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12 March 2008

Quite Contrary To the Movie: The Real Mary Boleyn


My literary agent and I made a girls’ afternoon out of watching “The Other Boleyn Girl” on opening day. After all the research I did for ROYAL AFFAIRS, my nonfiction debut this June, I found myself wincing in pain. We were watching what I couldn't help referring to as "Betty and Veronica in Tudorland." But this post isn’t intended to debate the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of the film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel, which is in itself alternative history—the other Boleyn history, if you will.


Mary Boleyn (1499-1543)

Here's the scoop on the real Mary Boleyn (1499-1543), her affair with Henry VIII, and her relationship with her relatives.

The French monarch François I called her his “hackney,” explaining that he loved to ride her. An Italian visitor to François’s court thought her “una grandissima ribald et infame sopre tutte” (a great prostitute and more infamous than all of them). She is probably best remembered as the older sister of Anne Boleyn. What seems clear is that this daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard knew how to have fun in bed.



Francois I (1494-1547)

Mary Boleyn possessed the blond, blue-eyed, curvy beauty that was the era’s belle idéale. In 1514, she was a member of the French court in the household of the queen, Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor. But after Mary’s husband, King Louis XII, died on New Year’s Day in 1515, Mary Boleyn remained at the French court, where she became a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Claude, the wife of Louis’s son François.


Evidently, Mary Boleyn also became the paramour of the new king, François I. But after François tired of Mary, she consoled herself in the arms of enough of his courtiers to create a scandal. In 1519, at the age of twenty, Mary was ignominiously dismissed from Queen Claude’s service and packed back to England, much to the embarrassment and disgrace of her family.

But the Boleyns were a powerful family, so Mary quickly secured a place as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine, the unofficial but de facto usual incubator for a royal mistress. Sure enough, soon after Bessie Blount delivered Henry’s son in 1519, the regal eye began to rove, alighting before long on the new flavor in his wife’s retinue.


Henry VIII (1491-1547)

His affair with Mary Boleyn was reputedly short but intense. And in a situation similar to Bessie Blount’s, Henry saw to it that Mary made a financially brilliant marriage. So, on February 4, 1520, at the Chapel Royal in Greenwich, Mary Boleyn wed William Carey, one of Henry’s favorite Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. His Majesty himself attended the wedding, bestowing an offering of six shillings, eightpence in the chapel. However, some believe that Mary was still Henry’s mistress at the time she was wed to William Carey.

In any case, Henry was so immensely grateful for the gift of Mary’s favors, he enriched her father as well as her new husband. Sir Thomas Boleyn was made Viscount Rochford, and William Carey’s coffers were vastly enlarged.


In 1525, Mary gave birth to a son, who she named Henry. The king never claimed paternity, and Mary never pressed the point, so the boy was likely her husband’s. But Mary’s motherhood had the effect of dampening Henry’s lust, just as it had more or less killed his ardor for Bessie Blount soon after she gave birth.

Yet there was another reason Mary was supplanted: Henry had fallen madly in lust with her younger sister, Anne.


Anne Boleyn (1500 (?)-1536)

Mary wasn’t too upset about it. She devoted herself to her husband and their two children. But in 1528, after the thirty-two-year-old William Carey died during the outbreak of the sweating sickness, Mary found herself buried under a mound of debts. Petitions to her family were fruitless. Requests to Henry fell on deaf ears as well. Only Anne, who at the time of William’s death was the king’s inamorata, managed to procure something for her sister—an annual pension of £100 (nearly $72,000 today), and an elaborately wrought golden cup.

In 1534, Mary secretly married William Stafford, a commoner without rank of any kind. She bore him two children. For wedding a man so far beneath her station, the Boleyns disowned her for good, but Mary emphatically averred, “For well I might a’ had a greater man of birth, but I assure you I could never a’ had one that loved me so well. I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen in Christendom,” a rather pointed swipe at her sister, as well as a triumphant declaration of True Love. But the jibe struck too close to Anne’s bones, and Anne, now queen, declared that Mary and her husband would never again be received at court.

