The Other Boleyn Girl: Victim or Tramp? Review of Alison Weir’s “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore”


Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings By Alison Weir

History has long maligned the other Boleyn girl—Mary—as the slightly slutty sister of Anne, infamous for attracting the amorous attentions of two Renaissance kings, but failing to hold the attention of either and failing to profit (jewels, castles, titles) from either liaison.

Was Mary Boleyn a tart, or a beautiful, well brought up young English girl who caught the eye of two powerful men who did not take “no” for an answer? Historian Alison Weir, in her latest book Mary Boleyn: The King’s Mistress  (UK: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore), concludes the latter is the more accurate historical representation.

Until Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel The Other Boleyn Girl propelled Mary into the forefront of the Tudor mania, she was an historical footnote—“Henry Rex Slept Here.” It is an accepted historical fact that Henry VIII had an affair with her, and that Francois I of France “had” her first.  Weir does not dispute these liaisons, but she examines the purported facts of Mary’s life and behavior and does her usual splendid job of separating fact from fiction, and dispelling historical myths—chief among them that Mary was, well, a bit of a goer.

Little is known of either Boleyn girl’s early life in Norfolk, primarily at Blickling Hall and later at Hever Castle in Kent.   Their education may have been better than most girls of the time, preparing them for a marriages that would elevate their family’s social standing.  Their father Thomas Boleyn, was rising rapidly at Court, and his status as Ambassador to France helped secure two coveted positions for his daughters in service to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister, on the eve of her marriage to Louis XII.  Mary was almost certainly the elder daughter, but Anne might have been the more academically “toward.”   This is consistent with history: Mary the beauty, Anne the brains.

Sometime in 1515, while serving Mary Tudor at the French Court, Mary was seduced by the “young, mighty and insatiable” King Francois I—who considered “whoring a daily sport on par with hunting.”  When, where or how she came to his attention is unknown–whatever Mary’s relations with Francois, they caused absolutely no comment at the time. There exist no contemporary diplomatic or court reports, or other records that discuss Mary, let alone behavior to give rise to the “great and infamous whore” comment that has dogged her reputation for 500 years.  This void of commentary is significant proof Weir says, of a quiet, insignificant interlude between Mary and Francois.   To have been a great whore in the licentious French court, Weir suggests Mary would have to have been remarkably dissolute, and as a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, who held stricter English morals of the day, would have earned her rebuke, or dismissal—neither of which happened.  Weir does a stellar job of dissecting multiple statements made about Mary Tudor’s behavior and dismisses them based on facts.  In sum, there is just one historical source for the comment that Francois I “knew” Mary as a “whore” (as opposed to a formal mistress), and this source comes to light 20 years later—about the time Cromwell was orchestrating Anne Boleyn fall (for more on this read my earlier blog post)

So—Mary had what may have been a fling with Francois I, but she eventually returned to England and in February 1520 married William Carey, one of Henry VIII’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber.  Here again, history (especially TV and film) has maligned Carey as a man of no account.  William was a cousin and favorite of Henry VIII’s and an up-and-comer at Court, a member of the Privy Chamber.  He was a prestigious match as a rising star in Henry’s court, and must have been all Mary’s father Thomas Boleyn could have wanted to bolster his ambitions for elevating the Boleyns.   This match, Weir argues, would not have been possible if Mary had a tarnished reputation.

Sometime after her marriage—no later than 1522—while living at Court with William, Mary had an affair with Henry.  There are no historical references to when it started, how long it continued and when it ended.  Again, there are no in contemporary references to an affair, which suggests the affair was discreet—if not, it is surely a weapon, Weir argues, Queen Katherine would have used against Henry when trying to divorce her using the Leviticus defense (i.e., that he’d known his brother’s wife, a forbidden degree of affinity).  The only reason we can claim historical certainty about it is because Henry, in his eagerness to marry Anne in 1528, received a dispensation from Pope Clement to marry within anyone within the forbidden degrees of affinity and in 1533—the year Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn married (1 June 1533)— an Act of Parliament made it permissible to marry the sister of a discarded mistress.

Weir believes the affair ended in late 1523 or 1524 when Mary became pregnant—but was her child Henry’s or her husband’s?  I will not give a spoiler here, but it is fascinating reading. Mary had a tough time after William Carey died, and her family almost disowned her—and then really did disown her when she married a common man, soldier William Stafford.   You have to take heart that she lived a longer, probably happier, life than her siblings.

As my earlier blog attests, I’m a huge fan of Alison Weir’s biographies for the 360-degree view she takes of a subject and the times they lived in.  I could not wait to delve into this latest work—and it did not disappoint.  But am not sure I whole-heartedly come around to see Mary as the victim of the lust of two kings.  Perhaps Francois, but Henry as well?   I think there may have been more than coercion at play with Henry VIII.  While I don’t think Mary was a tramp, I am not totally convinced she was a victim either.

What do you think?

5 comments on “The Other Boleyn Girl: Victim or Tramp? Review of Alison Weir’s “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore”

  1. […] earthy, sensual and desperately ambitious voice of her cousin, Lettice Knollys (granddaughter of Mary Boleyn).  Lettice is Elizabeth’s alter ego—she is the sum of choices Elizabeth did not make, i.e., to […]

  2. Lynne says:

    I have just found your site and just started this book. Fascinating and can’t wait to find out more! It’s so difficult isn’t it to see things through the eyes of our ancestors?

  3. Rachel says:

    Nice review.

  4. James Stuart, i.e., Earl of Moray James? or King James I? Moray is a villain in my novel 😉

  5. Linda Schmalz says:

    I received my copy but haven’t read it yet. I have about one or two more chapters to go on Elizabeth I and then it’s on to one on James Stuart, and then this one. 🙂

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