Book Review: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir

After watching the BBC series The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family I became quite fascinated with one of them in particular. Not the bewitching, ambitious Anne but her shy, reserved sister, Mary. We don't hear much about her, do we? 

So I set about finding a biography of Mary Boleyn, and found two. One by Josephine Wilkinson, called Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Favourite Mistress. And one, written two years later but saying in the introduction that it was 'the first full' biography of Mary, by Alison Weir, called Mary Boleyn: 'The Great and Infamous Whore.'

I downloaded the book on Audible and pressed play. 

Photo: Shared from Audible

Now, I loved The Lady in The Tower, Weir's book about the fall of Anne Boleyn, and so I was familiar with her thorough, questioning style. She weighs up arguments clearly, stating the fact she's talking about as well as the reasons it is or isn't likely true, before weighing it all up and telling you what she thinks. Her writing style is easy to follow and I like it. 

Here, Weir discusses the likely dates for Mary's birth, the probable places she spent her childhood and her years in France, where she was reported to have been a mistress of King Francis I. She looks at the differing opinions about Mary over the centuries, and what historians have written about her, which has often swung between her being a sultry vamp and a dim-witted, reluctant lover. 

She also investigates the potential estrangements between Mary and the rest of her family. I was left wondering whether Mary might have been a family scapegoat - one that is often blamed and singled out when something goes wrong, by the others. The one that maybe isn't cut from the same cloth as the rest of the family and attracts a more negative attitude from them. It seems clear that Mary was much less ambitious than Anne, George or Thomas and mistakes she made early in her life might have set the scene for this judgement. 

Scapegoat speculation aside, I found it sad that Mary did seem to be in and out of her family's affections throughout her lifetime until her final banishment from court by her sister Anne, when she was queen. The BBC documentary hinted that Mary may have been welcomed back into the fold by her father after Anne and George's execution in 1536 but Weir argues that they were likely never reunited.  

When talking about Mary, the sources are a bit lacking. This becomes obvious when you realise that Weir discusses Thomas Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and Mary Tudor - anyone actually, even Elizabeth I - to give background to what Mary Boleyn was probably doing or thinking of at any one time. There's a lot of speculation about whether or not she was present at certain events and a little bit about when her relationship with Henry started, as his mistress. I get why this has been done, though. When sources are scarce, you have to rely on context to help fill out the story, and Weir does this well. Just be prepared for this when you read, as it's one of the criticisms I've seen in reviews about this book. In my view though, it's better to have a book that presents all the possible scenarios than not to have any analysis of Mary Boleyn at all. Weir is clear when something is speculation or when the evidence just isn't there. 

I've also seen murmurings about the cover portrait. It is confusing: it's a portrait once supposed to have been of Queen Claude of France. This attribution has been removed I've noticed, but I haven't seen anything personally that links it to Mary Boleyn. 

What I especially enjoyed was the discussion on the paternity of Mary's children. I thought the analysis of the parentage of her son Henry was really interesting and I'm left in little doubt now after Weir's argument, that he was not Henry VIII's son as is often declared. Her analysis of Catherine Carey is also spot on, and she puts forward good reason that she may actually be the one who was an illegitimate child of the king. 

There's also a section in the appendix about portraits that are considered to be of Mary and how likely they are actually be her that they depict. And then we learn of Mary's family after her death, her legacy and what she achieved for herself. 

I know that evidence surrounding Mary's life isn't plentiful, and Alison Weir has done a great job of piecing together what we do know, with contextual evidence and helping to fill out the details of Mary Boleyn's life. I feel as if maybe I got a glimpse of the real Mary Boleyn, and it has led to me wanting to find out more. I'll read the Wilkinson biography too, and report back. 

Have you read or listened to this book? What did you think? 

You might also like: A Tour of Elizabethan House, Plymouth, Sir Francis Walsingham's Lost Reading Town House, and A New Look at Henry VIII's Queens

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