Review: Mary Boleyn – The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress by Josephine Wilkinson

Mary Boleyn, ‘the infamous other Boleyn girl’, began her court career as the mistress of the King of France. Francois I of France would later call her ‘the Great Prostitute’ and the slur stuck. The bêtenoir of her family, Mary was married off to a minor courtier, but it was not long until she caught the eye of Henry VIII and a new affair began. Although a bright star at Henry’s court, she was soon eclipsed by her highly spirited and more accomplished sister Anne, who rapidly took her place in the King’s heart. However the ups and downs of the Boleyn sisters were far from over. Mary would emerge the sole survivor of a family torn apart by lust and ambition, and it is in Mary and her progeny that the Boleyn legacy rests.

I brought this book on a whim, sort of interested in learning a little bit more about the sister of Anne Boleyn, and after it arrived I was excited to start reading it. I knew little bits about Mary through my readings on Anne Boleyn, but I wanted to try and expand my knowledge of this woman of whom very little is known. Unfortunately I was incredibly disappointed in this book, so much so that I honestly dare not go too much into detail during this review as all I will end up doing is tearing this book to pieces.

For starters, this book is incredibly short and it took me a matter of hours to read. A plus point is that Wilkinson’s writing style flows very easily and is quite frankly a pleasure to read. Or at least it would be if her work was not so full of maybe’s and probably’s. Now I can understand the reason for so much guess work, as there is so little information out there on Mary and there are moments that we as historians have to guess about. However, as historians we cannot base work purely on speculation as it makes for poor reading. I lost count of the amount of times that Wilkinson based her arguments on pure speculation – for instance later in the book when Mary is waiting to go to France with her sister and King Henry, Wilkinson spends a whole paragraph writing about what Mary would have felt. This is something that we cannot know and thus cannot have a place is a supposed serious piece of historical research. Such speculation is for historical novels and fiction only.

The problem with there being so little information out there on Mary is that the majority of this book is made up of what the other Boleyn’s were up to. This does provide an important backdrop to what Mary may or may not have been doing however I feel as if too much time was spent on Henry’s relationship with Anne and whether or not Mary would have been jealous of the fact. Who knows, Mary may well have been jealous of the fact that Anne had replaced her in Henry’s affections, but yet again this is pure conjecture.

What I did find interesting (although yet again this was based on conjecture) was how Wilkinson told us of Henry’s other mistresses – again little is known of these women as Henry was very discreet with his affairs – and the children he had with them. We know that Henry had a child by Bessie Blount by the name of Henry Fitzroy, and that Henry was the only one of his bastards that the King ever acknowledged. More conjecture comes into play with Mary’s two children, both of whom were born during and just after Mary’s relationship with Henry. This is a very interesting point and something which has been argued about by historians now for a long time – both children were named Carey and acknowledged by Mary’s first husband however we cannot ignore the fact that both children were born during Mary’s affair with Henry. It is likely that Henry VIII was their father but why then did he not acknowledge them as he had done with Henry Fitzroy? Could it be that by the time they were born Henry had his eye on Anne and did not want to cause scandal by acknowledging children by her sister? Who knows?

Whilst Mary Boleyn is certainly a fascinating woman, I feel that this book has done a very poor job of showing exactly how fascinating. It reads more like a high school essay and would be more suited as an introductory text to Mary Boleyn for a younger reader, as there is just not enough information given in this book. Whilst there are some interesting parts, I feel there is far too much conjecture given in this book and it compares hugely to Fox’s “Jane Boleyn”, another book that relies far too much on conjecture. This could have been so much more, but proved to be a huge disappointment and is certainly a book that I would not recommend. Instead I look forward to Alison Weir’s work on Mary Boleyn, and hope that Weir proves that a historical character can be written about without resorting to conjecture.

2 thoughts on “Review: Mary Boleyn – The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress by Josephine Wilkinson

  1. Honestly? I thought it was the worst book I have ever read. I dislike Phillipa Gregory's books completely, and because of TOBG many believe the awful things said about Anne. I found the writing to be awful, and the story full of complete plotholes. One of the worst pieces of historical fiction I have ever read and a book I wish I hadn't wasted my time on.

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