Book Review: Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir

When I first turned the opening pages of Alison Weir’s 2009 biography of Mary Boleyn I have to confess to feeling a little nervous.  Mary, whatever her virtues, is essentially a footnote in history.  Promoting a footnote to a main character can be troublesome.

Like most Tudor fans, I’d been more than a little appalled by ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (only seen the film, sure the book is much better) and incredulous as to how it had warped many of my friend’s understanding of the era.  Would this biography risk doing the same?

But of course, with Alison Weir at the helm, it was a question I never should have asked.

From her early years in England to her time at the French court, Weir sheds light on the upbringing of a woman who – while perhaps never a major player – was witness to some of the most extraordinary events of her time.  As a mistress to the Kings of both France and England, Mary’s reputation has suffered much over the centuries, but the author’s ability to set the events in context and divorce fact from rumour, gives the elder Boleyn sister something of a reprieve, at least in the eyes of a modern reader.

There is of course, much about her life that we can never know and many periods where no one saw fit to chronicle her activities.  Even her date of birth remains a mystery, but with Weir’s rare ability to combine robust research with intelligent inference based on surrounding and circumstantial information, we come as close as we are ever likely to, to discovering the true character and personality of a woman condemned to history as a ‘great and infamous whore.’

While the book’s chapters are on the long side, the fascinating sense of storytelling makes it a page turner.  I am slow reader but had polished it off in just a few sessions.  Complete with a summary of the rise of the Boleyns and Henry VIII’s early extra-marital antics the book provides a different perspective of the 1520s and 30s which further illuminates our understanding of those who were at the heart of them.

I am a big fan of historical fiction and delight in the fact that my obscure interests occasionally become mainstream, but as far as I’m concerned, it should be made compulsory that anyone who has ever watched ‘The Other Bolyen Girl’ should quickly follow up the experience with a read of Weir’s biography.  It’s just as entertaining and helps unearth, rather than distort, one of the most fascinating episodes of England’s history.

Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’ by Alison Weir is published by Vintage and available on Amazon from £9.99

Wildcard: Did Margaret Beaufort protect the virginity of a teenage Katherine?

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A #WildCard post is an opportunity to have fun by testing theories that there is no actual historical evidence for, but nonetheless are enjoyable to think about.  They should be taken with more than a pinch of salt and even the authors themselves do not necessarily agree with them.

Previously I’ve written about the likelihood of Katherine of Aragon emerging from her first marriage ‘untouched by man’.  Weighing up the evidence available, I concluded that when she wed Henry VIII, she did so with virginity intact.

As I drafted the piece a thought struck me.  A thought backed up by absolutely no evidence, but one I think worthy of a #WildCard’.

When Prince Arthur died, there was a gap of six months before his brother Henry’s creation as Prince of Wales.  Ostensibly, this was in order to be sure that Katherine was not pregnant with Arthur’s child who would have taken precedence in the succession, even if born posthumously.   However, despite this formality, the powers that be seemed relatively content that the marriage had never been consummated.  Indeed, it is said that Henry VII only agreed to the second marriage on that premise.

This got me thinking.  Why was Henry VII so confident that his son had never fully performed his marital duties?  Teenage sex was not always encouraged in Tudor times but there was a general expectation the couple would at least consummate the union.  Katherine’s senior Spanish lady-in-waiting had testified to a lack of activity – but would that really have been enough for the ever paranoid and habitually suspicious Henry?

I think not.

Henry VII was paranoid by nature and his paranoia was not without a foundation in logic.  The Tudor dynasty hung by a thread – or at least, it felt like it did.  If the King married the widowed Katherine to his second son and the marriage was later questioned, it could place his future heirs in great jeopardy.  True, there may have been Papal dispensation for the marriage regardless of the circumstances, but as later events showed, if the political climate was right, this could be done away with.

Instead it seems more likely that Henry VII would not have agreed to the marriage unless he had a cast iron guarantee that the deed was not done.

Could it be that Prince Arthur, despite his lusty brags to his friends, had never intended to consummate his marriage in his early years?  Could it be that he was actually under instruction not to?

History is full of things we don’t know, but for a moment, let’s stand back and look at some of the things that we do.

Sex in this time was seen as potentially dangerous for young people.  We know that Henry was paranoid about losing his heir.  We also know that in domestic matters, the King listened and acted on the advice of his mother.

Lady Margaret Beaufort is famous in history for her status as a child bride.  Married at 12 to a man twice her age, she gave birth to her only child when she was only just a teenager.  A lack of later issue despite two further marriages suggests that this scared her physically; other evidence leads us to believe that it scared her emotionally.

When her granddaughter and namesake was pledged to be married to the Scottish King, her heart went out to her.  Not naïve to the importance of political manoeuvrings and dynastic alliances, Margaret would have supported the match, but she pleaded with her son not to dispatch her north of the boarder too early, reminding him that the Scots King ‘would not wait and harm her.’

Is it possible that she intervened again?  Had this woman of great compassion and maternal instinct taken pity on her future granddaughter-in-law even before she met her?

