The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) is a historical novel written by British author Philippa Gregory, loosely based on the life of 16th-century aristocrat Mary Boleyn (the sister of Anne Boleyn) of whom little is known. Inspired by Mary's life story, Gregory depicts the annulment of one of the most significant royal marriages in English history (that of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon) and conveys the urgency of the need for a male heir to the throne. Much of the history is highly distorted in her account.[1]

The Other Boleyn Girl
AuthorPhilippa Gregory
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesTudor Series
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
ISBN0-7394-2711-3 (hardcover edition)
Preceded byThe Constant Princess 
Followed byThe Boleyn Inheritance 

Reviews were mixed; some say the book was a brilliantly claustrophobic look at palace life in Tudor England, while others are troubled by the lack of historical accuracy. It has enjoyed phenomenal success and popularity since its publication.

The novel was followed by a sequel called The Queen's Fool, set during the reign of Henry's daughter, Queen Mary. The Queen's Fool was followed by The Virgin's Lover, set during the early days of Queen Elizabeth I's reign.


Set in England, 1521. The marriage of King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon has become strained as she has failed to provide a male heir and her increasing age is of concern. Mary Boleyn, 13 years old and a daughter of the esteemed Howard and Boleyn families, is chosen by her father and Uncle Howard, Duke of Norfolk, to take advantage of the king's wandering eye, despite her new marriage to William Carey. Her sister Anne, recently returned from the French court, and brother George help Mary and soon Henry takes a liking to Mary. Mary becomes the King's mistress, much to the displeasure of Queen Catherine, who had considered Mary one of her dear ladies-in-waiting, and before long, Mary is pregnant with the King's child.

With the hope that the child will be Henry's much needed male heir, the Howard and Boleyn families are rewarded with lands and titles, elevating their status amongst the other noble families of the court. Anne, meanwhile, has caught the attention of Henry Percy, the heir presumptive to the Duchy of Northumberland. They marry in secret and consummate the marriage, but their union is cut short by Cardinal Wolsey and Henry leaves to marry the woman he was meant to be betrothed to. Anne is sent away to the family castle, Hever, in punishment for the potential scandal. Mary gives birth to a daughter, Catherine. Henry, while disappointed, is determined to keep trying for a son with Mary and she is soon pregnant again. George has married Jane Parker, another of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, but the marriage is an unhappy one. During Mary's pregnancy, Anne is brought back to court to make sure Henry is not distracted from Mary. Instead she takes the opportunity to charm him and draw his attention towards her. Mary gives birth to a son, Henry, but finds it is not enough as the child will always be considered of illegitimate birth and bearing the surname of her husband, Carey.

By 1526, Mary's attentions are always toward her infant children and she starts to lose favour with the King, who now has his sights set on Anne. The family support Anne in her quest, believing that she has more chance of becoming queen, and Mary is relegated as 'the other Boleyn girl'. With the queen falling from power, Anne puts pressure on the King, but refuses to give into the king's desires, stating that she would not give herself fully to him without being married. Henry is faced with the dilemma of setting aside his wife in favour of Anne, however finds himself unable to do so with religious opposition. With Anne entertaining the King during the days, Mary is still tasked with sleeping with the king, to prevent his attentions going elsewhere. She visits her children every summer at Hever, and soon rekindles her marriage with her husband, William. She reflects that she is much more suited to a quiet life in the country, than the drama of the court.

Eventually Queen Catherine is brought to trial to be questioned on the validity of their marriage; Henry believes she did consummate her previous marriage with his brother before he passed, and did not come to this marriage a maid. Soon, Anne is betrothed to Henry and Queen Catherine has been banished. Anne adopts Mary's son, much to Mary's anger, to make sure she has a male heir for the King. The sweating sickness comes to London and affects almost everyone, killing Mary's husband. As everyone recovers, Anne's fervour in becoming the queen reaches new heights as she strips Cardinal Wolsey of his lands and titles and competes with Queen Catherine for the king's attention. George is dogged by rumours of his relationship with male courtiers at the palace and is the subject of Jane's suspicions.

By 1530, Mary is courted by William Stafford, a commoner, though she becomes increasingly attracted to him because of his love for her children and the possibility of a simple country life he can offer her. Everywhere Anne travels, she is greeted with jeers and cries that she has destroyed the happiness of the Queen. On a trip to France with Henry, she is prohibited from meeting the King and Queen, who will not tolerate her presence as Henry's mistress. Over time, Mary falls more in love with William, Anne is granted a title and she eventually sleeps with Henry. With a new Archbishop installed and Henry proclaiming himself Head of the Church of England, Anne and Henry marry. Anne soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to a girl, named Elizabeth.

