Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’

Suzannah Lipscomb commends a biography of Anne Boleyn’s sister that makes the most of limited source material

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Reviewed by: Suzannah Lipscomb
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £20

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It was Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl that first put Mary Boleyn – previously a Tudor personage about whom precious little was known – into the spotlight. She did so with a dose of literary licence and so, Alison Weir’s new book offers the first serious full-length historical study of Anne Boleyn’s sister.

We have little information about Mary, though she was at the heart of the Tudor court. We do know that while married to William Carey she conducted a discreet affair with Henry VIII, and that years later, when her sister was queen, she married a lowly man 12 years her junior for love, writing about him, rather pointedly, “I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened”.

What we lack is inside knowledge about her relationship with her first husband, or “any source that makes us privy to Mary’s inner thoughts,” and we frustratingly lose her from the historical record for years at a time.

There’s but one scrap of evidence to suggest she had an affair with the King of France, no indication of when her affair with Henry VIII “started, its duration, or when it ended”, and “very little… recorded” of Mary during her six-year widowhood. Undaunted, Weir has scoured the sources to produce this intriguing biography.

Arguably the greatest question about Mary is whether she bore Henry VIII’s children. Weir argues decisively that Henry Carey was not Henry VIII’s son, pointing out that this is based on just one fragment of malicious gossip from John Hale, vicar of Isleworth. Weir provocatively, though, asserts the “strong possibility” that Katherine Carey was Henry’s daughter, although the evidence she provides confirms that it is quite simply that – a possibility.

Weir also suggests that Henry VIII had another unacknowledged bastard – Etheldreda Malte – on the grounds that John Malte, Henry VIII’s tailor from 1527 to 1545, was granted monastic lands for Etheldreda’s dowry.

As the evidence of Mary’s life is fragmentary, much of the book is devoted to Weir’s corrective of the erroneous judgements of other historians. Sometimes they are straw men, as when critiquing a theory which turns out to be taken from the 72-page 1973 All Colour Book of Henry VIII (“with 100 colour illustrations”).

Weir is particularly critical of “pure speculation”, though isn’t entirely free from its taint. Her assertion that Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount – who gave birth to the king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, in 1519 – were lovers from 1514 because they danced together then stretches both the historical record and credibility in a year when Henry spent whole nights “dancing with the damsels”.

There’s some hedging of bets too, which is perhaps understandable given the paucity of evidence from which Weir is working.

Despite dismissing the author of the “one piece of evidence” that Mary had an affair with Francis I as unreliable, Weir still assumes an affair took place. (I imagine it was
her publisher’s choice to include the salacious quote – that “the French king knew her” for a “great and infamous whore” – in the title, but it does Weir a disservice, given that her final conclusion is that this is a myth that needs laying to rest.)

Despite some curious inferences, Weir, as with her The Lady in the Tower, is pioneering a more historiographical form of popular history, without losing her ability to tell a good story. Her loyal readers will find much to pore over in an attempt to understand a fascinating, mysterious character of the Tudor court, whose secrets may have irretrievably followed her to her grave.

Suzannah Lipscomb, lecturer in early modern history, University of East Anglia
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