Skip to Main Content (Press Enter) Toggle side nav

Mary Boleyn Reader’s Guide

By Alison Weir

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir


Mary Boleyn  on Film
Mary  Boleyn  has been portrayed several times in films and T.V. dra- mas. She first made an appearance in the film Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), in which  Valerie  Gearon plays her  as the dark-haired, “pliant eldest  daughter” of  Sir Thomas Boleyn, wearing French cos- tume  at court  and regarding her spirited sister Anne jealously. That is all fairly accurate, but the King’s interest in her is dated to 1523; Anne Boleyn  (Geneviève Bujold),  resisting Henry  (Richard Burton)  later on, complains: “We have had the King in the bosom of this family for three years.” When next we see Mary,  she has been banished to Hever Castle  and is pregnant  with Henry’s child. We hear how  she gave herself to the King for her father’s advantage, but  asked for nothing for herself. Sir Thomas tells her  she must  make no trouble  about being abandoned, to avoid putting her family  at risk.

William Carey is shown  as a complacent husband,  and barely fea- tures at all in the film.  Mary is seen warning  her sister:  “Learn from me, Nan. Lock up your heart. The moment you’re conquered, he’ll walk away.” She has clearly lost her own heart; when the King visits,
she sits  weeping alone in her chamber. It is inevitable that filmmakers make  dramatic  capital from  the scenario of  one sister  snaring the King who has abandoned the other,  not  taking  account of the prob- able two-year  gap between these affairs. Later,  Henry VIII is seen as- serting that his affair with  Mary has rendered his marriage to Anne incestuous,  as he did in real life.

This is a credible  portrayal. Although the film  was criticized on its release for  inaccuracies, its makers did strive for authenticity; watch- ing it now, one is struck by its integrity and the efforts made to achieve a degree of  accuracy, which  is markedly  absent from  some historical films today.
Mary Boleyn did not again appear on celluloid until Clare Cam- eron  made a cameo appearance playing   her  in Granada TV’s Henry VIII (2003), with Ray Winstone  playing Henry  VIII. In this depiction, Anne (Helena  Bonham  Carter)  declares that Mary  “made the  mis- take of loving our king,” and realizes how precious security in a rela- tionship is. When the King descends on Hever  to court  Anne,  Mary is big  with his child—which   he  doubts  is his—and   she  faints  at the sight of him. This is just  one of many gratuitous and far-fetched scenes in the series, which is set against interior backdrops that are better suited to Robin Hood than Tudor England,  and is so littered with  errors  as to render any historical integrity redundant.

The pregnant Mary  is about to be married  to “a  provincial book- keeper,” a  match organized by Cardinal Wolsey.  Anne tells Henry that he thinks  he can do to her what he did to her sister.  He replies he can do what  he wants;  he is the King.  Later,  bending the historical chronology,  he says he will give Mary   lands  and a title  and make  a good marriage;  and he creates her father Earl of Essex—his title was in fact Earl of Wiltshire!
That same year, the BBC  made  a TV movie of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other  Boleyn  Girl, which was also later made into  a feature film. This is easily the more convincing version, if one can ignore the jarring  video-diaries approach, angled camera shots,  and discordant music. The TV  movie  dates Henry  VIII’s ( Jared  Harris) interest in Mary  (the beautiful  Natascha McElhone) to 1524, and in this version,
Katherine of  Aragon (Why  is she always shown  as black-haired in films?) is aware of  the affair,  which  is unlikely in the historical  con- text. Mary is maneuvered by her  family  into  becoming the King’s mistress,  but she loves her husband, William Carey, and only  reluc- tantly succumbs, thinking  the affair a sin (In none of  these films is there any mention of Mary having previously been the French King’s mistress). We  are not  shown  how  Henry courts  her,  or how  she comes to be summoned to his bed. But  as their  intimacy  deepens, she comes to favor him, and a rift opens between her and Carey.

William  Stafford, who will become Mary’s second husband,  ap- pears early  on  in the  guise  of  a servant  of  the Boleyns,   when  he would  have been about twelve  years old. In real life, he was  a mem- ber of  the Calais garrison  in the 1530s,  but there is no mention of that in the film.

Mary is shown  as becoming pregnant in 1525, two years too late historically.  Her father  is worried   that the  King will not  behave himself  while  she is unavailable to  him, so  he pushes  Anne,  her younger sister ( Jodhi  May), in Henry’s  path,  with instructions to constantly remind him  about Mary.  Inevitably, Henry falls for Anne. In both film versions, Mary is shown   being confined  as a  queen, taking   to  a darkened  chamber  in readiness  for the birth—with   a male  physician in attendance, which  would  not have been permitted. Given that Henry VIII was exceptionally discreet in his illicit amours, and that these ordinances were laid down only for the Queen, this is just pure silliness. Henry never  openly  paraded Mary Boleyn as his mistress, nor would he have referred openly to the child in her belly.

