Mary Boleyn

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Mary Boleyn: 'The Great and Infamous Whore' by Alison Weir, book reviewWhat do you know about Mary Boleyn, sister of the better-known Anne? The chances are that whatever you think you know is incorrect or unsubstantiated. Recent fiction such as Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, along with various historical studies, have convinced us that it is certain that Mary gave birth to two children by Henry VIII, and that she was promiscuous and branded a whore – but these “facts” are far from proven.

Alison Weir’s latest work Mary Boleyn: ‘A Great and Infamous Whore’ is the first full length biography of the lesser known Boleyn sister. With little historical evidence to go on, Mary has been misunderstood and misrepresented for centuries, and Weir aims to attempt to set the record straight.

Mary was likely the older of the two sisters, and is known to have had a dalliance (perhaps not a fully fledged affair) with Francois I of France, and later an affair with Henry VIII prior to his interest in Anne. She had two children, Henry and Katherine Carey, often alleged to be Henry VIII’s illegimate children, although Weir’s conclusion is that only Katherine is likely to have been the king’s child (Henry Carey being the son of Mary’s first husband). Mary’s second marriage caused her to be estranged from her family, as she chose to marry a common soldier for love, unheard of in those days. It was a highly unsuitable match for the Queen’s sister.

“Weir’s writing, as ever, is accessible and enjoyable, without ever being patronising.”

Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn makes for really fascinating reading. Not only do we learn considerably more about this woman who has been so misrepresented over time, but we share in Weir’s research and examination of the scant evidence of Mary’s life. Weir discusses her sources in full, and examines the various conclusions drawn from each piece of evidence – and then draws it all together to present the most likely scenario for what was happening in Mary’s life at a particular time. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the book, for it read almost like a mystery: Weir was seeking the truth, and sharing her investigations with her readers.

Mary Boleyn: ‘A Great and Infamous Whore’ had a different feel to it than any of Weir’s books which I have read previously, in the sense of it being an investigation. I think this is due to the nature of her subject, there being little remaining evidence of Mary’s life. There are not even any known portraits of her.

In fact, the subject of Mary’s appearance is one which irritated me while I was reading the book. Weir comments on occasion that we don’t know what Mary looked like, or even the colour of her hair – there are various different descriptions of this. After a few references to this, it occurred to me that I thought I knew what Mary Boleyn looked like, there being a nice full colour portrait printed on the cover of this very book. An examination of the dustjacket however revealed that this attractive woman on the cover of my book was in fact Queen Claude of France. Why on earth would the publisher print a portrait of an entirely different person on the cover of a biography? There are portraits which exist which could perhaps be of Mary Boleyn (although Weir believes they are not) – surely that would have been a more sensible cover choice.

The cover aside, Mary Boleyn: ‘A Great and Infamous Whore’ is a very enjoyable read, and I have finished it feeling like I have a little more insight into this mysterious woman. Weir’s writing, as ever, is accessible and enjoyable, without ever being patronising. I hope that this book is a popular one, as it could do a lot to undo the damage done by misleading histories or embellished fictional accounts of Mary’s life.

Mary Boleyn: ‘A Great and Infamous Whore’ by Alison Weir
Published by Jonathan Cape, August 2011
Many thanks to Jonathan Cape for providing a review copy of Mary Boleyn: ‘A Great and Infamous Whore’.


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Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore
by Alison Weir

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Written by eilidhcatriona
eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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