History in the Movies

‘The Other Boleyn Girl’

Henry VIII’s insatiable love life is as fascinating today as it was for his 16th-century subjects. In part, it’s the sheer number of his wives: he married three Catherines, two Annes and one Jane. But maybe the fascination has a slightly morbid tinge. Henry had a penchant for beheading the wives of whom he tired.

To be fair, only two of Henry’s six wives lost their heads. But the gory image persists, perhaps because beheading was the fate of Anne Boleyn, arguably the most famous of his wives. Henry’s infatuation with Boleyn was truly earthshaking, leading him to divorce his first wife-the devoutly Catholic Catherine of Aragon-break with Rome and begin the English Reformation. Boleyn’s subsequent fall from grace was as swift and dramatic as her rise.

Her place in the history books is secure. But few of us know of the other Boleyn girl, Mary, Anne’s younger sister. The complicated tale of these two sisters, and their shared passion for Henry VIII, is the tale told in the new film, “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a sumptuous costume drama based on the bestselling novel of the same title by Philippa Gregory. Here’s a look at the facts to be found in this story of love, sex and power in the age of Tudor.

Q. The film portrays Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) as quite the minx. Is her role exaggerated?

A. Hard to say. Boleyn was flirtatious, certainly, and loved to be around men. She also earned many enemies by reveling in the influence she had over the king. Those enemies would get the final say. After Boleyn’s death, her detractors shaped the popular image of her as an evil seductress who had forced Henry into betraying both his first wife and the Catholic Church. Some claimed she was a witch, and whispered (falsely) of strange birthmarks and an extra finger on her right hand, deformities that would “mark” her as a devil. All those prejudices color the contemporary sources about Boleyn, making it difficult to tease out who she really was.

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Q. Bolyen’s father coolly encourages his daughters to “bed the king.” Was he really so gross?

A. Alas, ’tis true. Thomas Boleyn was an ambitious man who saw his pretty daughters as the quickest way to garner honors and wealth from the king. But Boleyn was hardly unique. Well-to-do daughters of the era were often used as pawns in their fathers’ social climbing schemes. Boleyn was simply more brazen-and successful- than most. When his daughters’ relationships with the king flowered, Thomas Boleyn reaped the benefits, as the crown bestowed titles, honors and wealth upon him.

Q. The movie seems to imply that King Henry (Eric Bana) hadn’t had a mistress before he encountered the Boleyn girls. True?

A. Not at all. King Henry had married Catherine of Aragon quite young, before he turned 18. Within just a few years, though, the first rumors of his extramarital dalliances had begun. The number of women passing in and out of the king’s bedchamber increased over time, as the king and queen grew apart amid tension over the lack of a male heir.

Q. Did Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) really have an affair with Henry VIII before Anne did?

A. The evidence is circumstantial but fairly strong that they did, and the affair may have lasted from 1522 until 1526. The king himself inadvertently admitted it years later, when he wished to marry Anne. Some in the court objected to Anne since the king had slept with both her sister and her mother. “Never with the mother!” Henry protests revealingly in the film.

Q. But Mary Boleyn was actually married when she caught the king’s eye. So whatever happened to her husband?

A. William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s husband, disappears from the film after a painfully awkward family meeting, where Mary is pressed for specific details about her night with the king. But whatever the feelings of the real Carey, while Henry VIII carried on his affair with Mary, he apparently paid off her husband handsomely, gifting him with wealthy estates.

Mary had a son in 1526-probably Henry’s-and that marked the end of her fling with the king. Carey died in 1528, at which time rumors abounded that his widow, Mary, was a woman of “easy virtue.” That reputation was also probably thanks to Henry.

Q. Did Anne Boleyn really commit incest with her brother?

A. Almost certainly not, though the film gives a plausible explanation for why the accusation was made. The reality was that in 1536, as Henry himself was tiring of Anne, frustrated that she failed to bear him a son (always seen as the woman’s fault in those days), her enemies at court seized the opportunity to frame her. They convinced Henry that Anne was guilty of all sorts of gross sexual escapades, including incest. Henry believed the lies, and within weeks Anne had been tried, found guilty and executed.

Henry wasted little time grieving. Just a few days after Anne’s beheading, he married Jane Seymour, a quiet, demure girl, far different from the flirty, flamboyant Anne. It was Jane who would finally bear him a son, Edward.

But despite their disgrace, the influence of the Boleyns would live on. For Anne’s daughter became the mighty ruler Henry VIII had dreamed of in an heir. That Boleyn girl was Queen Elizabeth I.

Q. Where can I find more about the Boleyns?

A. Gregory’s novel is fun, but for an historian’s take, try “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn,” a biography by Eric Ives.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu

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