The Other Boleyn Girl – Phillippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn girl is a novel about Mary Boleyn and her family during the reign of Henry VIII.  She is a young girl of thirteen when she marries but shortly after that marriage she is spotted by the king and thus begins manipulation by her family to get her into the king’s bed.  Mary, the obedient girl she is, goes along with the plans of her family, and finds that she has fallen in love with the king.


In due course she has two children from the king, a daughter she names Catherine, and a son she calls Henry.  After the birth of the two children Henry’s interest begins to wane in earnest and the Boleyns and Howards, forever searching for the best way to improve their lot in life, notice he has taken a fancy to Anne, Mary’s sister.


We read of the manipulations that Anne, at the urging of her family, puts the king through.  We are taken through the long years in which Henry tries to have his first marriage with Katherine of Aragon annulled or set aside.  The grounds that are given for this first divorce or annulment are that she was first married to Henry’s brother Arthur and thus he had no right to marry her in the first place.  The dispensation that was given by the pope for the marriage is argued to be of no consequence as the pope does not have the right to rule on a matter only god can.  In the end Henry, not getting the answer he so desires, sets aside the papacy in Rome and has himself declared the supreme ruler of England.  No authority is higher than his.


Shortly after the Act of Supremacy was passed Henry wed Anne and she shortly gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  She soon became pregnant again and lost the child.  Three more times she was pregnant and not able to carry the child to term.  The third time a midwife was called in and a baby born with deformities. This, along with questions about Anne’s fidelity and her use of witchcraft sealed her fate and she was eventually executed.


Mary, on the other hand, after losing favor with the king returned to her husband and they were to start a life together but he shortly died of the sweating sickness.  Thereafter she was free for a long time, caring only for the two children she had with Henry, but not always allowed to see them.  After many years at court she meets and falls in love with William Stafford.  She marries him without the permission of her family and is banished from court by Anne.  Mary is quite happy to live on a farm and do the work required to run it.  It is there she returns safely with Catherine, Henry, her daughter Anne (fathered by William) and her husband.



My thoughts on this book . . .


It took me a very long time to start enjoying the story.  The first hundred pages or so were no trouble and the last two hundred were no trouble either, it was the middle 500 where nothing seemed to happen.  I know that at least some of the information in this story is true – such as the executions – however I do have to wonder if there was that much extramarital sex back in the 16th century.  Yes, we do have to take into account that this was the king’s court and thus exceptional things were likely to happen there, but still . . .


Unfortunately this story, being from Mary’s point of view, focused mainly on her experiences as a courtier and a mother.  One of the things that I am really enjoying about this time period is the political upheaval.  Watching the Showtime program The Tudors I see more of the political side and I find it lacking in this book, which is to be expected given the point of view character.


I cannot believe that the Boleyns would have been so ambitious that they would have sacrificed their two daughters to the whim of the king.  I suppose that it would be hard to imagine given the state of the British monarchy in the 21st century.  Today they are little more than figureheads, with no great power.  Back in the 16th C. however, the king was actually the leader of the country.  He had power of the sort we’d probably equate with the President of the United States today.  To have a daughter married to the king would mean, as was illustrated in this novel, a great deal of power and influence.


I will be the first to admit that I knew little about Henry the VIII before reading this novel so I cannot comment on the historical validity of some of the tale – such as Anne’s having three stillborn children.  According to wikipedia though, it is not known for certain whether Mary’s children Catherine and Henry were the king’s children.


This book has enlightened me to several things.  The first is that historical romantic fiction is an acquired taste.  Another is that Lord Acton’s saying “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has never seen such a shining example as in the case of Henry the VIII.  How could a man who had no other authority figure, such as the pope, to keep him in check not cater to his whims?  He could marry whom he chose, he could execute whom he chose . . . particularly after Sir Thomas More.  Therefore, it is probably a good thing that the most famous monarchy today does not have as much power as it once had.  I would think that if Queen Elizabeth II has as much power as Henry VIII there might not be any need to question royal involvement in Princess Diana’s death.


The Other Boleyn Girl – an enjoyable read, but not a life changer.


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