Her ostracism was probably a blessing; Mary was well rid of the vipers’ nest of the Tudor court. She rusticated with her small family at Rochford in Essex while Anne and their brother George tasted the full measure of Henry’s rough justice. Mary did not visit her siblings as they waited in the Tower for the executioner’s blade to end their lives. Perhaps she was cannier than she’d been credited; she deliberately remained as far from the madness as possible, the better to avoid getting swept into the bloody dustbin of her family’s history.

Mary died at home on July 19, 1543. Her son, Henry Carey, was eventually made a Knight of the Garter by Elizabeth I. Mary’s daughter Catherine became a maid of honor to both Anne of Cleves and Kathryn Howard. One of Catherine Carey’s daughters, Lettice Knollys, was Queen Elizabeth’s bosom companion, lady-in-waiting—and later, her rival and enemy, after she married Robert Dudley, the great love of Elizabeth’s life.

Mary Boleyn’s twentieth-century descendants include Winston Churchill; Mary Bowes-Lyon (the mother of Elizabeth II); Diana, Princess of Wales; and Sarah Ferguson.

In my view, the historical facts are quite often far more interesting (and juicy than fictional versions churned out in Romanceland or Hollywoodland. What other historical personages can you think of whose real lives would have made better stories than the fictive versions?

17 Comments:

Anonymous Pam Rosenthal said...

The facts as you present them are fascinating, Amanda. And I love the idea of a woman who'd had the great and powerful, and found her own love later on.

Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's stepsister and mother of Byron's daughter Allegra, always seems to me as getting a raw deal from commentators. She did have happy love affair in her busy, independent middle age, and I like to think it made up for a lot of suffering.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Amanda! Mary's life is so interesting. So Lettice Knollys' son, Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, was Queen Elizabeth's cousin a couple of times removed. I think I had known that they were related but had forgotten.

I agree with Pam that Claire Clairmont's life would make a fascinating film. I've only seen her in films as a sort of "other woman" or "flighty sister." I'd also love to see a movie about Lady Caroline Lamb that stuck closer to the facts of her life than the Sarah Miles movie (though there are things about that movie that I like), particularly showing more of her family and William's family (many of whom would make fascinating film subjects in their own right).

12:30 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! That was a wonderful summary, Amanda. I just saw the movie Monday night and spent the whole of it twitching (although that was partly because there was a mouse running up and down the aisle of the movie theatre). Your "Betty and Veronica in Tudorland" is by far the more accurate description of the film I've heard so far.

I'd love to see a novel about Lettice Knollys' daughter, Penelope, and her thwarted love affair with Sir Philip Sidney. That whole clan is so ripe for historical fiction....

1:00 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, have you read Sally Varlow's book about Penelope Deveraux? It's out in hardcover from Amazon.co.uk and I'm itching to order it once its out in paperback.

Claire Clairmont's later years were actually the inspiration for Henry Jame's the Aspern Papers. I'd love to see a movie made on that part of her life. I hated the movie that they made out of Alma Werfel's life.

Also after watching three episodes of The Tudors, I felt compelled to write 2posts on Mary and Margaret Tudor over at Scandalous Women because I was so pissed off at the producers.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great comments, ladies! I've long thought that Lettice Knollys deserved her own story in print or on film, ditto for Lady Caroline Lamb; and, speaking of Bryon, have wondered about Augusta Leigh deserving her real story to be told, too.

Tracy, Robert Devereaux was actually Lettice's stepson, (he was the eldest son of Lettice's first husband the 1st Earl of Essex) so he wasn't related by blood to Elizabeth.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'd always read that Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex was Lettice Knolly's son. He was born after her marriage to Walter Deveraux in 1566, and after the birth of Penelope. Victoria Holt wrote an excellent novel, My Enemy, the Queen about Lettice Knollys.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oops -- sorry -- misremembered my own research. This is what I get for juggling too many plates today! :)

Robert Devereaux, second Earl of Essex, was Elizabeth’s first cousin twice removed, the son of Elizabeth’s cousin and former lady-in-waiting, the detested Lettice Knollys, by her first husband, Walter Devereaux.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, I've always wondered what the real Mary was all about. Thanks for post, Amanda.

