In the introduction to Mary Boleyn, biographer Alison Weir talks about the many misconceptions we have about Anne Boleyn’s less famous sister, which were not only derived from such popular fictions as The Tudors (wildly inaccurate, but I still loved it!) and The Other Boleyn Girl (ditto), but also from biographers and historians over the centuries. Weir calls her book both a biography and a historiography, because she tackles many published statements about Mary’s life and attempts to show the extent of their truth or even likelihood.
Because most of Mary’s life was spent in the background of her glittering, ambitious family, not many actual records or letters that mention her exist, and only a couple of her own letters survive. Even the exact date of her birth is unknown, so that there has been been debate about whether Mary is the older or younger of the two sisters. (Weir makes a good case for older.)
Weir examines Mary’s life from as early as it is known and explores such subjects as whether she had an affair with the King of France (yes, probably a short one), whether she came from that with a ruined reputation, as has been alleged (no, but her family may have sent her away from court), whether she had an affair with Henry VIII (yes, but possibly reluctantly), whether she was then labeled a “famous whore” as has also been alleged (no, hardly anyone knew about it), whether she was married off to an unworthy but complaisant husband as a result (no, she married before the affair to William Carey, a wealthy and influential courtier who was one of Henry VIII’s trusted friends), and so on.
The picture Weir paints is of a woman who has repeatedly been smeared over the centuries. She certainly did not seem to be ambitious, like the rest of her family, because she got very little from her royal lovers. She was almost certainly also not well regarded by her family, probably because she had taken these lovers without gaining an advantage. After her first husband died, she eventually remarried for love, William Stafford, a relatively poor man much lower in status who was 12 years her junior. After she was cut off from her family and court as a result, she described the time of her widowhood as “bondage” and stated in a letter to Thomas Cromwell that no one in the world cared for her except Stafford.
Mary seems to have been slighted by her family for much of her adult life and was finally exiled from them because of her second marriage. This separation may be the only reason she survived her sister and brother.
Weir makes a strong case for Mary’s first child, Katherine Carey, being the unacknowledged daughter of Henry VIII. An appendix relates what happened to Mary’s descendants. Weir remarks that Henry VIII’s line is believed to have died out with Elizabeth I, but assuming she is correct about Katherine’s birth, she provides a fascinating list of some of the famous British people who can trace their lineage back to Mary’s daugher—and so to Henry—including Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Lord Nelson, Vita Sackville-West, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Princess Diana, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Queen Elizabeth II herself.