up with comment as to where and how previous writers have either erred or frankly invented aspects of Mary's life. Even though this is no doubt true it becomes repetitive and slows down the narrative. The conclusion of the book is really that we know little about Mary as a person and little more about the events of her life.
on 28 December 2011
As interest in Tudor England has experienced an upturn so too has the fog of myth and misconception surrounding the history. The blurb of this latest historical non-fiction claims to "explode... the mythology" surrounding Mary Boleyn and "uncover the facts", and I must admit I was curious to see what conclusions Weir's research had made.
Reading Weir's introduction, I agreed with a lot of the sentiments she expressed and admired her goal of redressing the misconceptions and attempting to find the facts. However, I didn't agree with all of Weir's conclusions, and there were also what appeared to be one or two genuine factual blips during the course of the text. But I also found it easy to read; flowing style, clear, understandable - in contrast to some of Weir's other non-fiction works which in the past I have found at times to be a bit of a dry read. And whilst I didn't agree with some of Weir's conclusions, she definitely addressed the misconceptions, and brought to light some misplaced information. Credit to Weir for taking on an undoubtedly difficult subject and trying to cut through the shroud of myth to produce this biography of Mary Boleyn.
At first glance, the life of Mary Boleyn, given her racy reputation with the Kings of France (Francois 1st) and England, (Henry the ubiquitous 8th) should form the basis of a fine biography. In many ways all the elements are there; the larger than life characters we already know, including her more exciting sister Anne, the wonderful illustrations, plus the detailed research that one would expect from Alison Weir. And yet, and yet there is something missing at the heart and it is the something that no doubt precipitated Mary's shadowy place in Tudor history, despite being in the orbit of her starry sister and her high flying brother. Mary is just not very interesting (except as a fictional foil in novels about Anne, such as The Other Boleyn Girl) and the work is therefore bedevilled by probablies, possiblies, must haves and maybes. When the King's eye settled on Anne B, poor Mary clearly became something of a liability and a potential technical hitch in divorce proceedings.
We get no sense, because the source data is just not there, of how she herself felt about being a (twice discarded) mistress to royalty or, more importantly, how the tragedy which engulfed her sister Anne and her brother George along with many men whom she would have known from her time at Court, affected her.
What does come across is the compartmentalised nature of the English court at that time, and the secrecy and privacy surrounding the King's personal affairs even in a quite public arena. It also revealed to me that the King in seeking extramarital comfort, had a rather small pool of talent from which to choose, as there were amazingly few women actually present on a day to day basis.
All in all Alison Weir has produced as good a biography as she could, but not one that was crying out to be written. That sister of Mary's threatens to overwhelm proceedings on the page, as she did in life.
on 21 February 2015
I was aware that little was known of Mary, most of what we do know is speculation, surmise... Ms Weir confirms this. Alison Weir is my historian of choice, However this book contains too many 'probably's' 'may have been's' 'possibly'. We do not know with certainty Mary's age, where, when she was born, she was 'possibly' the elder of the Boleyn women, but this book does not nail the assertion. Well written but ultimately disappointing.
There's a problem with any work involving Mary Boleyn; there isn't enough material around to write a history like this without it becoming repetitious when compared to everything else Tudor already on the market. Mary Boleyn was infamous for two reasons; she was mistress to Henry VIII and sister to the most famous of his wives Anne Boleyn. We know little of the relationship between the sisters, little of the intimacy between Mary and her King, what we do know has already been the subject of books, movies and a huge variety of TV programmes. There's nothing particularly fresh or new in this book apart from the title "The Great and Infamous Whore" which is sufficiently bold enough to raise the odd eyebrow or two. Alison Weir presents Mary in the traditional way; a pawn in the hands of powerful men who offered her as a gift to Henry VIII in order to advance their status. Mary escaped marriage and therefore the possibility of execution or divorce merely because Henry became bored, needed fresh meat, the Boleyn family stepped in once more and offered their other daughter, Anne, as a replacement. That's a potted history of Mary Boleyn and once you've established those few facts there's little left to learn unless you're interested in a much wider, non specific, history of the times. Alison Weir presents her book in a way that's flat, slow, lacking in entertainment and biased in favour of her own personal opinions. She offers up little more than what's already known along with a good deal of padding.
We know that Mary Boleyn (who died in 1543) is Anne Boleyn's sister, and that she apparently had affairs with both King François I of France, and King Henry VII of England. We know, too, that she married twice and apparently had two children. Most historians suggest that she is the eldest of the three surviving Boleyn children: Mary, Anne and George. The royal affairs may have made Mary notorious, but there is little to suggest that she had any influence or power in either the English or French courts. Many will be familiar with the portrayal of Mary Boleyn in `The Other Boleyn Girl' by Philippa Gregory, and the films based on it.
`There is no escaping that an air of mystery pervades every aspect of Mary Boleyn's life. There is so much we don't know about her, and only so much we can infer from the scant sources that have survived.'
In this biography, apparently the first full-length biography published about Mary, Ms Weir seeks to identify the truth about Mary and her life. Was Mary promiscuous? On what basis was she known as `The Great and Infamous Whore'? What evidence exists to support the birth order of the Boleyn sisters? Ms Weir also sets out to examine Mary's time and reputation in France, the details of her affair with Henry VIII and the possible children born as a consequence. Ms Weir touches, as well, on Mary's treatment by her family as well as the relationship between Mary and Anne.
Unfortunately, because so little source material exists in relation to Mary, she does not emerge from the shadows of history. What Ms Weir provides is a framework for her life, a description of significant events (and people) which took place during her life time. Mary's role in these events and her relationships with these people can be inferred but are not known with certainty.