Even though the movie has gotten terrible reviews, and Ms. Gregory wrote and entertaining book--but slammed romance writers in the introduction she provided to "Katherine" by Anya Seton---I will still go see the film.

The whole saga fascinates me!

When I was a little girl, I owned the entire collection of the wives of Henry the VIII.

Anybody else have some? Oh I wish I knew what became of mine. ;-)

6:55 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, were there Madame Alexander dolls of the six wives? Is that what you're referring to? I had a high-end coloring book of sorts of the six wives, or maybe it was paper dolls, but it was fabulous for a period costume geek like me because for each wife there was at least one example, from the individual portraits, I suppose, of a gown that they had worn, and I remember trying to decide which silhouette (and headdress) would have flattered me most! :)

7:16 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What a terrific post, Amanda. My CP saw the movie this weekend and was not impressed. I have been fascinated with Henry and his wives since I was about 12. I would love to see a movie about the women who SURVIVED being married to him - Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr. I think they both get short shrift in the Tudor saga. If I remember correctly Catherine Parr did achieve a modicum of happiness after Henry's death, but that she still died rather young. I believe it was said Holbein was a little sweet on Anne and therefore the portrait Henry received before he married her was not realistic. I would love to see a film about either of them. And I really don't believe there has been a great historically accurate film of Mary Queen of Scots life either.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

All such good ideas, doglady! Anne of Cleves seems to have been tarred "the ugly one" or "the smelly one" (though both were alas, accurate, she was far more than that and in fact, much beloved by everyone at court except Henry). She was a very intelligent woman and she actually fell in love with her husband (!) Strange, but true.

Poor Catherine Parr tends to get tagged as being Henry's nursemaid. She was only 33 when she married the 53 year old king. Anne Boleyn was around the same age as Catherine P. when she married Henry, but it's Catherine who tends to be thought of among all the wives as "middle-aged." For that era, yes, technically, but people seem to want to paint her as older and sexless, compared, particularly with the feisty Anne Boleyn.

Catherine Parr did finally find happiness for a while in her last marriage, which began as a love match. But her husband eventually got the hots for her stepdaughter, the Princess Elizabeth. But Catherine was a published (and bestselling) author, one of only 7 of them) of early-Tudor-era women to be published authors. Her first book, printed in November 1545, went through nineteen editions during the sixteenth century.

That makes her one of my heroes. And for putting up with Henry's temper, his gout, and his myriad other illnesses, she wins my sympathy as well.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Celia May Hart said...

Yes! Mary's story is far more interesting and exciting!

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Fabulous post. I cannot help but agree that Mary did the one smart thing by getting away from her ambitious family. I have always been beheaded by the wives of Henry VIII. In the end, I find myself feeling sorry for Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. They end up being portrayed as slutty and evil, yet they were being pushed forward by the ambitions of their family.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

haha interesting slip of words. it is supposed to read "I have always been most intrigued by the beheaded wives of Henry VIII"

8:36 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Good point, Sarah.

Kathryn Howard was in way above her head, but she did some extremely inappropriate and, well, stupid things, especially given her family's spousal history with Henry. As I mention in ROYAL AFFAIRS, within the entry on Kathryn Howard and Thomas Culpeper, "It was an open-book test—the painful lesson of Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace staring at her from the pages of recent history—and still, Kathryn managed to fail it."

Anne, most of us still believe, was utterly innocent of any adultery charges, however.

Both cousins were certainly the tools of their powerful [male] relatives, yet each young woman was indeed ambitious in her own way. They are not entirely blameless. It's not as if they turned up their noses or ran screaming from the room at the notion of becoming Henry's queen.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Unfortunately, I don't think my wives of Henry were Madame A's dolls...my parents took us to "The Tower" in London when I was a pre-teen, and I think my dolls were bought in the tourist gift store there...my recollection, I played kings and queens with them until they looked like paupers. :-)

Also, and any of the costume historians on the loop explain why the Tudor women wore their beautiful pearls inside the neckine of their dresses? The necklaces dangle into the bodice in almost every portrait I've seen of noblewomen from that era.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading "The Other Boleyn Girl", It's a completely different story from the beginning!

6:28 PM  

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