Mary and William, now married, are ordered to stay at Court with Anne until she has a son, as her place is not secure until she has provided a male heir. Anne has several miscarriages and stillbirths, and is starting to lose the king's favour.

By 1536, the king suffers a serious injury to the leg while jousting and his time recovering causes him to reconsider many matters. He is worried that public sentiment is starting to turn as he had set aside his previous wife in the hopes that Anne could provide him with a son. Anne becomes increasingly paranoid that she has lost her family's support, the country's support and that the king has started to turn his attentions towards young Jane Seymour, one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. With the Queen Catherine now dead, Anne rejoices in her new pregnancy, although she soon miscarries and it is revealed the baby was born severely malformed. The king is informed and suspicion starts to grow that Anne is a witch and cursed, for giving birth to such a deformed baby. Henry has lost all interest in her and has moved on to Jane Seymour and she is showered in gifts, much as Anne was once.

William and Mary, together with her eldest daughter Catherine, wish to leave London as soon as possible to avoid the oncoming turmoil. However George is arrested for adultery and incest, as it is believed he and Anne slept together to give Anne her much-needed son and soonafter, Anne is brought to the Privy Council to face charges of adultery and later sent to the Tower. Henry Percy, Anne's old lover, and her Uncle Howard both sit on the Council to pronounce her guilty. George is beheaded alongside his courtier lover. Anne is sent to the scaffold the next morning, on the promise that she would be exiled to a nunnery. However as it becomes increasingly clear that King Henry will not be attending, Mary realises that he intended for Anne to be executed for her crimes and she is beheaded. Mary, William and the children leave for the country the very same day, the Boleyn family now ruined.


Mary Boleyn/Carey/Stafford: The main character of the story, told from her point of view. Mary is portrayed as an innocent, sexually naïve, young girl who, forced by her family, engages in an affair with Henry VIII under the influence of her sister Anne and her brother George. The novel begins when Mary is thirteen, and ends just days after Anne's execution.

Anne Boleyn: Anne is Mary's elder, more ambitious, sister (although research suggests that she was the younger of the two girls). Anne makes her first appearance at the beginning of the story when she is fifteen. At first, she is instructed to guide Mary in seducing Henry, but later steals Henry's affections when she aims to overthrow Catherine as queen. Anne is portrayed as coldhearted and selfish, but will occasionally show affection to Mary and her family.

George Boleyn: George is the eldest Boleyn child, and eventually Viscount Rochford. He is shown as caring and supportive to Mary, particularly when she is forced to stop her affair with Stafford. It is implied that he is sexually attracted to Anne, and is conducting an affair with Francis Weston. At the end of the book, George is executed, along with the others accused of committing adultery with Anne.

Henry VIII: King of England, Henry first beds Mary, but is diverted by Anne, who refuses him sexual favours, unless he makes her Queen. Though well-meaning, Henry is shown to be easily persuaded by Anne, and quick-tempered.

William Carey: Mary's first husband, he dies half-way through the story from an outbreak of the sweating sickness.

William Stafford: Mary's second husband who pursues Mary, and on the voyage to France, the two begin an affair. Later in the novel they are married in secret, and have one daughter together, Anne (named in honour of the Queen). William genuinely loved Mary, and her two elder children, and was willing to help her retrieve her son Henry from Anne's wardship. At the end of the novel, she and William leave for the country with the three children.

Catherine of Aragon: Queen Consort of England, she has been married to Henry VIII for two decades but they have only one daughter together. A strict Catholic, she puts religious pressure on the King to not divorce her.

Historical accuracy

Mary Boleyn was the sister of the more famous Anne Boleyn. As such, she is usually mentioned in the numerous biographies that have been written about Anne, but never in any substantial detail. Mary, unlike Anne, has been claimed to be the mistress of two kings – Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. She was born sometime between 1499 and 1508. A popular but unverifiable legend suggests that Mary was considered the prettier of the two sisters while Anne was witty, intelligent and charismatic. Mary was married twice, first to William Carey, and second to William Stafford. She died in her early forties in 1543.