The strength of Ms Weir's book, for me, is that she largely dispels the myths about Mary's supposed promiscuity. It seems highly likely that, as Ms Weir writes, Mary Boleyn's affair with Henry VIII was discreetly conducted. Otherwise, if Katharine of Aragon had been aware of it she could have used the fact of it in the defence of her own marriage, and surely would have. Henry VIII's argument for annulling his marriage to Katharine so he could marry Anne Boleyn was based on Katharine's earlier marriage to Henry's older brother Arthur. Henry having an affair with Anne's sister Mary created the same degree of affinity.
Those without some background in Tudor history might find this book challenging. As a Tudor enthusiast I found it provided some interesting food for thought.
on 31 July 2012
The book was sadly very disappointing because for me it just failed to teach me much bout Mary Boleyn with the book being filled with too much detail about things and people which seem extremely irrelevant to the biography making it hard to be entertained by the book at all. Also many things in the book are repeated many times which made me wonder whether Weir really had enough evidence about her life to warrant a biography of Mary Boleyn especially when she dosent reach many conclusions herself throughout the book but constantly faulting other authors conclusions again making it harder to find out more about Mary in this book. A key example of something that annoyed me throughout this book is how Weir would go into too much detail about something and then say that it wasnt true or didnt happen which made me wonder why it was in there at all although it was good when she dismissed popular views of Mary Boleyn as that is more justifiable to be in the book.
Despite this I think that the first two sections of the biography were very interesting and started the book extremely well but the book went downhill in the next section called "Into the realm of France" and continued to go downhill with the section "A very great whore" which seemed extremely over written and boring because of that. In the next few sections the book gradually improved and the sections named "Hiding Royal Blood" and "The sister of your former concubine" stood out in the book in my opinion. Sadly the book again failed to impress me with the next section but ended well with the 11th and 12th sections.
The appendix after section 12 I found to be extremely boring because many parts seemed to be especially irrelevant which that I skipped a lot of that appendix moving on to the second one which was shorter and better than the first but still I think it was slightly pointless because 7 pages about portraits about Mary Boleyn and William Carey just seemed very over written. So both of those two sections were extremely poor in my opinion meaning that overall the book ended on a very poor note as the rest after that are just the Bibliography/references etc. Despite this I enjoyed the fact that Genealogical tables of the families in this book had been added at the end.
Overall I think that this book would have been better if it was a lot shorter only containing the evidence and information that actually concerned Mary Boleyn and the important members of her family missing out the information in this book which is very irrelevant and sometimes pointless because then I believe the book would actually be more interesting to read and be able to for fill it's purpose a lot better. I agree with many other people that have read this book that there is just not enough evidence about Mary to warrant a full scale biography about her.
on 12 June 2012
I have been rather critical of Alison Weir in the past, mostly for accepting sources at face value and not challenging all facts however I was literally enthralled with this book and couldn't put it down.
Whilst it is essentially very readable, it is also in my opinion, along with the Lady in the Tower, the most academic work she has published.
Weir's trawling of all the facts with detective-like precision was excellent, especially given the scant information we have on Mary Boleyn and investigated all alternative lines of enquiry to arrive at her many lucid conclusions.
For instance, Weir introduced an interesting hypothesis to account for Mary's absence from documented contemporary sources between her removal from the Court of France and her marriage to William Carey, suggesting that she was sent to "rusticate" for past misdemeanours.
Another highly interesting and detailed section related to Weir's discussion of the possible paternity of Mary's two eldest children, and Weir also presented a lively debate concerning the date of births of Mary and Anne.
Indeed in respect of the latter, I found that Weir's discussion complemented earlier debates such as those presented by Ives to arrive at a very persuasive conclusion that Mary and Anne were indeed born between 1498 - 1501, with an additional piece of information dating to contemporary sources claiming that as the Boleyn family had uprooted to Hever by 1505, and as "Anne was decreed at Bickling", neither could have been born after 1504/5.
The only criticisms I can make of this book, which is the reason I did not award 5 stars, is that there are some slight contradictions and causes for confusion in some parts of this book.
For example, Weir states that it is probable that Catherine of Aragon did not know of Henry's affair with Mary Boleyn as she could have used it to undermine Henry's case for a divorce based on Henry contending grounds of incest. Yet, as the author asserts, both Chapuys and the Emperor were aware so it is possible that Catherine could have been made aware of this through them in some event although it would not explain why Catherine did not make political capital of it.
Furthermore, Weir also states that only the King's closest advisers were in "the know" in respect of his affair with Mary given the utmost discretion having been maintained, yet as she later testifies, many members of the court would soon be remarking on this and her reputation would deteriorate as a result.
Also, I am not certain whether Weir is correct in asserting that Thomas, the eldest surviving Boleyn brother, survived until 1520 as many other correspondents have noted.
However, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is clear that Weir is passionate about her subject matter and makes excellent use of the scant sources available to essentially decipher Mary's personality to uncover a tragic yet (as the future would prove), arguably the most fortunate Boleyn family member, surviving the political purges which claimed Anne, George and her father's career.
Mary essentially prevails as a triumphant heroine in the narrative and Weir follows this up with a brief discussion of the careers of her two eldest children, Katherine and Henry, both of whom Elizabeth would remember with warm reverence in later life.
All in all, I would conclude this work to be a warm, sympathetic and intrinsic depiction of Mary Boleyn, which made for a thoroughly enjoyable read.