Transcript for Alison Weir on Mary Boleyn: Was She a Failure?

Jim Fleming: Humans have been getting up close and personal with failure for centuries. Take the cases of Anne and Mary Boleyn. If you're wondering who, well , think back to Tudor England. Henry the 8th shocks the western world by divorcing his old queen and crowning Anne Boleyn in her place. Five years later, he cuts off her head. Most people remember that much, but Anne Boleyn had a sister named Mary, and Henry slept with her too before he moved on to Anne.

Mary Boleyn: Anne?

Anne Boleyn:I meant to come and see you. I'm sorry I did not. I've been kept occupied.

M Boleyn: So I hear, amusing the King

Anne Boleyn: Only that sister, I assure you. despite his best efforts

M Boleyn: What? Not yours?

A Boleyn: How is it?

M Boleyn: Child is strong. gives me no rest. like his father.

A Boleyn: Do you feel as awful as you look? you know in France no woman would allow herself to get to such a state

M Boleyn: Why did you come Anne? for your desire is to torment me?

A Boleyn: Perhaps now you know how it feels to be deceived by your sister

M Boleyn: I did nothing

A Boleyn: You stole the King away, and then you betrayed me over Henry Percy

M Boleyn: Is that what you think? fine tell yourself that

A Boleyn: I did sister, everyday and every night i was in exile

Fleming: A clip from the film adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl. History hasn't been kind to Mary Boleyn. She's usually portrayed as the failed sister. The one who couldn't catch a King. Historian Alison Weir sets the record straight in the new biography "Mary Boleyn, The Mistress of Kings". She tells Anne Strainchamps that Mary had a bad reputation even before she met Henry, which was probably undeserved.

Alison Weir: It's not the sensational sex scandal we think it was, because she was quite young when she was briefly the mistress of Francis the First, and we only know of that affair through something that people   had announced and reported over twenty years later, and he's the one who called her, the great and infamous whore, and he said that the French King had said that she was a great and infamous whore, and both of them were certainly exaggerating. They had good reason to them, Henry the eight was not in their good books at the time. And the  Boleyns were nothing to them, so it's natural they would embroidered what they would remember of Mary.

Anne Strainchamps: Well who was Mary Boleyn and what was it about her that made her so irresistible to two different Kings?

Weir: Well she was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, The elder sister of Anne Boleyn and their brother George, and her father's chaplain said she was by the far the more beautiful of the two sisters. But it seems that Mary did not become Henry the eight mistress, willingly. The word use was violate, and in those days, that could only mean rape or ravishment. It seems she was forced into that position

Strainchamps: How old was she  then?

Weir: She would have been probably in her early to mid twenties at that time and she was married. she'd be married about two years.

Strainchamps: So the, the fact that she was married wasn't an impediment to the King raping her?

Weir: No, I wouldn't say use the word rape. I would say being put in a position where she couldn't say no. He was the King. You didn't say no to the King unless you were her younger sister Anne, who had more temerity and daring than most people

Strainchamps: Yes, well we know how that turned out

Weir: Yes we do. Mary was a lot luckier than Anne, believe me.

Strainchamps: Well so in terms of broad strokes, here's Mary Boleyn, who's sent off to the French court, has an affair with the King there, comes back to the English court and catches the eye of Henry the Eight. What are the other, sort of, general shape of her life?

Weir:  Well, she was Henry's mistress probably for less than two years, she probably bore him a child, a daugther. Her second child was probably the child of her husband, A couple of years after Henry dumped her, so to speak, he began pursuing her sister Anne ,passionately. And a couple years later, in 1528, Mary lost her husband and was left in penury. And from then on, she lives a very quiet life, at her father's charge, at Hever castle, her family home. She becomes a lady in waiting to her sister, Anne, but she kept very much in the background because her relationship with Henry created an impediment to Henry's marriage to Anne, and therefore Mary was a walking reminder of the illegitimacy of that marriage.

Strainchamps: Why would her relationship with Henry have been an impediment to Henry marrying her sister?

Weir: Because sleeping with two women made the second relationship incestuous.

Strainchamps: oh? whether you're married or not?

Weir: It was the fact of the relationship. It created what the church called an affinity. There was a barrier to the second marriage. Now the Pope could issue a dispensation and indeed did issue a general one, not specifically, for Henry to marry Anne. But later on, those dispensation were repudiated by The Church of England. So it was a very very debatable point as to whether Henry was legally  married to Anne and in fact, that was the ground so which the marriage was annulled when she fell in 1536.