Mary gives  birth to  a son, but Henry  ignores them both. The Duke of Norfolk tells her that the King no longer desires her because he wants her sister. Mary is shocked. But  Stafford is there to support her.

Mary is forced to  wait  on  Anne,  whom  she now  hates, and is pained to witness  her flirting with Henry. Her husband tells her to forget the King,  and forces her to have sex. They have another child, a daughter. Again, the chronology  in the film is skewed. It is more likely that the daughter (born first) was the King’s child and the son, Carey’s. Carey dies after Anne  becomes queen in 1533;  he actually
died in 1528. Stafford persuades Mary  to wed him.  “There is great comfort in being  a nobody,” he tells her, yet she is too conscious of her position. But when Queen Anne tries  to marry her off  to the fictional Lord Farnley, she marries Stafford in secret.
By now,  Anne  has born  only   a daughter  and has lost the King’s love; their marriage is stormy. When Mary confesses that she is mar- ried, Anne is furious and banishes her for disgracing the family. Mary accuses Anne  of  taking  everything she ever cared for from her, but says she will not destroy Anne’s chance of finding love again.

And there, any interaction  between the sisters should historically have been at an end, because the  likelihood is that Mary  moved to Calais and was there at the time  of  Anne’s fall. Yet here she is seen suggesting that Anne lie secretly with  another man in order to con- ceive a son.  It is she who asks their brother George,  “Could you  lie with her?” Later, she comforts Anne for the loss of the son George has incestuously  fathered. After  Anne has been arrested for treason, she attends her in the Tower, where the magnificent Queens’ Lodg- ings look suspiciously like the bare cell in Berkeley Castle where Ed- ward II is said to have been murdered!  (Never  is Anne shown in any film  imprisoned anywhere but a bare cell.)  This is all pure fiction, but at least Mary’s life has an authentic happy ending.

There is no sense of  politics  in the film, no prominent Cardinal Wolsey, and the divorce is skimmed over. We are told that the Queen is to be tried,  when both the King  and Queen were summoned  to a court  convened to  inquire into  the validity  of  their  marriage; and there is a very dubious subplot involving Henry  Percy. The costumes are simplified versions of Tudor dress,  and work fairly well.

The film version of The Other  Boleyn  Girl (2008), starring Scarlett Johansson  as  a  rather  vacuous Mary,  is dressed  in costumes  that are often  anachronistic  or just plain inventions,  and  topped  with French  hoods  that  are far too small  (Note to filmmakers:  aniline dyes were not invented until the nineteenth century, veils  did not match gowns,  and off-the-shoulder  dresses are plain wrong  for the period!). Again, the chronology—or continuity—is  shaky; in 1520, the Princess Mary, then age four, appears as a much  older  child.  Jane Seymour is portrayed as a threat to the Boleyns  in 1524; she did not attract Henry VIII’s attention until  1535. Anne is sent to France after her affair with Percy ends; in fact, she was there for  seven years be- fore it began. She is shown  riding  unattended through  the country- side  and on  a beach, but no gentlewoman would  have done that in Tudor times. It is Anne who  dreams up the break with Rome, al- though we hear nothing of her reformist leanings.

Eric Bana is wooden as Henry,  whom he barely resembles. He is seen raping Anne,  a gratuitous scene that follows a similar example in the Ray Winstone series. Then they marry in a church  packed with witnesses,  instead of the handful that were really present in the turret room at Whitehall  Palace where  the ceremony  took  place. Norfolk and the Boleyns  seem obsessed with  the women  in the family;  once more, there is no sense of  anything political going on. The story is told  on a superficial  level, and follows a similar  plot to the TV movie. In both cases, there is no depiction of any courtly love play. The film gives us no accurate understanding of what it was to be Henry VIII’s mistress, and the distinction  between a prince  and a royal  bastard  is blurred. In fact, there are so many errors that one can hardly describe it as historical.

Mary,   having  pleaded with Henry  unsuccessfully for her sister’s life, is seen visiting  Anne in her cell in the Tower and watching  her execution;  and the real Anne did not weep on the scaffold. The most far-fetched  scene is where  Mary  rides  back to court  afterward and snatches Anne’s daughter Elizabeth,  carrying her  off  to  be reared with her own children in the country. As if Henry would have permitted that!