Areas of disputed historical accuracy include the following:

  • Birth order and early lives of the siblings. Many histories, including Eric Ives's biography of Anne Boleyn, present evidence that Mary was the elder sister, and the eldest of the Boleyn children, whereas The Other Boleyn Girl presents Mary as the youngest of her siblings. George is portrayed as being born in 1503, Anne in 1507, and Mary in 1508. However, most historians agree Mary was born around 1500, Anne about 1501 and George about 1507, so that Anne was the younger of the two sisters.[2][3] Mary's grandson knew she was the eldest, according to the claim he made to his great-grandfather's titles, which he based on Mary having been the eldest, and which was certainly believed by his cousin, Elizabeth I, who offered him the titles in 1596. However, the biographies by Eric Ives and Joanna Denny were not written until 2004, three years after the novel came out.
  • Sexuality of George Boleyn. The book depicts George Boleyn as being homosexual, in love with Francis Weston, but sexually attracted to his sister Anne and willing to commit incest with her. American academic Retha Warnicke postulated George Boleyn and his associates might have been homosexual, but no contemporary evidence supports the theory. However, George Cavendish in "Metrical Visions" wrote that he was a notorious seducer of women. Also, no contemporary records[4] mention Anne Boleyn giving birth to a deformed foetus, which Gregory depicts and the characters interpret as possible evidence of incest.
  • Paternity of Mary Boleyn's children. It has long been rumoured that Henry VIII fathered one or both of Mary Boleyn's children, originating from a report made in 1531 by an anti-Boleyn prior and Catherine of Aragon adherent, who had never seen the boy. There is some debate, with Sally Varloe, G. W. Bernard (author of The King's Reformation), and Joanna Denny (author of Anne Boleyn: a new life of England's tragic Queen and Katherine Howard: a Tudor conspiracy) arguing that he may have been Henry Tudor's son. Some writers, such as Alison Weir, consider it unlikely that Henry Carey (Mary's son) was fathered by the King.[5]
  • Role of Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn. The Other Boleyn Girl depicts Mary's parents as devoid of affection for their daughters, and eager to use both as sexual pawns for political gain. Sources such as Anne Boleyn by Marie-Louise Bruce (1972)[6] suggest that Mary's parents did not encourage her sexual escapades and were horrified when she was sent home from France in disgrace.
  • Anne Boleyn's wardship of Henry Carey. Anne Boleyn took on Mary's son as her ward after his father's death during an outbreak of sweating sickness and supplied him with an education at a respectable Cistercian monastery. This was a common practice in the Tudor nobility and one very similar to the situation faced by dozens of young aristocratic children, including Anne and Mary's cousin, Katherine Howard, who was raised by her grandmother when her father was penniless. Anne's actions are usually seen as kind by contemporaries and historians, but the novel presents it differently: Anne "steals" Mary's son the year after Henry VIII has made it clear that he intends to marry her, to make herself more politically attractive to the king. It is shown both as a cruel act and as an adoption in the modern sense, in which the child's caretakers are considered his legal and social parents. Actually, Anne secured Mary a highly respectable pension of £100 a year.[7]
  • Sexual experience of Mary Boleyn. Mary is depicted in The Other Boleyn Girl as a sexually inexperienced young girl when she begins her affair with the king. In fact, however, she acquired a reputation for promiscuity at the court of Francis I of France, who stated that he had known her "per una grandissima ribalda, infame sopra tutti [a great slut, infamous above all]." Although Francis called her "the English mare," and estimated how often he had ridden her, Mary was never one of his favoured maitresse en titre. Due to her sexual laxness, she appears to have been recalled from the French court in 1519, shaming the Boleyn family.[8] Genealogist Anthony Hoskins contradicts Mary Boleyn's reputation for having been sexually active at an early age; denies that Mary was extensively educated at the French court like her sister; and declares that "It is now established that it was Anne Boleyn, and not her sister Mary, who lived at the Flemish and French courts as a child," as if this fact had not been known for centuries. Hoskins further speculates that the French king's comments on Mary's reputation were not based on her early behaviour, claiming that he possibly had met her in 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold.[9] In fact, both Mary and Anne spent time at the French court.[10]
  • Motivations and characterisation of Anne Boleyn. The Guardian described Anne as having been presented as "a scheming trollop," and expressed incredulity at such a characterisation.[11] In The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn is presented as cold, vindictive, ruthlessly ambitious, vain, and given to physical violence; this is not supported by contemporary accounts. She was certainly complex: highly intelligent, fluently bilingual, politically astute, artistically gifted, loyal to her family, generous to friends, and known for her charm and elegance, notwithstanding arrogance and a notorious temper when stressed. During her time abroad, she was reported to have been sweet and kind. Feminist scholars objected to Gregory's characterisation and praise Anne Boleyn as a feminist icon.[12]
  • Incest between Anne and George Boleyn. Historically, Anne Boleyn was charged by Henry's appointed officials of committing incest with her brother. The novel heavily implies but does not state that Anne, convinced that Henry VIII could not give her a healthy son, resorts to incest with her brother. Both the 2003 BBC production of The Other Boleyn Girl and the 2008 film with Natalie Portman depict the two attempting but not committing incest. None of the sources Gregory listed in her bibliography questions Anne Boleyn's innocence. Gregory used two biographies of Anne, one by the American historian Retha Warnicke and another source by Marie-Louise Bruce (1972). Both these writers insisted that Anne was innocent, as did books by David Loades, Alison Weir, and Lacey Baldwin Smith that Gregory had used when researching the story. Gregory did not use Eric Ives's 1986 scholarly biography on Anne Boleyn, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: the Most Happy, in which Ives expounds the possible political motives for Anne Boleyn's fall. Ives describes Anne as an active and effective politician, and explains Anne's fall and execution as the result of minister Thomas Cromwell's determination to avoid a similar fate to that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.[13] There is no evidence supporting Gregory's assertion that Anne had three miscarriages. Gregory ignores the argument, as stated in Eric Ives's biography of Anne Boleyn, that part of the reason Anne was executed was because of her political and religious leanings, which her brother shared and supported.