Strainchamps: How much do we know about the personality as to the people we're talking about and how they would've talked with each other, what they would've done?

Weir: We don't have any quotes from Mary, we only have a couple of letters. One's very detailed, and one gives a lot of insights into her character. But you can only infer from people's action, what they did and what they wrote. Well that we got a lot, so we know quite a lot about her.

With Henry we got an enormous amount, but Mary eludes us. It's hard to know what she was like as a person. It seems that she was jealous of her sister, and that when she made a very unfortunate marriage. her second marriage was banished from court, and wrote this letter to the King's Chief Minister, supposedly trying to get back into favor with  her sister and the King, she was actually sticking the knife in with her sister, because she wrote " I had rather beg my bread with my husband than be the greatest queen, prisoned"

Strainchamps: ooh

Weir: ooh, ouch, yes. She did not get anywhere. She never saw Anne again, and they would almost certainly not reconciled.

Strainchamps: well you can imagine why she would've been jealous of Anne

Weir: Many many reason. Anne went before her into the world of courts, Mary should have gone first as the eldest sister, Anne shown she married the King who'd abandoned Mary, and there's Mary shoved into the background.

Strainchamps: Do we know much about how Mary reacted to Anne's imprisonment?

Weir: not at all. not a word and that's tragic and this is where you sort of tearing your hair out because there just isn't a source material. In fact, everything about Mary is controversial and you just can't tell her life as a story or narrative, it's constant debate. That's always a problem for a biographer.

Strainchamps: That's interesting. What do you mean constant debate? what are the big questions that remained?

Weir: Oh the big questions are: even where she was born, what age she was, whether she was older than Anne, what she looked like, But the big question, apart from her affairs,her royal affairs,is, were her children fathered by Henry the eighth? and debates rages because that's very controversial. I came to the book thinking that Henry would've acknowledged those children, as he did his only known bastard son: Henry Fitzroy, and he ennobled him. Now, Mary's two children were born within her marriage to William Carey, and there was a legal presumption that they were his children. but it is almost certain that the boy who came second was William Carey's son. but the girl, Catherine Carey, who was born first, there is some very convincing evidence that she was Henry's daughter. and that was quite an exciting thing I came right the way around the opposite point of view. I also found out that Henry had another illegitimate daughter whom he didn't acknowledge, so you couldn't just say, that if the King had illegitimate children, he would've acknowledged them.

Strainchamps:So what happened to Mary in the end? You said that she was banished from court from making an unsuitable marriage? How unsuitable? Who did she marry?

Weir: She married Mr. William Stafford, plain Mr. William Stafford. He wasn't even a knight, and of course that counted a lot in much of Tudor land, the classes. He did not have any fortune, he was no match for Queen's sister. But what was worse, she just appeared at court, pregnant. That looks scandalous in itself. And then she confessed that she made this impulsive marriage for love. And that was regarded as a keen to insanity.

Strainchamps: You didn't marry for love, you married for political advancement or money?

Weir: You did for money, yes that's right , so to migrate the families, that kind of thing, No but it was considered scandalous. And once they've been banished the court, they went to live abroad in Calais, and then they came back to England, he got a posted court. Her father and her grandmother died and they left her half the billion wealth. But she had to fight for it. She had to contest the crown, and that took three years and she didn't get a grant of it until four days before her death, which is pretty tragic.

Strainchamps: yeah. Do you think she was happy?Do you think her life looks like a trajectory of brood then a dramatic fall, and her sister looks like she's gonna take off and do much better. but then of course her sister had much worse fall, does in losses her life. Did Mary wind up happy?

Weir:I think she did. because if you read that letter to Cromwell, which is the only clue we have about her marriage, if you read that, it's quite clear, how much they loved each other apart from he was twelve years younger than her. and he remained a widow. He mourned her for nine years. So I think this was a happy marriage

Flemming: Alison Weir is a historical biographer and novelist. Her latest book is called "Mary Boleyn, Mistress of Kings", and Strainchamps spoke with her.


Comments for this interview

Mary Boleyn (Charlotte Miller, 09/30/2012 - 2:41pm)
:) (LinaAimeti, 12/25/2011 - 7:13pm)


Not "Rape" !! (Helena Smith, 10/23/2011 - 10:00pm)

Did I hear right? This author thinks that "being put in a position of being unable to say no is not rape" Really, what planet is this woman from? I'm shocked that the TTBOOK interviewer didn't call her on this outrageous statement.