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'Mary Boleyn' ( )

'Great And Infamous' Mary: The Other 'Boleyn' Girl

Oct 12, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Cover of 'Mary Boleyn' Scarlett Johansson plays Mary Boleyn in the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl.

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Anne Boleyn's story is well-known; the queen of England, and second wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded after being charged with treason, incest and adultery.

But her sister, Mary, has largely been a footnote in history, until recently. A fictionalized Mary Boleyn was the central character in The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel that Hollywood adapted into a major motion picture in 2008.

Now Mary's getting her first full nonfiction treatment: In Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, Alison Weir offers a biography of the woman who became known as "the great and infamous whore."

Weir says a lot of historians — including herself — have gotten Boleyn's story wrong, starting with that "great and infamous" sobriquet.

"That's a red herring," Weir tells NPR's Neal Conan. "That was something that was said of her more than 20 years later, and it comes from the most unreliable source."

Weir says that if Boleyn really had a reputation, there would have been other reports of it. "But there's nothing, nothing at all," she says.

And that's true of much of Boleyn's story.

"There are huge gaps in her life that we cannot hope to fill," Weir says, "and many aspects of her life are very controversial."

In her book, Weir sets out to examine the evidence and draw some of her own conclusions.


Interview Highlights

On the story that Boleyn had a son, Henry Carey, by Henry VIII

"Henry [VIII] was ... never married to Mary Boleyn. But secondly, I have uncovered almost compelling evidence that Henry Carey was the son of Mary Boleyn by [her first husband William Carey] because the grants made to his father were granted in tail male, meaning that those lands could only be inherited by the lawfully begotten son of his body.

"[So] I'm almost certain [the story] is [incorrect]. But I do believe that Mary's daughter, the first child she bore during her marriage to William Carey, was probably fathered by Henry."

On Mary's life once she married her second husband, William Stafford, and was banished from court

"She was a soldier's wife, basically, for the first ... five years. And [William Stafford] still rose through the ranks, and he ... attended on Anne of Cleves when she came to Calais en route to England. They came back to England in her train. And that time, Mary's father and grandmother died, leaving her with half the Boleyn wealth. But it took her three years to actually secure possession of it. She had to fight the crown for it. And the grant came too late for her. She died four days later."

On who was more successful, Anne or Mary

"I do think that Anne was the stronger, but even her strength in the end couldn't save her, once the plot to ruin her was launched. Mary certainly had a certain strength, probably — certain determination in marrying for love. She'd seen an example of that earlier in her life when Henry VIII's own sister had married for love and defied him.

"And she probably saw that, you know, a woman could do that and weather the storm. But ... her husband wasn't even a knight. He was plain mister, and it was foolish in the extreme. It doesn't show a lot of ... good sense. But actually ... she died happily married and probably much more successful."

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