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?