Alison Weir is an historian and a storyteller. She’s written compelling historical fiction (most recently, the heartbreaking Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey), and she weaves a strong narrative into her histories. But Weir’s aim is to present the truth—or as close to the truth as can be found about figures from the distant past—not merely to cobble together outrageous myth and salacious gossip to make a satisfying story at the mercy of fact.
In Mary Boleyn, The Mistress of Kings, Weir has a clear purpose: to re-examine the historical record in order to right the wrongs done to Mary Boleyn, who’s come to be known as “the other Boleyn girl” in the wake of Phillipa Gregory’s bestselling novel and its subsequent film adaptation. As Weir notes in her introduction:
Mary Boleyn has gone down in history as a “great and infamous whore.” She was the mistress of two kings, François I of France and Henry VIII of England, and sister to Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. She may secretly have borne Henry a child. It was because of his adultery with Mary that his marriage to Anne was declared invalid. It is not hard to see how this tangled web of covert relationships has given rise to rumors and myths that have been embroidered over the centuries, and particularly in recent years, so that the truth about Mary has become obscured. In all my years of writing women’s histories, I have never tackled a subject who has been so romanticized, mythologized, and misrepresented.
Mary may have been born into a politically ambitious family, but she apparently didn’t have the capacity to intrigue at their high levels. She was charming enough to attract two kings, but never benefited much from the liaisons—in stark comparison to her sister Anne, who played for the highest stakes of all. In turbulent times, among tempestuous people, Mary seems to have lived a mostly passive existence until she made the imprudent decision to marry someone she loved (her second husband, William Stafford). The irony is that in actively choosing a poorer path, she quite accidentally sidestepped the disaster that befell her sister (and brother George).
Weir not only outlines the story of Mary’s life, but also tries to determine how some of the myths about Mary could have arisen. She compares one source with another, weighing one writer’s bias, another’s reliability. It was fascinating to see how this skilled researcher arrived at her conclusions, given the patchiness of available materials and their varying merit.
There’s something so endlessly fascinating about the famous people of the Tudor era that we—readers and writers, historians and filmmakers—are always looking for new angles to explore. Earlier this year, I read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which examines the era from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. Here, Weir quotes a letter Mary sent to Cromwell (Henry VIII’s “master secretary”) asking for his help after her marriage—one of only two extant documents in Mary’s handwriting. This coincidence reminded me of how claustrophobic and incestuous the Tudor world is (to us). Perhaps that’s part of its appeal: it’s a small world, with relatively few players, at least as we view it, from the reverse telescope of history.
What I like most about Weir is her lack of stodginess, even as she dredges up ever more microscopic details about the Tudors. She’s toiled among them long enough to feel little awe or esteem. I loved this comment, which seems to encapsulate her approach: “When he was not divorcing or beheading his queens, Henry generally treated them with respect and courtesy, unless—like Anne Boleyn—they called him to account for his infidelity and other failing, in which case they got short shrift.”