The circumstances were not the same.  The marriage of both Margarets had been to much older men.  Katherine and Arthur were similar in age, but nonetheless it deserves thinking about.

Margaret, I am confident, would not have broached the subject directly with Arthur.  I don’t know much about their relationship, but it would have hardly been a conversation that would dignify the King’s Mother.  Instead, it is more logical to suspect a conversation took place between the great matriarch, her son and Elizabeth of York.  Perhaps the King himself then broached the subject with his heir-apparent and it was this conversation, and subsequent ones, that gave the King confidence that the marriage was one of legal union alone.

Let me reiterate, there is no evidence for this – but that’s part of the fun of the #WildCard posts.

Was Edward IV a usurper?

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I stumbled across something interesting the other day.  For some reason, I was checking out the Wikipedia entry on ‘usurpers of the English throne’ (we’ve all done it) and discovered that it features a list of those who had seized the crown.  As you can imagine, it was an exciting moment!

But it was also a moment that triggered a surge of indignation in my usually placid personality.  For while Henry IV, the first Lancastrian King had made his way onto the list, Edward IV of the House of York was strangely absent.

Before this spirals into a whole Lancaster vs York partisan thing, let me be clear: I fully accept that Henry IV deserves his place on the list.  Even though his bid to seize the throne was initially fairly popular and despite propagandist claims that his cousin Richard II ‘agreed’ to the new arrangement, there can be no doubt that Henry of Bolingbroke was a usurper.  Richard II was clearly forced off the throne and even if he had died or surrendered it willingly, there was arguably another with a better claim.

But excluding Edward IV, who seized the throne from the Lancastrians in 1461, really got my goat.

Although the authors of the page do not present a reason for their spurious (yes, I said it – spurious) decision, it’s not hard to guess where they’re coming from.  While Henry Bolingbroke – as the eldest son of Edward III’s third son – was the heir male of his grandfather (or at least, he was after Richard II had actually died), the house of York descended in the female line from Lionel of Antwerp (Edward’s second son), making Edward IV the heir general of his namesake.  Most historians now believe this gave York a superior claim to the throne.  No doubt the Wikipedia entry does therefore not list the first York King as a usurper because they view it as a restoration of the true blood line.

But this doesn’t stack up.

To start with, back in 1399, when Henry IV was crowned, there was genuine confusion as to whether someone could base their claim to the throne through descent in the female line.  Obviously this had become fairly meaningless by the end of the War of the Roses when even the best Lancastrian claimant (Henry Tudor) was basing his right to the crown on his mother’s lineage.  But for as long as the male-line Lancastrian wing existed, they had a right which could well have been viewed as superior.

The real reason actually goes much deeper.  Regardless of the ‘who had the better claim’ debate, the truth was that by 1461, the house of Lancaster was an established dynasty.  The crown had passed seamlessly from the first Lancastrian King to his son who reigned so successfully that his infant boy inherited without challenge.  Not only had Henry VI inherited the crown smoothly enough, he had held it for the first 40 years of his reign without anyone questioning it.  When Edward IV managed to get his hands on power, Parliament had only recently re-asserted Henry’s right to it, albeit at the cost of disinheriting his son.

To take the throne, Edward IV had to seize it by force.  Both law and the establishment were initially against him.  In my book, this is the very definition of usurption and, to be frank, it should be in anybody’s.  Perhaps the Wikipedia community could take a little look at this post and snap into edit mode.

(Editor’s note: What really makes my blood boil is that Richard III is also excluded from the list of usurpers.  I’m too angry about this to even put pen to paper.)

Well geeks over to you…am I misjudging what it means to usurp?  Are you a crazed Yorkist who believes that house can do no wrong?  Do you have a crush on Max Hastings and are letting that cloud your view?  I want to know what YOU think!

A few thoughts on Victoria 2&3

Last week I did very well.  After the first episode of ITV’s Victoria, I managed to have a post out within half an hour.

Well, I haven’t quite managed to mimic that success and not only is this post late, it will have to cover my reflections on episodes 2 and 3.

So three episodes in, what are our thoughts?  Well, from a strictly historical point of view, things are getting a little far-fetched.  As I’ve said before, Victoria may have been infatuated with PM Lord Melbourne, but certainly on a conscious level, it was not a sexual thing.  Last night we actually saw the young sovereign propose to the aging man!  As Twitter rushed to point out, this was beyond ridiculous.

That being said there are some really lovely historical touches.  Their portrayal of Prince George of Cambridge (no, not that one – Victoria’s first cousin) was rather welcome and they correctly captured his reluctance to marry the plain Queen.  I also thought they managed the bed chamber crisis pretty effectively last week.

At the end of the day, this is a drama clearly billed as fiction not fact.  It does bother me that many viewers will be unable to separate the truth from the invention – but that’s not actually the fault of the programme maker!  Those of us who dream of a better educated public will just have to carry on blogging, tweeting and doing what we can to tell the amazing stories of our royal forbears, which I still believe are quite interesting in and of themselves without any further fabrication.

Next week the show sees a step change with the introduction of Albert.  I for one will still be watching.