A 90-minute television drama based on the novel was broadcast by the BBC in 2003. It had a relatively low production budget of £750,000 and was filmed using modern camera techniques, with much of the script improvised. Jodhi May played Anne Boleyn, Natascha McElhone played Mary, Steven Mackintosh played George, Jared Harris played Henry VIII, and Philip Glenister played Stafford. It received mixed reviews.

A 2008 feature film adaptation starred Scarlett Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, Jim Sturgess as George, Eric Bana as Henry VIII and Eddie Redmayne as Stafford. In Translating Henry to the Screen, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, screenwriter Peter Morgan discusses the dilemma he faced in adapting Philippa Gregory's 600-plus-page novel for the screen. He ultimately decided to use it merely as a broad guideline for his script, which Gregory felt perfectly captured the essence of her book, although many plot elements were eliminated, diminished, or changed. Among the more notable deviations in the film, Mary's marriage to William Stafford, a major part of the book, is mentioned only in a note just before the closing credits, there is no mention of Anne's "stealing" Mary's son to keep a grip on the king's favour (there was a scene designed to vaguely cover that, but it was cut from the film), Anne becomes pregnant with Elizabeth after being raped by Henry, Anne and George decide against committing incest, Mary adopts Elizabeth at the end of the film. In addition to this, the character of Elizabeth Boleyn is almost the opposite of that in the book and she is portrayed as protective of her daughters against their father and uncle and critical of the family's social climbing at the expense of their moral integrity.

See also



  1. von Tunzelmann, Alex (6 August 2008). "The Other Boleyn Girl: Hollyoaks in fancy dress". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
  2. Denny, Joanna (2004), Anne Boleyn: A New Life to England's Tragic Queen
  3. Ives, Eric (2004). The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. ISBN 1-4051-3463-1.
  4. Hall, Edmund (1809) Hall's Chronicle. London : Printed for J. Johnson; F. C. and J. Rivington; T. Payne; Wilkie and Robinson; Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme; Cadell and Davies; and J. Mawman
  5. Weir. Henry VIII: The King and His Court. p. 216.
  6. Bruce, Marie-Louise (1972) Anne Boleyn; p. 13
  7. Lindsey, Karen (1995) Divorced Beheaded Survived: a feminist reinterpretation ...; p. 73
  8. Denny, Joanna (2004) Anne Boleyn
  9. Hoskins, Genealogists' Magazine, Vol. 25 (March, 1997), No. 9, reproduced on line at
  10. Ives, Eric (1986). The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Basil Blackwell Inc. 432 Park Avenue South, Suite 1503, New York, NY 10016, USA: Basil Blackwell. p. 420.
  11. Chrisafis, Angelique (30 April 2003). "Thieves breach Boleyn castle defences". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  12. Lindsey, Karen (1995) Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: a feminist reinterpretation ...
  13. Ives, E. W. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: the Most Happy; chap. xv
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