Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir is the biography of a woman whose life has been modified, Typically, when told at all, the false is presented side-by-side or even confused with fact.

Was Mary Boleyn the mistress of both Francis I, King of France, and Henry VIII, King of England?  Of this, there is little doubt, which Weir painstakingly reveals supported by quoting extensively from primary sources.  She does not filter out the contradictory stories, instead choosing to contextualize them in their time, often giving well-reasoned and clear evidence for why one writer may have been prejudiced against Mary Boleyn or even with her entire family.

Let's face it--the Boleyn family had many enemies and those who opposed the elevation of this family were vocal.  And truth could easily be skewed to suggest that if Mary had slept with two men, why not more?  Her reputation having preceded her, it takes little effort or imagination to add a few names to the list, especially when witnesses to the facts are long dead.  Let us not forget, after all, her sister, Anne Boleyn, had allegedly slept with her own brother, George, a fact that even their father would not deny, in court, which must obviously prove the veracity of it all.

Of course, nobody believes these lies any longer but there are so many other falsehoods that surround the Boleyn clan even Weir confesses that, in a previous book, she herself was mistaken.  When an historian's later research refutes earlier claims, the choice is to bury the new evidence or hold the truth to the forefront, even when it undercuts your previous research and published statements.  I think it is great that she was candid enough to say that her earlier research did not reveal the whole truth and that she is just as guilty of getting some of the details about Mary's life wrong.

Her numerous quotes from primary sources are well cited, but where her writing shines is in her ability to make history read almost like a novel.  If she is redundant, and she is, one can only assume it is because she doesn't think her readers will want to read more than a chapter or two a day.  But this book is so hard to put down that I found myself reading three and four chapters at a time.  When one factors in that I have read many books about the Tudors, about the Boleyn era in particular, this becomes all the more remarkable.  I know how this story ends and yet I simply did not want to stop reading.  I appreciated, especially, the appendix in which Weir briefly follows the stories of some of Mary's descendants, how they flourished under the reign of Elizabeth I and even going so far as to list some more contemporary branches of a family tree few realize still flourishes.

Most intriguing of all, for me, was seeing how Weir worked her way through centuries of writing, comparing and contrasting different versions of Mary Boleyn's story and arguing for one possible truth.  Weir never gives in to easy speculation and, where there can be no definitive answer, she offers no speculation nor bias in favor of one side of the argument or the other. Was Mary Boleyn's son really Henry VII's son?  Was her daughter really his daughter?  Or were both children bastards of the king or natural children of her husband?  Where history is vague, Weir is vague, all the while, taking the trouble to present possible evidence that could lean in one direction over another.  Nonetheless, she never declares anything that isn't verified, let alone verifiable, as truth.  She is comfortable letting some remnants of history to remain a mystery rather than argue for factual what will later prove a falsity.

And isn't that a nice change of pace where the Boleyn family is concerned, a person who is willing to present a balanced viewpoint and not surrender to salacious speculation?


  1. I think I shall pick this up. Love that time period and the stories surrounding Henry VIII are always very interesting. Which reminds me I need to pick the final season of the Tudors...

  2. Weir is a great choice if you're interested in the Tudors. I love that in this book she corrects a mistake she made in a previously published book.

    As for The Tudors . . . my guilty pleasure . . . so sexy and so self-indulgent . . . but so pretty that I didn't begrudge the Hollywood liberties taken with the historical truth.

    I already suspect it will be an annual indulgence for me, watching the entire series once a year as background to my cross-stitching or some such.


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