Last,  we come to  the TV  series The Tudors (2007–2010). Mary Boleyn  (Perdita Weeks) appears  in six of  the thirty-eight  episodes. From the moment  you see the eighteenth-century coach in the open- ing shots of the series, you know that historical integrity is going to be an issue. Hopeless chronology, wildly  anachronistic costumes, and unforgivable factual errors   spoil  a series   that  is often  a well   acted, gripping drama with  a strong   cast. But The Tudors inhabits   a world of its own;  only  occasionally  do you  get a sense of  Tudor England.  Many of the female characters look  like  modern fashion models with
breast implants  and teased hair;  there  is little  understanding of titles and forms of  address, and some effort  could have been made to make Jonathan Rhys-Meyers look more like Henry VIII, whom  he in no way resembles. The Duke of Buckingham says that Thomas Boleyn comes from  an old family,  and castigates the “new men,” but  Boleyn was actually one of those new men.

We see the King  of France pointing out Mary to Henry VIII at the Field  of  Cloth of  Gold in 1520, calling her his English mare  as he rides  her so often. Mary,  we hear, has then been at the French court two years—another inaccuracy. Henry’s interest is piqued, and the Duke of Suffolk brings her to him one night. She is meek and submis- sive until Henry  asks her what French graces she has learned; then she kneels  and gives him oral sex.

She is still his mistress when he is back at Whitehall Palace (which should  be called York  Place), but he is growing tired of  her, and or- ders her from  his  bed. By 1521, their affair is over. Later,  we see Mary waiting on her sister, Anne, and visiting Calais with  the royal party in 1532. There, she reveals she is still in mourning for her  “poor hus- band,” who  was impotent  (and had died in 1528),  and can’t wait to ride  a French stallion.

When  Anne becomes queen, she and Mary  are depicted as being very  close and affectionate, which  may not have been the case in real life. It is Mary (who is not even recorded as being present) who  car- ries the Princess  Elizabeth  in procession to her christening.  Then Anne says they must find Mary a new  husband.  A little later, Mary, heavily pregnant—(Had  Anne  not  already noticed?) and wearing  a very unlikely costume, confesses to Anne that she has married Staf- ford secretly. At least here he is a serving soldier in Calais.  “He is such a nothing!”   Thomas Boleyn  tells  Mary.  She and Stafford  can rot in hell, he says. Mary protests that she was fortunate to find a husband after being known  as “the great prostitute,” but it does her no good. The Boleyns  no longer want to know  her, and she is banished from court. We do not see her again, which  is as it should  be.

If Mary Boleyn is misrepresented in popular culture, it is because of films like The Tudors  and The Other Boleyn Girl. Film is a powerful medium, yet while historians  do extensive research and make efforts to get their  facts right, filmmakers have the advantage in getting their message across,  and as we have seen, they  often  take a cavalier atti- tude toward historical  facts. The fact that these films are so popular is testimony  to the interest that people have in history,  but, as a histo- rian, it concerns me that the demarcation between historical fact and fiction has become blurred these days and, worse  still, some people think it doesn’t  matter—but  it does.  History has  happened—you can’t change it or play fast-and-loose with  it. And why would one ever want  to  change it?  As Lord Byron famously   said,  “truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.”

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Do you agree with the author’s conclusion that Mary Boleyn was not the infamous whore she was later said to be? Why is it that Mary Boleyn has been so misrepresented over the years?

2. Were you surprised by anything you read in this  book? If so, what, and why?

3. Do you think  that the author has used the sources judiciously?  Has she been fair to other historians?

4. A central theme in the book is how, from  childhood, Mary was overshadowed by her  younger sister, Anne Boleyn.  How much do you think the evidence supports this theory?

5. What  was especially shocking about Mary’s second marriage? Was Anne Boleyn’s harshness toward her sister justified?

6. The author suggests that Mary  Boleyn  lived abroad twice  in her life, during periods for which there is no record of her. Do you find these theories plausible?

7. Did the  author  present a convincing depiction of Mary’s family and their relations with her?

8. How far were you persuaded by the author’s arguments in regard to the paternity of  Mary’s Carey children?  Why do you think  that people are so fascinated by this  subject?

9. The author  has been able to infer  only  so much about Mary’s char- acter from  the limited  sources that have survived. How  possible is it to  “know” a historical personage? Do you now feel that you know what Mary Boleyn was like as a person,  or is she always going to be elusive? After reading this book, what image do you  have of  Mary? What  was especially likeable—or  unlikable—about  her?

10. Were you surprised or disappointed to learn that the portrait  at Hever   Castle  called “Mary Boleyn” is unlikely a  portrayal  of  her? How convincing did you find the author’s arguments? Is there any substance to the theory  that Horenbout’s two miniatures  may depict Mary?

11. How  does this historical  account of Mary  Boleyn  compare to fic- tional portrayals of Mary Boleyn? Do you feel that readers of histori- cal novels  expect a certain level of accuracy, or that they take what they read with a grain of  salt  because it is fiction?

12. How much was Mary Boleyn the victim of a society dominated by powerful  men?

Back to Top